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Saturday, September 17, 2011


photograph by andrea galvani

Reading in Kent Nerburn's The Wolf at Twilight, part 2 of his earlier book Neither Wolf Nor Dog. In the section I read today, Dan, the old Indian man, Lakota, told the history of the white invasion in just a few pages starting with Columbus. It parallels our history from Columbus to now, but from the other side of the us and them divide. Different words, but it's all there. Our story is from the point of view of the ones that killed the Indians, theirs from the point of view of the ones killed, whose land was taken away. "Boat people" he calls us, the ones that came over on boats, cut down trees, put up fences and placed surviving Indians on the poorest land the white people didn't want. They were told to be farmers, after nearly all others had been killed. The old boy, Dan, speaks to Nerburn naming him personally responsible for all that the old man was telling him. Dan sent him a message to come to the reservation several years after the first book about him, Neither Wolf Nor Dog. He wanted to tell Nerburn some more before he dies.

All through this second volume, Dan tore into Nerburn for attention to the clock, always in a hurry, looking at the clock, wondering what time it is, living by the clock in his head. Dan and another old Indian named Grover, a friend of Dan's, who was with them on the trip by car they're on in the pages I'm reading, acted as a translator for Nerburn of Dan's particular ways. They were driving to the boarded up building that was once the Indian school where Dan spent a great portion of his childhood, the very most traumatic extended period of his life, Indian school. The Indian way of reasoning was very different from Nerburn's, a white suburban middle class PhD professor, writer. Like the time they were out on a highway on the reservation in the morning, stopped someplace where Dan wanted to get out of the car. Grover wanted to drive up to the next town to get some cigarettes. All the time Grover was gone, Nerburn was fixated on why he wasn't back, when he'd had plenty of time. Nerburn couldn't get it off his mind, Dan would talk to him about letting it be. Grover is wherever he is and he's doing whatever he's doing where he is.

Later, Grover returned and they went on their way. Nerburn eventually asked Grover what took him so long. Grover said he thought Nerburn and Dan needed some time to talk. The funny part is that Nerburn had his mind focused on Grover's return with his car, and missed what Dan had to say. One of the many aspects of these two books I like is neither Dan nor Grover are shamans or chiefs. They're just men who happened to live long enough to get old. From time to time Dan passes some Indian wisdom to Nerburn that is told from how the Indian sees things. Here is something he said about children, The boy is in all of us. That's why we got to be good to the children. The boy always lives inside the man. Isn't it so, to the chagrin of their wives who say in exasperation, When are you going to grow up? Much of the time through the narrative, both Indian men are picking at Nerburn and lecturing him on his white ways, lack of patience. Nerburn knows it's in good humor, though there are moments he has to stand up for himself and tell them they don't understand his world either. Which, of course, means nothing to them, because they don't want to, they understand it more than they want to already.

To give an idea of the difference of how they thought, they had gone to a highway bar for lunch. Dan ordered 28 french fries, and sat at the table telling Nerburn the genocide of the Indians from their side. Nerburn was impatient with him. Dan had ordered 28 french fries the man at the bar had to fry to order. He salted them. At the table, Dan was telling Nerburn the history of the destruction of the Indian way of life and the Indians themselves, Dan would break each french fry in half, rub them together to rub the salt off, "the doctor said it wasn't good for me." He gave one half the french fry to his dog, Bronson, and ate the other. Nerburn asked, "You could have just asked the guy to hold the salt." Dan said, "Whoever heard of french fries without salt?" The difference was far greater than that, but this exchange shows one does it one way, the other another way. You have this old Indian man who is not what you'd call a "wise" man, but just a man. What Nerburn was intending while telling his story of a man without a title, it appears to me, was to show the attitude and the thinking of the reservation Indian, descendants of the ones that rode horses. 

Dan asked Nerburn to write his story. This is the second volume of Dan's story. In the second volume Dan tells about his time in Indian school as a child. Parents let kids go to Indian school for a place where they could have some food in a time when the white invaders were starving out the survivors of genocide by war. The humor running through the story is the problem Kent Nerburn has, not much experience understanding the culture of the Indian people, like people new to the mountains do not know anything about mountain culture. As always happens when you're new in a culture and don't know your way around, the people laugh at you in a light-hearted way for language interpretation, words with different meanings in the 2 cultures. Just a white man's arrogance stands out among people in a culture of poverty. It's not intentional arrogance, just an attitude that comes through tone of voice, words and actions. Dan and Grover respect Nerburn to the point of trust among white people. Though he knows Indian history as an historian, he still doesn't know Indian ways. He has a clock in his head, they do not. He wants to know about details, they don't care about details.

I'm reminded of my first months and years in the mountains. It was a lot to learn, an entire culture without written history, and sometimes I'd be frustrated, just like Nerburn, but different circumstances. There would be times I'd drive to Winston-Salem to go to a movie and drive around in traffic, just to have an experience from my own home, Flatland, in my own culture. A mini-vacation. I'd go to my spiritual retreat that is 500 acres of virgin forest between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, between Hwy 17 and the sea, cabins around in the woods and communal kitchens. There, I'd be among my Flatland friends and talk Flatland style where everything is comprehensible. That was as much what I'd go there for as spiritual regeneration, which I also needed, Flatland or mountain. I like Kent Nerburn's way of making his own puzzlement in the Indian culture a part of the story. It helps emphasize the cultural difference, a way of saying it's another world in the Indian way of thinking. Nerburn deals continually with translating different ways of thinking. Sharing his frustration gives me a far deeper understanding of the differences, and gives a better understanding of the Indian ways. Their ways are not lesser versions of our own, the same as mountain culture is not a lesser version of Flatland culture.  


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