Adapted from the acclaimed novel Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn the story follows a white author who gets sucked into the heart of contemporary Native American life in the sparse lands of the Dakota’s by a 95 year old Lakota elder and his side-kick.
First published in 1994 and winner of the Minnesota Book award in 1996, no other novel is seen to so successfully bridge the gap between white America and the Native American world. It still sells well aided by a wide readership through academic use. Two sequel novels followed to equal acclaim.
Steven Lewis Simpson adapted Neither Wolf Nor Dog into a beautiful movie and we had the opportunity to interview him for a podcast about his film:
Kent Nerburn, a goodhearted, white American writer, receives a mysterious phone call asking him to meet an old man on a distant Indian reservation. Despite misgivings, Kent travels across the Great Plains to the old man Dan’s clapboard shack on a bleak and poverty-stricken reservation. Dan interrogates Kent as to his motives for working with Natives. Satisfied, Dan hands Kent a shoe-box full of notes and tells him to turn them into a book. Kent is stunned by their profound insights about American culture and the Native perspective. In a desolate motel Kent tries to construct a chapter from the notes.
Upon return to read it to Dan he’s subjected to a frosty reception from Dan’s granddaughter, Wenonah and his friend, Grover, who describes it as “tom tom bullshit”. Upset, Kent frantically reworks it but fails. Dan convinces him to ask Grover for help. Grover agrees but persuades Dan to burn the notes. Kent is horrified. “Now we’ll do it the Indian way,” Grover states. “Now you’re the box. Now we’re going to fill you up.”
After a tormented night, Kent wakes resolved to quit but upon returning to tell Dan, Wenonah informs him “Dan’s gone on a little trip.” Kent confronts Wenonah as to their terrible treatment of him but she silences him with a barrage of the horrors Dan has faced. Kent angrily speeds away; ironically, his truck revolts and dies. In despair he leaves it in the hands of Jumbo, a 400lb mechanic. Grover and Dan emerge and suck Kent into a road trip deep into Lakota Country; stopping at an old, ruined homestead, visiting a “frontier town” museum and helping a drunk Lakota man and his girlfriend. Throughout Dan talks sporadically, echoing the notes in the box. Kent records it all.
During a stop Kent tells Dan’s granddaughter Danelle about his mission. She reveals that Dan’s son — her father – was trying to create such a book from those burnt notes when he was killed in a car accident. “You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into Kent!” He realizes that she is right. He feels lost as they then drive deeper into the wilderness; the Badlands.
A storm engulfs them, which Dan interprets as a voice from the dead willing them to Wounded Knee. As they walk by the mass grave, Dan talks about the massacre and confronts Kent until he breaks through an emotional wall. Kent connects with a guilt over what his people perpetrated, merged with an empathy for the Lakota people and the horrors inflicted upon them that fateful day. Kent finally understands why Dan sucked him unwittingly into this journey; not just to translate Dan’s words, but to convey the entirety of their whole trip in the book including his own enlightenment.
They return to Dan’s reservation where Dan and Kent have an emotional goodbye. Many months later Dan receives the book from Kent. Instead of reading it he places it below the bad leg of his table thus stabilizing it. He proclaims Kent “got it just right”.