A 1992 BBC play called A Frozen Stream Called Wounded Knee really took me by surprise. I don’t normally review my BBC plays here because I keep a separate log with very short reviews due to the volume of plays I listen to. However, I felt this one deserved special attention.
Written by John Pilkington, I felt this play’s unusual subject matter, as well as the way in which it was treated, was highly unusual for BBC Radio and one of the most moving and emotional plays I have ever heard (and calculating that, roughly, I have listened to between 300 and 400 audio/radio plays in the past 6 years, that is a statement with some weight behind it).
The title refers to the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota (which I suggest you look up if you don’t know about it already). Rather than a straight retelling of this heartbreaking story (which is what I expected when I saw the title in a Radio Times listing for 1992), Pilkington much more masterfully has woven in a great deal more, giving it a perspective, richness, and depth seldom encountered even in the best of BBC radio drama.
What makes A Frozen Stream Called Wounded Knee really relevant is that it embodies the spirit of the modern Indian by exposing the almost impossible necessity of living with split identities, as does Luta, aka William (Kerry Shale), a middle-aged Lakota schoolteacher living on the reservation. He may not be the bad-ass that Dash Bad Horse is in Vertigo Comics’ superb title Scalped, but they share many of the same character traits and face many of the same challenges. As white nurse Amy says in A Frozen Stream, the modern day battle on reservations is between the traditionalists and the progressives—“the reservation needs a few more tribal festivals, bingo parlors . . . the same old story.” I won’t spoil too much of Scalped though I do recommend you read it immediately, but it, too, is set in South Dakota and though the setting is contemporary (2007), a large strand of the plot is concerned with events during the early 1970s in the middle of the American Indian Movement.
A Frozen Stream is also set in near-contemporary South Dakota (1990) but also hearkens back to the AIM, which is explained and described when Cutter (William Hope), a young University graduate filmmaker (and Mohawk from St Regis) visits Luta to try to get his take on the events of 1973 that got him arrested—framed for killing a cop. He’s in search of “an authentic political voice.” A Frozen Stream doesn’t talk down to its listeners but it gives them access to Luta’s inner monologue, which is quite a privilege given his taciturn sarcasm and detachment. “I’m an Indian—a Native American. I’m a Lakota. Sioux—everyone’s heard of the Sioux. But nobody realizes that, in old times, calling some a Sioux was like calling him a nigger or a wop. It’s Chippewa for ‘snake.’ . . . I’m Luta, it means Red. My skin is luta. Red was a dirty word long before there was communism.” I’m normally not a big fan of narration in radio drama, but I think Luta’s narration is necessary on two counts, partly because it grounds listeners who may not have a background like mine in the American West, and partly because we do get to know Luta that much better.
I think generally British people of a certain age remember Westerns fondly—I still hear people use the term “Red Indian” which to me is a bit insulting—but they are not fashionable because they’re embarrassing and people aren’t keen to examine reservation life—examined critically in everything from Tony Hillerman to Sherman Alexie—which is highlighted memorably in A Frozen Stream, where “unemployment is at 70%.” Not only that, the verbal and physical abuse Luta suffers walking to the reservation at night along a deserted road makes a listener physically sick—the intervention of the state highway patrol is patronizing at best. I’ve been told before that fiction is a great way to inspire people to social change, and I’d like to think that’s what works of art like A Frozen Stream do. I’d also like to think things have changed for the better since 1990, but the evidence presented in Scalped suggests otherwise.
If A Frozen Stream is giving us a glimpse of life for Luta in 1990 and 1973, it’s also got a mysterious thread running through it linking him to his ancestor Winona at Wounded Knee in 1890. Luta has a photograph from the 1880s showing his ancestor. Luta has a sort of vision while passed out from his beating, and this is to see the Ghost Dance, the cult that arose in defiance of the last days of the Indian wars, in which the medicine men endowed shirts to withstand bullets. Later he can imagine the last few days of the Lakota before the massacre at Wounded Knee. The combination of his narration and the sound effects makes for a combination that pulls the listener irresistibly along.
Luta has a problematic relationship with Amy, the white nurse on the reservation. It also becomes clear that there is a clear generational gap with his father, Joseph Thunder (Harry Towb), which is not just due to the fact Joseph is a devout Christian. “I was the bright one, went to college. . . . After I got divorced, I lived as a Washishu [white] for awhile. . . . My father likes to talk to the old-time warriors, he’s a World War II veteran. It was one way of getting off the reservation.” As Luta’s conflict with his father comes to a head, as Amy announces she’s leaving the reservation for a job in Denver, as Luta keeps brushing off Cutter, and as the narrative builds up for the massacre happening, also, real-time on December 28th, 1890, Luta passes an old man (Lee Montague) walking up a mountain in a blizzard. Even though I’ve never been to South Dakota, there is a certain mountain road up Sandia Peak and this is the one I pictured for the old man to be climbing. “One genuine Lakota holy man going out in the wilderness to die.”
Cutter has a bit of an episode in which he rants about all the injustices done to the natives of America for 400 years. It could be a tirade that burns itself out, but the actor really gives it his all. It’s also a whistle-stop tour of many of the lowlights of the 400-year interaction. In the end, Cutter and Luta go back up the mountain to try to rescue the holy man from certain death. At the same time, Luta has a vision of the massacre in 1890 itself. This horrible event is a perfect one for radio adaptation, the same way Journey was during Life and Fate: as Tom Meltzer wrote in regards to that play, “The sound effects are unpleasantly perfect, from the claustrophobia of the carriage—all coughs and shallow breathing—to the horror of the gas chambers evoked with unspecified crunches and cracks.” Cutter and Luta find the old man (alive) and are reconciled to each other. I thought the play would end there.
Instead, Luta has to resolve his conflict with his father, which comes to a head because the holy man is living with them and aggravating Joseph’s religious faith. “Washishu god has always seemed strange to me. They only talk to him on Sunday, where is he the rest of the week?” Also, Luta has to resolve his issues of identity in an impossible situation. “I’m afraid, I don’t know how to act truly. . . . Maybe I should write about it.” Can writing really change the world? A cynic would say not, but I think the more people who know about all of the issues contained in A Frozen Stream Called Wounded Knee, the more there is the possibility for change in the world.