One of the most tragic stories in human history describes the spread of civilization into the lands of the wild and free. This story has countless variations, in every region of the world, and they rarely end happily, with the wild and free expelling the invaders. Instead, what usually happened was that the civilized people proceeded to kill or enslave the natives, and then destroy the ecosystem, which eventually doomed the civilization.
In New England, the European invaders tried to transform the Indians into submissive, hard-working Christian farmers. This plan enjoyed little success. In the 19th century, the strategy changed. Indians were herded into concentration camps called reservations, or gunned down if they resisted. The Indians were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned.
The first wave of my Norwegian ancestors immigrated in 1879 and settled in the eastern regions of Iowa and North Dakota — recently the home of the Lakota and vast herds of bison. This was three years after Custer was defeated at Little Big Horn, and eleven years before the last group of free Lakota was exterminated at Wounded Knee. The world would be a happier place today if everyone had stayed at home, spent time with therapists working through their superiority and domination complexes, developed effective family planning systems, and learned how to live in harmony with their land.
Kent Nerburn’s book, Neither Wolf Nor Dog, presents the Lakota perspective on the European invasion, as seen through the eyes of “Dan,” a 78 year old elder (1913-2002). It’s a perspective that white folks are rarely exposed to, unfortunately. Dan had many important ideas that he wanted to pass along to the younger generations of all peoples, and Nerburn compiled them into a book. The format of the oratory was very laid back — riding around Indian country in an old Buick with two elders, a big dog, and a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Dan was a traditional Lakota who had no affection for white government, white religion, or white people. He had been angry all his life at what the whites had done to his land and his people. The conquest provided no benefits for the Lakota, it was a complete disaster, a toxic explosion of greed, craziness, and injustice. Yet white historians described the conquest in glowing terms — brave pioneers conquering and civilizing an untamed wilderness — progress! God bless America!
The perspective in Lakota country could not be more different. In their eyes, the conquest of America resembled something like the 2011 tsunami of east Japan that erased everything in its path. The bison were exterminated, the forests were eliminated, the prairies were plowed, and contagious disease killed millions. They shot the buffalo just to kill them! They had no respect for the land or the beings that lived there.
When Indians killed “innocent” white settlers, the whites howled about barbaric savages and bloody massacre. But the Indians had little choice. The invaders intended to completely erase Indian society, even if this included exterminating every Indian. The whites relentlessly advanced. The soldiers were young men who had been hired to kill the “animals” that stood in the path of empire, and many of them took pleasure in killing. There was no possibility of negotiation, because the invaders broke every agreement they made. There was nowhere to flee to. Surrender promised cultural obliteration.
For the whites, the land was not alive and sacred — it was a treasure to be seized and exploited as quickly as possible. The Lakota saw the land as their sacred mother, and they treated her with great respect. Dan could never understand why, despite their good treatment, mother had gotten angry and punished the Lakota with invasion, diseases, and harsh winters. Dan wondered what she had in store for the whites, who have shown no respect whatsoever. We’ll surely find out.
One day, Nerburn drove Dan through his village on the reservation, an impressive scene of rundown houses, junk cars, and trash. White people typically drive through and perceive nothing but “a bunch of shit.” Dan asked Nerburn what he thought Indians saw when they visited a white city. “We say the same thing.” “You see a dirt path with a pop can next to it and you think that is worse than a big paved highway that is kept clean. You get madder at a forest with a trash bag in it than at a big shopping center…”
White people are fascinated with the idea of freedom, because they have so little freedom in their lives. Dan saw that whites are confined in a world of cages — their fenced property, their permanent home, their rulers, their bosses, their laws, their religious beliefs. Indians have always enjoyed great freedom, and they had no desire to become farmers and join the whites in their world of miserable cages.
This is why the whites had Sitting Bull murdered. He didn’t want to sign treaties, because that would turn his people into blanket Indians. They would turn white. Sitting Bull said “I do not wish to be shut up in a corral. All agency Indians I have seen were worthless. They are neither red warriors nor white farmers. They are neither wolf nor dog.”
After Sitting Bull was gunned down, many of his people fled to Wounded Knee, with soldiers in pursuit. The weather was frigid, but they didn’t dare make fires, fearing that they would be discovered. They were cold, hungry, and weak when the soldiers caught them. The Indians were disarmed, then all of them were mowed down with machine guns — men, women, children, and the elderly.
The climax of the story came when Dan and Nerburn spent a night at the Wounded Knee cemetery, in a realm of powerful spirits. Throughout his life, Dan had remained in close contact with the spirits of his ancestors. The invasion had filled his life with pain, rage, and sorrow. The injustice was unbearable. Why did the Creator allow this to happen? His ancestors had died running.
Dan prayed for healing. He was sure that the passage of generations would eventually bury the anger. Peace would eventually return. This is a book I will never forget.
Kent Nerburn, Neither Wolf Nor Dog, New World Library, Novato, California, 1994. Due to popular demand, Nerburn wrote a second book about Dan, The Wolf at Twilight (2009).
A 2017 Interview with Nerburn (HERE)
Neither Wolf Nor Dog movie trailer (HERE)