In the spring of 1777, a delegation of Cherokee leaders came to Williamsburg in the hopes of building relations with a fledgling government. Among those American Indian leaders was Oconostota, who was elected as the “Great Warrior” for his prowess in battle, but who now came seeking peace.
As a younger man, Oconostota made his reputation in war. But when he came to Williamsburg to negotiate with Patrick Henry, the governor of the newly minted Virginia commonwealth, Oconostota called upon a different set of skills to represent and protect his people. He came as an aged diplomatic leader.
This autumn, Kody Grant is introducing Oconostota to the Historic Area. In taking on the portrayal of the first American Indian Nation Builder, Grant has been studying a man whose consequential decisions affected both the Cherokee and the citizens of a new nation.
While Oconostota should rightly be remembered as influential, it’s the Cherokee leader’s very human nuances that make him the perfect choice for Colonial Williamsburg’s first American Indian Nation Builder, said Grant. He joins a diverse group of actor interpreters who portray historical figures who had a hand in creating what is now the United States.
“When we think of men like George Washington and Patrick Henry, they’re often idolized in the founding of a nation. Sometimes we don’t recognize the collective society it took to support them,” Grant said. “In Native societies, the emphasis tends to be more on the community than the individual. In a lot of Indian communities, the chief is a civil servant, elected by the people he leads.” Grant noted that among the Cherokee, a chief was more akin to an adviser and representative than an authority figure.
During his months of preparation, Grant studied Oconostota, who was elected war chief in Chota, the Cherokee town on the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains where he lived. Recognized as the military and political leader of the Cherokee in the French and Indian War, from 1756 to 1763, he later helped steer the involvement of his tribe in the American Revolution. In 1776, for example, when Continental army troops carried out attacks on Cherokee towns along what is now the Tennessee border, Oconostota helped negotiate the troops’ withdrawal, but the cost included ceding lands east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Oconostota visited Williamsburg at least once in the 18th century with a delegation of Cherokee ambassadors who were aiming to secure favorable diplomatic ties with Virginia policymakers.
Grant’s prior work as an actor interpreter has been focused on what groups of people thought or how they interacted with others at specific moments in history. When he works in the Historic Area, Grant said, he often describes American Indian communities and contrasts them with English colonial societies. Portraying just one specific individual is a new challenge.
“You have to think about Oconostota’s individual timeline and his existence throughout his life, rather than an entire group of people,” he said.
But Grant senses that the role of Oconostota is an additional opportunity to challenge some of the common misconceptions about American Indian history and culture.
“When we think about historical American Indians from a modern perspective, they’re often considered victims without any sort of hand in their own success and failures,” Grant said. “That’s not at all the case, and Oconostota is a good example of that.”
It’s one of the reasons Oconostota was chosen, though other American Indian leaders were considered, including Ostenaco, also an 18th-century leader of the Cherokee, who was known for military prowess, and Attakullakulla, a Cherokee statesman who traveled to England on a diplomatic mission in 1730. Both were well-respected leaders in Cherokee society with equally compelling lives in matters of both war and peace.
But Oconostota seemed to straddle both of those worlds, a decisive leader who gained respect both through warfare and as a mediator with foreign nations.
“He is a good middle ground to begin discussions about American Indian diplomacy, and at the other end what happens when we do turn to violence and bloodshed, what that action means and how it occurs,” Grant said.
Grant said that his own experiences as an American Indian — he’s an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Isleta on his mother’s side and descended from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee on his father’s side — help to shape his interpretation of Oconostota and lends perspective to how the Cherokee leader was perceived. From a Euro-centric point of view, respected figures are often seen as figureheads and authorities who stand apart because of their extraordinary deeds. But that’s not often how American Indian leadership is regarded among Indigenous people.
Grant hopes to do justice to Oconostota the person, who had emotions and quirks like the rest of us do. To do that, he looked for descriptions of Oconostota through the people he interacted with.
Some of Grant’s sources provided small, but very telling glimpses into Oconostota’s life. Grant learned, for example, that Oconostota didn’t view himself as a capable politician or statesman. Grant found that particularly poignant. It reveals a touching contrast — a fearless warrior and brilliant diplomat who gave himself little credit for his own accomplishments.
Grant’s colleagues also helped explore Oconostota’s life. Actor interpreter Kemper McDowell came across references to Oconostota in his research for David Douglass, a noted 18th-century actor and theater manager. When Oconostota visited New York City, he went to a play, and when Douglass invited the Cherokee leader onstage, the audience responded with a standing ovation. “This shows just how cosmopolitan Oconostota was,” McDowell said.
McDowell also discovered the close friendship that developed between Oconostota and Gen. Joseph Martin, a Virginia land agent and Indian intermediary. After the -British put a bounty on Martin, Oconostota sheltered him in his home at Chota. A couple of years later, during the harsh winter of 1783, Martin returned the favor by bringing the aging Oconostota into his own home. In Oconostota’s final days and at his request, Martin arranged to accompany him to Chota and when Oconostota died, he was buried in a coffin that Martin fashioned out of an old canoe.
Grant hopes to incorporate many other similarly telling snapshots from Oconostota’s life, he said, because they inform us not only about the past, but the present as well. “Here you have a really close relationship that developed between two completely different worlds,” Grant said. “It’s not always just about politics or war. There’s also respect and friendship.”