Analysis

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Last Reviewed on September 18, 2019, 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.

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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.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 285

Claremore Mound

Claremore Mound. Scene of a nineteenth century massacre of Osages by Cherokees in the last big battle between the two tribes. Claremont, chief of the Osages, is believed to be buried there. The play chronicles, through several decades of the lives of selected characters, the subsequent decline of the Cherokees.

*Claremore

*Claremore. Town in northeastern Oklahoma in whose Rogers County jail Bee Newcomb, a one-quarter Cherokee prostitute, betrays Art Osburn, also part Cherokee, who has been arrested for the murder of his older Indian wife. Viney Jones, a former country schoolteacher, has totally rejected her Cherokee heritage and moved to Quapaw, where her husband is mayor.

Whiteturkey farmhouse

Whiteturkey farmhouse. Ramshackle home of Kate Whiteturkey, a rich Osage woman who owns three Stutz Bearcats; located in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, near the Kansas state line. Hutch Moree, Viney’s former companion, is living with Whiteturkey; he is a “kept man,” completely dominated by Kate—an ironic reversal of the Cherokees’ great victory at Claremore Mound.

Eagle Bluff

Eagle Bluff. Edge of a sheer cliff overlooking the Illinois River and the town of Tahlequah, seat of the Cherokee Nation, and the fields and woods of the river valley below. Young Gar Breeden, a half-breed Cherokee, climbs the bluff after running away from his “guardeen” in Claremore. He is captured by members of a religious sect who believe themselves to be one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. They steal cattle, hogs, and grain from the Cherokee farms below. In their religion, they worship the sun, rain, and snow as much as they worship Jesus. In one of the most striking ironies in the play, menacing white fanatics have even appropriated the nature worship of the Cherokees.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 243

Braunlich, Phyllis Cole. “The Cherokee Night of R. Lynn Riggs.” Midwest Quarterly 30 (Autumn, 1988): 45-59. By far the best critical discussion of the play. Braunlich takes up matters of characterization, experimentation in plot, and the main theme of the work itself: the disintegration of the Cherokee people.

Braunlich, Phyllis Cole. “The Oklahoma Plays of R. Lynn Riggs.” World Literature Today 64, no. 3 (Summer, 1990): 390-394. The critic discusses The Cherokee Night as it relates to other plays written by Lynn Riggs during the same period. She finds this play to have a “dark mood” that makes for “haunting reading.”

Scharine, Richard G. From Class to Caste in American Drama: Political and Social Themes Since the 1930’s. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. Scharine discusses The Cherokee Night within the context of biculturalism produced by the miscegenation of white people and Cherokees. He explores the problems of assimilation into mainstream culture.

Sievers, Wieder David. Freud on Broadway: A History of Psychoanalysis and the American Drama. New York: Cooper Square, 1955. Sievers provides something of a Jungian interpretation of the play, finding in it elements of racial memory which account for the basic conflicts of the work.

Sper, Felix. From Native Roots. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1948. Finding the play to be a “semifantasy,” Sper claims that the play basically applauds the cause of the American Indians. He states that the American Indians of mixed ancestry are taking a position against the white people’s God, a position from which they cannot win.

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