Why Fill Up The Silence

Apr 7, 2021

Dan was taught by the elders to “watch, listen, and then act.” South Dakota badlands, 1899.
Credit National Park Service; Photographer: D. Luchsinger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hi, I’m Valerie a radio reader from Topeka and I’m in the middle of reading Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads by an Indian Elder by Kent Nerburn. This book is part of HPPR’s radio readers book club with the theme cultures in common.

I’m only on chapter 5 and there is so much to talk about in this book, but one thing that sticks out to me most recently is the author’s new-found love and appreciation of the prairie. As a native Kansan it warms my heart to hear the land described as something as other than flat or fly-over country. So, to read phrases like, “the hypnotic power of the land” and “the billowing, waving prairie grasses were symphonic in their ebbs and swells,” makes me happy (31).

I can picture the wide-open spaces in my head. Nerburn goes even further when he says, “the only sound would be the endless rushing of the wind (31).” Now I can see and hear what he does.

Nerburn admits that he’s mostly grown up and lived in the woodlands and that he himself is surprised by the vastness of the prairie.

But herein lies one of my major issues with the book: that Nerburn has inserted himself in it. I know, I know, he explains why he does it, that it was at the request of the elder and his kinsman. But I feel like it really detracts and distracts from the what the main person in the book is trying to say.

For instance, the Native American elder tells Nerburn, “your eyes are different. . .you are looking farther,” which is an excellent teaching, but then Nerburn goes on to basically say, “I didn’t know what he was talking about.” (32).

Or when they’re out on the prairie and it is silent so that all they hear is the wind and Dan tells Nerburn that silence is more powerful than words and that Indians aren’t afraid of it. What does Nerburn do but ask questions and destroy the silence? He can’t stay quiet and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.

Dan explains that he was taught by the elders to “watch, listen, and then act,” but that Nerburn and his people “have to fill the space with sound” (32) because silence makes you nervous. He tells Nerburn how Indians use that nervousness to their advantage.

What I want is for Nerburn to be silent both in that teaching and throughout the book! Am I the only one or does anyone else think Nerburn is annoying? It’s very akin to what I said about the Poisonwood Bible, that the focus is on the missionaries and that the African populous is an afterthought. In this case, the focus seems to be on the white male writer, Nerburn, instead of the Indian elder the book is supposed to be about. Oh well, I’ll keep on reading and see if I change my mind. Let me know what you think.

I’m Valerie, an HPPR radio reader from Topeka.