Neither Wolf Nor Dog takes journey through Indigenous history

Neither Wolf Nor Dog. Directed by Steven Lewis Simpson. Starring Dave Bald Eagle, Christopher Sweeney and Richard Ray Whitman. Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Bridging the gap between native and non-native cultures can be awkward, painful and ultimately rewarding, as both Kent Nerburn’s 1994 novel and Steven Lewis Simpson’s film of the same name reveal.  

The novel is widely read in college classrooms, held up as essential reading for understanding North American history and native-non-native relations. The film is an often uncomfortable journey for white viewers as we follow in the footsteps – literally, in the film, as well as historically – of the Native peoples who came before us.

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Christopher Sweeney plays Kent Nerburn, who, still mourning the loss of his own father, answers a mysterious woman’s call to drive a thousand miles for a visit. “My grandfather wants to talk to you,” is all that she says (Vancouver-based actress Roseanne Supernault, doing double-duty as twins).

The man is a Lakota tribal Elder named Dan (Dave Bald Eagle). Dan has read some of Kent’s earlier published stories about native people and wants him to compile his shoebox full of notes into a book. Make me sound smart, Dan directs, “like I went to high school.”

Kent, “Nerburn”, they call him, is confident but his first draft offends everyone with its stereotypes and platitudes. Dan enlists his friend Grover (Richard Ray Whitman) to help give Nerburn some perspective. After Nerburn’s truck breaks down the three men set out on a journey across the reservation: a road movie with few roads.

The film covers some familiar territory on this journey: residential schools, the eradication of native culture, stereotypes in film and TV, not to mention the endless parade of do-gooders on the ’rez: “We get ‘em all … social workers, missionary types, and old hippies,” says Dan.

There’s a slight shift to documentary-style focus as Bald Eagle goes off script during a visit to Wounded Knee, where over 300 men, women and children were killed and starved out by U.S. soldiers. “I don’t feel worthy, I feel responsible,” says Nerburn. There will be tears before the old man and the young author part.  

The contrasting daily routines on the reservation are poignant (pump wells versus filtered water) and humourous (Nerburn’s city-boy coffee is routinely mocked) and the wide-open vistas are impressive, but the stories behind the film are equally interesting.

The film is directed and the screenplay co-written by Scotsman Steven Lewis Simpson, who, according to his bio, was the youngest fully qualified stockbroker/trader in Britain, at age 18. After working for Roger Corman’s company in L.A. and releasing several films back home, Simpson worked on a trio of films with native American focus, including A Thunder-Being Nation, a documentary 13 years in the making.

Playing Dan’s “sidekick” is poet and visual artist Richard Ray Whitman, who was part of the 71-day occupation at Wounded Knee, the event for which Marlon Brando refused his Academy Award.

But the late Dave Bald Eagle outdoes them all, on and off screen. Bald Eagle was 95 at the time of shooting his first lead film role, and the film hinges on his charismatic performance. That he had never been handed a lead role before is surprising, considering the actor and activist had done just about everything else. He was a semi-pro baseball player. He was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, mistakenly dropped into enemy territory on D-Day (most of his unit was wiped out; Bald Eagle was riddled with bullet holes and left for dead). After his young, pregnant wife was killed in a car accident, he took on dangerous pursuits: race car driver, pro-rodeo bronco rider, sky-diver and stuntman. He was a champion ballroom dancer, and once danced with Marilyn Monroe on the set of one of his films. Historians have posited that Bald Eagle’s grandfather, White Bull, was the one who killed General Custer at Little Bighorn.

In the wake of Standing Rock, Neither Wolf Nor Dog could not be more current. The film opens today at Vancity Theatre.

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