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A Cherokee Perspective On the American Stage of Resistance

Stages of Resistance
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council members, Secretary of State Terri Henry, and Cherokee royalty at workshop reading. 14 people, one in traditional Cherokee clothing stands in the front. Behind them, music stands and a black curtain.
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council members, Secretary of State Terri Henry, and Cherokee royalty attend the February 8, 2017 workshop reading of SOVEREIGNTY at Arena Stage.

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections through May 2017!

In response to President Trump’s election, many American theater-makers are distressed. President Trump has threatened to cut federal funding for the arts. Many fear voices will be silenced. As a Nation, we feel incredibly polarized. Many say this time is one of the most polarized in our history. In response, many now look to the American Theater to provide a safe place to “stage the resistance” and resist the polarization that is dehumanizing so many.

My response to this is colored by the fact that I am a direct descendant of those who survived one of the most polarized chapters in American history. I am a citizen of the United States and of the Cherokee Nation—a Nation that as a result of forced removal, is now located in present-day Oklahoma, the home of 39 Tribal Nations.

And so it is as a survivor of one of the worst times of presidential polarization in the history of the United States that I tell you the American Theater needs to hear, produce, and create space for Native stories now more than ever before.

180 years ago, my great-great-great-great grandfather (so from a Cherokee understanding, “my grandfather”) served as Speaker of the Cherokee Nation Council that established the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court. We opened our Supreme Court in 1825, twenty years before the State of Georgia opened its own. We ratified our written Constitution in 1827, a document my grandfather helped write. We signed treaties with Nations around the world. And we exercised jurisdiction over Cherokee lands. If you committed a crime on Cherokee lands, Cherokee Nation would prosecute you—regardless of your race or citizenship. 

But then, in the 1830s, Andrew Jackson rose to the pinnacle of power based on a platform that included the eradication of my people and my Nation. Some of the people that voted for him were mean spirited. Some were bigoted. Some just wanted a better of life for their children, and Andrew Jackson promised it. But his promise—a promise of better economic times for white Americans—was premised on the destruction of my people.

Today, in the United States, we hear a lot about “us” and “them.” In the 1830s, my grandfathers were the “them.” In response to this dehumanization, my grandfathers, Major Ridge (Ka-Nun-Tla-Cla-Geh, he who walks along the Ridge) and his son, John Ridge, fought to save an entire Nation—not with a gun on a battlefield, but with a petition in a court of law. In 1832, my grandfathers—along with Principal Chief John Ross—took our people’s case, Worcester v. Georgia to the Supreme Court of the United States. The State of Georgia had arrested a non-Indian living on Cherokee lands, Samuel Worcester, and my grandfathers vigorously argued in the U.S. Supreme Court that Georgia could exercise no jurisdiction on Cherokee lands. In response, Georgia asserted that because Worcester was an American citizen and not Cherokee, Cherokee Nation had no jurisdiction over him on Cherokee lands. The Supreme Court disagreed and ruled that Cherokee Nation—and Cherokee Nation alone—could exercise jurisdiction on Cherokee lands.

In an unprecedented decision, Justice Marshall issued a ruling declaring Cherokee Nation to be a sovereign, “distinct community,” with the inherent right to exist and the exclusive right to exercise jurisdiction within borders that pre-dated the borders of Georgia. The Court upheld the inherent right of Indian Nations to protect their citizens. Of course, the Court’s decision called into question the legitimacy, and constitutionality, of President Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. If Tribal Nations truly held exclusive jurisdiction over their lands, how could the United States take them?

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.”

President Jackson defied the U.S. Supreme Court and refused to free Christian missionary Samuel Worcester.

Recognizing that neither the federal government nor the State of Georgia would abide our right to remain in our sovereign territory, 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 Van Buren forcibly placed 16,000 Cherokee in concentration camps for holding until they were “sent” to what is today Oklahoma. Thousands died on the journey now known as The Trail of Tears.

For signing the Treaty of New Echota and acquiescing to the removal, my grandfathers (both Major Ridge and John Ridge) were considered traitors by the Cherokee Nation. Not long after they arrived in the Indian Territory, they were brutally assassinated by their fellow Cherokee – in accordance with a Cherokee law my grandfather Major Ridge had drafted instituting death as the lawful penalty for anyone who attempted to “sell” Cherokee lands.

To be clear, Andrew Jackson is the only President, so far, in the history of the United States to openly defy an order from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, his legacy continues today.  His face still occupies the twenty dollar bill, and recently, President Trump hung his portrait in the Oval Office.

Many have reacted with surprise to President Trump’s placement of the portrait. But not me. Today’s resurgence of populism and the polarization Andrew Jackson’s presidency relied upon is the natural outcome of an American culture conditioned to view racial and/or religious groups as others who stand in the way of economic or physical security.  In Jackson’s time, it was American Indians who were both the racial and religious minority who “threatened” American progress.

It is with a heavy heart that I have watched my friends, allies, and colleagues in the American theater celebrate Andrew Jackson on the American stage. Over the last decade or so, several theaters have produced performances that characterize him as a “sexy” rockstar. The American Theater created space for a group of non-Native artists to rewrite history and put forth a false narrative regarding Andrew Jackson’s motivation for the forced removal of my family and my Nation.

As a Cherokee playwright, I have found the American Theater to be one of the most polarizing places in American society. As a Cherokee playwright, I recognize the American Theater as an institution that continues to dehumanize my people. Today, the majority of theaters in the United States have never produced a play by a Native playwright. Most theaters have, however, produced a play that contains, uses, or promotes redface.

When I think of staging resistance, I think of ways in which to counteract the dominant narrative the American Theater has created for all of us. For if we, as Americans, fail to understand the true history of our complex country, we will repeat it over and over again.  

Not all theaters, however, have excluded the voices of Native playwrights from the American stage. The theaters that have given space and legitimacy to our stories of survival are to be credited, thanked, and celebrated. These theaters are truly staging the resistance.

Perseverance Theater has led the way, having already produced powerful plays by Vera Bedard (Tlingit/Dena’ina Athabascan, Our Voices Will Be Heard), Frank Katasse (Tlingit, They Don’t Talk Back), and many others.

And this upcoming season brings an unprecedented number of productions for Native plays across the United States. Oregon Shakespeare Festival will produce Randy Reinholz’s (Choctaw) musical on boarding schools, Off the Rails. Kansas City Repertory Theatre will produce Larissa Fasthorse’s (Rosebud Sioux) What Would Crazy Horse Do? And Arena Stage will produce my play Sovereignty, a play I wrote about my grandfathers’ fight to save Cherokee Nation during President Andrew Jackson’s presidency.

Arena Stage’s production of Sovereignty gives me the unprecedented opportunity to respond to Andrew Jackson’s narrative about my grandfathers’ fight to protect our sovereign right to remain within our territory. Jackson famously stated:

They [the Cherokee] have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control then, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear."

For the first time in American history, an American theater will let me tell a story that, until now, has been silenced. I am still processing this reality, but I can tell you it has already brought about healing for me and many of my Cherokee relatives.

As Native playwrights, anytime we tell our stories in the United States, we stage the resistance. 

Theater is powerful.  Stories are powerful.  The stories we tell ourselves have the power to heal, open hearts and minds, educate, and transform prejudice. 

They also have the power to perpetrate stereotypes. They have the power to dehumanize. They have the power to support legal frameworks that strip Nations of their inherent sovereignty and humans of their dignity.

Of course we must keep in mind that despite the comparisons, Donald Trump is not Andrew Jackson. He is Donald Trump. And no president can polarize a nation without our consent.

Over the next four years, I challenge the theaters in the United States that have never produced a Native playwright to produce their first play by a Native playwright.

Let us come together. Let us make a conscious decision to understand the past so that we do not repeat it. Let us create our own future.