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.