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‘Neither Wolf Nor Dog’ – a recognition of culpability

Movie Review



RAPID CITY – At the Journey’s showing of the movie “Neither Wolf nor Dog” directed by Steve Lewis Simpson and starring Dave Bald Eagle, Christopher Sweeney, and Richard Ray Whitman, most of the seats were full. And most of those seats were full of white people.

As I listened to the conversations going on around me, I could tell that the majority of them had read the book or had already seen the movie. They appeared to be, for the most part, intelligent, polite, well educated people. Of course, how do you tell these things, right? Well, they were respectful, I didn’t see any MAGA hats, no one spit tobacco on the floor, I had seen many of them around at other cultural events, and no one used their phone during the movie. That’s a big sign for me. Only rude, stupid people use their phones in a venue where people have paid good money to experience something real. And Neither Wolf nor Dog is real. The question is, do people want to face up to that reality?

Kent Nerbern, the author of Neither Wolf nor Dog, tells a story about trying to write another man’s life story, his beliefs, his history, his inner spirit. An Elder Native’s daughter calls him and rather enigmatically says her grandpa read a book that Nerbern had written and he wants him to write his book. However, he doesn’t talk on the phone, and he’s old, so Nerbern shouldn’t take too long getting there. So with no further ado, the author, a white man, packs up his backpack with a few books (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Black Elk Speaks are a couple of titles), his French coffee press, two thermoses and his cell phone to help this Native man, whom he’s never seen, heard, nor spoken to, write a book about a collection of thoughts and musings he’s collected over the years. No spoiler alerts here. Let’s just say things take a sharp left-hand turn.

It’s seems clear that Nerbern has sacrificed a bit to do this job. He’s getting no money, he’s left his family and traveled nearly 800 miles on his own dime to help out a guy he’s ever even talked to. He makes the traditional offering of tobacco to the old man, and is very respectful. Dan, the Elder, talks until Nerbern says something to offend him (and if you’re white, you probably don’t even know what it is) and off Dan goes to bed. No good night, good bye, see ya later, no nothin’. Just gets up and goes to bed.

Enter Grover. This guy makes Dan look positively kind and polite. Whenever Nerbern says or does anything the least bit ignorant of Lakota culture or history, Grover lands on him like a duck on a June bug. Grover is an angry man. He is angry at white men for what they have done to his people and he makes no secret of it. Dan is angry too, but he prays more and while there is not acceptance or understanding, there is a willingness to look for the good in white people.

Nerbern is ready to call it quits when Dan’s granddaughter tells him about the horrible abuses he suffered in the Indian Schools. And the numbers of Lakota children who were forced to go to the Indian Schools. Schools run by white people.

Ultimately the two men, Grover and Dan, sort of kidnap Nerbern and take him on a long road trip down the back “roads” of the Pine Ridge Reservation. They end up at Wounded Knee. There, Nerbern steps out of the car into the wind whistling the prairie grass around. He hears the stories. He sees the graves. He feels the spirits. He watches Dan pray. He walks among the tombstones. He cries. He lays down in the dry grass sobbing, and is carried off to sleep.

Any more about the movie itself, and I would be writing spoilers and falling action. So I give the movie, as far as action, acting, believability, and all around keeping my interest, 8.5 out of 10. The book was better.

But the true value of a movie is its affect on the audience. How did they react? What did it make me feel? Did I leave more contemplative about the issues that were presented than I was when I came in? Was I more aware? Did I feel a call to action? Well, the answer is yes. In that aspect the movie gets 10 out of 10. And this is why.

There are a majority of white folks who take great collective pride in the stories of the people who settled this land, living in sod huts and working the soil. Who regale their children with tales of their not so distant family traveling over the Mississippi and across the prairie in covered wagons, settling the Dakotas and the “wild west.” We go to the movies and admire those folks who settled the west, taking collective pride in what a strong people we were. Some people even collect old deeds of the land the railroad acquired, keeping those framed records of lands deeded to them hanging on the wall.

It’s collective pride. Just as we take collective pride in our past ancestors coming over from Germany or Italy or France and making it through Ellis Island to survive the streets of New York and make it to the west. It required hard work, it required resourcefulness, and it required sacrifice.

But, herein lies the rub, and the truth of the matter. If we’re going to have collective pride in all those things those white folks did, then we must accept that we have collective guilt. We are guilty. If we take collective pride in settling the west, we must accept collective guilt for killing innocent old men, women and nursing mothers and babies at The Massacre at Wounded Knee. If we take collective pride in the American Cowboy, we must accept collective guilt for the Indian Schools that ripped children from their mothers and beat them for speaking their own language even though they didn’t know any other, priests who molested them, teachers who tied them to their chairs. If we take collective pride in the railroad, if we take collective pride in the advances made in farming and ranching in the west, if we take collective pride in the work that the Civilian Conservation Corps did in Custer State Park in the Black Hills, then we must accept the collective guilt that comes with broken treaties, broken families and broken lives.

You see, if we take the pride and never accept the guilt, the Dan’s and Grover’s and every other Native has a right to be angry. They may always be angry, I don’t know. But I do know that without acceptance of that collective guilt, we can never even begin to heal the wounds and the rift that still divides.

(Contact Kat Holmgren at

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