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‘Keepunumuk’: Teaching Children the True Story of Thanksgiving

In August, a new children’s book, Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story, set out to transform the Thanksgiving story so many Americans take for granted.

Keepunumuk creates a new Thanksgiving story that puts Native peoples — and nature — at its heart. Two children from the Wampanoag tribe learn how Weeâchumun (corn) persuaded the First Peoples to help the newcomers (the Pilgrims) survive in their new home. It is written by a team of Native creators, including Bioneers Indigeneity Programme co-founder Alexis Bunten (Unangan and Yup’ik), Danielle Greendeer (Mashpee Wampanoag and lead author), Anthony Perry (Chickasaw) and Garry Meeches, Sr (Anishinaabe and illustrator).

The concept for Keepunumuk began with a “Decolonized Thanksgiving” meal that Alexis organized in 2016 to begin educating Americans about the truth behind the holiday. The event went on to become a campaign to decolonize Thanksgiving with meals that replaced the turkey and stuffing with Indigenous foods such as venison, duck and Three Sisters soup.

Anthony, after seeing an online conversation between Alexis and Chris Newell about the myths surrounding the Thanksgiving story, reached out to Alexis with the idea of writing 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 children and challenge the narrative assumed by many older people. It would, ultimately, reshape the Thanksgiving story and how America sees itself.

As Native Americans whose ancestors were not part of the tribe that saved the Pilgrims, Alexis and Anthony knew they needed to get free, prior and informed consent from the Wampanoag tribe(s) before writing their book. Danielle, a friend of Alexis, is deeply involved in Wampanoag traditions and cultural revitalization in her ancestral homeland. She excitedly agreed to co-author Keepunumuk as the lead author.

Below, we ask Alexis Bunten about the book and the real story of Thanksgiving.

Why is this story important right now?

Alexis: 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. This is evident in the removal of professional sports teams’ racist mascots and 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 is replete with negative stereotypes.

The false narrative taught in schools of friendly Indians who rescued the Pilgrims and then quietly disappeared afterward 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 light.

We need more Native American representation in children’s literature that is written by Native Americans, because much of what’s out there is filled with stereotypes. It’s offensive. It’s not fair to children.

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What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Alexis: I 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 to learn about the cultures and traditions of those tribes. For Native readers, I hope that it instills pride in the children and encourages families to participate in their own cultures if they are not already doing so. For everyone, I 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 taking care of each other?

What do you hope Keepunumuk will do in terms of changing the public narrative around Thanksgiving and about Native Americans in general?

Alexis: I think 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. I strongly believe that children are the pathway to the social change their parents learn. When children learn, their parents learn. 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 by extension.

What can Americans do to be more conscious about Thanksgiving?

Alexis: One way to decolonize our minds is by learning about Indigenous relationships to the land and our interdependent obligations to the plants and animals we share it with. 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 must 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’ Decolonizing Thanksgiving collection, where you can read more articles about how to decolonize your thanksgiving, access culturally accurate curriculums, and find more resources.

What kinds of curriculum and extension activities can teachers use to accompany Keepunumuk?

Alexis: Our writing team included some curricular extensions for younger students in the back matter of Keepunumuk that can be used in the classroom or at home.

Danielle and I created a 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 an English or history class. You can find these curriculums here.

We are currently working on a curriculum for 3rd and 4th graders that meets common core standards in Massachusetts and California. These are the grades in which students are introduced to the native peoples in their states. While there are wonderful resources to replace outdated curriculums about California Indians created by the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center as well as others, we still don’t have a curriculum at the grade school level that really speaks to Thanksgiving from a Mashpee point of view. Only Wampanoag people can make that.

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Revolution from the Heart of Nature

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