Now Starring In Children's Cartoons: Authentic Indigenous Characters

Jul 17, 2019
Originally published on July 22, 2019 10:23 am

For decades, animated children's stories included negative stereotypes of Indigenous people.

There was Disney's Pocahontas, which presented the daughter of a Powhatan chief in a romantic love story with Captain John Smith. Crystal Echo Hawk, CEO of the media watchdog group IllumiNative, says it was a false narrative about a girl who in reality was "taken by force and sexually assaulted."

There was Tiger Lily in the classic film Peter Pan, the princess of the "Piccaninny" tribe who smoked a peace pipe and spoke in one-syllable gibberish. The same went for the various "injuns" in old Bugs Bunny cartoons.

More recently, Disney and Pixar got kudos for more authentic representations of Native people in the films Moana and Coco. Now, TV networks and streaming services are reaching children with realistic portrayals on the small screen — where they consume most of their media.

The new PBS show Molly of Denali is the first nationally distributed children's series to feature an Alaska Native lead character. She's 10 years old; her heritage is Gwich'in, Koyukon and Dena'ina Athabascan. She lives in the fictional village of Qyah, population 94. She goes fishing and hunting, and also looks up information on the Internet and on her smartphone.

"Molly is computer-savvy," says the show's creative producer, Princess Daazhraii Johnson. "I think it's really important for us to show that, because we are modern, living people that are not relegated to the past. That stereotype, that romanticized notion of who we are as Native people, is rampant."

Johnson says when she travels, she still meets people who assume all Alaskans live in igloos and are Eskimos — "which isn't a term that people really even use anymore up here," she says. "We have 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska; we have 20 officially recognized Alaska Native languages here. We are so diverse and dynamic. And that's something else that we're going to be able to share out to the world."

In one episode, Molly learns that her grandfather stopped drumming and singing as a child when he was taken away to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. "At the school we weren't allowed to sing the songs from our people," an elder tells her. "We were made to feel bad about who we were."

Johnson says this storyline really happened to one of the elders on the show's advisory board. It's a kid's show, so it has a happy ending: Molly and her grandfather sing together.

"We're just over the moon about Molly of Denali, because this is exactly the type of thing that can really began to shift perceptions in this country," Echo Hawk says.

Echo Hawk says that for years, Hollywood didn't produce stories about or by Native people because it didn't think a market existed for them. But that, she says, was shortsighted. Her organization polled more than 13,000 Americans, and found that nearly 80% of them said they want to learn more about Native peoples.

"Media makers have always used the excuse 'the Native population in the United States is statistically insignificant ... there's not a demand because you guys are so small,'" she says. "But what this new research shows is that there is demand well beyond the Native population in this country."

For several decades, the Australian and Canadian Broadcasting Corporations have spotlighted shows by and about their indigenous populations. Now, Netflix is partnering with three Indigenous cultural organizations to develop the next generation of First Nation creators across Canada.

In the Netflix film Pachamama, set in the Andes during the time of Spanish conquest, 10-year-old Tepulpai and his friend Naira go on a journey to retrieve their village's treasured statue.
Netflix

And in the U.S. and in Latin America, Netflix is running the animated film Pachamama. The story centers on a 10-year-old boy in an Andean village who dreams of becoming a shaman. His people suffer under both the Spanish conquest and the Incan Empire.

"It's told from the point of view of the Indigenous people," says Juan Antin, who wrote and directed the film. He says he wanted to give a realistic view of domination in the region.

Antin, who is from Argentina, says he was inspired by his travels with his anthropologist wife in Bolivia and Peru. "There, I fell in love with the culture of Pachamama, which is how the indigenous people call Mother Earth, having respect, love to the Earth," he says.

The Cartoon Network series Victor and Valentino features two half-brothers in a fictitious Mesoamerican village, exploring myths that come to life. For example, they follow the dog Achi into the land of the dead, where they encounter a chupacabra and other legends.

Animator Diego Molano, whose heritage is Mexican, Colombian and Cuban, began drawing his characters in college before writing for cartoons like The Powerpuff Girls. He says with his new series, he wanted to share the folk tales his grandfather used to tell him.

"I love the myths, but sometimes the myths are not kid-friendly," Molano says. "So I kind of use what I like about them and kind of make a story that is relatable."

Molano says it's about time networks began showing cartoons with Indigenous characters and themes. He just hopes it's not just a fad.

Ted Robbins edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For decades, animated children's stories included negative stereotypes of Native peoples, like movies like "Pocahontas" and "Peter Pan," cartoons like Bugs Bunny. Things are changing. The films "Moana" and "Coco" earned Disney and Pixar praise for authentic representations. And now TV networks and streaming services are reaching children with realistic portrayals of Native peoples on the small screen. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: "Molly Of Denali" debuts on PBS this week, the first nationally distributed children's series to feature an Alaskan Native lead character.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOLLY OF DENALI")

SOVEREIGN BILL: (As Molly) Hey, everyone. It's me, Molly.

PHILLIP BLANCHETT AND KARINA MOELLER: (Singing) Molly of Denali.

BILL: (As Molly) Let's go.

DEL BARCO: The show's creative producer, Princess Daazhraii Johnson, describes Molly...

PRINCESS DAAZHRAII JOHNSON: A little 10-year-old Alaska Native girl who Gwich'in, Koyukon and Dena'ina Athabaskan (ph). She lives in the fictional village of Qyah, population 94.

DEL BARCO: She goes fishing and hunting and also looks up information on the Internet and on her smartphone. In one episode, an elder tells her that her grandfather stopped drumming and singing as a child when he was taken away to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MOLLY OF DENALI")

BILL: (As Molly Mabray) Why did he give you his drum?

MICHELLE THRUSH: (As Shyahtsoo) At the school, we weren't allowed to sing the songs of our people. We were made to feel bad about who we were.

DEL BARCO: Johnson says this storyline really happened to one of the elders on the show's advisory board. It's a kid's show, so it has a happy ending as Molly and her grandfather sing together.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MOLLY OF DENALI")

SOVEREIGN BILL AND LORNE CARDINAL: (As Molly and Grandpa Nat, singing in Native language).

DEL BARCO: For years, Hollywood didn't produce stories by or about Native people because they didn't think there was a market. Crystal Echo Hawk says that was short-sighted. She's CEO of the nonprofit watchdog group IllumiNation (ph), which found that nearly 80% of the Americans her group polled said they want to learn more about Native peoples.

CRYSTAL ECHO HAWK: Media makers have always used the excuse the Native population in the United States is statistically insignificant. There's just - there's not a demand because you guys are so small. But what this new research shows is that there is demand well beyond the Native population in this country.

DEL BARCO: For several decades, the Australian and Canadian Broadcasting corporations have spotlighted shows by and about their indigenous populations. Now, Netflix is partnering with three indigenous screen organizations to develop the next generation of First Nations creators across Canada. And in the U.S. and in Latin America, Netflix is running the animated film "Pachamama."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PACHAMAMA")

ANDREA SANTAMARIA: (As Tepulpai) Pachamama, we won't let you down. You'll be proud of us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMOS LA NUEVA TIERRA")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in foreign language).

DEL BARCO: Juan Antin is from Argentina. He wrote and directed the story inspired by his travels with his anthropologist wife in Bolivia and Peru.

JUAN ANTIN: And there, I fell in love with the culture of Pachamama which is how indigenous people call Mother Earth, having respect, love to the Earth.

DEL BARCO: Pachamama centers on a 10-year-old boy in an Andean village that suffers under the Spanish conquest and the Incan empire.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PACHAMAMA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) They're taking away all our crops.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We'll have nothing left to eat.

DEL BARCO: The Cartoon Network series "Victor And Valentino" features two half-brothers in a fictitious Mesoamerican town exploring myths that come to life. For example, they follow a dog named Achi into the land of the dead, where they encounter a chupacabra and other legends.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VICTOR AND VALENTINO")

DIEGO MOLANO: (As Victor) This just keeps getting better.

DEL BARCO: Animator Diego Molano began drawing his characters in college before writing for cartoons, like "Powerpuff Girls." Molano whose heritage is Mexican, Colombian and Cuban says he wanted to share the folktales his grandfather used to tell him.

MOLANO: I love the myths, sometimes the myths are not kid-friendly so I kind of use what I like about them and kind of make a story that is relatable.

DEL BARCO: Molano says it's about time networks began showing cartoons with indigenous characters and themes. He hopes it lasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VICTOR AND VALENTINO")

MOLANO: (As Victor) We're finally going to have some fun this summer.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.