Opening night: Mary Kathryn Nagle author of the play, “Sovereignty.” (Arena Stage photo)
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.
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Mary Katherine Nagle’s new play, “Sovereignty,” is one of those stories.
“Sovereignty” is 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.
“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’s military, the Georgia Guard, was evil, violent and determined to strip 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.
Nagle is literally an heir to this story. This is her family. But there is another angle for Indian Country and it’s why I think this story must be in our canon; the power of dissent. There are two great stories about why dissent is 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.)
The Cherokee leadership — led by Chief John Ross and the National Council — wanted their homeland no matter the cost, including giving Georgia absolute authority over the Cherokee Nation. Boudinot wrote 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?”
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 move to 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 the Ridge families back together. She shows through the power of story how we’re all in this together. Still.
I am Mark Trahant.
A dangerous moment at Standing Rock.
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A line of trucks and commercial vehicles on North Dakota’s Highway 6 Saturday was a speeding train. One vehicle after another. Traveling too fast and too close. Then, still on track, the entire train turned left and began racing down a rural dirt road.
This is where the Dakota Access Pipeline is on a speedy timetable. As the company has testified in court it wants the 1,170 mile, $3.8 billion project up and running by January 1, 2017.
Yet the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and several hundred people camped nearby are determined to slow down that train, protect the waters of the Missouri River, and ultimately, help the country begin the most important conversation of this era about energy, climate and survival.
And North Dakota is acting as the trustee for the company, using what it considers the powers of state, to make this project so.
How far will North Dakota go?
Look at where it has been. The state has been an ally instead of a referee. Helping to craft a regulatory approach that avoided regulation. There is this crazy notion that the company did everything it was supposed to do so leave them alone. Yah. Because the plan was to avoid pesky regulation. It’s so much more efficient to be governed by official winks instead of an Environmental Impact Statement.
How far will North Dakota go?
They’ve already tried intimidation, humiliation, and the number of arrests are increasing. Pick on protectors, elders, journalists, famous people, anyone who could make the state appear potent. The latest action is a road block on a state highway and the reclaiming of land that the tribe retained in its Treaty.
Action. Reaction. The idea of civil disobedience is that there are unjust laws (or in this case, rigged laws) and there are people willing go to jail to highlight that injustice. The state lost its moral claim when it moved the pipeline route away from its own capital city to near the Standing Rock Nation.
Again, the question is, how far will North Dakota go?
Is the state ready to arrest hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? And then what? The illogical conclusion to that question is too terrible to think about.
Yesterday a call went out from the camps for more people. People who, as Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said, are willing to get arrested. People who will interrupt their lives so that this pipeline will go no further. It’s a call to a higher law than the one that’s codified by North Dakota. And for every water protector arrested, there will always be someone else ready to be next.
How far will North Dakota go? The military-style law enforcement base at Fort Rice sends its message: Whatever it takes. And, yes, that’s frightening.
Except. There is an antidote to those fears. It’s found among the people at the Standing Rock camps who continue to use prayer as their status quo.
I am Mark Trahant