Playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Cherokee grandmother married an Irishman.
“He was Nagle, that’s where my name comes from,” she explains. “My Irish side came to America in the 1840s potato famine. His side objected to him marrying an Indian. So they eloped and went to Iowa.”
Why Iowa? She doesn’t know, but they got married there in 1938, Nagle continues. “My grandmother was very proud of her heritage, and she told me all about it. When we visited the family cemetery, it was in Oklahoma, she would point out all the people buried there, and tell me about them. That made a very big impression on me. I will be buried there too, but not for a while—I get to work on this play first.”
Nagle, 34, is a lawyer, an activist, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, and the first Native American playwright commissioned to write a play for Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Sovereignty opens on Wednesday, Jan. 24, and Nagle says that audiences at the previews come away feeling “almost betrayed,” wondering why they didn’t learn this history in school.
Nagle tells the story of the events surrounding The Indian Removal Act, signed into law in 1830 by President Andrew Jackson (who, it’s worth noting, Donald Trump has repeatedly pointed to as a model). The act allowed Jackson to negotiate terms of removal with Native tribes and to make promises of sovereignty he couldn’t keep. Major Ridge, Nagle’s great-great-great-great-grandfather was a Cherokee warrior who’d fought alongside then-Gen. Jackson in the war of 1812 against the British.
During Jackson’s presidency, Ridge signed the Treaty of New Echota, agreeing to accept $5 million and land in what would become Oklahoma in exchange for 7 million acres of ancestral land in Georgia. A majority of the Cherokee tribe’s 16,000 members opposed the deal and refused to move. Thousands were then cruelly removed in a 1200-mile forced march known as the Trail of Tears, which began in October 1838 and lasted six months, with many succumbing along the arduous journey.
Major Ridge was assassinated together with his son, John Ridge, by a rival Cherokee faction on June 22, 1839. “Critics say he was a traitor, that he signed it [the treaty] just to get money. I’m working to de-construct this,” says Nagle, who believes her ancestors signed the treaty as “an act of survival, of sovereignty.”
She had these family stories in her head, and after Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director, commissioned her to write a play, a friend introduced her to Dr. Duane King, a scholar of Native American history who had documents that backed up her stories. Among those documents, a lottery ticket in Georgia to award John Ridge’s house to a white settler.
Nagle’s play examines the relationship of the Ridges, father and son, with Jackson as they worked to draft treaties to protect Cherokee rights during the era of Native removal. At the time, there was enormous pressure on Jackson to open up tribal lands for business interests, to grow cotton and tobacco, and maintain slavery. “It’s far too easy to villainize Andrew Jackson,” she says. “What he did was very popular at the time. Lovely rich people in the East did nothing to stop it. It was a nonevent to them.”
For example, the Dawes Act of 1887, named for the Massachusetts senator who crafted it, allowed the federal government to award each citizen of a tribal nation 160 acres, with the rest of tribal land remitted to white settlers in what became Oklahoma. The Dawes Rolls listed the members of each of the five Native tribes: Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole. “If you were on the Dawes Rolls, you were an acknowledged Native American,” says Nagle, adding, “Elizabeth Warren can’t prove anyone in her family was on the Dawes Rolls.”
Acknowledging the popularity today of Native American heritage, Nagle says, “There are a lot of Americans who adhere to the myth they have a Cherokee grandmother because that in part absolves the guilt that we’re on stolen land. If I’m part of the people we stole the land from, it absolves me from having to address my duty and responsibility to address that history.”
Publicity for Sovereignty promises that Nagle will connect these historical events to contemporary times, and specifically the Violence Against Women Act, which is up for reauthorization in March. She pulls off this neck-wrenching transition through the eyes of a young attorney working for the Cherokee Nation, Sarah Ridge Polsom, a direct descendant of John Ridge. Polsom is portrayed at the White House when President Obama signs the reauthorization of the legislation in May 2013.
The legislation contains a provision that restores tribal sovereignty over crimes of domestic violence, dating violence, and violations of protective orders, which is how Nagle brings her play full circle across the generations, and bridges tribal rivalries and hostilities that date back to the 1830s.
The final scene in the play is Major Ridge’s assassination, after which his widow Sarah carries his body out in the field to bury him. “That was the beginning of the family cemetery,” says Nagle. “It began in front of Major Ridge’s house.” Historical footnote: Major was not Ridge’s given name, it was bestowed on him by Jackson to honor his courage on the battlefield.
“Most people want to know the truth about our collective history,” Nagle says. “Whether it’s about the use of an offensive term for a sports team [Redskins], or a Supreme Court case, we as native people aren’t allowed or permitted to tell our own stories. We will learn about the issue from the eyes and the mouths of non-Native Americans. If you’re an American theater today and you’ve never produced a single Native American playwright, you are shutting us out of your stage.”
Nagle is steeped in her history, and it is frustrating to her that an interviewer has to repeatedly ask her to explain the various terms she uses, and the court cases she cites, that lead her to correctly conclude that white America has enforced a ring of silence around Native American history. “Nobody knows,” she exclaims, angry at the ignorance and at the white man’s interpretation of history. “His myths are what people know.”
She wants theatergoers to know she’s just as much a descendant of John Ridge’s white wife, Sarah Bird Northrup, who fled the Trail of Tears with their children, as she is of his, but it’s her Cherokee heritage that she most identifies with, and where she can inform Americans about a history that’s been ignored for so long.
Update: The playwright Mary Katherine Nagle requested to clarify her earlier comment about Elizabeth Warren:
“While many non-Natives want Cherokees like myself to attack Elizabeth Warren for publicly sharing her family claims to Cherokee ancestry, I refuse. Cherokee identity is not a political weapon to use against an opponent. It is the fabric of my Nation’s sovereignty, and I encourage everyone to create space for Cherokee Nation citizens to explain the stories of their family and their Nation. So far, that story has been silenced by our courts, our schools, and far too many.”