As a student at the Edgartown School, a counselor once told Chappaquiddick native Stephanie Duckworth-Elliott that she wouldn’t go to college, and implied that Ms. Duckworth-Elliott would not achieve in life. The young girl had a background and home life that already separated her from other kids her age — she was a member of the only Wampanoag family living on Chappy at the time, and raised primarily by her grandfather — and the counselor’s prediction made her feel even more detached from her peers.
But she chose not to listen. When she graduated from the Edgartown School, she shuttled back and forth from her home on the Vineyard on weekends to attend high school on Cape Cod. She went on to study at Douglass College at Rutgers University, where she received a bachelor’s degree. Two master’s degrees followed, and soon she was teaching college courses at universities all over the country, Princeton, Rutgers, and Colorado Technical University, among others.
Last Friday, she returned to the scene of that early disappointment to speak to a somewhat younger group of students. “I showed my counselor that I would make something of myself,” said Ms. Duckworth-Elliott. Now a published author, she came to the Edgartown School to share her accomplishment with the students, and perhaps inspire in them the confidence to do the same.
Ms. Duckworth-Elliott brought along a copy of her young adult novel, Poneasequa, Goddess of the Waters. The fictional story, she explained, is rooted in fact — it is the tale of a young American Indian girl coming to terms with her unique heritage and her differences from her classmates. She thinks that every child could learn a thing or two from her story.
“You may not have the same experiences that I did, but you know what? I bet some of you feel like you don’t fit in,” she said. “That you stand out, or you’re different, or you don’t like the things that your friends do . . . They are a lot of issues that I actually went through when I was young.”
She said that she learned to embrace, rather than fight against, her uniqueness. Her beloved grandfather, a Wampanoag of the Herring Pond tribe, had come to the Island in 1920. He met and married a Wampanoag woman from the Aquinnah tribe, and built a homestead on Chappaquiddick. Stephanie’s family members were direct descendents of Chief Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief who taught the pilgrims to farm and forged a 50-year alliance with them some 400 years ago.
If her heritage set her apart from her friends, so too did her appearance. Her dark hair and complexion were nothing compared to her height — by the time she was 12-years-old she had grown just over six feet tall, towering over her classmates. The height ran in her family, she said; her brother stands at nearly seven feet tall.
Her appearance still commands attention, though she was soft-spoken as she read passages from her book and answered questions from the young crowd. The students were most curious about this aspect of her character; “How long were you the tallest kid in your grade?” one asked. Ms. Duckworth-Elliott explained that she was full grown before she entered sixth grade at the Edgartown School, and it wasn’t until eighth grade that some of her male classmates began to catch up. But she ended up using her height to her advantage: she joined a women’s basketball team that went on to win a state championship, and spent time working as a model. Once she got to college outside of New York city, she said she no longer had trouble finding clothing to fit her, since most designers catered to a taller frame.
In the end, she said, she grew to love her height and used it as a theme in her novel. And though she now lives with her husband and son in New Jersey, she’s still a small-town Island girl at heart. When she asked her audience if anyone lived on Chappaquiddick, she responded with delight when she recognized one boy as her neighbor. “Oh my God! You’re all grown up!” she said. “You’re a man!”
The publication of Poneasequa, which is her Wampanoag name, took her life in a different direction. She quit her job as a director of development at Princeton to embark on the journey to tell her story. She went on to form Wampum Books, a publishing company exclusively for American Indian authors. She now has several other writing projects in the works, including an adult novel and a collaboration with American Indian singer Jana Mashonee, and is scheduled to be on the David Letterman and Oprah shows next year.
Ms. Duckworth-Elliott attributes much of her success to her grandfather, the man who raised her and taught her to love herself, and her history. And though writing hasn’t always been her primary career, she always knew she was destined to tell her tale. “When my grandfather passed away when I was 19, he made me promise to write about our relationship,” she said. “And it’s something that . . . I’ve always loved doing.”