The National Theatre was born out of the wishes of the Washington elite, who wanted a major theatre that could compete with those in more established metropolitan cities like New York and Philadelphia. Since its establishment in 1835, it has served that exact purpose, and sometimes provided the ideal destination for significant visitors. That was the case on a September night in 1837, when The National was still young and Washington, D.C. was playing host to the leaders of several Native Nations there to sign a collection of land cession treaties. The Native chiefs and their delegations attended The National at the behest of the theatre’s management and took in the opera The Mountain Sylph, with celebrated performer Annette Nelson in the leading role. While their time at The National was not part of the official state visit per se, the Native delegates would have been mindful of what their attendance meant and what awaited at the negotiating table later. What transpired was an exchange of gifts that can be understood as a kind of political performance in and of itself.
Before taking a closer look at this event, it is important to establish a basic understanding of the political affairs that were unfolding and where Washington, D.C. fell in that process. For starters, we should acknowledge that this city, like the vast majority of American cities, was built on land that was forcibly taken from its indigenous inhabitants. What we now know as Washington, D.C. sits on the ancestral land of the Anacostia people, sometimes documented as the Nacotchtank. The surrounding area, with its intersecting rivers that made it such prime real estate for a nation’s capital, have been home to numerous tribes, including the Piscataway, Pamunkey, Nentego, Mattaponi, Chickahominy, Monacan, and Powhatan. With the arrival of European settlers came war and disease, which lead to mass deaths and the eventual forced relocation of several tribes into other areas. Eventually, the Anacostia were so ravaged that their remaining numbers were welcomed into the Piscataway Conoy tribe, which still resides in the D.C. and Maryland areas. This pattern of war, genocide, and relocation was repeated across the entirety of the United States, taking many lives and aggressively restricting the land rights of tribal nations whose presence far, far exceeded the arrival of White settlers.
The cause that brought several Native leaders to Washington, D.C. in September of 1837 was part of a more regimented (though still frequently oppressive) negotiation process leading to the cession of tribal land and the expansion of the United States. The leaders who visited that evening represented the Dakota (in this case, the particular group sometimes known as the Yankton Sioux), Iowa, Sac (or Sauk), and Fox (or Meskwaki) tribes. Their stay in Washington eventually concluded with the signing of several treaties concerning the lands in the present-day Midwest around the Great Lakes. While those treaties are sometimes praised for their fairness and simplicity, this view is not universally held. Indeed, the Dakota representatives arrived in Washington assuming they were there to negotiate peace with the Sacs and Foxes. Instead, they signed over a portion of their land in present-day Minnesota, which was highly sought after for a variety of business interests. While the United States was quite happy with the terms, it represented a turning point in Dakota-government relations that heavily influenced the next treaty signed in 1851; indeed, distrust in the government grew after 1837 and remained a consistent feature of how the Dakota documented their history with the United States ever since. While these kinds of treaties effectively signed the expansion of the United States into law, they were almost always contentious, in part because they severely limited the rights of the Native tribes and validated the aggressive and often violent expansion of the colonial settlers. In fact, the arrival of the contingent in 1837 came just a year before the United States forced thousands of Cherokee to march from present-day Georgia to Oklahoma in the brutal passage that came to be known as the infamous Trail of Tears.
Considering these circumstances, it is important to observe coverage of the delegation’s visit to The National with some skepticism. For starters, we do not have existing records of the delegates actually speaking on their own behalf, only newspaper accounts catering to White readers. According to many papers of the time, the arrival of the Natives was mostly seen as cause for consternation for many White Washington citizens, who might have wondered why the Natives were allowed to walk the streets armed and unescorted. In addition, there was a general sense among the citizenry that the Native contingent was comparatively “uncivilized.” This may have contributed to the accounts, documented in the book Stage for a Nation, of the tribal leaders’ visit to The National Theatre. Apparently, the attending chiefs were very much taken with the performance of Annette Nelson in The Mountain Sylph, particularly with her grand entrance from the ceiling. At the conclusion of the performance, Chief Palaneapape (Struck by the Ree), the leader of the Dakota delegation, leapt to his feet and threw his impressive ceremonial headdress on the stage in praise of her performance. Others quickly followed suit, with the Dakota being particularly extravagant in their celebration of Nelson. Nelson apparently returned the favor during her curtain call when she presented each of the chiefs with an enormous ostrich feather to adorn their headdresses.
While it may be that the chiefs were genuinely moved by Nelson’s performance, it is also important to understand the cultural nuances at play and this performance’s role as something of an unofficial state occasion. Again, the newspaper coverage of the time painted the Native contingent as “untutored” and awed by the performance of Nelson. Yet it is important to recall that they came from cultures with their own rich performance traditions, which included, for example, the Wakan Wacipi (Holy Dance or Medicine Dance, pictured in the painting above), a complex ceremonial event that served as both public worship and the exclusive rites of established members in Dakota society. Indeed, they may have found The Mountain Sylph, and everything about their trip to The National, as weird as it was beautiful. It is also important to bear in mind that the chiefs were probably very aware of their role as representatives of their people and as visiting leaders in Washington. Showering Nelson with praise, and maybe even taking steps to one up each other in the process, could have been part of a plan to endear themselves to the city and demonstrate a willingness to work at the negotiating table. After all, one could not be sure what leading figure was in The National’s auditorium that night. In any case, the visit of the Native contingent was not unusual during the period leading up to the Civil War, nor is it unusual for politics to be a performance in itself, based just as much as any theatrical production on playing particular roles and dictating the narrative when given the opportunity. Unfortunately, many Native lives, stories, and performances were suppressed or erased by the land seizures, legal and otherwise, perpetuated by the United States before, during, and after this occasion. Reckoning with that past, and putting it right where possible, is an ongoing project.
The affairs of 1837, and the long history of land cession and seizure that marks American history, still affect American life today. Fortunately, some Native American theatre artists are fighting not only to protect their culture but draw attention to ongoing issues regarding Native rights to land. In her site-specific play Urban Rez, playwright Larissa Fasthorse tackles that very issue in the heart of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is home to thousands of Native Americans, yet it has no federally recognized tribes, in part because the Native population is made up of people from various ethnic groups, some of which were forced to move to Los Angeles. Fasthorse confronts this fact in UrbanRez by inviting audience members to attend an immersive fair complete with different booths covering such things as “Appreciation vs. Appropriation,” “Instant Karma/Guilt Reduction,” “Federal Government Booth,” and “Mapping the Area/Google Maps 1491.” In the tradition of site specific performance, the play draws meaning from its location in Los Angeles and the way it allows audience members to move from booth to booth. In this way, audience members learn about significant issues in Native communities and the messy politics of federal recognition. To learn more about Urban Rez and Fasthorse’s touring show Native Nation, check out the Cornerstone Theater Company website. You can also learn more about how Fasthorse and two other Native playwrights, Mary Kathryn Nagle and DeLanna Studi, are making waves in this American Theatre article, which includes a link to more Native theatre artists making great work today.
“1837 Land Cession Treaties with the Ojibwe & Dakota.” TreatiesMatter.org. Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, http://treatiesmatter.org/treaties/land/1837-ojibwe-dakota, accessed 15 March, 2021.
Beveridge, Daniel M. Introduction to The Red Road and Other Narratives of the Dakota Sioux. Edited by Daniel M. Beveridge and Jurgita Antoine. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020.
Clemmons, Linda M. “‘We Will Talk of Nothing Else’: Dakota Interpretations of the Treat of 1837.” Great Plains Quarterly 25, no. 3 (2005): 173-185.
Lee, Douglas Bennett, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy. Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre, 150 Years. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.