Alaska Native culture

Molly of Denali Has Arrived

Angela Gonzalez at a Molly of Denali premiere party. Photo by Lena Jacobs

It’s finally here! A groundbreaking PBS Kids cartoon, Molly of Denali, premiered across the country on July 15. I have been looking forward to the show since I heard about it a couple years ago. Producers, animators, storytellers and funders teamed up with Alaska Native writers and cultural advisors to make Molly come to life.

With the support of her family and friends, Vera Starbard hosted a Molly of Denali Premiere Party in Anchorage. It was great to hear some insights on episodes she and others wrote. From what I’ve heard from friends and colleagues who have worked on the show, much thought has gone into every single detail of the show. It was great to hear kids and adults singing along to the catchy theme song! Vera asked trivia questions for adults and children. It was a fun way to celebrate the huge accomplishment of the show’s debut.

Vera Starbard shares trivia about Molly of Denali at a premiere party she hosted. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

At a time when representation matters more than ever, it was great to hear words in the three cultures represented by Molly (Dena’ina Athabascan/Gwich’in/Koyukon Athabascan) in languages of Dena’ina, Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa and Denaakk’e. With repetition, kids across the nation will learn words in these Alaska Native languages. I also love listening to Molly’s voice, because I kept thinking she sounds like my relatives. I also loved seeing the mannerisms and sayings by the characters in the show, like when Aunt Midge said ‘real good’ just like our Elders.

It is awesome people of color are represented. One of the reasons I do the Athabascan Woman Blog is to change the narrative by sharing stories and perspectives of Athabascan and Alaska Native people. The writers, creators and producers of Molly of Denali are truly changing the narrative at the very beginning by reaching kids. If my friends and relatives are any indication, the show is reaching kids, adults and Elders. I love all of the details, like multiple family pictures on the walls and the beadwork on the characters’ clothing.

Keenan watches Molly of Denali. Photo by Rona Vent

“My kids just watched the blueberry episode. My son Skyler said, ‘It’s cool they made a show about Natives.’ My daughter Skarlett and her friend Ava were singing along with the theme song. All three of them went to pick blueberries down the road from my house. They went 3X today. Also my son, Keenan, who’s 3 years old said he likes Molly and asked to watch Molly again. Thank goodness I recorded the series, so he can re-watch it.”Rona Vent (Koyukon Athabascan) of Huslia and Fairbanks

“My son is so excited and has been counting the days down daily. He’s so excited that it’s about Alaska.”Dena Sam (Iñupiaq/Koyukon Athabascan) of Alatna and Fairbanks

Episodes are packed with educational lessons reaching the hearts and minds of people. I watched a couple short episodes and it touched me to the core. I could probably go on all day about the things I love about every aspect of the show, but I want to share perspectives from my friends and relatives. Molly also vlogs during her show – super cute!

“Molly of Denali aired today on PBS!!!! A huge shout of thanks and appreciation to those of you who made this possible. Princess, you rock!!! Thanks for bringing this to AK and assembling the team you did.”Sonta Hamilton Roach (Deg Hit’an Athabascan) of Shageluk

April Henry of Fairbanks shared:
“A few months ago, we saw that Peter Pan had been brought out of the Disney vault. We popped some popcorn and bought it and sat down with our kids, eager to share with them a cartoon from our childhood. The movie had barely begun when John Darling reminded the other children, ‘Indians are cunning, but not intelligent.’

Our three-year-old Kai sat between us, eyes glued to the screen. My heart sank. My husband and I looked at each other and steadied ourselves for the tears we knew would erupt when we shut it off. But we knew that much bigger than the tears shed over a cartoon promised and taken away is the pain Indigenous children grow up with and carry into adulthood when they internalize the racism so prominent in depictions of Indigenous people in media. Kai saw children who fly, and a land where kids stay young forever, and fairy dust, and a very clear message – you are not intelligent. You are less than.

So when Kai first saw the preview for Molly of Denali, he said, ‘Hey! I think I know her. I think I’m in there!’ And he was really very excited. But I was moved to tears with gratitude. As an activist in these trying times, the victories are few and far between. But progress of this kind means so much.

In the opening scenes…they were going to a tribal hall, and told us that the grandpa had a necklace ‘like dad’s’. But shortly after that, he simply fell into this quintessential American experience that has been a staple to the majority and fully inaccessible to indigenous children until now – he watched a cartoon he could relate to.” 

An episode called, Grandpa’s Drum, tackles our boarding school story. I watched it three times already and cried each time. It’s a story of triumph, speaks to honoring our cultures and traditions, and a healing song is shared. When little is taught about boarding school history in the US, I’m glad it touches on the story in a positive way. I loved the song! When you watch the episodes, they also weave in real people and stories sharing singing, dancing, life in Alaska and making aqutaq, and more. Check out a part of the episode below.

After seeing the amazing response to Grandpa’s Drum, Producer Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets’aii Gwich’in) shared a little bit more about working with Elder Reverend Luke Titus of Minto. “We came to Luke for his approval – that’s when we took this photo together. Dewey also teaches often in the Denaakk’e immersion classroom so that’s why he’s dressed in uniform ?. Love to our language warriors! What goodness we are capable of when we work together & hold each other up. All this guided by our Ancestors,” says Princess Daazhraii Johnson.

“Oh man how amazing it is to see them identify with a cartoon show!!! They knew the grandpa song thanks to teacher Dewey. This is huge. They love it! So thankful this is now available to them.” – Kimberly Nicholas (Koyukon Athabascan) of Kaltag and Fairbanks

“We just watched two episodes, and tears fell. Our babies will never know a time without representation of their beautiful culture shown so lovingly on TV. So much love to our amazing fam working so hard for years to make this day a reality: Princess Daazhraii Johnson, Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman, Vera Starbard, Du Aaní Kawdinook Xh’unei, Rochelle Adams and everyone else involved. Quyanaqpak from this thankful mama and future ancestor.

I wish everyone would watch this, especially our elders and parents/aunties/uncles generation. I watched Grandpa’s Drum twice today and cried both times. Healing is happening through our storytelling in real time ❤ I love #MollyofDenali.” – Ayyu Qassataq (Iñupiaq) of Uŋalaqłiq/Unalakleet and Anchorage

I’m impressed with the excellent writing, production, animation, storytelling, education, singing, partnerships, actors, and so much more! Kudus to Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets’aii Gwich’in) and to all of the contributors to this show. I’m a #MollyofDenali fan. Enaa baasee’, Mahsi’ choo and Chin’an for this healthy dose of truth, racial healing and transformation.

The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center has an exhibit dedicated to Molly of Denali. Check it out if you have a chance!

There is a Molly of Denali exhibit at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. This image depicts the retelling of the truer history. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
There is a Molly of Denali exhibit at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Follow Molly of Denali on Facebook, Twitter, podcast, YouTube and online!

Heather Kendall-Miller received an award from the Alaska Federation of Natives in 2014. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Athabascan Lawyer – Heather Kendall-Miller

Heather Kendall-Miller in her office at the Native American Rights Fund. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Heather Kendall-Miller in her office at the Native American Rights Fund. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

It took me about a year of thinking about it until I got the courage to approach Heather Kendall-Miller for an interview. To me, Heather is way up there with our top Alaska Native leaders of today. I went to an event at the First Alaskans Institute where Heather was the featured guest. It was a coffee time event, where we had a chance to learn more about Heather. I told her I was intimidated to approach her, and she told me just to reach out. I met with her not too long after that to learn more about her.

Heather is Dena’ina Athabascan with family ties from the Dillingham, Alaska area. She has been a staff attorney in the Anchorage, Alaska office of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) for the past 23 years. Heather’s legal experience includes cases involving subsistence, tribal sovereignty, human rights, and taxation. She is well-known for being instrumental in winning the Katie John subsistence hunting and fishing rights case in 2001. Heather has worked with other Alaska Native communities like the Native Village of Venetie, the Native Village of Kluti Kaah, the Native Village of Barrow, and the Nome Eskimo community.

I asked Heather if she has any advice for Alaska Native women who have goals aspirations and challenges to overcome. Heather received a history degree, magna cum laude, from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) (1988). She received her M.A. J.D. from Harvard University Law School (1991). This did not come easy because she left a tough relationship in order to succeed in law school. She said, “My desire to achieve an education was detrimental to the relationship.” The closer she got to achieving her educational goals, the more threatened he became. Heather was 33 year old when she started school.

With a deep passion for learning more about federal Indian law and social justice, Heather worked hard to earn her law degree as a single mother. The summer before law school, she attended a pre-law summit in Albuquerque for Native American woman. She saw other women struggling with domestic violence issues. One lady was even dragged down the hall at a hotel. It made her realize she had a decision to make. Heather tells her story not because she’s looking for sympathy, but to give hope to women who may be in a similar situation.

“I had a goal of getting an education for years. Going to school and studying was a way to maintain control of my life. It gave me a focus. This is what I want to do.” – Heather Kendall-Miller

In her junior year at UAF, Heather took a master’s degree class on federal Indian law. She connected to the history of federal Indian law and the political relationships. Heather researched why Alaska Native people are beneficiaries of services and the role they have in relationship with the federal government. She thought to herself, ‘This is something I can do.’

When Heather started school, her daughter was in junior high school. Heather grappled with the potential impacts of moving her daughter out of state when she went to law school. School and career changes can impact children and it was a challenge to maintain balance in her life. It was a struggle, but she persisted. After earning her law degree, her goal was to pass the bar and get a job.

Heather met and married Lloyd Miller and they had a child. Her first daughter had a child and Heather and Lloyd raised her. Both girls are now earning their college education. Heather hopes to retire by the end of the year. Her mom and dad are 103 and 93 respectively and she wants to spend more time with them.

Heather’s Dena’ina mother died when she was very young and she was raised by her her white father and later on her white stepmother. Although Heather didn’t grow up in a traditional Native household, her father instilled in her the value of helping people. She is driven by issues and the needs of her clients, which makes her an effective advocate. Heather has a strong interest in serving Native people and standing up and defending Native rights.

Heather Kendall-Miller received an award from the Alaska Federation of Natives in 2014. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Heather Kendall-Miller received an award from the Alaska Federation of Natives in 2014. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Working as a staff attorney for NARF was her dream job because it provide her an opportunity to focus on the issues of institutional racism. Heather is concerned about the global changes taking place right now and what it means to Alaska Native people, culture and the traditional way of life in respect to their connection to land and resources. Heather respected the late Katie John for insisting on continuing her way of life. She said, “It’s a story about resilience, survivance. Survival is more than just surviving – you do survive by moving forward.”

I asked Heather how can people put culture into their lives if they weren’t raised in a traditional Native household or who live away from their people. Heather maintains relationships with people and observes Native culture and how people relate to each other. She incorporates Native values into her life. Heather’s daughter connects with other Native American students at college, and is finding ways to learn the Dena’ina language.

For those who are aspiring to be lawyers, Heather says, “Be clear in your head what aspect of lawyering you want to do.” She compared lawyers with doctors, and how they can specialize in many areas. For instance, ask yourself if you want to focus on tribal rights, Alaska Native corporations, or non-profit organizations, etc. How you see yourself is also important. Think of ways you can attend law school for three years with expenses. Once you earn your degree, you still have to pass the bar exam.

Maintaining balance with a family and career has not always been easy, but Heather strives to inspire others to move beyond their circumstances to achieve their goals. She recommends focusing on balance and wellness and finding ways to replenish energy especially when your life is busy. I appreciated and enjoyed getting to know Heather a little bit. Chin’an to Heather for sharing your story!

Alaska Native culture

Eklutna Potlatch and Powwow – Special Video Report

Last day of 2014 Eklutna Potlatch/Powwow. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Last day of 2014 Eklutna Potlatch/Powwow. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Here is a special video report from the Eklutna Potlatch & Powwow. Thank you to ten year old Ermelina Gonzalez for her report for the Athabascan Woman Blog. She interviewed Wilson Justin of Christochina and Lee Stephan of Eklutna. Darryl Magdalena spoke on behalf of the National Congress of American Indians. Check out the round dance to the song, Indian Rock & Roll too!

We caught the tail end of the event. Thank you to the Native Village of Eklutna for hosting a great potlatch and powwow! The next one will be in two years.

Powwow dancers on the last day of the 2014 Eklutna Potlatch/Powwow. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Powwow dancers on the last day of the 2014 Eklutna Potlatch/Powwow. Photo by Angela Gonzalez