Courtesy of Netflix
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
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
"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
"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
Another "Spirit Rangers" writer similarly went to the Cowlitz tribe
and sought their approval. Both tribes were "super stoked," added
"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.