Hollywood and local actors join forces through CW's American Indian Initiative

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

A hush falls over the crowd as cast members of "The Beloved Women of Chota" stride to the Charlton Stage. For the next 30 minutes, the audience listens.

They listen to the story of a 1777 Cherokee delegation in Williamsburg. They listen to seven actors, immersed in historical roles.

And they hear a voice.

"What's really important is that Native communities have a place in American history," said Buck Woodard. "There's a voice."

Woodard manages Colonial Williamsburg's American Indian Initiative. As the Initiative's latest program, "The Beloved Women of Chota: War Women of the Cherokee" continues each day at 2:30 p.m. on the Charlton Stage until Nov. 1.

For nearly eight years, the initiative has cultivated programming through partnerships with American Indian communities as well as native-focused institutions, scholars and individuals.

The mission is bringing to life accurate, culturally relevant histories of native peoples in 18th-century Williamsburg. Histories that are complex, diverse, human.

"It's not just … one story," Woodard said. "It's multiple stories. And I think that makes it a richer, fuller telling of American history."

That complexity pervades "Beloved Women." Audiences watch as a council of Cherokee leaders, led by headman Attakullakulla, negotiate a difficult decision in the midst of the American Revolution: siding with the British, making peace with the Virginians or remaining neutral.

Nanyehi, Beloved Woman of the Cherokee – also known as Nancy Ward – strongly shapes the decision.

"It shows a complexity of history" said DeLanna Studi, who portrays Nanyehi.

"It also shows that our women had power and status, and their voices were meant to be heard," she said.

Studi, a stage and screen actor, joins a high-profile team, including Tonantzin Carmelo, Zahn McClarnon of FX's "Fargo" and Michael Spears, who made his big-screen debut in "Dances with Wolves."

Emmy award-winning producer Larry Pourier has worked with Woodard since 2008 as a production manager for the initiative.

The cast is joined by local interpreters Warren Taylor, Michael Crowe and Kody Grant.

None are new to the American Indian Initiative; some have been involved since the start. It's a passion, and it's personal.

As Native Americans in native roles, the cast members' tribal affiliations include Cherokee, Lakota, Pamunkey and Tongva.

The initiative presents another way to spread the culture, language, history of their ancestors.

These were people integral to history, said Carmelo, who portrays Nellie Pathkiller, Ward's contemporary.

"This is … not just Native American history, because Native American history is American history," she continued.

Woodard and Pourier, who is Lakota, explained it's also a way to break stereotypes and tropes that still exist to a degree.

"A lot of people are really naive, but … they want to learn," Pourier said. "They want to be educated, so that's a good sign."

Upcoming programs from the American Indian Initiative include a Wyandot scene on Wednesdays and Saturdays, opening soon in Revolutionary City, as well as a guest lecture with a Wyandot linguist on Nov. 17.

"For us to not just tell Cherokee stories, but Pamunkey stories, Shawnee stories, Wyandot stories, Delaware stories, and to have tribal nations and communities participating, contributing and wanting to be here," Woodard said, "I think it speaks well of the work that we're doing."

For more information, visit the American Indian Initiative's Facebook page.

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-275-4934.

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