Two years in the past, the Home Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the USA held a listening to on the homicide and disappearance of Native girls. Native girls are murdered on reservations at a charge ten occasions the nationwide common; there have been greater than 5 thousand reported circumstances of lacking Native girls in 2016 alone, and plenty of extra circumstances go unreported. Among the many witnesses on the hearing was Mary Kathryn Nagle, the authorized counsel for the Nationwide Indigenous Ladies’s Useful resource Middle and an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Nagle, in her testimony, famous that tribal nations wouldn’t have authorized jurisdiction over non-Natives who commit crimes on reservations. This is without doubt one of the causes, she mentioned, that those that assault or homicide Native girls are so hardly ever caught and prosecuted. The Supreme Court docket revoked that jurisdiction in 1978; it was restored, in 2013, by a brand new provision within the Violence In opposition to Ladies Act, which was reauthorized that yr. However funding for VAWA had expired in February, 2019, and Nagle urged that it’s swiftly reauthorized. Later, the subcommittee’s rating Republican, Paul Prepare dinner, famous the presence within the room of Wilson Pipestem, of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, and mentioned that he’d as soon as seen Pipestem in a play that had introduced dwelling for him the significance of VAWA for Native peoples. The chair of the subcommittee then slipped a chunk of paper in entrance of Prepare dinner, who lifted it as much as learn it above his glasses. He turned to Nagle. “Oh!” he mentioned. “I simply discovered you wrote the play.”
Nagle is without doubt one of the main legal professionals in the USA advocating for tribal sovereignty—and likewise one of many nation’s most-produced Native playwrights. Her briefs have been cited in Supreme Court docket arguments, and her performs have been carried out at main regional theatres throughout the U.S. The play that Prepare dinner noticed was “Sliver of a Full Moon,” which interweaves testimony from Native girls abused by non-Native males with an account of the authorized battle to reauthorize VAWA. The play was staged at Joe’s Pub, in New York, and later on the legislation colleges of Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. (Prepare dinner had seen a manufacturing in Cherokee, North Carolina, in 2015.)
A month after the listening to, the Home voted to reauthorize VAWA. Senate Republicans then blocked a vote on reauthorization. A new version of the invoice was launched by the Iowa Republican Joni Ernst, however it stripped away the jurisdiction for tribal courts. “Ernst’s invoice relies on the idea that the protections for Native victims in VAWA 2013 should be rolled again as a result of tribal courts should not able to pretty administering justice,” Nagle mentioned, in a statement issued by the Nationwide Indigenous Ladies’s Useful resource Middle, calling these “paternalistic restrictions” a “disguise for prejudice.” Joe Biden, who sponsored the unique VAWA in 1994, promised to make its reauthorization, with tribal jurisdiction, a precedence for his first hundred days as President. On March seventeenth, the Home handed a brand new such model of the invoice, with twenty-nine Republicans becoming a member of each Democrat within the chamber in assist. The invoice’s destiny within the deadlocked Senate is unsure.
Nagle believes that restoring tribal sovereignty is determined by beating again degrading stereotypes that prop up discriminatory authorized frameworks, and that the theatre is one place the place that battle must occur. “Most individuals have by no means seen an genuine Native individual portrayed onstage,” she advised me. “The extra we turn out to be people that non-Natives must work together with, the tougher it turns into to justify a authorized narrative that dehumanizes us.” She factors to particular moments when the bias evident in American tradition knowledgeable legal guidelines that deprived Native folks. The 1978 Supreme Court docket resolution beneath dialogue on the subcommittee listening to, as an illustration, relied on an 1823 precedent that dominated Native People couldn’t train sovereignty as a result of they have been “savages”—a ruling that paralleled the rise of redface efficiency within the age of Andrew Jackson. In Nagle’s performs, however, Native actors painting complicated protagonists confronting injustices each historic and modern. “If Arthur Miller had gone to legislation faculty, and likewise knew the true story of the lands we stand on, that will be Mary Kathryn,” Madeline Sayet, who runs the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program, and is a member of Mohegan Nation, advised me. However difficult prejudice in American theatre, Nagle has discovered, is, in some methods, no simpler than difficult it in American legislation.
Nagle is in her late thirties. When she was a younger lady, in Missouri, she preferred to fake that she was Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz.” “I had a bit of basket with a canine that I’d carry round, and I’d sing ‘Someplace Over the Rainbow,’ and folks needed to name me Dorothy,” she advised me, over lunch, at a brewpub in Portland, Oregon. “In the event that they known as me Mary Kathryn, I wouldn’t reply.” Once we met, in 2019, she had simply attended the primary rehearsals for her play “Crossing Mnisose,” a fee from Portland Middle Stage, which tells parallel tales about Sacajawea as a younger Shoshone lady, main Lewis and Clark throughout the Mnisose—which European explorers renamed the Missouri—and younger Standing Rock protesters opposing the Dakota Entry Pipeline alongside the identical river, two centuries later. Two days earlier than, she’d taken a red-eye to Washington, D.C., to talk at a Smithsonian symposium on violence in opposition to Native girls. She’d simply flown again that morning. Within the interim, she had extensively rewritten the play. “I’m severely sleep-deprived, so my mind isn’t functioning,” she mentioned, reducing into an elk burger. “I haven’t eaten since 3 A.M.” Then she gave me an impromptu twenty-minute lecture on misrepresentations of Sacajawea and her connection to the protests on the Missouri River.
Nagle obtained the fee from Portland Middle Stage in 2016. She had turn out to be pissed off by the historic narrative that had been constructed round Sacajawea, which insisted, as Nagle put it, that “Sacajawea’s life was so laborious as a result of Native males are so violent. True,” Nagle went on, “she was kidnapped when she was ten by a Hidatsa raid. She was Shoshone.” However then, Nagle identified, a French fur dealer, Charbonneau, bought her. “It’s documented in Lewis and Clark’s journals that he beat her,” Nagle mentioned. “For 2 white males in 1804 to doc that, it should have been very grotesque. And we all know from Native oral histories that males with Lewis and Clark have been raping Native girls,” she added. “So, I’m, like, ‘Proper, I’m writing about Sacajawea.’ ”
Nagle discovered a replica of Lewis and Clark’s journals and commenced interviewing descendants of Sacajawea. Then she acquired a name from a former roommate, Jodi Archambault, who advised Nagle that her brother Dave Archambault, then chairman of the Standing Rock Tribal Council, had been arrested, and wanted assist. Nagle went to Standing Rock. “The place that battle at Standing Rock occurred is the place Lewis and Clark got here up the river,” Nagle advised me. “The Military Corps of Engineers that accepted the pipeline is the following entity for Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. So, to me, the parallels have been apparent after I was there in individual.” Along with writing “Crossing Mnisose,” Nagle filed an amicus transient in Standing Rock’s case in opposition to Dakota Entry in federal district court docket, arguing that the Military Corps’s evaluation of the results of constructing the pipeline had did not correctly consider its results on the general public curiosity. The Military, Nagle contended, had not thought-about the elevated charges of violence in opposition to Native girls that will stem from the transient “man camps” assembled for pipeline labor, exacerbated by the authorized loophole that stops tribes from prosecuting non-Natives. The ultimate part of her transient was titled “Rising Violence In opposition to Native Ladies is Not within the ‘Public Curiosity.’ ” (As she famous in her Home testimony, the physique of 1 lacking lady from a reservation in North Dakota, Olivia Lone Bear, was present in 2018 in Lake Sakakawea. In March, 2020, a federal decide halted the pipeline and ordered the Military Corps to redo its environmental evaluation.)
“I don’t know the way a lot sleep she will get an evening,” Crystal Echo Hawk, a pal of Nagle’s who runs #IllumiNative, a company that goals to extend Native visibility, advised me. “She goes into the zone on her little laptop computer, and also you by no means know if she’s engaged on a authorized transient or a play.”
Nagle determined she needed to turn out to be a lawyer when she was within the first grade. Her grandmother had advised her that Nagle’s great-great-great-grandfather John Ridge was the one of many nation’s first Native attorneys. Ridge helped the Cherokee Nation win a Supreme Court docket case upholding its jurisdiction, in 1832. However Andrew Jackson refused to implement the choice, and Ridge, going through the lack of Cherokee lands, signed a treaty to relocate the nation from Georgia to what’s now Oklahoma. The nation was compelled onto the Path of Tears, and one other Cherokee faction assassinated Ridge and his father as traitors. In 2015, Nagle wrote a play, “Sovereignty,” which intercuts Ridge’s story with that of a twenty-first-century Cherokee lawyer who’s abused by her non-Native husband, and who argues a case earlier than the Supreme Court docket to uphold the tribal jurisdiction that Jackson was devoted to destroying.. “Everybody in my household has desecrated Andrew Jackson’s grave besides me,” Nagle advised me. “My grandma spit on it. My sister peed on it.” Later, she added, “Properly, I assume I did it in ‘Sovereignty.’ ” In 2018, “Sovereignty” grew to become the primary play by a Native author to be carried out at Area Stage, in Washington, D.C. After performances started, she obtained a notice, in a sublime envelope, commending her on the present, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Ginsburg was the second Supreme Court docket Justice to laud Nagle’s theatrical work: in 2011, a studying of one among her performs on the Smithsonian was launched by Sonia Sotomayor.)
Nagle wrote her first performs as an undergraduate at Georgetown, the place she majored in peace and justice research, and acted in scholar productions. One of many performs she carried out in was “Cloud 9,” by Caryl Churchill, wherein the identical forged portrays a rigidly patriarchal household on the top of British imperialism within the first act and, within the second, the descendants of that household, in sexually fluid, post-colonial London, a century later. “There was a creative assertion in her doubling that you may solely do in theatre,” Nagle advised me. “There’s one thing about watching a reside, human actor go from one character to a different.” This method has turn out to be a trademark of Nagle’s fashion: her performs overlay the previous and the current to disclose patterns that persist. In “Crossing Mnisose,” Sacajawea doubles as Carey, a Standing Rock activist who questions the reliability of Lewis and Clark’s journals. Lewis, scouting commerce routes for the Corps of Discovery, turns into the colonel operating the Military Corps of Engineers, securing the Mnisose River for the oil pipeline.
After faculty, Nagle studied environmental legislation at Tulane, and clerked in federal courts earlier than turning into an legal professional for Quinn Emanuel, a white-shoe agency in Manhattan. She continued writing performs, however she didn’t contemplate her craft as far more than a pastime on the time. Then, in 2011, the Nationwide Museum of the American Indian held a staged studying of Nagle’s play “Waaxe’s Regulation,” about Chief Standing Bear, a Ponca chief who was a part of the court docket case that first acknowledged Native People as individuals beneath federal legislation. Wilson Pipestem, who has his personal legislation agency in Oklahoma, which advocates for tribal rights, noticed a staging of the play in 2012, and approached Nagle about it. “I’ve blood kinfolk who’re Ponca, and I requested her what the idea was for her writing about Chief Standing Bear,” he advised me. “She mentioned that a few of the play got here immediately from transcripts of his precise trial. I used to be amazed.” He invited her to hitch his agency, the place she is now a accomplice.
That very same yr, Nagle obtained a fellowship to be a part of the Rising Writers Group on the Public Theatre, in New York. She spent a part of her time there workshopping “Manahatta,” a chronicle of land fraud in opposition to the Lenape folks by Dutch colonists within the seventeenth century and Lehman Brothers within the twenty-first. One actor performs Jane Snake, a monetary analyst newly employed on Wall Road, and likewise Le-le-wa’-you, a Lenape fur dealer; one other portrays a chief of mortgage-backed securities at Lehman Brothers and likewise the top of the Dutch West India Firm, bent on turning communal, matrilineal land into personal property. The Public Theatre staged a workshop efficiency of the play in 2014. On the time, Nagle was near giving up on getting produced. “Theatres didn’t know how you can learn scripts about Native folks,” Nagle advised me. “They don’t know how you can decide what’s genuine or what’s not. All they know is what they’ve seen in Western films or on the again of a soccer jersey.” Ned Blackhawk, a Western Shoshone professor of historical past at Yale, took a gaggle of scholars to Joe’s Pub on the Public Theatre to see a staged studying of “Sliver of a Full Moon” later that yr. Afterward, he recalled, he approached Nagle. “I advised her, ‘I wish to work with you and convey this to Yale.’ She mentioned, ‘I’m accomplished doing these performs!’ She was sitting there with a knee harm on crutches in New York, having needed to discover funding and run a manufacturing of a bunch of individuals in a metropolis the place most of them didn’t reside. The logistical problem of operating a cellular theatre was form of killing her.” Blackhawk subsequently created the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program to assist the work of Native playwrights. It launched in 2015, with Nagle as its government director.
Two years later, the Oregon Shakespeare Competition, one of many nation’s largest repertory theatres, introduced that it will produce “Manahatta” in its 2018 season. However having access to big-budget theatres introduced its personal challenges. The preliminary set design at O.S.F. had Lenape characters posed in a seventeenth-century diorama. Nagle “was triggered by it,” Laurie Woolery, the play’s director, who restaged it at Yale Rep final yr, advised me. “She mentioned, ‘I don’t wish to see one other play the place we’re lowered to a diorama.’ So we scrapped the design.”
At Portland Middle Stage, Lauren Cordova was introduced on as a Shoshone cultural guide for Sacagawea’s story, and Suzanne Blue Star Boy was employed as a Dakota guide for the Standing Rock narrative. “If you wish to inform a Native story,” Cordova, who’s Shoshone-Bannock and Taos Pueblo, advised me, “seek the advice of some Native of us who’re from the identical tribe or Nation as your characters.” She and Nagle shared a joke a couple of remark posted, by a non-Native, under a video of the Standing Rock protests, about how “the sacred winds are blowing,” Cordova recalled. “Neither of us knew what that was speculated to imply!” Mocking non-Native stereotypes about indigenous folks is a dependable supply of humor in Nagle’s performs. On the rehearsal desk for “Crossing Mnisose,” one of many non-Native actors dangled a purple feather from a keychain. “That is my spirit feather,” he joked. Nagle added, “From a purple eagle!” “Its identify was Fruit Loop,” the actor Robert I. Mesa, who’s Navajo and Soboba, mentioned solemnly.
One of many most-produced plays by a Native playwright lately is “The Thanksgiving Play,” by Larissa FastHorse, of the Sicangu Lakota Nation. It’s a satire of white liberals making an attempt to create a culturally delicate faculty pageant in regards to the first Thanksgiving. The punch line: to be actually respectful, they determine, they will’t embody any Native People. The meta-joke is that the “The Thanksgiving Play” doesn’t embody any Native characters, both. FastHorse was bored with theatres telling her that they couldn’t discover Native actors for her performs, so she wrote one which anyone might produce. It labored.
Combatting Native erasure is an important challenge for Nagle. On the finish of “Manahatta,” Jane Snake says, “We’re nonetheless right here.” Within the theatre, the road has a double resonance. The Lenape haven’t been worn out from the continent, regardless of centuries of genocide and colonialism, and they’re bodily current, onstage, at that second.
Reviewing “Sovereignty” for the Washington Put up, the critic Peter Marks wrote that, whereas his two hours within the theatre “did not feel misspent,” the expertise had “much less to do with aesthetics than edification.” The play, he added, “might need felt a lot lighter had the playwright not believed she had a lot explaining to do.” Nagle regards this as a blinkered perspective on her work. “My performs are instructional as a result of we’ve been erased,” she advised me. “By sharing our tales, we’re educating a non-Native viewers. Plenty of white male critics assume they’re speculated to go to the theatre and never be taught something however be entertained. And as quickly as they begin studying one thing, then it’s instructional—it’s not artwork.”
When “Sovereignty” was staged at Marin Theatre Firm, within the fall of 2019, Nagle acquired in a public debate with the critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, Lily Janiak. Janiak had known as the play’s characters “two-dimensional,” and described a few of their actions as “arbitrarily imposed by a playwright’s conceit as a substitute of rising from how actual folks would really act.” Particularly, Janiak wrote, “Why would a super-smart, self-confident Cherokee lady whose entire life is devoted to defending the ladies of her tribe marry a white man whose anti-Indian prejudice wants just a few drinks and a nudge to return to the floor?” Nagle wrote a prolonged response, arguing that Janiak’s interpretation revealed quite a lot of prejudices—intelligence doesn’t save girls from abusive relationships, she famous, and anti-Indian bigotry is commonly, as within the case of this character, a method of wielding energy and asserting management above all. “Writing his conduct off as a blatant ‘anti-Indian’ prejudice uncovered by just a few drinks of alcohol misses the complete cause so lots of our Native girls are raped, are murdered, or go lacking: many non-Indian males have found the authorized loophole, and so they use it,” Nagle wrote. (In a later column, responding to criticism from Nagle and others, Janiak wrote that “arts criticism is a two-way avenue,” and that she depends “on artists and readers to inform me after they assume my work has missed the mark.”)
Nagle typically says that she walks within the footsteps of earlier generations of Native playwrights: N. Scott Momaday, who’s Kiowa; William Yellow Gown, who’s Assiniboine; and Lynn Riggs, who was Cherokee, and whose play “Inexperienced Develop the Lilacs” could be the solely work by a Native playwright to be produced on Broadway, in 1931. (Rodgers and Hammerstein later tailored it, although not without erasures of their own, into the musical “Oklahoma!”) And she or he advised me that she attracts energy from the opposite Native playwrights who’re rising with her, amongst them Larissa FastHorse; DeLanna Studi, who’s Cherokee; and Tara Moses, a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. “Native People have been telling these tales for a really very long time,” Nagle mentioned. “What’s completely different now could be that non-Native theatres are letting us inform them exterior our personal properties.”
Final yr was, in fact, an inconceivable time for American theatre, however Nagle continues to develop new performs. Shortly earlier than the pandemic, a collaboration with the Cheyenne and Hudolgee Muscogee author Suzan Proven Harjo, “Reclaiming One Star,” in regards to the origins of the Washington N.F.L. staff’s identify, premièred on the Colorado New Play Summit. (5 months later, the staff introduced that it will change its identify.) Nagle can also be engaged on a fee from Yale Repertory Theatre to adapt the Osage writer Charles Crimson Corn’s novel “A Pipe for February,” in regards to the Osage murders within the nineteen-twenties, and on a brand new fee for the Oregon Shakespeare Competition’s American Revolutions history-play cycle. The Oregon Shakespeare Competition just lately has put its manufacturing of “Manahatta” on-line; it is going to stream till April twenty fourth. And Nagle’s authorized advocacy has continued unabated. She submitted an amicus transient to the Supreme Court docket in a case debating whether or not the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation in Oklahoma existed; she argued that upholding reservation boundaries was important to defending Native girls from sexual assault. In July, the Supreme Court docket ruled 5–4 within the Nation’s favor. A number of months later, the American Bar Affiliation hosted a digital studying of “Sliver of a Full Moon,” and Deb Haaland, then a congresswoman, joined the post-show dialogue; final month, Haaland was confirmed as the primary Native Secretary of the Inside.
Nagle additionally continues to work on the marketing campaign to reauthorize VAWA. She advised me that attending the ceremony, in 2013, the place President Barack Obama signed the reauthorization into legislation was one of many excessive factors of her life. “Listening to the President say he was affirming the inherent proper of tribal nations to guard their girls on tribal land—I by no means in one million years thought I’d hear an American President say that,” she recalled. “It was like an entire turnaround from the Andrew Jackson days.” She hopes she will get to listen to it once more earlier than lengthy.