Indians, by Arthur Kopit, was first staged at the Aldwych Theatre in London on July 4, 1968. It is a long one-act play that is about the genocide of the American Indians and the legendary figure of Buffalo Bill who is both sacrificial hero and sly showman. Indians is an experimental, absurdist piece that eschews conventional plotting and characterization. These qualities brought Indians a fair amount of criticism of the play’s structure. Nevertheless, the power of this play’s message and the new presentation that it attempts garnered Kopit admiration, launching his career as a playwright from collegiate productions to the professional realm.
The late 1960s, when Indians was first produced, was a tumultuous time in the history of the United States. Minority groups, including the American Indians, were fighting for equal civil rights, which were legally granted by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Abroad, the U.S. government had involved itself in the Vietnam War against which many U.S. citizens protested. Kopit was inspired to write Indians after reading that the deaths of innocent people killed in the Vietnam War were viewed as the “inevitable consequences of war,” reports Lewis Funke in the New York Times. Indians is a critical look at a brutal period in U.S. history—the consequences of which Americans were still trying to face and acknowledge in the early 2000s.
Indians opens with three glass cases displaying an effigy of Buffalo Bill, an effigy of Sitting Bull, and, in the last case, a buffalo skull, a bloodstained Indian shirt, and an old rifle. Buffalo Bill himself appears on stage, riding an artificial horse and his Wild West Show coalesces around him. He starts off speaking with confidence about his Wild West Show until a Voice interrupts him, telling him that it is time to start. Buffalo Bill is distraught. Indians appear and the Voice continues to urge him to start. Buffalo Bill goes on the defensive, declaring, “My life is an open book.” He calls himself a hero and the scene ends.
Sitting Bull and his people are starving on the reservation where they have been relocated. The president (the Great Father) sends three senators out to investigate their complaints, and they bring Buffalo Bill along to help them. Buffalo Bill promised Sitting Bull that the Great Father himself would come, and Sitting Bull and his people do not understand why the Great Father did not come. They are very angry. Buffalo Bill tries to keep relations calm between the Indians and the senators. John Grass speaks first for the Indians; he tells the story of how the Great Father convinced them to take up farming but gave them poor farmland. The Great Father also sent Christian missionaries who beat the Indians. Now they are starving and the buffalo are all gone, and the Great Father has yet to fulfill his promises to give them clothing, food, and money. All they want is what they have been promised—and for the buffalo to return.
In a flashback, Buffalo Bill is shooting buffalo for sport, to impress the grand duke of Russia. He is thrilled with his success and then comments to himself that the buffalo are getting harder to find. His enthusiasm turns solemn. Spotted Tail, who has been watching from afar, confronts Buffalo Bill about shooting so many buffalo. Bill invites Spotted Tail to help himself to the meat and talks about how things are changing. He seems to feel some guilt but confesses to Spotted Tail that he hopes to be famous someday. The grand duke appears with his entourage, including reporter Ned Buntline. The grand duke gives Buffalo Bill a medal and asks him to come back to Russia. Buffalo Bill declines. Encouraged by Buntline, Buffalo Bill launches into a fantastical story of how he got into a fight with fifty Comanches and killed their chief. The grand duke declares that he wants to be like Buffalo Bill and kill a Comanche also. Buffalo Bill tries to explain that the Comanches are in Texas, and he is in Missouri. The grand duke fires into the darkness and kills Spotted Tail. Buffalo Bill is stunned, saddened. Buntline and the grand duke are thrilled.
This scene returns to the discussion between the senators and Sitting Bull’s people. Buffalo Bill pleas with the senators to understand how important it is that Sitting Bull’s Indians’ lives are saved. “For it is we, alone, who have put them on this strip of arid land. And what becomes of them is . . . our responsibility.”
The scene shifts to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Geronimo is announced and appears crawling through a tunnel. He is prodded by two cowboys into a cage. Geronimo shouts about his conquests over white people. Buffalo Bill enters his cage, walks up to him, turns his back, and then walks out. Geronimo is worked up to a fighting frenzy but does nothing to Buffalo Bill.
At the Senate Committee, Senator Logan asks John Grass to be more specific about the Great Father’s promises. The senators deny knowledge of any promises. They discuss a treaty in which Sitting Bull’s Indians sold the Black Hills to the U.S. government. The money from the sale is supposedly held in trust at a bank, and the senators will not give it to the Indians. Frustrated, Grass keeps trying to walk away, but the senators and Buffalo Bill make him come back. Grass describes where the treaties were signed and what was promised to them. The senators point out that the Indians do not know how to read and cannot be sure of the content of the treaties. Grass is confused and appeals to Buffalo Bill, asking him why he could not get his friend, the Great Father, to come himself.
Scouts of the Plains, a play about Buffalo Bill written by Buntline, is being performed at the White House for the Ol’ Time President and the First Lady. Buffalo Bills plays himself, as does Wild Bill Hickok. They are on a mission to stop the Pawnee tribe’s “dreadful” Festival of the Moon and rescue the maiden Teskanjavila. Hickok is not really interested in acting and quickly abandons his lines. He argues with Buffalo Bill and then stabs and kills Buntline because he feels humiliated “‘[b]out havin’ to impersonate myself.”...
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