Portland loves to tout every new famous person who moves to town, but one well-known writer slipped in with little fanfare, except in the Native American community.
Beginning with the 1994 cult-classic “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” Kent Nerburn has penned more than a dozen award-winning books and is one of the few white authors to win praise for respectfully bridging the gap between Native and non-Native cultures.
“We recommend his book to a lot of people: It is a good way of explaining our values through story,” said J.R. Lilly, development manager at NAYA, Portland’s Native American Youth and Family Center. “With our community you have to earn your right to be heard. He comes and he listens and you can pick up he’s spent a lot of time with Natives and done a lot with the community. With that, he’s earned the right to speak and share his stories.”
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” the story of Nerburn’s travels with a Lakota elder, is experiencing a recent resurgence. It has been adapted into a successful independent film by the filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson, currently screening at Corvallis’ Darkside and opening at Portland’s Cinema 21 on Aug. 11. (Lilly said NAYA is taking a group of youth and elders.) It will screen around the state in the coming month, including in Ashland, Bend, Klamath Falls, Pendleton, Salem and Sisters — check the film’s Facebook page for confirmed dates.
The book also made headlines in the U.K. this year after being released by the prestigious publisher Canongate and being championed by the British singer Robert Plant, who appeared in a number of BBC interviews and at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts with Nerburn.
Nerburn stopped by OPB’s studio to talk with “State of Wonder” producer Aaron Scott. Here are highlights from their conversation.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” begins with Nerburn traveling to South Dakota at the invitation of an elder named Dan, who had seen the oral history books Nerburn helped Ojibwe youth publish based on the stories of their elders and who wanted Nerburn to turn his own stories into a book. But crossing the cultural divide is challenging for Nerburn. He hits a breaking point and decides to go home, but then his car starts to gush smoke.
“After my car broke down, I was trapped,” said Nerburn, “I’m a hundred miles from anywhere and there was nothing I could do, so I threw up my hands. And along came Dan and his friend Grover and said, ‘Ah, we saw the smoke signals from your car.’ So they said, ‘Come on, don’t worry about your car.’”
This absolutely, astonishingly huge mechanic who ran this junk shop said he could take care of it, so I left my car and they pretty much took me on a road trip through their world and their life and Dan’s understanding of both the Native experience and the white experience as it impacted the Natives as he understood it. And so that became the source of the book.
On writing a Native story as a white author:
Nerburn: I tried very hard only to be a conduit. As with the oral history project, I wanted to be clear water for their understanding of the world and their point of view.
There’s a constant tension between the idea that we are all human — that we are all one and that we have to find what is common between us and among us — and the other feeling, the sense that there is blood on the ground between us. In traveling with them, I’ve been able to cross that barrier a little bit and get to an honest sense of human commonality.
I don’t presume it; I wait until it’s offered to me. Wilma Mankiller, who was the head of the Cherokee tribe, once said at a gathering I was in that white people have such an astonishing sense of entitlement. They think that their good intentions allow them to go anywhere and ask anything and do anything. And I never forgot those words.
Even if I have good intentions, it’s not my decision on whether to reach out or not. I have to wait to have someone reach out to me. And if they choose to look to the commonality of our humanity, if they look at me and say, “OK, I trust your mind and I trust your heart,” then that’s a gift to me. And I accept that gift and I reciprocate with such skills and talents as I have. And that’s what I tried to do in this book.
On struggling with whether to write it as fiction or nonfiction, and settling on making it a teaching story:
Nerburn: I was told by a man on the reservation when I was doing the oral history project: “always teach by stories, because stories lodge deep in the heart.” So that was the way I decided to end up doing it. And I was walking on a knife edge the whole time, because it is neither fiction nor nonfiction, it’s neither wolf nor dog. It is a true teaching story using real people, real events, real scenes, real occurrences of which I was a part. So I was really the receptacle. I was the recipient, and hopefully I was the conduit.
On the book’s continued resonance with readers:
Nerburn: This book has remained alive, has been used by tribal colleges, been used in high schools, has been used around the country, even around the world, because it serves as a bridge from the non-Native culture to the Native cultures, and I walk you, the reader, across that bridge. I say, come from where we are, get out of the Gap, get out of the 7/11, get in the car with me and let’s go for a ride, and I’m gonna take you to some places you’ve never been and show you some people you need to meet. I hand you over to their voices, to the most authentic expression of their understanding and beliefs that I can create, and I get out of the way and let them talk back.
And the fact that Native people have embraced this book, that’s the most important thing to me.
On turning the book into a film:
Nerburn: Ever since the book came out, people have said, “That needs to be made into a film.” Actually, a very well-known Hollywood director had wanted to do it, but no one could find the funding to do it because it didn’t have a dominant white hero. And I refused to let anyone turn me into the hero in this book. I didn’t want to see this become a film of car crashes and a white man who gets wisdom by hanging around Native people — the sort of undercurrent of things like “Dances with Wolves.” I wanted this to be an ensemble piece with the Native people’s voices heard most loudly.
So after several false starts, I happened to be out in South Dakota and saw that there was a man, a Scotsman named Steven Simpson, who was showing a film in this little town of Rushville right outside of the Pine Ridge Reservation, and he filmed it on the reservation. So I gave him a copy of the book, and he said, “I’m gonna do it.”
The role of Dan was the most difficult. Finding a Native actor who was authentic enough as an elder was almost impossible. So we were almost at the end of the rope when we discovered Dave Bald Eagle, the man who ended up playing Dan. Dave was 95 years old.
On what Dave Bald Eagle — a decorated war hero, rodeo cowboy, Indian and ballroom dancer (he danced with Marilyn Monroe), stuntman (he taught John Wayne how to better handle a horse), and tribal leader who had headed the United Native Nations and had lived through the same period of incredible change that Dan lived through — brought to the film:
Nerburn: He didn’t act, he embodied. His wife said to me, “He didn’t understand how you knew all these things about his life.” He was the elder. He was who Dan was waiting to be.
And at the end of the filming when they were at Wounded Knee, Dave just started talking about his own experience. Steven threw the script away and let Dave speak. So you’re not hearing a script, you’re not hearing acting. You’re hearing this man whose family was at Wounded Knee, who grew up through the entire history of 20th century experience of Native destruction and loss, just pour it out. And everyone just let him talk.
And if nothing else comes out of it, the fact that Dave got to tell his story and to tell a story of Native people in his own voice means that the whole project was worthwhile.
On getting a phone call from Robert Plant, former singer of Led Zeppelin:
Nerburn: Well, it was, as you might expect, rather a surprise. He said, “Will you be doing a reading anywhere? Talking anywhere?” I said I’ll be at the South Dakota Festival of the Book in September, and he said, “Good, we’ll be in the United States. Perhaps I’ll pop out.” So he did. He popped out.
I said, “Come on, I’ll take you through the Black Hills, I’ll take you down to Pine Ridge.” So we ended up in Pine Ridge on the night of the lunar eclipse and the blood moon at Wounded Knee, at the site of the massacre and the monument. And there was an event that took place — some people I knew from the reservation — and when they found out it was Robert, the whole thing became kind of a familial event. And at the end we’d become friends.
So when he flew away, he took the book with him and said, “I want to bring it to some people back in England.” He brought it to a critic and novelist who loved it and brought it to the publisher at a very significant independent publishing house in the U.K., Canongate.