The Return of the Cherokee

Each year, Colonial Williamsburg hosts Return of the Cherokee. This special event draws hundreds to observe Cherokee culture as it was in the 18th century when members would come to Williamsburg for trade, diplomacy, or even education. Buck Woodard with Colonial Williamsburg’s American Indian Initiative joins to explain some of the exciting updates to this year’s event.


Rachel West: Welcome back to the Past and Present podcast, I’m Rachel West. Today with me I have Buck Woodard, who oversees the American Indian Initiative to talk about Return of the Cherokee. This runs June 1 through June 5 here at Colonial Williamsburg with a lot of special programming.  Thanks for joining me, Buck!

Buck Woodard: Thanks for having me.

Rachel: So, what is Return of the Cherokee?

Buck: Return of the Cherokee is almost a week of programming that commemorates the perennial visits of Cherokee people to this Colonial Capital. They came in large numbers in the 18th century from almost the beginning of the time that the capital moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg. The Cherokee were engaged in trade and diplomacy, sometimes fighting with, sometimes fighting against Virginians, and they came to Williamsburg as part of that historical interaction. Sometimes as delegations, other times in trade, other times as students, so Return of the Cherokee week is an opportunity for us to have the Cherokee come back to Williamsburg to participate in some of our historical interpretations and offer some education to the guests about Native peoples of the south.

Rachel: Since you oversee the American Indian Initiative, what does that entail? What is the American Indian Initiative?

Buck: That’s a really good question, Rachel. I would say that the American Indian Initiative is a civic engagement, it’s the project that’s been ongoing now for over a decade, but to answer you succinctly, I’ve pulled the mission statement right now from our social media to be able to share with you and the guests. Let me read that for you. The American Indian Initiative develops, implements, and supports programming, activities, and projects through foundation-wide partnerships with American Indian communities, Native-focused institutions, scholars, and individuals that support cultural relevancy, accuracy, and period appropriateness for 18th-century Williamsburg. 

Rachel: What kind of programming can guests expect to see when they come visit?

Buck: Well, for the first part of the week, we’re going to have an Indian Encampment. We’ve invited members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, members of Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and members of the Keetoowah Band of Cherokee also in Oklahoma, to come and demonstrate some of their material culture at the camp. So for the first part of the week, it’ll be an opportunity for guests to see basketmaking, weaving, wood carving, and also to just talk about the historical culture of the Cherokee people during the 18th century from the perspective of women, of headmen and warriors, and for guests to get a flavor of what Cherokee life might have been like in the 18th century. So it’s a real personal, intimate interaction, smaller scale as we build toward the weekend. A large delegation will be coming up from North Carolina from the Eastern Band of Cherokee. That’s part of a collaboration we have with the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Typically, we have about 15 contractors, but as in the 18th century, they travel with their families, so upwards of 30 or 40 men and women will be in Williamsburg, again, at that time, we’ll have larger, public presentations of song and dance, and an opportunity for guests to participate in those songs and dances whether they’re on the Palace Green or on the Courthouse Green, and have sort of a larger scale Cherokee presence in the Historic Area.

Rachel: Where is the Indian Encampment located?

Buck: This year the Indian Encampment is located at the corner of Nicholson and Botetourt streets adjacent to the Military Encampment. It’s a small footprint; several lean-to arbors and sheds. It’s meant to represent a temporary encampment in the Historic Area. At times, somewhere between 30 or 40, 100, 150, 200 Cherokees would be in Williamsburg. It’s a larger group of people than can stay at the Governor’s advance buildings or in a tavern, so they would create camps in the Historic Area. It may have been at Mr. Purdie’s field, it may have been at the Magazine, other references suggest the Capitol, so we’ve selected a pasture next to the military camp to represent that location where they would have been loaned tents from the Magazine and probably would have pulled together some lean-to structures, or temporary structures for them to stay while there here, so it’s meant to be less about the chiefmen and more about the common people and what their camp might be like, so there will be fires lit, there will be kettles on, food will be being prepared so folks can hear the sights the smells and what that camp might have been like.

Rachel: There’s another program you’re doing called In the Footsteps of Diplomats. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Buck: Yes. In the Footsteps of Diplomats is a one time a year program that is a walking tour that we start at the Brafferton Indian School on the historic campus of The College of William & Mary, and we take a small number of guests up the Duke of Gloucester Street and pick specific locations along that walk to talk more in depth about the history of the Cherokee people being in Williamsburg. So, for those guests that want to be a little bit more engaged in the historical aspect of Cherokee presence or to really think about the different types of sights that Cherokee people may have engaged the colonial populations, and so like the Indian School, or one of the taverns, or a location where they had a dinner and a talker, maybe where Thomas Jefferson heard the great chiefs of the Cherokee speak, those locations will be highlighted and that history more fully explained. So it’s a walking tour that usually runs about 45 minutes to an hour and goes from one end of our historic campus to the other.

Rachel: I know there’s a big event called the Public Dance that draws a lot of visitors to come see, what happens during that public dance?

Buck: Well, the Public Dance is our signature event for the weekend. In the 18th century, more than once, the Cherokee would come and offer the citizenry of Williamsburg a public dance as a type of reciprocity. When they came, they would often be given a large number of gifts as part of the diplomatic exchange. This was there way of giving something back to Virginians in an orchestrated, symbolic gesture. So, the peace and the war dance are two sides of the same thing. The Cherokee, when they arrive now in Williamsburg, will begin their program with their war dance. It’s also a welcome dance. It’s a similar type of dance with a difference concept. It’s a fantastic presentation. The Museum of the Cherokee Nation, Warriors of AniKituhwa, return to Williamsburg and really offer the crowd a marvelous presentation of Cherokee culture, song and dance. It draws maybe 1,100; 1,500 people, and the men will come out carrying the war cry and they will present themselves on the Palace Green on Saturday in full paint. Once that dance is concluded, and it’s very imposing, they’ll then have a narration about the peace and the war dance. And then they’ll move into their social dances, which is sometimes called animal dances. They’re more crowd participation and orientation. So, they’ll go off and find partners for whether it be the horse dance, or the buffalo dance, or the bear dance and they will invite the crowd to come and participate, and the songs go along with the types of dances. The songs are talking about the activities of the bear and the dances mimic the activities of the bear, so young folks, families generally have a lot of fun and there’s a lot of jocularity in terms of Indian humor and discussion in the crowd. And people will come out and if the weather’s good, we’ll have a good dance for about an hour or so. So it’s a real crowd pleaser and a chance to hear rare Cherokee social presentations in a non-Cherokee space.

Rachel: So a great interactive experience for people who come visit.

Buck: Interactive for those that want to participate, they can. For those that want to stand back and watch, to see the painted warriors offer their presentation. The group is called the AniKituhwa, they’re the official cultural ambassadors for the Cherokee in North Carolina. So, they’ve been practicing and working on these types of public presentations now for over a decade, and it can be very startling for people not familiar. But for those that can be a little bit of a risk and go out and join them on stage, as it were, because it’ll be in the middle of Palace Green or the Courthouse Green, they may, and they can be part of the story.

Rachel: I know there are probably some people who are thinking “Oh, I don’t think I can do that,” but once they hear the music and see what’s happening they’re going to want to jump right in there.

Buck: The songs, the sounds of the drum and the rattles, it can really conjure up a spirit in the crowd and usually there toward the end of the afternoon, there will be a rather large crowd participation dance that people who have been sort of standing back and waiting and watching may choose to go ahead and be part of it if they can.

Rachel: You mentioned some other groups were coming into town for this special event, are there any special guest performers that are going to be here as well as the others that are coming?

Buck: We have our full-time employee interpreters, and within the last two years we’ve been really fortunate to hire one member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, but we don’t have a special performance with like a visiting guest artist or anything of that nature this year, but it is notable that we have now for this cycle of Return of the Cherokee week, members from all three federal tribes. So, the Eastern Band of Cherokee of North Carolina, members from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and members of the Keetoowah Band of Cherokee, that’s really the first time that members of all three groups have been back in the Colonial Capital since the period of Indian removal in the 19th century, so symbolically I think it’s substantive that we’ve taken it to this next level of participation from a larger Cherokee population.

Rachel: That must be a proud moment for you.

Buck: We’re all really excited. It’s nice to have native nations returning back to colonial Virginia’s historic capital.

Rachel: Another program, it’s titled Friends and Brethren: Cherokee Stories and Social Dance, is that taking place at the Indian Encampment or separate or what does that entail?

Buck: We thought it would be great if we could package the Public Dance performance that has 800; 1,000; 1,500 people, we can’t fit that many in the evening program around a fireside. But that’s what we wanted to try to do. So we’re having another version of the program that focuses a bit more on storytelling—so stories of the Cherokee people—partnered with dances related to those stories. It may be about the origins of when the horse first came to Cherokee, and then we’ll do the horse dance, but it allows the audience, the guests, to come and have that fireside experience around the camp at twilight in the Indian Encampment. It provides more of an atmosphere, so for those guests that want to experience that, we have separate tickets available for that evening program that’s smaller in scale and more intimate.

Rachel: Is there anything else happening during this week that you want people to make sure that they experience and take home with them?

Buck: There’s an opportunity to come multiple times during the week, whether they wish to see demonstration of Cherokee crafts, or to take a guided tour that’s a little bit more focused on the history, or some of these larger cultural presentations. I think what’s important to know is we have a variety of programming throughout the week at different times and different scales that guests can engage Return of the Cherokee week. Broadly, I would say though, we have Cherokee interpretation and programming throughout the year and that’s a real big difference than in years past for Colonial Williamsburg. Because of some of our new full-time employee hires, we’re able to offer a more Cherokee-focused narratives throughout the calendar year, so each week for instance we have the Indian Trader tour that focuses on the relationship of the Cherokee to the colony of Virginia, particularly in regards to politics, finance, and the mechanics of the deer skin and fur trade. That’s a special program that we’ve now turned into a weekly event and weekly program, so while I invite guests to come out for Return of the Cherokee week, they can come to Colonial Williamsburg and catch Native programming throughout the year.

Rachel: Again, the Return of the Cherokee is taking place June 1 through June 5 right here in Williamsburg—lots of programming—if you want to learn more, please head to where you can hear all of the events that are happening and help plan your trip. Thanks so much for joining me again today, Buck.

Buck: Sgi and wado. [Thank you]