Karissa Valencia, a member of the Samala Chumash tribe, remembers growing up on and off the reservation, spending time with one parent in the Santa Ynez Valley and the other in San Diego. When kids animation was thriving in the ’90s, Valencia distinctly remembers the limited illustrations of Native characters on screen.
“As a little kid. I still remember one year at our powwow, Irene Bedard, who voiced Pocahontas, was there. I still remember asking her to sign my DVD. It was like the best day in the world. I was like, ‘She looks like me and my sister. This is so cool!’” Valencia said. “Then, it wasn’t until I was older and realized the source material is horrible. They romanticized this story. That was when I was like, I need to be behind the camera, making these changes, writing stories. Natives are so much more than just leathers and feathers and [being] only in history books.”
After completing her undergraduate work at the University of San Diego, Valencia pursued a graduate degree in television and film at Syracuse University, where she was often the only Native student in the room. Her ideas for stories centering Native characters were often denied, but she persisted and eventually landed her first job at Nickelodeon.
Now, the 31-year-old showrunner is changing the face of representation in animation, giving Indigenous youth what she wishes she had growing up. After 18 months in the making, “Spirit Rangers” is now streaming on Netflix.
The animated children’s show is voiced by Native stars including “Reservation Dogs” actor Devery Jacobs, Wes Studi, Brooke Simpson and voice legend Cree Summer. The series follows three Indigenous siblings named Kodi, Summer and Eddy Skycedar who are tasked with becoming Spirit Rangers and embodying various animals to protect the national park they call home.
“When I was working with Chris Nee, who was the creator of ‘Doc McStuffins,’ I saw the way that she told her preschool stories. I was like, this is how ‘Spirit Rangers’ can exist in preschool space. That’s their first intro to media,” Valencia said. “Those are their first friends and their first heroes. How cool is it going to be that Native kids and non-Native kids will just see us in the present day, and also as your favorite action hero who is rescuing buffaloes and condors.”
The series is inspired by Valencia’s upbringing and the tribal stories her father would tell her about nature and animals. From nods to frybread and reclaiming transformation to instilling everyday lessons, “Spirit Rangers” is about Native culture, she said, but also serves as a love letter to national parks.
“In Indigenous culture, we really feel this reciprocity with nature in general,” Valencia said. “We’re all connected. In some cultures like mine, a really high honor is if you can transform. At the end of the day, while not everyone can transform, you can take care of your land. I feel like you are a park protector, a land protector or a spirit ranger by taking care of your land. It just goes hand in hand with appreciating our Earth and environment.”
Valencia said it was important to her that “Spirit Rangers” showcased and included the various perspectives and backgrounds of tribal members. As a “Rugrats” fan in her childhood, she was honored and excited to enlist “A Different World” star Cree Summer for the series.
“It is my deepest honor to be a part of ‘Spirit Rangers,’” Summer said. “My mother is Black from Louisiana, and my father is a white man from British Columbia, Ontario. When I was a baby, we moved to Saskatchewan, Canada, to Red Pheasant Reserves, home of the Plains Cree Indians, where we lived and were adopted into the tribe until I was 7 years old.”
Summer has voiced well over 100 animated characters in several TV series, from “Codename: Kids Next Door” to “Pinky, Elmyra, and The Brain.” She is the voice of Lizard on “Spirit Rangers,” a character Summer said represents rebirth and endurance.
“Growing up on a reservation, we lived in a mud house, so we didn’t have any running water or electricity. But every now and then somebody would have a TV, and I never saw anything like ‘Spirit Rangers’ — live action, animated or otherwise — no representation of the Indigenous whatsoever,” Summer said.
“And as a child, it would have rocked my soul because I believe that cartoons are one of the very first moments in our lives, that we get to see the possibilities of who and what we can be,” she continued. “Because when we’re kids, that’s right when we start to have our best and biggest dreams. Without representation, it makes that very difficult. When I would see a reflection of myself on television or in the movies, and it’s a feeling that you can’t really describe. It just feels like, ‘There’s me!’”
Summer hopes “Spirit Rangers” compels people to start a dialogue and enlightens them on the legacies and histories of the First Nations. Most importantly, she wants Native youth to finally be able to see themselves on screen and have their hearts “swell with pride.”
For Simpson, “Spirit Rangers” marks her voice acting debut. Hailing from Hollister, North Carolina, and based in Los Angeles, Simpson ascended to fame competing on Season 13 of “The Voice.” A member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe, Simpson portrays Spider, “a sassy voice of wisdom who’s always ready for an adventure,” she told HuffPost via email.
“I have always wanted to step into acting, but solely have been pursuing my music career until I made the leap to Broadway for the revival of ‘1776.’ Broadway, of course, was put on pause over the past couple of years due to the pandemic, so while waiting for Broadway to reopen, ‘Spirit Rangers’ came across my path,” Simpson said. “When I read the script and learned more about the show, I instantly fell in love.”
She wrote that her heart melted, thinking of how much she wished this series existed when she was a little girl. For Simpson, her tribe, community and loved ones back home have shown her endless support. This inception of the series and her experience on “Spirit Rangers” has reaffirmed that “there is always room at the table for our voices to be heard,” she said.
“To see the next generation of Indigenous leaders actually have creative breakthroughs like ‘Spirit Rangers’ makes me so happy and excited for our future. It’s a reminder that we truly are our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” she wrote. “The same resilience and strength that our ancestors carried is still alive in us today. Indigenous voices have always been here and thanks to you, they are still being heard.”
Valencia said “Spirit Rangers” has “healed her inner child” and has been a learning experience, as she discovered the histories about Indigenous communities in the Northeast and the South. Valencia said that through creating “Spirit Rangers,” she had the opportunity to explore what it meant to be a Native child back in the ’90s and change it today for other Native youth.
“I’m hoping they feel this sense of acknowledgement like, ‘Hey, we know you’re here. You exist!’ And also give them a sense of pride that they can go around, tell everybody they’re Native, and it won’t come with such a stigma or a stereotype,” Valencia said. “It’s been such an eye-opening series, and there’s so many different tribes that deserve to have their stories told. We only tell a small fraction, so I’m just really excited for Native kids to see themselves and excited for kids to look at nature a little differently.”
“Spirit Rangers” is streaming on Netflix.