There’s a poignancy about last things. A person’s last words, a last meal, the last time you see someone. It’s as though we value things most at the point of their disappearance. The last orangutan. The last whale. The last piece of rainforest. Sometimes, it feels that we live in a world where we cannot keep up with the rate at which things are vanishing.
In the early 1990s, a young woman on a reservation in North Dakota, realized that her beloved grandfather, Dan, would not be around forever. His stories, thoughts, memories – his voice – would soon be lost to her, and to the world. So she made a phone call, at his behest, to a writer. “My grandfather wants to talk to you,” she said and issued the scantest of instructions. “Just ask at the store in town. He doesn’t go anywhere much. Her really wants to talk to you.” And that was all.
The phone call marked the beginning of an extraordinary journey for Kent Nerburn. A young, white American writer, he had worked with native American communities on several oral history projects, but nothing had quite prepared him for Dan. When he finally reached the broken-down house on the outskirts of a small town in the middle of an Indian reservation, the old man outlined the task.
“‘I want to get all this down.’
‘All what?’ I asked.
‘What I have in my mind.’
I thought he wanted me to write his memoirs. ‘You mean, like your memories?’
‘No. What I have in my mind. I watch people. Indian people and white people. I see things. I want you to help me write it down right.’”
At the outset, Nerburn felt himself unequal to the task. “Help me, he had said. The one thing I most wanted to do, the one thing that I felt least qualified to do. The one thing that I feared most about being a white man working with the Indians that I would try to help, and like so many before would do harm and damage that I could not repair.” But the book, Neither Wolf nor Dog is far more than one white man’s struggle with his own burden of history. Neither is it a book of Native American stereotypes – “the drunken Indian, the vicious savage, the noble wise man, and the silent earth-mother”. Dan speaks his mind, or rather ‘what is in his mind’, and Nerburn does his best to be, what he calls “clear water” for the Indian understanding of the world, for Dan’s point of view. It is a compelling, often beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking account of American history, its landscape and the encounters between white and Indian peoples: the blood on the ground.
In an interview on US public radio in August last year, Nerburn said, “White people have such an sense of entitlement. They think that their good intentions allow them to go anywhere and ask anything and do anything.” In order to write the book that Dan wants him to write – and that he, himself, feels is true and authentic – Nerburn has to give up control. He has to stop living by ‘the clock and the paycheck’ as he puts it, and recalibrate to Indian time – explained by one tribal leader as simply “When I’m damn good and ready.” He spends months on the road with Dan and his friend Grover, and Dan’s slobbery old dog Fatback, with no clear idea where they are going, or how long it was going to take.
At first, Nerburn’s sincere and honest attempts to be true to Dan’s words are met with indifference or outright scorn. “Grover thinks it’s too white,” says Dan. Dan’s solution is to take all the shoeboxes full of notes, cuttings and photos – and burn the lot. Nerburn is horrified. “Those pages had been my book and that book had somehow been my hope. I stared into the fire, numbed, like someone whose house had just burned down. Dan was positively cheerful. ‘This is good,’ he said. ‘Grover was right… We’ll do it the Indian way. I’ll make talks and you watch and listen. Then you just write it down.’”
The book finally appeared in 1994 and became ‘a cult classic’, publisher-speak for not selling many copies. It took another 23 years – and the championing of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, of all people – for the book to be published in the UK. Several attempts were made to turn it into a film, but nobody wanted to back a film that didn’t have a white male hero, and Nerburn was adamant: it had to be an ensemble, with the native Indian voices to the fore. Finally, a Scottish director, Steven Lewis Simpson, ‘got it’. Finding a tribal elder to play Dan seemed like an impossible task until someone suggested David Bald Eagle – ninety-five at the time, and a man who (if you care to Google him) seems to have packed more into his one life than is almost humanly possible. Paratrooper, boxer, rodeo performer, champion ballroom dancer, stunt double for Errol Flynn and first chief of the United Native Nations – to name but a few. His role in Dances with Wolves was the least interesting of his many achievements. He died shortly after the film was released in 2016, aged 97. It is hard to imagine a more fitting swansong that his playing Dan in the film of Neither Wolf nor Dog, nor a more poignant tribute to Dan himself, who died in 2002.
There’s no space, in this little column, to quote the many quotable lines from this most heartfelt, simple and deep book. Get it if you can, and if you can’t borrow a copy. It is, as Nerburn describes it in a radio interview last year (OPB, 5 Aug 2017) “a bridge from the non-native culture to the native cultures, and I walk you, I walk the reader across that bridge… Get in the car with me and let’s go for a ride and I’m going to take you some place you’ve never been and show you some people you need to meet.” I promise you, it’s worth the time.
First published The Hindu Business Line BLInk supplement, Feb 25, 2018