Kent Nerburn’s 1994 cult novel, Neither Wolf Nor Dog, spent a number of years ricocheting around various Hollywood studios. It seemed that it would be one of those screenplays: much-lauded, but destined never to receive proper backing. That was until Nerburn approached Aberdeen-born filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson, whose work has often focused on the Native American community. Simpson’s solemn promise that he would adapt the novel for the big screen “no matter what” finally resulted in a film in 2017. After a two-year-long run across several northern US states, Neither Wolf Nor Dog has finally arrived on UK shores.
It charts the journey of Nerburn (a fictionalised portrayal of the novelist), who receives a phone call from a woman urging him to visit Dan, a Lakota elder. Bemused and intrigued in equal measure, Nerburn obliges: it transpires that Dan wants the younger man to write his opus, a collection of his thoughts on life, Lakota history and white Americans. Despite misgivings about his role as a white intruder on the reservation, and a lack of belief in his own abilities as a writer, Nerburn is drawn to Dan and his protector, gruff, ex-military man Grover, and eventually ends up joining them on a trip through the plains.
Simpson is very attentive to the book’s defining beauty: the way that it captures the relationship between Dan and Nerburn, and the complex blend of emotions on both sides surrounding their shared history. Dan rails against the traditional Hollywood stereotyping of native Americans, while Nerburn is wary of being tarred with the same brush as other white visitors: anthropologists, social workers and hippies ridiculed privately by those on the reservation. The film does exceptionally well to depict this balancing act onscreen, and its authentic representation of Lakota life and beliefs has been a key reason behind the plaudits it has received in US states with sizeable Native American populations.
A small cast necessitates superb performances, and the trio are very much up to the task. Christopher Sweeney ably brings Nerburn’s emotional turmoil to life, most of which is depicted through internal monologue in the novel. Richard Ray Whitman is sharp as the wisecracking Grover, at turns aggressive and insightful, duty-bound to assist Nerburn in writing his account. But the real star is Dave Bald Eagle as Dan. Bald Eagle was 93 at the time of filming – his tanned, creviced face is extraordinarily expressive. He flits with ease between his character’s social commentary, spiritual utterings and deadpan remarks. The film as a whole is sprinkled with wry humour, and the repartee between the three actors seems to come very naturally. Bald Eagle’s final monologue at Wounded Knee, a site of immeasurable poignancy after the United States Army slaughtered nearly 300 Lakota there in 1890, is haunting. If one can lay any criticism at Simpson’s door, it is perhaps a shame that the veteran is not afforded more time on screen.
The power and value of Neither Dog Nor Wolf is matched by the backstories of those involved in its making. Dave Bald Eagle died in 2016, having won a Purple Heart at the Normandy landings and worked on films with Marilyn Monroe. Richard Ray Whitman was present at Wounded Knee in 1973, when 200 Oglala Lakota occupied the site in protest against corruption in the tribal government and the empty promises made by the US State to the Native American community. Tatanka Means, son of Russell Means, a high-profile Native American activist and one of the leaders of the occupation, makes a cameo appearance here. The whole picture was crowdfunded, shot over 18 days with a technical crew of two, and self-released by Simpson (more on that here). It is an astonishing accomplishment.
For the most part, the prairie is a breathtakingly beautiful backdrop to the film. At times, one can discern a slight blurriness of the image, or a strange play on the light contrast, elements which are unlikely to appear in a Hollywood production. But then, this film couldn’t and shouldn’t have been given the Hollywood treatment. It is a delicately-crafted, touching reflection on race, stereotypes and the remote possibility of two peoples coexisting, in spite of their bloodstained past.