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Radcliffe Institute: A Sliver of a Full Moon, but Not the Full Moon Yet

November 19, 2015
News Stories

Radcliffe Institute For Advanced Study Hardvard University - Pat Harrison

Mary Kathryn Nagle wrote the play Sliver of a Full Moon—which will be read today at the Radcliffe Institute—because Native leaders asked her to. Nagle, an attorney and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, was approached by tribal leaders in early 2013 who asked her to interview Native women survivors and share their stories. 

They were trying to explain to people—including Congressional lawmakers—why tribal governments needed their jurisdiction restored on Indian lands. A 1978 Supreme Court ruling, in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, had stripped tribes of criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians on tribal land. One result of this ruling was that when non-Indian men sexually assaulted Native women on Indian land, tribes did not have the authority to prosecute the assailant, and these incidents were occurring more and more frequently.

Nagle began to contact Native women who had survived these attacks and had testified before Congress in the effort to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which included provisions pertaining to the restoration of tribal jurisdiction to protect Native women. In February 2013 Nagle was setting up interviews with the women survivors. “Then all of a sudden,” she says, “VAWA passed the House.”

She was surprised. “I interviewed Congressman Tom Cole, and I asked him, ‘How did this come to be?’ He’s a Republican from Oklahoma, but he’s also a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. Essentially, he told me he got a group of Republican Congressmen together and said, ‘Look, I know that the party leaders say you should vote against tribal jurisdiction, but here’s why I think you should vote for it.’ So the House ended up accepting the bill.” Passage of the bill in the House required 218 votes in favor, and it passed by a vote of 286 to 138.While the play was no longer needed to convince Congress to pass the bill, it was still important for other reasons. “The play has become a vehicle to educate people about the legal issues when it comes to tribes and jurisdiction over non-Indians, which are extraordinarily complicated,” Nagle says. “Even to American Indian lawyers who grow up talking about this and learning about it."

Sliver of a Full Moon dramatizes the plight of Native women who were abused by letting us hear their personal stories. Actors play some of the characters—an actor plays Congressman Tom Cole, for example—but the women who testified before congressional leaders play themselves. The survivors who will be part of the play at Radcliffe are Lisa Brunner of the White Earth Ojibwe, Diane Millich of the Southern Ute Tribe, Billie Jo Rich of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians , and Nettie Warbelow, of the Athabaskan, from the Native Village of Tetlin. The director, Betsy Theobald Richards, like the playwright, is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

While Sliver of a Full Moon is a tale, in Nagle’s words, of “resistance and celebration,” there is more to do. She would like to see the decision in Johnson v. M’Intosh, the 1823 Supreme Court case that says Indians cannot claim legal title to their own lands, overturned. She would also like to see Oliphant overturned. “We had a Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, but we haven’t had that kind of progress when it comes to federal Indian law.” Nagle is eager to present the play at Harvard because, she says, “the future leaders of the United States come out of Harvard. My hope is to educate the members of that community about federal Indian law and how it has and has not failed to progress.”

Online: Radcliffe Institute