A Feminist Retelling of Sovereignty

As a student at Tulane Law School, activist, writer and lawyer Mary Kathryn Nagle once persuaded her Critical Race Theory professor to let her write a play as her final paper that was based on Worcester v. Georgia, an 1832 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that tribal nations have sovereignty over what happens on their lands. President Andrew Jackson, who appeared as a character in the play, refused to enforce the decision. That final project became the seed for Sovereignty, a new play commissioned by Arena Stage which begins previews on January 12 in Washington, D.C.

In the intervening years, Nagle, a member of the Cherokee Nation, became a lawyer for Pipestem Law—where she works for the restoration of tribal sovereignty, Indian civil and constitutional rights, and the safety of Native women—and an accomplished playwright. (This season, Nagle will have world premieres at major American regional theaters: Sovereignty at Arena, and Manahatta at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.)

Nagle was told by artistic directors and literary managers in New York for years that the past is irrelevant to contemporary audiences. In response, she developed a style of writing in which the past and the present (or in the case of Sovereignty, the past and the future) interweave so intricately that the audience is left without any doubt as to history’s relevance to what happens today. Actors play characters in both times—while costumes, set pieces, repeated text and musical themes further connect history and the present.

Sovereignty’s present-day protagonist, Sarah Ridge Polson, is a lawyer who, like Nagle, is dedicated to issues of tribal sovereignty and women’s rights. Through her, the audience learns about the 1978 decision in Oliphant v Suquamish Indian Tribe that further eroded tribal sovereignty by ruling that tribes do not have authority over non-Indians who commit crimes on their land. As a direct result of this decision, violent crimes against Indians by non-Indians on tribal lands increased.

According to Nagle, with whom I spoke by phone, “the stripping of tribal sovereignty jurisdiction is one of the biggest factors in the high rate of domestic violence and sexual assault against Native women today.”

A small portion of the sovereignty taken away by Oliphant was restored in 2013 with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, which allows tribal nations to prosecute non-Indians for domestic violence, dating violence and violation of protection orders on tribal land. Nagle’s belief that this decision will inevitably be challenged in court forms the basis of the scenes of Sovereignty set in 2019-2020, while the scenes in the past explore the signing of the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. The issue of tribal jurisdiction and its relationship to women’s rights are personal to Nagle through her work as a lawyer; the Treaty of New Echota is also personal because her great-great-great-grandfather John Ridge signed it.

Upon realizing that Jackson was not going to enforce Worcester, the “Ridge faction,” as they have come to be known, negotiated a treaty with the United States government. It stipulated that the land of present-day Oklahoma would belong to the Cherokee Nation, provided $5 million for the trip West and allowed for the Nation to have a voting representative in Congress. The “Ross faction,” led by John Ross, argued that Ridge had no authority to act on behalf of the Cherokee Nation and, along with his supporters, refused to move. In 1838, the military began rounding up Cherokees—putting them into concentration camps and forcing their removal without the $5 million and without a voting representative in Congress.

Nagle’s grandmother taught her never to tell anyone that she was a Ridge, as most Native Americans today believe that the Treaty was the cause of the loss of lives on the journey that became known as the Trail of Tears. But the Georgia militia was already using rape, murder and theft as a tactic to get the Cherokee to leave, and Jackson’s refusal to enforce Worcester meant the problem was only going to get worse.

When John Ridge, his father Major Ridge and his cousin Elias Boudinot got to Oklahoma, they and another 147-some-odd people were murdered by the Ross faction for their trouble. Sovereignty tells the side of the story not commonly considered today—which is that they believed the Treaty was the only way to save their Nation.

“It’s an obligation and responsibility, but it’s also a gift to know who and where you come from,” Nagle said to Ms. of her grandmother’s careful intent to teach her of her past and her own commitment to writing plays about it. “Three years ago I thought maybe this won’t happen in my lifetime, but the last three years have been phenomenal in terms of seeing [regional theaters] open their doors to Native playwrights. It’s a very exciting time for Native playwrights, Native actors and Native artists. It’s a tipping point.”

By having the events of the 1830s unfold at the same time as those of the near-future, a structure she calls “more circular than linear,” Nagle makes clear that the past is always present. “It’s not a coincidence—it’s a sad reality—that I’m being told that stories that happened in the past are irrelevant today while we have a president who put Andrew Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office,” Nagle told Ms. “Bill [Rauch, Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival] and Molly [Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage] are both interested in how history informs who we are today. They don’t buy into that false narrative.”

Artistic directors who still think that history has no relevance to contemporary audiences might do well to take note.

Sovereignty runs January 12 through February 18 at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Manahatta runs March 28 through October 27 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.


Holly L. Derr is the Head of Graduate Directing at the University of Memphis and a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.