Native Voices On the American Stage

A Constitutional Crisis

When I was asked to curate a week of Native voices, I was both thrilled and terrified. What do we say?! This could be viewed as an introduction, as many American theatres have never before worked with a Native artist. But truly, we’ve already been introduced. Our identity has been appropriated and used on the American stage for hundreds of years—we’ve just never had any say in it. So this week is not an introduction. It’s a revolution. For the first time on a national scale, we are telling our stories. I am confident that when you read the words of the seven Native artists I’ve asked to write, you will agree with me that as American theatre artists, we are capable of much more than redface. Today, we have the talent and the power to tell real Native stories by Native artists.

The trip was long. And for an eleven-year-old, somewhat painful. Wedged in the backseat between my younger sisters and their respective mountains of Barbies, the eight hour drive felt like an insufferable eternity.

Girls, my father’s voice would boom every time our incessant complaining crossed his fatherly-defined threshold, we are going to visit the grave of a president.

When we finally arrived, I jumped out of our minivan and began exploring. But when I caught a glimpse of my grandma, my legs came to a standstill. The expression on her face. I’d only seen it once before: at my uncle’s funeral after he shot and killed himself.

I watched as my grandma walked straight to the president’s grave. She stood for half a second, then her neck arched back, her body heaved forward, and for the first time in my life, I saw my grandma spit. It wasn’t a casual spit. It was a once in a lifetime spit. I watched as the saliva of our ancestors flowed through her mouth and hit that grave with an echo that turned heads and stopped conversations.

She turned and walked straight back to the minivan. Let’s go. And so we left.

A man and woman smiling
 Frances and Patrick Nagle. The author’s Cherokee grandmother, Frances Polson, and Irish grandfather, Patrick Sarsfield Nagle II, after they eloped from Oklahoma to Iowa to get married. They eloped because Dr. Nagle’s family opposed his marriage to an Indian. Photo courtsey of Mary Kathryn Nagle. 

 

What made my grandma, who had never so much as uttered a swear word in her life, spit on the grave of Andrew Jackson? Although I was, at the time, a straight-A student, I knew I wouldn’t find the answer in a textbook. And when I asked my father, his voice floundered and his eyes begged my silence. So when we got home, I asked Grandma.

Back in the comfort of her own home, her face glowed with pride as she pointed to the photos of two men that decorated the wall of her living room. These two men, Major Ridge (Ka-Nun-Tla-Cla-Geh, he who walks along the Ridge) and his son, John Ridge, were my great-grandfathers. They fought to save an entire Nation not with a gun in a battlefield—but with a petition in a court of law.

A painting of a man
John Ridge. The author’s great-great-great-grandfather John Ridge,
had his portrait painted in the 1830s, during one of his many diplomatic trips 
to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Andrew Jackson. Photo courtesy of 
Mary Kathryn Nagle. 

 

 

A painting of a man
Major Ridge. The author’s great-great-great-great-grandfather Major Ridge (John Ridge's father), had his portrait painted during one of his many diplomatic trips to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Andrew Jackson.Photo courtesy of Mary Kathryn Nagle. 

In 1832, when the State of Georgia and the Executive Branch of the federal government threatened the Cherokee Nation’s very existence, my grandfathers—along with Principal Chief John Ross—took the Cherokee’s case to the Supreme Court of the United States. In an unprecedented decision, Justice Marshall issued a ruling declaring Cherokee Nation to be a sovereign, “distinct community”—with the inherent right to exist pre-dating the borders of Georgia (Worcester v. Georgia).

Following this victory, my grandfather John Ridge visited President Jackson in the White House to ask how the federal government would enforce the Court’s decision. Andrew Jackson told him:

John Marshall has issued his decision. Let him enforce it.

Andrew Jackson is the only president in the history of the United States to openly defy an order from the Supreme Court.

Recognizing that neither the federal government nor the State of Georgia would abide our right to remain on our ancestral lands, my grandfathers signed the Treaty of New Echota, agreeing to relinquish our cherished homeland in exchange for land in what is now Oklahoma. Following the signing of the treaty, President Jackson forcibly placed 16,000 Cherokee in concentration camps for holding until they were “sent” to what is today Oklahoma. More than 4,000 died on the journey now known as The Trail of Tears.

Not long after they arrived in the Indian Territory, my grandfathers (both Major Ridge and John Ridge) were brutally assassinated by their fellow Cherokee. For signing the Treaty of New Echota and acquiescing to the removal, they were considered traitors.

I was eleven years old when I realized: I had to be a lawyer. After listening to our story of survival, I knew I had to study the law.

But when I got to law school, I was faced with an abrupt reality. Except for a few law schools (not mine) that offer specialized federal Indian law classes, the Supreme Court’s decisions concerning American Indians were not taught, nor were they even discussed. The case my grandfathers had won, Worcester v. Georgia, wasn’t in the curriculum. You could spend three years in an American law school and never know that American Indians lived, and continue to live, on the land we now call the United States.

I realized that if my law school wasn’t going to discuss how the law “justified” what happened to my people, I would teach myself. So I read. I found every Supreme Court decision written on the American Indian. And what I learned shocked me. Although we now live in the twenty-first century, the Supreme Court continues to cite and rely on nineteenth century decisions that describe my people as “racially inferior,” “heathens,” and “savages” (Johnson v. McIntosh), “a simple, uninformed, and inferior people,” (United States v. Sandoval), and “an ignorant and dependent race” (Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock) living “in a state of pupilage” (Elk v. Wilkins, a case that concluded that Indians are the only race in the United States without a constitutional right to citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment). These cases have never been declared unconstitutional.

I was devastated. This was the very same Court my grandmother held in high esteem—the same Court that had recognized my grandfathers’ right—and thus my right—to exist. I struggled to make sense of it. What does it mean when, in twenty-first century America, the United States Supreme Court still classifies your people as “racially inferior?” 

It means you have to tell your story. Stories and performances were constructed to allow the Court to conclude we are “racially inferior”—stories that continue to find their way to the American stage today. The only way to deconstruct a falsely fabricated prejudicial story is to tell a real one.

So I turned to theatre. I was in my second year of law school when I realized: I had to be a playwright. I suddenly realized that I could spend the rest of my life fighting legal battles, arguing for courts to recognize that a change in the law is constitutionally required. But all of my efforts would amount to nothing if I didn’t first change the story.

As a lawyer, and as a direct descendant of a survivor of genocide, I have committed my life’s work to eradicating the harmful stereotypes and false stories this Nation created to justify the “legal” extermination of my people.

It’s been seven years now since my fateful realization in law school, and I am sorry to say I have had to face yet another abrupt reality.

Today, statistics reveal that Americans who go to the theatre are more likely to witness the performance of redface on stage than the performance of Native stories by Native People. Redface, however, is not an authentic story. Instead, it is a false portrayal of Native Peoples—most often performance by non-natives wearing a “native” costume that bears no relation to real Native People. The continued dominant perception that American Indians are the racial stereotypes they see performed on the American stage is devastating to our sovereign right to define our own identity. Of course, that’s why it was invented.

Just as blackface was created in the nineteenth century to support the legalization of the institution of slavery, redface was concurrently created to support the taking of Indian lands and lives. Early examples of redface include non-native performers putting on fake feathers and painting their faces so they can be chased and shot by the heroes of the American story: cowboys. Instead of actual people with intelligent things to say about the desecration of our race, we were portrayed as a silent costume. A form of entertainment. An object to be killed. The performance of redface in the nineteenth century served as a necessary corollary to the development of the Supreme Court’s legal regime that defined us as “heathens” and “savages,” as redface communicated the belief that Indians are not “real people.” Without this belief, genocide would not have been possible.

In a country where the Supreme Court continues to define us as “racially inferior,” “heathens,” and “savages,” and in a country where redface remains a popular performance, the absence of our voices from the American stage constitutes nothing less than a constitutional crisis.

Many cities, theatres, and communities began to forbid the performance of blackface in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement. It’s no coincidence that the eradication of blackface in many locations accompanied the eradication of the prejudicial Jim Crow laws named after the Jim Crow performance that allowed for their existence.

I believe that once we replace redface with authentic Native voices, the United States will be able to move forward and eradicate the laws that redface served to create. When Americans see Native People on stage for who we actually are—real people—it will be much more difficult to abide the century-old edict from our Supreme Court that we are “racially inferior” “savages.” 

I need to point out: we are not alone. We have some incredible allies who have given invaluable support to us in our struggle to tell our stories on the American stage. I am excited to know that Perseverance Theatre will soon be producing Vera Starbard’s Our Voices Will be Heard. AlterTheater recently finished its production of Larissa FastHorse’s Landless. And in May 2014, the Public Theater workshopped my play Manahatta as a part of its inaugural Public Studio workshop series.

I am very thankful for these opportunities, but remain disturbed that Americans are more likely to see a performance of redface than a play about Native People by a Native person.

In a country where the Supreme Court continues to define us as ‘racially inferior,’ ‘heathens,’ and ‘savages,’ and in a country where redface remains a popular performance, the absence of our voices from the American stage constitutes nothing less than a constitutional crisis.

With the realization that redface is a colonial creation that we’ve never truly questioned, I want to highlight the “Top Five Myths” that permeate the American theatre landscape and allow the performance of redface to silence authentic Native voices. I recant them here, complete with an explanation as to why their basic premise, like redface, is an artifice of a colonial archetype that no longer serves our collective artistic soul or purpose.

Top Five Myths that Perpetuate the Performance of Redface and Silence of Native Voices

1. Native People do not make up a significant portion of the individuals who come to my theatre; they aren’t a noticeable part of my audience. As a result, if I produce a play by a Native playwright, I won’t sell any tickets. It’s an issue of economics.

Yes, it is true that as a result of the genocide, American Indians now make up less than 1 percent of the population in the United States, and as you can imagine, this means we do not comprise the majority of ticket sales in American theatres. However, the faulty premise here is not an erroneous mathematical calculation, but rather, it is the idea that non-native people have no interest in stories by and about Native People. This is simply not true. First, there is no empirical evidence to support such a conclusion. If you’ve never produced a play by a Native artist, how can you conclude your audience won’t like it?  Second, my experience with my own work has been that non-natives appreciate the opportunity to see and experience authentic Native stories. When we presented Manahatta as a workshop production at the Public this past May, we sold out every night. The majority of these ticket sales were to non-Natives, giving rise to a reality that Myth No. 1 is based not on truth, but like redface, finds its roots in prejudicial beliefs.

2. Unfortunately, we just have more pressing social issues in the United States today that command our attention and focus, and my theatre can’t afford to spend time dwelling on something that happened two hundred years ago in the past.

Ranking social issues by a scale of importance that puts anything deemed “historical” in an irrelevant bucket dooms us to repeat the tragedies of our past. Indeed, many of the pressing social issues of today are an unfortunate consequence of our refusal to honestly face our collective past. Take for instance, the 2008 housing crisis, when millions of Americans lost their homes. This was no accident. This event began in 1654 when the Dutch built the wall on “Wall Street” to remove the Lenape Indians from their home and culminated in 2008 when the banks on Wall Street used similar “business” tactics to remove millions of Americans from their homes.

And if you think the genocide against our people is an event of the past, you’re wrong. In 1978, the Supreme Court relied on its earlier conclusion in Johnson v. McIntosh (the 1823 decision declaring us to be “heathens and savages”) to conclude that Indian Nations could no longer exercise jurisdiction over non-Natives who commit crimes on tribal lands (Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe).  Following this decision, rates of violence against Native women skyrocketed.  Today, Native women are more likely to be murdered than any other race in America. The majority of the perpetrators of violent crimes against Native women are non-Native men. However, as a result of Oliphant, our tribal governments have been stripped of their jurisdiction to prosecute the men who harm our Native women. (You can learn more here.)

The genocide against our people will never be a “thing of the past” as long as we live in a society unwilling to talk about it. 

3. I am unfamiliar with Native culture and identity. It is not something we learn about in schools or in society at large, and so I am scared that my ignorance will lead me to make mistakes should I chose to produce a Native play.

You will. I make mistakes every day. But that’s not the point. The majority of our culture was taken from us. The practice of our culture was made illegal and for many generations, the only images of our identity we were allowed to acknowledge were non-native generated performances of redface. So even for a Native producing Native art, I have to listen. I have to ask questions of my Elders and those who have more knowledge than me simply because it was taken from us, and we are still working to recover it. And that’s the true gift of working with Native artists. Native stories will give you something powerful, something healing—if you listen.

4. It’s OK when we perform redface. When my theatre company puts redface on our stage, we do it with the knowledge that what happened to Native People in this country is wrong; indeed, our performance of redface constitutes an artistic critique of the racial stereotypes that allowed the genocide to happen.

Anyone who thinks their performance of redface is radical, witty, or somehow inviting of an audience to think critically about the perpetuation of the colonial framework that allowed genocide to occur in this country is wrong. Redface has been performed on the American stage since the early nineteenth century—and despite 200 years of non-natives putting on face paint, feathers, and other fake accouterments and “playing Indian”—we still live in the same legal regime that redface was created to serve. Today, the Supreme Court still considers Indians to be “racially inferior” “savages.” I suggest that after 200 years, it’s time to try an alternative. The alternative I suggest we consider is simple: put authentic Native voices on the American stage.

5. I would love to produce a Native playwright or collaborate with a Native artist, but I have no idea where to find them?

Ask me. Please, email me. I will be more than happy to recommend a long list of talented Native artists with whom you should collaborate. Or reach out to Randy Reinholz at Native Voices at the Autry; he and his wife Jean Bruce Scott have worked with more Native artists than anyone in the country. Or Diane Fraher at AMERINDA in New York. Her organization has worked with Native artists in New York for twenty-five years. Or Rhiana Yazzie in Minneapolis. Point is:

We are still here.

I invite you to be a part of the solution. I invite you, as my fellow theatre artists, to invite Native artists to your stages. Invite us to share our stories. Collaborate with us—not about us.

I am confident that after reading the words these seven artists have to share this week, you will share my conviction that their work, and the work of all Native artists, deserves a place on the American stage.

*

The attempted termination of my people was almost successful, but in the end, Jackson’s plan failed. As my grandmother’s provocative spit demonstrates, we are still here.

Today, my grandmother is buried just a few rows down from Major Ridge and John Ridge, in the small Cherokee Cemetery in Jay, Oklahoma, less than a quarter of a mile from our family’s allotment land. Someday, I too will be buried there.

But before I’m placed in the same soil as my grandfathers and grandmother, I will work tirelessly to ensure that there comes a day when Americans are more likely to witness Native stories by Native People than non-natives performing redface.

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Photograph: The graves of Major Ridge and John Ridge. Today Major Ridge and John Ridge are buried in the Cherokee Polson cemetery in Jay, Oklahoma, roughly 150 yards from where John Ridge was assassinated in his home on June 22, 1839. The author’s grandmother is buried about twenty feet away. Some day the author will be buried there in the same soil.

Wado (thank you).

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Thoughts from the curator

This week on HowlRound, we are exploring Native voices on the American stage. I have deemed this week: "Instead of Redface" (#InsteadOfRedface)—as our voices collectively question why redface is more prevalent on the American stage than our own authentic Native voices. 

Native Voices

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Thank you, Mary Kathryn, for sharing your family's powerful story. I'm moved and outraged. You honor them and all of us as you create a space for Native Voices to be heard. Let's hope--and work--so that all neglected voices have their say, and so that we can all truly listen to each other and change each other's hearts.

#1 is a complete myth: Speaking from personal experience at AlterTheater, yes, plays by Native playwrights sell tickets, to both Natives and non-Natives (our audiences were approximately 10% Native). Landless was in the top 25% in ticket revenue of all shows at AlterTheater. Thank you for curating this series!

Osiyo. Please come to Tahlequah! Perhaps the tribe could put on performances at Tsa-la-gi or NSU could stage them and workshop them at the Playhouse.