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Crossing Paths

Increasing American Indian visibility to tell a more complete American story

By Nicole Trifone

A center of commerce, politics and education in the 18th century, Williamsburg became a necessary destination for anyone looking to do any manner of business with Virginia. That included the American Indian nations.

American Indian programming in the Historic Area reflects the presence and mission of Native Americans in Williamsburg life. And the six interpreters of the American Indian delegation want guests in the Historic Area to walk away with at least one simple message: Indian nations have been, and continue to be, an integral part of the American story.

That has been the focus of the American Indian Initiative since Colonial Williamsburg committed to sharing the history of American Indians in 2002, but the American Indian delegation’s new central location in the Historic Area — next to Market Square — has made that history far more visible.

Whether it was the Pamunkey, who lived mere miles away, or the Wyandot from the Great Lakes region, Indian nations sent representatives — sometimes in delegations of nearly 200 people — to Williamsburg. The Colonial capital provided access to imported goods from overseas and was the home of the House of Burgesses, the governor of Virginia and an Indian school for boys at the Brafferton.

“We want guests to always have the chance to encounter an American Indian, just as Williamsburg residents could have on any given day in the 18th century,” said Ken Treese, who supervises the American Indian interpreters.

But while there’s obvious emphasis on the past, the interpreters at the delegation — Warren Taylor (Pamunkey), Kody Grant (Isleta/Cherokee), Felicity Meza-Luna (Lakota), Daniel Abbott (Nanticoke), Shelly Watson (Navajo) and Talon Silverhorn (Eastern Shawnee) — also aim to teach guests about the American Indian experience today, offering examples of how British colonialism in the New World continues to reverberate in modern society. 

Indian tribes lived — and thrived — for thousands of years before the British colonized the New World. They existed throughout the formation of the United States, participating in trade, treaties, politics and wars with and against the Americans. And they exist now throughout the country, though diminished in numbers, representing about 1 percent of the U.S. population.

“In many instances, native peoples are relegated to the past. People don’t see them as being contemporary peoples,” Grant said. “We want guests to learn the history and connect it to now.”

Evolution of Initiative

Colonial Williamsburg formalized its commitment to sharing the history of American Indians in 2002, using a $100,000 matching grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to research and design new interpretive programs about indigenous peoples. In 2011, donors Douglas N. Morton and Marilyn L. Brown began the American Indian Endowment Fund, which continues to support the initiative today.

In the initiative’s early years, Colonial Williamsburg built relationships with various Indian nations that resulted in large-scale events — such as the popular Return of the Cherokee, So Far From Scioto, Beloved Women and Beyond the Ohio programs — that would bring native communities to the Historic Area for limited engagements a few times a year.

Though the large-scale programs were successful, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation wanted the American Indian experience to be more prevalent throughout the year to better reflect 18th-century Williamsburg. Taylor and Grant, both of whom worked on several of the large productions, were the first to be hired as full-time interpreters for the initiative in 2014, when they portrayed specific 18th-century figures known to have been in Williamsburg, including Brafferton Indian School students Robert Mush and Charles Murphy.

“The American Indian Initiative was almost a best-kept-secret,” Treese said. “We wanted to bring it out into the light of day and we wanted to expose more of our guests to it.”

The American Indian delegation, a dedicated location where the history of native peoples is shared, launched in 2016 as a first step in building a wider selection of daily American Indian programming. With the delegation’s launch last year, Meza-Luna, Abbott and Watson joined Taylor and Grant as interpreters. Silverhorn joined in June, accepting one of three positions the initiative plans to fill by the end of the year.

When visiting the delegation, guests can touch furs, weapons, tools and other items American Indians would trade. They can even engage in a game of stickball — a precursor to what is now lacrosse — that would have been used to settle minor disputes and to develop boys’ hand-to-hand combat skills.

This year, the delegation’s focus is the Cherokee Nation, which frequently traveled to the capital city for negotiations. Using the topic of trade, the interpreters explore the inherent issues when two cultures occupy the same ground, as well as the high stakes of war-and-peace negotiations.

Guests’ questions guide a conversation’s course, and the interpreters often widen the discussion, as they can talk about almost any Indian nation’s relationship with the Europeans. The interpreters draw from their own diverse backgrounds to offer personal and historical anecdotes that teach the connection between the past and the present, all while emphasizing the diversity of American Indian nations.

“We’re still thriving, we’re multifaceted and we live all over the place,” Meza-Luna said. “We’re not a fantasy that used to exist. We’re still here. We still have culture.”

The delegation is meant to be the main feature of American Indian-related programming. By early 2018, guests will be able to tour the Capitol and Governor’s Palace with a focus on the reasons one may have seen native peoples in those buildings. The American Indian interpreters are also developing their own programs on topics of their choice, such as dancing or weaving, which will likely launch in 2018.

Currently, guests can learn more about an American Indian’s experience in 18th-century Williamsburg through the theatrical production Love and Loyalty, which explores how Brafferton School student Henry Bawbee felt about the relationship between the Americans and his community, the Wyandot. 

Details, context

Sharing the story of American Indians is also a way to break down stereotypes, the interpreters say. They find that many people simply have not been exposed to native cultures and rely on the few depictions they have seen in the media.

“The problem is Hollywood tends to portray one idea of Indian culture,” Watson said. “Most of the time, they’re portraying Plains Indians. They would have had completely different clothes, rituals, way of life than nations on the East Coast.”

The repeated depiction of one culture, as well as a tendency to focus on warfare and violence from Indians, motivates the interpreters to provide more details and better context for the history of American Indians.

“Part of the reason I do it is to dispel ignorance,” Abbott said. “There is a tendency to stereotype native people. One of the ways we can kind of iron that out and help clarify is by doing interpretation of our culture.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Though the interpreters at the American Indian delegation welcome an array of questions, some guests don’t know where to start. The advice from the interpreters is simple: Ask anything.

“People don’t have to have even a basic knowledge of native peoples when they talk to us,” said Warren Taylor, one of six American Indian interpreters. “They just have to have the curiosity.”

Here are a few frequently asked questions and their answers:

Did American Indians side with the British, the Americans or neither during the Revolutionary War?

It depends on the Indian nation, and sometimes groups within the nations disagreed and split their loyalty.

Did Indian tribes in the 18th century speak the same language?

No. Languages and dialects varied widely, even if Indian nations lived near one another. In fact, because nations sometimes spanned great swaths of land, dialects and languages could vary even within a tribe.

What is the correct term for indigenous peoples?

It is ideal to use someone’s tribal affiliation, such as Pamunkey or Cherokee. If not, American Indian and Native American are widely accepted terms among many of the Indian nations, with the former used most often in Virginia. If you’re unsure what someone would prefer, just ask.

Are Native Americans today beholden to U.S. laws?

Currently, there are 567 federally recognized tribes, which are governed by their own tribal laws and not local or state laws. However, they must adhere to federal law.

Interpreters in Colonial Williamsburg’s American Indian initiative, such as Kody Grant, mix Indian and British styles as native people would have in the 18th century — a result of the robust trade routes they established. (Darnell Vennie/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Program Guide

American Indian Delegation
Explore the diverse cultures of native peoples striving to preserve their traditional way of life and discuss matters of trade, warfare and diplomacy.

Love and Loyalty
Henry Bawbee, a chief’s son from the Wyandot Indian Nation, is called home by his father in the midst of the Revolutionary War. Will he persuade his tribe to fight for the British or the Americans?

To Everything There Is a Season: Pamunkey Traditions
See how the Pamunkey practice their skills at gathering nature’s abundance and discover their rich and vibrant traditions.

Midwinter Stories
Hear the stories that keep alive the history and collective memories of Indian nations that frequent Williamsburg in the 18th century.

“We’re not a fantasy that used to exist. We’re still here. We still have culture.”

Felicity Meza-Luna

“People don’t have to have even a basic knowledge of native peoples when they talk to us. They just have to have the curiosity.”

Warren Taylor

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