Five questions for Anthony Perry and Alexis Bunten

Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story (Charlesbridge, 6–10 years) by Danielle Greendeer, Anthony Perry, and Alexis Bunten, illustrated by Garry Meeches Sr., reframes the story of Thanksgiving as Keepunumuk, “the time of harvest.” The book is dedicated “to our children, who are our ancestors’ dreams come true”; and in it, a grandmother recounts the tale of the Three Sisters — Weeâchumun (corn), beans, and squash — to her rapt grandchildren.

1. Your own backgrounds and areas of expertise are rather diverse. What was your collaboration like?

Anthony Perry and Alexis Bunten: We do have very different backgrounds, but we worked incredibly well together. Danielle runs the Wampanoag Trading Post, an art gallery, and preserves the Indigenous foods of her ancestors. Alexis (Alaska Native) trained as a cultural anthropologist and co-directs the Indigeneity Program at Bioneers. Tony is a health care analyst working in the National Health Service in England and also author of Chula the Fox, a middle-grade historical fiction book about his Chickasaw ancestors.

Our differences became a strength as we united behind a common vision. Alexis has spent years promoting Indigenous foods and decolonizing the Thanksgiving holiday that so many take for granted. When Tony heard Alexis describing the myths behind the holiday in a webcast, he couldn’t believe how little he knew. He reached out about writing a picture book that could become the default narrative for the youngest of readers, which could also encourage parents, friends, and others to rethink the story they knew and loved. Tony and Alexis are Native American, but neither is Wampanoag, so Alexis suggested they get in touch with the Wampanoag nations and seek free, prior, and informed consent to write a story that is fundamentally theirs.

Alexis contacted Danielle Greendeer, a friend who is Mashpee Wampanoag, and she became our lead author, sharing our vision and story with Wampanoag friends, family, and elders. Danielle brought her love of the Wampanoag people and Indigenous foods to bear, and that led to us telling the story through the eyes of Weeâchumun (corn) and other spirits of Nature. Alexis had extensive experience with bringing environmental and Indigenous advocates together, as well as curriculum development which would help bring our story to schools. Tony had experience with writing for children and had developed contacts who would later open doors to getting the story published. We worked closely, communicating thoughts, questions, and ideas to ensure that we were on the same path. We were also able to delegate to one another, sharing the workload to balance between writing, our day jobs, and our families. We drew on our different perspectives to work through challenges that arose.

2. How did you decide on the storytelling frame?

AP and AB: We knew from the outset that we had to tell the Thanksgiving story in a way that centered Native Americans and challenged the myths that so many Americans hold dear. It also had to welcome all readers, and particularly young children. It was vital to get this story right. We therefore decided to tell the story through the eyes of Nature, and the Three Sisters in particular. The Wampanoag people, like many other Native Americans, see themselves as part of a bigger world; we are not above Nature, but a part of it. The Three Sisters play a vital role for the Wampanoag people and many others, so telling the story through their eyes made sense.

This perspective also shows that there was a world before the Separatists (known today as the Pilgrims) arrived, and Native peoples played an integral part of it. The “New World” wasn’t a blank slate, but a thriving world with people, plants, and animals living together. In Keepunumuk, the Wampanoag people listened to the spirits of the foods that gave them life, and decided to help the Separatists.

It was also vital to emphasize that the Wampanoag people aren’t the peoples of the past as the traditional Thanksgiving story implies. They are here today. Their communities have endured genocide and oppression for over four hundred years; just two years ago, at the height of the pandemic, the U.S. government attempted to take the lands of the Mashpee Wampanoag people. Thankfully, the Biden administration stopped government proceedings and reaffirmed the sovereignty of their land. Wampanoag families endured; they live their lives, celebrate their culture, and prepare now for a bright future.

3. The illustrations are so striking — were you surprised by anything in the art?

AP and AB: We were amazed, but not surprised, at how well the illustrations brought this story to life. Danielle, who runs an art gallery, suggested we consider Anishinaabe artist Garry Meeches Sr. Thankfully, he agreed to work with us and, unusually for picture books, authors and illustrator worked together. Garry shared sketches and we suggested potential changes to reflect the history and spirit we wanted to convey. Though we saw the illustrations as they developed, our greatest surprise was seeing them in print. We received advance copies of Keepunumuk and couldn’t believe how the richness of color jumped out on each illustration, from N8hkumuhs’s garden to the world of the Wampanoag people and the Separatists.

If we had to choose one thing that stood out the most, it would be Garry’s representation of the Three Sisters as spirits. Illustrations capture them almost as people, thinking and guiding the animals of the world as well as the First Peoples. One photo shows the spirit of Weeâchumun speaking to one of the First Peoples as they slept. The text reads: “Over the next few nights, Weeâchumun sent dreams to the First Peoples with a message: Bring me and my sisters to the newcomers. They are hungry and need help. The First Peoples listened.”

4. The Thanksgiving narrative is so ingrained in American cultural mythology; how do you hope that story will evolve?

AP and AB: Ultimately, we hope that Americans embrace Keepunumuk as a new Thanksgiving story that helps them celebrate our country in a more inclusive way. We hope that more Americans use the holiday to learn more about the Native peoples who live in their area and the contributions they continue to make to the country. We are still here.

It also gives people an opportunity to reflect on their connection with the wider world and to appreciate the sources of the food they enjoy. They could consider including more foods indigenous to the country and, ideally, their local communities.

A new Thanksgiving raises good questions to consider every day. 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?

5. How has the book been received by young people (including the real Maple and Quill)?

AP and AB: They’ve loved it! Danielle’s children, Maple and Quill, enjoy seeing themselves in the story. Tony’s children, Norman and Ilinca, enjoy learning about the Three Sisters and look forward to raising their own Three Sisters garden in the spring. Alexis’s daughter, Aria, enjoyed seeing the Three Sisters coming to life and trying out the activities that are in the back matter.

From the November 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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