Saturday, December 2, 2023

Colonial Williamsburg Introduces First American Indian Nation Builder in Program’s History

This fall, Kody Grant will portray Oconostota as part of the Nation Builder program. (Courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

WILLIAMSBURG — A new Nation Builder will be seen in Colonial Williamsburg this year.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF) is introducing the first American Indian Nation Builder in the program’s 17-year history.

Beginning this fall, historic interpreter Kody Grant will portray Oconostota, who was a prominent member of the Cherokee nation and part of a Cherokee delegation that came to Williamsburg in 1777.

“When you think about the idea of what is a Nation Builder, it’s somebody who helps in building the foundation of the nation,” Grant said. “So in the 18th century, a lot of the foundation of the United States was based on American Indian concept of government. So we thought that this would be a very good opportunity to begin with someone like Oconostota and kind of get that perspective of American Indian people.”

Grant, who has been with the Foundation for 15 years, is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Isleta and descendant of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

As a Colonial Williamsburg historic and American Indian interpreter, he has told the stories of the American Indian people who interacted with Williamsburg throughout the colonial period.

In his new position, Grant will be able to share the perspective of American Indian people at the same level as other Nation Builders such as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington.

The idea to introduce Oconostota as the newest Nation Builder stemmed from the foundation’s desire to tell more inclusive stories.

“Most folks don’t recognize American Indian people being in Williamsburg,” American Indian Initiative Supervisor Martin Saniga said. “The revolution is a very binary story for most people. Very often our story as Native folks gets left out of those massive tumultuous events that form this country.”

Nation Builder Supervisor Joseph Ziarko said that the Nation Builder program has evolved since its inception in 2005.

“Nation Builders have been this unique creature here at CW because they came out of formally the idea of Founding Fathers. Founding Fathers is a known quantitative concept for most American people, but it’s not representative of what our history was, it’s not representative of what the world was like,” Ziarko said. “There was a fear of representing people in a way that would create a ubiquitous definition. So it’s a desire to have greater representation but not to allow it to fall into a tokenism. It was finding the right person in the right place, and Kody has long been a respected member of this foundation.”

CW’s Museum Theater Director Cheryl Ruschau said that having inclusive programming is vital for both guests and the foundation.

“Adding Oconostota’s voice to the Nation Builder program is going to really broaden everyone’s understanding and ability to dive in to our history,” she said. “It’s gong to challenge our staff to grow more, to learn more, to have these conversations to develop.”

Grant is currently in the process of researching and preparing for his new role as the 18th-century war chief who was noted for helping to change the social and political landscape of the mid-18th century. 

“I’m starting to pile through more specific information to study the specific historical character,” Grant said. “As opposed to studying Cherokee society at large in its relation to English society, I’m more-so trying to now focus on Oconostota’s position in society. I was going through some 18th-century journals of people who were around the area in which Oconostota was living and operating as a war chief at the time.”

The addition of Oconostota has been a Foundation-wide effort, with CW’s Costume Design Center and blacksmiths creating materials for him. Grant said that he has received information and resources from other Nation Builder interpreters whose characters interacted with Oconostota.

Saniga hopes that having Grant in a visible position as a Nation Builder will help the program continue to grow.

“There’s a Jefferson quote that says ‘In his time here in Williamsburg, there isn’t a day that goes by that he does not see Indian people,'” he said. “For Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers to say not a single say goes by, there’s nowhere he can go in town where he doesn’t see these people, thats my goal. I want to have enough staff that there’s no place in Williamsburg that our visitors can go where they’re not interacting, they’re not seeing Native people.”

“I’m the first American Indian Nation Builder. I don’t want to be the last,” Grant added. “So I’m hoping that eventually someone else will be able to be onstage right next to me. When we think about the idea of diversity when it comes to American Indian people, it isn’t just having an American Indian person on stage, it’s having people from different tribes.”

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