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HPPR Arts, Culture & History

Cultural Memory

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E. Irving Couse (en.wikipedia), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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This is Nicole English coming to you from the Sociology Department at Fort Hays State

This is a discussion of the book, Neither Wolf nor Dog:  On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder, by Kent Nerburn

This 1993 book still packs a punch, even after nearly three decades after its release.  It is actually the first in a series of three books dealing with Native American issues.  It is a classic road-trip story:  a light-hearted quest with an on-going philosophical debate discussing Native American history, inequalities, and Post-Colonialism traumas. 

The three characters create an on-going dialogue between the Colonial (i.e., “white”) and Native perspectives, and the mediation between these two polarized perspectives, which attempts to resolve their differences.  As the story unfolds, cultural memory emerges as a key aspect of the narrative. 

On the one hand, there is the Indian struggle with anger and sadness, and on the other, the non-Indian struggle with guilt for the atrocities committed for greed, gain, and in the name of "progress".  The specter of Colonialism and its legacy is never far from the narrative with its implied “otherness” and perspective of “bringing civilization to the primitive heathens” type of attitude. 

The journey begins with an Indian elder asking the author to help him organize his notes and memories into a comprehensive memoire, and a narrative suitable for "white readers".  He asks the author to put his story into “good words” that whites would understand.  What follows is a narrative that is revealing, vulnerable, and engaging. 

Reading the book is almost a form of Colonialism catharsis.  It addresses something we have been lacking in our culture, which is to confront our Colonial history, without condemning or passing judgement on people today.  But voices cannot, nor should be, stifled.  Instead, they need to be heard, not silenced.  

Ignoring history or burying bad acts, do not encourage healing, for that strategy allows problems to merely fester, and we all know that there is enough anger, sadness, and guilt to go around.  Confronting issues, however, allows us to move beyond historical events and have true healing. 

According to the author, this is not a journalist memoire nor a fictional myth, but something in between.  Often, we can understand issues better through a narrative story, loosely based upon true events, rather than just reporting those events.  The characters in this narrative each voice the different perspectives related to the issues, and work through them emotionally, and invites the readers along for the journey.  

In the words of the author, the characters “search for common meaning, common understanding, and common redemption... it does not matter that they are on opposite sides of a cultural chasm filled with tears and guilt and broken promises and dreams"…indeed… "This is the key to the enduring relevance of..." the book. 

This is a book that I would highly recommend for anyone who teaches Diversity or are interested in Diversity issues.  It is an easy read, with approachable language, engaging characters, and snappy dialogue.  In fact, it has also been made into a 2016 indie film, and it is a fair representation of the book. 

Again, this is a fascinating read that is as timely today as it was when it was first written. 

So… Enjoy reading. This is Nicole English from the Sociology Department at Fort Hays State University wishing you happy Book-Bytes!