Frank Henry Kaash Katasse, a Tlingit playwright, writer and educator, has a lot to be thankful for. He just returned from attending the Children & Family Emmy Awards on Dec. 10 where the show he writes for, “Molly of Denali,” received two nominations for Outstanding Preschool Animated Series and Outstanding Writing for a Preschool Animated Program. After walking the red carpet in Los Angeles, Katasse was invited to walk down another red carpet at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School, where Katasse teaches, as part of a warm welcome home from the staff and students.
In between the star treatment, Katasse made time for the Juneau Empire to talk about his experience.
Broad question, but most people will never experience it, so how were the Emmys?
The Emmys were sort of mind-boggling, it went by so quick and it’s exactly like you think but completely different at the same time, it’s kind of hard to explain. You’re surrounded by celebrities, and you get sort of starstruck and then the event keeps going but there’s also downtime, so it’s very exciting followed by moments of lag as any awards show would go. You don’t have a clue or not if you’re going to win, I don’t think anyone does; people are always kind of wondering if people already know if they’re going to win and I can tell you that you don’t. You’re going through the program going, ‘Oh my gosh, there are five more until us and then four more until us and then three more,’ and then they’re like, ‘commercial break,’ and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ And so you keep waiting and waiting and then the moment happens or it doesn’t but it’s a really supportive environment where you kind of know who your competition is but you also know who they are sometimes, like some of the people I had personally met before like former producers for ‘Molly of Denali’ but now they’re working on a different show and you’re fully supportive of them whether they want the win or not. So, it’s a really interesting environment and I was just kind of proud to be there, to find a spot at the table per say was an amazing thing. This is a show that’s about Alaska Native people and to be even mentioned with people like from Disney and Netflix and HBO and then it’s like PBS, ‘Molly of Denali,’ it’s sort of an amazing thing.
Not to go red-carpet correspondent, but can you tell me about what you wore to the event? It looked on social media like the “Molly of Denali” writers were pretty intentional in wearing Indigenous-made apparel.
Yeah, so the vest I have on right now is from Jayne Dangeli that I got from the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall during Public Market; I thought maybe I should get a different vest, I had one that my auntie made but I was thinking maybe about having a different vest, too and I saw this vest sitting there and I was like, ‘Well, it’s probably not in my size,’ but it happened to be in my size and it fit perfectly. So, you have different outfits because it’s a two-day event, so one day I had earrings and a bolo tie from Ricky Tagaban, and it was so funny because on the earrings they have .22 cartridges as part of the decorations and it set off the alarms, and the security was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, these are just shells from the design as part of the regalia, but they were kind of looking at me like, ‘What?’ And then the next night I had a tux that I had rented from here in town; luckily, they did it last minute, the place out by Industrial, they fit me and got me in and out really quickly so that was awesome of them because I called them on Monday and I had to leave on Thursday. I had Daaljíini – Mary Folletti (Daaljini Cruise) my friend Robin got me some silver tin’aa earrings from her last minute and I had some copper tin’aa that my late uncle Malcom Miller made me before he walked on a while back and then some devil’s club beads that my kids made. It was just a lot of meaningful stuff for me, and I know we were all mindful of trying to make sure we were representing some of our indigenous designers and artists here in town while we were on the red carpet, a small time to really shine on the beautiful work that they’re doing.
Did you ever think you’d be writing for an award-nominated children’s show?
No, it wasn’t the plan, I’ve always written and read when I was little; I used to write a lot when I was in first grade, just like stories and I still have little books like, ‘Tadpoles Are Really Interesting Animals,’ and stuff like that. I think before you can get out of your own way, like I used to think my spelling wasn’t great or my grammar but none of that stuff really matters when you’re writing for TV because you want to do a naturalistic approach to how people are talking and it’s not always perfectly grammatically correct. But I was really honored, since I was little my mom has always wanted to walk down the red carpet, so she came with me. She was like, ‘You made this deal with me when you were in third grade that you were going to take me to the red carpet.’ And I was like, ‘Well, here we are.’ That was always sort of our deal, so I was really proud to take her, and she looked fabulous, and she was so proud; every time we’d meet someone she’d be like, ‘Hey, that’s my son.’ So, it wasn’t exactly the plan, but I don’t think anyone has followed their plan perfectly, I always just kind of encourage people to just keep writing.
Between “Molly of Denali,” work as an educator and stage projects, it’s clear that reaching youth is something you prioritize, why is that? What do you hope youngsters take away from your growing body of work?
My mom was a principal and a teacher, and I think she instilled the importance of youth and to inspire and I don’t know if I do that or not, but I think I do. I think, especially growing up as an Indigenous person, I didn’t have a lot to look up to as far as representation in media and things like that and making sure that I know that our youth knows that these things that we’re doing are options, which I didn’t know were an option. When I was little, I thought I had to be a miner because my dad was or I had to be a fisherman because he was or things like that, I didn’t know that following arts and being a storyteller professionally were going to be options for me, so I want to make sure people know that a lot of times the only thing that’s in your way is yourself. Really, you can do whatever you want to do, and people are going to support you and I want to be there for people to be their first step if this is something that they ever want to do or to help support them if it’s something that they’re already doing.
The Emmys are obviously pretty cool, but today seemed like a pretty special day for you, as well, anything else you’d like to add?
I think this is just an amazing, surprising thing today; it kind of threw me off, I’m not surprised very easily and I’m still tired from flying in. My flights got canceled and I ended up getting here at midnight last night and I was like, ‘Should I call in?” And my wife was like, ‘Don’t do that!’ Then seeing all my students, especially at once, was very surprising to me because I was like, ‘I have a lot of students.’ It was really cool that they cared. I was talking about this in my class before they called me up, the principal tricked me into going into the office to pretend to talk about a student and then we were going to go get a student and I walked up here and it’s like everyone in the building was lined up. So, shoutout to the school and to this community for supporting me and supporting the rest of the team. And keep watching ‘Molly of Denali.’
• Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at email@example.com.