Analyse the character of Sharon Pollock's title character in Walsh.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Sharon Pollock's play, Walsh, what most defines Walsh's character is summed up by his realization late in the play:

Honour, truth, the lot...They're just words...They don't exist. I gave my life to them and they don't exist.

James Walsh, a superintendent of the NWMP (the North West Mounted Police--of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) is in charge of a group of military men in Canada. He is a man of conscience and strong character. Canada is home to Native Americans (called Indians in the play) who are native to the area, as well as some that have moved from the United States.

When General George Custer attempts (as is his custom) to attack Indians at 4:00 am at Little Big Horn (known to the Sioux as Greasy Grass), his 500 men are greatly outnumbered by 4,000 Sioux warriors. Taking eight hours before he actually engages the Sioux (having given his men orders of "take no prisoners"), Custer and his men are all killed. The Sioux are tired of the lies of the American government that have promised to take care of the Indians and protect their lands. He says...

Red men choke and die on white men's words!

Their chief, a Lakota Sioux—Sitting Bull—leads them into Canada to escape retribution by the Americans. Walsh is not only sympathetic to the way the Sioux have been treated, but he also becomes a friend to Sitting Bull. His view is that Custer attacked the Sioux, and the Sioux only defended themselves.

So Walsh does all he can to follow his military orders while also supporting Sitting Bull, his family and his tribe. In doing so, he believes he is behaving ethically. However, the Americans are literally out for blood: they want Sitting Bull back and dead. Queen Victoria of England rules Canada. For the Americans, punishing the Indians responsible for killing Custer at Little Big Horn becomes a political sore spot with the British government, particularly the Prime Minister in Ottawa. Despite Walsh's attempts to intercede for the Sioux with his government, the Sioux suffer and begin to die. Walsh has assured Sitting Bull that he will do all he can for Sitting Bull and his people, and that he never goes back on his word.

As he tries to help the Sioux, he receives orders that he may not help the Sioux in any way. Walsh's superior, the Commissioner of the NWMP, McLeod, has taught Walsh all he knows about his job, as well as his sense of duty. From him he has learned to observe what happen in his territory and write reports to address those issues. His reports have been ignored, so he realizes that his concerns (and those of the Sioux) have also been ignored. McLeod suggests that Walsh convince Sitting Bull to return across the border to United States. Walsh explains that he will not because Sitting Bull:

...knows I won't deceive him.

McLeod notes that while Walsh may not understand the Prime Minister's reasoning, the man does not owe Walsh an explanation. Walsh disagrees...that his service to the Prime Minister makes the man accountable to Walsh...based on Walsh's perception of duty. McLeod delivers a dispatch from the Prime Minister:

You are to see that no food stuffs, clothing, ammunition or supplies are given to them...[if they cannot] pay for them.

When Sitting Bull comes to ask for food, Walsh cannot help. Sitting Bull returns to the States, where he is arrested and killed by the Indian Police. Walsh is devastated by his inability to help Sitting Bull, and the feeling betrayed by all he has believed in.