Half Mexican and half Chumash, showrunner Karissa Valencia grew up “torn” between modern life and Native culture. That meant attending pop music festivals and using cell phones, while also going to sweat lodges, powwows and ceremonies important to her family’s tribe, who live on a reservation in the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara.
One of her favorites is the bear ceremony, when the Chumash honor the bear emerging from hibernation in the spring.
“It’s so beautiful to see, and it really is an indigenous philosophy and belief that everything has a spirit and everything is alive,” she told Variety.
That “love for Native magic, but also superheroes and creating really fun cartoons for kids” is the origin of “Spirit Rangers,” Valencia’s upcoming Netflix animated series about three siblings who each transform into unique animal spirits to conserve the National Park they work and live in.
Her show is also unique: “Spirit Rangers” has an all-Native writers room. During a time in which the entertainment industry is making much public-facing to-do about increasing diversity and representation, Valencia has quietly done the groundwork. First connecting with a fellow Native writer, that snowballed into more and more meetings — with Native artists, musicians and other talent. PBS’ “Molly of Denali,” centered on Alaska Natives, is perhaps the only existing series that can tout such indigenous representation in its writers room.
Animation, and preschool animation in particular, is a niche space, said Valencia, “so I really had to not worry about that and look for writers who also do dramas or sitcoms and read those scripts, and then meet with them to [see if they wanted to] join animation.”
“I love my writing team and my writing staff,” she said. “I lean on them a lot, whether it’s breaking story and what mythology do we want to tackle, but also learning from each other. The show would not be what it is today without all of our different experiences. Some of us grew up on a reservation, some of us didn’t. Some were adopted out. Everyone’s story is so different, but I am really happy that we have a whole Native staff [so] we can bring all those different perspectives.”
“Spirit Rangers” is one of the many projects being shepherded at Netflix by mega-producer Chris Nee, the creator of Disney hit “Doc McStuffins” and exec producer of “Vampirina” who now has an overall deal with the streaming service through her production company Laughing Wild. Nee notes that the kids’ pocket of the entertainment industry has, like the rest of Hollywood, encountered issues with representation, often relying on just one writer or consultant to represent a certain culture instead of cultivating newer voices from different backgrounds.
“The perfect world of having something like Laughing Wild was for me to be able to turn to someone like Karissa, who is someone I have identified as having the spark, the talent, but is relatively new in her journey and saying to her, ‘What’s the story that you want to tell? And how do you want to tell it?’” she added. “So as soon as I got to Netflix, I made that call and Karissa came back with just a perfect preschool pitch.”
Valencia first started working with Nee as a script coordinator while the “Doc McStuffins” exec producer was still at Disney. People don’t typically see preschool programming as an elevated type of storytelling, laments Valencia, but her “mind was blown” on her first day on Nee’s show, when she had to send out a script about a little girl with cancer. Now Nee is guiding the first-time showrunner through the beats of leading a series of her own.
It was important to Nee that Valencia run the show, without bringing in another executive producer above her. “My role at Laughing Wild is to be there to walk her through what a season of television is because she hasn’t seen all the parts… But other than that, my job is to give her all the guidelines so that she can be the showrunner, the absolute creative voice of the show,” said Nee.
“Spirit Rangers” has also been given the blessing of the Chumash and Cowlitz tribes, which serve as the cultural foundations of the show. Many people don’t realize that there are more than 500 Native tribes, with different skin tones, eye and hair colors, said Valencia, so the writers opted to base the show’s family on two particular tribes.
“I went to my tribe and had a big meeting with the elders,” she said. “I read a statement and I shared a little animation clip with them. And they were so thrilled and so honored to get to see these traditional stories so I could adapt them. And they gave us permission to use our rock art from the caves that we have out there in the animation.”
Another “Spirit Rangers” writer similarly went to the Cowlitz tribe and sought their approval. Both tribes were “super stoked,” added Valencia.
“When we look back to this time period in the future, I think we will see so many new voices having found a platform and a way to tell their stories,” said Netflix VP of original animation Melissa Cobb. “And hopefully, we’ll see a change in the kinds of stories that were told. Seeing more diversity behind the screen allows more diversity on screen. In a space like kids and family animation, which has been a small pool of people for a while, I think we’ll see a really pretty big sea change.”
The show is just one part of Netflix’s slate of original animation. While iconic properties like “Peanuts” or pop culture knowns like “Rugrats” can be ripe for rebooting, mining existing IP only has so many benefits. It can be a helpful entry point for parents picking shows that seem familiar to them, but as Cobb pointed out, the value of IP doesn’t always register with a younger audience.
“When a kid is picking something out on Netflix, it’s like, ‘What’s the big idea and how does it connect to them?'” she said. “That’s where we think it’s really important to have a lot of new characters and new IP that are original for Netflix, so we can be the destination for these great new stories, from new creators with lots of different backgrounds from all over the world.”
The world of animation is going through a little Renaissance, believes Valencia, one causing the medium to be taken more seriously among its more high-profile entertainment peers.
“One of the reasons I really love working with Chris [Nee] is she really takes that into account in her storytelling,” she said. “It’s not just diverse voices in terms of race. It’s also gender and socioeconomic status. And it’s really cool to be able to tackle all of these and just make it more authentic and real. Kids can see through a lot of stuff — we don’t need to pull the wool over their eyes.”
“Spirit Rangers” is slated to be released on Netflix in 2022.