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Revolution and challenge

Sterlin Harjo and Mary Kathryn Nagle tell stories to push Native art forward

Mary Kathryn Nagle

On Saturday, April 21, filmmakers/playwrights Sterlin Harjo and Mary Kathryn Nagle will teach a Native writing and theater workshop. They’ll discuss the craft of and challenges in depicting Native stories in our country.

“It’s no mystery why there are struggles for Native writers,” said Harjo, who is Seminole and Creek. “But I never got too hung up on that. … I’ve plowed ahead. And I’ve seen a shift—people like Mary Kathryn Nagle have come out of obscurity and been celebrated around the country.”

The Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock in 2016, he believes, started to wake up the world.

Nagle, who is Cherokee, also uses her work to challenge our culture.

“We live in a world where all Native writers have experienced silencing in a different form or fashion,” she said. “All Native artists have been excluded in some way. Most theaters in the U.S. have never produced a single Native play. It’s an act of revolution and a challenge, asking a theater to consider a work of art they’ve either purposely decided [to leave out] or [haven’t acknowledged] for whatever reason—your work challenges this and asks them to reconsider, and that’s not easy.”

Harjo believes support is one of the most important elements in all groups of artists and that because of the tightknit nature of Native and artist communities, “all of us, we support each other. It’s never felt like I was struggling.” But that doesn’t take away from the hard work.

“We just have to keep making our art,” Nagle said. “Unfortunately, [Natives are] held to a higher standard. It has to be pristine. We’re scrutinized in a different way. If your play is the only Native play a theater has ever done, it better be good.”

Both artists have long shared a love for writing and storytelling—Nagle said she’s loved to write ever since she learned how. “I like telling stories,” Harjo said. “I’m not doing this because I think I’m going to get rich.” Their approaches have proven successful; Harjo was recently hired for a film rewrite in L.A. and has a project in development with VICE, and Nagle’s play “Manahatta” just opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“It’s felt like a rebellion,” Harjo said. “This is a choice. I’m gonna fight those odds and write. Culture can catch up to me if they want.”

Native Writing & Theater Workshop: Sterlin Harjo and Mary Kathryn Nagle
Sat., April 21, 2–4 p.m.
Woody Guthrie Center Auditorium, 102 E. M.B. Brady St.
Pre-registration required via tulsalitfest.org

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