Act 1, Scene 1: Opening
The opera begins with a sweat ceremony, led by Leonard Peltier. We soon realize that he is conducting the ceremony in prison. A soprano then sings one of Leonard's poems as 'everyman', every time, humanity, every oppressed people. We shift back to Peltier, who introduces us to the oppressive conditions of his life in prison. The first chorus is another Peltier poem calling in the Great Spirit and evoking it in the listeners.
Act 1, Scene 2: Wounded Knee
Peltier's thoughts draw us back to Wounded Knee. In the beginning we see the Indians doing their work, living their lives, and discussing their hopes and concerns about the growing Ghost Dance movement. The soldiers arrive, singing a song with a refrain that mocks the Ghost Dance shirt, "They claimed the shirt Messiah gave, no bullet could go through." We see the lead-up to the first shots of the encounter, as the soldiers surround the Indians. What follows on stage is the massacre, the confusion, the fury, and the fright of the battle as well as the mourning and grief of the Indians and of some sympathetic white characters. The words of Kicking Bear at the end of the scene reflect his hope for the return of the Messiah.
Historical Context - Wounded Knee
Historical Context - The Ghost Dance
Act 1, Scene 3: Alcatraz
This scene is set on Alcatraz Island. It begins with the first occupiers, sitting around the fires at night, discussing the events and their plans for Alcatraz. It moves through the history of the occupation, tracing the initial excitement, challenges faced by the occupants, gradually waning interest among people on the mainland, and coming to a close when the last Indians have left the island.
Historical Context - Alcatraz
Historical Context - Wounded Knee Occupation
Act 1, Scene 4: Pine Ridge
The scene begins with Pine Ridge residents discussing the increasing violence on the reservation and debating whether or not to ask AIM, the American Indian Movement, to come and offer protection. Soon after, the AIM members arrive at Pine Ridge and move into the compound of the Jumping Bull family. Through their conversations, we see the many different opinions and perspectives of AIM members. The scene ends with Peltier's summary of the fighting, their escape, and the subsequent capture of Peltier, Bob Robideau, and Dino Butler. The act closes with a reprise of the first chorus, which references the eagle that the Pine Ridge combatants believed led them to safety
Historical Context - Pine Ridge
Act 2, Scene 1: The Trials
In the second act, the audience is introduced to three Native American women. Two of them have been with the Indian movement for many years and lived through the time of Pine Ridge and the trial. The third is young, and has more recently become involved with Leonard's cause. They get to know one another through the older women's reflections and flashbacks to scenes from the trials, and the younger woman's often critical responses. We see excerpts from the trial where Robideau and Butler were acquitted, and several different portions of Leonard's trial, including testimony from witnesses that was later proved to have been coerced.
Historical Context - The Trials
Act 2, Scene 2: The Verdict
This scene begins with the judge announcing the guilty verdict against Leonard, who responds with an angry speech to the judge and jury at his sentencing. As the women come to terms with the challenges of maintaining a struggle over generations while not becoming consumed by hatred and the desire for revenge, their shared experience from different situations and times brings them to realize that the struggle is not just for Peltier, but for all who face oppression.
Finally, the opera returns to the everyman feeling from the beginning. "Silence is the Voice of Complicity" is the last call to the audience to accept responsibility to take action. The young Native American woman from the previous scene sings Peltier's words in closing before Peltier repeats them himself, showing his understanding that his cause cannot just be his release from prison. His incarceration represents more in the struggle, and it is ultimately this that makes this a universal message. By speaking "Mitakuye Oyasin" ("We are all related") we understand that "my people" includes not just all of humanity, but everything in the universe.
"Don't forget, not ever." The last words of the opera, spoken by Peltier, are a powerful reminder that this story does not have a happy ending. Leonard Peltier remains in prison. Governments throughout the world, including our own, continue to use oppression and imprisonment as tools of control. Each of us, in our own way, must remember this, and do what we can to implement change.