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Bar Member’s Play Highlights Impact of Climate Change on Native Americans

November 19, 2021

By John Murph

Clockwise from top left: Mary Kathryn Nagle, Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, Professor Oliver Houck, and actor Chris Jorie
Clockwise from top left: Mary Kathryn Nagle, Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, Professor Oliver Houck, and actor Chris Jorie

On November 12, in recognition of National Native American Heritage Month, the American Bar Association (ABA) presented Fairly Traceable, a virtual stage reading of a “romantic dramedy” created by award-winning Cherokee playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle. Nagle is a D.C. Bar member and partner at Pipestem & Nagle, P.C.

The play derives its name from an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, a 1992 U.S. Supreme court case involving a challenge by an environmental organization to federal regulations issued under the Endangered Species Act. In its ruling against the plaintiff, the Court identified a three-part test for establishing standing in federal court, one of which is proving that the plaintiff’s injury must be “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s conduct.

Fairly Traceable interweaves the themes of ethnic identity and environmental harm. The narrative takes place mostly in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and in Joplin, Missouri. It shifts in time, from the year 2042 to Hurricane Katrina and other succeeding large-scale storms, all of which displaced many Native Americans.

Nagle drew from her own experiences, including a 2011 tornado in Joplin that destroyed a hospital where her father had worked for three decades. The play also draws upon her studies under environmental law professor Oliver A. Houck at Tulane University Law School, where Nagle started in 2005, a week before Hurricane Katrina hit.

Randy (a young Ponca man portrayed by Enrico Nassi) and Erin (a Chitimacha woman played by Emily Preis) are the play’s two central characters. They begin their legal career as students at Tulane University School of Law, where they banter over the social responsibilities one has to their ethnicity and the pursuit of personal freedom. Randy’s fleeting interest in environmental law is constantly questioned by Erin, who argues that environmental law can bring positive change to Native Americans’ lives, and by Mark, Randy’s white father and a local newspaper journalist who argues that practicing environmental law is a losing battle. At one point, Mark encourages Randy to downplay his Native American heritage so that he can better climb America’s economic ladder.

As the play unfolds, a romance sparks between Randy and Erin and continues past law school. Their love is threatened, however, after Erin files suit against various oil companies that have destroyed Native American land. Coincidentally, Randy’s mother works at Conoco, one of those oil companies.

After the reading, Houck commented that environmental law “stands one foot in peril and one foot on high ground … but it remains one of the most important pieces of government, in my point of view, because it keeps the government honest,” Houck argued. “For those who want that practice, you have to be a bit of a rebel. You have to sacrifice income; you got to be prepared to take risks because you’re going to lose more than you’re going to win.”

Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, faculty director of Arizona State University’s Indian Legal Program, applauded Fairly Traceable for addressing economic, social, and political inequities involving Native American and how environmental justice impacts them. She mentioned how Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and, most recently, Ida demolished her community in the bayou and the inequities faced when rebuilding.

“Even now, only 10 percent of our homes [there] are habitable,” Bohnee said. “So, what [was] being discussed in this play is real. It was real life then, and it’s real life now.”

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