Look up the Treaty of New Echota and you will learn that the U.S. government and the Cherokee Nation signed it in 1835. At the time, the Cherokee people lived in what had, in 1788, become the state of Georgia. The treaty provided the legal basis for the Trail of Tears — the forcible removal of thousands of Cherokees from their ancestral lands in 1838. In a brutal cross-country trek, they were relocated to what is now the state of Oklahoma. Upwards of 4,000 people died along the way.
Even cursory research on the Treaty of New Echota will also yield the following information: The Cherokee signers were considered traitors who did not speak for their people. For their actions, three members of one family, the Ridges, were assassinated by their tribesmen in 1839.
“I think most Cherokees today would say that the Ridges signed the Treaty of New Echota to make money. I know it’s not true. I know because it’s my family, but there’s also no evidence of that. They weren’t paid,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, a direct descendant of Major Ridge, who was an influential leader in the Cherokee Nation before he signed the treaty.
Nagle is a lawyer who specializes in the sovereignty rights of tribal governments and in federal Indian law, as well as a playwright who focuses on stories of tribal sovereignty issues. Her most recent work, Sovereignty, is about the signing of the Treaty of New Echota and the modern-day struggle over legal jurisdiction on tribal lands.
Maura Dhu Studi directs a staged reading of Sovereignty on Saturday, Sept. 7, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. It features performances by award-winning Cherokee actor Wes Studi; his niece, DeLanna Studi; and his son, Kholan Studi. The reading is a fund-raiser for Silver Bullet Productions, a nonprofit educational film company established to empower tribal youth. Sovereignty was commissioned by the Arena Stage at Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C., where it had its premiere staged reading in 2018, also starring Wes and DeLanna Studi.
Dhu Studi described Sovereignty as a powerful political drama that goes beyond the expected nature of legal proceedings to encompass an area of American jurisprudence of which the public is largely ignorant. “In an average courtroom drama, at least people know the expected procedure,” she said. “But procedure, with these treaties, was ignored and broken. This is all new information for people.”
The concept of sovereignty, and the treaties between sovereign nations, are fundamental to American history. As a brand-new, fledgling country that had established itself on occupied lands, the United States relied on treaties to build trust in the international community. “Hey, look, Europe, we can make treaties, too. Look, London, we have this ability,” said Wes Studi, explaining the actions of the young U.S. government. “That’s how they built their own sovereignty — by treaty with us.”
Sovereignty is a complicated story that is both dramatically compelling and chock-full of legal concepts that are unfamiliar to non-Native and Native audiences alike. The plot moves fluidly between the 19th and 21st centuries, with actors playing roles in both time periods. The richly detailed historical story line concerns the relationship between Major Ridge (Wes Studi) and John Ross (Kenneth Ruthardt), the chief of the Cherokee Nation. Friends and confidants disagree about the provisions of the treaty: Ross does not want to leave Georgia, while Ridge, believing the people will be slaughtered if they stay, thinks relocation is the best option for survival. Ridge signs the treaty along with his son, John Ridge (Robert I. Mesa), and his nephew, the journalist Elias Boudinot (Kholan Studi). In the eyes of many, they did not represent all of the Cherokee Nation — and 16,000 Cherokees signed a petition in opposition to the treaty. The United States honored it anyway.
In Sovereignty’s present-day story line, Sarah Polson (DeLanna Studi), is a lawyer and direct descendent of Major Ridge. She has returned to the Cherokee Nation to work for the attorney general’s office. An immediate conflict: Her new boss is a direct descendent of Ross. Together, they fight to restore the right of Native American nations to prosecute non-Native people who commit crimes on tribal lands. Nagle explained that the Supreme Court struck down this right in the 1978 case Oliphant v. Suquamish.
“In Oliphant, the court cites an 1823 decision [ Johnson v. M’Intosh] that basically says that tribal nations can’t claim legal title to their land. Therefore, they can’t exercise jurisdiction over it. The 1823 decision talks very directly about how Indians are racially inferior savages and heathens who don’t farm and don’t worship Christ. The 1823 decision, which has never been overturned, is the basis of the 1978 decision stripping our nations of their inherent right to protect their own citizens on tribal land,” Nagle said. She added that the 1823 decision was based on a false premise, anyway. “Indians did farm. We’d been cultivating the land since time immemorial, and we’re the reason the first pilgrims who showed up here didn’t starve to death.”
One of the ramifications of Oliphant is that indigenous women on tribal lands experience extremely high rates of violence at the hands of non-indigenous men, Nagle said, because tribal police can’t arrest them — and the FBI, which can, rarely comes in to deal with such situations. In 2013, a reauthorization of the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) included a provision that allows tribes to arrest and prosecute non-indigenous perpetrators of domestic violence (although, Nagle said, it doesn’t provide for the prosecution of assailants who are unknown to their victims). This finer point of VAWA becomes an important plot twist in Sovereignty, when Polson’s personal and professional lives collide. (The act expired in 2018 and has not been renewed; reauthorization was approved in the House earlier this year but has not cleared the Senate.)
Here, characters echo and mirror one another between the two time periods in which the play is set. For instance, Wes Studi plays Major Ridge as well as Sarah’s father, Roger, who has never felt welcome in the Cherokee Nation. Vaughn Irving, the actor who plays Sarah’s non-Native fiancé in the present, also plays President Andrew Jackson, considered the architect of the Indian Removal Act, which forced numerous tribes from their lands under penalty of death. In the script’s character notes, Nagle describes Jackson as a man who believed Indians were an inferior race that should disappear from the face of the earth. And yet, during the War of 1812, Major Ridge fought beside Jackson — and, Nagle said, saved his life.
Nothing about Major Ridge’s decision to sign the Treaty of New Echota was simple, Nagle said. This perceived betrayal of her people by her ancestors has followed her throughout her life.
“It’s very much a part of my family,” she said. “We’re still trying to heal. My grandmother was very proud of my grandfathers. She would take me to the cemetery once or twice a year to show me where they’re buried. But I also learned not to tell people who I was.”
When Nagle began writing Sovereignty in 2015, she realized her ancestry would become public, so she started outing herself. “There were several people who said, ‘I think your grandfathers were traitors.’ They had nothing kind to say about my family. I’m hoping that with this play, some of that will begin to change and that Cherokee Nation citizens can understand that my family was not trying to harm Cherokee Nation or gain anything personally or financially. Just like Principal Chief John Ross, my family was doing everything they could to save Cherokee Nation.” ◀
▼ Sovereignty, staged reading of the play by Mary Kathryn Nagle
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7
▼ $45-$85; 505-988-1234, tickets.lensic.org/events