An Interview with Tribal Sovereignty Lawyer, Playwright, and Activist Mary Kathryn Nagle

Welcome to the first installment of our new series centered on Indigenous Voices! To kick things off, I interviewed accomplished lawyer and playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle, who is no stranger to the uphill battle of retelling Native narratives. Whether it be in the courtroom or on stage, she gracefully takes on the task of storytelling, for both political and social change. Her skills as a playwright and lawyer have taken her to the world stage at the 2014 United Nations World Conference on Indigenous People, and to Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. for their 2018 Power Plays Initiative, which centers plays dealing with politics and power. 

As an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Nagle has seen firsthand how important tribal sovereignty and Indian rights are, and her studies and actions as a lawyer reflect that. Her artistic work embraces these beliefs as well, as she has drawn upon her Indigneous ancestry to bring light and truth to a historic event in her play Sovereignty

Like all Indigenous tribes in United States history, the Cherokee were not immune to the ubiquitous colonization and subsequent removal from their lands. Most notably, as Daniel Heath Justice writes in his book, Our Fire Survives the Storm; A Cherokee Literary History

when gold was discovered on Cherokee land in Georgia, agitation for the removal of the tribe increased. In 1835, the Treaty of New Echota, signed by a small minority of the Cherokee, ceded to the United States all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi River. An overwhelming majority of tribal members refused to accept this treaty and took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court rendered a decision favorable to the tribe, declaring that Georgia had no jurisdiction over the Cherokee and no claim to their land. Georgia officials ignored the court’s decision, President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce it, and Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to facilitate the eviction of tribal members from their homes and territory. This led to the Trail of Tears

Mary Kathryn’s play, Sovereignty, tackles this history as historic Cherokee rivals, Major Ridge and John Ross, navigate their divided views of the Treaty of New Echota. Told through two parallel timelines, Nagle juxtaposes their disagreements from 1835, with the collaboration of Ridge and Ross’ ancestors fighting to defend the jurisdiction of the Cherokee Nation in the Supreme Court.

You’ve said that “arts and theatre have the potential to deconstruct harmful narratives in our legal system.” Could you talk about how your work can be used as an educational tool to not only retell Native history, but to deconstruct the often prejudiced history that we are taught?

I think that history is taught by those who win and Natives have been largely erased and/or mischaracterized in American history textbooks and in classrooms. You can certainly advocate in governments, courts, and in legislatures for changes to how that narrative is shared and how laws are structured, but it is very hard to do that when everyone who sits in a federal court, on the federal bench, or in Congress, went through the same education system that was designed to erase us. You have to combat that erasure first, and that is where I think art is so critically important. It might be true that all the justices on the Supreme Court did not take Indian Law, for instance, because it wasn’t offered at their law school; however, Justice Ginsburg went and saw my play Sovereignty at Arena stage and she had an opportunity to learn about the harmful effects of Oliphant from a tribal sovereignty perspective even though that wouldn’t be something taught to one of her law clerks in a law school today. So, because we have been excluded from the mainstream curriculum in the United States, we have to use art to educate.

You’ve argued that colonization of Indigenous lands and nations is truly how climate change got started, and that it’s imperative to know that among the groups most impacted by climate change are Indigenous communities. Do you think that in the climate action movement, environmentalists should look to Native people to learn about the ways they have cared for the earth and for their land?

Yes. I think that part of our environmental crisis in the United States today is the reality that we had sovereign nations here that existed before the United States, that valued the land as something other than a commodity. Tribes certainly engaged in commerce and built structures, tore down trees and burnt land – it’s not the case that Indians were sitting around and not using land for strategic purposes – but in terms of the way in which we had a connection to the land, it wasn’t a straight up capitalistic understanding or relationship.

It also wasn’t 100% “anti-capitalist” because we took from the land and traded in exchange for other things, which is commerce. Now, there’s nothing inherently evil about commerce; we’ve always engaged in it as Native people. The problem was that we weren’t engaging in it in a way that was as exploitative or profitable, I suppose, as those who wanted to use land just to make a profit. That became the basis for the Supreme Court to strip tribal nations of their inherent sovereignty and title over their land.

That legal framework, I argue, is why we have an environmental crisis in the United States today. You can’t, on one hand, say the reason tribes are racially inferior is because they want to live in harmony with the land and they don’t commercially exploit it, and that therefore they shouldn’t be able to govern it. And on the other hand, toss your hands up and say it is a mystery as to why we have a legal structure that won’t protect the environment for future generations of American citizens. The whole legal structure was designed to strip tribal nations of their land and sovereignty, because they wouldn’t commercially exploit it.

You’ve spoken about the process of “humanizing” climate change, because we have a tendency to detach ourselves from the humans whose lives are being directly impacted. So, thinking about what “humanizing” climate change does for the viewer, what response would you hope to receive from audiences leaving one of your plays, or, more generally, leaving a play that deals with environmental justice? Is talking about these issues after leaving the theatre enough?

Well, it’s a start. It’s never going to be enough, but right now, we aren’t even talking about it. We really need to do something about that and start the conversation. Again, I’m a big believer in conversation and the fact that we just have to start somewhere. A lot can come from the ultimate policy goals, change in laws, and ways we live, but we’re not even having the conversation right now, or if anyone is, it’s a small select group of people.

And for audiences leaving one of your plays?

I would want them to walk away with a desire to understand and better study how we got to this point, because I think that if we understand history and how we got here then the proper solutions will present themselves. However, when we blind ourselves to how we got to this point, it’s really hard to figure out a solution. It seems like we tell ourselves we are in this inevitable state of despair, as opposed to: we created it. If we accept that we created it, then we can take action to undo it. We have to take responsibility – that is without a doubt. However, people, very easily, say: Well, what’re you gonna do? Make it a crime to not recycle and put people in jail… and no. That’s the issue. You don’t have to come up with some extreme law that you’re going to pass. You can just have a conversation. You don’t have to be so focused on: if we can’t come up with one solution that is going to solve climate change and environmental disasters, then there’s no point in doing anything at all. I think that that is absolutely the wrong attitude to have.

In what ways has climate change impacted your life and community personally?

I went to law school in New Orleans, at Tulane, when Katrina hit. That was very devastating, disruptive, and traumatic – although, I’m alive and a lot of people lost their lives, so by no means did I suffer the worst of it. I think anyone who was living in New Orleans at the time was traumatized by the event. It was a very difficult and sad time for the community. I also grew up in Joplin, Missouri, and when the Joplin tornado hit, that was very traumatizing as well. I grew up in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas and we didn’t have mile-wide, F5 tornados all the time. However, now we do, and I think that is so clearly climate change.

It’s very scary to think that these disasters are not an exception anymore; they are becoming the norm. That tornado was horrific. Those two instances are the most personal climate change experiences I have had in my life, and I know that a lot of climate change survivors have survived much worse, but those experiences are what inspired me to write my play Fairly Traceable.

Fairly Traceable, presented by Native Voices at the Autry in Los Angeles, 2017.

Any wisdom to impart on our readers?

I think that we have to continue to ask these questions. These are important questions to ask, because we don’t have all the solutions. If we knew how to solve climate change, we would have done it already – or at least started to. I think that on other social justice issues, we have had better success in messaging. I don’t want to say we have had total success, because we haven’t… but it feels like this is a very tough issue to get enough people in America to care about. But we are at that point where it is a crisis. I just think that we need young, new voices and new perspectives to take a look at this issue, because the older generations are just throwing their hands up, and that doesn’t help us at all.

We have to get rid of our anger and prejudice against those who disagree with us, and we need to implement new, fresh, ideas. We also have to lean on our traditional ways of wisdom and understanding. I mean, we have a lot of answers from our own tribal nations who understood how to live in balance and harmony with the land, and we should be drawing on that.

This article is part of the Indigenous Voices series.

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GiGi Buddie is an American Indian artist and student studying theatre, with an emphasis in acting, at Pomona College. Whether it be through acting or working in tech, GiGi has dedicated much of her life to the theatre. In the summer of 2019, her passion for art and environmental justice took her to the Baram River in Malaysian Borneo where she, alongside Pomona professors, researched the environmental crisis and how it has been affecting the indigenous groups that live along the river. As a result of her experience researching and traveling, she student-produced the Pomona College event for Climate Change Theatre Action during the fall 2019 semester.

4 thoughts on “An Interview with Tribal Sovereignty Lawyer, Playwright, and Activist Mary Kathryn Nagle

  1. Love this! So interesting to read about the cross section of art and law, and such thoughtful interview questions! I can’t wait to read more of this series!!

    • In my opinion, art can find a place within all studies! Be on the lookout for more interviews… coming soon!

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