September 5, 2017
Hood River has the privilege of being one of 18 Oregon towns this week to feature “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” an independent movie based on Kent Nerburn’s 1994 book “Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder,” a best-selling Native American novel. (It's at Hood River Cinemas).
According to the press release, Nerburn’s book won the Minnesota Book award for creative non-fiction and “has become a standard part of the multi-cultural curriculum in many high schools, colleges, and universities across the United States, Europe, and Australia.”
Movie reviews, which this is not, have always been perplexing to me. Sometimes, actually, most of the time, they get too esoteric and I can’t really seem to find the part that says why I should or shouldn’t see this or that film.
A reviewer goes on and on about directors and actors and screenwriters in the movie who have apparently done all kinds of other movies and roles that I haven’t seen, either, like I’m going to remember who the screenwriter was for a movie I can’t remember if I’ve seen or not.
As a side note, I’m happy to see that Shawn Levy, a frequent contributor to movie reviews for the Oregonian and a host of other publications, is coming to Hood River in October, to our arts center, to talk about movies. I should probably save the date! It’s October 7.
(Note: you may actually see my version of some movie reviews around that time, and then we can all go to that lecture to see if I did it right.)
Of course, if we need to talk about a movie, we can do that. But the people and the reasons and the ties to things that happen because someone reads a book or sees a movie are much more interesting to me.
The fact that Kent Nerburn had to wait over 20 years for his book to be made into a movie, the fact that Kent gets to watch someone in the movie play himself, the fact that a celebrated Native Amercian war hero played the lead role in the film, the fact that Kent got a call from Robert Plant, I mean, the Robert Plant, because he wanted to meet and talk to him about his book, that’s interesting. That’s what I’d like to learn about, and now I’d like to thank Kent Nerburn for taking the time to write the answers to my questions.
And a second shout-out to Kent, for actually taking the time to answer the second round of questioning, because, guess who, the guy who was intrigued by the mention of Robert Plant in the original email actually forgot to ask the question about Robert Plant the first time.
MOVIE PLOT SUMMARY “Neither Wolf nor Dog”
The story follows a white author, (Kent Nerburn, played by Christopher Sweeny) who gets sucked into the heart of contemporary Native American life in the sparse lands of the Dakota's by a 95 year old Lakota elder, Dan, and his side-kick, Grover.
Dan was played by Dave Bald Eagle, who was born in a tipi in 1919 and spoke only Lakota until he went to school at 12 years old. Many historians have speculated his grandfather, White Bull, killed General Custer at the Little Bighorn.
During WWII Dave Bald Eagle was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, jumping behind the lines at Anzio and on D-Day they were mistakenly dropped over German lines. Riddled with bullets before he hit the ground, he was found unconscious, but fortunately received medical attention soon after and survived.
The movie follows Nerburn’s journey to create a book from a box of handwritten material given to him by Dan. Nerburn is “stunned by their profound insights about American culture and the Native perspective.”
[Dave Bald Eagle passed away at 97-years-old on the 22nd of July, 2016.]
An Interview with Kent Nerburn
Thanks for choosing Hood River Oregon to feature your new film. Was HR chosen due to any particular aspect that may be related to the film or your book?
The choice of venues was all Steven Simpson’s (the movie’s director). I know that he is very concerned that the film be shown in as many venues as possible where Native folks get to see it. This is, in many ways, a labor of love for both of us and a thank you to the Native people for the gifts they have given us over the years.
Your original book won an award for creative non-fiction in 1995. It must be an amazing process to finally see it become a film. Can you describe a little about the process you used to write the book, where the ideas came from and one specific example on how you think the film accurately captured what you wrote?
I have worked for 30 years in Native communities, the first three helping young people on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota collect the memories of the tribal elders. During that time, one of the elders told me something I will never forget. “Always teach by stories,” he said, “because stories lodge deep in the heart.”
Neither Wolf nor Dog is a teaching story using real people, real places, and real events put together in a way meant to reach deep into your heart.” It is a story that takes the non-Native person into the Native world and hands him or her over to the Native people who then speak the truth of what they know and feel. It is, in some ways, a combination of novel and oral history — neither wolf nor dog, if you will.
As to an example of a place where the film captures what I wrote — that’s easy: Dave Baldeagle playing Dan. Dave doesn’t just act the role of Dan, he embodies Dan. He is the presence and voice of a traditional elder such as I was trying to present, and he does it with a heart and spirit that is unlike anything anyone is likely to see on film ever again, because his kind is passing.
Can you briefly summarize what message do you want people to take away from viewing the film?
There is a history of our country that we don’t know and a people who we need to understand and hear. As a Shoshone elder said, “Don’t begrudge the white man. Though he doesn’t know it yet, he came here to learn from us.” I hope this film is a small step toward that learning.
What is it like watching a film knowing that you are the person that the actor in the movie is portraying?
Chris is a wonderful actor and a wonderful man. His personality is more assertive than mine and he expresses the loneliness of the task with frustration whereas I experienced it more with melancholy. I love seeing him interpret my character through his own skills and personality.
To me, that’s what collaboration is about: you hand your work over to another artist and say, “Work your magic as you see fit.” It is a kick seeing someone who is do damn handsome playing you. I’m an old dog prettty well worn around the edges. He’s a man in his prime, and a handsome one, at that. I’ll take that, and my wife probably would, too.
What is the next project you’ll be working on?
One of the things I’ve learned from working with Native people is that the role of the elder is an important one. I have reached a point where I need to give back. Right now I’m giving back by working on a book on the inner life of the artist, called “Dancing with the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art.” It will be out in the spring.
Essentially, it will be the lessons learned from a life in the arts; an “I’ve been where you’re going” work meant to speak to the unseen joys and challenges of committing yourself to living the life of the artist. It feels like the right project at this time in my life. I also am working hard to make sure that those folks who come to Neither Wolf nor Dog through the film realize that there are two follow-up books that explore Native experience and reality even more deeply: The Wolf at Twilight and The Girl who Sang to the Buffalo. People will have to find those as books, not as films, because there can never be another movie involving the person of Dan (who is the main character in each of the three books). The capacity to portray Dan on screen died with the passing of Dave Baldeagle. There will never be another like him.
I totally forgot to ask (I’m embarrassed because I’m a music guy): What was your experience like meeting Robert Plant and how has his input helped further your message?
Robert was a total surprise to me. I got a call from my publisher saying the representative of someone named Robert Plant asked if she could contact me. “Robert Plant, the singer?” I asked. The woman at the desk didn’t know. Anyway, his representative called me and said that Robert had picked up Neither Wolf nor Dog in the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver (the Denver equivalent of Powell’s), and he couldn’t stop talking about it. Would I be willing to talk to him, she asked. “Sure,” I replied.
Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin had never been much on my radar as a youth. And, to me, people are all the same — measured by the quality of their heart, not their celebrity or status. So the prospect of talking to Robert meant nothing to me.
When we spoke, he asked if I would be speaking anywhere in the near future. “I’ll be in South Dakota in September,” I told him. “Well, I’ll be on tour in the States then,” he said. “Maybe I’ll pop out.”
Well, pop out he did. I had no expectations about meeting him. I assumed he was some over the hill rocker who kicked holes in motel room walls and tore off his shirt on stage. What I found when I met him was a kind, thoughtful, generous, intelligent man who has had to carry the strange burden of inconceivable fame for 50 years. He is a musician’s musician and a caring father, as well as an engaging human being. We got along famously.
After my talk, I asked if he wanted to see the Black Hllls and Pine Ridge. He was more than willing, so we traveled together for several days, ending up on the hill at Wounded Knee on the night of the lunar eclipse and the blood moon. It was all very moving, and a deep friendship developed. Since that time I have spent time with him in his home village and in London and he has been exceedingly helpful in getting the book known to a new audience. Because of him, a British publisher has picked it up and he and I spoke together both at the Hay Literary festival in Wales and on various BBC interview shows.
What his support has done is open up the Native experience to audiences who never have given it a second thought. He has become a new ally of the Native people and a profoundly influential voice in making their story known. He wrote a foreword to the UK edition of Neither Wolf nor Dog. You can find it on my website in the blogs. It is almost like song lyrics.
All in all, an unlikely and serendipitous friendship. I value it greatly, and would value it no less if he worked in a machine shop in Hood River. And, you know what? If he went to a machine shop in Hood River he’d fit right in. An exceptional man.