Sovereignty by Mary Kathryn Nagle at Arena Stage brings the rarely-heard Native American voice to the DC stage.
Tribal sovereignty is defined as “the concept of the inherent authority of indigenous tribes to govern themselves within the borders of the United States.” Yet, tribal courts have no jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Indians on Native lands, leading to higher crime against Natives.
Sovereignty, Part of the Women’s Voice’s Theater Festival, pairs this current struggle with the history of the signing of the treaty of New Echota in 1835 by the Ridge family, Nagle’s ancestors, going against Chief John Ross and providing the legal basis for the Trail of Tears.
Sarah Scafidi spoke with Native American identifying actors, Kyla García and Andrew Roa, about working on the play:
Tell me about the play.
Kyla Garcia: Sovereignty tells the story of how Cherokee Nation’s past affects America’s present and future – through the perspective of my character Sarah Ridge Polson and the eyes of her ancestors. It goes back and forth between the 1800s and present day..
Andrew Roa: It’s about how the trials and tribulations that the Cherokee are going through right now are almost the same issues they dealt with in the 1830s. It’s almost like things come around again. It’s a tough issue, and a very important play in that respect.
It’s also about the relationships that helped create or pull apart the Cherokee Nation back in the 1830s when there was a rivalry between two families [the Ridges and the Rosses]. They were both trying to do the same thing: protect the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation. But they were going in different directions; each one thought the other was wrong. The modern day [scenes are] more about protecting Native Lands from outside influences – other courts and so on – so that they have their own jurisdiction and can resolve their own matters.
I play two parts, I play a father in the 1830s, and I play a modern day father to Sarah.
KG: What’s really amazing, is that our incredible playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle is not only a playwright, but also an active lawyer and partner at Pipestem Law. When she’s not writing plays about Native stories, she’s on the front lines fighting for the sovereignty and tribal jurisdiction of Indian Nations (most recently for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as they fought against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline).
She also wrote one of the most powerful briefs of our time for Dollar General Corp. V. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a case that reached an historic vote of 4:4 on the U.S. Supreme Court and was a huge victory for the Native community because it upheld the tribal jurisdiction of the Choctaw Nation.
What’s most fascinating to me about this play, is that it is inspired by her great grandfathers. This is the third play I’ve worked on this year with Mary Kathryn, and they have all been incredible, [showcasing] different parts of Native history and how they affect our world today. Because Sovereignty is inspired by her actual family, it takes on completely new meaning; both for her, and for me…feeling the responsibility of carrying her ancestors’ story.
Her forefathers were never able to practice law because of being Native, even though they were highly educated and possessed the skills and knowledge. So here Mary Kathryn is, 180 years later, not only telling their story onstage, but also practicing law. It is in her blood.
Are your characters based on real people?
Sarah Ridge Polson is not an actual person. I would say she is very loosely based on Mary Kathryn because she is the great great great great granddaughter of John Ridge and Major Ridge, and so is MK. But, that’s where the similarities end: other than my character being a whip smart, confident lawyer who knows exactly what she wants.
AR: [My character] Major Ridge was one of the leaders of the two factions that were feuding before they had to go on the Trail of Tears.
Both factions were trying to save the nation and keep their lands in Georgia. But with Andrew Jackson and the way things were heading, they just had almost no choice. So, it’s a sad story, but there’s also a story about redemption in the play as well.
The Ridges were the ones who wanted to sign the treaty that eventually led to the Trail of Tears, right?
AR: They did. It’s not like they wanted to. It was because they felt cornered and like there was no other choice. Whereas the Rosses were just standing firm but with no plan. It was a rock and a hard place for both families and both leaders. But something had to be done. And that’s what we deal with in the play.
Do you identify as Native American?
KG: I am indigenous. My father’s mother is Taino. The Taino are descendants of the Arawak Indians – the first Indians that came in contact with Columbus. They were local to Puerto Rico. On my mother’s side, everyone is of European descent. So, I feel as though that history is inside me; I am the culmination of these cultures coming together. The wars that were fought in my bloodlines are still being fought today, but the battlefield is the court room.
AR: Yes. I’m from Northern California – Native lands up there. There are so many tribes in California, it’s amazing. I don’t know if people are aware of that. I think there are more tribes in California than in any other state. I have Shasta blood.
What’s it like to bring this authentic Native American story to life and inhabit this person?
AR: I think it’s great, to be honest. I’m actually part of a Native American theater company in Los Angeles called Native Voices, and they’ve been producing plays for almost 20 years. I was in the first play they ever did; I’m one of the charter members. So, I’ve been a part of native plays for quite a while.
January 12 – February 18, 2018
Details and tickets
This story is very important partly because of the grand scale of the large population of the Cherokee Nation, and the way that they were dealt with. They had their own government, their own newspaper, their own ability to deal with things quite handily, and when the United States intervened and started forcing them to do things, it was really a shock, because most of these people were educated. They could read.
So, you’re dealing with – I don’t want to use too strong of words but – a takeover of their sovereign nation. It happened to a lot of other tribes too, don’t get me wrong. But the sheer numbers of the Cherokee tribe there were like 18,000-20,000 people at the time.
And then from the more modern side of the story?
AR: Yeah, the more modern side of the story is actually happening right now. It’s a court case that happened a couple of years ago, the Dollar General case, where a [non-Native] store manager assaulted a Native young man. It was found that he could not be tried in the Cherokee jurisdiction. And that’s so wrong because they have their own government still on their own lands.
And that’s the beauty of the play: you’ve got these transitional moments going back and forth, but it’s almost dealing with the same thing.
It’s insane how its history is literally repeating itself.
AR: It’s a horrible thing. I’m sorry, but it is. It’s just a horrible thing. Leave these people alone, you know?
Kyla, what’s it like for you to bring this authentic, Native American story to life and inhabit this person?
KG: It’s a privilege. I feel honored to tell this story about Cherokee Nation, especially because their history is so complex, and they are such a strong, noble, graceful tribe.
I feel like there’s so much that we don’t talk about as Americans, and there’s so much missing from our history books. I was talking to a friend recently, and they were telling me that in Germany, the horrors of the truth behind World War II are engrained in the German education system. The children learn about the most shameful moment of German history; it is not shied away from. And I think, when we face our shame as a country, we learn, and then history doesn’t repeat itself. If you plant that seed in the children of a nation, then they will forever think, “That’s the thing we cannot do!” They’ll look at it, and say, “How could that have ever happened?” It makes me so sad that our history books haven’t been re-written to include the more extensive truths of Native American genocide and African-American slavery that our country is built on. It’s as if our country was built on one giant grave, and we don’t talk about that. Which is why, I have found, if you try to have a discussion about systemic racism, a common response is “But, that was so long ago!!” If we don’t acknowledge the roots of these injustices for our youth, how can we expect the adults to educate themselves?
I feel as though the theatre is a classroom, and we get to rewrite the history books here. We get to rewrite them with an authentic voice like Mary Kathryn Nagle’s.
The first show I worked on with MK was produced by a theater company called Native Voices, founded by Randy Reinholz and Jean Bruce Scott, which is the only Equity theater company in the country that is dedicated to elevating Native American playwrights and Native artists. Randy and Jean are champions of Native stories and the rest of the country is starting to catch on.
So, this is a really huge milestone that we all get to be a part of because Mary Kathryn Nagle is the first Native playwright being produced at Arena Stage. She’s making history, and we’re making history with her. For the first time in 180 years, this story, as it’s been told to Mary Kathryn her entire life, is going to be shared with the world. So anybody who’s ever read about the Treaty of New Echota and immediately thought, “Wow, those people were traitors. They signed the Cherokee Nation away,” now they get to see the perspective from the family of the people who were murdered because of what they did.
When we lose people, and we lose tribes and cultures, and your family isn’t there to speak your name, and your people aren’t there to share your oral history, what is the cost? What is the effect on a country when people are disappearing? How lucky are we to still have the Cherokee? Despite the Indian Removal Act and despite the Trail of Tears, they were able to thrive, and their culture is alive and well today. And we need to hear it from people like Mary Kathryn who can tell us. So, I feel like it’s such an amazing privilege and responsibility to be a part of continuing that legacy through sharing this story.
How do you handle that responsibility, that weight, as an actor – representing a story that’s similar to yours but not exactly yours?
KG: I deal with it with care. I deal with it with a sense of the sacred. With any story I tell as an artist, I’m stepping into somebody else’s shoes. I am not them. It’s about tapping into that part of me that relates to their experience, seeing where I do not, and using my imagination to create the character in the most honest way possible.
I mean, it’s a huge responsibility because I’m speaking for the voices that were silenced. I’m speaking for those voices that didn’t survive, and I’m speaking for every person who did. I’m speaking for every indigenous woman that has gone missing and whose murder or kidnapping or sexual assault hasn’t even been investigated because of the lack of jurisdiction and protection on tribal lands. (Authorities don’t even have exact statistics to report on missing indigenous women because the numbers are too vast, and they don’t have the resources to collect them. Also, countless cases go unreported.)
I’ve been knee deep in research about the women, because they are targeted most often. The first step in colonization and war is always to destroy the women. Without women, the next generation of citizens disappear. So, my character speaks for all of those women.
The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, many of these centers and agencies are tirelessly fighting to protect Native Women. But, if you look up how often they go missing, it’s outrageous. It is all too common for Native families to have a female family member that has disappeared or has been assaulted or murdered. That has become the norm because Native American women have the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the entire country.
And no one is talking about this – in our mainstream media. We get distracted by things. [The movie] Wind River brought some attention to it because of its national acclaim in the film world. But even that wasn’t written by a Native woman, and this play is. That’s not a dig. It was a beautiful film that’s shining a light, and we need that light to be shone no matter who is shining it. But when the person holding the light is the ancestor of the people who need the story told the most – that is sacred to me. That is when art and activism [meet]. There’s no separation for me anymore between activism and art. There just isn’t. There’s no time.
You’ve both worked on either earlier iterations of Sovereignty or other plays by Mary Kathryn. What has the audience response been like?
KG: Well, the show I worked on with Mary Kathryn right before Sovereignty was called Fairly Traceable and dealt specifically with how climate change is affecting Native communities. I played Erin Verdin, an environmental lawyer, who is a member of the Chitimacha Tribe of Point Au Chien, Louisiana. Mary Kathryn’s father kept a box of all of the Joplin Globe’s front page articles that paid tribute to the Joplin tornado victims, and he suggested she write a play about it. The response to that show was moving because it took place in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, in Joplin, Missouri, during the 2011 tornado, as well as the near future in 2042 where most of America’s coastal cities are now underwater due to climate change. The possibility of that future hit audiences hard because of our current political reality.
We just performed the World Premiere earlier this year at Native Voices and most recently did a reading of it at ASU Law School’s Cultures Underwater Climate Impacts Law Conference for all of these lawyers studying climate change. It was empowering, and the response has been inspiring, especially because there were people from the Chitimacha Tribe there, and they were so grateful.
AR: Well I haven’t seen anything any reviews or anything like that, but I see the response by the audience, and it’s just wonderful. The play is engaging. It’s very thought provoking, and the people are responding so well.
Even when we did a few little readings around town in D.C., the response was fantastic. So, I’m really looking forward to a great run.
I hear it’s also very funny.
AR: Yeah, the play mostly deals with some really serious issues but there’s a lot of comedy. And again, the writing is wonderful. It’s hard to keep that balance but Mary Kathryn does a great job.
Does it bring anything to the experience to be doing this play in D.C. right now?
AR: Well, yes, it does. First of all, the fact that you’re doing this for audiences that are very intelligent and really appreciate great theater, but more importantly, it’s in the Capitol, and there’s so many things going on right now with global warming and infringement upon people’s lands and rights.
I would like people to see this, because I think I think people are already aware of what’s going on but it could open their eyes possibly in a different way. I think that’s the duty of theater. It’s the duty of actors. It’s the duty of any creative person. Not to get in people’s faces, but to try and show people, educate and lead them, in a way where they have the option of looking at different views.
KG: What a gift to be doing it in D.C. where 180 years ago Mary Kathryn’s grandfathers were meeting with Andrew Jackson, fighting for Cherokee Nation in a very eloquent, intelligent, dignified way. And here we are now, we’re back in D.C., and we’re fighting for Cherokee Nation and all of the nations that have been silenced and that will not be silenced any longer.
I feel like it couldn’t be more relevant or timely. I mean, with what was said in front of the portrait of Andrew Jackson by 45 to the Navajo code talkers… I know that made a lot of people angry, and, of course, it made me angry, too. I was infuriated. But at the same time, it inspired me so much. I was like, “Yes! That’s why we want you to come to this play!” That was almost a commercial for us because it is such a perfect example of how relevant this is that the leader of the “free” world doesn’t respect the soul wound of natives; doesn’t understand or care to know the historical trauma that would make what he said be so appalling.
I heard that phrase years ago by a director that I worked with on another production, and he was saying to me, “You know the historical trauma that is in the DNA of indigenous people. There’s a soul wound. You see it the minute you meet them. You see a resilience and a strength, but you see a heavy burden as well.” And the fact that this leader and many Americans don’t yet understand that, is fuel for my art and activism. Because it’s my job then, through story-telling, to educate people in the audience so they can be just as upset as we all were when we heard that.
Kudos to Arena for doing this play right now.
KG: Oh my god, Molly Smith is a visionary. It has been an absolute joy to work with her. She’s truly one of a kind. Arena has been defying the norm since its inception. It was the first theater in America to have de-segregated audiences. We are standing on the shoulders of giants both at Arena, and first and foremost, Cherokee Nation.
AR: I’m very happy to working be with Mary Kathryn and with Molly. Molly Smith is a fantastic director. This may be one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I’m not kidding. It’s not hyperbole.
What’s making it so great?
AR: Well, the way Molly will let you work. The respect at this theater is just amazing. It’s not that other theaters are not respectful, but the way they work, and the way they help you, and the way they let you explore to find things and don’t tell you what to do, it’s just really fun. It’s such a treat.
You know what’s really cool? We are in the age of the Seventh Generation, and this is when women get to exert their power and show the strength and the ability that they have. And here you have these two really intelligent and really strong women, Molly and Mary Kathryn, and it’s just such a joy to work with them because, like I said, they’re working without being forceful, but they’re working with all their creativity, and you get swept up in it. It’s just like “wow.” So, I gotta say something for the female. It’s really pretty cool.
Is there anything else you want me to know about the show?
AR: I want as many people to come and see it as possible. I think they would really love it. We’re not just bashing anybody. I mean this was also a problem that existed within the tribal decisions. So, it’s very complex, but it’s also very simple, you know? And I think a lot of people could identify with this because, basically, it’s about what you would do to protect your family and your people. That’s a very core issue, even today.
KG: I have a final thought and it relates to the pipeline. In the media, the fight is portrayed as solely being about the protection of the water for the Standing Rock Sioux. We heard the protesters repeatedly say “Water is life.” Which is one of the most basic human rights anyone could have. Access to clean water. And that’s such a huge part of the fight.
But, what doesn’t get enough media attention is the meaning behind, “Protect our water, protect our women.” I didn’t fully understand that at first, so I asked Mary Kathryn. When these oil companies hire outside populations of men to work on a pipeline near native communities, the rates of attacks and assaults on women and children multiple exponentially. This isn’t speculation. It is fact. Because non-Natives that commit crimes on tribal lands are impervious to prosecution. So maintaining tribal sovereignty isn’t only essential for the safety of life-giving waters, it is vital to the survival of future generations .. it’s all about the women – protecting the women – and I get to tell the women’s story.