“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” Provides Perspective on Indigenous History
Reported by Jen Wright
On Oct. 27, George Fox University (GFU) hosted a showing of the film “Neither Wolf Nor Dog.” The film is based on a book of the same name, and the author, Kent Nerburn, attended the showing and held a Q & A afterwards.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is based on Nerburn’s own experiences traveling through the Dakotas with Dan, a native elder, and Dan’s friend, Grover, as Nerburn learns about their culture and history through their lens.
Dan was played by Dave Bald Eagle, Grover by Richard Ray Whitman and Nerburn was portrayed by Christopher Sweeney.
The film is both heartbreaking and funny, as lighthearted moments are intertwined with heavy emotional accounts of the tragedies endured by the Lakota people.
Nerburn’s book is followed by two sequels, “The Wolf at Twilight” and “The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo.” Nerburn has written more than 10 books based on the stories and cultures of Native Americans.
“To Walk the Red Road: Memories of the Red Lake Ojibwe” is the book that started Nerburn’s journey through “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” and the publication of this collection of oral histories and historical photographs brought Nerburn to Dan’s attention.
Nerburn learned two things while he was among the Native Americans:
“There first thing was how absolutely expunged from the American historical narrative the Native American experience had been,” Nerburn said. “And the other one was that there were some deep and fundamental values to the native people that we needed, as a dominant culture, to learn.”
“I dedicated myself to making sure that I could use the skills I had to bring these forth. It was the first time in my life I felt I was doing something that was essential,” Nerburn said. “‘Neither Wolf Nor Dog’ was my gift back to the native people. Mutuality of gift is really an element in the native world; you give gifts to people, and they give back.”
Nerburn wanted the book to be able to reach everyone, of every background, and to be able to convey the meaning of the Lakota histories.
“It’s really to try to open our eyes, as non-native people, to the way they see the world and the way that they understand belief and culture,” Nerburn said.
“I have to tell their story. I have to tell it in a way that would cause people who aren’t necessarily interested to listen, to see, to start to understand some of what the depth, and richness, and humor, and real joy of the native world really is,” Nerburn said.
The film meant much more to Dave Bald Eagle, the Native American actor who played Dan. “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” was Dave Bald Eagle’s final role, as he was 95 years old at the time of filming. Dave Bald Eagle passed away in 2016 at the age of 97.
One scene, when Nerburn and Dan visit a cemetery at Wounded Knee, was unscripted, and Dave Bald Eagle spoke from his own experience. He said it was a chance for him to speak for all the elders of all the tribes, Nerburn said.
“It just came out of his heart. He wasn’t in the script anymore, this was his chance to speak. And he did. We look on that as the gift of the film, is that Dave got his voice, and has gotten the voice for all the native people that have seen it,” Nerburn said.
Nerburn intended the story to show what American culture looks like through the lens of the native people.
“How they saw our history, our experience, from their side of it. From being inside what was once the ocean of their world, now inside the little ponds of their reservations, looking at us,” Nerburn said.
Nerburn faced opposition and criticism from both sides of the issue. Native Americans took issue with his use of oral histories while other Americans quibbled with his use of creative non-fiction.
“This is a different approach to storytelling and teaching. I need to make you enter into this and make you believe and care about these people because other than that you can ignore the native experience, you can ignore the historical pain that they suffered and you can also ignore the richness of their culture,” Nerburn said.
Many other stories about Native Americans reach the non-native audience through making them feel connected with the characters instead of feeling their historical significance, and, in a way, this was “appropriating their humanity without acknowledging the depth of their historical experience,” Nerburn said.
Nerburn emphasized the importance of seeing the “shadow on the ground” between native and non-native people, and this had to be illustrated in the film.
“The historical difference is real. There is blood on the ground with what we have done, as a dominant culture, to the native people. And I have to acknowledge that. To say that we are all one, is to deny the legitimacy of the historical experience,” Nerburn said.
Nerburn’s “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” trilogy is available for checkout through GFU’s library.