Diving into Diversity: The Rise of Indigenous Characters on Kids’ Shows

Molly of Denali

Thanks to the work of diverse media creators the number of indigenous cartoon characters is on the rise. From PBS Kids to Netflix and major blockbuster movies, the representation of indigenous populations is on the rise and that is definitely something to celebrate. 

PBS Kids is joining the realm of indigenous characters and stories with its newest show Molly of Denali. Molly of Denali features a Native Alaskan protagonist, and is the first to do so on national children’s show to do so. Molly is a Native Alaskan girl who lives in a small fishing and hunting village in Alaska where she learns more about her heritage and goes on adventures. 

Molly of Denali

Unlike outdated and stereotypically racist depictions of Native Peoples in cartoons – think The Looney Tunes and Disney’s Peter Pan’s “Indian” characters – Molly is a modern child who uses tech and helps solve problems through critical and analytical thinking all the while sharing clips of real indigenous elder Alaskans sharing their history and narratives with younger generations. Much like other bilingual cartoon characters – Dora the Explorer, Diego, and Kai-Lan – Molly integrates her tribe’s native language into every episode. These small ways of integrating different languages, customs, and histories into children’s cartoon shows simultaneously help introduce children to cultures different from their own and affirm children of their culture through media they consume. 

Native populations have long been type-casted in several ways; either as one homogenous group, as financially poor and destitute, or in violent ways. Shows like Molly of Denali are changing these stereotypes in small and impactful ways.

In recent years, children cinema has highlighted the lives of native and indigenous people in more positive and humanistic ways. 

Disney’s 2016 film Moana received praises for its intentional casting of the voice actors to play the indigenous characters in their films. People of indigenous descent voiced all the four leading characters; Maui, Moana, the Chief, and the Chief’s mother in the film. Dwayne “The Rock’ Johnson – whom is of Samoan descent  – explained that he wanted to make sure the voice of Moana was played by a young indigenous girl and thus Auliʻi Cravalho was casted for the role of Moana. Cravalho is Hawaiian and even had the opportunity to dub the blockbuster film in Hawaiian in 2018. 

The following years Pixar’s 2017 film Coco also achieved blockbuster success because it’s indigenous storytelling, culturally relevant storylines, and releasing the film in both English and Spanish. 

BeLatina pachamama netflix
Photo Credit Netflix

Netflix has also released an indigenous children’s film, Pachamama. Pachamama is the name of the earth and time goddess, the giver of natural life and is the reason for the harvest, fertility, mountains, and other earthly presences and activities. The indigenous people of the Andes Mountain region pray, give thanks, celebrate, and hold her in high regard. In the film the films two main protagonist Tepulpai and Naïra must travel far to return the sacred statue of Pachamama that Spanish colonizers stole from their tribe. This story of heroism is told through the eyes of the two young protagonists whom are living during times during which the Spanish destroyed much of the indigenous tribes along the Andes Mountain Range for their own gain. Through their love for their culture, their tribe, and their Pachamama they are able to retrieve the statue and return home. 

These three films are helping highlight culturally diverse families and peoples on the big screen however, having Molly on a free nationally syndicated channel increases the chances of children of any financial background to be able to watch and learn from the show. Unlike Nickelodeon, Netflix, or other services that cost money, Molly of Denali is not behind a paid wall and children can even watch full episodes and clips on the official PBS website at any time. 

Earlier this year, Netflix announced that it will be releasing another cartoon show with indigenous protagonist, Mama K’s Team 4. Mama K’s Team 4 is an all-teenage girl spy group that fights and prevents crime in Zambia when they aren’t doing their usual teenage girl things. Not only is Mama K’s Team diverse for it’s all girl characters; it also has an all female writing team. The shows creator Malenga Mulendema feels, “it is so important to have strong female lead characters who are emotionally connected to their world and who can choose to change their world,” and that, “selecting an all-female writing team was a natural fit, because who better to create and connect to those characters than females themselves.” 

Mama K’s Team 4

Cartoons have a history of being mainly white and male led so the increase of diversity in children’s media containing diverse characters is refreshing. Julie Dobrow is a Senior Fellow of Media & Civic Engagement at the Tisch College of Civic Life. She stated, “in over 1000 characters with speaking parts, the great majority (75%) were white. Characters of color (not counting the blue, green or other highly colored non-human characters) accounted for only 17% of the sample. Only 10 out of all of the characters we coded were Latino – less than 1% of all the characters we looked at.” 

Latino and indigenous are not synonyms terms however, the severe lack of diversity of Latino cartoon characters can only mean that indigenous characters are even more difficult to find for young viewers. 

Americo Mendoza Mori
Photo Credit upenn.edu

To ensure that diversity on screen is accurate, there needs to be indigenous people behind the scene as well. The upcoming film Dora and The Lost City of Gold hired Américo Mendoza-Mori, coordinator of the Quechua Language Program at the University of Pennsylvania to help translate the indigenous language Quechua for the film. Quechua is still spoken by many people who live near and around the Andean Mountain in Peru and part of Bolivia and Ecuador. Diego Molano is also dedicated to seeing indigenous people portrayed on screen and is the mastermind behind Victor and Valentino on Cartoon Network. “It’s weird that no one knows who Quetzalcoatl was, which is a feathered serpent god of the Aztecs. I found it weird that no one knows who Tezcatlipoca is. Or Huitzilopochtli. Or Xipe Totec—all these really cool stories and gods and myths and legends. Why has no one ever done anything with these myths?” he told Remezcla in an interview. 

The rise of indigenous storytelling on the small and big screen is definitely long overdo and an exciting opportunity for everyone to connect and learn more about different cultures. Whether we are watching Zambian spy girls, Molly in Alaska, or an all grown up Dora on the big screen we are excited to see the diversity behind the screen that is helping usher in diversity in front of the screen.