The first Europeans to arrive in what is now the United States came from a world of rulers and conquerors. When they encountered indigenous societies, they did not understand that women held as much power as men and that tribes rarely had a single chief who made decisions for all of their people.
“Even throughout history, the people we have called leaders were not leaders. They were just the wisest person or the mediator, ”explains Maura Dhu Studi, meditating on the themes of Manahatta, a play by Mary Kathryn Nagle that explores the cultural misunderstandings behind the “sale” of Manhattan Island to the Dutch in 1626 by the Lenape tribe.
The Lenapes did not have the same concept of ownership as the settlers. While the Lenape believed they shared the land and became a big family, the Dutch assumed they bought the island of what was then known as Manahatta – a Lenape word – and the Indians would simply leave or would suffer the consequences.
The play is a work of fiction, but it is grounded in real events. “It’s based on an assumption that this may be how it turned out,” says Dhu Studi. “There were a lot of other tribes in Manhattan. [The Lenape] were not the only ones there – which underlines how ridiculous it is that the Dutch thought they could buy this land from a tribe in the area.
Dhu Studi conducts a staged reading of Manahatta Saturday October 9 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. The event is a fundraiser for Silver Bullet Productions, a nonprofit educational film company established to empower tribal youth. Dhu Studi, who is not Native American, is married to Cherokee actor Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans, Dogs Reservation); both sit on the board of directors of Silver Bullet. Dhu Studi previously conducted a staged reading of Nagle Sovereignty, on the Treaty of New Echota, which was signed between the US government and the Cherokee Nation in 1835. In addition to being a playwright, Nagle is an attorney specializing in tribal government sovereignty rights and federal Indian law.
“She knows a lot about it every time she takes on a business,” says Dhu Studi. Nagle will participate in a question-and-answer session with the audience after the reading.
In leaps between eras, Nagle juxtaposes the shady 17th-century land deal with the 2008 financial crisis, in which thousands of people lost their homes to predatory lenders. In the modern age, Jane Snake works for Lehman Brothers Holding, the New York investment bank that filed for bankruptcy when the markets collapsed. As Jane moves up the corporate ladder, we see her mother, Bobbie, return home to Oklahoma, where the Delaware Lenapes were relocated when that area became Indian territory in 1867. Bobbie’s home is owned by family for generations, but she gets drawn into a subprime mortgage when unable to pay her late husband’s medical bills.
Each actor of Manahatta plays two characters, one in the past and the other in the present, and the action moves between centuries, as well as locations. This is represented by costume and lighting changes, as well as projections behind the cast to establish the venue. “Mary Kathryn’s pieces are very minimal in terms of production values, very modern,” says Dhu Studi. “The only difference between my staged readings and a full production is that the actors wear [scripts]. But they are moving.
Lily Gladstone plays Jane Snake and Le-le-wa’-you, a 17th-century Lenape woman who is interested in commerce and trade with the Dutch. Gladstone, who is in Martin Scorsese’s next film, Moon Flower Killers, played Jane in the 2020 Yale Repertory Theater production of Manahatta. Carla Rae (Rutherford Falls) was also in the Yale Rep production, and she is reprising her roles as Bobbie and Mother, a Lenape matriarchal frontman.
In his review of Yale Rep’s production for the Hartford Current, Christopher Arnott writes: “There are a lot of big hero / villain clichés in the story, but Nagle infuses this historical tale of persecution with a strong female energy, including the kind of independent and strong female characters that we don’t see. not often enough in plays. . … Manahatta develops empathy and compassion for its victims of land and house grabs, but also shows how, due to their core cultural values, they treat these losses differently from others. The notion of ownership comes up often. Spiritual peace is maintained under the most difficult circumstances. Tragic moments are tempered by those of hope and perseverance.
In Manahatta, Jane’s sister, Debra (Dawn Lura), runs a language revitalization program and is learning Lenape, their mother’s native language. Dhu Studi says that Bobbie’s imperfect English is part of the reason she struggles to understand the risks of the subprime mortgage, as the language of these documents is difficult for untrained people to understand. The same problem arises in the historical chronology. Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Kholan Studi) speaks English, but that does not mean that he understands the nuances of the Dutch position, nor that he cannot effectively convey Lenape’s point of view. Nagle describes the Dutch negotiators as condescending and borderline buffoons. They exclaim with amused awe when Lenape women show up to do business with the men but utter a few words in English. Once the land deal is done, however, their surface-level displays of benevolence turn murderous.
“It was not always peaceful between the different tribes, but the land was for everyone, just coexisting in the natural world, using what the Creator gave you,” says Dhu Studi. “The tribes have made deals with each other – this tribe can come near where we live to hunt, that sort of thing. But the whole concept of owning and selling land was not something they understood. We don’t learn that at school. Conquerors write history to flatter themselves. When they are dealing with aboriginal people, it is full of misunderstandings and misconceptions.