“Sovereignty: A Play” and a landmark legal decision for Native Americans

by Mary Kathryn Nagel

On July 9, in the case of McGirt v. Oklahoma, the US Supreme Court issued a watershed decision for Native American legal rights. The 5-4 decision acknowledged that the US government must honor its 1866 grant of nineteen million acres to the Muscogee Nation. In her 2018 play, Sovereignty, Native American lawyer and playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle dramatized many of the exact issues that McGirt v. Oklahoma addressed. Below is a scene from her play.

SARAH is a citizen of Cherokee Nation and a graduate of Yale Law School who returns home after a long absence. WATIE is her brother. He works for the Cherokee Nation police force. BEN is a Special Victims Unit police officer in present-day Oklahoma. MITCH is non-Indian lawyer living in Oklahoma and a childhood friend of Sarah and Watie.

BEN: So crazy to be standing there—you know, two sets of police, and neither one of us could do anything.

SARAH: Because of Oliphant.

BEN: An elephant?

MITCH and SARAH: Oliphant.

MITCH: Supreme Court case.

WATIE: Oh no. Two attorneys in the same room.

SARAH: In 1978 the Supreme Court said Tribes can no longer exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who come onto tribal lands and commit a crime.

BEN: That’s just wrong.

SARAH: Tell that to your United States Supreme Court.

BEN: You don’t like the court?

SARAH: I respect it.

BEN: So you’re like a Catholic that hates the Vatican.

SARAH: It’s hard to worship an institution that always decides against you.

BEN: You’ve never won a case?

SARAH: Worcester v. Georgia.

WATIE: We won a case in 1822.

SARAH: Thirty-two.

WATIE: Thirty-two, excuse me.

BEN: Rooster v. Georgia?

SARAH: Yes, but pronounced “wooster.”

BEN: Indians have weird names.

WATIE: Worcester was white.

SARAH: We won that case. And we’ve lost ever since.

BEN: So you’re telling me that because of this Elephant case, I could steal your car, I could steal your yoga mat—

SARAH: I don’t do yoga.

BEN: But if you did—

SARAH: You could set my house on fire, graffiti our courthouse, kill someone, basically do whatever you want, and Cherokee Nation could never prosecute you. But, if Cherokee Nation were to actually get off its butt and implement VAWA, we could prosecute domestic violence crimes perpetrated by non-Indians.

WATIE: Va what?

SARAH: Violence Against Women Act. You don’t know about the Violence Against Women Act?

WATIE: I’m a man.

SARAH: Just six years ago, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act with a tribal jurisdiction provision in it.

WATIE: You lost me at authorized. Can I make a suggestion? Skip anything above two syllables.

BEN: VA-WA, that works.

SARAH: In VAWA, Congress restored a piece of our criminal jurisdiction. The criminal jurisdiction that Oliphant took away.

WATIE: Jur-is-dic-shun. You lost me at dick.

SARAH: You know jurisdiction.

WATIE: I know we don’t have it. Over white guys.

SARAH: And I’m telling you that VAWA restored it. A piece of it.

WATIE: Oh. Wow.

SARAH: Yeah.

WATIE: Why didn’t you tell me that in the first place?

SARAH: I swear. Sometimes I want to hit you.

MITCH: You’re not the only one.

BEN [to SARAH]: Are you this passionate about everything in life?

MARY KATHRYN NAGLE is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Her play Sliver of a Full Moon has been performed at law schools across the United States, and she has received commissions from Arena Stage, the Rose Theater, Portland Center Stage, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Yale Repertory Theatre, Round House Theatre, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She served as the first executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program from 2015 to 2019. Nagle is also a partner at Pipestem Law, P.C., where she works to protect tribal sovereignty and the inherent right of Indian Nations to protect their women and children from domestic violence and sexual assault. She has authored numerous briefs in federal appellate courts, including the United States Supreme Court.

Sovereignty unfolds over two parallel timelines. In present-day Oklahoma, a young Cherokee lawyer, Sarah Ridge Polson, and her colleague Jim Ross defend the inherent jurisdiction of Cherokee Nation in the US Supreme Court when a non-Indian defendant challenges the Nation’s authority to prosecute non-Indian perpetrators of domestic violence. Their collaboration is juxtaposed with scenes from 1835, when Cherokee Nation was eight hundred miles to the east in the southern Appalachians. That year, Sarah’s and Jim’s ancestors, historic Cherokee rivals, were bitterly divided over a proposed treaty with the administration of Andrew Jackson, the Treaty of New Echota, which led to the nation’s removal to Oklahoma on the infamous Trail of Tears. Taking as its point of departure the story of one lawyer’s passionate defense of the rights of her people to prosecute non-natives who commit crimes on reservations, Sovereignty opens up into an expansive exploration of the circular continuity of history, human memory, and the power of human relationships.

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“Miss Muriel”

ALMOST EVERY DAY, Ruth Davis and I walk home from school together. We walk very slowly because we like to talk to each other and we don’t get much chance in school or after school either. We are very much alike. We are both twelve years old and we are freshmen in high school and we never study—well, not very much, because we learn faster than the rest of the class. We laugh about the same things and we are curious about the same things. We even wear our hair in the same style—thick braids halfway down our backs. We are not alike in one respect. She is white and I am black.

Yesterday when we reached the building that houses my father’s drugstore, we sat down on the front steps—long wooden steps that go all the way across the front of the building. Ruth said, “I wish I lived here,” and patted the steps though they are very splintery.

Aunt Sophronia must have heard our voices, because she came to the door and said, “I left my shoes at the shoemaker’s this morning. Please go and get them for me,” and she handed me a little cardboard ticket with a number on it.

“You want to come with me, Ruth?”

“I’ve got to go home. I’m sure my aunt will have things for me to do. Just like your aunt.” She smiled at Aunt Sophronia. I walked partway home with Ruth and then turned back and went up Petticoat Lane toward the shoemaker’s shop. Mr. Bemish, the shoemaker, is a little white man with gray hair. He has a glass eye. This eye is not the same color as his own eye. It is a deeper gray. If I stand too close to him, I get a squeam­ish feeling because one eye moves in its socket and the other eye does not.

Mr. Bemish and I are friends. I am always taking shoes to his shop to be repaired. We do not own a horse and buggy and so we walk a great deal. In fact, there is a family rule that we must walk any distance under three miles. As a result, our shoes are in constant need of repair, the soles and heels have to be replaced, and we always seem to be in need of shoelaces. Quite often I snag the uppers on the bull briars in the woods and then the tears have to be stitched.

When I went to get Aunt Sophronia’s shoes, Mr. Bemish was sitting near the window. It is a big window and he has a very nice view of the street. He had on his leather apron and his eyeglasses. His glasses are small and they have steel rims. He was sewing a shoe and he had a long length of waxed linen thread in his needle. He waxes the thread himself.

I handed him the ticket and he got up from his workbench to get the shoes. I saw that he had separated them from the other shoes. These are Aunt Sophronia’s store shoes. They had been polished so that they shone like patent leather. They lay alone, near the front of the table where he keeps the shoes he has repaired. He leaned toward me and I moved away from him. I did not like being so close to his glass eye.

“The lady who brought these shoes in. Who is she?”

I looked at him and raised one eyebrow. It has taken me two months of constant practice in front of a mirror to master the art of lifting one eyebrow.

Mr. Bemish said, “What’s the matter with you? Didn’t you hear what I said? Who was that lady who brought these shoes in?”

Excerpted from “Miss Muriel,” the title story in Miss Muriel and Other Stories.

Ann Petry

ANN PETRY (1908–1997) was a reporter, pharmacist, social worker, and community activist. She illuminated the range of black and white experience in her novels, short stories, and other writing. Her book The Street was the first novel by an African American woman to sell more than a million copies. Her novels The Narrows and Country Place are also available from Northwestern University Press.

This edition published in 2017 by Northwestern University Press with a new by foreword by Jamilah Lemieux. Copyright © 1945, 1947, 1958, 1963, 1965, 1967, 1971 by Ann Petry. Foreword copyright © 2017 by Jamilah Lemieux. Published 2017 by Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

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The Dead Season

Excerpted from Collected Stories by Bruno Schulz. Translated from the Polish by Madeline G. Levine and with a foreword by Rivka Galchen.

“Bruno Schulz is arguably the most influential author the Polish language has ever known . . . Levine finally allows English-language readers to spend time with the living Bruno Schulz—serious, funny and breathtakingly real.” ⁠—Times Literary Supplement

At five in the morning, a morning brilliant from early sunshine, our house had already been bathed for a long time in ardent and quiet morning radiance. At that solemn hour, unobserved by anyone—while across the room in the semidarkness of lowered drapes the peaceful breathing of sleeping people still moved in solidarity—in total silence it entered into the facade that was blazing in the sunlight, into the silence of the early heat, as if its entire surface were made of blissfully slumbering eyelids. Thus, profiting from the silence of those solemn hours, it swallowed the very first fire of morning with a blissfully slumbering face, fainter in the radiance, with the arrangement of its features trembling slightly in the dream-filled sleep of that intense hour. The shadow of the acacia in front of the house, waving brightly on those burning eyelids, repeated on their surface as if on a piano, over and over again, the same glittering phrase washed away by a breeze, vainly attempting to penetrate the depths of that golden dream. The canvas drapes absorbed the morning heat, portion after portion, and grew darkly suntanned, swooning in the boundless radiance.

Bruno Schulz, self portrait, 1920-1922

At that early hour, my father, no longer able to find sleep, descended the stairs, laden with his books, in order to open the shop, which was located on the ground floor of our apartment building. He stood motionless in the entrance for a moment, withstanding with tightly closed eyes the powerful attack of fiery sunshine. The sun-bright wall of the house drew him sweetly into its blissfully leveled flatness, smoothed down to the point of disappearance. For a moment he became a flat father, grown into the facade, and he felt his arms, branching out, trembling and warm, fuse flat amid the golden stucco decorations of the facade. (How many fathers have already grown permanently into a facade at five in the morning, at the moment when they stepped off the bottom step of a staircase? How many fathers have become in this way forever the keepers of their own door, flatly sculpted onto the frame, with a hand on the door handle and a face unfolded into the same parallel, blissful grooves over which their sons’ fingers would later travel lovingly, seeking the last traces of their fathers now merged forever into the universal smile of the facade?) But then he detached himself with his last bit of will, regained the third dimension, and turned into a man once again, freeing the shackled shop door from its padlocks and iron bars.

When he opened the heavy, ironclad wing of the shop door the grumbling gloom retreated one step from the entrance, drew back a few inches into the depths of the shop, changed its place, and lay down lazily inside. Invisibly giving off steam from the still-cool paving stones of the sidewalk, the morning freshness stood timidly on the threshold as a faint, trembling strip of air. Deep inside, the darkness of many previous days and nights lay in the unopened bales of cloth that were arranged in layers and ran in rows into the interior, in muffled parades and pilgrimages, until it came powerlessly to a stop in the very heart of the shop, in the dark stockroom, where, already undifferentiated and replete with itself, it dissolved into the silent, looming, ur-matter of cloth.

Father walked along that tall wall of cheviot wools and twills, trailing his hand along the edges of cloth bales as if along the slits of women’s dresses. Under his touch, the rows of blind torsos that were always ready to panic, to break out of line, would calm down and consolidate in their cloth hierarchies and order.

BRUNO SCHULZ (1892–1942) was a Polish Jew born in Drohobych, at the time a city in Austrian Galicia. He published two volumes of short fiction during his life. Shot in the street by a Nazi officer in German-occupied Drohobych, Schulz achieved posthumous fame as one of the most influential European fiction writers of the twentieth century.

MADELINE G. LEVINE is Kenan Professor of Slavic Literatures Emerita at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her translations from the Polish include The Woman from Hamburg and Other True Stories by Hanna Krall, Bread for the Departed by Bogdan Wojdowski, and four volumes of prose by Czeslaw Milosz, including Beginning with My Streets: Essays and Recollections and Milosz’s ABC’s.

“Crossing”

By Sterling Brown

This is not Jordan River
There lies not Canaan
There is still
One more wide river to cross.

This is the Mississippi
And the stars tell us only
That this is not the road.

We do not know
If any have reached that Canaan
We have received no word.

Behind us the belling pack
Beyond them the hunters
Before us the dismal swamp.

We do not know. . . .

We have exchanged Louisiana for Mississippi
Merely
Georgia for Florida
Carolina for Tennessee.

We have passed, repassed
So many rivers
Okmulgee, Chattahoochee,
St. Mary’s, Mississippi,
Alabama, Tennessee,
Mississippi.
We have leapt
From swamp land
Into marshes
We have won through
To bloodred clay
To gravel and rock
To the baked lands
To the scorched barrens.

And we grow footsore
And muscle weary
Our faces grow sullen
And our hearts numb

We do not know. . . .

We know only
That there lies not Canaan
That this is no River Jordan.

Still are we motherless children
Still are we dragging travelers
Alone, and a long ways from home.

Still with the hard earth for our folding bed
Still with our head pillowed upon a rock

And still
With one more river,
Oh, one wide river to cross.

BROWN.inddSTERLING A. BROWN (1901–1989) was one of the most important and influential figures in the development of African American literature and criticism in the twentieth century. Born in Washington, D.C., he was not only a poet but also a distinguished folklorist, anthologist, critic, and reviewer. Brown was a professor at Howard University for forty years.

From The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown; edited by Michael S. Harper, foreword by Cornelius Eady. Copyright © 1980 by Sterling A. Brown. Published 1989 by TriQuarterly Books/Another Chicago Press by arrangement with Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. This edition published 2020 by arrangement with the John L. Dennis Revocable Trust.

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John Moutoussamy House, 361 East Eighty-Ninth Place

by Lee Bey

An excerpt from Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side

John Moutoussamy was the first black architect to make partner at a majority white Chicago architecture firm. His Johnson Publishing Building on South Michigan Avenue is still the only downtown skyscraper designed by a black person.

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John Moutoussamy House, 361 East Eighty-Ninth Place
Architect Moutoussamy designed this elegant one-story home for himself and his family

Lesser known is the refined modernist home Moutoussamy designed for himself, his wife, and three children at 361 East Eighty-Ninth Place in the South Side’s Chatham community. Built in 1954, the blonde-brick residence is elegant in its simplicity; the home and its integrated garage greet the street as a single rectangular piece.

The Moutoussamy House is part of a notable cluster of modernist houses that were built in Chatham as the neighborhood became a prime spot for solidly middle-class and well-off African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s.

Bey.headshot

LEE BEY is a photographer, writer, lecturer, and consultant who documents and interprets the built environment—and the often complex political, social, and racial forces that shape spaces and places. His writing on architecture and urban design has been featured in ArchitectChicago magazine, Architectural Record, and many news outlets. His photography has appeared in Chicago ArchitectOld-House JournalCITE, and in international design publications, including Bauwelt and Modulør. A former Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic, Bey is also a senior lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and served as deputy chief of staff for urban planning under former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley.

southern-exposure

From SOUTHERN EXPOSURE: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side. Text and photographs copyright © 2019 by Lee Bey. Foreword copyright © 2019 by Amanda Williams. Published 2019 by Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

Northwestern University Press gratefully acknowledges the support of the the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

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