Keeping her culture alive and helping other Native Americans break into Hollywood is what fuels Karissa Valencia, creator and showrunner of the animated Netflix series “Spirit Rangers.”
The fantasy-adventure preschool series is all about celebrating community, nature and the heritage of Native American storytelling. It's also the kind of show Valencia wishes she would have had as a child.
“Growing up on and off the reservation, when I was home it was always so meaningful to me that my family and my tribe were doing everything they could to keep our culture alive and would always share our traditional stories of our land and place,” Valencia, who is half Mexican and half Chumash, told TODAY via Zoom. “So I grew up hearing stories of trickster coyote and how the condor got its black feathers.”
As a young person, however, she had the “feeling of being invisible” in pop culture and the screens. After getting her foot in the door in Hollywood and working with “Doc McStuffins” creator Chris Nee, who is an executive producer of “Spirit Rangers,” Valencia decided to create a series for her community.
“I feel like this show is now healing my inner child of feeling so not acknowledged that I existed in the present day just because I didn’t look like what was in the history textbooks,” she said. “So it was really great to give these traditional stories a home to live in and take a life of their own.”
“Spirit Rangers” follows Chumash/Cowlitz siblings Kodi (Wačíŋyeya Iwáš’aka Yracheta), Summer (Isis Celilo Rogers) and Eddy Skycedar (Talon Proc Alford) as they help protect the land and the spirits of their California national park. The three kids turn into “spirit rangers,” becoming a grizzly bear cub, red-tailed hawk and turtle to complete their missions.
The production has an all-Native writers’ room, which was essential for Valencia as she made her dream show a reality.
“The writers’ room is the heart of the show. That’s where you’re building the world, the characters, creating all the magic and I didn’t want my perspective to be the only perspective,” she said. “To make this family really feel real was to bring in multiple perspectives.”
That also extended to the show’s other departments, from composers, animators, editors and voice actors, among others.
“While I’m the showrunner, I still wanted to have a Native perspective at least every step of the way. There’s so many departments that make a TV series, so at least there’s one Native voice in the room,” she explained, adding that it’s been an “amazing process of inviting in folks that have never worked in animation or just have never worked in entertainment and giving them their first shot, and feeling that energy of like, they want to prove themselves, they want to create Native characters.”
With the help of Netflix, they scouted the talent that they needed, then partnered the newer professionals with seasoned pros.
But before going all in with the show, Valencia also made sure to also get the blessing of the Chumash and Cowlitz tribes.
“My goal was to indigenize this production and that came with some hurdles, like getting the blessings of the tribes that we wanted to base the family on,” she said. “We took the time to go to the tribes and get their blessing and do everything correctly so that we can move forward with their partnership and collaboration.”
She added, “So doing stuff like that was really important to me, just to make sure that there’s a Native voice every step of the way.”
Valencia calls herself “an animation nerd” and believed that an animated series could be the perfect space to tell her tribal stories. “In animation, you can do anything, you can be anything,” she said. “There’s so much freedom with the medium.”
She also felt like the tribal stories resemble Grimms' fairy tales and fables with universal lessons that are “perfect for preschoolers.” They take the responsibility of being part of a child’s early life very seriously.
“A lot of the characters that we grew up loving are our first friends or the first people we’d look up to, so I was really excited that ‘Spirit Rangers’ will show Native kids as heroes — as those friends you want to be or be like,” she said. “It’s just so cool to be thinking about non-Native kids looking up to us in that way, and also Native kids seeing themselves and hopefully feeling a sense of pride and acknowledgement that we’re still here.”
“Spirit Rangers” will stream on Netflix on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Oct. 10.