Director Steven Lewis Simpson’s movie adaptation of Kent Nerburn’s 1994 novel “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” has been playing near-continuously in theaters since its release in 2016, and May 17 marked its opening in Port Townsend.
Films such as director Peter Farrelly’s Academy Award-winning “Green Book” address race relations in ways that are more comforting to whites, by depicting the racial problems of decades past and showing racist whites in a positive light, simply for being willing to recognize the humanity of people of color.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” offers no such pats on the back for its white audience and goes so far as to confront its white protagonist, Nerburn - played by Christopher Sweeney, and based on the author of both the novel and the screenplay of “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” - for his belief that his good intentions and his previous work with Native Americans have made him “woke,” in the modern parlance.
It’s because of Nerburn’s previously published work, recording the oral histories of Native Americans, that he’s called by the family of a Lakota elder named Dan (played by real-life Lakota Chief Dave Bald Eagle) to write a book which might share the 95-year-old man’s life and wisdom.
Nerburn clearly respects and empathizes with Dan, but Dan’s skeptical granddaughter Wenonah (Roseanne Supernault) and freewheeling best friend Grover (Richard Ray Whitman) confront the white scholar for his well-meaning but ignorant assumptions about Dan and the Lakota people.
Even before he becomes more broadly enlightened, Nerburn is the first character to note how suspect it is for a white man to tell a Native American’s story for him.
But unlike narratives which turn the white observer into the protagonist and hero of the piece, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” shows that Dan wanted Nerburn to tell the story of his people’s experiences and suffering so that Nerburn, and by extension the white people who read his work, would feel shame for how white colonizers erased Native American culture.
Surprisingly for a film based on a novel, the emotional climax of the film, which was shot on location at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, was all but entirely improvised by Bald Eagle, whose family connection to the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 was even closer than that of the character he was playing.
After delivering his speech, Bald Eagle reportedly told Sweeney, “I’ve been holding that in for 95 years,” and as Dan talks about the massacre, I couldn’t help but feel moved, as Nerburn is when he finally breaks down into tears over his own ancestors’ complicity.
On the lighter side, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” captures some of the idiosyncrasies of reservation life, through characters such as the 400-pound mechanic nicknamed “Jumbo” (Harlen Standing Bear Sr.), who proves adept at fixing Nerburn’s truck, albeit at his own pace.
Nerburn’s interactions with Jumbo, Grover and Dan also underscore the differences between Nerburn’s more direct-line, goal-oriented viewpoint, which occasionally gives him a tunnel-vision blindness to important yet seemingly minor details, versus the more holistic outlook and measured pace of the Native Americans he meets.
Bald Eagle died at the age of 97, months before this film was released in 2016, but he had a chance to see it, and in his words, “It’s the only film I’ve been in about my people that told the truth.”
As William Faulkner observed, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even the past.” Bald Eagle and his Lakota ancestors might be gone, but thanks to “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” we can still appreciate what they had to tell us.