So, what were you all doing this past weekend while the world was waiting to hear whether the U.S. would attack Syria? As for me, I was at the Cherokee National Holiday in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. My family and I got to listen to a very funny Cherokee storyteller, the incomparable Richard Lewis, and take a brief tour of a reconstructed Cherokee village in the style of the eighteenth century, before most of the tribe adopted white American building styles.
And then in the evening we went to the nearby state university to see a performance of a musical based on the life of my 6th-great-grandmother, a Cherokee woman named Nanyehi, also known as Nancy Ward, who is the most powerful woman in the history of Cherokee tribal government. First she distinguished herself as a war hero. She insisted on accompanying her husband to the Battle of Taliwa in 1755, between the Cherokee and Muskogee tribes. When her husband was killed, she took his rifle and killed the man who had killed her husband, then rallied the Cherokees to a decisive victory. She was given a position of power that allowed her supreme authority to decide the fate of captives and of prisoners of war.
And though a war hero, Nanyehi consistently chose to either release captives or to adopt them into the tribe. This brought her into continual conflict with her cousin, the war leader Dragging Canoe. Throughout this musical, Nanyehi’s path of peace and Dragging Canoe’s path of war came into conflict. It is the same conflict that the world has seen throughout history, and that we see today in our struggle to decide what to do about Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria. It also brings important and evolved components of human nature into sharp contrast.
First let me tell you about the musical Nanyehi, directed by free-lance director Nick Sweet, with music by composer Becky Hobbs (see the website). Both have many credits to their names, but this musical must be the pinnacle of their careers. This is without question the best musical I have ever seen, and this includes Broadway performances of Jersey Boys and Phantom and I think it is even better than 1776. Every aspect of this production, from the quality of the performers (whether as singers or acrobats), most of them local, to the structure and dialogue of each scene, to the beauty of the music, is spectacular. The drama is utterly compelling. I have never cared so deeply and shed as many tears for characters in a play or movie as I did for all the characters in this musical, except for the ones who were evil. Perhaps most importantly, this musical is about a person and a story that is not well known outside of the Cherokee tribe, and not known very well even by most Cherokees. Nick Sweet has outdone his 2002 production, Trail of Tears, and this is no small accomplishment. I believe this musical deserves a permanent place in the hall of fame of American creative productions.
It is difficult to pick out just one thing that is most compelling about this musical, but I think I can do so. The main characters are portrayed as complex human beings. Over and over again, Nanyehi’s path of peace and Dragging Canoe’s path of war come into conflict, and in no case is it clear which one is right. Dragging Canoe is absolutely not portrayed as an evil warrior interfering with Nanyehi’s pursuit of holy peace. They both make decisions that end up causing an immense amount of trouble. Some of Dragging Canoe’s warlike decisions resulted in unnecessary bloodshed, but this is also true of some of Nanyehi’s peaceful decisions. She pardoned a white American prisoner, and in return for this act of mercy the white Americans slaughtered a Cherokee city. Who was right, Dragging Canoe or Nanyehi? To me, the climax point was when Nanyehi surveyed her slaughtered fellow Cherokees, and a white American found her and decided to shoot her also. Dragging Canoe shot him before he could kill Nanyehi. Nanyehi decided to spare the wounded white American. I do not know and I suspect that no one will ever know whether this was the right decision. (I don’t even know whether it really happened, though this musical has inspired me to read as much as I can about Nanyehi, and I may someday find out.) Both the instinct of war and the capacity for peace are part of evolved human nature. They never neutralize each other; they are both always present, always next to one another like strands of color in marble. And so it is to this very day. Should we blast the hell out of Bashar al-Assad? Clearly he and his inner circle deserve annihilation. But will the consequences bring even more suffering?
But this much is clear to me. Peace and prosperity are possible only if both parties consider one another to be humans. Nanyehi pointed out, over and over, that for every enemy warrior you kill, you leave a widow and orphans and bereaved parents. Of course, Dragging Canoe knew this, but he considered it more important to avenge attacks than to forgive them; bereavement of survivors is an unfortunate price to be paid. But what happens when an enemy does not consider you to even be a human? There was a clear example of this in the musical. That example was none other than the government of the United States. It was the American army that slaughtered Cherokee villages and used treachery to do so. Nanyehi died in 1822 and did not live to see the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and to see it brutally carried out on the Cherokee beginning in 1835 in the Trail of Tears (which the Muskogee, Chickasaws, and Choctaws also suffered). According to the character in the musical, this would have broken Nanyehi’s heart and perhaps made her give up her faith in the path of peace, had she known of it. But even in the Trail of Tears, there was some decency mixed with the total evil. President Andrew Jackson, whose life the Cherokees had once saved, even defied the U.S. Supreme Court in order to force the Cherokees out of their land. By order of this commander in chief, Cherokees were put into concentration camps before being put on a forced march. I consider President Jackson to be purely evil and his image on our $20 bill, perhaps the image seen most by the rest of the world, is a national shame. But the general who actually carried out the removal, Gen. Winfield Scott, was as merciful as his orders allowed him to be, and he mourned the suffering of the Cherokees. Jackson did not consider Cherokees to be human. Gen. Scott did.
What better thing can be said about a performance, whether a musical, a movie, or a play, than that it grasps our minds and forces us to face the important, even if insoluble, questions about our own evolved human nature? And the best performance does this without making us depressed. The circumstances around the gradual conquest of the Cherokees are enough to make anyone (not just any Cherokee) depressed, but from this depression we are inspired by spirits of indomitable hope, none better than Nanyehi.