Criticisms about a Cherokee woman's choices in the play 'Sovereignty' are very problematic from a Native and women's rights standpoint

Pictured: Sarah Ridge Polson (played by Elizabeth Frances) testifies before the Supreme Court in Marin Theatre Company’s “Sovereignty.”(Photo: Kevin Berne, Marin Theatre Company)

A white critic's prejudicial and ignorant remarks come with consequences says Cherokee playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle

I have received lots of bad reviews from professional critics—believe me—I am used to them. But I recently received one that I must respond to. After reading this critic’s review, I cannot remain silent.

My play tells the story of a Cherokee woman who falls in love with a man who, after asking her to marry him, becomes abusive and slaps, hits, and rapes her. In my play, the Cherokee woman triumphs, survives, and thrives.

After seeing my play, Lily Janiak wrote that the decisions the characters make are “arbitrarily imposed on them by a playwright’s conceit instead of emerging from how real people would actually act.” To give an example of this alleged flaw in my writing, she rhetorically asked: “Why would a super-smart, self-confident Cherokee woman whose whole life is dedicated to protecting the women of her tribe marry a white guy whose anti-Indian prejudice needs only a few drinks and a nudge to come to the surface?” 

Pictured: The ensemble cast of Marin Theatre Company’s production of "Sovereignty.” — Elizabeth Frances (left), Adam Magill, Kholan Studi, Scott Coopwood, Andrew Roa and Robert I. Mesa — signs the Treaty of New Echota.
Pictured: The ensemble cast of Marin Theatre Company’s production of "Sovereignty.” — Elizabeth Frances (left), Adam Magill, Kholan Studi, Scott Coopwood, Andrew Roa and Robert I. Mesa — signs the Treaty of New Echota.(Photo: Kevin Berne, Marin Theatre Company)

To be clear, I know many smart, self-confident Cherokee women who have married or dated abusive non-Indian men whose anti-Indian prejudice (or exotification of Indian women, as the two go hand in hand) lies beneath the surface. This violent prejudice often lies beneath the surface until the man’s power is threatened or his identity is triggered. I understand that as a white woman, this is not a reality Ms. Janiak has experienced.

But for myself and my fellow Cherokee (and Native) women, it is a reality that ignorant statements like Ms. Janiak’s only serve to perpetuate. There are two false assumptions in her review that I must address:

1. First, the fact that a Cherokee woman enters into a relationship with an abusive non-Indian man does not diminish or contradict her intelligence as a Cherokee (or Native) woman. Whether or not a man chooses to be abusive to us is not a reflection of our level of intelligence. Instead, it is a reflection of his own free will, as well as a society that condones such violence by telling him it is not his fault, but is instead hers (or ours). This is not our fault. And saying that my character was too smart to agree to marry someone who is abusive falsely assumes that domestic violence will end if women will make smarter choices about who they date and partner with. This kind of thinking only allows the cycle of violence to continue.

2. Second, saying that the non-Indian who became abusive in this play only became abusive because he had alcohol undermines the hard reality that his violence came as an attempt to regain control and power in a personal relationship where his female partner began to soar professionally in ways that he could not control. This is unfortunately incredibly common in the United States — ask any professional advocate working to end domestic violence. Ms. Janiak assumes that the character became abusive based on his “anti-Indian prejudice” — but I did not write a character steeped in anti-Indian prejudice. Instead, this character’s issues were focused on gender, power, and control. It wasn’t until he learned that, by attacking the legitimacy of tribal courts and tribal governments — and by seeking the refuge of a legal blackhole the Supreme Court created in Oliphant — he could escape the consequences of his actions. Once he realized this, he began to use anti-Indian sentiment to advance his goals. To be sure, the “anti-Indian prejudice” that Ms. Janiak writes about infused all of his arguments and comments regarding his prosecution in the Cherokee Nation District Court. Alcohol was certainly an excuse, but it was not the reason. Writing his behavior off as a blatant “anti-Indian” prejudice exposed by a few drinks of alcohol misses the entire reason so many of our Native women are raped, are murdered, or go missing: many non-Indian men have discovered the legal loophole, and they use it.

In 1978, the United States Supreme Court declared that Tribal Nations could no longer arrest or prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on tribal lands. Characters like the perpetrator in my play have learned about this legal loophole, and their desire to use it has very little to do with alcohol. It has everything to do with power.

Today, Native women face the highest rates of domestic violence, sexual assault, and murder in the United States. According to the United States Department of Justice, the majority of these violent crimes committed against Native women are committed by non-Indian men.

In my work as an attorney working to defend the rights of Native women in state, federal, and tribal courts, I have witnessed many relationships between Native women and non-Native men that began much like my characters’ relationship in my play. And I have also witnessed state court judges adopt Ms. Janiak’s assumptions to critique the intelligence and integrity of Native women victims as a justification for denying them the protections they so desperately need to keep themselves and their children safe.

To be clear, Ms. Janiak’s prejudicial and ignorant remarks come with consequences. Namely, the perpetuation of a culture that blames Native women for the violence committed against them. Until or unless we address these assumptions, we will only perpetuate the societal attitudes and federal laws that allow the violence to continue.

A lot of people think American society confronted and addressed this sort of prejudice in the #MeToo movement. Clearly that is not the case.

Clearly there is more work to do.

Mary Kathryn Nagle, is a playwright and a partner at Pipestem Law, a firm specializing in tribal sovereignty of Native nations and peoples. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma  and currently serves as the executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program (YIPAP).

Comments (3)
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LoriJump
LoriJump

Ignorance is dangerous and must be challenged. Kudos to MK Nagel for doing so so eloquently.

dwyerj1
dwyerj1

Blame the victim??? Marrying a liberal-white breadloaf honkey frequently isn't a Native woman's safe path out of reservation-ghettos. Perhaps one major reason for aboriginals to look askance at the practice? The walls must come down and USAns should welcome the knowledge of what Native Americans have actually endured and still do. Mapping onto Sovereignty ideals that do not fit with the realities of Res-life or Covington Catholic (KY) is unjust. The Washington incident demonstrates that many USAns have no regard for the sovereign leaders of the Native nations, just as our government frequently does not accord them the respect that is even regularly given to tin-pot "leaders" of nations we "feel" superior to. In 1978, the Christopher Columbus-like United States Supreme Court's Oliphant decision presents a totally unjust code that continues to attack the legitimacy of tribal courts and tribal governments, "allowing" men the "right" to commit crimes (even murder and rape) there with impunity. We are coming to understand there are too many border walls beyond which criminals escape the consequences of their actions. Even the wall around our POTUS should not permit the person at the desk in the Oval Office to escape responsibility for and consequences of his his/ her actions and words.

StephenCarrHampton
StephenCarrHampton

Wow. For a remarkably parallel story of a white critic questioning the writing and assumptions of an indigenous writer (also with respect to white male sexual power dynamics), check out the short story "Jumping Monkey Hill" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which is in her collection of short stories called The Thing Around Your Neck.