When trade becomes theft: 'Manahatta'

Carla-Rae, right, and Shyla Lefner in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Manahatta; photo Joan Marcus 

The first Europeans to arrive in what is now the United States came from a world of rulers and conquerors. When they encountered Indigenous societies, they didn’t understand that women held as much power as men, and that tribes rarely had just one leader who made decisions for all his or her people.

“Even throughout history, people we’ve called chiefs were not rulers. They were just the wisest person or the mediator,” says Maura Dhu Studi, pondering the themes of Manahatta, a play by Mary Kathryn Nagle that explores cultural misunderstandings behind the Lenape Tribe’s “sale” of Manhattan Island to the Dutch in 1626.

The Lenape didn’t have the same concept of ownership as the colonists. While the Lenape thought they were sharing the land and becoming one large family, the Dutch assumed they were buying the island of what was then known as Manahatta — a Lenape word — and that the Indians would simply leave or face the consequences.

The play is a work of fiction, but it’s grounded in real events. “It’s based on a supposition that this may be the way it happened,” Dhu Studi says. “There were many other tribes in Manhattan. [The Lenape] weren’t the only ones there — which underscores how ridiculous it is that the Dutch thought they could buy this land from one tribe in the area.”

Dhu Studi directs a staged reading of Manahatta on Saturday, Oct. 9, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. The event is a fundraiser for Silver Bullet Productions, a nonprofit educational film company established to empower tribal youth. Dhu Studi, who is not Native American, is married to Cherokee actor Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans, Reservation Dogs); both sit on Silver Bullet’s board of directors. Dhu Studi previously directed a staged reading of Nagle’s Sovereignty, about the Treaty of New Echota, which was signed between the U.S. government and the Cherokee Nation in 1835. In addition to being a playwright, Nagle is a lawyer who specializes in the sovereignty rights of tribal governments and federal Indian law.

“She becomes well versed in these issues every time she does a case,” Dhu Studi says. Nagle will participate in a question-and-answer session with the audience after the reading.

In jumps between eras, Nagle juxtaposes the shady 17th-century land deal with the 2008 financial crisis, in which thousands of people lost their homes to predatory lenders. In the modern era, Jane Snake works for Lehman Brothers Holding, the New York City investment bank that filed for bankruptcy when the markets went belly-up. As Jane climbs the corporate ladder, we see her mother, Bobbie, back home in Oklahoma, where the Delaware Lenape were relocated when that region became Indian territory in 1867. Bobbie’s home has been in her family for generations, but she gets sucked into taking on a subprime mortgage when she’s unable to pay her late husband’s medical bills.

Each actor in Manahatta plays two characters, one in the past and one in the present, and the action moves between the centuries, as well as locations. This is represented by costume and lighting changes, as well as projections behind the actors to establish place. “Mary Kathryn’s plays are very minimal in terms of production values, very modern,” Dhu Studi says. “The only difference between my staged readings and a full production is that the actors are carrying [scripts]. But they move around.”

Lily Gladstone plays Jane Snake and Le-le-wa’-you, a 17th-century Lenape woman who is interested in commerce and trade with the Dutch. Gladstone, who is in the upcoming Martin Scorsese movie, Killers of the Flower Moon, played Jane in the 2020 Yale Repertory Theatre production of Manahatta. Carla-Rae (Rutherford Falls) was also in the Yale Rep production, and she reprises her roles as Bobbie and Mother, a Lenape matriarchal leader.

In his review of the Yale Rep production for the Hartford Courant, Christopher Arnott writes, “There are plenty of heavy hero/villain cliches in the story, but Nagle infuses this historical tale of persecution with a strong female energy, including the sort of strong independent woman characters we don’t see often enough in plays. … Manahatta builds empathy and compassion for its victims of land-grabs and house-grabs, but also shows how, due to their core cultural values, they process these losses differently than others might. The concept of ownership comes up a lot. Spiritual peace is maintained under the most trying circumstances. The tragic moments are tempered by ones of hope and perseverance.”

In Manahatta, Jane’s sister, Debra (Dawn Lura), is organizing a language revitalization program and is learning Lenape, their mother’s first language. Dhu Studi says Bobbie’s imperfect English is part of the reason she has trouble understanding the risks of the subprime mortgage, since the language of such documents is difficult for the untrained to understand. The same issue comes up in the historical timeline. Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Kholan Studi) speaks English, but that doesn’t mean he understands the nuances of the Dutch position, nor can he effectively convey the Lenape point of view. Nagle portrays the Dutch dealmakers as condescending and borderline buffoonish. They exclaim with amused awe when Lenape women show up to do business with the men but utter a few words in English. Once the land deal is struck, however, their surface-level displays of benevolence turn murderous.

“Everything wasn’t always peaceful between differing tribes, but the land was for everybody, just co-existing in the natural world, using what Creator gave you,” Dhu Studi says. “Tribes made deals with each other — that this tribe can come near where we live to hunt, that kind of thing. But the whole concept of owning and selling the land wasn’t anything that they understood. You don’t learn this in school. The conquerors write history to flatter themselves. When they’re dealing with Native people, it’s full of misunderstandings and misconceptions.” 

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