The Cherokee Night

by Lynn Riggs

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340

The Cherokee Night is structured like a series of vignettes, all of which take place at or near Claremore Mound, Oklahoma. The setting is important because land is closely associated with history and tradition. The burial mound is a metaphor for the buried culture and history of the once-powerful Cherokee Nation. There is a sense of place and time throughout the play, and one of the most blatant examples of this is the generational gap between the group of youths and characters like Old Man Talbert and John Gray-Wolf.

These two characters represent the older generation who are much closer to their Cherokee roots than the younger generation of American Indians. Another example of cultural erasure is the fact that members of the group are mixed-race (part white and part Cherokee or Osage). What is important about this is not so much the fact that the youth are not one hundred percent Cherokee genetically, but that they are not as in touch with their indigenous culture as their elders—at least partly because they have internalized harmful white narratives about Native people. This is what sets them apart from the older generation, who grew up in non-mixed households.

Despite the subtle commentary on race relations and preserving indigenous culture, the play is essentially about morality. This gives the play's story a universality, even though the sense of morality is also connected to how in touch or out of touch the characters are with their indigenous roots. Riggs, who is also mixed-race, shows empathy and understanding toward both white and Native American cultures.

The political tension between the two ethnic groups is much more complicated than blaming one another for the social and economic issues going on in reservations across the United States. While the atrocities committed by white settlers—especially by the US government—had a devastating effect on the Cherokees' quality of life, Riggs's play takes the stance that it was the corruption and immorality found in the Cherokee community itself after this devastation that contributed to further issues.

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