Book is opus to Native American life today

By Jeff Smith


Those that discover some type of American Indian relative that was in their distant past might be proud of that fact. Children might tell their friends and it might be brought up in conversations.

But they might not know about the struggle this particular people’s group went through. Those that are blue-eyed and white may not fully understand the traditions that are part of the Native American way.

There needs to be understanding of all cultures, but especially the Native Americans. Kent Nerburn wrote “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” to give an honest portrayal of the Native American’s life today. Native Americans are not always the wisdom-bearing elder who is often portrayed in TV or movies.

Nerburn seeks to bridge the culture gap between the American Indian’s culture and his own in “Neither Wolf Nor Dog.” It’s the kind of book and movie that interested me from the first time I heard about it.

It was featured at the Black Hills Film Festival. I didn’t see the film when it was here but I wish I would have.

I learned that we have to care about the actual identity of Indians and not just about the ideas people have of the Indian. There are so many things that Native Americans can do and are doing today though.

Dan, the source of inspiration for the book, is really the last of his kind. He is brash, unforgiving and still very in touch with his Native American beliefs. He invites Kent to write the book,  first giving him boxes of his thoughts written on scraps of paper. Pages were filled with disconnected observations and long unpunctuated sentences.

But Nerbun seeks to get to know the real Dan and his friend Grover. The book is one long story and it focuses on very real cultural differences. It doesn’t give theories about why the Native Americans live like they do; instead, most of it is the narration of Dan. Throughout the book he drifts in and out of complicated subjects.

There is something to admire about Nerburn throughout the whole book. It’s not just the fact that he spent a significant amount of time with Dan but also because he had an open mind throughout the travels. He wasn’t just seeking to write a brief book about why Native Americans’ way of life needs to be respected. Nerburn wanted to detail every aspect of his journey and understand what Dan wanted to say.

There are times that I wish Nerburn stood up for himself more but overall I thought he did a great job with his task. People are afraid of the unknown. But Nerburn wasn’t afraid of what he would find in meeting Dan.

The book details things that people already know about Native Americans like pow-wows and how Native Americans listen to those that have died. But there are things I haven’t thought about like how it is not really appropriate to call Indians Native Americans because they didn’t name this place “America” in the first place. They identify with their Native American ancestry before anything else. There was also a chapter on how Indians often live in squalor with junk cars in their yard. The reason they are like that is because Dan said Indians use things until they are done with them and then they give them back to the earth, like they used to do with buffalo carcasses.

My biggest takeaway from the book was that there are more than one way to look at the world. It also takes time to get the full story from someone. We as white Americans might not be able to do much. But one thing we can do is listen.

We’re living in a time where openness and honesty is being revered again. People willing to share now are speaking up for the voiceless or minimalized. Those that are genuine are once again getting a platform.

One of the things Nerburn asked which what is left to do. People can’t live their lives feeling bad for the American Indian and trying to fix something that they didn’t even do. Dan said is that maybe all there is left to do is struggle.

“Maybe we just have to leave it in the hands of the Great Spirit,” Dan said.

The book shows Native Americans as being unhurried and unflashy. Today, they are trying to live that the best that they can, learn the language and respect their elders. 

Many Native Americans who have been betrayed and who died have been erased from history. America’s history has also been altered to make us feel better. Many people only see stereotypical versions of Native Americans on TV shows and in movies. Various attractions try to commemorate some Native Americans and give a different view of the Native American’s way of life.

Back when there was a removal of Native Americans from their land the idea of “Kill the Indian, leave the man” became a popular way to eradicate the Native American way of life at boarding schools. Children were beaten if they spoke in their own language or if they expressed any conviction of Indians’ religious beliefs.

Since about the 1870’s the American Indians have been trying to keep their traditions and exist in the shadows of American life. Some, knowing that their property is gone and that they can’t go back to the old way of life have completely assimilated into American culture.

Their plight has been our victory.

As Nerburn states, for gold and “the hunger to own a piece of the earth, we had destroyed the dreams and families of an entire race, leaving them homeless, faithless, and with nothing but the ashes of a once graceful and balanced way of life.”

There has been change in this country but I don’t think it has reached down to local levels yet. Legislators recently rejected the requirement to teach South Dakota Native American history in public schools. I think it is important to teach Native American history because it shows how fortunate we are here in South Dakota, especially in the Black Hills.

We have to learn from our mistakes. Not just because we want to fill some void of what those before us did or to make reparations, but because it is the right thing to do.