Kent Nerburn received a call. It was a Lakota Indian woman on behalf of her grandfather. Would Kent come and visit him? Dan, the grandfather, had read texts that Nerburn had helped compile of the oral histories of other Indians on a given reservation. It was an unusual request, a bolt from the blue, but Nerburn responded and his life was never the same.
Dan, now in his eighties, wanted a book framed around his cumulative thoughts that might be listened to by the 'white' world, if not now when it was ready. But he emphatically did not want to be seen or portrayed as simply a 'wise Indian' speechifying, yet another stereotype in a landscape littered with them. At one point he declares better be seen as a drunk and despised than as a wise one and patronized or falsely appropriated.
In Nerburn's crafting of his book, "Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder", Dan found his man. What unfolds is a compelling, thoughtful text that allows an elderly Indian to be both seen in the round and heard as in varied, often incongruous contexts (to Nerburn at least), he imparts the contents of his heart and mind, long pondered and shaped in joyous recognition of his own identity and in the suffering that identity has carried with it - for Dan directly and for his people and culture. It is framed as both as a testament and a teaching as Nerburn learns in graced vulnerability (and often self confessed confusion) about the Lakota way and how it differs, often at sharp angles, to the way of the 'white'.
Sadly, the sharpness is a story that is ongoing, well beyond the shores of America, wherever indigenous people are to be found, where their lives are ignored and despoiled in equal measure, where the pressure of the restless appetite of the 'West' (now, in that wider context, not exclusively white) presses on relentlessly - stealing land and dishonouring culture.
I cannot think of a better text that exposes our dominant, domineering narrative. To see it through the eyes of this particular other. And what eyes, mind and heart! It is a chastening, humbling experience.
Dan is a born philosopher who has pondered centuries of displacing, fraught, woeful cultural encounter and tried, not always successfully, to distill its potential meaning. At one point, he openly confesses that he cannot comprehend how the Great Spirit allowed this to happen to his people, but it did. The Great Spirit's ways are not simply our ways and patient discernment is required, possibly stretching into generations.
But mainly his observations are sobering illumination on the ways of both Lakota and whites that exposes their differences and in doing so it hopes to create pathways of future understanding. Here we find radically different ways of seeing the land, the pattern of ownership, the prioritising of community over individual, the misapprehension of what it means to lead - a chief is only such if the people follow and that depends solely on the quality of leadership, there is no other authority - and on the difference of living in a world saturated with meaning, where everything is potentially story and sacred contrasted with a world that is simply there to be used, with care or none.
I thought his most moving intervention was on our two uses of history - history as fact and history as meaning - and the way white culture devalued the Lakota use of history as meaning, demanding always factual verification, even when it extolled the centrality of Jesus whose history is one primordially that of meaning. Another sad example of duplicity! He beautifully suggests, for example, that it would be of greater benefit to carry Abraham Lincoln and his example in one's heart as a liberator from slavery than to know when the abolition was actually signed whilst still failing to embody its significance in daily living.
The book ends in a wonderful encounter at Wounded Knee site of what would now be called a 'mass killing' where soldiers exterminated defenceless men, women and children and the two men share a ceremony of pipe and prayer and Nerburn tastes something of the depths to which Dan has descended in his own life and that of his culture and receives a sign that it is time to begin to write. It was an auspicious sign because the resultant book is a treasury of the insights necessary to embark on a journey of a deeper comprehension of what it might mean to be an Indian and what those cultures might actually offer us if, finally, we took the time to listen and learn.
** (Interestingly throughout Dan refers to himself either as Lakota or simply as an Indian. In the discussion of this, Dan argues that yes, it is a sign of a cultural projection but one where simply a change, say, to Native American is of little improvement. After all what is the difference between being named after a false geographical location or after an Italian explorer? Not much since both illustrate the reality of the gulf that exists between a people being labelled and one that is genuinely seen and heard).