Courtesy of InYo Entertainment
“There’s nothing more suspect than a white man trying to tell an Indian’s story.”
So says writer Kent Nerburn in a long-distance phone call to his wife from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the film “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” by director Steven Lewis Stephenson. That line sums up much of the tension present in the film — the divide between white America and the Native American world.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is an adaptation of the awarding winning, creative nonfiction book of the same name by then-Minnesotan (now Oregonian) author Kent Nerburn. The film opens with Kent receiving a mysterious request to speak with a Lakota Sioux elder named Dan on the Pine Ridge Reservation more than 400 miles away. The frail Dan, played by veteran Native American actor and stunt man Dave Bald Eagle in his final role, requests that Kent write a book based on a collection of insights he has claimed to have written over the course of his life. The project turns into a spiritual road trip with Dan’s sidekick Grover and dog Fatback across the South Dakota Badlands, which culminates in a visit to Wounded Knee. It is there that Kent connects with guilt over his people’s treatment of Native Americans.
The title of the book/film is derived from the Sitting Bull quote “I do not wish to be shut up in a corral. All agency Indians I have seen were worthless. They are neither red warriors nor white farmers. They are neither wolf nor dog.” It would seem to apply to Dan, who, by being placed in a boarding school and stripped of his culture, exists in a no man’s land between the Indian and white worlds. In another sense it applies to Nerburn, who by the end of the film has transcended his patronizing and naïve view of Native American values, relationship with the land and spirituality. Both men are neither white nor Indian.
It’s exciting that an independent film whose subject matter is so pertinent to the community is being screened at the theater on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. America’s treatment of indigenous populations — rapacious at best, genocidal at worst — is a legacy that our country has yet to come to terms with (Standing Rock being a recent high profile example of this). Although there are numerous partnerships between the Confederated Tribes and various government and business entities, a cultural divide and lack of understanding of tribal history on the part of white America persists. Viewing this film would be an enormously enlightening experience for any audience member, be they white, Native or otherwise, and help to bridge the gap between these two worlds.
For both Nerburn and Stephenson, screening “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” on the Umatilla Indian Reservation is a point of pride and a goal in and of itself.
“Both Steven and I look upon this project as our gift back to the Native community for the gifts and insights they have given us,” said Nerburn. “Steven cut a worthy line through the book and brought the characters to life with breathtaking authenticity. My hope is that people on the rez and in Native urban communities will look at this film and say, ‘Yes, this is how it is. This is who we are.’ Native friends have told me that seeing the film gives the children pride and gives the elders a feeling of being understood. It becomes a source point for discussions in families about history and hope and the ways of the human heart. It is a film that is overflowing with love and tears, and gives voice to both what divides us and what unites us.”
Stephenson added: “It was always a top priority for me to have this film available in the heart of Indian Country. Half of the first six theaters it played in were owned by tribes or tribal members and that has continued as much as possible. So we are thrilled to be playing in their theater there ... There has been no more satisfying response to the film than hearing that an entire school took all their pupils to the theater to see it. This has happened with reservation schools more than once. Dave Bald Eagle was a glorious man. To be able to share him with youth and the broader world is an amazing privilege.”
Didactic elements aside, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is an admirably well executed film. The script, adapted from the book by both Nerburn and Stephenson, features dialogue that feels natural and never insulting to the viewer’s intelligence, and Stephenson’s cinematography captures the stark beauty of the Badlands region. When viewed on the big screen one forgets that they are watching a scrappy independent film that was produced by two Kickstarter campaigns amounting to approximately $65,000. It would make for an interesting double feature with the recent Hollywood film “Wind River,” also playing at Wildhorse, which addresses the divide between the white and Native American worlds as well, though in a much less emotional and spiritual way.
James Dean Kindle is the East Oregonian’s entertainment columnist, the executive director of the Oregon East Symphony and a Pendleton musician. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.