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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

Positive news and inspiring views from the New World Library community

Thursday, July 20, 2017
NEITHER WOLF NOR DOG HITS THE BIG SCREEN by New World Library Associate Publicist Tristy Taylor with an excerpt from the book by Kent Nerburn
Twenty-three years after its original publication, the popular New World Library book Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder, by acclaimed author Kent Nerburn, has been adapted into a feature film. Thanks to the Museum of the American Indian and the Marin Community Foundation, a screening of this Steven Lewis Simpson–directed film recently took place in San Rafael, California. 

Nerburn also cowrote the screenplay (with Simpson), and the main character, played by the talented actor Christopher Sweeney, is based on him. After seeing the final cut, Nerburn said, “The film, in both its choices that reflect the book and its choices that go outside the book, is always and uncompromisingly respectful and accurate in its depiction of Native people and life. To my mind, there is not one false note in the portrayal of Native reality.”

Many New World Library staff members, including me, attended the San Rafael screening, and it was a very powerful experience. Before the film, Hayna Brown of the Ho-Chunk Nation shared a blessing with the audience, inviting us into a deeper space of witnessing and presence. The name Ho-Chunk comes from the word Hochungra, meaning “People of the Big Voice” or “People of the Sacred Language,” and Brown told us that each word he spoke in his native language had many facets of meaning in English. It was a wonderful way to begin the presentation.

The film is a moving journey through the heart of Lakota country, guided by the wisdom of the 94-year-old Lakota elder Dan, played by the incomparable actor David Bald Eagle — a veteran of 1940s cowboy movies, both as a stunt man and an actor, who also trained John Wayne in techniques for horse and gun handling. He walked on his journey to the spirit world in July 2016 at the age 97, but he was able to watch the completed film before he passed on, saying, “It’s the only film I’ve been in about my people that told the truth.”

In the film, we meet quite a few characters, including Grover, played by Richard Ray Whitman — the slightly cantankerous but steady friend who drives Nerburn and Dan around in an old but very reliable green Buick on a “spiritual road trip” of sorts. There’s also the trickster character Jumbo, played by Harlen Standing Bear Sr., who can “fix anything” — but only on his own terms. And the pudgy corgi dog actor that plays Dan’s canine companion, Fatback, stole every scene she was in.

After the screening, Kerby Ann Gleeson, a Lakota Sioux of the Hunkpapa lineage, spoke about being the founder of the White Buffalo Woman Council and urged us all to take what we learned in this poignant film out into our communities — to talk about the issues of Native Americans across the continent and to stay present to the myriad of feelings the film may have brought up in us. “The first step is talking to each other,” she reminded us as the evening came to a close. 

We hope you’ll find a screening near you and see this wonderful film in your local theater. Until then, please enjoy the following excerpt from the book, which was adapted into a scene in the film. Neither Wolf nor Dog is written from the perspective of the author, Kent Nerburn, and in this scene, Dan is explaining the importance of being present and really listening. (And keep your eyes peeled for Fatback!)

# # #

“People should think of their words like seeds. They should plant them, then let them grow in silence. Our old people taught us that the earth is always speaking to us, but that we have to be silent to hear her.

“I try to be that way. I taught my children to be that way.”

He swept his hand out across the panorama in front of us. “Do you hear the sound of the prairie? That is a great sound. But when I’m talking I can’t hear it.

“There are lots of voices besides ours, Nerburn. Lots of voices.”

I smiled at his gentle lecture. “You make good sense, old man,” I said. He nodded in quiet acknowledgment. I think we both felt a sense of pride at how things were progressing.

He picked up a handful of loose earth and looked at it. “What do you do in your mind while we are up here, Nerburn?” he asked.

“Oh, I think about my family. Sometimes I make little prayers or look for shapes in the clouds. Mostly, I guess I’m just in some kind of reverie.”

“Do you know what I do?” he said. “I listen to voices. For me this hill is so full of life I can never be quiet enough to hear all the voices.”

I wanted to press him on this, but gently. I didn’t want to break the spell. “Do you mean real voices, or sensations that seem to have meaning?”

“I mean real voices. They’re not all people. They’re not all speaking our language. But they are voices. Listen.”

I heard the buzzing of locusts and the distant, rhythmic call of some kind of bird.

“Do you hear that bird?” asked Dan.

I told him I did.

“Do you know what he is saying?”

“I don’t speak ‘bird,’” I answered.

“You should,” he twinkled. “Learn a lot. The birds are ‘two-legs,’ like us. They are very close to us. He is calling to another. He is saying it will rain soon.”

“You can tell that?”

“Yes, and I can tell that the wind is switching to the north and we will soon have colder weather.”

“How do you know that?”

“I just do,” he responded cryptically. “It’s in the voices I hear. I can understand all the trees. The wind. All the animals. The insects. I can tell what a color of the sky means. Everything speaks to me.

“There,” he said, pointing to a patch of scrubby grass in the distance. “What do you see?”

“It looks a little greener than the rest of the hills,” I answered. “At least in a few patches.”

“Good. Now why is that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Look closer.”

I squinted my eyes. There was nothing to be seen except the short green grass.

“I don’t see anything,” I said.

“Look closer.”

I squinted again. There seemed to be some kind of movement, but it was too small to make out.

“Something is moving,” I said.

“Good. Do you know what it is?”

I admitted I didn’t.

“Pispiza. You call them prairie dogs.”

“Okay,” I acknowledged.

“That’s why the grass is green. Our brother prairie dogs dig under the ground to make their homes. They dig up the earth so the rain can go deeper and the roots of the grass can grow stronger.

“Where the grass is richer, the bigger animals come to feed. If we sit here quietly, in the morning, when the antelope are hungry, we will see them and we could hunt them. It is all because of our brother prairie dog. Where he lives, we can live.

“These are the kind of things I see when I look out here. They are things my grandfathers taught me. I hear them, too. My grandfathers. I hear their bones under the ground.”

I looked at the clump of dusty earth he held in his hand.

“You think I’m lying, don’t you? Or just a crazy old fool. I can’t explain it. But I know where the dead are buried. I hear them. They speak to me in some ancient tongue. It’s a gift I have.

“You’ve read about those people who can find water by using a forked stick? They walk along with the stick above the ground, and when they get above water the stick just points down.

“That’s the way it is with me. When I get over one of the graves I have a feeling inside me. It’s like a shiver. My grandmother had it, too. She said that our ancestors gave it to us, and that I should always listen.

“That’s why I come up here, Nerburn. Out there is where my people are buried. This is where I come to listen.”

“I believe you, Dan,” I said. And I did. Once, many years ago, I had taken a great deal of peyote. I had thought nothing of it at the time — it was just one of those acts that went along with life in the sixties. Within hours I was lying on my back under the midnight sky listening to the springs flow under the ground. It was a rushing sound, as if they were all speaking to each other. I felt like I was overhearing a conversation in the earth. Then, as I walked to a certain spot that sat like a plateau overlooking a valley, I felt a cold shiver come across me. “There are graves here,” I had said to myself. I knew I believed it, but I had never been sure whether it was the peyote talking or whether I had been opened to some deeper realm of meaning. I had never forgotten that moment, though I seldom shared it with anyone.

Now, this old man was telling me the same thing, but for him it was not some drug-induced awareness, but a part of everyday reality. I wondered what it must be like to have that sensitivity every moment of your life.

He saw my curiosity. “Here,” he said, “watch this.” He sat back on his haunches and cupped his hands over his knees. Nothing seemed to be different. I sat silently beside him, wondering what it was I was supposed to see. Suddenly, Fatback came rustling through the tall grasses wagging her tail.

“Good dog,” he said, and ruffled the scruff of her neck. Fatback wagged her tail furiously, then pushed back off through the weeds.

I raised my eyebrows and gave Dan a little half smile.

“See,” he said.

“You called her over here?”

“Want me to do it again?”

“No,” I answered, though I truly wanted to challenge him on this. But I knew that, on some level, everything was a test, and I did not want to appear the skeptic. My job was to record what I saw as he wanted it told, not to get involved in some ersatz anthropological research. All I could think of was what one tough old woman had said to me when I first arrived on the Red Lake reservation to begin the oral history project. I had gone over to her office to request her assistance in identifying elders who might be interested in participating. She stared at me with a hard glare, then stated, simply, “If you think you’re going to come up here and do one of those goddamn white anthropology projects, you can just get on your pony and ride.” Then she turned back to her beadwork and never said another word.

As much as I wanted Dan to prove that he had called Fatback, it seemed too close to a “goddamn white anthropology project.” So, I just said, “That dog’s got good hearing,” and let things go at that.

Dan chuckled knowingly. “You’re a good boy, Nerburn. Let’s go get some lunch.”

# # #

Tristy Taylor is an artist, interfaith minister, radio host, and associate publicist for New World Library. Her husband suddenly passed away in August 2015, and she has been documenting her grief journey in writing and photos on her blog,

Kent Nerburn is an author, sculptor, and educator who has been deeply involved in Native American issues and education. He developed and directed an award-winning oral history project on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota and went on to write the award-winning trilogy that began with Neither Wolf nor Dog and also included The Wolf at Twilight and The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo. He has been a presenter before various groups, including the National Indian Education Association. Find him online at

Excerpt is from the book Neither Wolf nor Dog. Copyright © 1994, 2002 by Kent Nerburn.






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