Native American students ‘tell our own stories’ through new performance program

The Yale Group for the Study of Native America (YGSNA) has launched a three-year pilot program to support indigenous performing arts at the university. The Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program (YIPAP), which officially began in September, is headed by Mary Kathryn Nagle, a nationally renowned playwright, member of the Cherokee Nation, and partner at Pipestem Law Firm, P.C.

Nagle first came to Yale last March to mount her play “Sliver of a Full Moon” in the Yale Law School auditorium. With a cast of 15 — including Native students at Yale, professional actors, and domestic violence survivors — the drama traced the years-long struggle by tribal leaders and activists to pass the 2013 Violence Against Women Act.

“It was a transformative experience for the students, who performed in front of more than 300 people, including well-known judges and tribal leaders,” said Nagle. “Students came up to me and said they had never seen a play with Native people on stage before in their entire lives. Not ever. We can tell our own stories. We don’t have to watch white people pretend to be us, which is a revolutionary act in the U.S. right now.”

After the performance of “Sliver of a Full Moon,” Nagle kept in touch with students and faculty at Yale, including Ned Blackhawk, professor of history and American studies, and program director at YGSNA. “We saw the need for and value of indigenous performance on campus so that Native students have a chance to see themselves reflected in the art around them,” she said.

YIPAP has since mounted a second play Nagle authored, “My Father’s Bones,” with an all-student cast, and brought a theater group to campus. The group is also sponsoring a film festival, “Through Indian Eyes,” from Nov. 30 to Dec. 5. The goal is to include members of Yale’s Native American student community in the productions and programs.

According to Blackhawk, Nagle has “an incomparable ability” to translate American Indian legal issues into dramatic form. “Mary Kathryn’s plays have helped to enrich and heal our community,” said Blackhawk. “It is a cathartic process for not only those who witness the play, but for those who perform in it. Some of the students are learning for the first time about these subjects and doing so in an experiential way. It connects them with their own families’ and communities’ struggles for justice, and empowers them to speak and articulate their own concerns.”

Blackhawk said he sees the performing arts program working in concert with public health programs at Yale. Chris Cutter, a psychologist and associate research scientist in the Yale School of Medicine, is affiliated with YGSNA and working with the group to develop mental health support programs.

“I do think about healing and health when I think of my plays, because I think about intergenerational trauma for Native communities,” said Nagle. “Wearing a lawyer’s hat, I’m also thinking about changing the law to achieve justice for our communities. It’s been really interesting to interface with Chris Cutter, who is coming from a mental health perspective.”

Yale’s Native American students have been deeply involved in protests at the university this semester, including the publication of Down Magazine for students of color at Yale.

“It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of the students who were involved in the performing arts program last spring are now active in this movement,” said Blackhawk. “They’ve learned to speak truth to power and to articulate their struggles for justice.”

Several students have talked to Nagle about plays currently being staged in the United States that use red face, she said. “Well-intentioned people don’t understand that red face is no different than black face. Both were created to perpetuate a legal framework that could only happen through the dehumanization of an entire group of people. People use it today, not understanding that’s where it came from, but it doesn’t change the impact or what it creates in our culture. It’s traumatizing for a Native person to have to watch that.”

Nagle said that the YIPAP program helps Native students on campus develop their own voices, and write and perform their own stories. She noted that was the case with Sebastian Medina-Tayac ’16, a co-editor of Down Magazine, who played the Mayor in “My Father’s Bones.” The play recounts the 62-year ordeal of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma to bring their most famous tribal member, football legend Jim Thorpe, home to complete his Sac and Fox burial ceremony, which had been interrupted when an Oklahoma state trooper removed his body from the tribe’s religious service.

“Sebi had never been in a play before, but he stole the show,” said Nagle. “There’s something about the community here. The students are so talented and so interested in performing.”

Medina-Tayac, who is also the immediate past-president of the Association of Native American Students at Yale, said, “I think the possibilities for the performing arts program are really exciting. It’s great to bring that spirit into the Native American Cultural Center. It’s groundbreaking considering the possibilities of performance.” 

The indigenous performing arts program will benefit from additional funds that President Peter Salovey recently pledged to Yale’s cultural centers.

“For the university to commit resources to this program — which is not affiliated with a professional school or academic department — to say there is value in having pre-med students and chemistry majors and history majors have a theatrical experience, says a lot about the values of this institution,” said Nagle.

Nagle added that the student reaction at Yale following “Sliver of a Full Moon” changed her perspective on the need for this kind of programming in schools across the country.

She hopes to launch a national student playwriting contest in the spring, open to Native high school and college students across the country. A panel of judges including trained theater professionals will review the plays and select the top one to three winners, who will be invited to Yale for public readings of their work and to run workshops with students.

“I want to encourage all students who are interested to write their own plays or create their own performance, and to guide and support them,” she said.

Blackhawk added that at some point they would like to have the Yale performing arts community travel to work with Native American student communities across the country.

“We’re doing something that no other place among our peer schools is doing in terms of Native theater,” he said.

On the legal front

In addition to supporting performing arts, Yale professor Ned Blackhawk and playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle continue legal and scholarly efforts to prevent the erosion of American Indian tribal jurisdiction. Most recently, an op-ed by Blackhawk appeared in the New York Times about an action brought by the Dollar General Corporation against the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians; the case comes before the Supreme Court on Dec. 7.  Nagle wrote about the issue on the blog, The Opportunity Agenda. They both also collaborated in the preparation of amicus briefs in support of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.