It has been two years since I first saw the musical Nanyehi, written by Becky Hobbs and Nick Sweet. The musical is based on the story of the last Cherokee ghigau, Nanyehi (also known as Nancy Ward). She lived from about 1738 to about 1822. I have a particular interest in this woman because she was my sixth great grandmother. Nanyehi was caught between the worlds of Europeans and Cherokees, and between peace and war. She was a war heroine who, all of her life, led the way to peace. Of course, for the Cherokees, neither the path of war nor of peace ultimately worked; both paths led to the United States conquering the Cherokee. We remain a conquered nation today.
The first set of performances was supported by the Eastern Band of the Cherokees in Hartwell, Georgia in 2012. The second set was sponsored by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in Tahlequah in 2013. This was where I first saw it. There were other performances in 2014: in Tulsa, Oklahoma (I saw this one), and Kingsport, Tennessee. The fifth set of performances has just ended in Tulsa, where I saw it last night.
In 2013, I wrote rapturously about this musical in this blog. After seeing it three times my opinion remains unchanged. Each time it is performed (with Michelle Honaker as Nanyehi and Travis Fite as Tsiyu Gansini) it gets better and better in every way. Becky and Nick have added a couple of new musical pieces since the first performance, which are among the best: “Love Doesn’t Come in Colors” and “War or Peace.” These pieces focus on some of the most important themes: the warrior Tsiyu Gansini is displeased with his peaceful cousin Nanyehi marrying a white man (Bryant Ward, my sixth great grandfather) or with her championing of the way of peace. You can find all information about this musical, including the stories and lyrics of all the pieces, at the website.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the evolution of this musical is that it has already become a classic. There are already famous lines from it, such as when peace chief Attakullakulla says that “Cherokee women have always done and will always do whatever they want.” But most of all it has become a new tribal tradition. In its first performances, it needed support from the tribe; the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma paid for every Cherokee citizen who wanted to attend the 2013 Tahlequah performance. But last night the performance hall at the Cherokee Casino was totally filled. And what was the most common thing that I heard people talking about after the performance? The most common words were “Aren’t you glad you came?” and “Wasn’t that good?” and “See you again next year right here.”
The story of Nanyehi is only sparsely documented in books. Search for “Nancy Ward” on Amazon and you find only old books or children’s books or chapters within other books. I believe it is time that someone write a really good popular book about this astonishing woman who was important not only in Cherokee but in American history. Actually, I have a manuscript that I hope to market very soon. The words at the end of the theme song of the musical are “You will be heard!” but most people have never heard of Nancy Ward. I hope that my future writing, and the continued success of Becky and Nick’s musical, will fix this problem.
The issues faced by Nancy Ward and her warrior cousin are still with us today. Does war lead to peace, as Tsiyu Gansini said, or must we pursue peace as our primary goal, as Nanyehi said? This exact same story is going on in the Middle East today.
Another important aspect of the story of Nancy Ward is what some writers have called the sacred feminine. Civilization and organized religion have enforced male domination and crushed women into a subservient role. For example…well, look at all of recorded history. And look at the world today. But in many tribal societies, including the Cherokees, women often had important positions of leadership. As ghigau, Nanyehi could decide the fates of war captives. Primitive Christianity, when the church first started, was dismissed by outsiders as a religion for women and slaves. But eventually women lost their power: the church became entirely patriarchal, and in the early nineteenth century the Cherokee Nation reorganized itself to imitate American governance. Once the Cherokee Nation had a constitution, beginning in New Echota in 1827 (now in Georgia), only men could vote or hold office. The sacred feminine of nurture and peace was lost in the Cherokees just as in almost all other tribes, nations, and institutions. In a world that is still largely patriarchal, Nanyehi (Nancy Ward) remains a heroine worthy of our admiration. She was not perfect, but who was?
You don’t have to be Cherokee to be totally swept away by the story of Nancy Ward. If any of you ever get the chance to see the musical, don’t miss it! Hey you people in California, get on a plane and come back here next year to see it! Watch for information on the website. It just might restore a little faith that humanity has some goodness left in it.