I have to start this book review with a quote that the more I think about, the more I realize how accurate it is. In the forward to the second edition of Neither Wolf Nor Dog, Nerburn writes:
"I have never met an Indian person who didn't somewhere deep inside struggle with anger and sadness at what has happened to their people, and I have never met an honest and aware non-Indian person who didn't somewhere deep inside struggle with guilt about what we as a culture have done to the people who inhabited this continent before us... A tragedy has taken place on our land, and even though it did not take place on our watch, we are its inheritors, and the earth remembers."
When an old Sioux Indian named Dan contacted him to put his thoughts and stories into a book, Nerburn was faced with a challenge. You see, many white people try to become Indian when they come into contact with Native Americans. Either that or they stoop to pity. I don't know whether it is to try and assuage the guilt or not, but I think most realize that a very valuable culture is on the verge of being lost forever.
It's not easy for a white person to understand Native Americans. Not only have white people not experienced what Native Americans have, they really know little of their culture. It's easy to go to a museum showing off souvenirs that are stolen belongings, and to read history books written by whites and think we have perspective. It's easy to enter a reservation and feel sorry for Indians after seeing the poverty many of them live in.
But Indian culture is not something I would even pretend to understand. This book gives a lot of insight though, because the Native Americans Nerburg became friends with kept him honest. They didn't allow him to try and be Indian. They insisted he see what was there with a clear mind, free of previous perceptions, and as a white man.
That is the beauty of this book, and why I chose it for a book review.
When people see junked cars parked where they quit or were no longer needed, and appliances laying where they were dumped outside of reservation homes, they believe it's because the Indians have lost their pride, that they no longer care.
But Dan said it makes him feel proud to see the junk. He said he can see that his people haven't completely forgotten who they are. Before the white man came, the only tools Indians had were made of wood and bone and other animal parts. When they wore out they were simply discarded and allowed to return to the earth.
Indian children sometimes have a hard time in school and are considered slow. Dan explains that Indians are different than whites in this area also. White children are trained to quickly spout out the answer to a question when asked. Indian children, on the other hand, want to think for a few seconds and organize their thoughts before answering. How does this make them stupid?
The author takes off on an adventure with Dan and his friend, Grover, across the prairie, which is where most of the book takes place. The three of them travel through reservations and across state lines to visit friends and relatives, as well as Sitting Bull's grave and the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. These shameful reminders of the way an aggressive culture murdered members of a peaceful one have been turned into tourist attractions. All the while Nerburn recorded Dan's stories.
Dan was born with one white eye. He was told it made him possible to see with the perception of both Indians and whites alike. Not only could he see, he was able to articulate many of the differences between the white and Indian cultures. Sometimes with humor, but more often with sadness and anger, he gave Nerburn his explanation about the dissimilarities between Indigenous Tribes and Christians. He also made sure Nerburn understood, and questioned him relentlessly to make sure he got it.
It's easy to see only emptiness when gazing across the windswept prairie, but under Dan's guidance, Nerburn learned to see so much more. He learned to not only see, but to feel the reverence that Native Americans experience when they look across the open expanse of their homeland.
This book has touched indigenous people all over the world. Nerburn has many stories of the healing that takes place when people read Neither Wolf Nor Dog. It is truly helping bring together different cultures. It is helping us all to realize that we really are one people and that it is time to respect different cultures instead of exploiting them in the belief that one is better than any other.
I just re-read this book in order to write this book review and liked it even better the second time. It's people like Dan who give hope that maybe one day we can halt the searching and destroying that the white man seems intent on, and instead learn to simply live together.
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