“Just carry Dan’s words in your heart”
“You did something we did not think was possible. You killed us, without even taking our lives.”
This intense, unexpected passage in the book Neither Wolf Nor Dog stopped this reader in his tracks. Is this what Murray Sinclair meant when, in reporting out the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings, he spoke of “cultural genocide”? Or what Marion Buller meant when, in presenting the report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, she eschewed the adjective, and discerned “genocide”?
The words are Dan’s. He is the wizened and wise Lakota ancient on a South Dakota Indian reservation who, together with his side-kick Grover, all but kidnaps Kent Nerburn to tell his, and his people’s, story. Which the author does, feelingly, in his 1994 book Neither Wolf Nor Dog; it, and the two books that continue the story, The Wolf at Twilight  and The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo —together, they, all critically-acclaimed and award-winning, make up the so-called Neither Wolf Nor Dog Trilogy—were recently gifted to the SSUC Library.
But it was not an easy story to write. Or read. Hard truths are told. As Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat put it in their review of the book for spiritualityandpractice.com, “…Nerburn has fashioned a powerful drama around his encounters with Dan, a Lakota elder who unflinchingly speaks the truth about Indian life, past and present.”
“No one will leave us alone,” Dan disheartens, “and let us be who we are.” The ways of his people were “taken from them. Everything. Your people did it,” he rails at Nerburn. “That’s the way it was planned, and it worked. You took their spirits, and left them with shame.” And as “our culture goes, we go. Everything our old people starved for and our ancestors died for will be gone.” He adds, ultimately, “We were a good people. But we were not allowed to live.”
In the aftermath of this ruination, Dan tells Nerburn that “…we are still at war. …if we don’t fight for who we are, we will be destroyed….” So, he believes, “There is not an Indian alive who dares to think too much on the past. If we looked too long at the past, we would be too angry to live.”
Such bitterness is personal, he admits: “…my grandfathers…said I had too much anger to speak. They told me that anger is only for the one who speaks. It never opens the heart of one who listens.” But his grandparents advised him of this, too: “There are good white people…. They want to do right. They are not the enemy anymore. The enemy is blindness to each other’s ways. Put away your anger, they said.”
How different are the ways of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples? “…White people always think of themselves first, and how to get your individual rights,” Dan reckons. “We don’t. We think about our culture, and how to make the people strong within it. That’s what we’re doing. We’re building the culture. That’s our job….”
Nerburn mentions how nowadays white America is coming to “rediscover” the Indigenous “way of life,” and seeking “to appropriate the very spiritual truths we had tried to destroy, in order to fill the void of our own spiritual bankruptcy.” This is not lost on Dan: “Some of my people…think you know that you are lost, and that you want us to help you find your way.” He obliges: “You want to know how to be like Indians? Live close to the earth. Get rid of some of your things. Help each other. Talk to the Creator. Be more quiet. Listen to the earth instead of building things on it all the time.”
Albeit fleetingly, but tellingly, Dan brings the Christian faith into the conversation: “I like Jesus. …He was wakan [Encyclopaedia Britannica: “a great spiritual power…a kind of holiness or wonderfulness inherent in some objects”]. He should have been an Indian. He didn’t own anything. He slept outside on the earth. He moved around all the time. He shared everything he got. He even talked to the Great Spirit as his Father. He was just like an Indian.”
What’s more, “The white people knew they…weren’t living like Jesus had told them. They made up excuses. When they looked at us, they saw the way Jesus had said to live. We made their excuses look false.”
“We’re calling it creative non-fiction”
Can a book “be at once a work of fiction,” Kent Nerburn asks on his website, “and non-fiction?” Yes, he answers, and cites Neither Wolf Nor Dog: it is, he asserts, “neither wolf nor dog.” In it, and in the other books in his trilogy, he uses “aspects of the novel, oral history, mythology, parable, and spiritual homily…. He describes the end result as “a genre-blending, category-blurring literary vehicle….” He tells minnpost.com, “We’re calling it creative non-fiction.
“Is every part of it factual? No. True? Yes. Everything in there is based on actual physical experience and memory,” he continues, “but, for the sake of story-telling, the narrative is reconstructed in places.” So, Dan, Grover, and the others in the book are “real people, all,” Nerburn declares on his website. Though “‘Dan’ is not his real name,” according to Minnesota’s mprnews.com: “Nerburn has renamed everyone, except himself.” [St. Paul’s Pioneer Press reported that “Dan died in 2002.”]
In a 2017 interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting, Nerburn, who had just moved from Minnesota to Portland, supposed that his 1994 book “has remained alive…because it serves as a bridge from the non-Native culture to the Native cultures, and I walk you, the reader, across the bridge. I…hand you over to their voices [those of Native Americans], 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….”
As Neither Wolf Nor Dog nears its conclusion, Nerburn is taken, inevitably, rightly, to Wounded Knee. It was here, on December 29, 1890, that 457 Seventh Cavalry troopers—this was General George Armstrong Custer’s corps, remember—fired indiscriminately and at close range on mostly unarmed Indian people, approximately 350 of them, whom they had been escorting. According to the Library of Congress, over 300 were killed, half of them women and children.
That morning, the Sioux in their camp, had joined in a Ghost Dance, according to history-online website Timeline, “praying that the soldiers be scattered like dust in the air.” To Native Americans in the West, the Ghost Dance symbolized “blissful resurrection”; to non-Indigenous peoples “it represented Native American resistance to white brutality and cultural erasure. …the United States military perceived the Ghost Dance as an act of war.”
What it was, was a peaceful spiritual movement, begun in the late 1800s by a Paiute religious leader, Wovoka, which spread quickly as far east as the Missouri River and to the Canadian border. He saw himself—this as britannica.com puts it—“as a new messiah, or Jesus Christ, come to the Indians.” Intended to rehabilitate Native American cultures, this movement announced the imminent return of the dead—hence, “Ghost”—the ousting of whites, and the restoration of Native lands and ways of life. These ends, it was believed, would be hastened by song and dance.
Dan touches upon the Ghost Dance phenomenon: “But it made the government angry. The Indians had hope. If you have hope, you come alive again. We had all become dead in our hearts. When the government saw us come alive again, it had to kill us. We could not have hope. If we had hope, we might have dreams. We could not be allowed to have dreams.”
By now in his book, Nerburn, fully committed to the Native Anmericans’ cause, picks up on Dan’s outcry: “…people who had sensed the power of God in every rock and bird and square inch of land had been reduced to dancing crazily in a circle, in hopes that their desperate ecstasy would call forth a saviour who would keep them from having to watch one more of their children die hollow-eyed and uncomprehending in their arms. …we had destroyed the dreams and families of an entire race, leaving them homeless, faithless, and with nothing but ashes of a once graceful and balanced way of life….”
In real life, too, Kent Nerburn is fully committed to the Native Americans’ cause.
Five years ago, the website minnpost.com [“nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism”] mentioned that he “isn’t a Native writer, but the majority of his work centres in Native American themes.” As an author, he has managed to “respectfully bridge the chasm between the white and Native worlds, and he ultimately earned the trust of people who have learned to trust no one who looks like him.”
You wonder, how did he do this? “I became a watcher,” he explained a year earlier in an interview with Read the Spirit online magazine. He cited this as an example…and it’s worthy of reporting here in whole:
“I went to visit one of these places [a former Great Plains residential school for Indigenous youth]. I was invited to talk to some clergy and, while I was on that trip, I stopped by a cinder-block cafe at a time when it was almost empty. There was just one old man at a table. I asked if I could join him. He said, ‘Sure.’ I asked, ‘Did you go to this boarding school when you were young?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I went.’ ‘How was it?’ He said, ‘I learned good language. I learned good Christian.’ Then he paused. Finally, he said, ‘And now I am no longer myself.’ To me, that was a dagger in my heart.”
At the end of that interview, Nerburn added this: “…I really try to write from my best self. I don’t let my ironic self, or my sarcastic or angry self, get into my books. …As a writer, I have a ministry. That ministry is to write from the heart. …I’m giving readers stories with heart….”
That he would see his endeavours as a “ministry” is not surprising. After earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota—he’s from Minneapolis—he pursued studies at Stanford, then Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union; in 1980, he graduated with a Ph.D., with distinction, in both theology and art. David Crumm, Read the Spirit’s editor, labeled him “a unique American theologian, working his way through cycles of stories and artworks [Nerburn is a noted sculptor, not only an author of 20 books], travels and talks, toward developing an authentically North American theology rooted in geography and peoples of this continent.”
Finding “creative non-fiction” in the Christian Bible
Kent Nerburn’s use of “creative non-fiction” in the writing of Neither Wolf Nor Dog shouldn’t trouble in the least progressive Christian readers. It’s something with which they are familiar, surely. Consider how progressive Christianity pioneer Marcus Borg finds it thither and yon in the Bible. He just calls it something else: “metaphorical narrative”.
In The Heart of Christianity, he insists that “stories can be true, can be revelatory, can be epiphanies, even if they are not factual reports.” In the Bible, for example, “the Genesis stories of creation…are not history remembered. Yet, as metaphorical narratives, they can be profoundly true, even though not literally factual.” He loves to tell how the Oglala Sioux medicine man and spiritual leader Black Hawk would begin to tell his people’s story of creation: “Now, I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know the story is true.”
All right, but Nerburn is best known as an author, as Crumm mentions, and especially for his books that explore “Euro-American relationships with Native Americans.” In this, he’s helping to retell the national narrative: “One of the central problems is this unresolvable tragedy at the heart of our American narrative,” Nerburn warrants, “when we look at what we did to the people who lived here first.
“Not only did we expunge the native history from our history books for a long time, we took generations of Native American children into boarding schools, and tried to expunge their history from them, by force. A lot of the struggles with Native Americans over the years have come because of these efforts to destroy, to erase their stories from our national story.” (It’s worth noting here what Haligonian Tara Thorne wrote in The Coast in a review of the movie version of Neither Wolf Nor Dog: “…Canadians will see the parallels in the two countries’ treatment of its Indigenous citizens.”)
That Nerburn has wrestled with what he calls “this unresolvable tragedy” can be seen in his letter to teacher Bill Davis’s high school students in Stillwell, Oklahoma—they had read Neither Wolf Nor Dog, and had shared with Nerburn their take on the book: “ ..There may be nothing we can do other than be aware of what our presence on this continent had wrought. …there may not be a way to rectify past wrongs, beyond having them serve as a kind of dark knowledge that guides our footsteps into the future….
“We, as members of the dominant, or at least the dominating culture, do not have to feel guilt at what happened in the past. We merely have to feel responsibility for it as it impacts the present and future. Power is real, and the powerless rely on those of us who can effect change to do so, even if that change is only in attitudes….
[Referring then to Dan and his insights, Nerburn continues his letter] “…he gives us insight into a way of understanding [different from our own]…. Once we can begin to share that understanding, if only for the purposes of seeing into the heart and mind of another, we are on our way to reconciliation and healing…. …Just carry Dan’s words in your heart….”
Correspondent Kathy Holmgren, writing earlier this year in the Rapid City, South Dakota, publication, Native Sun News Today, displayed more passion, and less compassion, as a result of taking in Neither Wolf Nor Dog: if we “take great collective pride in the stories of the people who settled this land…the ‘wild west’…then we must accept that we have collective guilt…for killing innocent old men, women, nursing mothers and babies, at Wounded Knee. If we take collective pride in the American cowboy, we must accept collective guilt for the Indian schools that ripped children from their mothers, and beat them for speaking their own language, even though they didn’t know any other; priests who molested them; teachers who tied them in chairs. …we must accept the collective guilt that comes with broken treaties, broken families, and broken lives.
“You see, if we take the pride, and never accept the guilt, then Dan and Grover and every other Native has a right to be angry. They may always be angry, I don’t know. But I do know that without acceptance of that collective guilt, we can never even begin to heal the wounds and the rift that still divides.”