Book, film bridge gap between two cultures
Through his time working with native people in Minnesota and South Dakota, Lake Oswego resident Kent Nerburn learned an important piece of Native American culture: Always teach through story.
It's a lesson he carried with him as he put together an award-winning trilogy of books examining the Native American experience from an outside perspective. The first of those books, "Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder," was made into a feature-length film that has already screened in more than 100 cities across the U.S.
Directed by Scottish filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson and starring 95-year-old actor Dave Bald Eagle, the movie will make its Oregon debut at Cinema 21 in Portland on Aug. 11; showtimes have not yet been announced.
"Unlike someone from the inside, I was able to keep my identity as a non-native writer," Nerburn says, "but I knew the native culture and I was friends with the native people. It's a story of my journey. It's a dialogue of trying to bridge the gap between the two cultures."
The 1994 book follows Nerburn, a Minnesota native, as he navigates his way through situations and relationships he experienced while working on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It's a fictionalized account of his travels with an old Lakota man, and as he wrote the book and subsequent screenplay, he kept in mind what an old Ojibwe man had told him once about teaching through story.
"It had to be a journey," Nerburn says, "yet all the people, all the stories are real. They're just fictionalized in a way that the people aren't necessarily recognized and sometimes they're put in different order."
One example of the stories he transformed from true experience to fictionalized retelling is a conversation he had with a Lakota man regarding the Native American tradition of taking great pride in U.S. military service.
"I asked, 'Why are you fighting for a government that oppressed and tried to eradicate your people?' He said, 'No, I'm not fighting for the government. I'm fighting for the land.'"
That kind of revelation was striking to Nerburn, so he took the idea and others learned from his conversations and experiences with Native Americans and put them into the mouths of fictional characters. But it wasn't easy, Nerburn says, to walk the fine line between retelling the Native American experience and appropriating a culture that was not his to explain.
"I had to make sure everything I said passed the test of being absolutely accurate from the Native American point of view," he says. "The last thing they want is to see themselves misrepresented or appropriated by non-native people trying to tell their stories or use them for their own personal benefit. I call it 'trafficking in Indian themes for fun and profit,' and that is not at all what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an ally, and to give back to the native people for all the wonderful time I spent on their reservations. I wanted to help tell their story."
Nerburn's book has won several awards and is currently used as a resource in high schools and colleges across the country. It even caught the eye of legendary Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, who took an interest in Nerburn's book after becoming enamored with the American West and the Native American experience while touring the U.S. in 2014.
Plant reached out to Nerburn after reading his book, and the two spent time together in South Dakota exploring some of the places Nerburn wrote about, including the infamous site of the Wounded Knee massacre.
Plant even went so far as to write an extended prologue to the text in a re-released edition of the book. And earlier this year, Nerburn and Plant both attended the Hay Festival, a 10-day literary and arts festival in Wales, where they hosted a discussion about their experiences and celebrated the release of "Neither Wolf Nor Dog" in the United Kingdom.
Nerburn describes Plant as down to earth and not at all phased by the glamour of his rockstar status. He says he's not a huge fan of Plant's music, but that it was easy to level with the singer as a regular guy who shared Nerburn's affinity for Native American culture.
For more on the author and his books, go to www.kentnerburn.com.