Culture: Author creates publishing house for American Indian books
In “Poneasequa: Goddess of the Waters,” heroine McKenzie Jones feels she is falling into a dream. Instead, she comes to realize, over this 132 pages young adult novel, that her contemporary schoolgirl world is colliding with that of her Wampanoag ancestors.
The dream belongs to author Stephanie Duckworth-Elliott, who is Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head, Mass. In the process of getting her own book published, she developed a plan for a publishing house that would publish great, but little-known Native American authors and others.
Wampum Books debuted this November as its edition of “Poneasequa” went to market nationally. In this venture Duckworth-Elliott is in the unique position of being a Wampanoag woman who owns a national book publishing house.
“The whole point of the book is motivating yourself, loving where you come from, and loving where you are,” Duckworth-Elliott said. “The point of Wampum Books is to bring to the reading public authentic Native voices.”
As she has toured the country, appearing recently at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Writers Series, Duckworth-Elliott has found herself speaking to young adult readers about the importance of knowing their own roots.
“The character is really based on me. Once I accepted who I was and loved who I was, everything got easier,” Duckworth-Elliott said. “I think that’s a huge message for children.”
“Poneasequa” grew out of a promise that she made to her grandfather. He helped to raise her, and died when she was 19. She promised him she would write about their relationship. Heroine McKenzie Jones likewise is raised by a Wampanoag grandfather. But when McKenzie gets tapped by her fifth-grade teacher to tell the class about what it means to be a Wampanoag, she must first find out for herself.
That’s when the adventure begins. McKenzie tries to document a day trip with her grandfather, but instead finds herself slipping through time on a journey that will bring her face to face with her ancestors. She emerges from the encounter a Wampanoag girl who is confident of who she is.
The novel, said Lisa Brooks, Abenaki, a Harvard University assistant professor of history and literature, “is the first book from southern New England to directly address young readers and to relate the story of a contemporary Wampanoag girl living in the 21st century. Such an approach is vitally important in educating non-Native readers.”
Duckworth-Elliott is a former sixth-grade teacher and former director of development for the Princeton Center for Leadership. She also has taught several college classes, including as a faculty member of Rutgers University and Princeton University.
She launches Wampum Books in the hope of signing contracts with 10 authors in the next year. She aims to expand the market for Native American books, whether fiction, non-fiction or memoir. She will publish books on any subject, as long as the author’s voice is authentic, in her view. She hopes that the sale of books and related opportunities for her authors will become a revenue stream into Indian Country.
Duckworth-Elliott takes advantage of the new print-on-demand technology to create only as many books as are ordered. She plans full-scale marketing of her new authors and national distribution of their books.
“Native writers have not been given the opportunity to have their stories told, and also to have ownership over their stories,” Duckworth-Elliott said. “My goal is to inspire people and allow them to tell their stories.”
Already “Poneasequa” is available at Barnes & Noble stores in New England, and she plans to sell the novel nationwide through popular book retailers. She also sells at book signings, which she plans to do across North America.
She sees a niche in publishing books for all ages. These books, as she envisions them, will share the complex experiences of living in Indian Country, even the experience of growing up as she did.
“Part of my message is, ‘You can do it,’” she said. “I was told I could not. I was left by my parents at age 10. I was an emancipated minor at 17. I graduated with my first graduate degree at 23, suffered many illnesses, including cancer, but yet I still rise. Our collective struggle within Indian Country is one that is shared by so many, but not told or understood.”
Learn more at www.duckworthelliott.com.
By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service