Restoring Indian History at Jamestown and Williamsburg: Interview with Historic Anthropologist Buck Woodard



Ms. Hart is an award-winning journalist who has covered international affairs and historical topics in her writing.

For years, American Indians have struggled with distortions of their history and modern stereotypes. Today, Native public historians are at the forefront of efforts to shed more accurate light on their communities, both past and present.  In 2002, Colonial Williamsburg launched its landmark American Indian Initiative, inviting unprecedented numbers of Native scholars and interpreters to participate in efforts to incorporate colonial and Revolutionary-era Native history into its existing public education programs. Since then the Initiative’s seasonal programs have been hugely popular, attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year.  The American Indian Initiative has also recently expanded to include public history programs for nearby Jamestown, bringing Native stories to life from the time of the European encounter to the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.  More programs are in the works for Virginia’s “Historic Triangle.”

Historic anthropologist Buck Woodard has directed the American Indian Initiative since 2008.  A gifted communicator, Woodard has helped bring members of Virginia’s historic tribes, as well as dozens of other tribes from across the country, to Williamsburg to participate in the new Native history programming.  Woodard has contributed to projects with the American Indian Resource Center at the College of William & Mary, the National Park Service and the National Museum of the American Indian, as well as served two governors as an advisor on the Virginia Council on Indians.  He is an instructor of anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of World Studies and a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the College of William & Mary.  Woodard spoke about his work at Colonial Williamsburg, Indian history, and fieldwork with contemporary Indian communities with me.

Can you talk about the work of the American Indian Initiative?

American Indian Initiative began in 2002.  It set out to bring Native peoples back to the colonial capital and include alternative perspectives in public history presentations—to re-introduce Indians to Williamsburg’s Euro-American visitors.  It became clear almost from the beginning through discussions with communities like the Cherokee that Native people had a divergent view of Williamsburg’s past—one that challenged the dominant society’s history and recast the role of Virginia in the colonial encounter.  In this historically rich place, Colonial Williamsburg’s staff unfortunately recognized that the general public still conceived American Indians in very stereotypical ways.  This is what we wanted to change.

To develop the American Indian Initiative, the Foundation had to bring together both indigenous people and experts in disciplines related to Native American culture and history.  It began by contacting state and federal agencies that interacted with Native peoples.  It reached out to Virginia’s state-recognized tribes, anthropologists, historians and other museum professionals.  Eventually it held a series of symposiums on Native public history.  Tribal members and scholars joined us on long-term projects.  At this point Colonial Williamsburg also contacted the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians now based in North Carolina.  We partnered with the Museum of the Cherokee Indian to produce the first Cherokee-centered public history programs here.  I came on as a consultant and was then hired to direct the project.

Which are the principal tribes have you worked with and what is their role in the Initiative?  Based on their collaboration with you, how are you portraying their history?

We’ve networked with Cherokee, Shawnee, Pamunkey, and other Indian communities to ask them to participate in this public history initiative.  We’ve used their talents to perform, interpret, advise, and collaborate with us on research.  Behind the scenes there are very creative people who implement a philosophy and plan programs to reflect what we’ve learned from our Native consultants.  As an historical anthropologist, I conduct fieldwork in communities and work with the museum to set the goals for the projects we work on.

In creating historical interpretive programs for the general public, we explore the lives of Indian peoples in eighteen-century Williamsburg.  Indians came here in so many different roles—as diplomats, traders, laborers, schoolboys, porters, and churchgoers.  They also came here as servants and slaves.  We want to try to access that Native presence in a way it has not been done before.

At the time, Williamsburg was the capital of Britain’s largest North American colony.  We want to show the Native responses to the colonial chess game of power—the ways in which Native communities changed, adapted and transformed. The eighteenth century provided tough choices for American Indians in a newly emerging economic and political system, ushered in by Europe’s expansion into North America.

In terms of our mission to educate the public, contemporary Americans are challenged by what happened to Native societies in the past.  They have mixed emotions about Indian history, and a general lack of knowledge about specifics.  So we draw on the national narrative—draw on history that already resonates with the dominant society.  In the process we also introduce the public to what has been up to now unacknowledged—silenced—historical experiences.  We are showing Native successes and difficulties in this shifting world.  In the case of the American Revolution, many Indian communities wished to remain neutral in the conflict between Britain and the American colonies but were inevitably drawn in.  Today, when the general public sees and participates in this alternative history, they are intrigued because these narratives of division and debate fly in the face of their foregone conclusions.

As you point out, Indians frequented Williamsburg in the colonial and revolutionary periods as part of official delegations or to trade, work, and visit with colonists.  Can you explain the historical role of a tribe like the Cherokee?  How are Cherokee today helping to create public programs about their history and culture?

We’ve networked for seven years with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who number about 12,500.  They come from a territory, or reserved land, in North Carolina called the Qualla Boundary.  Cherokee lands once fell within colonial Virginia, a British territory that changed its boundaries continually over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The Cherokee are now a federally recognized tribe and have direct government-to-government relations with the United States.  In the eighteenth century, the relatively egalitarian Cherokee were sedentary farmers with centralized settlements.  The historic community spoke an Iroquoian language and recognized seven mother towns, which served as centers for regional religious activities.  By the end of the seventeenth century, the Cherokee had established relations with British traders of Virginia.  By the middle of eighteenth century they were engaged in a dependent trade.  At times, there was conflict with the colony and disagreements that resulted in war.  Diplomacy, trade negotiations and the resolution of border disputes framed Cherokee-Williamsburg colonial relations.

Today we have Cherokee speakers, researchers, performers and consultants who are helping to recreate and interpret critical exchanges between Cherokee diplomats and the Virginia colonists.  We have Native actor-interpreters portray Indian warriors and headmen, female Cherokee leaders known as “Beloved Women,” Indian traders and translators for all the historic interactions that occurred between the Cherokee and the colonials.

The tribe’s official cultural ambassadors, the Warriors of Anikituhwa, have been key to this endeavor.  As a group, they have worked for several years researching and educating their own community and the public about eighteenth-century Cherokee songs, dances and culture.  Their annual return to Williamsburg is a highlight of our seasonal programming.  Traditional Cherokee craftsmen from the Oconaluftee Indian Village in North Carolina also demonstrate cane basket making, woodcarving, pottery production, beadwork and weaving.  Cherokee people can now share their experiences directly with Colonial Williamsburg’s visitors—that makes a difference.

What Cherokee history do you portray at the time of the Revolution?

Over the course of the eighteenth century Cherokee delegations came to Williamsburg for at least seventeen “visits of state” to discuss alliances, trade and territorial disputes.  As the American Revolution unfolded, the Cherokee were divided about whether to ally themselves with the British or the Virginians, or remain neutral.  Conflict over territory and trade relations fueled the debates.  The Cherokee became factionalized, with alliances made in both directions.  Pro-British headman Dragging Canoe persuaded many Cherokee to fight the Americans.  And so, war raged in the Cherokee country in 1776, with attacks against the Native settlements by the rebel armies of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.  William Christian, the brother-in-law of Patrick Henry, who had just been made Virginia’s first governor, led the Virginians against the Cherokee and eventually negotiated a truce with the Cherokee Overhill towns, in what is now Tennessee.  Influential Cherokee leaders Attakullakulla, Woye and Oconostota pursued peace with the Virginians in Williamsburg during the spring of 1777.  About forty Cherokee men and women came to negotiate in the capital.

During the 1777 meetings with Patrick Henry, the Cherokee stayed in a camp erected in one of Williamsburg’s pastures.  The American rebels offered the delegation half a dozen military tents from the Magazine.  The rebels documented the sights and sounds from the Cherokee camp and recorded the proceedings from their joint diplomatic encounters.  At the conclusion of one series of negotiations, the Cherokee “favored the public with a dance” on the Palace Green.  On another occasion, Williamsburg’s gentry gathered on the Courthouse steps to smoke pipes and socialize with Chief Attakullakulla.  A female Cherokee leader named Nanyehi, sometimes called Nancy Ward by the colonials, also came with the delegation.  She was a “Beloved Woman,” a prestigious title awarded to politically powerful Cherokee women, and was a relative of the headmen and important participant in the peace discussions.  Also present was Nathaniel Gist, a long-time Indian trader and father of Sequoyah, who later invented the Cherokee syllabary.

So Cherokee today are portraying these historic figures?

Cherokee emissaries now come once or twice a year to recreate the treaty negotiations with Patrick Henry, exchanging peace overtures and symbolic gifts at the capitol.  We use Cherokee speakers to give diplomatic orations in Cherokee and to introduce dances and songs.  As was done in the eighteenth century, this is done today with the use of a translator for an English-speaking audience.  The Cherokee today also “favor the public with a dance” on the Palace Green and perform songs and dances at the Magazine and the Courthouse lawn.  A Cherokee camp is recreated at the Magazine and Cherokee craftsmen and women display their wares, discuss historic and contemporary politics, and share other aspects of their culture.  Feasts at the taverns and storytelling are other representations we provide.  For the last several years “Cherokee Royalty” have also come with the delegation—young women who represent the Cherokee each year and tour the region discussing their cultural heritage.  Combined, we usually have about twenty to twenty-five Cherokee in eighteenth-century dress and another twenty family members in support—approximately forty men and women—just as in 1777.

A new Cherokee program is being planned for 2012.  Can you talk about what you plan to do?

We are planning to commemorate the 250th anniversary of a 1762 Cherokee delegation to Williamsburg.  At the conclusion of the French and Indian War, the Cherokee and the colonies reached a peace compromise, which included land cessions and agreements about conduct on the frontier.  Guided by a young Virginian, Lt. Henry Timberlake, and Cherokee headman Ostenaco, a party set on a journey from the Overhill Cherokee settlements’ mother town of Chota to Williamsburg and ultimately to London.  In England Ostenaco, Woye and Oconostota met King George III in advance of the 1763 Treaty of Paris.  We want to bring this historic Chota-Williamsburg-London journey and gesture in Euro-Indian diplomacy to life.  This will be part of our July program “Return of the Cherokee,” which will include lectures, demonstrations and dramatic re-enactments.

In the eighteenth century the Shawnee were another Virginia tribe which interacted regularly with British and later the Americans.  How have contemporary Shawnee Indians helped you to bring their history back to the area?

The Eastern, Absentee, and (Loyal) Shawnee of Oklahoma have been advising us over several years on Shawnee culture and history.  Unlike the Cherokee, the federally recognized Shawnee communities no longer reside in the East.  In fact, Dunmore’s War in 1774 and the American Revolution were key events that exacerbated Shawnee division and ultimately led to their diaspora and removal.  The Algonquian-speaking Shawnee were last politically united in Virginia at the conclusion of Dunmore’s War, so the return of diplomatic representatives from the three groups to Williamsburg in 2009 is meaningful.  Shawnee scholars advised us on Shawnee history, language and culture they wanted to include.  Several summits were held in 2009 and 2010.

As a result of our outreach, we created three historical moments in the period from 1775 to 1778 to show the Shawnee in relation to both the British and the Virginia rebels.  Before the Revolution the Shawnees fought the British over territory in the Ohio country, then considered by the British as part of Virginia.  In 1774 Virginia’s royal governor Lord Dunmore went to war with the Shawnee, which concluded at the Battle of Point Pleasant.  During the peace negotiations, the Shawnee agreed to send four headmen to Williamsburg as a demonstration of their commitment to the peace.  These four Shawnee were considered “diplomatic hostages” of the colony and came as part of the “peace bond.”  They were not viewed as captives or prisoners—they were royal guests of Dunmore, and the governor hosted them as foreign dignitaries.  They attended Williamsburg dinners and a Palace Ball, sailed with Dunmore to Norfolk and attended the theater.  Parades were held on their behalf and they socialized with Virginia’s gentry.  Meanwhile, a formal treaty was planned for the spring of 1775.

So this is the first historic “moment” in 1775?

Yes.  At the 1775 Palace Ball, the Shawnee attended with another hundred visiting [British and colonial] dignitaries and local elite.  Identified at the ball as “our royal brothers,” these Shawnee spoke Algonquian through a translator.  We interpret the Ball once a year during the holidays.  It is a large production with musicians, servants, finely dressed dancers, and carriages.  As with the Governor and Lady Dunmore, Patrick Henry and other figures, the Shawnee are portrayed by actors.  During the evening event, there are breaks in the dancing and music for formal public discourse, where the dignitaries take the opportunity to speak on matters of the day.  The Shawnee commentary reflects the treaty language of 1775 and is partially spoken in Algonquian through a British translator.

A component of our Shawnee project includes casting and scripting scenes and wardrobe production.  Because of the great distance of the contemporary Shawnee communities to Williamsburg today, we consulted with the Shawnee about hiring American Indian actors to portray their tribesmen.  We look to the film industry for Native acting talent and production staff.  Behind the scenes, Shawnee scholars and linguists assisted us with the development of the script and use of Shawnee language.  Other consultants produced garments, weapons and period accouterments.

What happened to the Shawnee when the Revolution broke out, and how do you portray that?

During the spring of 1775, the Shawnee hostages saw the power politics between British officials and rebellious colonials, witnessed the British marines’ seizure of the Magazine’s ammunition, heard the news about Lexington and Concord and were there when Lord Dunmore fled the capital city.  In a public scene called “So Far From Scioto,” we recreate the moment when the Shawnee learn of Dunmore’s departure.  The ensuing drama pits two Shawnee divisions against one another as they debate the proper course.  The Mekoche Shawnee representative Cuttemwha argues for alliance with the Virginians in the wake of the British loss of the capital.  The Piqua headman Chenusaw encourages the group to leave the city and rejoin the Shawnee and Mingo on the Ohio.  He additionally argues that the confusion created by the rebellion makes it the opportune time to strike back against the frontier settlements.  Neawa, another Mekoche, is torn between the two and debates the merits of both arguments.  The conclusion of the scene reflects the historical course:  Chenusaw returned to the towns on the Scioto River and was an advocate against the Virginians; Neawa and Cuttemwha remain in Williamsburg to negotiate with the new Virginia government.  We allude to the treaty signed in the fall of 1775, one of the United States’s first treaties.

What is the third Shawnee “moment”?

The companion scene, called “War Party,” rejoins the historical characters in 1778.  We reflect on the aftermath of the broken treaty and explore the push-pull factors of British and American alliances for the Shawnee.  In this scene, it is the winter after the Virginia militia murdered the Shawnee leader Cornstalk.  Chenusaw and other war captains have allied with the British and streamed across the Ohio, attacking settlements in Kentucky.  With the help of Neawa, Fort Pitt’s Continental Indian agent Colonel George Morgan attempts to intervene, calling for a “bush council” and parlay.  Neawa is torn between the Virginian overtures and the cultural logic of his people.  Again, we follow the course of history and witness the majority of Shawnee side against the Virginians.  Captives taken during the raids are led to British-controlled Detroit, squashing American attempts at Ohio alliances. 

How has this Native history been received by visitors to Williamsburg?

These series of scenes are incredibly popular.  We reach thousands of visitors during two annual three-week runs.  We provide a question-and-answer period after the scenes and sometimes a separate “Unplugged” program to answer questions about history, topics from Indian country and contemporary issues.  Our all-Native cast comes from different parts of the country—Montana, South Dakota, New Mexico, California and North Carolina and are working professionals in the theater and film industry.  The Shawnee have expressed interest in seeing aspects of the program come to their tribal communities in Oklahoma.  We hope to work on future projects with the Shawnee.

The “Historic Triangle” includes Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown.  What Native history has been incorporated from Yorktown?

In 1781, Oneida, Tuscarora and Mohawk allies of the Americans visited with Washington and Lafayette in Philadelphia and eventually followed the army to Virginia.  They observed the siege armaments, participated in the Battle of Yorktown and witnessed Cornwallis’s surrender of British forces.

One special event “Forgotten Allies—The Iroquois in Virginia” is a program we’ve developed with Native interpreters from Iroquoian communities in New York.  They portray the historic Indian allies of the French and American forces at the end of the American Revolution.  It is now part of a larger program “Prelude to Victory” which captures the Franco-American preparations for the siege of Yorktown and explores the roles of people in Williamsburg during the months leading up to the historic battle.

We interpret the headmen of the Iroquoian contingent who met with Lafayette and Washington’s generals to discuss battle preparations, strategy and politics.  An additional program provides an opportunity for the Native interpreters to reflect on the contemporary legacy of the American Revolution in Iroquois communities and allows guests to explore aspects of contemporary Iroquoian society.

Recently the American Indian Initiative began working at Historic Jamestown.  What Pamunkey history are you interested in portraying there?

Historically, the Pamunkey had a different relationship with Williamsburg than the Cherokee and Shawnee.  A century before Williamsburg was founded, the Pamunkey received the invading Europeans and battled them intermittently.  They witnessed severe population loss, repeated land cessions and near political collapse.  At the close of Bacon’s Rebellion, the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation—which became Williamsburg twenty years later – proclaimed the Queen of Pamunkey as the indigenous monarch of the Tidewater.  The Virginia governor held the Pamunkey lands in trust on behalf of King Charles II and received annual tribute in Williamsburg for Pamunkey allegiance.  In turn, the Pamunkey recast themselves as lords over other Algonquian tribes and collected tribute from them.  As a diplomatic gesture, Charles II prepared a special silver medallion for the Pamunkey Queen, which recorded the Pamunkey’s Virginia lands as part of the “Old Dominion” alongside England, Scotland, Ireland and France.  Today, the Pamunkey continue to uphold their treaty and maintain their tribal lands and government.  They now pay their annual tribute to the governor in Richmond, a 300-year-old tradition that recognizes their sovereignty and alliance with Virginia.

Are contemporary Pamunkey involved here, too?

The Pamunkey are now participating in the interpretation of their historic community—their seventeenth-century history and culture.  We began working with them at Jamestown about a year and a half ago.  We’ve developed programs focused on several key time-periods and events:  the indigenous life-ways of the Chesapeake before contact with the Europeans, and then after contact, portrayals of Algonquian women working at James Fort, and the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion and the Treaty of Middle Plantation.  Collectively, it is a great opportunity to showcase Native peoples of the Chesapeake.  In the past eighteen months there have been more Pamunkey at Jamestowne than there have been since the capital of Virginia moved to Williamsburg in 1699—that alone speaks well of the work we are doing.

We hope to eventually bring the Pamunkey to Williamsburg for public education here, too.  Keep in mind this was 175 years later, and by late 1700s there was a very different Native experience in the coastal Tidewater than on the interior frontiers of the colony.  Indian communities were decimated by disease, warfare, enslavement or removal.  Many remnants coalesced and consolidated with other groups in the wake of social, political and demographic collapse, or assimilated through intermarriage with Europeans and Africans.  We are still exploring ways to interpret the difficult history of Native peoples’ incorporation into colonial society.

In connection with this, can you discuss the Brafferton Indian School at the College of William & Mary?  The 1693 Charter of William & Mary called for the education of “Western Indians” and in 1723 the Brafferton School was built.  Recently, archaeologists dug at the site and Native people from across the region, including the Pamunkey, gathered to participate in a ceremony remembering the former students.  Can you reflect on the history and legacy of this institution?

As with other Native stories in this area, the story of the Brafferton Indian School is often buried inside of other narratives related to the rise of the British Empire in North America.  Native students began education at William & Mary around 1700.  Eventually the Brafferton Indian School opened at the College with financial support from the estate of British scientist Robert Boyle.  It operated until the American Revolution.  Over that time, dozens of Cherokee, Chickahominy, Catawba, Delaware, Meherrin, Nottoway, Pamunkey and Wyandot (Huron) were educated here, along with other tribes.

Native communities sent their sons to the Brafferton through peace agreements with the colony and with the encouragement of colonial officials.  Some Brafferton students became leaders for their communities here as well as intermediaries with the colonial government.  Chief’s sons were taught to read, to write, and to emulate the Europeans—they were “made over in the English image.”  These sons could then interact with the colony on behalf of their tribes and were used by the British military as liaisons during times of conflict.  At the same time, students were given religious instruction “in Christian Divinity.”  It is likely this exposure contributed to the rise of Christianity among Virginia’s Indians.  Some also came to articulate the Revolutionary ideals of the Euro-Americans and fought on behalf of the revolutionary cause.  We know of several Pamunkey and Nottoway who fought as Virginians, alongside their former William & Mary classmates.

How will descendants of Brafferton’s students be involved in restoring its history?

We are hoping to rejoin members of Native communities with historic ties to Brafferton.  In advance of the archeological dig, we gathered representatives from these tribes to form the Brafferton Legacy Group to reassess the school’s history and its role in the college’s founding.  William & Mary alums from the Eastern Band of Cherokee, Chickahominy, Meherrin and Pamunkey participated in the initial discussions and advised us on opening a dialogue with the Brafferton descendant communities.  The College’s Department of Anthropology and American Indian Resource Center collaborated in this.

At the dig site a commemorative ceremony was held which included honor songs for the Brafferton’s former Indian students, speeches by Native representatives and the creation of a symbolic tobacco bundle.  The bundle was eventually placed at the foundation of the Brafferton Building and serves as a reminder of its former students.  It also reconnects the contemporary participants.  The dig has yielded multiple artifacts and excavations will continue this summer.

Will you continue to expand the Native presence in the Historic Area?

Providing opportunities for Native people to come to Williamsburg remains the cornerstone of our work.  Ultimately, the Initiative would like to find permanent positions for Native peoples within Colonial Williamsburg’s interpretive ranks.  That’s a difficult task.  Demographically, large populations of Indians no longer live in the region—communities with thousands of members, like the Eastern Band of Cherokee, are 500 miles away.  While we introduced a seasonal interpretive position in 2011, the stereotype of the “last” or “lone” Indian has to be overcome.

Contemporary Native people also have to see themselves as owners of the public history they are creating.  In terms of infrastructure, we suffer from a lack of “Native space,” that is, a place in the Historic Area that is our domain, physically and interpretively.  This has created a barrier to a continual Indian presence here.  Until then, we remain mobile, temporary and unattached to the landscape—a condition that regrettably reinforces stereotypes and the dominant narratives we hope to overcome.

Reversing several hundred years of colonialism is an impossible feat.  We cannot overcome the marginalization of Indian peoples in America, or address all of the contemporary issues in Native communities.  But we hope that the Initiative provides opportunities to reflect on our shared history so that we can better understand the present and help transform our future.

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