For some of us, our understanding of indigenous peoples of North America begins the romanticized tales of the first Thanksgiving and Walt Disney’s Pocahontas and ends with the Trail of Tears or a story about cowboys and Indians on the American frontier. These attempts to historicize living people have enabled non-Natives to distance ourselves from the consequences of colonial settler violence. Through the performance of Sovereignty, playwright and Cherokee citizen Mary Kathryn Nagle weaves the histories of her ancestors from the 1830s with the near future as a means of reclaiming their stories from white-washed interpretations and the continued intergenerational trauma of the colonization of both Native lands and bodies.
Seeing the performance of Sovereignty at Arena Stage was an immersive experience on learning what Artistic Director Molly Smith terms, “… a world most Americans know almost nothing about.” As you enter the theatre, maps are displaying the geographical metamorphosis of Cherokee Nation in Georgia from 1831-1903 that serve as a means of locating where the story takes place. An interactive podium adjacent to the maps serves as a Native History 101 of sorts, enabling a person unfamiliar with Native American history to obtain background information on the intricacies of Sovereignty.
Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography
The creation of a decolonized artistic space is represented on the set, which was designed by Cherokee artists. The casting of Native actors, some background music from A Tribe Called Red, and even the use of Cherokee language by various characters on stage is a celebration of indigenous culture.
The production also touches on issues of anti-Native racism, such as the use of the term r*dskin and the hypocrisy of white Christians in their dealings with Cherokee Nation in particular. Although the play’s overtones are mostly serious, it does provide comic relief with topical jokes such as, “Why do Cherokee hate snow? Because it’s white and covers all our land!” These minute details help breathe life and contemporaneity into the story of Sarah Ridge Polson (Kyla Garcia) in her quest to pursue a legal career in her ancestral lands.
The most powerful moment of the play was its depiction of a sexual assault. Unlike how this egregious act is portrayed so callously in many films and television series, the sexual assault and its aftermath are handled delicately and used as a means of shedding light on a traumatic experience that nearly 84% of Native women in the United States have survived. Unfortunately, it also points out that due to Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, Native survivors of assault by non-Natives are often denied justice due to Indian tribal courts not having inherent criminal jurisdiction over non-Natives, even if the attack was committed on Native land. But Tribal Courts are able to consider a lawsuit in which a non-Native commits domestic violence towards a Native American woman on Native land, per the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013.
The ties between the sovereignty of Native lands and bodies was further solidified during the post-show panel with Mary Kathryn Nagle and Gloria Steinem and Artistic Director and moderator, Molly Smith.
The discussion was built upon Nagle and Steinem’s collaboration on an Op-Ed for the Boston Globe in 2016 titled, Sexual Assault on the Pipeline, which discussed how there are higher rates of sex trafficking and sexual assault near sites of extractive industries because of the toxic nature of “man camps,” sites. These sites where mostly non-Native men working at these sites congregate to live- which are often near Native lands. With the growing desire for oil, seizure of Native land for it, and the lack of protections for Native women thanks to the Oliphant decision, the relevance of Sovereignty is critical for an intersectional feminist understanding of the connection between a woman’s ability to protect herself, and her land. As Sarah Ridge Polson said on stage, “If he can erase the sovereignty over my body, he can erase the sovereignty of my nation.”
If you’re interested in supporting Native survivors and being an ally in working towards more legal protections for Native sovereignty, please read more on the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and urge your congressional representative to support the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
Sovereignty is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival and is playing at the Arena Stage Theatre through February 18th. Post-show conversations will be held sporadically throughout the continuance of the play’s run.
For ticket information, click on Arena Stage Tickets.
MARY MARSTON is a recent graduate of American University who is interested in the intersection of social justice and the arts and is pursuing a legal career.