Local author's 20-year dream becomes reality with film adaptation
Kent Nerburn says as an elder, he's ready to give back. The 71-year-old author living in Lake Oswego recently achieved a major milestone in his career when, after 20 years, his cult-hit novel, "Neither Wolf Nor Dog," recently was adapted into an independent film by Steven Lewis Simpson.
With a certified fresh rating (97 percent) on Rotten Tomatoes, "Neither Wolf Nor Dog" debuted locally, with showings happening through tonight, Sept. 14, in Canby, Sandy, Scappoose and Madras, and then in Bend and Sisters starting Sept. 15. It will be released on Blu-Ray and DVD early next year.
The film, based on the book that was released in 1994, tells the story of a 95-year-old Native American elder named Dan — real name Dave Bald Eagle, who died after performing in the film — who asks a white author to write a story about his perspective. Like the book, the film aims to bridge the gap between white American culture and few-told truths about Native American life.
"Come with me, and let me take you to a place you've never seen, and meet unique people you've never met, and hear stories you need to hear about who we are," Nerburn says.
He's been living in the Pacific Northwest for three years, after leaving the cold winters in Minnesota. He says he's still getting his "sea legs" in adapting to the life of a writer around Portland — not yet too involved with the literary community.
He's happy the film made it to the big screen to be seen by a wider audience, as well as to have given Dave Bald Eagle the chance to live on through film.
"He embodied that role. It was a gift to him, and he gave the gift back to the world. He became, and will always remain through the film, the voice of a Native elder and speaking to the general community that doesn't know about the real power and wisdom of true elders," Nerburn says.
Now as he lives as an elder, Nerburn is navigating what that means.
"They're the only ones who've seen all four seasons of life. They're revered, respected and have a responsibility. And I've learned from them that I have to have responsibility now," he says.
The Tribune caught up with Nerburn to see what his thoughts were about the film and what he's been up to since living in the Pacific Northwest:
Tribune: What emotions have you been feeling since your 20-year-long dream has come true?
Nerburn: A lot of pride, and a lot of gratitude. The book itself has made its way all around the world and has had a very significant document for people in helping bridge the gap between Native American and non-Native cultures.
But the book is a very different animal. There are a great many people both in the Native community and in the general community who would rather see something than read it. So Steven's film, being an excellent adaptation, brings the book and the story to an entirely different audience. The most gratifying aspect of the film is to get the Bald Eagle his chance to be seen and his chance to speak as an elder in the role of Dan. He embodied that role.
Tribune: How would you describe the novel and film to people who might not be in tune with the story?
Nerburn: It's a journey into the heart of Native America. A place that very few non-Native people ever see.
I look at it as fulfilling two functions. It brings alive the part of the American historical narrative that's been hidden, and it reveals some of the truths that Native people live by that have caused them and allowed them to be such a significant presence even after 500 years of attempted extermination by the dominant culture. So we see their world, and we also see some of the history that we've had denied to us in the dominant culture.
Tribune: What do you do in your spare time in the Portland area?
Nerburn: I continue to be a writer. That's my life. When I lived in northern Minnesota and worked on the reservations, most of my focus was on Native American subjects and themes and general spirituality. But, now that I've gotten older, it feels like some of my job as a writer is to give back some of the knowledge and experience that I've gained as a writer.
I finished this book "Dancing With the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art" because I want young people who are in the arts and struggle with all the issues — the self-doubts, loneliness, financial realities, dreams — to see the journey from the inside and say, here's where you're going, here's the path you're walking.
One of the things I truly learned from working in the Native community is the responsibility of the elder. In our culture we have this marginalized notion of the senior citizen, where people just either stop working and go out to pasture and live their own private lives, or else they try to hold on to power when it should be being handed off to younger generations, but in the Native community the elders are respected and the elder is responsible.
I've tried to take on the role of an elder and it's a difficult task in this culture, but I just want to give back my knowledge. So, this film is a way to give back.