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HPPR Health, Education & Welfare

Neither Wolf Nor Dog a.k.a. According To Nerburn – with Dan

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Credit Mike Strong, Author’s Collection
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Understanding common cultures is a life-long process. Mike Strong’s Air Force friend and co-worker served as a guide in the process.  Read Mike’s thoughts in a BookByte “extra” following his BookByte post.

I’m Mike Strong from Hays for HPPR, Radio Reader’s Book Club.  The book is “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” by Kent Nerburn. On occasion I think of this book as “The Excellent Adventures of Dan and George - with Nerburn.” Kent Nerburn, the author, tells his own “swimmer out of the swimming pool” story as he is educated by Dan and George in Native representations.

Dan, in particular is instructing, Nerburn, a writer who is not of Dan’s nation, how to think about and see Native America.

As I got the sense of the book, I decided to check it for an old topic I had first heard in a 1997 broadcast. An American Indian lawyer speaking at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C., told the journalists that Indians get a bit tired of being asked what name to call Indians.

The lawyer described the name “Native American,” as neither accurate nor acceptable, calling it a word created by white liberals rather than by Indians themselves. In other words, someone other than a Native had decided how to represent Natives.

But, in “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” Dan tells Nerburn, “I guess I don’t mind because we have taken the name and made it our own. We still have our own names in our own languages. Usually that name means ‘first people,’ but no one would ever call us that. So, we let people call us ‘Indians.’”

Regardless of origin, Dan declares “Native American” to be “no more real than ‘Indians,’ because … The word “America” came from some Italian who came over here after Columbus.” He’s talking about Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer and merchant.

In Kent Nerburn’s book, Dan repeatedly presses “Nerburn” to just chill. It is a humorous theme in “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” often roll on the floor laughingly funny. I didn’t mention yet just how laugh out loud funny this book often is. Usually while urging Nerburn to do more than hit all the “write" notes, but to feel the notes, to get a sense of how a people feel when their land is taken, and worse their stories and their identities.

Dan isn’t writing a book, so, he takes up with Nerburn - as a channel to send the story he wants to tell.

Name choices do not themselves create the story, but name choices do go to representation and who gets to tell the story. From that National Press Club Luncheon in 1997 through today, I’ve occasionally checked in with “IndianCountry.com” (now Indianz.com) both for articles indicating topics of importance to tribes and tribal policies as well as to check their language usage.

It is a place I can go to see the Nations tell their own story.

The site’s usage of “Native” or of the name of the nation such as “Choctaw Nation” or “the Ogallala,” remained the same until about a year and a half ago when suddenly the articles had a lot of uses of “Native American.” Something had changed, maybe an editor? Then about three months later they were back to the previous style book and remain so today.

The indiancountry.com URL has long been taken over as a test page for a Linux web server (Debian’s Apache server). They are now Indianz.com and their front-page title bar says “Indianz.Com - Native American news, information & entertainment.” They also have a podcast, with transcript, called “Native America Calling.”

Mostly, Dan is talking both to Nerburn, and through Nerburn, to us, because Dan believes that “we” (in quotes) won’t believe unless it is written by one of “us” (in quotes).

I’ll quote Dan, “See, we have always had history like white people history, too. You just wouldn’t believe us. … … But if some white person who didn’t even know what he was seeing wrote it down, then that was good enough to be history.”

Mike Strong, from Hays, for HPPR Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” by Kent Nerburn

MUSINGS INSPIRED BY THE BOOK::

Very little of what we know about the nations is accurate. Very few portrayals are accurate. Who tells your story, what is said and who is listening could be said of a great many cultural stories. Most of our beliefs are formed by popular entertainment, such as cowboy and Indian movies. Almost always Indians are portrayed by whites, often by Italians, as Nerburn notes.

For that matter cowboys are almost always all white in entertainment but in real life they were roughly 25% black, 40% Mexican and some Indians. And they didn’t run around doing quick draw duels at high noon. Gun fights were the same ugly, no-rules conflicts we see in the news today.

And a large part of the central and western US was once a large part of Mexico. This includes a tiny part of Kansas, the far southwest corner.

Then there is the curiosity of why, out of all the countries in the western hemisphere, North American, Central America and South America, why is the United States “America.” Why are USA-uns called Americans and the citizens of the other countries in the Americas not also called Americans. Isn’t it redundant to call a US citizen of Mexican heritage a “Mexican-American?” Or do we add a hyphen to get the more labored and arguable “Mexican-American-American?”

This is another irony. Accounts of Vespucci’s voyages somewhere between 1497 and 1504, which are now thought to be forgeries by someone else, though how much remains disputed, were the basis for a German map maker in 1507, naming the area “America,” something Vespucci had no control over. That 1507 map showed only what is now South America though “America” would later be assigned to the entire western hemisphere.

Languages have whims of their own. I grew up with “Negro” as the respectful term for African Americans. But, in 1969, when my Air Force friend and co-worker as a geodetic computer, Bobby Adams, asked me to start using “Black,” I readily made the change.

Bobby was my introduction to Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) and to that change in noun preferences. I thought of Bobby as one of the smartest people I knew and as a sort of political guru for me and occasional model for my photography.

Had I known any Spanish I would have realized the irony that the pronunciation “NEE-grow” was the badly pronounced Spanish word for black, properly pronounced “NAY-grow.”

Here too, a difference in linguistic happenstance. In English we would ask for “coffee black” - even though coffee color is a light brown. But you would not order “cah-fay NAY-grow” in Mexico City, you would order “café solo.” A difference in observation or concept, one on color and the other on ingredients.