Shak’sháni Éesh Konrad Frank stooped down and with a smile passed a drum to 9-year-old Avalon Iputi.
The pink-clad girl was one of dozens of youths who were lent drums and given a crash course in playing them by members of the Woosh.ji.een dance group Saturday at a “Molly of Denali” Juneau premiere.
The local Alaska Native dance group was part of festivities at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall that preceded a screening of the cartoon about a 10-year-old Alaska Native girl. After performing, Woosh.ji.een was part of a hands-on session that got kids drumming with some direction from group leader Lyle James.
“It was really fun to do it,” Iputi said of the drumming.
Iputi, who is Tlingit, said it was her first time playing the instrument, and she was a big fan of the cartoon she watched after the musical performance, too.
“It was awesome,” Iputi said. “She explores a lot.”
Iputi said it was the first time she has seen an Alaska Native girl in a cartoon. That point resonated with her mom, Autumn.
“It’s amazing to see a character that my child can relate to and that is going to teach children around the nation about our culture,” Autumn Iputi said.
The episode of “Molly of Denali” shown to the over 100 parents and children in attendance tied into the pre-cartoon entertainment. It told the story of a misplaced drum and an older character’s experiences with forced assimilation.
Beginning in the 1800s and lasting well into the 20th century, indigenous students were forced to attend boarding schools where regalia and Native song and dance were forbidden.
During a question-and-answer session that followed the screening, a panel spoke to the importance of balancing cultural education, delving into serious topics and creating children’s entertainment.
“There’s a really incredible healing factor to watching something like ‘Grandpa’s Drum,’ and I want to acknowledge (Tanana tribal elder) Luke Titus for sharing his story,” said X’unei Lance Twitchell, a Juneauite who is a consultant and writer for the show. “Like we’re sitting with our kids, and they’re watching, and we’re just crying, but it’s good stuff to see that doesn’t just have to be a story that only we hold onto, that we can share that story and there’s a lot more that can be done with it.”
Also featured on the panel were Sovereign Bill, the voice of Molly, creative producer Princess Daazhraii Johnson, writer Vera Starbard and writer Frank Henry Kaash Katasse.
Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson moderated the question-and-answer session.
The panel and moderator all spoke to the importance of putting a positive, contemporary depiction of Alaska Native people on television.
“Truly this is the sort of series all of us up here and all of us in the audience wish we had as kids,” Johnson said. “The world needs our Native values. How we take care of one another, how we take care of the land, the animals and the water, and we hope we did our job imbuing that in the series.”
Johnson said it’s also important that many Alaska Natives from throughout the state are involved behind the scenes, and she credited producers WGBH Boston with doing a good job of working with Alaska Natives and allowing their voices to tell their stories.
“WGBH really went about this the right way because what we’ve seen in the past is people come in and do whatever they want and tell our stories without really partnering with us as Alaska Native people,” Johnson said.
She said it seems likely they will be able to continue telling those stories, too.
“It’s looking optimistic that we will get funded for Season 2,” Johnson said.
While many commented on the importance of seeing Alaska Native people on screen and knowing they are behind the scenes of the show, Starbard, an Anchorage-based Tlingit writer currently in residence at Perseverance Theatre, said she was happy to see them in the audience.
Starbard said she’s been pleased the show has found audiences with Native and non-Native people around North America, but it was especially gratifying to share a “Molly of Denali” with the Juneau audience.
“That many Tlingit & Haida kids, that got me right in the feels,” she said. “These are the kids we wrote it for.”
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907) 523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.