Hiawatha is a retelling of HW Longfellow’s poem A Song of Hiawatha. It is set in present day America where a young native American named Chanie witnesses the brutal, racially motivated murder of his best friend. Chanie is rescued from a pit of despair and self destruction by his family who take him in, sober him up and tell him the story of his ancestor, Hiawatha. The story is acted out on stage and so the audience meet the familiar characters of Laughing Water and Hiawatha who are members of different often warring tribes. Through a mixture of compassion, strength, divine intervention, manipulation and seduction the tribes find a way to live in peace. Chanie, in the present day, is healed by the narrative and inspired by his ancestors’ compassion to not only forgive his friends’ murderer but to understand his motives and even intervene on his behalf at his sentencing trial.
At the start of the show we meet Millie, a disaffected young graduate, who is working as a waitress in a bar on the outskirts of town. Her friend Trudy, another waitress, is trying to persuade her to go to a club when the bar shuts at the end of their shift. Millie is initially reluctant. During the course of their shift a large party of off-duty policemen come in. They are vile and entitled and, much to her displeasure, Millie ends up waiting their table. Later in the evening Chanie, the protagonist, and his transgender friend Gabriel enter the bar and are greeted by Millie. They have a conversation during which Millie finds out that they are stopping in on their way to a club called Haze. During their conversation a drunken policeman shouts over obnoxiously demanding service. She ignores him but he continues and starts making derogatory comments about Chanie’s Native American heritage. Anxious to avoid police attention, Chanie and Gabriel leave. Millie is enraged, looses her temper and insults the policeman, and retreats to a back room where she collapses on a sofa. Trudy finds her and persuades her to end her shift early. They decide to sneak off to the club which Trudy reveals is called Haze, the same that Chanie and Gabriel are going to.
We next see Millie and Trudy in the club. There is a stage with a DJ who we find out is the warm up act for a rap artist who has yet to perform. Eventually the club erupts in excitement as the main act comes onto the stage. Millie recognises the performer as Gabriel who raps about life as a transgender Native American. Towards the end of his performance there is the sound of gunfire as the club is stormed by a group of white supremacists. One of them shoots Gabriel in the head. Panic ensues as people flee from the club. In the confusion Millie finds herself separated from Trudy but sees Chanie rooted to the spot feet away from the inert figure of his dead friend. Millie goes to him and drags him away and out of the club to safety.
Millie takes him back to the bar which is closed for the night. All the staff have left so she sits Chanie down and goes to make him a drink. In the semi darkness we see him scroll through his phone and make a call and we hear his half of a conversation with his dealer arranging a meet up. As Millie returns with drinks he thanks her for her kindness but apologises and leaves.
We next see Chanie passed out in a drug induced state of semi consciousness. A pick up truck approaches and a man gets out. He approaches Chanie and tries to revive him saying that he is his Uncle, Asin. Failing to wake him he drags him over to the truck and lifts him onto the back seats.
The truck arrives at Asin’s home on the reservation. Asin locks the truck with Chanie inside and walks to a shed which he empties and nails the windows shut with stips of wood. He talks to himself as he works revealing that he is going through a process he did ten years ago when Chanie last was in the grip of substance addiction. When the shed in empty and secure, Asin drags Chanie’s still unconscious body inside and nails the door shut. The withdrawal that Chanie goes through over the following days with Asin sitting outside the shed is depicted with a half spoken half sung R ’n’ B style piece.
Once the worst of the withdrawal symtoms appear to have passed, Asin takes Chanie into the house and puts him in a bed. The next day Asin’s mother comes to the house. Asin tells her about the death of his friend Gabriel. She enters the bedroom, sits down and tells Chanie that she is going to tell him the story of his ancestors, which are depicted in Act II
The story is narrated by Chanie’s Grandmother who tells us that the Ojibwe and the Dakota tribes are at war. A young Ojibwe Chief, Hiawatha, driven half mad by the brutal killing of his Father, leads a series of ruthless and daring raids deep into Dakota territory. He is hated and feared by all of the Dakota tribe with one exception: Laughing Water, who is the young daughter of the Arrow Maker, a wise Dakota chief. She loves her Father so much that she can only feel pity for Hiawatha having lost his.
The scene opens with Laughing Water talking with her Father alone is his Teepee. She is troubled by her inability to share in her tribe’s hatred of Hiawatha. They discuss the nature of evil and whether the term should be applied to Hiawatha. To illustrate the point that a person can act in a manner not consistant with their character, the Arrow Maker sings a humorous song about the foolish exploits of Laughing Water’s Brother, Ahanu. In the song Ahanu is outwitted by a wolf and he looses all of his belongings, his catch from his hunt, his horse and his clothes and has to walk home naked. At the end of the song The Arrow Maker reveals that the story was actually about him, not Ahanu. They agree that he acted foolishly, though he is not actually foolish and so they conclude that it must be possible to act evilly without being evil. The Arrow Maker praises his Daughter for her compassion towards the enemy, Hiawatha.
Why We Haven’t Got Any Food:
The narrator tells us that Laughing Water developed an adolescent fixation with Hiawatha but that it faded over time. We rejoin her story some years later when the war between the two tribes has ceased and a fragile state of peace exists between them. Though she has not thought about him for many years, when Laughing Water hears that Hiawatha is to lead a peace party into the Dakota territory she can’t supress a feeling of excitement. We join her once again with her Father in his Teepee. He is making arrowheads which are meant as a gift for Hiawatha and the visiting representatives of the Ojibwe tribe. He tells her that it is likely that it was an arrow made by him that killed Hiawatha’s Father and so the gift would symbolise his regret for the mistakes of the past. He asks Laughing Water if she would present them to Hiawatha and she agrees, trying hard to hide her delight.
There follows a musical number involving a chorus of Dakotas who are preparing the village for the arrival of Hiawatha, Hiawatha’s warriors who are nervously entering Dakota territory, and Hiawatha and the Arrow Maker, who both desire a lasting peace but don’t know how to achieve that because their warriors are so set on revenge for the friends and family members that have been lost in the long conflict. At the climactic end of the piece, the Ojibwe peace party arrive at the Dakota village. There is a hostile silence which is broken when the Ojibwe warriors present the Dakotas with sacks of beaver which they offer as a gift. A celebration begins and Hiawatha goes into a lodge with the Dakota chiefs to smoke the peace pipe. They do this in ceremonial silence whilst outside the lodge a ball game is getting underway between the warriors of the two tribes. This draws to a close and, as they settle down to eat, the assembled chiefs discuss the obstacles to lasting peace. At the end of the meeting the Arrow Maker calls to his daughter. She enters the lodge carrying a bowl with the arrowheads in. She hands the bowl to Hiawatha and they share a significant look for a while before she leaves the lodge. The Arrow Maker explains that the arrowheads are a gift representing an acknowledgment of his partial guilt for the mistakes of the past. They all leave the lodge to rejoin their men.
Outside, Hiawatha joins his men at the feast and he and five of his most senior warriors put the arrowheads around their necks as pendants. Not long after he sits down to eat, Laughing Water beckons him into the now empty lodge. The scene ends as he steps inside.
The narrator tells us that a few months have passed since the first peace party. Laughing Water had been on Hiawatha’s mind ever since the moments that they had spent alone together. He was appalled by the recklessness of his own actions, knowing that nothing would end the fragile peace faster than being caught with the Arrow Maker’s daughter. He had not travelled back into Dakota territory since, fearing that he would not be able to control himself upon seeing her again. He fantasises about somehow getting the Arrow Maker to agree to grant him permission to marry his daughter, but this was unthinkable. And yet the more Hiawatha thought about it the less ridiculous an idea it seemed. Perhaps a union between them would help make the peace more permanent. Or maybe this was just what he wanted to believe so he could get his own way. And even if the Arrow Maker did agree then he would never be able to persuade Nokomis, his Grandmother, who we meet in the next scene.
Nokomis and Hiawatha are having an argument about the peace between the two tribes. She accuses Hiawatha of cowardice for wanting the peace to continue. Hiawatha explains that there is plenty to eat because men are hunting and not fighting and that peace has been a good thing. He suggests a way for the peace to continue would be for him to marry the Arrow Maker’s daughter. Nokomis explodes and suggests that Hiawatha’s judgement is clouded by a pretty girl and then goes on to criticise his other dealings with the Dakota. She reminds Hiawatha that the arrow that killed his father was the same as the arrow he now wore around his neck. Exasperated by his grandmother’s refusal to think of the Dakota’s as anything other than the enemy, he kisses her on the forehead and leaves the tee-pee.
The narrator tells us that winter has arrived. It is a particularly bitter winter, colder than any but the very eldest in the tribe can remember. Hiawatha is in his tent with two of his friends, Chibiabos and Kwasind, sheltering from the cold and eating a gruel made from some of the corn Hiawatha has stored for the winter. They talk inconsequentially about how cold it is and how foul the gruel tastes. Hiawatha is concerned for Laughing Water because the Dakotas do not cultivate corn and so do not have that provision to fall back on during the hard winter. When he tries to engage his friends in a conversation about how much harder it must be for the Dakotas, they do not show any sympathy and are not interested in discussing it. Hiawatha gets fed up leaves to go and see his Grandmother.
We see a different side to Nokomis who revels in the hardship of winter. She teases Hiawatha for a while about how mild the winter is. Then she shocks Hiawatha by revealing that she has guessed that he has been thinking about taking food to the Dakotas to help them through the winter. She warns Hiawatha how dangerous it would be to take food away from the tribe to give to people that are still considered by many to be the enemy. Once Hiawatha is over the shock of his Grandmother finding out about his most private inner thoughts, he tells her that the plan is hopeless anyway. Their provisions of corn are too precious to give away and there is no other food to be found in the deep snow. They fall into a melancholy silence before Nokomis asks Hiawatha if he had noticed how high some of the ice has piled up towards the Northern extremities of their land. Hiawatha says that he has but fails to see the relevance. Nokomis tells him a story.
She tells him about a winter long ago when the cold and hunger had been so acute that it had turned people mad. Evil spirits walked among them and made people do wicked things. They knew that they had to flee from the land so clearly inhabited by evil spirits but to do so without food would mean certain death. Ice had piled up high to form great castles and the spirits of Kabiboonoka, master of the North winds, had taken up residence in them. One day Pauppukkeewiss, Nokomis’ long dead friend, journeyed to these castles to beseech the spirits for their help and they instructed him to take his biggest sack and fill it with ice and snow. He was then to drag it back to his lodge stopping at a certain hill and leaving the sack there overnight where, in the morning, it would be filled with fish. But the spirits warned him that though he would hear a great many voices calling to him, he must not look back during his trial. To do so would mean that the charm would dissolve and his sack would remain empty. Pauppukkeewiss would never speak about the terrible voices that called to him that night but he managed to drag his sack filled with ice and snow to the hill without looking back and, true to their word, the spirits had filled it with fish by morning. Then they were able to flee from the land inhabited by evil spirits and they came to live in the land they now called home.
At the end of her story Nokomis tells Hiawatha that he must now go and speak with the spirits in the ice castles like Pauppukkewwiss had. She warns him not to believe anything he sees or hears until the sack in on top of the hill and when the sack is full to take it straight to the Dakotas before any of their tribe can learn of its contents. Hiawatha leaves to begin his trial.
Hiawatha, having already gone to speak with the spirits of the North wind, is struggling through the snow dragging an enormous sack behind him. His foots strikes rock which causes him to stop. Chibiabos appears and asks Hiawatha what he is doing. Hiawatha tells him that he isn’t real but they talk together as they walk on. They tease each other good naturedly but the mood changes when Hiawatha jokingly asks the apparition if he would take the sack for a while. The grim figure of his friend Kwasind appears bearing a scowl. Chibiabos answers telling Hiawatha that Kwasind is very angry because he knows that Hiawatha plans to take their food away. Hiawatha does not challenge their anger, tells himself that they aren’t real and the three of them walk on in silence.
As the trio approach a small forest, Kwasind moves in front of Hiawatha blocking his way. Hiawatha talks to the apparitions of his friends saying that they cannot stop him from his task. Kwasind remains silent, staring malevolently over Hiawatha’s head but Chibiabos tells Hiawatha that they aren’t there to stop him but there to warn him. He tells Hiawatha that the hill upon which the sack must be left is beyond the forest but that there are a band of Ojibwe warriors waiting for him. Hungry warriors who are set upon stopping Hiawatha from taking food away to the Dakotas. He begs Hiawatha to reconsider and turn back but Hiawatha refuses. He takes up his sack and walks on. His friends disappear once again.
On the other side of the forest, voices can be heard in the darkness calling Hiawatha a thief. He recognises the voice of his younger cousin, Dibikad. Hiawatha counts the dark shapes of twenty foe between him and the hill. They exchange insults for a while before they come for him in force. There follows a balletic fight scene. As Hiawatha emerges victorious the bodies left around him vanish except for one which is full of arrows. It is his father and he calls to Hiawatha to help him. Hiawatha kneels next to his Father staring in horror at his wounds asking if this is how he died. His father replies that he died when his enemies found him like this and tore all of his limbs off. He tells Hiawatha that they are coming and that he must help him get up so that he can die somewhere in peace. Hiawatha refuses sadly and walks back to his sack. His Father begs him to help him but soon the ghostly figures of his enemies fall on him. Hiawatha walks up the hill with his sack hearing the screams of his father as he is butchered.
Hiawatha heaves the sack over his head in an arc and as it falls heavily onto the top of the hill the screaming stops and there is silence. Too exhausted to revel in his success he falls down next to the sack and sleeps. Upon waking the next morning, he opens the sack to find an enormous slain buffalo. He laughs and dances his thanks to the great spirit before heaving the buffalo onto his shoulders and leaving to begin his journey north to the Dakotas.
Chanie’s Grandmother is finishing her story. She tells Chanie how Hiawatha made the journey to the Dakotas who were starved half to death. There was great rejoicing when he presented the buffalo to the Arrow Maker and greater still when he asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. When the ice thawed Hiawatha returned home with Laughing Water and the celebrations that were held to celebrate their arrival were remembered long after the wars were forgotten. When she finishes her story there is a knock at the bedroom door. She opens it and finds Asin who tells her that Chanie has a couple of visitors. She tells him to entertain them while she gets Chanie out of bed and dressed.
Asin is in his living room talking to his guests, Millie and Trudy. They confirm the events that led up to Gabriels death. They make small talk and Asin tells them about the upcoming pow-wow, a festival held every year in the reservation celebrating Native American culture. He also tells them that he works with the church on the reservation maintaining it’s community centres. He talks about the problems that he’s had with a community café that had been run by an elderly volunteer who had to step down and had left the café’s account in a bit of a state that he was struggling to set right. Trudy volunteers Millie to sort the accounts out for him, revealing that Millie had quit her job at the bar. Asin and Millie are both embarrassed but Millie admits that she is at a loose end. Asin tells her that if she wanted to take over the running of the café then he wouldn’t be able to pay her much but that there was a small flat above it that she’d be welcome to make her own.
Chanie and his Grandmother enter the room. He looks tired but remarkably well and Asin stares at him, amazed by the transformation. His mother shakes him out of his trance and they leave the room so Chanie and his visitors can talk. Millie and Trudy explain that they went to the police station in the days following the attack to see if they were looking for witnesses. They were not because the gunman had pleaded guilty to murder but they were looking for any of Gabriel’s family to provide a victim impact statement for the sentencing trial. They had tracked him down through some contacts Trudy knew from the club who gave them Asin’s address in the reservation. Chanie is grateful for their efforts and tells them that Gabriel didn’t really have any family. He takes the number of the lawyer and says that he’ll ring him in the morning. Millie says that that was all they had wanted to speak to him about but Trudy indicates some annoyance. Millie then reluctantly explains that the club was having a reopening event that evening following its closure and invites Chanie to join them. To her surprise, Chanie agrees and suggests that they hit a few other bars first. They all get up to leave as Asin and his mother re-enter carrying a tray of tea and biscuits. Chanie thanks them but tells them that he is leaving. Millie says she’d be in touch about the café and they all say their good byes and leave. Asin, standing alone in the house with his mother, rants about his ungrateful nephew. His mother placates him telling him that he was just the same at that age.
A man sits at a desk surrounded by piles of paper and half empty coffee cups. He is wearing an untidy suit and is obviously battling a hangover. Chanie enters asking if he is the court appointed lawyer for the defendant in the case of the murder of his friend, Gabriel. He confirms that he is and indicates the chair opposite him. Chanie sits and explains that he would like to present to the court an account of the circumstances that can, in part, explain the actions of the defendant. The lawyer is confused and initially rejects the idea but Chanie persists and they have an argument about why Chanie would want to help defend the person who killed his friend. The lawyer looses his temper but when he calms down he regrets his outburst and tells Chanie that he will see what he can do to persuade the judge to allow the testimony.
Next we see Chanie giving his testimony at the sentencing trial of Gabriel’s murderer, Mark. He reveals that he has met with the white supremacist group that Mark was a part of and found out about his tragic life of neglect which he shares with the court. He implores them to show compassion towards the defendant and break the cycle of blame and hatred. His testimony is a summary of the message that the show is intending to impart.
Chanie returns to the reservation to meet Millie. She has just shut the community café she now runs in anticipation of the pow-wow that is about to take place. Asin and his Mother are observing the young couple and share feelings of optimism. The show finishes with the pow-wow being performed.
“Not being fluent in the language of the judicial system, the question of the capacity in which I address the court is one that I cannot answer. I have kept some unusual company this last week or so among the friends of the defendant. Or the accused. Or Mark, even. I will not pretend that it has been easy or that the undertaking has not come at a considerable personal and emotional cost, but I have learnt a great deal from talking with the white supremacists that Mark thought of as friends. On the subject of Mark, I believe that I now speak with greater authority than anyone who has so far been involved in the process of dispensing justice for the crimes that he has committed. So call me an expert witness if you must.
“When the sexual gratification of a rapist has been fulfilled, his victims suffering has only just begun. The psychological torment caused by such a violation can last a lifetime, especially when it results in a pregnancy. And when you are also having to satisfy multiple addictions, as Mark’s now long deceased mother was, then you would, I hope, be forgiven for being a less nurturing parent than one might expect.
“It is, perhaps, surprising that Mark is even alive twenty years later. The very existence of the world that the twenty-year-old Mark inhabits is a symptom of a society that has failed. He has found a place for himself in this dark world selling drugs to other people like him who have little or no idea what it is to feel loved or to feel safe. Among his clients are some of the most vulnerable members of the transgender community who are at such a low point on their long and bitter inner battle that they must fill their veins with the poison that Mark dealt in to briefly alleviate the pain. It is from these poor dejected individuals that Mark forms his opinions of the wider trans gender population and he becomes deeply transphobic.
“Underrepresented as white people are in the world of crime, Mark was a member of a minority group and, like all minority groups, he was fearful of the majority. This fear of non-whites lead to mistrust, resentment and eventually a hatred which brought his attitudes inline with that of a group of angry men who openly self-identified as white supremacists. Their ideologies gave false legitimacy to Mark’s hatred in much the same way that manifest destiny did for the genocide of my people. These men were angry about the decline in their standards of living and the decay they saw all around them. They didn’t attribute this to the loss of the manufacturing industries that used to employ the majority of the population, but rather attributed it to the influx of non-white residents.
“Its hard to say whether Mark, having been welcomed in to their company, was viewed as some sort of protégéor a sort of puppet for the more extreme urges of the group. What is clear is that he did not take much persuasion to carry out the murder of my friend who, as a proud transgender Native American, was an intolerable abomination against the insular values they held.
“I don’t pretend to understand your legal system but I’m pretty sure the easy thing to do now is to have Mark sentenced to death. Or at least hidden away in a prison for the rest of his life. But doing the easy thing is exactly how this situation occurred. It is the pole on which the flag of white supremacy flies because do you know what’s really easy? Bigotry. Having opinions, ignoring any evidence that negates them and using them as indisputable guiding principles by which to go through life. Something else that’s really easy is blaming all of your hardship and troubles on one simple thing. The media, your upbringing, immigrants, tax avoiders, jews, poor people. Pick one and build a logical argument that means you can blame that one thing for everything so you can convince yourself that you don’t have a better job because of the nations immigration policy or that there is violence on the streets because we tolerate homosexuality. What’s difficult is accepting that the human condition is a struggle and the hardship and suffering we experience is caused by a multitude of many different and complicated reasons, some of which you know nothing about and some of which you may never understand.
“I can tell you something else that’s really hard. Engaging with a group of people who harbour genuine hatred for you. People who think that their advancement is hindered by your existence and who share the principles and beliefs that led to your friend being killed. After some awkward introductions and some violent threats had been made, I sat down with a group of the white supremacists and we talked with less and less anger. They told me about Mark’s tragic life and their own sad stories and I told them about the plight of my people. And, afterwards, nothing was really solved. Nothing was truly fixed. But there are less white supremacists on the planet now and I can honestly say that I speak to you now as a man devoid of any hate. We live in a dangerously divided world and there is no hope of reconciliation if we do not engage with the people we so strongly disagree with as well as examining our own views and testing them and teasing them apart in order to scrutinise the threads from which they are woven.”