Unearthing Indian History

native american history

Native American archaeologists reclaim their tribal history in a modern-day dig. Pamunkey tribeswoman Ashley Atkins describes the discoveries.

Learn more: The Brafferton


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. On the historic campus of the College of William & Mary stands a building called the Brafferton. It was there in 1723 that an Indian school was established, chartered with a mission to educate and train young Native Americans to act as Christian missionaries to their tribes.

Last summer, an archaeological dig explored the grounds around the Brafferton, and Ashley Atkins worked on that dig. She joins us now to talk about what the team found and what it means. Ashley, thank you for being here today.

Ashley Atkins: Hi Harmony, thank you for having me.

Harmony: You have a special connection to the Brafferton and the Indian school. Tell us about your personal history and how that overlapped with the archeological dig there.

Ashley: Well, I am a member of the Pamunkey Indian tribe on my mother's side, and Pamunkey Indian children were students at the Brafferton over 200 years ago, including people with my Pamunkey last name which is Cook. So it's interesting to look actually at the student list and see possibly people that I'm related to. So that's my personal connection to the Brafferton.

Harmony: When we talk about the Brafferton being an Indian school it almost sounds sort of benign, like a generous thing. Is it really as benign as it might sound at face value?

Ashley: Well, it was an Indian school. I mean the main purpose of establishing the school in the first place was to "Christianize the Indians" so bringing Christianity to native people of Virginia. In the process bringing Christianity would bring, in a way, assimilation to native people. They would become more like their English counterparts, the English colonists.

But what's really interesting for me personally having that connection is you also learn about the different boys that went there learning how to read and write. The Pamunkey today are Christians. They're southern Baptists, but I think for a lot of Pamunkey people that's not necessarily the greatest connection between the Brafferton and what the boys were learning there, but they learned how to read and write. And a lot of those boys as adults who learned the skill of reading and writing brought that back to the tribe and used that to actually petition for the tribe's rights. So in a way, using this colonial education to assimilate them, was actually used to protect themselves.

Harmony: Tell me about the dig. What did you find, what did you learn?

Ashley: Well, we learned a lot. I do mostly Native American archaeology so this is my first urban archaeology experience. So for me, I was learning along with the other field school students. I mean I was helping and teaching them about the process of doing archaeology, but this for me was also a learning experience. We only dug about two meters away from the foundation around the entire building so the scope of the excavation wasn't too large. But what we did find was interesting.

There was a lot of disturbance of the 18th century Indian boy contexts because of all of the renovations of the building and the colonial plantings of the building, like the colonial revitalization of the building which is interesting in itself. So in trying to revitalize the history of that building that actually didn't reference the Indian aspect of it. They destroyed in the process a lot of what would have been intact during the 18th century. So we found a lot of 20th-century pit features where we're finding artifacts from the time period that the boys were there, but it's disturbed. It's not an actual feature from the time that the boys were there.

But we did find one really interesting feature and it was just again another small pit feature. Along the left hand front corner of the building and we found what we would call knapped glass. So basically what knapped glass is, is like a projectile point or an arrowhead is knapped to be made into an arrowhead. We found glass that was being worked in the same way to make tools. So, and we also found a stone tool associated with the glass so that's the coolest part.

Harmony: So that suggests that one of the young Indian boys who was going to school there found a piece of glass and chipped away at it to make a sort of projectile point.

Ashley: We found many pieces of flaked glass; we call it flaked or knapped glass. So that suggests that the boys there, you know, obviously this washing away of their Indian-ness or their Christianization isn't obviously penetrating as the colonial government had expected it to. Here they are using this traditional previous knowledge learned from their tribal environment and bringing it to the school. So that's what was really important. We were all very excited about finding that.

Harmony: How big is it?

Ashley: The glass? Well, we've got many pieces. You've got the little tiny flakes, I mean, that are not even a centimeter long that is just waste from actually trying to make the tool and then you have large pieces of wine bottle glass over five inches where you can see that they're hitting it with another object to make it into that tool.

Harmony: What else were you able to uncover in that dig?

Ashley: We recovered thousands upon thousands of artifacts ranging from European pottery, cannonballs, glass, all kinds of things that range from the time that the boys were there all the way up until the 21st century.

Harmony: You mentioned that the soil layers had been disturbed. Did that make it hard to date some of these artifacts that you were finding?

Ashley: Yes, especially the European ceramics. It's not hard to date them because there's so much research that has already been done on them, but because we know, for example, a lot of the first features that we excavated were boxwood planting features that were put there in the 1930s when they were developing Colonial Williamsburg as we know it today. So even though we can date those artifacts, they don't mean anything to us because they're gathered from the 18 and 19th century, but they're in a 20th century feature so that's not too helpful.

But again like I said, looking at the 19th or the 20th century disturbance of the area and looking at its relation to, for example, the new revitalization of Colonial Williamsburg and how the Indian story was not really involved in that in the beginning. Things are obviously changing now, especially with the dig and the American Indian Initiative at Colonial Williamsburg. But in 1930 they weren't concerned with learning about or exhibiting the Indian experience at Williamsburg, so those boxwoods themselves tell us a lot about what was going on at the Brafferton.

Harmony: I wonder if I can ask you personally how you felt working on this dig? Was it a good experience, was it a sad experience? What did you think as you put your hands on these tools that these ancestors of yours had chipped away at?

Ashley: I was not sad at all. I tried to look at it in a positive light. I had a cousin who also worked who's a member of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, Jeff Brown, who worked also at the Brafferton. We talked about our feelings associated with the school and before I even started digging there, you know, I walked by that school every day to go to Washington Hall where the Anthropology Department is located and I work in the archaeology lab there. So I pass by that building every day. I knew what that building was and what it meant well before I ever went to William & Mary.

So maybe while the Williamsburg community isn't talking about it, the native communities are very aware of it. So I pass by that building every day and I just thought, for me it's surreal to know that possibly a great, great, great, great grandfather went to school there and I'm going to school there now today. So for me it wasn't sad. It was exhilarating, it was so exciting to be there in the same place my ancestors were over 200 years ago.

And obviously we hear about the Indian school experience from the colonial times up until the 20th century. My grandfather went to a boarding school on Cherokee reservation in North Carolina so you hear about the very negative experiences of Indian schools and I don't obviously doubt that that happened at the Braffertons. My cousin Jeff, he really honed in on the more, I guess, negative aspects of the school. He wanted people to know that this wasn't necessarily a happy place and that was needed. There are ugly sides to the past and so he played that role which was needed. I played the role of, "Yes, native people were forced to be here and they were forced to not be themselves, to be like English people, but at the same time they were able to use the skills that were learned there." Like I said, reading and writing to actually benefit their tribes and their people.

Harmony: Is it too much to say that this project on the Brafferton is allowing native people to reclaim some of their history?

Ashley: I think that's accurate. I don't think we're quite there yet. There's hopefully going to be more in store for the future in terms of research associated with the history of the Brafferton in the building doing the archaeology of the building itself. So that led to the development of the Brafferton Legacy Group, which includes I think now about five native people who are alumni of the College who have tribal historical connections to the Brafferton.

Harmony: What work are they looking at going forward?

Ashley: We don't know exactly what we're going to do in the future in terms of including the Legacy Group in doing the research for the Brafferton, but we do know that we want to include a larger scope of tribal members because there are numerous tribes that were associated with the Brafferton. So they are going to be looking into including more tribal members from a larger regional scope.

But again that's in the works, we're not quite there yet. But the Brafferton Legacy Group, as it stands, is a stepping stone towards native people being able to reclaim their connections and history to the Brafferton. Annette Saunooke, who's one of the members of the Brafferton Legacy Group, she's a member of the Eastern Band Cherokee, did a speech for the opening ceremony before they started the archaeology, and she said something that was really profound. She said that this building, while Colonial Williamsburg and the College are looking to restore it, they're literally restoring the foundation of the building, we native people who have a connection to this place unlike any other want to talk about revitalization; revitalization of the native relationship to the College of William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg. So for me that really hit home. That's exactly what needed to be said.

Harmony: Ashley, thank you so much for being our guest today and good luck on the project going forward.

Ashley: Thank you for having me here today.



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