I’m in a phase of life where my kids have become my teachers…humbling, but true.
One of my daughters, after visiting the Yakima reservation in Washington state with a graduate class, recommended that I read a book titled Neither Wolf nor Dog. The book is about a native American elder of the Lakota Tribe named Dan. Dan had requested that Kent Nerburn write his story after reading a few accounts of other native American tribes written by Nerburn. He thought the author could tell his story in a way that a normal American would read and assimilate.
A few things have struck me while reading.
First, as a kid, playing “cowboys and Indians,” I always wanted to be the Indian. Why? I guess I thought they were people of the earth, close to nature, noble warriors, defending a just cause, etc.
Then I recalled that my middle school basketball team mascot was…you guessed it, the Indians. “Thunderation…we are the Indian generation.” We used to chant that from the bleachers of that western North Carolina middle school.
Then it hit me that the school was smack in the middle of the Cherokee nation...or what used to be the Cherokee nation. I’m not sure why I never saw the irony of that.
Then I remembered the nearest professional baseball team…the Atlanta “Braves,” then the Seminoles of Florida State University, the Cleveland Indians, the Redskins and so forth…each with their own chants and cheers almost as ridiculous as my middle school.
I realized that native Americans were part of my mental furniture. I had categorized them by associations as I journeyed through life. The picture was filled out slightly by reading accounts of the Trail of Tears or Sitting Bull or visiting the Crazy Horse monument. All found a place in my associations of the native American tribes.
Reading this book helped me understand that my mental map of native Americans was ridiculously idealized and just untrue. What my culture taught me about native Americans (Dan prefers the term “Indians”) was all wrong and conveniently side-stepped the beautiful and painful realities.
Dan’s dialogue with the author features many aspects of his life as a Lakota elder. It’s a study in contrasts, really. Silence and words; signage and instinct, dignity and drugs, leadership and position, faith in God and religion, tribal language and English, stereotypes and reality, freedom and duty, state and tribe, capitalism and community, life from land and land ownership.
One reason I’ve enjoyed the book is the author’s transparency as he describes the awkward moments of tracking around the Lakota nation with Dan and his sidekick Grover. Nerburn is confused by prolonged silences, worried about eating the food, excluded by conversations in the Lakota language, stuck in the back seat of a Buick with Dan’s dog “Fatback” as they rumble across the grassy plains of the Lakota reservation, etc. At times, Dan wants to apologize on behalf of “white folks.” Then he finds Dan’s ways irritating and impenetrable. Occasionally, he breaks through the foreignness of native American life to perceive something of its beauty and simplicity.
I’ve never spent much time on a native American reservation, but I’ve lived among people of a different culture most of my adult life. Nerburn’s awkward efforts to access the Lakota reminded me of my clumsy attempts to understand people of other cultures. Learning to appreciate them and value life as they see it, doesn’t come by reading a book. It comes by living among them and listening…carefully listening…refusing to make comparisons even when that comes so easy…simply trying to see life from where they sit. As Dan points out to Nerburn, he can’t be an Indian. Wearing turquoise or growing a ponytail won’t cut it. He likes Nerburn because he is who he is but is also willing to sit where Dan sits and try, ever so slowly, to understand.
It’s hard work. It involves laying aside your history to enter theirs, socializing as they do, valuing their celebrations, suspending judgment on their art and music. In brief, this work requires that one enter another’s world as a guest, accepting the hospitality of a willing insider (like Dan) as a teacher and guide. Generally, the hospitable insider is easy to find. The real challenge is finding the humility to listen and learn.
This skill of empathetic listening to others is key in today’s world. It is a Jesus-esque skill. “He did not regard equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant.” Paul’s description could be the headwaters of a world-wide river of change. Are we willing to drink from those waters?
There’s more to say about it in future posts.