Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn

Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: death, massacre, sickness, oppression, poverty, culture.

Goodreads Rating: 5 Stars


Point blank, I think Kent Nerburn did an amazing job at trying to explain how the walk the line between cultural understanding and respect.

Nerburn is contacted by an elderly Indian man called Dan via his daughter on the phone. She relays the message that Dan read some of Nerburn’s work, and wanted to speak to him in person. Not knowing what he was in for, Nerburn makes the trip to meet Dan. When he finds out that Dan wants him to write a book about what he’s observed over the years with his white and Indian eyes, Nerburn is unsure if he can write it in a way that allows Dan’s stories to be heard without the white polish that’s rewritten so much of America’s history. Together, they go on a journey to figure out how to share Dan’s wisdom.

Now, I feel that if I delve into my thoughts and what I think about this novel, it would almost seem counter-productive from what I’ve learned from reading the story of Dan. Like Nerburn, I want to see further too. So I’m just going to give you some eye-opening lines from a few of the chapters, and hope that I pique your curiosity.

“On the top of the rock, insignificant to anyone who didn’t understand, some previous passerby had placed a few broken cigarettes…that person had placed the sacred gift of tobacco on the rude image of the buffalo, and in doing so had paid homage to the animal.”

“You have to love your own people even if you hate what they do.”

“You’re writing a story about Indians. But you’re writing it like a white guy. You want everything all neat. Put it all in. Just write it the way it is.”

“You took the land and you turned it into property. Now our mother is silent. But we still listen for her voice. And here is what I wonder. If she sent diseases and harsh winters when she was angry with us, and we were good to her, what will she send when she speaks back to you?”

“You’re learning. I can tell because of your silence.”

“Before you wanted to make us you. But now you are unhappy with who you are, so you want to make you into us.”

“You are trying to learn. White people like to learn by asking questions.”

‘If you had listened to us instead of trying to convert us and kill us, what a country this would be.”

“Keepers of the fire cannot be cowards. They are carrying light.”

“You tell us we have to elect a leader to represent us, and he has to represent us in everything. He is supposed to be wise about everything because he is responsible for everything. Even if we don’t want him to speak for us on some matter, he gets to because it says so in the constitution you made us write.”

“She’s not one to mess with,” Delvin laughed… “Should’ve sicced them on the white man. You guys would’ve gone home in rowboats.”

“You must forget yourself. You are not here for yourself. You are not here for me. This is Wounded Knee. You are standing on the grave.”

“Perhaps we had to return to the earth, so that we could grow within your hearts.”

“We are prisoners of our hearts, and only time will free us. Your people must learn to give up their arrogance. They are not the only ones placed on this earth.”

If any of these strike a chord with you, buy this book, borrow this book, check it out of the library… anything to get your hands on it, and READ.

Published: 1994

Publisher: New World Library

TL/DR: Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn is a memoir about a man who learns about Native American culture from a man named Dan.

Read it? Absolutely. It’s one of my favorite reads.

Recommend it? Yes, especially for fans of memoirs and Native American culture.

Buy it? There are plenty of secondhand copies available since this is a backlist book, so grab yourself a copy!

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Categories: Book Review, Culture, Memoirs, Nonfiction

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