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Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder

By Kent Nerburn (2002)

May Wakan Tanka bless you.

The pain and shame continue unabated……

Review: May 20 2008

This book is based on Kent Nerburn's fluctuating and at times tortured friendship with an 80 year old Lakota man named Dan. Dan has led a long life of adversity on the reservation while striving to preserve his people’s culture and customs in the face of interminable culture shock and haunting memories of the history of racism, genocide and cultural devastation against his people. Refreshingly, Dan and Nerburn quickly dispense with historical myths and focus on where Indians stand in the present, with modern social problems combined with a need to understand a history far more painful and destructive than even the most sympathetic White Americans have written about or could imagine. Nerburn has difficulty avoiding sentimental cultural ruminations and Dan is not always a person you can warm up to - but this all works to the book's advantage because both are revealed as complex human beings with credible strengths and weaknesses. The story occasionally becomes unnerving as Dan delivers hard-hitting soliloquies on the continuing differences in the worldviews and cultural mores of the two peoples.  Dan’s outlook on matters of history and culture can be highly illuminating, as are Nerburn's struggles to understand without becoming the type of exploitative writer that old Dan loathes. In the end, this is an extremely thought-provoking book and is essential for anyone interested in understanding the psyche and culture of Native Americans – of yesterday and today.

It’s a hard hitting book that pulls no punches, and takes no prisoners; don't read it if you are looking for confirmation of your pre-conceived notions about Native Americans shaped by the self-righteous self-serving fabrications of Hollywood Westerns and literature of the past 80 years or facile New Age spiritual enlightenment by way of the native Indian.  This book has the inimitable quality of making you laugh out loud on one page and weeping on the next.

I’ve read scores of books about Native Americans in recent years, but few have touched me as deeply as this one and none has enhanced my understanding of the plight of the contemporary native Indian as has this book.

There is no enlightenment to be found since the "way" of the so called Native American has all but been wiped out by the presence of the greedy, acquisitive self-serving white man who is now looking for redemption but is unable to find it no matter how hard he looks. There’s an amazing insight into the psyche of the present day Native Americans who appears to be lost in a dominant culture and world view that is the antithesis of what they once knew.

Old Dan refuses to whitewash the historical clash between Euro-American Christian whites and his people. Nerburn comes with certain expectations and idealism that is shattered by Dan's refusal to be written off as just another victimized Native American guru. The author becomes the brunt of many jokes as he travels down dusty roads with Dan and his sidekick Grover, sees reservation life and as his own biases and built in ethnocentric prejudices are exposed. With his unique teaching strategy Dan reminds us of the Zen and Sufi masters who are always trying to clear the deck and take us beyond conventional thinking and dogmatism.

Nerburn uses the Old Man Dan’s narrative to help explain the workings of the mind of many Native Americans and how they perceive the Christian capitalist white society's dealings with race, possessions, private property, the environment, history, family, social interactions and dynamics, the work place and many other aspects of the dominant culture. In almost every instance the Native American zeitgeist is antithetical to the Western European and American contemporary world view. This I think is the most constructive and insightful message of the book and from which I gained the most perspective. In sometimes complex, but often quite simple terms, the Old Man offers commentary on the roots of our value system, which, after reading his description of our culture, seems very self-centered, ignorant, destructive, arrogant, self-righteous and at some times, preposterous – even laughable. The dichotomy between the two cultures helps to bridge a gap between our two very different, yet forever entangled cultures which we are still struggling to unravel.



Some passages from Dan the Lakota elder in Neither Wolf nor Dog:

"But then these strangers shot animals just to kill them. They left them lying in gullies. They made paths through the lands that were heavier than our paths. These people became like a river through the land.

"We had never seen the kind of things they did. For us, the earth was alive. To move a stone was to change her. To kill an animal was to take from her. There had to be respect. We saw no respect from these people. They chopped down trees and left animals lay where they were shot. They made loud noises. They seemed like wild people. They were heavy on the land and they were loud. We could hear their wagon wheels groan­ing in the next valley.

"We tried to stay out of their way. But they made us angry. They made hunting hard for us. They took food from our children's mouths. We did not want them around. Still, they were on small paths and we were free. We tried to leave them alone, except for the young men who were most angry.

"And we did want their rifles.

"Then something strange happened. These new people started asking us for the land. We did not know what to say. How could they ask for the land? They wanted to give us money for the land. They would give us money for the land if their people could live on it.

"Our people didn't want this. There was something wrong to the Creator in taking money for the land. There was something wrong to our grandparents and our ancestors to take money for the land. (p. 17)

"You remember a few years ago? Some Indians decided they would rather be called Native Americans. It's an okay name; it's more dignified than 'Indians.' But it's no more real than Indians, because to us this isn't even America. The word America came from some Italian who came over here after Columbus. Why should we care if we're called Native Americans when the name ii from some Italian?

"It's like if someone took over this country now and called I. say, Greenland, and then they said that those of us who were already here are going to be called Native Greenlanders. And they said they were doing this out of respect. Would you feel respected? Would you care a whole hell of a lot if they called you that or something else?

"That's the way it's been for us. It's what we put up with every day — people calling us a bunch of names that aren't even real and aren't even in our language, then asking us if one name is better than another. Hell, it doesn't even matter. If some of us want to be called Native Americans, you should call us Native Americans. If some of us want to be called Indians, you should call us Indians. I know it makes you kind of uncomfortable, not ever knowing which one is right. But I think that's good. It reminds you of how uncomfortable it is for us — we had our identity taken from us the minute Columbus arrived in our land." (p. 57)


So you talk right away, before you even know what you are going to say.

"Our elders told us this was the best way to deal with white people. Be silent until they get nervous, then they will start talking. They will keep talking, and if you stay silent, they will say too much. Then you will be able to see into their hearts and know what they really mean. Then you will know what to do."

"I imagine it works," I said. I knew full well it did; my stu­dents had used the same trick on me, and it had taken me months to catch on.

"It works, all right," the old man said. "But it causes prob­lems, too. I remember as a little boy in school. When the teacher would call on me I would sometimes want to think about my answer. She would get nervous and tap her ruler on the desk. Then she'd get angry at me and ask me if maybe I didn't hear her or if the cat got my tongue.

"How was I supposed to think up my answer when I could see her getting upset and nervous and knew that the longer I waited the worse it would be? I'd end up saying one word or, 'I don't know.' I'd say anything to get her away from me. Pretty soon they said I was stupid.

"I remember one teacher telling me I needed to learn how to think. She really didn't care about my thinking. She just wanted me to talk. She thought talking meant thinking. She was never going to be happy unless I started talking the second she called on me. And the longer I talked, the happier she would be. It didn't even matter what I said. I was just supposed to talk.

"I wouldn't do it. I thought it was disrespectful to talk when I didn't have anything to say. They said I was a bad student and that I was dumb. (p. 66)

“That’s what all white people see. You drive through our reservations and say, ‘Look at all the junk cars and all that trash.’ What do you think we say when we drive through your cities?”

 "We say the same thing. Just because you have everything scrubbed down and in order doesn't mean anything. What is bigger trash, a junk car or a parking ramp? We can tow the junk car away. The parking ramp has to be torn down with bulldozers and wrecking cranes. The only reason you don't see it as trash is that you still use it. When you don't need a building anymore, or it is too expensive to fix, then it is trash. To us it looks like trash all the time.

"If Fatback lives in my car, is it trash? To you it is because it isn't being used the way you want it to be. If a car is new and shiny and goes down the road, then you say it isn't trash. If it is old and can't go, then it is trash. It really isn't any different on the earth whether it moves or not. You just think it is. When it comes time for the earth to take it back, it is going to be just as much trash as the car sitting in my yard." (My note: Fatback is Dan’s old dog)

"Still, it wouldn't take anything to clean it up."

"Maybe we're still using it. That was the Indian way. Use every part of the buffalo. Make ropes from its hair. Make drumsticks from its tail. Some of these people are making one car out of a lot of them. I'm making a dog house out of mine."

This was the closest I had ever come to a confrontation with Dan. Usually, I had just acceded to his point of view. This time I wanted to challenge him to see where it would lead.

"Junk cars aren't buffalo carcasses."

"Same thing."

"That's bullshit."

"Bullshit!" he exploded. "I'll tell you what is bullshit! White people's attitude toward possessions is bullshit!”



That's no reason to get something, just because it's new. Your way teaches people to want, want, want. What you have is no good. What you don't have is new and better.

"From the first you are told, 'This is mine, this is yours'; 'Don't touch that, it doesn't belong to you.' You are taught to keep away from things because of ownership, not because of respect. In the old days we never had locks on our doors. There was no stealing, but if someone was hungry, they could go in your house and get food. That was all. Why didn't people take things? Because of respect.

"You build fences around your yards and pay money for people to measure the ground to tell you if your neighbor's fence is one inch too close to your house. You give nothing away unless you can get something in return. Everything is economic.

"Your most powerful people don't even hide their thinking on this. If you ask for something, they don't ask whether you need it; they say, 'What's in it for me?

"I'm afraid that's America, Dan," I said.

He hammered the air with his gnarled fist.

"I know it. And a lot of our people have started to act like that, too. Not all, but enough. This kills the old Indian way, where everything was shared. We believed that everything was a gift, and that a good man or woman shared those gifts. Next to bravery, generosity was the most important.

"Now we have been turned around. We think that good people should be rewarded, just like the white man thinks. Can't you see how much better it was when good people thought they should give, not that they should get? (pp. 75-77)

"That's what our treaties were. Pieces of paper written in a language we didn't understand and read to us by people we didn't trust. Then they were signed by Indians who were bribed to sign them, or maybe were threatened if they didn't. Then if there was anything in them that actually helped the Indian people, they were changed by lawyers for the government or taken into courts where the judges for the government made them mean whatever the government wanted. (p. 160)

"You can tell me you don't think that way, but you do. I look at the history books of the kids. They start in the east and come west, all of them, like that is the way history happened.

"Just think what that does to our kids. It tells them to see the past like white people. It teaches them to understand this country like they were on those boats and covered wagons. That's not the way it was to us. For us, this was a big land where people lived everywhere. Then some people came and landed on the shores in the east while others came up from the south. They started pushing us. Then some others came down the rivers from the north. All these people were fighting each other. They all wanted something from us — furs, land, gold. They either took it or made us sell it to them. They all had guns. They all killed us if we didn't believe that God was some man named Jesus who had lived in a desert across the sea. They wouldn't leave us alone.

"Pretty soon they set up a government way back somewhere in the east and said this all was their land. Not just where they lived, but everywhere they had been or even where they had heard of. If they could get one man to go to a place and put a flag in the ground, they said they owned everything between where they started and that flag. They started pushing us back­ward on top of each other. All of us who had lived side by side leaving each other alone had to fight each other for hunting land. (p. 164)

Though it was in the middle of a reservation, this was a white town; a product of the Dawes Act of 1887 that had chopped up reservations into 160-acre parcels and allotted them to individual Indians in an attempt to convert them to the ways of farming and private ownership. Few Indians had ever taken to farming, and even fewer had understood the subtleties of private land ownership. Before long, through legal maneuvers, swindles, and sales agreements of varying legitimacy, white settlers had obtained the best land on almost all the reservations in the country. In addition, land that had been left over after all eligible Indians had received the 160 acres had then been opened up for white homesteaders. Though the land technically remained within the boundaries of the reservations, it was settled and developed like white towns all over the prairies and plains. A traveler who was paying no attention to maps or road signs might drive into one of these towns and never know he or she was on a reservation, except for the unusual number of Indians conducting their business there. (Nerburn describing a “white town” in the midst of a Sioux Reservation – p. 172)

"The trouble is not the alcohol," Dan continued. "The alcohol is a challenge to make us strong. The trouble is the way we have let it make us into victims."

"Everyone's a victim in America these days," I said. "It's our new national pastime."

"It's a bunch of shit," said Dan with uncharacteristic vehemence. "That's the white man's way. When your life isn't going right, you blame your parents or your work or something else. You talk about being burned out. You spend all kinds of money j to have psychiatrists tell you why you aren't responsible for your life.

"We don't need that. It's not our way. We don't need some social worker or government professor to tell us what's wrong. We need to look to the Great Spirit for strength."

"Great Spirit needs help, sometimes," Grover said.

"Not by a bunch of damn social workers and counselors. Hell, if it wasn't for us, social workers would be out of business. The whole reservation economy is based on weakness."

He glanced over at the table of white men. Dan's volume and vehemence had piqued their interest again. They feigned concern with their sweet rolls and coffee, but you could see the bills of their caps turning toward us when Dan's voice rose.

"It really makes me angry when I see how white people have turned us into victims. I see hundreds of my people getting in line every day to be victims, blaming society or the white man for all their troubles."

"Well, there's some truth in that, isn't there?" I asked.

"Sure there is. But it's a bad truth. Being a victim is weak. I don't want to be weak. I want to be strong, like my grandfathers. (p. 180)

“Think of that Thoreau fellow. I’ve read some of his books. He went out and lived in a shack and looked at a pond. Now he’s one of your heroes. If I go out and live in a shack and look at a pond, pretty soon I’ll have so many damn social workers beating on my door that I won’t be able to sleep. They’ll start scribbling in some damn notebook: ‘No initiative. No self-esteem.’ They’ll write reports, get grants, and start some government program with a bunch of forms. Say it’s to help us.” (p. 182)


"You see, we could always read the signs. We still can today. You may not be coming with guns and diseases, but you are coming. Instead of alcohol and tobacco, you are bringing money. You don't want our land. You want what is under our land and on our land. You want our minerals. You want our forests. You want to bury nuclear waste and chemicals.

"Ha!" he burst out suddenly, as if his words were only the tip of his thoughts. "But we have learned to be clever. We know that the only thing you really fear is lawyers, because lawyers are the ones who can twist your law. Once, long ago, we believed in the power of your law. But then we saw that you didn't believe in it. It was only for you and it really was only to help you get what you want or to keep others from getting what you have. It never applied to people like us.

"We signed treaty after treaty. We got promises after promises. What did it get us? Nothing. It just lulled us to sleep because it made us trust you. And while we were sleep­ing you were finding ways to twist that law to get what you wanted.

"Now we don't trust your laws, but we use your lawyers. For money they will twist your laws to work for us, just like they have twisted them to work for you. We have money. So we will use them." (p. 218)

"Those presidents. I've thought about this a lot. Let's take those two guys."

"What two guys?"

"The two guys I'm talking about. Jesus and Abraham Lincoln."

I thought perhaps he had lost all grip on reality. "You're not talking about them, Dan. You must be thinking about them. I think the heat's got you."

He pushed on, undeterred. "Those missionaries come around the reservation. Three, four ladies in a car, all dressed up. They come out and try to talk to you about Jesus. Now, Jesus has been dead for a lot of years. Why do they come and try to talk to us about Jesus?"

He was on the trail again. All I could do was go along. At least the ghost of his son did not hang over this conversation. "Because they believe if you believe in him he will be alive in your heart and you will be saved," I said.

"Right!" Dan was excited. "Now, why don't they get all dressed up and come and talk to us about Abraham Lincoln?"

The image was so bizarre that I didn't even hazard an answer.

"It's because Abraham Lincoln is dead. But, now, Jesus is dead, too. But he can come alive if you bring him into your heart. That's what they always say. Here's the question: Why can't Abraham Lincoln come alive if you bring him into your heart?"

I felt like a contestant on a surreal quiz show. "I don't know."

Dan was triumphant. "It's because Abraham Lincoln was part of white man history."

"And Jesus wasn't?"

"No. He's part of a different kind of history. The kind Indian people understand. (p. 261)

"Don't you see? If it was important that an earthquake hap­pened when Jesus died, then why wasn't it important that a lot of stars fell in the year the buffalo froze?"

A far-off blast of lightning lit the edges of the billowing clouds. "I'll tell you why. Because white people wouldn't believe the two things had anything to do with each other. You believed that Jesus and the earthquake had something to do with each other, but you didn't believe that the buffalo and the stars had anything to do with each other. An earthquake could happen because Jesus died. But the stars couldn't fall because the buffalo died.

"Here's another one. There was a star in heaven that led those kings to Jesus when he was born. But there can't be a star that is given to our people as a guide. When our people talk about the seven stars and how they taught us to have seven council fires, you don't believe it is real. You say it is a myth or a legend. Well, maybe the star leading the kings is just a myth or a legend, too. (p. 274)


"We are not memories to be lost, like wind in the grass. What I am about to say to you are hard words. But I choose to say them, because this is hard land, and it invites hard words. Hear me. Then I will be quiet for a while."

He squared himself in his seat and began.

"There is no Indian alive who dares to think too much on the past. If we looked too long at the past we would be too angry to live. You try to make it up to us by making us into heroes and wise people in all your movies and books. That's fine for you. But I can still go to a museum and see my grandmother's skull in a case and hear someone talk about it as an artifact.

"Would you want your grandmother's skull to be in a case in my house? Would you be angry then?"

He cast his gaze out onto the shadowy formations. His bad eye glowed like an ember.

"And sometimes I think about all the wars between our people and your people. Those white men that fought us were men without any families, lots of them. They were young men out in the West making money. Some of them were convicts. Some of them were still blood drunk from the Civil War.

"They weren't your best people. Many of them were brutal and stupid. They did terrible things because it was fun. Not all of them, but they were soldiers and it was their job to kill people.

"My people never had a chance. We were families. We were in our homes, with our old people and our babies. And the soldiers attacked us. They attacked our homes and killed our elders and our children.

"The government sent men who didn't have anything or didn't fit anywhere, and gave them guns and put them on horses and told them to go out and attack the villages where we had our women and our old people and our little babies. There were little girls playing with dolls and little boys who were just learning to walk. The soldiers killed them all.

Then your people have the nerve to talk about massacres by Indians.” (pp. 292-93)

He emitted a harsh and bitter laugh. "This is why I shouldn't think about these things. Because, you know, I don't blame my people who ambushed the white soldiers or even raided the homes of the settlers. I don't say it was right. I just say I understand. We lost everything. Your gov­ernment sent heartless, greedy men to keep us under control and they lied and raped and stole from us and they could kill us for any reason and it was okay."

He stared me down, an old man, bearing eighty years of pain, speaking his mind to one of the race that had almost destroyed his people. This was personal now. He wanted me to feel his pain and he wanted to see my shame.

"What if someone raped your little sister?" he said. "That happened all the time."

"What if someone took your wife and slit open her belly and pulled out your unborn child, then laid it on the ground like a trophy still attached to her dead mother? That happened, too.

"See, we weren't even people. Did you know that? The Catholic Church even held a conference to determine if we were people or not. In their great wise religion they thought they should decide if we were people or animals. That's the way we were thought of and treated. It was okay to do anything to us."

Perspiration had formed on his upper lip. He took a dirty rag from his pocket and swabbed his face. His expression was as dark as the land outside; his eyes as hollow as the moon.

"I think this is hard for you to understand. But our old people were our best people. Nowadays, the world is all for the young people. It wasn't that way for us. We were taught that the old people and the babies were the closest to God and it was for them that we all lived. They were the most helpless and they needed us the most. And your people came in and killed them. We couldn’t protect them and that was what we had to do. But you were too strong. There were too many of you. We had to do what we could to protect our old people and our families and we couldn’t because your soldiers broke into our homes and killed them when they couldn’t get away.” (pp. 294-95)

“Now there are skulls of my grandparents in museums and sacred blankets and drums on walls of museums for rich people to look at. You go there and talk about how sacred it is. You call it sacred because you don’t have anything of your own that’s sacred. But it’s not sacred because you took the sacred out of it, just like you take the sacred out of everything you touch, and now we can hardly feel it in ourselves anymore. You killed our people and you took all that was sacred to us and then you told us that’s what proved you were better than we were. Sometimes I think I would like to go into one of your cemeteries with a bulldozer and knock over all your headstones and plow up the coffins. Then I’d take the bones and put them in plastic bags. I’d put them in the window of a store with a sign that says, ‘White People’s Artifacts.’ Then you could come down and point to a bag and say, ‘That’s my grandmother.’ If you were lucky you might even have the measurements of the skull on a little card in the bag.” (pp. 294-95)

The trip back took almost two days. Grover drove steadily but leisurely. He never once left the road or even suggested it; the "little trip" had ended when we got to Wounded Knee and whatever mysterious destination had claimed Grover for the night Dan and I had spent on the hill.

Grover had tried hard to convince Dan that we should go on to Mount Rushmore, but Dan would have none of it. "Those damn heads are the worst thing that the white man ever did," he snapped. "Blowing up the sacred mountains to put a bunch of white faces on them." He carried on at some length about how Indians should be allowed to sell tacos on the altars at white churches in exchange for what had been done to the Black Hills, and threatened to die right in the Mount Rushmore parking lot if we made him go there, so Grover eventually gave up the idea and headed for home. (Note: Grover is old Dan’s sidekick and who drove his ancient Buick during their travels through the Dakotas) (pp. 324-25)



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