By: AJ Eversole
Today we address the topic of Thanksgiving from a Native perspective. The holiday—while still a time of family gathering for many Natives—is often misrepresented and used as an opportunity for teachers to create lessons that, more often than not, lead to false narratives about the Indigenous Peoples of North America. This problem is something that co-authors Danielle Hill Greendeer, Anthony Perry and Alexis Bunten had in mind when creating their picture book, Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story (Charlesbridge, 2022).
Check out the interview below to understand how the book came to be, the why behind the story, and to learn about tie-in educational resources.
Why is this story important now?
We are in the middle of a serious cultural shift to recognize and respect the Indigenous peoples of this continent as real, living peoples and not just victims of the past. With the removal of professional sports teams’ racist mascots, [there’s] more accurate Native American representation in the media than ever before. Thanksgiving is most Americans’ only exposure to Native peoples. Until recently, Native representation has been largely controlled by non-Natives and it was replete with negative stereotypes.
The false narrative taught in schools of friendly Indians who rescued the Pilgrims and then quietly disappeared afterwards is a lie meant to erase the genocide of Native peoples. Over the past year and a half, we have all witnessed a historic awakening in America. No one can deny the white supremacist history of our nation that manifests itself in brutal police killings of innocent Black people, the caging of Central American child refugees at our southern border, and the uninvestigated murders of Indigenous women. It is time for this story to come to life.
We need more Native American representation in children’s literature that is actually written by Native Americans, because much of what’s out there is filled with stereotypes. It’s offensive. It’s not fair to children to have exposure only to titles such as, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Indian In The Cupboard, etc. Debbie Reese quotes in her piece about Julie of the Wolves, “People who are misrepresented in classic or award-winning books do not think like the white writers who misrepresented them!”
What do you hope that Keepunumuk will do in terms of changing the public narrative around Thanksgiving? About Native Americans in general?
It will play an important role in a larger, Native-led movement to educate the American public about Native Peoples, our histories, and the contributions that we make to this country. It’s very important to underscore that this book is reaching children. We strongly believe that children are the pathway to social change. When children learn, their parents learn. Imagine: For children who read this book as their first exposure to Thanksgiving, Keepunumuk will shape their baseline understanding of the Wampanoag peoples, and all Native Americans.
What kinds of curriculum and extension activities can teachers use to accompany Keepunumuk?
Our writing team included some curricular extensions for younger students that can be done in the classroom or at home in the back matter of Keepunumuk.
Danielle and Alexis created curriculum about the real Thanksgiving for high schoolers. It meets common core standards for English Language Arts. We also created a unit on the Three Sisters that meets standards for technical education but can easily be included in English class or History class. You can find these curriculum online at the Bioneers website.
We are currently working on curriculum for K-2 grades that meet Common Core standards. These are the grades that students are introduced to the Native peoples in their states. While there are wonderful resources to replace outdated curriculum about California Indians created by the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center as well as others, we still don’t have curriculum at the grade school level that really speaks to Thanksgiving from a Mashpee point of view. Only Wampanoag people can make that. Tony and Alexis are giving Danielle a hand with this.
What can Americans do to be more conscious about Thanksgiving?
Learning about Indigenous relationships to the land and our interdependent obligations with the plants and animals we share it with is a way to decolonize our minds. Instead of thinking of land, animals and other humans as things to exploit, we should relate to them as interdependent relatives who help us to thrive. We can put this into action by making sure that we are thankful for all these things at Thanksgiving.
We should also be aware that most of what we eat at the Thanksgiving table are foods Indigenous to the Americas. We can acknowledge that the turkey, squash, corn, and cranberries on the traditional menu are from this continent. Eating these traditional foods sourced in organic, non-GMO and non factory-farmed ways is a way to decolonize your diet, while making more sustainable choices for the earth’s health.
It’s easy to introduce these traditions into your household for Thanksgiving without giving up football. All you have to do is learn about the real history of Thanksgiving by reading with your children, give thanks for the Native sources of the food you are about to eat, and make more sustainable (and more delicious) ingredient choices. If you want to learn more, I encourage you to visit bioneers.org/thanksgiving where you can read more articles about how to decolonize your Thanksgiving, access culturally accurate curriculum, and find more resources.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
We hope that it inspires children and their parents (if they are non-Native) to develop an appreciation for Indigenous cultures, to learn whose ancestral territories they live on, and about the cultures and traditions of those tribes. For Native readers, we hope that it instils pride in the children and encourages families to participate in their own cultures, if they are not already doing so. For everyone, we hope it leads to a critical examination of how we live our lives. Are we connected with our grandparents? Are we growing our own foods? Are we respecting the plants and animals around us, taking care of the earth and each other?
What led you to write Keepunumuk?
Keepunumuk began with a “Decolonized Thanksgiving” meal that Alexis organized in 2016 as a way to begin educating Americans about the truth behind the holiday. This even went on to become a campaign to “decolonize Thanksgiving” with meals that replaced the turkey and stuffing with Ingenious foods such as venison, duck, and three-sisters soup.
In 2018, Alexis interviewed Chris Newell on Facebook Live about the myths surrounding the Thanksgiving story and what really happened. Tony heard the interview on and was amazed at how little he knew about the first Thanksgiving… Tony had just published his book, Chula the Fox (White Dog Press, 2018), and has two young children of his own. He knew the powerful role stories can play in shaping how people see the world.
Tony contacted Alexis with an idea: Wouldn’t it be powerful if children’s first exposure to Thanksgiving and Native Americans was accurate and didn’t fill their heads with stereotypes? Alexis agreed, and they decided to write a children’s picture book about the first Thanksgiving from a Native American perspective. A picture book for the Thanksgiving story would create a new ‘default’ story for younger people and challenge the narrative assumed by many older people. It would, ultimately, reshape the Thanksgiving story and how America sees itself.
As Tony and Alexis dug deeper into the archival record, they began to seek oral history from Wampanoag historians and culture bearers. Being Native American, but not the tribe that actually met with the Pilgrims, they knew they needed to get free prior and informed consent from the Wampanoag tribe(s). Alexis contacted her friend, Danielle, who is deeply involved in Wampanoag traditions and cultural revitalization in her ancestral homeland to ask for some advice. Danielle was so excited about the idea that she wanted to support it, and she mentioned to Alexis and Tony, “You know, I would like to write a children’s book,” to which Alexis and Tony responded, “Would you like to write with us? And, could you be our first author?” “Yes!” and Keepunumuk was born.
Alexis began a campaign and series of annual events in 2016 to decolonize Thanksgiving that led to this book. Where is the campaign at now?
Americans are hungry for the truth, especially at this point in time, with the mascot issue recently in the news. Fundamentally–and contrary to what a few loud voices in the news cycle would like you to believe–most of us want to come together across political, racial, and class divides. Americans want to be inclusive. They want to rid Thanksgiving of its offensive and racist underbelly, which starts with teaching kids stereotypes in school. They want to learn about colonization and decolonization.
Since I started hosting “Decolonize Thanksgiving” events in 2016 as the Indigeneity Program co-Director for Bioneers, I accompanied each event with educational blogs, which have been among the top five performing media Bioneers released each year. By now, I’ve written several articles, curriculum resources, and Keepunumuk.
In 2021, with the help of the communications team at Bioneers, I created a resource webpage for decolonizing Thanksgiving, which resulted in the single highest traffic month for Bioneers.org ever. Additional stats:
- 1: Ranking of Bioneers on Google for the search phrase: “Decolonize Thanksgiving”
- 80%: Eight out of our top ten visited pages were Indigeneity-themed during this period
- 200%: Increase in Instagram reach during the seven day Thanksgiving period compared to the previous period
- 341%: Increase in Facebook reach during the seven day Thanksgiving period compared to the previous period
- 116,612: Total social reach of all posts and ad campaigns around Decolonizing Thanksgiving.
It’s clear that Americans are hungry to learn the real story of Thanksgiving.
Danielle Hill Greendeer (Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Citizen, Hawk Clan). Mother of five children, Julian, 17, Anysa 14, Maple 5, Quill 4, Tulsi 2, and wife of David Greendeer (Ho-Chunk/Narragansett). “We are an art family and enjoy spending our days, crafting, painting, building, making wampum jewelry and spending days and nights at the beach. As a writer, farmer, crafter, dancer and artist I always find inspiration from museum archives and collections. When the children go to bed, I spend time looking at old photographs and imagining what life our ancestors lived. Through the silence, I find motivation to create new imagery and stories. I am also a seed steward of the King Philip Corn, a historically Wampanoag heirloom corn variety stolen during the King Philip War but now rematriated back into Wampanoag soil. When I am not out in the corn field or in the gallery, you can find me teaching a Native Food Systems Course for UMass Amherst Stockbridge School of Agriculture. The future for me is to continue to merge my love of art and corn.”
Alexis Bunten, PhD, Co-Directs the Bioneers Indigeneity Program. She is an Alaska Native writer, media maker, consultant and educator. Her first book, So, How Long Have You Been Native? Life As An Alaska Native Tour Guide (Nebraska Press, 2015) won the Alaska Library Association Award for its originality, and depth. Her writing has appeared in First American Art Magazine, Cultural Survival Quarterly, NMAI Magazine, and in many academic journals. Her first children’s book, Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story (Charlesbridge, 2022), co-authored with Danielle Hill and Tony Perry, was released in August, and her second picture book, What Your Ribbon Skirt Means To Me: Deb Haaland’s Historic Inauguration, will be published by Little Brown in 2023.
Alexis lives in Monterey, California with her husband, daughter, three dogs, cat and lizard. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, studying DNA, and creating cultural tours.
Anthony Perry (Chickasaw) grew up in Oklahoma and now lives in England with his wife and young children. This is his second children’s book. His first book, Chula the Fox (White Dog Press, 2018), brings 18th century Chickasaw history to life and is being adapted into a film. He works as a quality improvement manager in the National Health Service in England and volunteers with hospitals in Pakistan to improve health services. He loves history and enjoys spending time with his family and traveling.
Perry has an undergraduate degree in comparative religion from Dartmouth College, a master’s degree in public health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and a master’s degree in public policy from Birkbeck College, University of London. He is currently working on a sequel to Chula the Fox.
Garry Meeches, Sr. (Anishinaabe) was born on the Long Plains reserve in southern Manitoba, Canada. His style is reminiscent of the plains style of art and evokes the Eastern Woodlands tradition. He lives in Connecticut, and this is his first picture book.
AJ Eversole covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She grew up in rural Oklahoma, a place removed from city life and full of opportunities to nurture the imagination. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and writes primarily young adult fiction. She currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas with her husband and son. Follow her on Instagram @ajeversole or Twitter @amjoyeversole.