Mary Kathryn Nagle on Native Theater in the 21st Century

Tonight I attended the 4th Annual Berkhofer Lecture hosted by the Department of Native American Studies. This year’s lecturer is a citizen of the Cherokee nation, a lawyer and playwright named Mary Kathryn Nagle. Throughout the lecture, Nagle referred to various pieces of legislation that have affected Native American tribes through the years, particularly Native women and children who are victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Native American women are the most at-risk group of women to be affected by domestic violence and abuse, and nearly 97% experience this abuse at the hands of non-Native people.

Native Americans did not have any jurisdiction over non-Native people who committed crimes on tribal land because of a 1978 Supreme Court case “Oliphant vs. Suquamish Indian Tribe.”  To this day many Native American tribes are still affected by this law, but the 2013 amendments to the Violence Against Women Act slightly expanded their rights on tribal sovereignty, and if the current reauthorization of VAWA goes through in the Senate, the situation will continue to improve.

Mary Kathryn Nagle has written about a half dozen plays about Native American stories from a range of different tribes. She is honest in admitting that many American theatre companies do not want to take on Native plays. Many theatre administrators believe that the audience for such plays would be too small, and they have to “think of the box office.” However, Nagle has been able to get her plays picked up by various companies in Oregon and New York and a few places in between, and she insists that the box office does not suffer in the slightest! She emphasizes the idea that by inflitrating the arts and media with stories of Native people, non-Native people will gain an understanding and perspective of a group that has been oppressed for far too long.

When asked why she has specifically chosen the medium of live theatre in which to tell these stories, her answer is compelling. “By having a Native person stand in front of you and tell their story, you are far more likely to understand their point of view.” She is right. Live performance is a medium unlike any other form of art. Reading something on a page or watching something on a screen does not command you to give the subject your undivided attention. Her argument is that by creating cultural visibility for Native Americans in American society, the visibility will in turn affect legislation and the general public’s treatment of Native American people. I was incredibly inspired by her speech, and it gave me confirmation and hope that the arts truly can make a difference in people’s lives.

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