Why does Sharon Pollock focus her play, Walsh, on the little-known white Canadian soldier rather than on the famous American Indian chief, Sitting Bull?
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Since Pollock's objective was to explore and expose the mistreatment of Sitting Bull and the Sioux by the Canadian government (as opposed to exploring the Sioux experience of their mistreatment), Pollock made her central character one who was involved in government and a mediator of the policies and actions resulting in mistreatment. This makes perfect sense for her objective, which can be dramatized by James A. Walsh's reactions, actions and experiences.
In Pollock's play Walsh, it is interesting to note the new perspective on the circumstances surrounding the aftermath of Little Big Horn from a third party that can see the incident from an unbiased, humanitarian's viewpoint--which would be Walsh's.
The story of Custer's last stand at the place the Sioux called Greasy Grass has been a part of American history that has long presented Custer as a military hero—up until recent memory. It has only been in the last quarter of a century that questions have been raised as to the intent of—and tactics practiced by—Custer: with his attempt to completely annihilate every Indian he could find. Many saw his surprise attacks (not only on warriors but also on women and children) as heroic: those who supported his actions certainly must have believed the stereotypes of uncivilized savages and/or wanted the Indians' land—or both. Attitudes of many whites were expressed after the murder of Crazy Horse:
There stood a good Indian...a dead Indian.
Walsh is not such a man. He does not judge a man on the color of his skin, but upon his character--which Walsh finds supported by that man's behavior. Walsh finds Sitting Bull to be a man of his word, committed to doing whatever is necessary to make sure his people are safe and cared for. He follows every rule set forth by the Canadian government.
Walsh is also not a politician. He does not want to take anything from the Sioux. He simply wants to help. He has no agenda; as seen with the Indians that take Mrs. Anderson's extra wash tub to make a drum, he has no desire to destroy: he punishes them in a manner befitting the crime.
In this way we see him as an honorable and sympathetic character who believes that the Sioux defended themselves (and their women and children) from being murdered, as Custer's men attacked with an order to take no prisoners. Sitting Bull wonders at one point:
How does the white man sustain himself beneath the weight of the blood he has shed?
The treatment of the Sioux and even the Nez Perces affects Walsh deeply. It takes its toll on him physically, emotionally and professionally. For just as the Sioux are victims of the American government's determination to drive them out and/or subjugate or kill the Indians for selfish purposes, the British leaders in Canada are more concerned with keeping peace with the Americans than to bother themselves about the fate of Indians that are not native to Canada—even though they supported the British during the American Revolution and were promised by George III that they would always be cared for. Walsh is a victim of the unscrupulous behavior of his own government.
Walsh becomes a reliable witness, with valuable and unbiased insights into what really happened at Little Big Horn and, subsequently the harsh and tragic treatment and life of the Sioux in Canada—he sees into the heart of Sitting Bull, and finds a caring leader and loving father.
An able and brilliant people have been crushed, held down, moved from place to place, cheated and lied to...And now, they hold on here in Canada, the remnants of a proud race, and they ask for some sort of justice...which is what I thought I swore an oath to serve!
Walsh's perspective helps remove the mythology built up around Sitting Bull—seen all too often in the past as a blood-thirsty savage, and casts a more accurate image of Custer’s character, a villain too long revered for what, in truth, amounted to nothing short of genocide.
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