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Neither Wolf Nor Dog – Book Review

Neither Wolf Nor Dog book cover art

Grade: B+

Written by: Kent Nerburn
Published by: New World Library

Note: I have used the term “Indian” in this review to refer to the conglomeration of peoples living on the North American continent before whites came. This is the term the Indians in the book use, and as Dan points out in the text, each word was given by the whites and as false as any other, so why differentiate and pretend one is somehow better?

Neither Wolf Nor Dog is a cross between travel narrative and Native American manifesto. We have the story of Kent Nerburn himself, summoned to Lakota lands at the behest of Dan, who appreciates some work Nerburn has done on other collections of Native tales. Dan wants Nerburn to help him write down his thoughts about what it means to be an Indian.

There are a few faults with this book, unfortunately. Dan’s thoughts are not always logical, which Nerburn is not loathe to mention, and the resulting problem is that we told over and over, in many poetic and emotional speeches, how horrible white men are, which we knew, but are not so much told what we can do about it. Perhaps this is because there is nothing we can do about it? But then, why go to all the trouble to write, edit, and produce the book at all? Over and over, we are told not to “use” Indians for their wisdom–which is a very good point–yet we are expected to see Dan’s wisdom as valid and to listen to him; he sets himself up as the wise man, and yet doesn’t want us to see him only as the wise man–perhaps this is why we see him, warts and all. Dan treats Nerburn rather badly frequently, but gets no word of apology, as if he should be made to suffer. In the end, Dan is a human being as we are, and this is a good point to learn: he’s not some stereotypical “wise man.”

[ad#longpost]The book does do an excellent job of explaining why Indians still carry anger toward white people, if there are any people left so lacking in sensitivity and empathy that they didn’t already understand and carry around a load of guilt. It also does a good job of explaining why we white people do not get to be angry right back–there is a human tendency to hate those who hate you–but this book is clear about how this hate should be one-sided. One of the best points appears at the end of the book when Dan points out the unfairness of the “grandmother’s skull” as a museum artifact–and then charging the Indians to view it, all the time claiming it was being treated respectfully. Absolutely food for thought for those of us who love museums–if the Indians can’t be trusted to keep that culture alive and vital, then how can whites be trusted to do it, either, even archeologists and anthropologists?

Perhaps the best message in this book is also something we already know, but need to hear until we do something about it. American culture, while it has many strengths, is also spiritually bankrupt. The answer is not to steal what we need from other cultures, though I suppose Dan wouldn’t be angry if we learned from him some (maybe), but the answer is to create a spirituality of our own that answers our various needs. I can’t imagine how we would go about answering the spiritual needs of the huge populace we have though, much less the varied and culturally varying populace. But if we were to find a spiritual strength of our own, we would perhaps be more content and less eager to steal the thoughts and lands of others.

In short, Neither Wolf Nor Dog should probably be read by all Americans, of any race. Do not, however, be surprised by logical inconsistencies, contradictions, and just plain fallacies, as there are many. Some things just won’t make sense, and some things Dan says will go directly against other things he has said. It does an excellent job of showing and explaining why Indians do the things they do, even the things that aren’t quite so positive, at least to white culture’s ideas of what is “positive.” The book raises more questions than it answers, such as “When do we have the right to be angry?” “Is it possible to love and respect the memory of Indian warriors without hating whites?” or “Whose guilt should we work to assuage”? We have a whole generation of people who want to do something right, but have no idea of what that “right” should be. At the end of the book, there is a final word where Dan explains a page or so about what he thinks young Indians should do (try to be Indians) and what whites should do (not try to be Indians but let Indians be Indians). Dan’s final thoughts about why the Lakota had to die in the plan of the Great Creator might leave you wondering, but perhaps that is his point–there are no easy answers, and we all need to reach out hands, even if they get slapped, to find some answers of our own and together.

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