The critically acclaimed musical “Nanyehi,” returns to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino next weekend to continue spreading the message of peace, articulated by a little know Native American hero.
The musical follows the life of Nanyehi, a.k.a. Nancy Ward, a Cherokee war woman and peacemaker who became a leader to her people in the 1700s.
“When I was a little girl my mom would tell me the story about Nanyehi chewing bullets to make them more deadly,” said Playwright Becky Hobbs, a seventh generation descendant of Ward. “I was enamored with story. I knew even then, 5 or 6 years old, that someday I would pay tribute to Nanyehi.”
“My mission has become to tell her story, and bring her message of hope and peace to the world,” Hobbs said.
At 17, Nanyehi was honored as a war woman during a battle with the Creek Indians. The legend is that she chewed bullets to make them more deadly while fighting alongside her husband.
“Her husband, Kingfisher, was killed. So she took his rifle, killed his assailant, and led the Cherokees to victory,” Hobbs said. “That’s when she stood up and said, ‘Peace is the only way for the Cherokee’s to survive.’”
Nanyehi was alive when the British, French and Americans were fighting over North America, and asking the Cherokees to fight and die on their behalf.
“Yet, Nanyehi stood for peace. She risked her life to make peace between the Cherokees and all others,” Hobbs said. “She played a very pivotal role in American history, yet the average American has no idea who she was.”
Hobbs began writing songs based on the moments of love, loss, determination and peace that made up Nanyehi’s life in 1993. Her goal at the time was simply to create an album inspired by her ancestor.
But the album fell to the wayside as Hobbs pursued her musical career.
Over a decade late, visiting home in 2007 for the Oklahoma Centennial, Hobbs performed some of her Nanyehi songs among her well-known hits like “Angels Among Us.”
At that event, a man named Nick Sweet, who knew a lot about Nanyehi’s story, introduced himself. Before long, Hobbs and Sweet decided to write a musical.
“It was meant to be. I’ve written or co-written 18 songs. They come from the Creator. I’ve been guided by spirits, Nanyehi perhaps. It was just like, ‘You’ve got to do this Beckaroo. You are the vehicle for this great story,’” Hobbs said.
A talented young actress, Michelle Honaker, was chosen to play the lead role, and has toured with the production for six years.
Mike DeMarco, who holds a number of live theatre acting and directing credits, was also brought on to the team as a producer.
Both joined the production because of the messages it portrays about courage, strength and peace.
“Michelle Honaker, when she is portraying Nancy Ward, she embodies that spirit of Nanyehi,” Hobbs said.
At times, she is a timeless, relatable woman, with real, human flaws and struggles. Yet the realism doesn’t detract for the heroism of her journey or the power of her legendary actions.
“For women especially, to have such a legendary and significant character in history as a role model … to have that image of someone who stood for what they believed in and had a role, as a beloved woman, to decide things that the chiefs couldn’t even decide,” that kind of role model is special, Honaker said. “I think it is important to know who you are, know what you believe in, and step out-of-line sometimes to convey that.”
In Cherokee culture, the title bestowed upon Nanyehi of Beloved Woman is more than honorific. The highest honor that can be given to a Cherokee Woman came with real power and influence over tribal affairs.
Nanyehi was able to represent the Cherokee Nation in several peace treaties, including the Hopewell Treaty of 1785, which first listed the right to a congressional representative that the Cherokee Nation is exercising now.
“She could dictate what would happen to their captives, whether they be enslaved, adopted into the tribe, killed or released. That gave her the capability to extend compassion and mercy and show kindness,” Honaker said. “To be a trailblazer and go with your gut, showing that love and mercy to all.”
“She did that, flying in the face of what everyone else wanted her to do,” DeMarco added. “She took the path of peace, and that is the reason she is a Beloved Woman of the Cherokee.”
Cherokee scholars have ensured that the costumes and the plot are historically accurate.
Live music will be performed by a, “mini but might,” 7-piece orchestra.
And the cast of over 50, “they really do something miraculous, shedding light and painting this beautiful picture,” Honaker said. “It’s not just a history lesson. It’s transcendent into the spiritual experience that I think is the message of the show, connecting people together.”
“It will be a wonderful evening of very family friendly entertainment, great music, great performers, a good time will be had by all,” DeMarco said.
“When Nick and I were writing this, our aim was to educate, inspire and entertain,” Hobbs said. “The finale song is ‘Let There Be Peace.’ If these songs and this story can bring goose bumps and tears to a person’s eyes, and they walk out of the theatre singing ‘Let There Be Peace,’ I’m happy.”
“Nanyehi – Beloved Woman of the Cherokee,” will play at the Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Nov. 15 and 16, at 7:30 p.m. Children are welcome to attend. Tickets are $15. Call 918-384-ROCK to receive a $5 discount for children 12 and under and Cherokee citizens.