Need some quality viewing during quarantine? Roaring Fire Films’s Neither Wolf Nor Dog stands the test of time
By RoseMary Diaz (Santa Clara Pueblo)
If you’ve followed the work of the writer, director, and producer Steven Lewis Simpson over the years, you will certainly recognize the artist’s creative signature in his most recent cinematic storytelling endeavor, Neither Wolf Nor Dog. An adaptation of Kent Nerburn’s award-winning, autobiographic book, Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder (New World Library, 1994), Simpson’s translation is solid and loyal to Nerburn’s page, save the handful of creative liberties exercised in translation.
Those liberties were met with Nerburn’s blessing and acknowledged thusly on the author’s website: “Yes, Steven changed the book. Yes, he adapted it; yes, he augmented it. But he nailed it. The choices he made were exquisite.” Both book and film reveal much about what seems dear to the hearts of their respective composers: an unyielding commitment to getting the story right.
Of course, Simpson’s gift for telling a story without getting in the way of telling the story is what makes this film work. When Simpson was 18, he became Britain’s youngest qualified stockbroker. His mind for economics is evident in this film, as Neither Wolf Nor Dog observes a strong sense of give and take. Nerburn’s descriptively indulgent writing lends itself well to Simpson’s eye for directing. It is a symbiotic relationship.
As Neither Wolf Nor Dog unfolds through metaphor and storytelling devices familiar to the contemporary Indian rez life film genre, Simpson’s perspective inclines at just the right angle to keep his filmography safely north of an over-formulaic construct while putting all the usual appearances in order. Indian elder as knowing Wisdom Keeper, check. Razor-sharp, quick-witted, philosophical, younger sidekick, check. Intoxicated youth as truth-bringing tobacco bearer, check. Loyal rez dog as an indispensable friend, check. Rumbling rez car as a tool for attaining enlightenment, check. For this Pueblo girl, the familiarities in Simpson’s translation run deep.
Hailing from Aberdeen, Scotland, Simpson’s young, creative perspective was untainted by the “how the West was won” propaganda that has long molded many (mostly non-Indian) American attitudes. Early American cinematic arts more often than not reflected this prevailing if xenophobic notion, contributing to a template of negative stereotypes about Indians that has only recently undergone the redrawing of its blueprints.
Simpson was compelled to be among the architects of this new model and to tell some of Native America’s story through a clearer, unfogged lens. “For me, any story that takes an audience deep into an elder’s reality, especially into the continuing echoes of the massacre at Wounded Knee, will [always]be an important one,” said Simpson in a recent interview.
Embodied by an impeccable cast of highly skilled actors, Simpson’s latest contribution to Native America’s contemporary narrative is well-paced and engaging, and its momentum keeps from the first scene to last. His selection of players was integral to getting the story to the screen. “I knew that the reality depicted in the film was secure as the roles were inhabited by incredible people who wouldn’t have [done the project]any other way.”
Dave Bald Eagle (Cheyenne River Lakota, 1919–2016) leads the way, anchoring the story with an insightful, unforced portrayal of Dan, an elder in need of a ghostwriter to record his memoirs, stat. Enter Washington-born actor Christopher Sweeney, whose character Kent Nerburn is solid and straightforward. After a brief hesitation, Nerburn accepts Dan’s request, which is delivered via telephone by the elder’s granddaughter Wenonah. Roseanne Supernault (Métis/Cree) in this role brings the message home through her no-nonsense, non-negotiable, taking-care-of-business (and Grandpa) persona. Nerburn as trusted scribe readies for the journey.
Richard Ray Whitman (Yuchi/Muscogee) as Gordon serves as the sidekick and back-road savvy chauffeur when Nerburn’s car “breaks down” and local portion-control-shunning reservation mechanic and co-conspirator Jumbo—played by Harlen Standing Bear Sr. (Oglala Lakota)—can’t find the fix. “Blew a hose,” Jumbo tells Nerburn upon his return to the shop at enlightening journey’s end.
The role of Gordon was originally slated for actor, poet, and activist John Trudell (Santee Dakota, 1946–2015), whose unexpected earthly departure thundered through Indian Country shortly before Simpson’s filming commenced. Though Trudell’s presence is certainly missed, there is nothing missing from Whitman’s performance. Gordon is self-assured, grounded, real. The character and his insights provide strong, structural support for the story.
The production team includes veteran actor and producer Tom Bower, whose credits note Die Hard 2 and The Bad Lieutenant, and Larry T. Pourier (Oglala Lakota), who worked on Skins and The New World.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog snaps at some of Indian Country’s bigger issues while keeping the dialogue believable. Columbus, Custer, the Bering Strait theory, the Black Hills, government-run Indian boarding schools, Wounded Knee—all big bites that need to be taken, sometimes tear at us from surprisingly strategic angles.
As Dan and Grover tow Nerburn through the winding roads of Pine Ridge, all stories converge. There is, of course, Dan’s story, eager for the ink as old age pushes time toward the horizon; Nerburn’s tale, in which he fords new emotional ground and discovers a deeper sense of self while traversing previously unexplored paths of the spirit; and Simpson’s own 20-year filmmaking journey through Indian Country, which is mirrored in this film. But there are also the stories of our ancestors, our history, our collective memory, revisited and intertwined with each twist and turn of the gravel-strewn roads of the rez as the trio mazes through the constantly changing light. All the while, the low hum of the green, classic Buick’s engine emanates from the theatre’s speakers: the sound of a dragonfly heading toward higher ground.
Other film projects by Simpson include Resurrecting Bill, The Ticking Man, Retribution, A Thunder-Being Nation, and Rez Bomb.