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HPPR Arts, Culture & History

Don't Listen To Them About Women

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Maria Melendez Kelson
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Hello Radio Readers. This is Maria Melendez Kelson, a writer and writing teacher at Dodge City Community College in southwest Kansas. The parts of the book Neither Wolf Nor Dog I got most excited about are where women show up and seize the spotlight. This doesn’t happen often.

This 1994 book based on true events is by a man, writer and teacher Kent Nerburn, about a man, a Lakota elder who simply goes by Dan, who has asked for Nerburn’s help to write up his recollections and impressions about life as an Indian in contemporary America.

It’s a compelling read with an interesting narrative that kept me turning pages, but at times I missed hearing a woman’s perspective. Fortunately, we get a powerful woman’s perspective near the end when we meet Dannie, granddaughter to Dan.  

Dannie can’t stand Nerburn, the book’s White author who travels around with her grandpa Dan to help save his stories. “White people shouldn’t write books about Indians” she complains, perched on the tailgate of her truck.

But then something shifts.

Nerburn insists he’s writing this book because “your grandpa asked me.” Then he says, “I wish you’d help me.”

Though she reacts initially with “fury,” “bitterness,” and “sarcasm,” eventually she really gets to talking, and unspools a string of intense memories and compelling philosophies as she tries to re-shape Nerburn’s presuppositions.

For example, against his queries about seeing Indian women “a lot of times” with black eyes from their men, Dannie insists that while “there’s lots of violence” in Indian family life, there are also, in her words, “good families, lots of them,” with a strength gained from multiple generations living together that she doesn’t see in “most … white families.”

She then lays out the differences between a mainstream white view of women’s liberation with an Indian woman’s view in an accessible but sophisticated theory that’s so pointed in its rejection of first-wave feminism, I’ll be thinking about it for a long while to come.

In one part of her complex analysis, she holds that Indian women “don’t need to get free,” but instead need to “free our men” from the shame of defeat and subjugation.

My favorite quote in Dannie’s section is when she commands Nerburn: “Just don’t listen to them about women.”

The “them” she says Nerburn shouldn’t listen to (about women) are her grandpa, whose only contact with a woman-as-peer was his short-lived marriage to a white woman, and the man who drives Nerburn and her grandpa around the Pine Ridge reservation of South Dakota, where they live, who Dannie implies is a disrespectful womanizer.

Dannie positions herself, rather than these older men, as the voice of authority when it comes to Indian women, telling Nerburn it’s women who “are the hope of our people right now,” because “we kept things alive in our hearts and hands.”

The 1990 memoir Lakota Woman, by Mary Crow Dog of the Rose Bud reservation in South Dakota, would make a good companion read to Neither Wolf Nor Dog because Crow Dog grew up in a nearby reservation, and had a first-hand woman’s view of the 1960s and 70s American Indian Movement’s activities as a participant and as wife of the movement’s chief medicine man. I read it back in my college days and can recommend it highly.

I also want to recommend Nez Perce writer Beth Piatote’s 2019 collection of short stories The Beadworkers, which showcase both her own imaginative voice and the ways that events impacting the Lakota, such as the shooting death of Lakota leader Sitting Bull, are part of a Pan-Indian history of struggle for what Chippewa scholar Gerald Vizenor has called survivance, survival and resistance.

The works of Crow Dog, Piatote, and Nerburn together, in their women’s and men’s voices, create a richly expressed chronicle of survivance.

You can share this BookByte on social if you want, and I’d love to hear your thoughts over on Twitter. I’m @mkelsonauthor.

For High Plains Public Radio, this is Maria Melendez Kelson, book clubbin’ with you.