Interview with Cultural Consultant Brenda Toineeta Pipestem

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Brenda Toineeta Pipestem, enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and Cherokee cultural consultant, is part of the Sovereignty creative team. She has been a cherished contributor to our production processattending rehearsals, discussing Cherokee culture with the artists, suggesting and reviewing research materials, and much more. Interview by MTC Literary Manager/Resident Dramaturg Laura A. Brueckner.

LB: How did you first begin working with Mary Kathryn?

BP: I first met Mary Kathryn at a reading of her play, Waaxe’s Law, about Ponca Chief Standing Bear’s fight in 1879 to be treated as a full person in the eye of American jurisprudence and to remain in his homeland. At the time, tribes were in a huge battle to reaffirm sovereign rights in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Over dinner, we decided to collaborate on a project to tell stories of VAWA advocacy led by Native women. That collaboration became her play, Sliver of a Full Moon. We understood the power of the arts and the need to broadly share (and memorialize) the voices of contemporary Native women on this issue.

LB: Sovereignty is now your second collaboration with Mary Kathryn Nagle. What kinds of support have you provided so far?

BP: I have been a sounding board for Mary Kathryn, offering guidance and advice from my perspective growing up in our homelands of the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, North Carolina, and helping make connections to further her work.

In Sliver, I helped Mary Kathryn connect with Native women who were sharing their stories of domestic violence. We talked a lot about the nature of the script, the messaging, how we would protect the identities of the women sharing the stories if they chose to remain anonymous. All the women interviewed for a Silver of a Full Moon decided to use their names, and participated in numerous readings across the country.

When I first met Mary Kathryn, she had started to summon the courage to tell her family’s story, which, as you will learn from this play, Sovereignty, is complicated. The stories surrounding the signing of the Treaty of New Echota were simplistic and one-sided, and she had family stories that she wanted help confirming. I introduced her to my friend Dr. Duane King, a historian and an honorary member of the Eastern Band Cherokee, who was able to verify her stories. Mary Kathryn had lots of questions for me and I have done my best to answer, mentor and love Mary Kathryn as a sister and as a Cherokee woman. What I have learned is that her grandmother instilled in Mary Kathryn important Cherokee values—the work isn’t about Mary Kathryn any more than it was about her grandfathers.

LB: What’s the relationship between the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokee Nation?

BP: Before the forced removal on the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee Nation was located in the southeast United States. The Eastern Band is comprised of the descendants of Cherokees that avoided the Trail of Tears, plus some who made the trip to the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and then returned to our homelands located in Cherokee, North Carolina. Today there are three Cherokee sovereigns: the Eastern Band, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee, who descend from Cherokees who removed to the Indian Territory prior to the Trail of Tears; and the Cherokee Nation, who descend from the Cherokees who removed to Indian Territory following the Treaty of New Echota. We come from the same people culturally, but all three Cherokee governments are separate, independent entities.

LB: Can you tell us about your work for the Eastern Band Supreme Court?

BP: As an attorney, I am honored to serve as an Eastern Band Supreme Court Justice. It is one way I contribute to my home community. Most Americans don’t know that Tribal governments have courts and courtrooms, adjudicate civil and criminal cases, and generally work to administer justice. Our judiciary consists of a Supreme Court, a trial court, and trial courts of special jurisdiction. 

The jurisdiction of our Judicial Branch extends to all persons, activities, and property within the territory of the Eastern Band—except over matters in which the exercise of jurisdiction has been specifically prohibited by a binding decision of the United States Supreme Court, or by an Act of Congress. The Supreme Court in 1978 in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, for example, held that tribes did not have criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian Americans. As such, the Eastern Band has limited criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit acts of domestic violence against Indians on Tribal lands.

LB: What kinds of cases have legal implications for Cherokee sovereignty?

BP: Every exercise of jurisdiction and enforcement of laws in our courts is an exercise of Tribal sovereignty. The Cherokee Courts exercise civil jurisdiction over everyone doing business on Cherokee lands, Indian and non-Indian; and if there is a civil dispute between a non-Indian person and an Indian person, either party can bring a case in the Cherokee Courts.

LB: As a Cherokee cultural consultant, what do you hope to see in the arts moving forward?

BP: I would love to see more Cherokee stories—Cherokees have a wicked sense of humor, strong family dynamics, and great story lines. It is important that Native peoples today are seen as contemporary, contributing to Native Nations and the greater American society.