It’s one of the most powerful moments in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s brilliant play Fairly Traceable:
Erin, a young Native American environmental lawyer, explains to her also-Native ex-boyfriend why she must one day have children.
Earlier, she had argued in court that the oil industry should be liable for its role in the global warming that energized Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, storms that set records for their destruction and power in 2005. It’s an intensely personal matter for her. She’s a descendant of the Chitimacha Indians and a member of the small Pointe-au-Chien tribe, which experienced devastating losses when those storms smashed into coastal Louisiana.
Speaking with her ex Randy, Erin invokes the long history of American oppression against indigenous peoples:
Climate change isn’t the reason I can’t have kids. It’s the reason I have to have them. If I, as a Chitimacha woman, if I decide to not have kids, well, I’m just helping the United States government finish what it couldn’t quite complete a hundred years ago.
It hit me as an audience member, through my tears and sniffles, that for Erin, having and raising Pointe-au-Chien children would be an act of defiance. As I sat with my own thoughts the next day, it hit me that this scene very much speaks to my being a dad during the Trump administration. It tells me that raising children can be an act of resistance.
Many of us who are deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s ascent to the most humanly powerful position in the world have spoken of resistance a lot since Election Day. We’ve especially used the term when discussing how we can respond to his administration’s numerous inhumane, racially scapegoating, financially self-serving, blatantly unchristian, and just plain bizarre actions, proposals, and statements.
We’ve also, naturally, created a hashtag, #resist, which has found a corollary, #persist, thanks to Mitch McConnell’s infamous quashing of Elizabeth Warren’s speech in the U.S. Senate. And some of us have even adopted the symbol of the Resistance, the good guys in the new series of Star Wars films.
Of course, when it comes to resisting, the stakes are much greater for real-life Natives than they are for me. As an ethnic Han Chinese, I am one of 1.3 billion of my people. The Pointe-au-Chien, on the other hand, number in the hundreds. Resisting societal and institutional injustice is for them a matter of survival, as it is for many Native tribes.
After all, the genocide of Native peoples never really ended. It is just less overt than it used to be.
The long-term nature of the suffering of Native peoples and other marginalized groups points to the value of raising kids to resist and persist as activists and allies. To succeed, the battle against injustice has to outlive us. So through our influence on the next generation, we can help to sustain movements that insist on treating all human beings with the dignity, respect, empathy, and love that Creator says they deserve.
This is a comfort to me. Like many folks engaged in social justice work, I have bouts of what I’ll call “activist’s guilt.” That’s the nagging sense that even after I’ve taken one, two, or more steps of action on a particular issue, I still haven’t done enough.
Sometimes, that’s true; I haven’t done enough. But other times, I have to recognize that I can only do my part, and I’ll have to count on others to do theirs, too. Repeatedly giving in to “activist’s guilt” leads to rapid burnout for many who engage in advocacy.
A recent example of my “activist’s guilt” centered on the women’s marches the day after Inauguration Day. Due to some family commitments, I wasn’t able to participate. I felt like I was doing something wrong by not going. A graphic that made the rounds on social media at the time captured my feelings:
That moment when you’re about to join the revolution and you realize you’d promised to take the kids to the park. pic.twitter.com/T8Z53TcfNZ
— Medieval Problems (@Medieval_Probs) December 28, 2016
Erin in Fairly Traceable reminds me that along with directly serving people who are facing oppression, and marching, organizing, and speaking out as an ally, my work as a parent can very much be an activist endeavor as well. Resisting and persisting happens as I educate my girls about discrimination, nurture their capacity for empathy, and help them determine ways to take action.
It seems like it’s paying off so far. My ten year old is passionate about many areas of social justice, and a couple of years ago, when her teacher asked her class members to name what they wanted to be when they grew up, she said an activist. (You bet your right and left pant legs that I was proud!) Later that year, when they were assigned to do first-person biographical reports on historical figures, my daughter departed from the standard list and decided on Maria Tallchief, America’s first world-famous ballerina, both because she loves dance and because Ms. Tallchief was a member of the Osage Nation.
When the time came for the California rite of passage known as the fourth grade missions project, she chose the mission that seemed to her the most liberal-minded toward Natives, San Luis Rey de Francia, while recognizing that the Spanish colonial project there was still tantamount to slavery. And a few weeks ago, when her fifth-grade class went to the school media room to watch Trump’s inauguration on TV, she asked to be exempted! (I did tell her afterward that I totally would have been okay if she had gone to see it, given the educational value of the occasion.)
My seven year old is passionate about environmental issues. At home, she monitors the rest of our family’s water usage because California is in the midst of a drought; she has drawn and posted reminders in both of our apartment’s bathrooms. If we’re driving around after dark, she points out neighborhoods and establishments that are causing excessive light pollution. When I referred to climate change recently in her hearing, she offered, “I hate climate change.” And a few weeks ago, when she saw #noDAPL painted on a car in our neighborhood, she exclaimed, “The Dakota pipeline!”
Trying to raise my daughters to be activists and allies makes my child-rearing an attempted act of resistance. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t also take other steps of action, but it does mean that how I parent is just as important as the rest of my advocacy work.
I trust that Fairly Traceable will speak to you in a profound way, just as it did to me. The phrase “fairly traceable” is actually legal terminology from the pen of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. It appears in his 1992 majority opinion for Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife.
But if you feel skittish about seeing a play that explores legal doctrine, let me assure you that this work isn’t dry or overly intellectual at all. Ms. Nagle has an uncanny ability, as both a playwright and law firm partner, to take issues of law and present them in ways that are not just educational, but entertaining and compelling. Her masterful play Sliver of a Full Moon does the same thing with the legislative process. In Sliver, she’s able to present the work of congressional coalition-building for the Violence Against Women Act as the pressure-packed, high-stakes drama that it really was for Native tribes.
Three days after seeing Fairly Traceable – and I’d love to see it again – I still feel like there’s more I need to process. That’s probably because the play taps into so many themes with deep human resonance. Heritage and ancestry, race and culture, romance and loss, family and faith, oppression and struggle, science and law, and life and death all intersect meaningfully during the two-hour performance, which includes a brief intermission. Experiencing Fairly Traceable was like going on a powerful journey during which I laughed a lot, cried some, and left hopeful.
The play is clearly a labor of love for Native America, the environment, the state of Louisiana, and humanity as a whole. Ms. Nagle, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, was a student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans when Katrina hit, much like the lead characters Randy, played by Jason Grasl (Blackfeet), and Erin, played by Kyla Garcia (Taíno). Jennifer Bobiwash (Ojibway), Kinsale Hueston (Navajo-Diné), Chris Jorie, Shyla Marlin (Choctaw), and John Nielsen complete the outstanding cast, each of whom hits all the right notes with his or her character.
I rarely say that something is must-see, but Fairly Traceable is! It’s playing in Los Angeles at the Autry Museum’s Wells Fargo Theater through March 26. It’s recommended for ages 13 and up. See specific times and get tickets here.
What are you waiting for?
For my previous posts about being an ally for my Native brothers and sisters, visit my old blog, Raising Asian American Daughters: