In the 1990s, writer Kent Nerburn traveled from Minnesota to the Pine Ridge Reservation to meet with a Lakota elder who wanted him to transform a box of scrawled notes and sentence fragments into a book.
The resulting novel, the award-winning “Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder,” has now come to the screen in an ultra-low budget picture that nonetheless manages to convey much about life on the Pine Ridge today, the shameful, tragic history of the Lakota people and the relationship between whites and Natives.
Directed by Steven Lewis Simpson, a Scottish filmmaker who previously did 2008’s “Rez Bomb,” also shot at Pine Ridge, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” opens with Nerburn (Christopher Sweeney) receiving an out-of-the-blue phone call from the granddaughter of a Lakota elder, asking him to come to South Dakota to meet with her grandfather, Dan (Dave Bald Eagle).
Mourning the death of his father, Nerburn initially has no desire to drive hundreds of miles to meet Dan. But upon further thought -- and with his wife and son conveniently going to Minneapolis -- he jumps in his pickup and heads west.
Arriving at Pine Ridge, he finds Dan and a box of notes. But his attempt to turn them into prose results only in cliche -- from a white, outsider perspective -- rather than the reality Dan wants to convey.
Chided with biting sarcasm by Dan’s friend Grover (Richard Ray Whitman), tired of staying next to raving drunks in a fleabag motel and frustrated with his inability to get what the elder wants, Nerburn is ready to give up and go home.
But, as he’s driving away from Dan’s house deep in the hills, Nerburn’s pickup dies. Leaving it in the hands of 300-pound fix-it man Jumbo (Harlan Standing Bear Sr.), Dan is picked up by Grover and Dan, taken in Grover’s old Buick on a journey around Pine Ridge.
That makes “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” a road movie of sorts -- where lessons are learned and wisdom gained on a journey. Only this road movie stays within the boundaries of Pine Ridge, visiting cafes, museums and Wounded Knee as Dan dispenses his wisdom and Nerburn gradually begins to wake up.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is a little rough around the edges, evidence of its low budget on view when, for example, the color balance shifts in the midst of a scene. And it’s made with an indie-film aesthetic, which means there’s a few slow spots and a very deliberate pace.
But with a quietly powerful performance from Bald Eagle, a semi-professional actor whose face and gestures convey as much as his works, and strong work from Sweeney and Whitman, who have some chemistry in their clashes, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” transcends its budget to become one of the most insightful contemporary Native-based films I’ve seen.
Bald Eagle passed away last summer at age 97, but was able to view “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” saying, according to Indian Country Today, “It’s the only film I’ve been in about my people that told the truth.”
That alone is enough of an endorsement to highly recommend, even with its flaws, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog.”