Published January 29, 2018
Indian Country needs a canon of stories. A collection of Memory that every child knows growing up. A reference guide to our shared history — as well as a reminder about what the fight is all about. I can think of so many stories that belong in our historical catalog: The real-life adventures of Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Brant, Chief Seattle, Geronimo, Susan LaFlesche Picotte, Elizabeth Peratrovich, Forrest Gerard, and the decades-long fight for the return of Blue Lake.
There are so many other stories that must be told. Mary Katherine Nagle’s new play, “Sovereignty,” is one of those.
Nagle is Cherokee. She’s a nationally acclaimed playwright, an attorney and a partner with Pipestem Law. She’s also director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program.
“Sovereignty” is a huge deal. It’s now at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Think of it this way: It’s a Native narrative on the nation’s stage. All too often we get excited when we see a movie or a TV show that has one Native American character worth remembering. That’s cool. But we should really get excited about a work of art, in this case a play, when the author, the cast, and often the audience is Native. (That is something that Nagle has done often. Her play, “Sliver of a Full Moon,” is a good example of that last idea, writing for a Native audience. The inside story.)
Back to the play. “Sovereignty” tells two Cherokee stories, one historical, one modern. The first story is about the Cherokee Nation in the tribe’s homelands and the actions of Major Ridge, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot (a nephew of Ridge) and Chief John Ross (as well their fictional descendants). This was a time of war: The state of Georgia was determined to remove the Cherokees one way or another. The state’s military, the Georgia Guard, was evil, violent and determined to remove the Cherokee people from their homeland. The Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the Cherokees but the government of Georgia ignored that. The state’s primary mission was annihilation.
Opening night: Mary Kathryn Nagle author of the play, “Sovereignty.” (Arena Stage photo)
Nagle is literally an heir to this story. This is her family. Or, as Nagle recently said, “One hundred and eighty five years ago, the federal government sitting in Washington, D.C., sought to eradicate the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation … At a time when many in the United States have been hurt and threatened by polarization and prejudice, I believe we can find healing in understanding how my grandfathers, and all of our Cherokee relations, survived one of the most polarizing episodes in American history.”
It was polarizing episode because the story is about Indigenous survival. And different ideas about how to make that so.
Nagle does such a great job of working the law into her plays — and “Sovereignty” is no exception. The concept of tribal sovereignty is a recurring theme. When I saw the play, I overheard a couple remark about how sovereignty as a living, modern concept. Perfect.
But there is another angle for Indian Country and why I think this story must be in our canon; the power of dissent. So much of our history of leadership is about vision and consensus. Most of the great tribal leaders in the 19th and 20th century were successful because they conveyed their ideas to their tribal community and were able to get people to work together. As Vine Deloria Jr. wrote: “In every generation there will arise a Brant, a Pontiac, a Tecumseh, a Chief Joseph, a Joseph Garry, to carry the people yet one more decade further.”
But not always. Every once in a while it’s the voice of dissent; the leader challenging consensus that carries the people forward. There are two great stories about why dissent is so important to Indian Country: That of the Ridges and Lucy Covington’s fight against termination. (She followed around a pro-termination Colville tribal council at public events to counter their narrative and then stirred up support for new leaders.)
I have my own take on the Ridge story, mostly through the framework of Elias Boudinot (who is in the play) the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix. “As the liberty of the press is so essential to the improvement of the mind, we shall consider our paper, a free paper,” Boudinot wrote in the first issue. “The columns of this newspaper shall always be open to free and temperate discussions on matters of politics, religion, and so forth.”
It’s impossible to have a temperate discussion in a time of war. The head of the Georgia Guard, Col. C.H. Nelson, told Boudinot that he could not be prosecuted under Georgia law, but if the reportage about the Guard did not cease, Nelson would tie him to a tree and give him a sound whipping.
Boudinot responded with a series of editorials on the Guard and freedom. Boudinot wrote: “In this free country, where the liberty of the press is solemnly guaranteed, is this the way to obtain satisfaction for an alleged injury committed in a newspaper? I claim nothing but what I have a right to claim as a man— I complain of nothing of which a privileged white editor would not complain.”
The Cherokee leadership — led by Chief John Ross and the National Council — had its own issues with The Phoenix leading to Boudinot’s resignation. Ross was determined to remain in Georgia no matter the cost. One of those provisions would have been absolute Georgia authority over the Cherokee Nation. “Removal, then, is the only remedy—the only practicable remedy,” Boudinot wrote in a letter to Chief Ross. “What is the prospect in reference to your plan of relief, if you are understood at all to have any plan? It is dark and gloomy beyond description. Subject the Cherokees to the laws of the States in their present condition?”
This is the sovereignty part of the story. The Ridges and Boudinot argued for a future Cherokee Nation. That meant signing the Treaty of New Echota and setting the stage for what became the Trail of Tears and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Major Ridge knew the price of this dissent. He said at the time: “I have signed my death warrant.”
Nagle’s play captures those powerful themes but it also does something that only an artist can do. She brings the Ross and Ridge families back together. She shows through the power of story how we’re all in this together. Still.
Sovereignty is at the Arena Stage through Feb. 18.