‘Our history is incredibly relevant’: Cherokee playwright brings her family’s past to the present

In "Sovereignty," a violent history is felt in a tense, fragile future.

Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge), Kalani Queypo (John Ridge) and Jake Hart (Elias Boudinot/Watie) in Sovereignty at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. CREDIT: C. Stanley Photography.
Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge), Kalani Queypo (John Ridge) and Jake Hart (Elias Boudinot/Watie) in Sovereignty at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. CREDIT: C. Stanley Photography.

When President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, the assembled crowd was too big for the White House. They gathered instead at the Department of the Interior, where everyone — Native women, domestic abuse survivors, the President of the United States, together — could fit.

Since an infamous 1978 Supreme Court decision, tribal courts had zero authority to prosecute a non-Indian for a domestic violence charge, a lovely little loophole through which abusers could, and did, slide. The reauthorization of VAWA gave tribal police and courts that power. “Tribal governments have an inherent right to protect their people, and all women deserve the right to live free from fear,” Obama said. “And that is what today is all about.”

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As Obama picked up his pen, Native American women were still more than twice as likely as non-Native women to be victims of domestic violence; nearly half experienced rape, violence, or stalking by a partner at some point in her life.

Mary Kathryn Nagle was in that room. She’s an unusual type of double-threat — a partner in a law firm and a playwright — though both roles see her returning to issues facing American Indians, the rights and protections she believes her family has long been denied. Her new play, Sovereignty, which premiered at D.C.’s Arena Stage in January and runs through mid-February, is the first play by a Native American playwright to be produced at Arena.

Watching Obama sign and hearing him speak “was surreal,” she told ThinkProgress by phone. “It was very surreal. Of course, I cried.”

Nagle, an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, “grew up with the story of Andrew Jackson,” whose cruelty and violence toward Native Americans is arguably the best-known part of his legacy. “To see an American president today do the opposite of Andrew Jackson, it was, to me, the answer to, I think, prayers over the last 180 years. I think we’ve been praying for this for the last 180 years.”

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She is also a direct descendant of Major and John Ridge, the father and son who signed the Treaty of New Echota, averting certain slaughter but ceding their homeland, a move that set the Trail of Tears in motion. (The Supreme Court had ruled in 1832 that tribal lands were sovereign; President Jackson was unmoved by this decision, and simply behaved as if it had never come to pass.) The Ridges were murdered by Cherokees — led by chief John Ross — who considered the treaty an unforgivable betrayal.

The enduring Ridge/Ross divide is the fault line along which Sovereignty is structured. Nagle’s story travels to the distant past — where Jackson, the Ridges, and the Rosses collide — and the not-too-distant future, where a descendant of Ross works for a descendant of Ridge, and a rapist, faced with the consequences of his brutality, threatens to take down his ex and dismantle VAWA along the way.

“My grandma used to tell me the story of what John Ridge fought for, and how Cherokee Nation won this important case in the Supreme Court. I always wanted to tell that story but I wasn’t necessarily a playwright yet,” Nagle said.

She worked on Sovereignty on and off for years. “I don’t really know why at different times in my life I didn’t follow through and write the whole play,” said Nagle. “But now that I see it happening at Arena, I see that this was the right time.”

What was the political climate while you were writing the lion’s share of this play? Are we talking pre-election, post-election? 

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The very first draft, I turned in in November of 2015. And Andrew Jackson was a character and that was long before he was the figure he is in the current administration and had his portrait hanging in the Oval Office.

I always said and knew that Jackson’s policies, what he stood for, [especially] his campaign to eliminate tribal nations, [would be relevant]. It’s relevant today, not just for tribal nations but for all Americans. I would say I met some resistance from some people, theaters who see some plays about — well, I’ve been told — that Native history and the 1800s is not relevant today, that it’s so far removed from now. And now Jackson’s portrait is in the Oval Office! I think very few people could argue that this play is not relevant now.

Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) and Kyla García (Sarah Polson) in Sovereignty. CREDIT: C. Stanley Photography.
Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) and Kyla García (Sarah Polson) in Sovereignty. CREDIT: C. Stanley Photography.

I didn’t predict that. I didn’t know that would happen. But it established what a lot of Natives already know: Our history is incredibly relevant. and it is still with us today. And living in ignorance of that harms all of us.

You grew up on one side of this Ridge/Ross divide, with the family mythology — not myth as in made-up, but the kind of true story you pass down until it becomes a legend — of being a Ridge as this huge thing in your life. How did you have to rethink or challenge that history to write this play?

I had to question it. And I had to really examine my own biases as a Ridge. I had my grandma’s voice in the back of my head and I had to really think about, what does it mean to write John Ross as a hero? Because he was a hero. My family has a very specific view on the Ridge/Ross divide, and I had to step back and write that more from the outside than the inside.

“Andrew Jackson’s portrait is in the Oval Office! I think very few people could argue that this play is not relevant now.”

But I hope people will see this play and they’ll see that it was a fair treatment from both sides. That both were fighting to save the sovereignty of the Cherokee nation, and they had different convictions about what would best preserve the nation, and because of these incredible forces, it became an insurmountable conflict.

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Hopefully in telling this story — this is along the lines of what a character says at the end of the play — can we heal and come back together? Can we work for what we all worked for for many years? Can we regain that unity that we once had as a nation? And I think we can.

I’ve had some pretty incredible conversations with John Ross descendants during the course of writing this play, and by and large, most of them are very interested in what I’m doing and want to know more about it. A lot of people don’t know a lot about John and Major Ridge. All they know is they signed the treaty, and that’s it. If that’s all you know, of course you’re going to think they’re bad people: They signed the removal treaty. There is a great interest in learning about what they did before the treaty.

You knew as you were writing that this play would be at Arena Stage. How did you think about your audience: who they would be, what they would or wouldn’t know, what biases or information or ignorance they might be bringing to the room?

I was sort of writing for many different audiences, if you think about it. There’s a Cherokee Nation audience that knows a lot, and then there are things they don’t know about. And then, for any non-Native to see the show, there’s a lot that non-Native Americans don’t know about treaties and the sovereignty of tribal nations and Worcester v Georgia. It’s a different game when you’re writing a play about that.

Kyla García (Sarah Polson) in Sovereignty. CREDIT: C. Stanley Photography
Kyla García (Sarah Polson) in Sovereignty. CREDIT: C. Stanley Photography

Say you’re writing a play about Brown v. Board of Ed, there’s a lot that you don’t have to educate your audience about. You don’t have to write lines as long, literally, as I do here. You can leave things out because people come [with that background]. People know it. So there’s just a lot of education that I have to pack into this play, and it makes the writing more difficult.

Several characters in the play speak, and even sing, in Cherokee. How did you calibrate how much of the language to include? Did you originally have less and ramp it up? Or more, but you decided to pare it back?

I took a little bit out. Not a lot. There’s a pretty big speech that Major Ridge has in the treaty signing that I had many conversations with [Arena Stage artistic director] Molly Smith about, and I asked her, “Is that too much?” And she said, “If it is, that’s a good thing.”

The audience needs to have a moment of, there’s a really important discussion going on and we don’t understand it. That’s the reality. Certainly you can envision a play with much more Cherokee, and I hope someday we have plays with more Native languages in them. I think hearing your language onstage is powerful and something we need more of in the American theater. More indigenous voices on stage. But you don’t want to alienate an audience that doesn’t understand what you’re saying.

I remember seeing a play a while back at Woolly Mammoth, You For Me For You, where the main character didn’t speak English. But to convey that sense of not-understanding while keeping the audience’s sympathies with her, everyone else spoke this kind of nonsense language, and she spoke perfect English; as the play went on and she became fluent, everyone else started making more sense.

I love that! I actually just saw Everything is Illuminated at Theater J, and they made very interesting choices about language barriers in that play, how they portrayed it onstage.

“You can’t overemphasize the fact that this is the first Native play to be produced at Arena, and most American theaters have never produced a Native play.”

I was also curious about your decision to set the modern scenes not in the present but in the “near future.” One character tells us that we’re in 2020. Why did you pick that point in time?

I wanted to make clear, I think it’s inevitable that at some point, a non-Indian who is prosecuted by an Indian on a domestic violence charge by a tribal court will contest that. Dollar General fought tribes’ civil jurisdiction over non-Indians, so a criminal challenge will happen soon, I think. So we’re preparing for that with attorneys working within Indian country and tribal leaders, but it hasn’t happened yet. So when I thought about writing it, it didn’t make sense to make it present day. I thought: Put it in the future. It could be 10, 20 years from now, but someone will make that argument at some point.

It’s already like the culture has sped up past what you were expecting when you wrote this in 2015, just thinking about these massive conversations around rape and sexual assault.  

I had no idea when I started writing this play that the Me Too movement would be happening. So it’s really– interesting is not the right word. It’s unexpected to see how a shift in American culture is lining up, in a timeline, with this play’s production.

L to R) Jake Hart (Elias Boudinot/Watie), Michael Glenn (Samuel Worcester/Mitch) and Joseph Carlson (Andrew Jackson/Ben) in Sovereignty. CREDIT: C. Stanley Photography
L to R) Jake Hart (Elias Boudinot/Watie), Michael Glenn (Samuel Worcester/Mitch) and Joseph Carlson (Andrew Jackson/Ben) in Sovereignty. CREDIT: C. Stanley Photography

So this is a story about violence against women. The Violence Against Women Act is a key part of the story you want to tell. And yet your play has only two female characters. Women are always outnumbered on this stage. The present parent in Sarah’s life is her dad, she doesn’t seem to have any female friends, she even gives birth to a son. Why aren’t there more women in this story?

Well, to be quite honest, yeah, I realize this is a play about safety for Native women and there’s only two women actresses on stage and seven men. I have several plays that are far more female-heavy than male-heavy. Most people write plays that are predominately male-driven, and male actors, if you look at the numbers, have way more roles available for them than females. I see that issue in the American theater and the more women playwrights get produced, the more authentic, exciting, provocative opportunities for female actresses [there will be].

“I realize this is a play about safety for Native women and there’s only two women actresses on stage and seven men.”

Because it’s my family’s story, I couldn’t imagine not having Major Ridge and John Ridge as characters… You can’t cut John Ross out. It kind of got to a point where, here are all the men I have to have in the play, and in the American theater, the more actors we have, the more various theaters say, “We can’t produce that.” But it was also really important to me to have Sarah Northrup in the play; she’s my great-great-great-grandmother. I’m the seventh generation from Major Ridge.

Talk a bit about the music choices in the play.

I’m thrilled that we got to use Native artists. You heard Samantha Crain, and also A Tribe Called Red had a song in there. Frank Waln, he’s Rosebud Sioux, and I think what young cool people would call a “hip hop” artist. Buffy Sainte-Marie, and then our music designer — the artistic designer — composed a piece or two. So it was really neat to have, I think, a variety of different Native songwriters and musicians and singers.

What was the premiere like for you? 

It was really meaningful to me. We had several of our elected leaders from Cherokee nation there, and I think that was really important for the D.C. audience to meet face to face. Those are our leaders. To see our story on stage.

You can’t overemphasize the fact that this is the first Native play to be produced at Arena, and most American theaters have never produced a Native play, so what Molly is doing is so revolutionary and so needed at this time. It’s a very exciting time to be a Native playwright.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.