The Cherokee Night

by Lynn Riggs

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Critical Evaluation

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Structurally, Lynn Riggs’s drama The Cherokee Night is actually a series of seven “mini-plays” that the playwright calls “scenes.” Each of the seven scenes is populated with different characters, although some do appear in as many as three of these episodes. Each of the seven scenes has a different plot. These scenes are not directly or even indirectly connected to each other. Moreover, each scene is set in a different time, and the sequence is not chronological. An “experimental” play for the 1930’s, Riggs’s work was well ahead of its time. Consequently, this deserving and worthy work was not generally well received by critics and has been produced only infrequently.

Thematically, the play does succeed as a unified whole. Riggs’s main point is revealed by the title The Cherokee Night. He depicts the disintegration of the Cherokee nation as it is slowly consumed by white people’s religion, government, agriculture, industry, and way of life. Most of all, however, the Cherokee nation has disintegrated primarily through its loss of bloodline; all of the characters except Gray-Wolf are of mixed ancestry. They have not been assumed into the white society, but they have chosen to leave the old ways behind—all to their own destruction. Viney Jones, educated in the schools of the white people’s culture, is given over to the white culture’s ways because of money; Kate and Clabe Whiteturkey are similarly bribed. Gar and Spench Breeden have assumed all of the vices of white people: drunkenness, theft, laziness, and materialism. Bee Newcomb is a prostitute who will sell out her Cherokee brothers for money, and a small amount at that.

The play is also unified by setting. All seven scenes are either on or in the shadow of Claremore Mound, Oklahoma, at once a burial ground for the Cherokee and Osage and the location of many important battles, both between the two tribes and against the white people. Claremore Mound, an embodiment of the past and a shroud of American Indian graves and history, ominously and perpetually casts its shadow over all activities of the present generation of Cherokee and Osage.

The older generation of Indians is represented by two characters. Old Man Talbert collects arrowheads, artifacts which to him can magically work to resurrect the dignity and integrity of his heritage. He must do this to keep his heritage alive. To the younger people of mixed ancestry, however, they serve only as symbols of times gone by, a life that is no more, and a way of being which is meaningless. Similarly, John Gray-Wolf survives as something on the order of the last person of character. He fully understands the white people and knows what has happened to the younger generation of American Indians. They have taken on all of the evil characteristics of the pervasive white society while simultaneously abandoning all that is good about their own traditions and heritage. The result is that they are in the worst of circumstances—both materially and morally—by actions of their own design.

Lynn Riggs, himself part Cherokee, understood very well the fallacy of blaming whites for all that was wrong with American Indian society. The settlers took the land and killed the buffalo and so on, but such offenses did not deal the final death blow that produced the “Cherokee night.” Even the miscegenation between American Indians and white people, though perhaps a contributing factor, is not the ultimate reason that the Indian identity disintegrates into nothingness or, more correctly, transforms into decay and corruption. The Cherokees bring “night” upon themselves.

This theme, revealed primarily through characterization, singularly holds together the...

(This entire section contains 723 words.)

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play as a statement of politics as well as of morality. The chronological order of the seven scenes, though clear to persons reading the script, is entirely perplexing to viewers. Similarly, it is confusing for one watching the play to determine who the various characters are at different ages of their lives; moreover, three or four of the main characters have different marital names or nicknames, or are variously identified by such titles as “young man.” Doubtlessly, all of this is by design on the part of the writer. Riggs is concerned with thematics, not readily discernible consistencies in plot. Such design reinforces the idea of “Cherokee night” as the last whimper of Cherokee death.