Sovereignty: A Crash Course in Cherokee History

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Sovereignty at Arena Stage

On Sunday, I had the amazing opportunity to see a Sovereignty, brand new play written by a Native American playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle. What I most looked forward to was the post-show discussion because Gloria Steinem was on the panel. As a teen, I discovered Ms. Magazine (which Steinem founded) and Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. They were my introduction to feminism and gave me the vocabulary to describe how I felt when I fought against the role my family and culture had decide for me.

By the time the cast of Sovereignty took their final bows to a standing ovation, I realized that I was more excited to hear from the playwright. Here I sat as Nagle made history, becoming one of the first Native American playwright to have her work produced on a professional stage with Native actors playing lead roles.

Her work explored how the US stripped Native Nations of their right to govern their own land as they see fit and how that lack of sovereignty has caused the highest rates of rape and sexual violence against Native women. Because of their lack of sovereignty, non-Natives who commit these crimes on Native land cannot be persecuted by the Native government. Think on that for a minute.

After the lights went down on the first act, my friend looked at me and said,”I feel like we got a crash course.”

She nailed it. I learned more about Cherokee history in that first hour that I have in my entire life. What I learned made my heart ache—the same way I heart when I first learned of how the United States forced Japanese American citizens into internment camps.

As the second act revealed the rest of the story, I noticed how responsive the audience was. People laughed at moments I didn’t quite catch. Murmurings during gut wrenching moments. Laughter at well-timed comedic moments to break the tension. A collective gasp as a beloved character was hurt by someone she loved.

Sovereignty post-show discussion with Gloria Steinem, Molly Smith, Mary Kathryn Nagle

During the post-show talk, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s passion and energy was contagious. Even more affirming were how many Native women of different Nations stood up and thanked Nagle for sharing their stories.

Representation and #Ownvoices matter. See stories about our culture told by someone who is living is important. Not only did Mary Kathryn Nagle give a voice to her fellow Native women, she made sure to elevate other voices in the Native community during the discussion.

On contrast, hearing Gloria Steinem speak was a let down. She seemed out of touch with the current feminist movement and not once mentioned other voices (except for Nagle). I adore Gloria for what she’s done for women and feminism, but the conversation is evolving.

If you are in a place of privilege and have a platform, please elevate those voices who are often silenced.

For those in DC, make sure you go see Sovereignty at Arena Stage.

Thank you, Mary Kathryn Nagle.