National Press Club

Lawyer, playwright sheds light on Native-American rights at Headliners Newsmaker

January 23, 2018 | By Menachem Wecker

Former National Press Club President Thomas Burr looks on as Mary Kathryn Nagle discusses her new play “Sovereignty” at a Jan. 23 Club Headliners Newsmaker event.

Former National Press Club President Thomas Burr looks on as Mary Kathryn Nagle discusses her new play “Sovereignty” at a Jan. 23 Club Headliners Newsmaker event.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

The first draft of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s new play “Sovereignty", premiering Jan. 24 at Arena Stage, was 190 pages. The play, which is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, is so packed with facts and the history of Nagle’s prominent Cherokee family that audience members may leave looking dizzy, admitted the lawyer and playwright at a National Press Club Headliners Newsmaker on Jan. 23.

In one of his questions as moderator, Thomas Burr, past Club president and Salt Lake Tribune D.C. bureau chief, noted that many have probably heard of the mid-19th century Trail of Tears but know little else about Native Americans, including the Cherokee Nation.

Native tribes have endured “one of the worst genocides in human history,” Nagle said, adding that citizens of tribes today continue to have very high rates of murder, assault, and abuse.

The play, according to the Arena Stage website, addresses the wounds that “refuse to heal” and “travels the intersections of personal and political truths, historic and present struggles.” A young Cherokee lawyer, Sarah Ridge Polson, fights to restore Cherokee jurisdiction while confronting “ever-present ghosts of her grandfathers.”

Those ghosts emerged often in Nagle’s Newsmaker presentation as well, as she referred to all of the stories her grandmother told her. Nagle’s grandmother is buried some 20 feet in the family cemetery from tribal leader John Ridge. “I will be buried probably four feet from her,” she said.

At first, Nagle wanted to tell the whole truth without any cropping and saw every detail as sacred and important, but she realized quickly, with the help of Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith, that cuts were necessary. One one occasion, she condensed what would have been three meetings into one to help the play’s flow. Another scene, which detailed oral arguments before the Supreme Court, remained on the cutting room floor.

At a certain point, art becomes magical and manifests itself outside of the artist, and a playwright can lose control. “Hopefully, it’s still your vision,” Nagle said. “It’s not a documentary.” And, she stressed, one play can’t be expected to make up for deficiencies in the ways that Native American history is under-taught on a national educational scale.

President Donald Trump has used the name “Pocahontas” as a pejorative word and has hung a portrait in the Oval Office of former president Andrew Jackson, signer of the Indian Removal Act, which led to the Trail of Tears, Nagle said. The invocation of Pocahontas, who was raped and died far from her home, struck her as particularly egregious for its dehumanizing of Native Americans by casting them as Disney cartoons, to be wielded as political props.

“Not many Americans know the facts,” Nagle said. “That’s one of the reasons why I wrote ‘Sovereignty.’”

Smith, who commissioned the play before President Trump was even a candidate, wrote Nagle at one point well into the #metoo movement to say, “Your play is getting more and more timely.”

“I have been saying history repeats itself,” Nagle says. “Now I’m watching history repeat itself. And that is terrifying.”

A very important issue for Nagle is the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which was reauthorized in 2013 with an added provision restoring tribal-criminal jurisdiction. “This was a major victory for Indian country,” she said.

The act is up for reelection this year, Nagle said, and funding for domestic violence programs, including for native women who are especially vulnerable, are at stake.

“No one knows exactly what will happen in 2018,” Nagle said. “People are afraid that in this political climate anything can happen.”

A lot of people in Indian Country are paying close attention to what will happen with the act, and the funding it provides, Nagle said. “These issues are all embedded within the play,” she said.

Several audience questions centered on how Nagle, who is executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program and a partner at Pipestem Law, balances being an attorney and a playwright.

Although balancing the two is a challenge, Nagle has found that her storytelling as a playwright informs her storytelling as a lawyer, and vice versa, she said. “At the end of the day, what I have to do is time management,” she said.

It’s vital, to Nagle, for women playwrights to create art at a time when only 22 percent of plays that are produced in this country are written by women. It’s not a coincidence, she says, that women’s voices aren’t being heard in the theater at a time when they are being abused and assaulted in society at large.

“We all have different life experiences, and you write about what you know,” Nagle said. “We need diverse stories.”