Neither Wolf Nor Dog
Roadtrip through Lakota country is slow but sincere in its message
Neither Wolf Nor Dog (2017)
Directed by Steven Lewis Simpson
Cast: Christopher Sweeney, Dave Bald Eagle, Richard Ray Whitman
Sadly, Native American stories are something of a rarity in today’s Hollywood landscape. Occasionally, a wide release will use Native American lands as something more than backdrop. (Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, for example, is solidly set on a reservation in Wyoming.) Once in a blue moon, a Native film breaks into the mainstream. (Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals to name one of the few). Encouragingly—thanks to places like Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts—there are an increasing number of scrappy indigenous filmmakers crafting their own works, both short and feature. Still, PBS’ “Independent Lens” series remains one of the few places to regularly spotlight films by/about Native Americans. So it’s with a certain anticipation that we should greet any film willing to tell tales involving Native cultures.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog is based on Kent Nerburn’s award-winning 1994 novel of the same name. The film was shot on a shoestring, crowdfunded budget with a two-person crew and is now slowly self-distributing its way across the country. The story centers on Mr. Nerburn (played here by Christopher Sweeney of Chasing Mavericks), a Minnesota-based writer who helped compile a popular book of Native American oral history. One day, out of the blue, he gets a call from a woman on a reservation in South Dakota. Seems her elderly grandfather wants to talk to Nerburn. But he doesn’t do telephones. The two will have to meet face-to-face. Nerburn is skeptical, and he doesn’t relish the idea of driving 400 miles for an interview with a man he’s never heard of. But Nerburn’s wife is traveling out of town to witness the birth of her sister’s first child. Nerburn’s beloved father recently passed away, and he’s just sitting around the house all alone feeling sorry for himself. On a whim, he jumps into his truck and heads for Lakota territory.
There he meets smiling but inscrutable elder Dan (Chief Dave Bald Eagle, who was 95 when this film was shot). Dan has assembled a shoe box full of “notes”—short, observational scraps of poetic wisdom touching on various bits and bobs of old-school, homespun Native philosophy. Dan is hoping that Nerburn can turn them into a book. For his part the author isn’t too confident. First of all he isn’t really a writer. He did little more than transcribe his last book of Native American history based on oral accounts. Also, although he’s sympathetic to the Indian point of view, his understanding of their culture comes mostly from a well-worn copy of Black Elk Speaks.
But Dan senses something in Nerburn. Most white people who come to the reservation are full of bullshit—“missionary types, social workers and old hippies” as Dan puts it. Nerburn isn’t there seeking stereotypical spiritual enlightenment and turquoise jewelry. But the recent loss of his dad has put him in the market for a father figure. And so he tries to tell Dan’s story. But he struggles to find words that don’t fall back on tired old clichés about Indians living in harmony with nature and communing with the animals. Frustrated, Nerburn tries to tell Dan he’s not the man for the job. But Dan isn’t one to take “no” for an answer. And so Dan’s cranky nephew Grover (Richard Day Whitman) loads everybody into his massive Buick for one of those inspirational road trips.
As you might expect, Nerburn, Dan and Grover trek their way across Dakota back roads, encountering clueless “Native American” museums, cramped relatives’ houses and the occasional sacred site. There are enough secrets spilled and epiphanies achieved along the way to keep the episodic narrative chugging along. The rolling grasslands of the Dakotas are contrasted by the ramshackle houses and boarded-up businesses of the reservations. Unglamorous and earthy, the film doesn’t paint some starry-eyed portrait of modern-day Native American life.
The film is simply and sincerely directed by Steven Lewis Simpson—a Scotsman, oddly enough, who spent 13 years chronicling the story of the Oglala Lakota of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the documentary A Thunder-Being Nation, as a well as writing/directing the 2008 romantic thriller Rez Bomb and producing the Native arts and entertainment TV newsmagazine “The Hub.” It’s the sort of résumé that inspires confidence. Simpson’s raw camerawork and unfussy compositions give the film an authentic, naturalistic feel.
Most of the low-key, laconic travelogue is centered around the circular conversations Nerburn and Dan engage in as the Spartan landscape rolls past the windows of Grover’s Buick. Dan’s various lessons on the hard facts of Native American history eventually start to weigh heavily on Nerburn. Initially, the writer sees himself as a sort of White Savior helping to distill and distribute what he feels are postcard-ready nuggets of Native spirituality. But as the three men drive deeper into the heart of Lakota territory, Dan’s words become increasingly darker and more emotional. The full burden of what the Europeans did to Native Americans eventually comes to a head with a heart-wrenching visit to Wounded Knee.
The script (penned by Simpson and Nerburn himself) occasionally gets long-winded in the speechifying and spends far too long in low gear. But the main characters have a comfortably scrappy back-and-forth with one another. Sweeney comes across as a budget-conscious version of Aaron Eckhart, waffling between defensive and open-minded. Dave Bald Eagle, meanwhile, infuses his character with a quiet gravity and a sly wit that keeps the film from becoming a slog. Though this is Nerburn’s (presumably, mostly true) story, it’s Chief Bald Eagle who infuses it with heart, humor and righteous anger.