Adept negotiators in pursuit of peace, the Cherokee tribe endures through centuries of change. Colonial Williamsburg director and producer Linda Randulfe talks about the November 8 Electronic Field Trip, “Emissaries of Peace.”
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.
Today I'm talking with Linda Randulfe, who produces and directs Colonial Williamsburg's Electronic Field Trips, like "Emissaries of Peace," which premieres this Thursday, November 8.
I have to tell you, after all these years of being in Virginia and North Carolina and living all around here, I never heard of the Cherokee nation in North Carolina.
Linda Randulfe: Well, I think that might be typical of many people across our country, who might be familiar with the Trail of Tears and the Cherokee exodus to Oklahoma.
Lloyd: Yeah, I knew that.
Linda: Exactly. But I think so much attention has been focused on that, that the remnant of the tribe that remained in Cherokee is there and prospering and doing what they can to promote their culture. It was a great opportunity to partner with them.
Lloyd: I was fascinated by the whole idea that the Cherokee nation, at that time --18th century – was negotiating with George III. You simply don't hear about that sort of thing. It's not done, I suppose. But that's what happened, right?
Linda: I think that was one of the reasons that I was so fascinated by this piece. All too often, when we talk about Native Americans, we portray it and we see it in a very violent chapter of history, with war and all the ensuing violence that happened in our history. So it was very interesting to take a look at how this nation was treated, as such, by other nations. That France and Spain and England were all vying for negotiations with the Cherokee to establish treaties for a number of reasons: for territorial reasons, for economic reasons, and to some degree, for a cultural exchange. So it was very enlightening to learn about that chapter of their history.
Lloyd: It would have to be a brief chapter, because I don't think Westerners treated American Indians very well.
Lloyd: I was fascinated by the fact that a tribal chief would come to Williamsburg to treat with the royal governor, and then talked himself into a trip to London. A brilliant negotiator.
Linda: Well I think the Cherokee were very skilled negotiators. That was one of the reasons why the nation prospered, and managed to hold on for as long as it did. They were very astute negotiators. What was interesting was the internal politics of the Cherokee played in this episode, as well. Other Cherokee leaders had made the trip to England, and Ostenaco, who is one of the main characters of this Electronic Field Trip, one of his motivations was that somebody else had gone to England and had seen the wonders across the ocean. He wanted to see for himself, and learn what his nation would be faced with, and what they had to deal with. So, that was one of his motivations, certainly, for traveling.
Lloyd: (Chuckles.) Dare I say that politicians seem to be all alike, English or Indian?
Linda: You know, I think that is an attribute of the personalities. These are people who want to see things for themselves, and they want to be in a position to negotiate. I certainly think that's a characteristic that many leaders have in common. We can't really separate as easily as sometimes we would like.
Lloyd: You say "leaders," I say "politicians."
Linda: That was the fascinating thing about the Cherokee culture. They had a diffusion of leadership. Women at that time were leaders in the Cherokee nation. They had a voice in the policies and the politics. Everybody in the community had a chance to voice their opinions. That was one of the things that we tried to establish in this Electronic Field Trip to emphasize that difference. At the time when Western cultures, the European cultures, really allowed women virtually no voice at all, no political status, the Cherokee did grant this to their women. Women had a chance to negotiate and express their opinion about how the negotiation should proceed. Ensign Timberlake was caught off guard to some degree by this. We tried to establish the differences in the two cultures by emphasizing that in a scene.
Lloyd: So that you can keep up: Ensign Timberlake, if I've got this right, was the American who was sent to the Cherokee nation in North Carolina to try to negotiate a peace, get along with whatever you want to call it, the Cherokee nation. The Cherokee chief talked Timberlake into bringing him back to Williamsburg to do his own talking.
Linda: Exactly. It's a convoluted tale. Ensign Timberlake was a part of the Virginia militia, and he was with the British military. He was a diarist, and he took notes during many of the meetings that took place along the negotiations that the Cherokee had established with the British. The Cherokee noticed that, and they respect very much people who chronicle history and who tell the story of history. So they viewed him as an important person, and asked that he be sent to negotiate with them. He also volunteered for the duty when this happened. So, he had an opportunity to travel out to what we now call North Carolina, and had a series of misadventures along the way.
The fascinating thing was, again, was that the Cherokee advised them, "Do not travel by canoes," because they knew from their own experiences, they knew the land, that at that time of the year, the rivers ran low, and it wasn't the best way to travel. But, Ensign Timberlake was very focused on the fact that – using the modern term – military intelligence. He wanted to scope out which were the best ways to travel, and which ways might be important for the British military to know how to enter a Cherokee territory. So he was very determined to travel by canoe.
In the end, he did make it to Cherokee, sat through many kind of meetings and ceremonies, and he started to get a little impatient, because he really wanted to return to Williamsburg to report what he had learned. Ostenaco and a very large party of Cherokee traveled back with him, came to Williamsburg, made their visits to the officials here in Williamsburg. At one point when they were at the Brafferton school, Ostenaco decided that yes indeed, he wanted to travel to England. He let that be known at that point, that he would not leave Williamsburg until and unless he was traveling to England.
Lloyd: I don't want you to ruin your own story, but how did it end up?
Linda: There are a lot of repercussions from this visit. Ostenaco traveled to England, and he did meet with George III. He got to see the power of the British empire. They had to kick their heels around London for a while until they had the audience. Ensign Timberlake had to pay many of these expenses out of his pocket, so to speak. So he became very severely in debt because of this. He had hoped to gain some prominence and some attention by doing this. In the end, he decided he had to write his memoirs to try to recoup financially from this adventure. I think that's an interesting footnote to anybody who aspires to put themselves in the forefront. It's a fascinating story, Ostenaco did return. We know that, little by little, the Cherokee nation did lose their land, despite their best efforts.
Lloyd: Now, there's still a Cherokee museum in North Carolina, and you worked with the museum.
Linda: Correct. The partnership with the National Museum of the Cherokee was very important to us. Frances Burroughs was instrumental in establishing that partnership with them, and allowing us the opportunity to tell the story. They had set up an exhibition in their museum, on which this story is based, all based on the memoirs of Ensign Timberlake. So we have a lot of authentic documentation about what happened during this visit.They were very involved in the production, in helping to provide props, baskets, the clothing, the beads, items such as ceremonial pipes, the language. All of these things we were able to convey in a very authentic way, to such a degree that Barbara Duncan, from the Museum of the Cherokee, has felt that there has not been any production ever done that represents the Cherokee nation in such an authentic manner. Representing their clothing, their culture, the items that they used in everyday life. It was very humbling, in many ways, to have such input with the Cherokee nation, learning and seeing the story from their point of view.
One thing I really like about the story is that it's not just told from a Western European point of view. We got a chance to see how the Cherokee reacted to the fact that the British would crowd around them, and that they felt that the British were uncivilized in some ways.
Lloyd: So did the Americans, come to think of it.
Linda: It's a great tale of two cultures coming together. But, the Cherokee nation endures. That's one fact that they're very proud of in this history. They like to emphasize the fact that, in this point in their history, they were able to negotiate with the powers of Europe. They did attempt to resolve issues in a peaceful manner, without resorting to warfare all the time. They're very proud of the fact that they remain there today. They have their lands, at least a small portion of them, and they're doing what they can to bring their culture and history to life.
Lloyd: They're still there. The museum is still there.
Linda: The museum is there. Actually, what's fascinating is that the exhibition, "Emissaries of Peace," is now at the Smithsonian, at the Museum of Natural History. It's going to be running there through November 25th. This story is being told at museums across the country, and what a better place than the Smithsonian.Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Visit history.org to learn more. Check back often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.