Subtitled ‘On Forgotten Roads With An Indian Elder,’ it is the story of the author’s acceptance of an invitation to put in print the thoughts of a seventy eight year old Lakota elder, Dan, and the journey they take through the haunted landscape of the Western Dakotas, along with Dan’s sidekick Grover and the dog Fatback.
Dan reveals his anger at the treatment, then and now, of his people, and of the ongoing perceptions white men have of his race. He resents the hippies who ‘try to be Indian’ with their jewellery, ponytails, feathers, and constant talk of the Great Spirit. And also of the caricatures that his people have been portrayed as- either the savage, the drunk, or the romanticised noble wise man. It is the latter Dan comes over as, in his insights and his indictments, albeit as a cantankerous one, as he explains the ways of his people and how they came into conflict with what the white men perceived as their own more ‘civilised’ ways.
Even the ‘Native American’ name his race are known as does not escape his scrutiny- ‘It is an okay name; it’s more dignified than ‘Indians.’ But it’s no more real than Indians, because to us this isn’t even America. The word America came from some Italian who came over here after Columbus. Why should we care if we’re called Native Americans when the name is from some Italian?’ He points out they have their own names in their own languages-names that usually mean ‘first people.’ ‘It’s what we put up with every day-people calling us a bunch of names that aren’t even real and aren’t even in our own language.’
He also points out the injustices of the historical record, for instance how any defeat of the white men by the Indians are described as massacres, whereas defeats of the Indians are described as great victories.
Throughout the journey Dan speaks for all Indians, as for him the author Kent represents all white men. We eavesdrop on their conversations and are forced to examine our own standpoints and prejudices along the way, as he rails against the continued disenfranchisement of his people in white America.
I have always felt a sense of envy of those who lived a spiritual life close to the earth and the elements, be it the old Celtic Saints of the land I live in, or the Native American across the Atlantic. (As I write these words on my pc to post onto my blog, my Sky tv on standby in the corner and my ipod on shuffle, the irony is not lost.)
And I realise that I too am falling for the caricature.
For all the pluses of civilisation, have we nevertheless lost something culturally? Maybe a sense of who we are, where we have come from. An awareness of the rhythm of the earth and the seasons, and particularly a sense of the sacredness of all life.
It is a great read, of a journey that evokes images of Sitting Bull and the Ghost Dance,and the suffering of a people in a trek where we encounter characters like Jumbo, the 400- pound mechanic, and Annie, an eighty year old Lakota woman living in a log cabin with no running water.
The title of the book comes from a quote from Sitting Bull:
“I do not wish to be shut up in a corral. All agency Indians I have seen are worthless. They are neither red warriors nor white farmers. They are neither wolf nor dog.”
Dan tells Kent:
“That’s what happened to us. We listened to the white man. Now we’re neither wolf nor dog. Sitting Bull was right.”
Loved this book, and the examinations it provoked. Aim to read the follow up: The Wolf at Twilight.