For thousands of Kent Nerburn fans, all we really need to say is: Kent’s back on the road on the Great Plains! Come along! Click the cover, at right, to visit the book’s Amazon page and start reading!
But, first, you might want to read this new interview with Kent, the best-selling author of 16 books and a longtime friend to our online magazine. If you are meeting Kent Nerburn for the first time, here are a few things you need to know about him:
His vision is vast: Best known as an author, Kent also is a scholar, theologian and artist. He studied in the U.S. and Europe and finally earned a doctorate in religion and art. His sculptures, many on religious themes, are in collections around the world.
He invites us on pilgrimages: Best known for his books exploring Euro-American relationships with Native Americans, Kent also sees himself in a long and rich tradition of American arts and letters about the nature of journeys and cross-cultural connections. His road trips start humbly and we are half way through the bumpy ride before we discover these truly are pilgrimages.
He shares his wisdom in many forms: Some of his best books—such as Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life—are spiritual reflections drawing on Kent’s broad knowledge of faith and culture—but not necessarily focusing on Native American themes.
Ultimately, Kent is a unique American theologian—working his way through cycles of stories and artworks, travels and talks, toward developing an authentically North American theology rooted in the geography and peoples of this continent. It’s a grand goal—an immense lifelong project—and we all are richer that, once again, we are invited to hop into Kent’s old car and roll down back roads in The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky.
Now, Kent talks with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm about his travels, his new book and the grand vision behind it all …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH KENT NERBURN
ON ‘THE GIRL WHO SANG TO THE BUFFALO’
DAVID CRUMM: You have touched lives around the world with your art and your stories. This year is the 20th anniversary of Native American Wisdom, the first collection you published jointly with your wife Louise Mengelkoch, the journalist and educator. We’ve been on the road with you, Kent, for quite a while.
KENT NERBURN: For me, the journey began long before that. My Dad was an American Red Cross regional director for disaster relief and, as a boy in the 1950s, I would go with him in the car to places where he took care of people in the midst of great distress. I remember a big apartment-house fire one winter where he was called to help with the people who had lived in the building. There was one woman in her 80s who Dad showed over to our car and asked me, “Just stay with her.” I was 12 years old and I remember trying to console her as best I could, sitting beside her in the car and listening to her. Of course, I was confused. I was young. I remember her talking, over and over again, about her hope that they could get her cat out of her apartment. These were experiences that most people, at that young age, would never encounter. In those experiences with Dad, I suppose that I saw too much too early that was far too large for me to understand.
And so, I became a watcher. Even working as an artist, I didn’t sign my sculptures. I didn’t want to put my name on the pieces. I wanted to step back from them and be the watcher.
DAVID: Let’s remind readers that you are not a Native American. You’ve never claimed to be Indian and your books really are about how Euro-Americans can bridge the gap after so much pain and death—to build new relationships with Native Americans. Am I saying that correctly?
KENT: That’s right. I have never claimed to be Native American. You’ll never find me putting on native trappings or trying to claim native ceremonies. And, I have no patience with Euro-Americans who go out and claim Native American ceremonies as their own and start teaching them. There is a lot of legitimate anger on the part of native people who have seen their world appropriated in so many ways by non-native culture. I don’t want to be one of those who tries to take their culture from them, once again.
But I am helping in the retelling of our American narrative in a way that includes Native Americans. Our national narrative is so badly served by the way it is commonly retold. One of the central problems is this unresolvable tragedy at the heart of our American narrative when we look at what we did to the people who lived here first. Not only did we expunge the native history from our history books for a long time—we took generations of Native American children into boarding schools and tried to expunge their history from them by force. A lot of the struggles with Native Americans over the years have come because of these efforts to destroy—to erase—their stories from our national story.
A LARGER NORTH AMERICAN THEOLOGY
DAVID: This connects with the much larger vision behind nearly all of your books. You argue that all of us living on this continent are called to envision a larger North American theology—a philosophy of this place, this geography, and our ultimate place in it. And you argue that the native peoples on this continent could have been—and still can be—an essential doorway in that journey.
KENT: Around the world, monumental forces have shaped people’s understandings of the gods and of our ultimate human concerns. People who live in mountainous regions tend to understand the gods differently than those whose culture is based along oceans. In North America, we ought to have a spirituality that speaks to the great forces embodied in this continent. As you know, I studied theology. My academic background is in theology and the arts. Native Americans have a connection to the theology of this land, a connection we worked for centuries to eliminate.
Now, I want to be clear: I’m not trying to create some artificial pan-Indian theology. Native people tell us not to do that. Native American traditions varied widely. But there are elements they hold in common. One is the sense that God is in every rock and river and aspect of the landscape. We European Americans have this assumption that nature is just out there for us to conquer. We have this idea of building cities on hills. Native people know that God is in the hill itself. Native peoples are mindful on a much deeper level of every hill, every stream, every cloud that passes through the sky.
THE GREATEST AMERICAN TALES ARE STORIES OF THE ROAD
DAVID: One of the central arguments that runs through all of your work is that we will never connect with this continent if we don’t leave our homes and start traveling around in this vast land. Most important in traveling is getting to know the people we encounter. When I read the opening pages of your new book, The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo, and I read about this woman asking you to drive her to the cemetery for a visit—wow!—right away my mind was connecting with one of your most famous stories: The Cab Driver, or sometimes it’s Called The Taxi Driver. These stories span your entire career.
KENT: Hey, you’re a sharp guy! I wouldn’t have thought of that connection—but you saw it and, sure, there it is! Yeah. We have to go out into the world and meet people and talk to them. That’s what I’ve done all my life. That’s what the cab story is all about. It’s true: I really did work as a cab driver and I encountered many experiences as powerful as that one I wrote about. I wish I’d kept better notes or a journal. Today, I’d have 100 stories like The Cab Driver from that time. That’s just one I managed to write down from that time.
DAVID: You’ve been making a much bigger case through the decades. The quintessential American story is a tale of the road. We could list all the writers from Melville and Twain to Steinbeck and Kerouac. The list could go on and on. You’re trying to tell us something about repairing and clarifying what we might call The Great Story of America and, at the core of it, you’re telling us is a great, wide, nearly endless road.
KENT: The journey is my American experience. The road is my path. When I was very young, The Beats fascinated me. I actually did go out and hop freight trains. I hitchhiked. I can tell you some stories of experiences on the road that, now, I realize could have ended my life far too early. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I had to travel. I had to keep moving. I had to look everywhere to meet people and learn their stories.
For me, a kid from Minnesota, I always looked West. That part of the American mythic journey—looking West—is part of my life story as well.
DAVID: Let me read a passage from the middle of this book. It’s just one of many descriptions of the road itself—literally the act of driving across the seemingly limitless expanse of the Great Plains. I’ve crossed the Plains a good number of times myself, as a journalist, and it’s hard to describe this kind of driving. Here’s how you put it:
We rode on into the growing twilight. The tar strips beat a hypnotic rhythm beneath us as the lonely asphalt highway cut a meandering line through the treeless hills toward the horizon. It was a peaceful, almost empty landscape. Every few miles, a gravel road would cut off from the main highway, and a small house could be seen sitting alone and isolated far up in the hills. Here and there a rusted car body sat solitary in a field, or a broken farm windmill rose above the landscape on its spindly, triangular stilts. But mostly it was just earth and sky and the thin ribbon of roadway coursing like a fierce, dark river through the great, unpopulated land.
KENT: I’m so glad you read that passage. There’s nothing I love more than observing the passing landscape, whether from a train or a car. I can’t remember exactly where I was when I wrote those lines. But I was in South Dakota. As I was moving through that landscape, it was all about the watching and the emotion I was feeling. Then, later, I would recollect that journey and write down the telling details. I do make notes as I travel. I noted: windmill with broken vanes, road going back into the hills … Things like that. But, then, I go back and in memory I recapture the emotion and the essentials to put down on paper.
THE VOICE OF A STOLEN CULTURE
DAVID: You write so beautifully in this new book, not just about the landscape, but about the culture stolen from native people through the whole array of institutions where Indians were locked away for so many years.
In your earlier book, the second volume in this Neither Wolf nor Dog trilogy, you wrote about the boarding school era. Then, in this book, you write about other kinds of prison-like institutions that were set up. Now, more and more Americans are learning about what took place in our collective name over so many years. The “boarding school tragedy” is becoming a part of our common knowledge. But one thing that is so crucial to convey is the voices of people who actually experienced being locked away until their culture was—in many cases—literally beaten out of them.
Let me read from later in the book, a man describing how the boarding schools left him:
“Every day I was scared of dying. I was scared of being beat. I was scared of burning up in the Christian god’s fire. I was scared of dying in a white man’s bed surrounded by the bird women and men with the yellow teeth. I was scared and lonely, and I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be. But I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to follow the rules. So that’s what I did. That’s all that I did. I didn’t say nothing. I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t smile. I didn’t cry. All I did was keep my mouth shut and follow the rules.”
KENT: Again, thanks for reading that passage. I do want to say that, in these books, I am not trying to beat readers over the head with the endless litany of horrible things that took place. Many of these horrors now are well documented. There are lots of tragedies I could have described—but, in our world today, there are so many tragedies and murders that our hearts become inured to it all.
I remember once I was teaching a class and I began to show the students Claude Lanzmann’s film, Shoah, and this one girl raised her hand. She asked: “Why are you making us watch this? I don’t need to be aware of this.”
Of course, I thought she was wrong but I understood that response. In this new book, I tell a story through the voices of one or two main people.
DAVID: And it is a lively and engaging story. It’s part a travelogue, part a cycle of great tales from the Great Plains, part a vivid slice of Indian life today. But there is this subtext to the book, always asking us to remember what was done in our collective name. As people learn more about the boarding school era, they’re likely to be shocked to learn that a lot of this occurred right up into the 1960s and 1970s. This isn’t ancient history. There are people living today who were locked away in schools and other institutions. There were international parallels, of course. In Australia, where the national government now has come to terms with the tragedy more completely than our government has even attempted, this pattern continued right into the 1970s, as well.
KENT: And often the people running these places were doing it with what they perceived as the best of intentions. We should say that the worst of the boarding school abuses ended by the 1950s, but these institutions did continue. There are some boarding schools today, although they are of a different kind than the schools we’re describing in these earlier eras.
I went to visit one of these places. I was invited to talk to some clergy and, while I was on that trip, I stopped by a cinder-block cafe at a time when it was almost empty. There was just one old man at a table. I asked if I could join him. He said, “Sure.”
I asked, “Did you go to this boarding school when you were young?”
He said, “Yeah, I went.”
“How was it?”
He said: “I learned good language. I learned good Christian.” Then, he paused. Finally, he said, “And now I’m no longer myself.”
To me, that was a dagger in my heart. This was a kindly man, a good man. And yet he was telling me that the boarding school experience had taken a boy and made him into someone who was cut off form his roots. The boarding schools did give many young people a good trade. It taught them good English. It gave them a warm place to stay and regular meals at a time when many on the reservations were starving on those reservations. So the whole experience is a very mixed narrative.
DAVID: I want to close by asking you about the loyalty of your fans. I went into Amazon and looked at the reader reviews of quite a few of your books. You’ve accumulated hundreds of reviews—and the vast majority are 4 or 5 stars. In fact, most of them are 5-star raves. To what do you attribute that strong enthusiasm for your books? Maybe that’s an unfair question to ask. But do you have an answer?
KENT: Yes, I actually do have an answer. I’ve thought about this and I think the response is: It’s because I really try to write from my best self. I don’t let my ironic self or my sarcastic or angry self get into my books. I had a professor in graduate school who ended a seminar on Creativity and the Sacred with these words: “I don’t care where all of you come out spirituality, but I hope you all realize you have a ministry.”
I understand exactly what he meant. As a writer, I have a ministry. That ministry is to write from the heart.
I don’t live from the heart every day. I often feel like I’m a troll beneath a bridge holding up an angel on a stick. People look down and see me, that troll down there, but what I’m interested in doing is having them focus on the angel I’m holding up. It’s easy to write with a wry edge or to drip sarcasm on the page. I am sometimes like that in my life—full of sarcasm. But that’s not the ministry with readers.
I’m called to hold up the angels. I’m giving readers stories with heart. I’ve worked very hard on this. I’ve had years of spiritual formation. I’ve spent years developing this voice from an open heart. And readers respond—because they recognize a good heart when they encounter it.
Care for more from Kent Nerburn?
Get the books! Click on the linked book titles, above, to visit their Amazon pages.
For more on the two previous books in the “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” trilogy—including more historical details on the Native American boarding schools—read our earlier interview with Kent Nerburn. That interview focuses on Kent’s second book in the trilogy, “The Wolf at Twilight.”
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