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Tension Required

Mark Dixon from Pittsburgh, PA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is Leslie VonHolten of Lawrence, Kansas, with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.
I’ll admit to initially being distracted, and even quite annoyed, by Kent Nerburn, the author of Neither Wolf nor Dog. Why does he insert himself so forcefully into the narrative? I entered the book expecting it to be focused on the voice and experiences of Dan, the elder of the subtitle, which is “On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder.” I wanted more of Dan and his friend Grover. Even Dan’s  old dog Fatback. I was not interested in the author’s confusion, frustration, and whining.

But as I kept reading, I told myself that for this book, I needed to get over it. This is because I finally saw what Nerburn was doing—he was using himself as a rhetorical device in the story. It was less that the author wanted the book to be about him. Instead, Nerburn used himself to stand in as the universal idea of whiteness, and how whiteness and white culture conflict with indigenous American customs.

I believe that Nerburn’s frustrations with Dan were real, although maybe played up a bit, but that was the point: if white readers like myself experienced Dan’s stories without the tension between the two men, it’s likely I could have missed exactly what Dan wanted me to see: the tension between the two cultures. Nerburn’s presence—and constant misunderstanding, and exasperation—was used to highlight how much white Americans—such as myself—do not understand the variations, history, and tempo of native culture.

And so, I made the conscious choice to accept that the author’s intentions were good. I did not want my unease with the narrator to cloud the true reason for the book—to lift up Dan’s voice and to learn the lessons he and Nerburn both wanted us to hear.

Dan’s stories are full, expanding, and meaningful. His deliberate guidance into indigenous relationships to land, for example, should be taught in schools. As he explained to Nerburn, the land is a part of the people who live upon it, thoroughly interconnected. It gave me a deeper understanding of today’s indigenous environmental movements.

So, although these days I seek out more art and literature by diverse authors, Neither Wolf Nor Dog was well worth reading. But next, I am setting my intentions toward writers and artists who can tell the stories of their own cultures. What librarians are calling hashtag-Own Voices.

During this pandemic winter I have read poet Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem. I soon plan to read the encompassing The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by anthropologist and novelist and Ojibwe author David Treuer. And I have been mesmerized online by the video art of Sky Hopinka, including a piece about driving with his father—an artwork that reminded me, just slightly, about Dan and Grover and Fatback and Nerburn following headlights down the dark highway over 25 years ago.

This is Leslie VonHolten for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club. I encourage you to read Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads by an Indian Elder by Kent Nerburn along with us. Find more at HPPR.org, or Like us on Facebook.