The Cherokee Night

by Lynn Riggs

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Cherokee Night is a play written by part-Cherokee author Rollie Lynn Riggs. It is considered the first play ever written by an indigenous person in the United States, although some argue that Riggs considered himself mostly an Oklahoman. It explores themes of oppression, Cherokee nationhood, and the disconnect that white settlers created between indigenous people and their historical traditions.

The Oppression of Indigenous Peoples

The theme of oppression is evident throughout the play; many of the characters' lives are shaped directly by the ways that they are treated by white society and the government for having Cherokee ancestry. White settler narratives about indigenous people make their way deep into the heads of many of the young characters and inform their self-perception, causing them to have little faith in themselves. Riggs seeks to challenge the idea that Cherokee blood makes for bad people. In a discussion with the elder Gray-Wolf, for instance, Spench is reminded that his restlessness and self-destructiveness are things that he learned from the white settlers, not things that come with being Cherokee.

Cherokee Nationhood and Relationships

The theme of Cherokee nationhood is core to Riggs's intentions in writing the play. The relationships between characters, and the connections they share with each other, are evidence of the existence of the Cherokee nation even though they have been deprived the ability to function as such (at the time of writing, tribal governments, religions, and language had been officially outlawed). By showing the ways that relationships function in this community, Riggs hoped to force audiences to challenge the assumptions they held about Cherokee people and their social bonds.

Caught Between Two Worlds

The theme of disconnect from historical tradition is explored in the relationships between characters because of their blood quanta and their relationship to white settler culture. Many of the young characters with mixed blood find themselves trapped between two societies and feeling like they can never quite fit into either. This is a common theme for mixed-race authors to explore, because of the ways that society enforces racial groupings as socially meaningful.

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