Molly of Denali creative producer and education advisor talk Juneteenth episode

One of the latest episodes in Season 4 highlights the holiday and focuses on intersectionality in celebrating other cultures outside of your own!
Molly of Denali, Molly, Tooey, Trini and Fam - credit: PBS
Molly of Denali, Molly, Tooey, Trini and Fam - credit: PBS /

Molly of Denali has a special episode for its loyal viewers: a Juneteenth-themed episode, "A Qyah Juneteenth," which is now available to watch in full online. The episode is one of many summer surprises coming from PBS KIDS including new episodes of Rosie’s Rules, Work It Out Wombats, and Lyla in the Loop, as well as Brambletown, a new stop-motion animated film.

Molly of Denali follows the daily adventures of a 10-year-old Alaska native girl named Molly Mabray, who lives with her family and her dog Suki and spends her time with friends Tooey and Trini. The show takes place in Qyah, Alaska. The show is currently in its fourth season having premiered on Mar. 25, 2024. The Juneteenth-themed episode highlights Trini, who discovers that Qyah doesn't celebrate Juneteenth and plans a Texas-style celebration, with the help of Molly. The episode is meant to showcase the history of the holiday and how other cultures can celebrate and appreciate the holiday as well.

We spoke with Molly of Denali's creative producer Yatibaey Evans says that "Working with even more Black Indigenous people of color has provided rich opportunities to share more of our collective history, stories, experiences, and cultural knowledge."

Alonside Evans, we sat down Ariel Moon, the Lead Education Specialist for Early Childhood Programs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to chat more about the episode, what it means to be a part of a show centering Alaskan Native characters, and much more! Check out the rest of the interview below!

The Parent Watch: Yatibaey, this is the fourth season of the series in full force. How does this season specifically set itself apart from the previous three? What have you learned from the beginning of your work to your work now?

Yatibaey Evans: Thank you so much for inviting us to be a part of this interview! I am just so grateful for this opportunity to work on Molly of Denali. It's incredible to see the growth of the series since its premiere in 2019. In each season, we've worked diligently to expand representation both on and off screen. Working with even more Black Indigenous people of color has provided rich opportunities to share more of our collective history, stories, experiences, and cultural knowledge. I've really learned that the art of communication is an ever-expanding opportunity to develop creativity and find new ways to say the same thing, so that certain audiences can understand what is being said. But first, you have to understand where each person is listening from.

The Parent Watch: I agree. Ariel, I know you have a background as an educator, and working on this show, I wanted to know, what are some of the tools that you brought from your own work to working on this television series that's so rooted in representation? What does your day look like?

Ariel Moon: My role at the National Museum of African American History and Culture has a long title. I'm the Education Specialist for Early Childhood Programming and Resources. My role exists within our early childhood education initiative team. Our team is really dedicated to talking about topics of race and history and culture with young children in ways that are really honest, but also developmentally appropriate and very warm and joyful as well. We do that so learners are not only learning about others and developing a joy in human diversity, but also developing a positive sense of self and being able to have the ability to advocate for themselves and others to exist freely and authentically. There are some strategies and things that we use to ultimately try to find that balance. My goal in working with the Molly of Denali team was just to support them in finding that balance between sharing the heavy truths of this story as well as the joyful moments that exist within Black culture, and also specifically Juneteenth. That might look like something like Molly learning about slavery, but also learning about the red foods and community meals that happen with this holiday - finding both of those realities in one episode.

TPW: To get more into that, you both collaborate with each other and were there any specific creative inspiration story-wise behind this Juneteenth episode? 

YE: When our writer first pitched the idea, we were excited to have this opportunity to share about Trini's cultural background and the fact that her family is from Texas. We wanted to really share and highlight the history of Juneteenth, the celebration when people in Texas learned about the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom. It was a great opportunity to show allyship across cultures. There isn't a whole lot of programming out there for children in [the series’] age range that talks about Juneteenth. We felt this was an excellent opportunity to help educate people across the nation.

AM: One of the direct connections to the creation of the episode was that we were able to share some photographs from our museum collection to inspire the story that is being told within the episode. Getting to look at real pictures of community celebrations and gatherings was an exciting way to incorporate the museum into the show.

TPW: Ariel, coming back to you, as someone who's not so involved, in the day-to-day of making Molly of Denali, What have you've learned and what's an interesting lesson or fact that you learned about Alaska Native culture that you can share with everyone.

AM: Something that we really aim to do at the museum, in our programming, and with our objects and exhibits, is really show folks - and give examples of - the ways that, even though we share a lot of values and experiences within Black culture, the Black community is not a monolith. We're not a monolithic culture or identity group. And so there's a lot of diversity within our identity. And that's something I feel like Molly of Denali does really beautifully that I really love about the show.  I've learned just by watching different episodes throughout the series about the diversity within Alaska Natives’ cultures. There's a lot of different languages and songs and dances and ways of communicating within that group. There's an episode about story knives, with a Yupik child who comes to visit with Molly. She uses facial expressions to express different emotions or to say yes or no, and things like that, within the episode, and they talk about that.

I really loved that because it reminded me of a part of our exhibits in the Cultural Expressions Gallery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We have a section dedicated to gestures and how there are different facial expressions and hand movements that we use within Black culture to communicate certain things. And they're different from what was introduced by the Yupik child in the episode. 

TPW: There's not much mainstream media out there about Alaska Native culture, which is why I think Molly of Denali is so important and special, especially during this time. As an Alaska Native yourself who's championing this representation for the masses, what message do you hope that this specific episode, the Juneteenth episode, communicates to the viewers that watch it?

YE: I love your question! Well, there are several different messages. I'm going to back up a little bit. Just saying you're asking me this as the champion representative, essentially, of Alaska Native culture for the masses is such a huge responsibility on one person. And as Ariel said, we're not a monolith. There are 229 different Alaska Native tribes and several different dialects of over 20 different languages. And to be that person who is trying to make sure we're doing an accurate and just job is really a huge task. I'm so grateful to have such a wonderful team of people in our production group, as well as our advisors, our writers, and our design team. Everybody really makes sure that authenticity is happening to the best of our abilities. For this particular episode, the messages that I wanted, and I hope that are received, are that all of our histories are important and they should be known and understood, and that horrific experiences should not be repeated. I also want people to learn that we can all be lifelong learners and to never stop being open to learning something new - and also that we should respect, show compassion, and love one another, no matter what background we come from.

The Parent Watch: I personally even did not learn a lot about Alaska Native culture growing up. Through this show, while it is targeted to kids, I learned a lot even from watching the episode. It really does make a difference. 

YE: Thank you. It was really wonderful to have this conversation and have an opportunity to see Ariel in person.

TPW: You've been working remotely!

AM: So much of the conversation has been that way, but at the same time, very collaborative. It's been exciting to be a part of the team. I just wanted to add that I'm really excited for the episode because I feel like it can provide families of all different backgrounds with a tool for starting conversations about Juneteenth in a way that's really welcoming and really invites curiosity. I think it's a great model for having conversations about things that we don't maybe fully know a lot about yet. This episode does a really good job of what it looks like when adults support children in learning and talking about some of those heavier topics.

Watch the full episode, below:

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