From Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” in 1957 to TV’s “Route 66” in 1960—and from Hollywood’s “Easy Rider” in 1969 to Larry McMurtry’s 1986 Pulitzer for the novel “Lonesome Dove”—Americans have adored tales about restless characters hitting the road. Of course, this theme goes way back to the birth of our nation and writers like James Fenimore Cooper, but there’s something special about these post-World War II tales of the road.
Usually, the biggest hits in this era involve crossing cultural boundaries along with state lines. That’s certainly true of the four classics listed above. And it’s true of Kent Nerburn’s 1994 book “Neither Wolf nor Dog.”
Warren Petoskey, an Odawa elder and author of “Dancing My Dream,” is very skeptical about which American Indian books he regards as authentic. Warren highly recommends Kent Nerburn’s work—as do many other American Indian leaders, readers and writers.
That’s high praise, indeed, because Kent is not Indian himself. In fact, he’s very clear about never allowing himself to be mistaken for Indian. He doesn’t want to become part of what he regards as an unfortunate movement among non-Indians to appropriate Native culture, repackage it and resell it.
That’s not Kent’s vocation as a writer. His calling is writing about what it’s like for a non-Indian to truly form friendships with Indians. He writes about all the pain, all the joy and all the wonderment that comes from crossing this particular boundary.
Among the many who’ve praised the original “Neither Wolf nor Dog” are Fred and Mary Ann Brussat at their highly respected Web site, Spirituality and Practice. They wrote, in part:
Kent Nerburn has been deeply involved in Native American issues and education. In this extraordinary work … Nerburn has fashioned a powerful drama around his encounters with Dan, a Lakota elder who unflinchingly speaks the truth about Indian life, past and present.
Like a Zen Master, Dan refuses to whitewash the historical clash between whites and his people. Nerburn comes with certain expectations and idealism that are shattered by Dan’s refusal to be written off as just another Native American wise man. The author becomes the brunt of many jokes as he travels down dusty roads, sees reservation life, and is exposed to his own prejudices. This teaching strategy of Dan reminds us of the tricksters in Zen and Sufism who are always trying to take us beyond conventional thinking and dogmatism.
Nerburn gets the point and learns some hard truths about himself and his assumptions about Indians.
TODAY, we welcome Kent Nerburn to ReadTheSpirit for an interview about his latest book, “The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows.” This is a sequel to his first book about Dan. I won’t spoil Kent’s surprises by explaining too much about what transpires in this book. But, one important new theme, this time, is the traumatic legacy of Indian boarding schools nationwide. It’s a theme that’s also central to Warren Petoskey’s new book and is showing up urgently in other new books and films about Indian life.
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR CONVERSATION WITH
KENT NERBURN, AUTHOR OF “WOLF AT TWILIGHT”
DAVID: Americans are way behind some other nations around the world in coming to terms with our centuries of mistreatment of Native peoples. In ReadTheSpirit, we’ve written about Australia’s pioneering approach to these deep wounds, complete with an elaborate nationwide apology process, an ongoing National Sorry Day and a nationwide commitment to reparations for government child abductions called “The Stolen Generations” in Australia.
Here in the U.S., most Americans aren’t even aware of our own history of forcing Indian children into military-style boarding schools where most were at least psychologically abused—and many were treated far worse.
As an author, you had one extremely successful book with “Neither Wolf nor Dog.” Why did you decide to return for a sequel that touches upon the boarding school legacy?
KENT: This goes back to reactions I’ve gotten over the years to some of the painful issues I raised in “Neither Wolf nor Dog.” I tended to get two kinds of responses from non-Native people who were skeptical about my writing on these issues.
One response was: Why don’t they get over it? They lost! Just assimilate into American culture and be done with it!
The second response was: It’s not my fault. I didn’t do this. Maybe my great grandfather did something that hurt these people, but I didn’t do anything.
My books are not an attempt to bludgeon white culture for crimes that have been committed against Native American people. I’m not interested in pushing shame and guilt on people. But, I am interested in opening up ways to talk about, and ways to deal with, these issues.
For me, this is the doorway that’s open to me as a white writer. I am not an Indian speaking to the outside world about crimes committed against me and my people. I’m one of the white guys. So, if I can find ways to write about this—and together we can find constructive ways to talk about this—then we can hope to move forward. It seems to me that this is a positive thing to do.
DAVID: In highly recommending your books we obviously agree with you.
To help orient new readers to your books, though, we should explore another big issue that’s been raised about “Neither Wolf nor Dog.” The major character in that book is Dan, who is your guide on that road trip into Indian culture. But Dan isn’t his actual name and, although the book is presented as a nonfiction memoir, it’s pretty clear that this is more a book of honest storytelling, based on your real-life experiences with Indian friends—and less a work of strict journalism.
KENT: The first book really was a series of homilies tied together around a road trip and it was roughly constructed almost as a gospel narrative. We’ve got this Golgotha section toward the end and we have this long period in the middle of the book where there’s a great teaching section. Really, it’s a road-trip book around a series of teachings.
This is important to understand about “Neither Wolf nor Dog,” because I come out of a tradition of religious studies and the fine arts—not out of a literary or a journalistic tradition. It wasn’t a paramount issue for me to be dealing with questions of whether every word I wrote fell into a fiction or nonfiction discipline of writing. I spent years working in the fine arts, where no one ever asks a question like: Are Van Gogh’s paintings true? That’s not an issue in art like it may come up in the literary world.
In “Wolf nor Dog,” I was writing a spiritual document in a way that would bring people closer to the truth of the Native experience. But, in the process, I stepped into this whole issue of people questioning whether “Wolf nor Dog” was “true.” Then, we had James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” and questions about how he made up these stories. There were other controversial cases in the news like Stephen Glass who made up stories at The New Republic.
My wife teaches journalism and, around that time, she said: “This is a snakepit.”
I said, “I’m just a writer trying to articulate my experiences with Native Americans. I’m trying to express some of the things that I know Native Americans want people to be hearing out there.”
So, now comes this work on a second book, following “Wolf nor Dog,” and in my approach to writing, I start by asking: What is it that I can address in this new book that’s really important to Native Americans? One of the real events that gave me an answer to this was my experience meeting the man in his late 80s who I describe in the book.
DAVID: You write that you met him one day in “a chance encounter in a dusty roadside café on the high plains of the Dakotas on a sweltering July afternoon.” The subject of boarding schools came up—and, given his age, he had been forced into that system himself. Then this man said to you:
“Oh, I learned. I can speak good English. I became a Christian. But it changed me. I am no longer myself. I am someone else.”
His tone was matter of fact—almost fatalistic. But his words were chilling.
“I am no longer myself. I am someone else.”
It was at once one of the saddest and most damning comments I had ever heard about the situation of the Native people on this American land, and it brought me face to face with a promise I had made almost twenty years before.
Then, you tell about the beginning of your own journeys into Indian communities in 1988, when you worked on helping young people on the Red Lake Ojibwe Reservation in northern Minnesota collect the memories of tribal elders.
KENT: That’s right. As I prepared to write “Wolf at Twilight,” I began to realize that boarding schools represent a pivot point in history for elders I have met. It was this experience of the boarding schools that was part of this sadness at the core of their culture.
DAVID: Unlike nations such as Australia or New Zealand, the U.S. has never really gone through a national process of coming to terms with our treatment of this country’s original inhabitants. We’ve gone in fits and starts. Some important books and movies woke up many Americans to the deeper challenges. And, some legal confrontations have been important, through the years.
But, as an American people, we’ve never really undertaken a nationwide effort to rethink our history—and the tragic legacy it leaves for the remaining Native peoples. I remember reporting some newspaper stories out near the Sand Creek area of Colorado, which the federal government now is preserving as an important historical site. The perpetrator of the infamous Sand Creek massacre was a Methodist preacher named John Chivington. Throughout his life, Chivington was an outspoken racist who openly urged genocide of Indian peoples—then did his best to practice what he preached. But, if you visit Sand Creek today—and drive down the road a little way from the site of the massacre, there’s still a town honoring his actions with a big sign that welcomes people to “Chivington.”
KENT: That’s like naming a town Hitler and hanging onto that name in honor of Hitler until today. It makes no sense to me how that can happen.
If this hurts me, then think about how much this hurts people whose families were the victims of the Chivingtons in our country. What is this blind spot we have when it comes to Native people? Why do we continue to refuse to recognize all the deaths and all the lingering wounds we have inflicted.
I don’t think it helps to go to the other extreme and simply regard Native people as just another ethnic minority. No, that’s not reality. The reality is that they are the indigenous people on this continent. This was their home. We—all the rest of us who came later—are the invaders here. This idea that, now, they’re just another ethnic minority among so many interesting groups out there—that ignores the whole history.
(The three sepia photos above are from boarding school archives. The two portraits show how one young man was forcibly transformed in the schools.)
DAVID: I like this phrase you use to describe your work: “Guerrilla Theologian.” We’ve welcomed other writers into the pages of ReadTheSpirit who also might claim that title. We’ve published in-depth interviews with spiritual writer-activists like David Batstone, Brian McLaren, Rabbi Jill Jacobs and Shane Claiborne.
We’ve published the memoir by Warren Petoskey, who also sees the boarding-school legacy as a central issue in Indian culture today.
You’ve already explained that you come out of the realms of religious studies as well as the fine arts—where you were a sculptor, primarily in wood. But, please, explain a little more about how you see this daring vocation—this idea of being a Guerrilla Theologian of Indian culture.
Here’s one way you’ve described it: “I want to help give voice to the darkness they have experienced and the bright light of insight that their time on this land has bred into their bones. I believe that in their spiritual traditions lies something that may well be the salvation of this country.”
KENT: As a person who has studied spirituality, I really believe that our contact with the monumental forces around us shapes our understanding of God. The Native people’s spirituality speaks to this land and has a genius about this land. I think it’s essential for us to learn from them if we’re ever to have an authentic, indigenous American spirituality.
I never claim to be a Native person myself in any fashion. I look at myself as a bridge and an ally. I actually hold great contempt for non-Native people who claim to have somehow channeled or embodied Native spirituality for themselves. I call that “trafficking in Native themes for fun and profit.” That bothers me greatly. I distance myself from that.
Now, on the Native side, even though I am trying to serve as a bridge, there are at least a couple of different positions on sharing these spiritual insights with us.
One position is held by Native people who choose not to tell us too much about their traditions to prevent people from stealing it away from them. Americans do have a record of trying to destroy Indian traditions. For many Native people, their spiritual traditions are their last bastion of who they are that hasn’t been stolen away by the dominant culture—so they want us to leave their spirituality alone. I understand that position.
Another position is that spirituality has been given to Native people here by God and there is a duty to share this with others. So, some Native people do share their wisdom and traditions. I understand that position, too.
Trying to be an ally is complicated because there are both positions to respect—those who want to share wisdom and those who want to protect it from non-Native people.
DAVID: That’s why I describe your book really as a “road trip”—in the tradition of American pilgrimages written by greats like Kerouac or McMurtry. For Warren Petoskey, as an Indian writer himself, that’s also the kind of rambling journey he gives readers in his book, “Dancing My Dream.”
Obviously, I appreciate your approach and enjoy your style very much.
So, before we end this “road trip” interview—tell us a bit about where you live now.
KENT: My wife and I live on a beautiful lake in northern Minnesota, where on good days we can listen to the whispering of the birches and the cries of the loons on the lake, and on bad days we huddle against minus-40-degree temperatures and winds swirling like banshees outside our window. We share our house with an earnest and loving golden Lab and an irascible, geriatric orange cat.
DAVID: And here are a few words from your new book to close our conversation today. You write that “Wolf at Twilight” … “takes us to places that have for too long been hidden in shadow, and reveals truths about what has been taken from Native people and what the rest of us may have lost in that taking. But it also reveals something of what we may all yet become if we heed Sitting Bull’s poignant entreaty to put our minds together to see what kind of lives we can create for our children.
“I hope you find it worthy of your time. If it opens your eyes to another way of understanding, I am grateful. If it simply entertains you, I am pleased. But what matters most is that it touches you.
“For it is, above all, a story of Native America, and its goal is to lodge deep in your heart.”
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