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Rethinking Thanksgiving

Wampanoag Author Danielle Greendeer Visits Morse Pond SchoolRethinking Thanksgiving: Wampanoag Author Danielle Greendeer Visits Morse Pond School

By Sarah E. Murphy 

When Danielle Greendeer decided to write a children’s book, her motivation was twofold: honoring the past and changing the future.

Ms. Greendeer visited Morse Pond School on November 10 for a school-wide assembly to  read, “Keepunumuk, Weeăchumun’s Thanksgiving Story,” which offers a different perspective about the November holiday, with the hope of fostering dialogue. The event was made possible by a grant from Falmouth Education Foundation with support from Eight Cousins Bookstore. 

A Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Citizen of the Hawk Clan, and owner of the Wampanoag Trading Post and Gallery, Ms. Greendeer was raised in the tradition of storytelling, sharing the same reverence as her ancestors for the natural world and its bountiful gifts.

“Keepunumuk,” which refers to “A Time of Harvest,” is told from the perspective of the “Three Sisters,” squash, beans, and “weeăchumun,” the Wampanoag word for corn, and highlights the invaluable role the trio played in the survival of the “Newcomers,” historically referred to as “Pilgrims.” The book also showcases the connection in the Wampanoag heritage between dreams and wisdom, and the spiritual aspect of plants and animals.

Featuring 19 original paintings, a recipe for a traditional Wampanoag dish, and a glossary of terms and concepts from the Wôpanâak language, it is the only Thanksgiving story told from the Wampanoag perspective. Ms. Greendeer’s hope is to offer a more historically- accurate account of the holiday.

To that end, “Keepunumuk” also explores the devastating effects of Colonization on Indigenous Peoples. In her presentation to the students, Ms. Greendeer explained that when the Newcomers arrived from England in 1621, there were 69 tribes in Southeastern Massachusetts. Today, only two federally recognized tribes remain - the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

As Grandmother, who recounts the story, remarks to Maple and Quill, based on Ms. Greendeer’s own children, “Many Americans call it a day of Thanksgiving. Many of our people call it a Day of Mourning.” 

“A lot of Native American tribes have not been treated fairly. Their land has been taken away. Some Native American tribes live on reservations, and even to this day, they don’t have running water. They don’t have electricity. Their living conditions are really bad,” Ms. Greendeer said. 

“So when Thanksgiving comes around, the American narrative, or what we see on TV, it doesn’t address that.”

She added that the largest Thanksgiving protest on the National Day of Mourning occurs annually at Plymouth Rock, with the goal of raising awareness to their plight. 

“It’s something to think about when you’re at your table, or if you’re giving thanks, or you’re talking about things you’re grateful for. Acknowledging Native American tribes, and what they went through, and what they go through today is also important,” she said. 

When a student asked Ms. Greendeer what inspired her to write the book, she said it was personal. 

“I want my children to grow up seeing themselves in books, seeing themselves on TV, having that representation, that feeling of validation that they matter,” she said. 

As to what kept her motivated throughout the four-year process, Ms. Greendeer said it was the prospect of sharing her story with the world. To that end, she collaborated with Native American co-authors, Anthony Perry of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, and Alexis Bunten, of the Yupik and Unangan tribes in Alaska, and illustrator Gary Meeches Sr., Anishinaabe, who was born on the Long Plains reserve in Manitoba, CA. All share a passion for “shifting the Thanksgiving narrative to honor Indigenous perspectives.” 

They worked with Charlesbridge publishing company in Watertown, MA with the goal of reaching as many schools, libraries, and households as possible. 

Ms. Greendeer’s visit was part of Morse Pond library teacher Elizabeth Abbott’s FEF grant aimed to bring diverse authors to the school and library bookshelves, not only to expose students to new material but also to further educate those whose cultures have been underrepresented by creating “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Doors.” In her experience, students’ expressions light up when they are introduced to books that reflect them personally. 

“Our Wampanoag students are so excited to see a book all about their heritage written by a real, live Wampanoag author,” she said. 

“They’re very proud.” 

An autographed copy of “Keepunumuk” has been added to the collection at the Morse Pond library, with the inscription, “The Future is Indigenous.” The FEF grant also funded the purchase of a book for each classroom.

Ms. Greendeer's talk was punctuated by thunderous applause, sharing high-fives with students who approached her at the conclusion, some of whom even requested her autograph. 

According to Brook Gideon, Programming Coordinator for Eight Cousins, the book provides a necessary lesson. 

“It’s important to learn about the people who were already here,” she said. 

Sixth-grader Ines Martins proved her point. 

“I learned something I didn’t know about Thanksgiving,” she said. 

Since sharing the story with schools, both locally and beyond, Ms. Greendeer has experienced a willingness on behalf of readers to question what they have been taught about the holiday. 

“I think across the board, both on Cape Cod and in the United States in general, teachers and parents want to teach a more authentic narrative around Thanksgiving, it’s just not having the language, not knowing what to say. That’s where the book comes in as a resource,” she said. 

“Everybody wants the truth and has an idea of what the truth is, but it has to be from a Native voice.” 

“Keepunumuk, Weeăchumun’s Thanksgiving Story,” by Danielle Greendeer, is available locally at Eight Cousins in Falmouth and the Wampanoag Trading Post and Gallery in Mashpee Commons.

Sarah E. Murphy