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William Vollmann’s “The Dying Grass” and my book on Chief Joseph

I am not good at self-promotion — perhaps the greatest affliction a contemporary author can possess. To me, the book is the thing, not the person who wrote it.  Far better to be the man behind the curtain than the prancing duke and dauphin, but the world is what it is.

Having said that, I want to put in a word for my book, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce.  I am doing this because a gigantic novel on the Nez Perce, The Dying Grass (1300 pages) by William Vollmann has just been published by Viking/Penguin. I have not read it, but from what I have seen and heard of it, it sounds fascinating, albeit a bit long for my tastes.

And there’s the rub.  Viking, with a difficult-to-sell, highly priced book is bringing out all the artillery to promote it.  Independent of any success it has — and I wish the author well — it has the supremely beneficial effect of bringing attention to the story of the Nez Perce and their tragic exodus across the northwest while being pursued by the U.S. Army.

If you look at the reviews of my book on the same subject, you will quickly realize that though many people have heard of Chief Joseph, few even know of the Nez Perce tribe.  Vollmann’s book and the attendant publicity will go a long way toward changing that.

This seems like a propitious moment to suggest my book as a default read for those who either by temperament or economics will not read a $55, 1300 page book.  My work, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce, is, in many ways, the book of which I am most proud.  I used all my skills of description and empathy to bring you along on the journey of these amazing people, and to illuminate the character of Chief Joseph, with whom the journey is — wrongly, I believe — most closely associated.

My virtue is that I know the Native people and they know me.  I am not a “parachute” historian or novelist.  I think I can go further into their world while keeping a respectful distance than any other writer.  And in this book, that’s what I did.  I wrote it with the tools of the novelist — trying to make you present on their journey — while keeping the fidelity of the historian.  Judging from the reviews on Amazon, I was successful.

The story of the Nez Perce needs to be told.  Their journey is the shadow side of the journey of Lewis and Clark and a signature event in understanding the history and character of this country.  And Chief Joseph is a man to whom I would have entrusted my son (which, by the way, is exactly what Charles Erskine Scott Wood, a soldier present at the Nez Perce surrender who wrote down Joseph’s famous speech, did, several years later).

I believe I have done this story justice in a very different way than Mr. Vollmann.  But this is a story that needs to be told in as many ways and as many voices as it can.  If your interest is piqued, but Mr. Vollmann’s work seems more than you wish to take on, or if you have read  his work and wish to see the story through different set of eyes and with a different cast of heart, I hope you will consider my book on the subject.  Take a look at what the readers on Amazon have to say:  http://www.amazon.com/Chief-Joseph-Flight-Nez-Perce/dp/0061136085/ref=pd_sim_14_3?ie=UTF8&refRID=093VCZQN400SMVB1QVF5.

I think you will find that this is a journey worth taking.


Neither Wolf nor Dog, the film, entry four: Dave Bald Eagle inhabits Dan

Let’s get something out of the way at the outset: Dave Bald Eagle, who plays Dan in Steven Simpson’s upcoming film of Neither Wolf nor Dog, is 95 years old.

That, in itself, is amazing.

But that is not what is amazing about his performance. What is truly amazing is how Dave inhabits Dan, and Dan inhabits him.

In a way that is hard to explain, he and Dan become one. It is something the likes of which I have never seen before. You hear people say that Jamie Foxx is Ray Charles in Ray, or that Meryl Streep is Julia Childs in Julie and Julia.  And, truly, their portrayals are jaw-dropping.  But there is always a gossamer distance between the portrayer and the portrayed. The actor gives a bravura performance that leaves you feeling you have been in the presence of the person portrayed, but, somewhere, in a far corner of your consciousness, you know that it was a performance by an actor and that they will go back to being themselves when the performance is over.  Part of that has to do with our familiarity with the stars outside their roles, but part of it has to do with something subtle and irreducible about the separate nature of our individual selves.

But by some miracle of cultural and personal chemistry, this was not the case with Dave and Dan. The distance between them is the distance between fraternal twins, and no more. Dave could be Dan; Dan could be Dave.

How to articulate this?

Here, perhaps, is where the 95 years of life comes into play. Dave and Dan grow out of the same childhood of speaking Lakota and living the old ways. Their minds, their way of thinking, are based in a Lakota way of framing, languaging, and understanding the world. They have seen the same things, lived the same experiences, thought the same thoughts, watched the same changing of the world and passing of the ways. Something that I had to use all my skills of creative empathy and observation to even approach in my writing, Dave  inhabited and animated as naturally as if it were a story about about him and his life. He brought Dan alive, and, in some impossible-to-articulate way, Dan infused life into Dave.

We pay lip service to the notion of the elder and the wisdom and insight that life experience gives. But then when someone is announced to be a 95 year old actor, we suddenly forget the wisdom and insight and focus on the age: “How could he play that role at 95?” Well, it is probably more to the point to say that the reason he could play that role is because he is 95. The wisdom and insight of the elder inhabited him, and he, in turn, allowed it to inhabit Dan.

But let’s not forget the acting itself. If you want to see a masterful job of pacing, an astonishing use of silence, and sheer genius in the slow, unfolding of emotions, Dave’s performance is something to behold. His timing is impeccable. He carries humor in his pauses and is able to effortlessly pull the emotion from a scene without overplaying or enlarging the character or actions. You wait for what it is he is going to say, and he makes you lean forward to hear it.

Chris, as Kent, swirls around in search of understanding – a maelstrom of confused emotions. Rich, investing Grover with the strength of a contained resolve, forms a wary and vigilant perimeter around the old man and the culture.  But, at the heart, like the pearl of great price, stands Dave’s Dan — the pure, unassailable truth of Lakota culture, embodied  in all its humor and pathos and insight in a man who is, for all intents, inseparable from the character.

If an almost unknown 95 year old Lakota actor in a low budget independent film could win an Oscar for Best Actor, Dave would win it hands down. But Oscars are star turns and rewards within the club. Dave is not in the club, just as Lakota reality is not in the club we call America.

But after you see this film, you just might think we’ve got it backwards. As a Shoshone elder once said of European Americans, “Though your people don’t know it yet, you have come  here to learn from us.”

Dave, in the role of Dan, is the embodiment of that learning.  Watching him is a lesson not only in Lakota values and culture, it is a lesson in humanity.  In his portrayal he gives a gift to the Lakota people, to all the elders who have had to remain silent for so long, and to all of us who seek a better, and gentler, way to live on this American earth.

I only hope this film makes its way to the eyes of the American public.  If it does, Dave’s portrayal of Dan guarantees that it will make its way into American hearts.  And that is where it truly belongs.


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