NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE IS CELEBRATED IN NEW ANIMATED SERIES
There’s a hint of the child she once was when Karissa Valencia ’13 (BA) reveals the genesis of the idea that inspired her animated Netflix show, Spirit Rangers.
“I was thinking about how cool it would be if a little kid found a bear skin today and realized that they could transform and connect with the spirits that way.”
Valencia spent her childhood on and off the Samala Chumash reservation in California’s Santa Ynez valley, splitting her time with her mom in San Diego and her dad on the reservation, spending summers and every other weekend with him. She particularly enjoyed working as a camp counselor on the reservation at Kalowashaq, which loosely means “turtle village.”
“My tribe’s clan is the Turtle Clan. We’d teach the native kids how to make clapper sticks, learn our traditional songs, and go out on trails and learn about the plants in our native wildlife. That was great for them but also for me, connecting me to my land.”
She credits her “five times great-grandmother,” Maria Solares — who worked with ethnologist John Harrington in the 1930s — for much of the tribe’s historical documentation about their customs and history before Spanish contact in the 1500s. “She did all these recordings — telling our stories, our customs, what we would wear, what we believed in —about the Samala Chumash people,” Valencia explains.
“That’s where we get a lot of our information about the language and what we used to have. Without it, we would be so lost. So much of it was lost when the Spanish came over.”
It wasn’t easy to maintain a dual existence. “On the reservation, I was surrounded by my community and my family. I was used to going on hikes with my dad, and he could tell when a mountain lion had just passed through. I was so proud to be Chumash when I was there.”
But in school, that sense of pride wasn’t necessarily celebrated.
“When I’d say I was Native American, my teachers just didn’t believe me. That feeling of being invisible stuck with me a long time, and my native identity was pretty suppressed for a while, because I hated that feeling of rejection,” she says, somber.
As she got older, Valencia gained confidence and further explored her native roots. “Even though my tribe didn’t traditionally have powwows, we’ve since adopted them. It’s a modern native space where all the tribal nations come together and gather for song, dance and trade. Seeing our culture still existing — despite everything we’ve been through — is so hopeful. We’re still here, and we’re still creating our own cultures.”
It was her love of storytelling that drew Valencia to the University of San Diego.
“I really loved USD because it was so small, and it was close to home. It felt like a safe space.” She gravitated to creative writing classes and says that while she thought working in TV and film would be her dream job, she “just didn’t know how to get there.”
Valencia credits Associate Dean and Professor of Communication Studies Kristin Moran for opening her eyes as to “just how impactful media is and what a powerful tool it is to change culture and change the world.” In fact, she says that Moran’s recommendation letter led to her being accepted to Syracuse University’s prestigious television, media and film graduate school, where she earned her master’s degree.
Things really started to take off for Valencia almost right away, when she got an internship at Nickelodeon working in the talent development department. “One of my first jobs was sending rejection letters to thousands of writers who were applying to the writing program, which only selected four or five. But it only motivated me more. I knew I could do it. I loved animation.”
She moved on to working as a script coordinator alongside executive producer and writer Chris Nee — creator of the animated shows Vampirina and Doc McStuffins — and writer Chelsea Beyl. “I was very lucky to meet people who told me to keep going and said that my voice was important,” Valencia says.
When Nee moved from Disney to Netflix, she was looking for projects. “I had a concept for Spirit Rangers,” Valencia says. “I wanted to pitch it around, but I didn’t know who to share it with, because it meant so much to me. I knew I’d be a new showrunner so they’d have to pair me with somebody.” Since working with someone she knew and trusted was important, she pitched her idea to Nee, who bought it the next day.
The pair worked together on the pilot for a year; a formal pitch to Netflix resulted in the network buying the series. “They bought 40 episodes for season one,” she says.
When describing the show, her excitement is infectious.
“We’re following a modern Native American family who lives in a magical national park. Every episode has an occurrence in the park that doubles as a problem in what we call Spirit Park,” she explains. “The kids are Spirit Rangers, who are land protectors, water protectors, animal protectors, who look out for the park. When the kids transform, so does the park.” For example, if someone looks into the sky and sees a thunderstorm, a Spirt Ranger would look up and see thunderbirds flying by, which is the reason for the storm.
“There’s a transformation sequence in every single episode,” she says. “And every episode has an original song. Those are really fun because we all know how kids love music. Look at Moana and Frozen.”
Valencia is rightfully proud to be calling the shots for the show, which debuts on Netflix on October 10, 2022. “I’m the captain of this ship of 400 people who are all seeking to make my vision come true,” she says. “And it was really important to me to have an all-native writing room. My writing staff are all indigenous, from different tribes all over the country.”
In the end, Spirit Rangers is a show that seems made for this particular moment. “Seeing the direction that the world is moving in as far as more support for Black and brown folks fueled my team. The show is really important and matters. It deserves to be on TV.” — Julene Snyder
This story is a sneak peak from the Fall 2022 issue of USD Magazine, which will be mailed out and posted online in mid-September.
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