When Karissa Valencia, the creator and showrunner of Netflix’s highly anticipated new preschool show Spirit Rangers, was a young girl, she rarely saw any Native American characters in children’s shows or movies.
“I loved animation when I was a young girl, and I must admit when I saw Disney’s Pocahontas for the first time, I thought that was my everything,” recalls the creative 31-year old. “I still remember being so excited to meet [actress] Irene Bedard at one of our pow-wows. It was great to have that representation — but as I got older, I realized that the source material for that story was not so great, and the true story of Pocahontas is truly heartbreaking. That’s when I realized that I had to work to make that change and that true representation happen.”
Valencia praises the show’s producer, kids TV trailblazer Chris Nee, with whom she first worked as a writer’s assistant on Doc McStuffins and later as a writer on Vampirina. “After Chris left for Netflix, I wrote up a two-page document on my computer, which became the basis for Spirit Rangers,” she recalls “I was really nervous because I didn’t know who to pitch it to and it meant a lot to me. Chris was on top of my list, because although she’s not Indigenous, she does know what it feels to be othered and not to be seen on the screen. So, I went to visit her at her new job at Netflix. We were having lunch, and she asked me if I had something to pitch, and so I sent my idea to her, and literally the next morning, she emailed me and said, ‘I’m going to buy this and we’re going to pitch it to Netflix!’”
Before long, the streamer greenlit the show and Valencia was able to put together a writers room made up entirely of Native writers. The show’s beautifully produced CG animation is handled by Paris-based studio Superprod (Paddington, Batwheels). “They all got a Native American history class they’ve never asked for,” jokes Valencia. “We all learned so much, and they all have just gone like above and beyond making sure that the details, every tribal print, every image is correct. They just really put their heart into it.”
She says prior to working on Doc McStuffins, she didn’t quite realize the breadth of stories one could tackle in children’s animation. “I remember it was my first day on the job and I read the script for ‘Hannah the Brave,’ which focuses on cancer,” she remembers. “I just didn’t know that was something you could do in the preschool space. I loved the way Chris respects her audience and knows that they deserve these kinds of important stories.”
Valencia, who spent her Californian childhood going back and forth between a Chumash reservation in the Santa Ynez Valley and her home in San Diego, hopes to bring the same kind of depth and authenticity to her new show. Spirit Rangers explores the adventure and beauty of nature through the eyes of three Chumash/Cowlitz siblings who transform into special spirit animals to save the national park they work and live in.
Many parts of the show resonate with her and her own upbringing. “I had gone to a bear ceremony for my tribe; we honor the bear every season, our dancers put on their bear skins. The show’s central character Kodi kind of came to life for me, and then I added the other characters,” she remembers. “I also thought that a national park was a perfect setting. My dad and I loved to go hiking in the Santa Anas. I thought it was crazy that we never met an Indigenous park ranger, because we’re the original caretakers of this land.”
For Valencia, one of the most important goals of the show was to have an all-Native writing staff. “I am not ‘Queen Native’ by any means, and I really wanted multiple perspectives on our culture,” she explains. “It’s been just such a delight to learn about all the tribes from different corners of the country. Some of our stories are so similar and some of them are really different, but that’s one of the strengths of the show. As a little Chumash girl, I’m also so proud to really show off California tribes. We’ve never been represented like this. At the same time, I am also excited to show Native kids in a modern space. Kodi and her family don’t wear leather and feathers. They’re happy friends, they love to go on adventures and use modern technologies.”
Looking back, the young show creator says she put a lot of pressure on herself. “This is the first animated Native show created by a Native team,” she notes. “But I realized that this will not be the last. There will be other shows and they’ll get better next time, and we’ll just keep moving forward. Another big step was, although the show is set in a Southern California park, it acts as a magical hub for spirits from all over the world, so we can have a lot of different tribes involved. We went out to consultants and elders and made sure that we were doing justice to their colors, designs and symbols. Everything had to go through the right channels to make sure it was all accurate.”
Being the Change
One thing Valencia has learned is that holding her ground and demanding a lot from her team can yield golden results. “Take for example what happened with one of our voice actors,” she says. “I really wanted the young actor [Wačíŋyeya Iwáš’aka Yracheta] who voices one of our leads (Kodi) to be on the show,” says Valencia. “He sounded so cute, just like a bear cub, but he lived in the middle of nowhere in South Dakota, about a two-hour drive in the snow from the closest studio. Netflix could have easily said, ‘No, this is too hard,’ and picked somebody else. But it was the exact opposite. They built him his own recording studio and then shipped it to him, so he could just walk to work. He’s now a very talented, working actor. So I’m glad I was able to hold my ground, and it was so awesome to see Netflix match that and see my team also go above and beyond.”
When asked about today’s Hollywood, where thoughtful and honest stories about the Native American experience are finally seeing the light of day, Valencia says she is very proud to be part of this new chapter. “Hollywood has been obsessed with Native cultures but they had not invited us to be part of it until recently,” says Valencia. “I am amazed that we went on for so long without seeing this in entertainment and so happy that it’s happening now. And hopefully, it will even be better for the next generation.”
Spirit Rangers premieres on Netflix on October 10.