By Rachel MacFarland
Kent Nerburn’s book, Neither Wolf Nor Dog, was recently rereleased to mark the 25 years since it was first published (it is also traveling a theater circuit right now as an indie flick with excellent buzz). All this seems to nod at progressive motion, but we fall far short on back-patting ourselves into righteousness. On Tuesday night (election night) CNN displayed an election-analysis graphic that denoted Native Americans as “something else.” White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Something Else.
For fuck’s sake.
But, okay, the book. Neither Wolf Nor Dog follows the classic and now mostly panned format of Native Man tells White Man his story, a format that dredges up colonial thievery: stealing the storyteller’s voice. To Nerburn’s credit, he is well aware of this problem, and handles it well, telling the story in his own voice, becoming a character alongside everyone else. By doing so, he creates various dynamics, particularly the one between himself and Dan, the Lakota elder who wants Nerburn to record his stories. The contrast between Dan and Nerburn’s voices and perspectives is set within the greater framework of their meeting and the time they spend together on the Dakota plains. The book is not simply a record of “the wise Indian,” a portrait Dan specifically tells Nerburn he is not to paint. Not surprisingly, though, Dan comes off wise beyond measure, because he is. At one point, he tells Nerburn that he can share his vision, but not his knowledge. Dwell on that for a moment, on the depths of the loss within those words. This is a man who can hold conversation with distant buffalo. There was a time when the full extent of such wisdoms wasn’t so immeasurable. We’ve all lost something in the forgetting.
Still, Dan is not without flaw, and not without context. We “see” him through Nerburn’s eyes, not just his words, but his actions, his mannerisms, his long hard looks at the world around him. And we meet his most regular companions—his chauffeur, Grover, and his dog, Fatback. In fact, much of the book takes place in Grover’s car, the four of them together: three men and a dog. Grover and Dan essentially “kidnap” Nerburn, taking him around on a slice of life, slice of scenery road trip.
Now, I am indeed a sucker for road trip narratives and unstupid men, but regardless, there is so much here. This is a rich text, full of honesty, anger, horror, confusion, pain, beauty, and humor. The conversations between Dan and Nerburn work to create a new space between two cultures that, as much as ever, are struggling to understand the other. The book is by no means a definitive end-all, handshake/problem solved. It doesn’t offer resolution at all, really. Rather, it marks a moment in time, twenty-five years ago, when two strangers from different worlds came together and made a joint effort to see each other. These efforts, in turn, offer the reader a chance to learn, grapple with, and ultimately feel something bigger than the nature of these individual characters, something bigger than the road trip, bigger than the plains.
History is always being written, fast and furious, and the known narrative can always break against a rock, and, like a river, split, even if only for a moment. Neither Wolf Nor Dog has the power to be one of those course-changing texts. You could revisit this book every few years and gauge your own growth against its solidity. If you learn to speak buffalo in the meanwhile, well, then. Good on you.
Rachel MacFarland is Co-Publisher/Writer/Curator at Ope! Publishing in La Crosse. Top image: From left, Dave Bald Eagle, Christopher Sweeney and Richard Ray Whitman in a still from the movie adaptation of Neither Wolf Nor Dog.
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