When anthropologist Danielle Moretti-Langholtz started investigating the history of the Brafferton Indian School, she knew earlier scholars viewed the school as a failed enterprise. However, she didn’t expect to find that it had been both an instrument of British colonial policy and a place of Native American agency.
To uncover this complex story, she assembled a research team of scholars and students to search archives on both sides of the Atlantic and engaged Native communities with identified historical links to the 18th-century Indian school. This work led to a new perspective on the Brafferton Indian School placing Indigenous voices front and center.
This year commemorates the 300th anniversary of the completion of the Brafferton Indian School on the William & Mary campus, marking the perfect time to share new findings about this story. Moretti-Langholtz, the Thomasina E. Jordan Director of the W&M American Indian Resource Center, will deliver the fall 2023 Tack Faculty Lecture “Reconnecting Native Narratives to the Brafferton Indian School.” Taking place on Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. in the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium, the event is free and open to the public with a reception to follow. Attendees are asked to RSVP.
“The Brafferton is part of a larger story connecting settler history, Indigenous labor and lifeways,” the anthropologist said. “Part of the work of a university is to reconsider topics that have been obscured, and this is such a story.”
She highlighted how Native Americans were at the genesis of her research, crediting her mentor, the late Thomasina E. Jordan, for encouraging her to look more closely at the history and connections of the Indian school to living tribal communities.
At the start of more than a decade of research, Moretti-Langholtz found evidence that that the Brafferton Indian School did not conform to accepted notions about Indian boarding schools. Surprisingly, she said, some Native students were sent to Williamsburg and were enrolled at the Brafferton Indian School by their communities to learn to read, write and speak English to aid in negotiations with the British on behalf of their tribal communities.
“My conclusions were validated when speaking to members of Native communities whose ancestors had been at the Brafferton,” she said. “One line I heard many times was, ‘We used to be there.’”
Working with descendant communities and other scholars, she reexamined fragments of documents from the colonial era, and started asking new questions about the place of Indigenous communities in the trans-Atlantic networks of trade and power.
Tribal communities were integral components of the networks of power and money that contributed to the funding of the university. The alliances that some Native tribes made to navigate a challenging landscape need to be understood in the context of the shifting power dynamics of the 18th century.
“My interest is very much in putting Native history into a much larger context,” said Moretti-Langholtz. “We have still a lot of work to do reconnecting that building to those communities.”
Establishing a Native studies minor at William & Mary, a direct outgrowth of her research, has been part of that effort.
For several decades the American Indian Resource Center and colleagues in the Department of Anthropology have engaged in community-driven work that has built strong partnerships with Native communities in the region and beyond. Additional initiatives in the Office of Strategic Cultural Partnerships also see to cultivate reciprocal relationships with Native communities.
Moretti-Langholtz stressed the importance of bringing the findings back to the Indigenous communities whose ancestors had attended the Indian school at William & Mary. She managed to retrace the tribal affiliations of four of the Brafferton students to their respective communities — Pamunkey, Nottoway, Wyandot and Cherokee — and credited Buck Woodard M.A. ’07, Ph.D. ’13, now an anthropologist at American University, for the actions that came next.
“Buck suggested that we seek funding to offer artists from the four communities to create individual works of art to express their community’s perspective on the Brafferton Indian School,” she said. “The Muscarelle Museum of Art generously stepped up, providing the funds for this part of the project. The artists were given full authority to create a response to the Brafferton story: whatever response their communities wanted.”
It was a really emotional moment when these artworks came back, said Moretti-Langholtz. While embodying Native narratives of the Brafferton Indian School, these objects also represent a point of connection between these communities and the university: On Nov. 14, she will shed more light on their significance.
The Tack Faculty Lecture Series is made possible through a generous commitment by Martha ’78 and Carl Tack ’78. Initially launched in 2012, the Tacks’ commitment has created an endowment for the series of speakers from the W&M faculty.
Antonella Di Marzio, Senior Research Writer