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Educational book about Wampanoag girl inspires all

CHATHAM, Mass. – Stephanie Duckworth-Elliott, Wampanoag of Aquinnah (Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard), “hopes to open the eyes of all people about the history of the Wampanoag as well as describe the identity conflict of a contemporary Native youth” with her newly published book, “Poneasequa, Goddess of the Waters.” In this coming-of-age story, the protagonist is concerned with a theme universal to all contemporary people – the excitement of growing independently as well as with the tension between peers and family.

“I always remembered trying to fit in; I did not want to be different,” the author said. As a sixth-generation descendant of Massasoit (1581-1661), Duckworth-Elliott’s physical appearance alone created a difference. At age 12 she was over six feet tall. “Wampanoag people are tall people,” she said. “And I was the only Wampanoag in school in Edgartown. Others were at Oak Bluff.”

Since the “First Thanksgiving” from the Wampanoag perspective is within the plot, “Poneasequa” is becoming a fresh tool for elementary educators. Educational material about Thanksgiving written with the Native American perspective in an entertaining format has been sought by educators for years to enhance text books. Duckworth-Elliott plans on a distribution of 10,000 copies by the end of November; reviews suggest that number will be surpassed.

“I want people to know that we are still here, we are real, and we are living in the 21st century. And I want people to be provided with the correct historical information about our tribe; I break down some of the mythology about us with this book,” the author said.

“The book was first read and approved by the tribal historian to be sure of its accuracy and has been endorsed by several other tribal representatives.”

A recipient of the Wallace Dewitt Reader’s Digest Fellowship for Minority Teachers, the author was working at Rutgers University when she had the opportunity to serve under the Clinton administration as assistant executive director of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year. She also raised millions of dollars as director of development at the Princeton Center for Leadership and has taught at Princeton, Rutgers and the College of New Jersey.

Her undergraduate degree is from Douglass College at Rutgers, her masters in nonprofit management from the Graduate School for Public Policy at Rutgers/Newark, and her masters in sociology was earned from the New School for Social Research where she has been a graduate faculty member.

Duckworth-Elliott, 36, was once told by a guidance counselor that “Wampanoags are not college material.”

The author had been living with her grandfather on Chappaquiddick, an island of Martha’s Vineyard, when this happened. As a result of the limits placed on her – she was also told a recommendation would not be written for her – she moved to live with her father and stepmother on the mainland. There, she graduated from Sandwich High School.

Sandwich, which promotes itself as the oldest English town on Cape Cod, was host to a prosperous glass manufacturing industry in the late 19th and early 20th century because a founder understood that its proximity to a shallow harbor and the planned Cape Cod Canal would create position for a market of competitively priced glass products.

“When the (Wampanoag town) of Herring Pond was disbanded, the males were put into digging the Cape Cod Canal. My great grandfather always wore his headband; he refused to remove it even as he worked. Eventually, a job opportunity came to him at Martha’s Vineyard.” Later, Ralph Harding, the author’s grandfather, ran a 150-acre farm there for 66 years and eventually purchased private property. “Chappaquiddick is isolated. The people could hold onto their culture. They didn’t have the pressure; whites and Native Americans actually had to depend on one another. It simply was not as oppressive as other places have been.”

In the book, the main character, McKenzie Jones, goes to her grandfather for help when she is told to give a report about the Wampanoag people and she realizes how little she knows. “Her main character’s journey of self-discovery is one that should be familiar and inspiring to the young people in our tribal communities,” wrote author Joseph Bruchac in an endorsement.

After more than a decade working educational initiatives with nonprofits and government agencies and traveling the country with such people as the secretary of education, the author semi-retired in order to care for her mother. She returned with her 2-year-old son to Martha’s Vineyard in 2005. “As so many Native people do, my mother suffered from diabetes.”

After her mother passed, Duckworth-Elliott rewrote the book she promised her grandfather. Now, her work is promoting the book and launching a publishing house, Wampum Publishing, for which she already has six authors. “My goal is to inspire young people as well as allow them to tell their stories.”

Her schedule of book signings and lectures are available on her Web site at www.duckworthelliot.com; the book is available through Barnes and Noble, amazon.com, target.com and local booksellers.

To contact the author, e-mail her at ducksteph73@aol.com.