Survive, Resist, Endure: Bringing Native Women’s Struggles to Life on Stage

Typing the word “survivance” into the Ms. Blog’s search bar yields no results. So perhaps there is no better way to introduce this term here, as theorized in Native American circles of academe, than via Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play Sliver of a Full Moon. Sliver is a dramatization of the legislative struggle to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013, and includes powerful testimony by three Native women lucky to be alive to tell their own stories.

“Survivance” is Anishinaabe writer and scholar Gerald Vizenor’s portmanteau of survival and resistance, or survival and endurance, and offers a way to understand both Nagle’s work, and the reasons the formerly abused women have chosen to participate in her play: creating dramatic art as “a renunciation of dominance, tragedy, victimry.”

In this instance, victimry is structured by law. It arose in the wake of Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, a 1978 Supreme Court decision that stripped Indian Nations of the ability to exercise their inherent criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who come onto tribal lands and commit crimes. About 67 percent of the crimes committed against Native women on tribal lands are by non-Native men—so it’s been open season on Native women for almost 40 years.

In the very places where women should arguably feel the safest, their homelands, they have been most at risk. The tribes can’t prosecute, federal law enforcement rarely does, and while VAWA 2013 was an advance over the previous status quo, it only restored the ability of tribal courts to prosecute non-Indian abusers for crimes of domestic violence, dating violence and stalking; absurdly, not for rape and murder. For those crimes they still have no jurisdiction, and Native women are left unprotected—by design.

At the March 23 reading of the play in Santa Fe, presented by the performing arts program at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), three survivors read their own stories about trying to live within this bizarre lawless state, where Native women might as well have bullseyes on their backs. Lisa Brunner (White Earth Ojibwe), Billie Jo Rich (Eastern Band Cherokee) and Diane Millich (Southern Ute) told their harrowing tales, sometimes weeping as they read. As Rich told me later, “Every retelling is a kind of reliving.”

Brunner’s story is Grand Theft Auto meets A Clockwork Orange:

My daughter was raped this past summer. Even though they wore bandanas, my daughter recognized their white skin and blonde hair. They were doing what’s called “hunting” on our reservation. During deer season our reservation is overrun with non-Indian hunters who rape and abuse our women. My daughter was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. She didn’t come and tell me right away. She washed and she hid it.

That summer, we had another little girl who was raped. Nothing was done. The feds did nothing. So she hung herself. Our suicide rate on our reservation is quite huge, as it is in all of Indian country. So my daughter, hearing all of the stories about this little girl being raped, and her death, she finally broke and told me what happened to her…

…as my daughter walked down the road, four white guys in a black leather SUV with tan leather interior were trying to get her into the vehicle. And she said, “No.” She just kept walking. And this is in the only big town that we have on our reservation, population maybe 1,000.

And she’s walking and they’re getting more persistent. She takes off running, and they chase her down. Two guys. They jumped out of the vehicle. They drug her to it. And so one was driving, two held her down, and the fourth one raped her. And they had bandanas on, over their faces, but she seen their white skin, and blue eyes, and blond hair.

And when they were done, they threw her out by the bridge. And as a mom, you know, that more than took the wind out of me. That slammed me to the earth with an ungodly speed. And all the measures that I had tried to protect her didn’t work. … My daughter isn’t an animal to be hunted. She’s a human being.

VAWA will be up for reauthorization in 2018, and the playwright—who is also a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of the Pipestem law firm, as well as the executive director for the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program—is taking the play on the road to raise awareness. On April 22, the play will be read at NYU Law School, on May 10 at Stanford Law School and in October at the Alaska Federation of Natives. This last presentation is especially crucial because Alaska was left out of VAWA 2013 for dubious reasons.

Nagle wants to protect the advances made by VAWA 2013 (already under attack in the Dollar General Case), extend them to Alaska and more. She’s clear about Sliver’s purpose: “The play is a tool to change the law.”

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Rehearsal photo by Jason S. Ordaz, courtesy of Institute of American Indian Arts

Frances Madeson is the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village and is an arts and social justice writer based in Santa Fe, NM.