Neither Wolf Nor Dog
Many faiths talk of following our “calling” or our “leadings.”
We will need to be very quiet to hear such whispered wisdom.
The touching crowdfunded film “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is, at its heart, a story of just such a spiritual calling.
Minnesota writer Kent Nerburn’s life changed the day Wenonah phoned him.
Calling on behalf a Lakota elder named Dan, Wenonah said her grandfather had stories he wanted to share with Kent, who had written a children’s book about Native Americans.
Nerburn’s first reaction was cynical. He told Wenonah he wasn’t putting his life on hold to drive 400 miles just to talk to her grandfather.
Wenonah persisted: “Grandfather wants to talk with you. Ask at the trading post. His name is Dan.” With that, she hangs up.
Well, if Grandfather insists…
And so Nerburn drove his car to the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in southwest South Dakota, where he met a 95-year-old elder who explained to Nerburn why he had been invited.
"The world is not an accident," Dan tells him. "We don't always get to choose our parts. I called you and you came. If you are too small, or too weak, it is too late. The Creator has given you a task. You don't get to turn back just because you want to."
Nerburn’s first efforts to write down Dan’s stories and capture life on the reservation fail. One Native shakes his head at how shallow Nerburn’s efforts are – full of clichés that “make white people comfortable” but don’t capture the essence of life on the reservation.
Dan’s granddaughter gives Nerburn a tongue-lashing for failing to discern the dignity of Natives.
Nerburn grows frustrated, angry and is on the verge of leaving when his car breaks down.
Grandfather smiles at the cloud rising from Nerburn’s engine.
“I saw your smoke signal,” he smiles.
A Native mechanic named Jumbo says he can fix it – in a day, or a week or whenever. Nerburn is stuck until the job is done. “I fix stuff” is Jumbo’s motto – and he refuses to be paid much for what he does.
Nerburn is learning that nothing in life is ever truly accidental. His engine trouble was indeed a smoke signal.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is unapologetically spiritual, rooted in Native American beliefs.
What follows is a slow journey through Native life narrated by Grandfather Dan.
They walk on Native land.
They offer prayers on the sacred ground of Wounded Knee.
All in hopes Nerburn will stop resisting and just listen.
"Live close to the earth,” says Dan. “Talk to the Creator. Be quiet more. Listen to the earth instead of building things on it all the time.”
Thankfully Scottish director Steven Lewis Simpson’s cast is mostly native. The film was shot on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota, part of the Sioux nation.
Filmed for less than $50,000 raised mostly through ongoing Internet crowdfunding, “Neither Wolf nor Dog” shows its shortcuts now and again. Some of the scenes are awkward, like the one showing a drunk Indian begging for money at a café.
But the performances are genuine, especially Dave Bald Eagle who is deserving of an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Dan. Bald Eagle served as advisor and had a small role in Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves.”
His performance reminded me of Chief Dan George’s portrayal of Old Lodge Skins in “Little Big Man.” Who can forget that mountaintop speech of gratitude to God: “Thank you for my victories and for my defeats.”
In many ways this independent film offers a more genuine portrait of Native life than the big budget “Little Big Man.” “Neither Wolf nor Dog” has less gloss, less pretension, less tidiness – and more respect for Native Americans.
Both films are powered by unforgettable performances by Native elders.
This film was the final calling of Dave Bald Eagle who died at 97 shortly after filming ended. His death sent smoke signals across the globe, as obituaries appeared on Montana Public Radio, in the LA Times and in the London Telegraph.
Among the most touching tributes was the goodbye published in Indian Country Today: “On a Scaffold to His Ancestors: Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle Walks On.”
“Finally, as the passage drew very near, his sons and daughters were called and given instructions to carry out in preparation,” wrote David Rooks. “This included, at a chosen spot in a little cottonwood draw near the family ranch house, four days on a scaffold, after the manner of his ancestors, and then burial at the Sturgis National Cemetery.”
Rook’s farewell ended by noting that Bald Eagle’s “quiver was quite full.”
Chief Bald Eagle knew he didn’t get to choose his parts. He was called, just as Nerburn was called, to share his wisdom through his stories.
The ending is whimsical as Wenonah presents a copy of the finished book to her grandfather. He’s thankful for the book because one leg of the kitchen table is too short – and the book is just the right thickness.
And so Dan keeps eating, with the unopened book steadying his table.
“He got it just right,” he says, sipping his soup as his granddaughter smiles.