Reconnecting Native narratives: a talk with Dr. Danielle Moretti-Langholtz


Tuesday, Nov. 14, the College of William and Mary hosted Director of the American Indian Resource Center and research assistant professor of anthropology Dr. Danielle Moretti-Langholtz to give this year’s Tack Faculty Lecture. The lecture highlighted Moretti-Langholtz and her team’s recent research on the Brafferton Indian School, offering her a chance to reflect on the work to honor the Indigenous tribes that attended the school. 

Moretti-Langholtz earned her Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma, and has cultivated a career as a cultural anthropologist. She worked at the Museum of Natural History in New York, performed archeological digs at the Historic Jamestown settlement, received mentorship from prominent Wampanoag leader Thomasina Jordan and is a curator of art at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College.

To begin the lecture, Moretti-Langholtz invited president of the College’s American Indian Student Association Matthew Solomon ’24 to give a land acknowledgement. 

“William and Mary acknowledges the Indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands our campus is on today. The Cheroenhaka Nottoway, the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Monacan, Nansemond, Nottoway, Pamunkey, Patawomeck, Upper Mattaponi and Rappahannock Tribes and pay our respects to tribal members past and present,” Solomon said.

The Brafferton Indian School was built in 1723 and named for the Honorable Robert Boyle’s estate in Brafferton, England, where plots of land were rented out to pay for the Brafferton’s programs.

Moretti-Langholtz discussed the history of the building.

“A familiar structure, beautiful structure, one of the three buildings of William and Mary’s historic campus, the Brafferton Building is part of the built environment that is a strong visual symbol of Imperial England’s dominance in North America and Williamsburg’s centrality in colonial history,” Moretti-Langholtz said. “We can spend time discussing the architectural merits of this magnificent historic campus, but also we should remember this building exudes power and strength. In my published work, I have referred to the Brafferton as a ‘silent sentinel’ because over the years its voice as a Native school has been silenced, yet, its presence remains and demands our attention.”

Moretti-Langholtz credited her time with Jordan for sparking her interest in pursuing research on the Brafferton.

“Thomasina was a native activist and mentor to me during the last six years of her life, and she was the very first person to encourage me to re-study the Brafferton’s history,” Moretti-Langholtz said.

Just as Moretti-Langholtz began her research on the Indigenous school, the NCAA ruled that the College’s former feathered logo could create an offensive environment. This gained the attention of tribes around the country, who contacted Moretti-Langholtz, claiming they had some relationship to the Brafferton School and wanted to know more about its history.

During her lecture, Moretti-Langholtz placed the Brafferton School in a wider history of Native American interaction with European powers.

“Placing Brafferton students and their respective tribal communities in their own world as active agents within a rising mercantile capitalism, English’s political and military agenda to assert hegemony or power over both Indigenous people and natural resource was within the area they are controlling now may be a new way to think about the Brafferton Indian School,” Moretti-Langholtz said. “It was in some ways, I would argue, a response to the chaos of the 18th century world. Native people are trying to position themselves to ensure their future survival in a fast changing colonial world. What are their options? Resistance, warfare, negotiating treaty agreements, fleeing the area to going to the west, possibly educating some of their students in the language of the colonizers so they can better understand what these documents are saying, what they’re agreeing to and trust the people who are interpreting for their people.”

Moretti-Langholtz noted that beginning in 1702, 15-30 students attended the Brafferton school per year, approximately equal to the number of non-native students at the College. Given this information, Moretti-Langholtz posed the following question.

“Is the Brafferton an assimilationist school, or are these students acting as adjuncts for their own tribes against England’s colonial policies?” Moretti-Langholtz said.

In 2009, the College hosted a ceremony to honor the Native people who attended or have connections to the Brafferton School. 

“We found four students,” Moretti-Langholtz said. “Graduates of William and Mary. And guess what? They are living legacies of the Brafferton and students who went here in the 18th century.” 

The ceremony hosted musicians to give an honor song and a prayer offering to precede the excavation of the Brafferton School.

Towards the end of the lecture, Moretti-Langholtz described the art curations made by members of each tribe that attended the Brafferton School. These curations are on display at the Muscarelle. The art emerged as a response to the College and each tribe’s experience with the school. From Chief Kevin Brown of the Pamunkey tribe, the Muscarelle displayed a collage. From the Wyandot nation of Kansas, the Museum received a Wendat floral vase. The Nottoway tribe submitted a wampum belt, and the Eastern Band Cherokee tribe responded with a basket woven out of documents from the Brafferton School research project. The Eastern Band Cherokee basket and the Wyandot wampum belt were on display after the event.

The presentation quoted Shan Goshorn, who wove the Eastern Band Cherokees’ basket. Goshorn passed away in 2018.

“I was fascinated to learn about this important historical institution and its connection to my tribe,” Goshorn said. “The Brafferton did not try to eliminate Native culture and language. I now see instead the schoolmasters encourage students to maintain their ties to their tribes and languages, students who are being groomed to become liaisons and translators between their tribes and colonial dignitaries.”

When the art exhibit opened, people came from all over the country to look at the collection of tribal art. Many members of Native American tribes traveled to learn about the Brafferton School, and the exhibit was christened with a tribal stomp dance outside the museum’s entrance.

As a result of Moretti-Langholtz’s research, the College created a Native studies minor, College President Katherine Rowe issued a land acknowledgement statement, and the athletics department began making significant outreach to Native American tribes about land use.

Today, the Brafferton building houses the offices of the President and Provost of the College. 

Following the event, Dakota Kinsel ’26, Vice President of the American Indian Student Association at the College, discussed her thoughts on the talk.

“It was a very unique talk,” Kinsel said. “You know, you don’t hear a lot of positive boarding school experiences. But after the successes of, like every Indigenous student that has been in here or have been enrolled in here in the past, it really brings to light of, like, what the Brafferton did for them. They were translators for a lot of important people like George Washington, Robert Boyle, and also brought a relationship between Virginia tribes and the school.”

Postdoctoral research associate of Harrison Ruffin Tyler department of history Dr. Jajuan Johnson also attended the event, and praised Moretti-Langholtz’s presentation. Johnson is also the Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow with the Lemon Project. According to its Mission Statement, the Lemon Project builds bridges between the College and African American communities through research, programming and supporting students, faculty and staff.

“I’ve learned more about the parallels between the Lemon Project’s research, and the research that the professor Danielle Moretti-Langholtz has done for the past 10 years and the complexities,” Johnson said. “Hearing her this evening was insightful, it was instructional, she brought forth an ethics method. She talked about methodologies that I plan to employ even in my community-engaged research.”


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