Not many Native playwrights have their plays produced at major theaters, much less have them commissioned by them. But that’s not why Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty , running at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC until February 18, stands out. Nagle deftly interlaces the present and the past in her work, explaining Native American history while revealing important truths about our country. When a white man stumbles, sloppy drunk, across the stage, it marks a turning point early in the first act. Upon spotting his “Make America Great Again” T-shirt, the audience instantly turns from merry to hushed. When the drunk meets the imposing hulk of a police officer, he doesn’t balk; he’s full of liquid confidence. No Indian is going to tell him what to do, even if he is on tribal land. The man spits out an epithet and lands a punch.
The scene is chilling and sickeningly familiar. But Donald Trump, of course, didn’t invent racism, and neither did his acolytes. This fictional scene in Sovereignty is based on a very real and rather old story. In 1973, a man named Mark David Oliphant was arrested for assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. Oliphant, a non-Indian living among Suquamish people in northwest Washington, protested that the tribal police had no jurisdiction over him; essentially, he argued, any tribal judge or jury who convicted him would not represent a panel of his peers. He took his case to the Supreme Court of the United States, and in 1978, he won.
For the previous century and a half, tribal governments had complete jurisdiction over their lands. If anyone—Native Americans and non-Indians alike—committed a crime, they were prosecuted in the tribal court. But the Oliphant decision set a new precedent. Since 1978, non-Indians have not been prosecuted by tribal authorities. At the same time, local and state police have no jurisdiction over these lands, either. Only the federal government has power over non-Indians on Indian land. And if the feds do not deem it a priority to intervene, a criminal gets away scot-free.
Kyla García (Sarah Polson) in ‘Sovereignty’ / C. Stanley Photography
“Today, Native women are more likely to be murdered, raped, and abused than any other American population,” Mary Kathryn Nagle points out. And the majority of these crimes— 86 percent —are committed by non-Native men.
Protecting these women has become an important part of Nagle’s work. In addition to writing plays and essays, Nagle is a lawyer specializing in Native sovereignty, with a special focus on implementing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). “Our tribal nations have been stripped of our rights to protect our women from the majority of people who harm them on tribal lands,” Nagle says. “We live in a culture that promotes violence against women, and, in particular, against Native women.”
Women aren’t the only targets. Native children are exposed to trauma three times more than their peers in the United States. In 2003, a thirteen-year-old boy said that the white manager of a Dollar General store molested him in a store on tribal land. Federal prosecutors refused to bring charges, a shockingly common decision; it happened 67 percent of the time between 2005 and 2009. In turn, the boy’s family filed a civil lawsuit against Dollar General. The company, which has a market value of $20 billion, responded by entreating the Supreme Court to complete the “ unfinished business ” begun by Oliphant in 1978 and to expand protections for non-Indian criminals.
“It’s a story that I’ve wanted to write my whole life,” Nagle says. She began writing the play about Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe and its repercussions for Native self-rule in 2015, before anyone could have predicted the renewed relevance of Andrew Jackson, whose portrait now rests in Trump’s Oval Office. Yet it’s impossible to see Sovereignty and not draw parallels to these times. “I knew it was relevant,” Nagle says. “But I didn’t predict the ways in which the audience would feel its relevance.”
Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) and Jake Waid (John Ross/Jim Ross) in ‘Sovereignty’ / C. Stanley Photography
The story is timely, but it’s also as old as bigotry itself. Thomas Jefferson, while enshrining the rights of white men in the Declaration of Independence, singled Native Americans out as “merciless savages.” Andrew Jackson made a target of Native peoples, and refused to enforce John Marshall’s decision in Worcester v. Georgia granting tribal self-rule. Jackson and Martin Van Buren carried out the forced removal of Native Americans to what was then Indian Territory. During World War II, President Roosevelt ordered that Japanese Americans be rounded up and placed in internment camps, many of which were built on Native lands, over the objections of tribal governments.
For many people, Trump’s election was a huge wake-up call—but for many Native Americans, it was nothing new. This oppression has been going on for hundreds of years. “And we’ve never addressed it,” Nagle says. “In fact, we’ve silenced some of the most critical aspects of our nation’s history. We don’t teach our children what really happened. American constitutional rights violations are happening right and left. We need a fuller exploration of that part of our history—a fuller accounting of it.”
As a lawyer, Nagle is painfully conscious of the ways legal frameworks may be used to dehumanize people. So she tells stories, too, in order to fight back.
“To be an effective lawyer, you have to be a good storyteller,” Nagle says. “ The stories that Americans tell about tribal nations are either inaccurate, or they’re just nonexistent. Theatre is an excellent way to open people’s hearts and minds to a story they’ve never encountered before. We’re not going to change the laws and policies that affect us until we tell the stories of the silenced.”
Kalani Queypo (John Ridge) and Dorea Schmidt (Sarah Bird Northrup/Flora) in ‘Sovereignty’ / C. Stanley Photography
For Nagle, the story is a highly personal one. Her great-grandfathers took another legal case, Worcester v. Georgia, to the Supreme Court, and won, establishing tribal sovereignty in 1832. When Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the ruling—“John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it,” he reportedly said—Nagle’s ancestors signed a treaty that would grant them sovereignty if they moved from Georgia to Oklahoma. After the treaty was signed, Native Americans were rounded up and marched to Oklahoma in what became known as the Trail of Tears.
Cleverly showing the circularity of history, the same actors portray past and present characters as the play moves between historical and present-day legal battles over tribal autonomy. The duality of the play’s timeline also speaks to the immensity of the playwright’s task: to educate and entertain simultaneously.
“I have to find artful and meaningful ways for characters to discuss things that most Americans have never learned,” Nagle says. For instance, the father of the main character mentions in passing that he went to Chilocco. It’s a reference to Chilocco Indian Agricultural School—a boarding school Native students were forced to attend, where the curriculum reportedly included breaking rocks from a nearby quarry. Most people, Nagle knows, will not know what Chilocco was, nor will they understand the painful legacy of the residential schools among Native Americans. “There are going to be things that people don’t understand, and I’m hoping that they’re inspired to learn more,” she says.
She adds that her play “is not going to make up for everything that people didn’t learn in school.” Her goal, instead, is simply to start the conversation. “I’m hoping that I’m sending people off on the beginning of a journey. This is just the first step.”
Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) and Kyla García (Sarah Polson) in ‘Sovereignty’ / C. Stanley Photography
Nagle, an enrolled member of Cherokee nation, has at times been shocked by how little many Americans know about Native peoples. “There seems to be this idea that American Indians are a remnant of the past, not actual people who have voices and important stories to be shared today,” she says. “We’re sitting next to you, we’re standing behind you in the grocery line, we’re voting; we are citizens of the United States and citizens of tribal nations. And we still exist! But that is a narrative that is sort of revolutionary to some people.”
In the opening essay of , Nasty Women an anthology also featuring an essay by Nagle on Native sovereignty, the book’s co-editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay asks: “Do we recognize that different groups of people experience unique challenges based on their identity and organize around and embrace those differences, or do we ignore them in service of a more universal, uniform understanding of Americanness?” In other words: When we talk about making America “great again,” for whom are we making it great? What does it mean to be American?
These questions, too, are central in Sovereignty. Sovereignty means freedom from external powers or controlling influences. It’s about autonomy, about ruling and protecting one’s own people. It’s about independence—an ambition as American as apple pie.
But sovereignty is not just about self-determination. It's about self-protection. “It’s about surviving,” Nagle says. “That’s what my grandfathers did, and that’s why we’re still here today.”
Michael Glenn (Samuel Worcester/Mitch), Todd Scofield (White Chorus Man), Jake Hart (Elias Boudinot/Watie) and Kalani Queypo (John Ridge) in ‘Sovereignty’ / C. Stanley Photography
Nagle also sees a path forward—a way to do more than just survive. VAWA, the law she has worked to implement, may one day provide a new precedent for tribal sovereignty. By allowing tribal courts to prosecute crimes against women committed by non-Indians—even if they occur on tribal lands—VAWA could open the door to restore Native self-protection.
“It’s very heartening to know that this might be the law right now in the United States, but the reason this law still exists is because most people don’t know about it,” Nagle says. “As soon as people know about it, they say, ‘That’s wrong. That can’t be.’ To me, that signals that there’s a real opportunity for change here.”