There are people you meet in life — and they are not many — who have an air of true moral authority about them. This is something different from kindness, compassion, intelligence, or any other positive virtue. It is an aura, a presence, that allows them to command a room without speaking a word; it makes you feel that they have an understanding of the world that is both deeper and larger than yours. It is not that they have the answer. It is that they are the answer. You lean into them almost involuntarily.
Such a man was Dave Bald Eagle, the Lakota elder and moral center of Steven Simpson’s film adaptation of my book, Neither Wolf nor Dog.
Steven and I — mostly Steven — had combed the country looking for someone to play Dan. We had no money and were losing hope. Then Steven came across a man named Dave Bald Eagle. He went to visit him in his home in South Dakota and came away with a simple observation: Dave couldn’t play Dan, he was Dan. He embodied everything that I had tried to present in Dan, everything that had moved both my and Steven’s moral compasses toward the Indian people on our individual life journeys.
Dave agreed to do the film, and under the watchful eye of his wonderful wife, Josee, traveled the 250 miles from his home to the filming site on Pine Ridge. Dave was 95 years old.
He worked, sometimes 10 hour days, bringing the character of Dan to life on the screen. Everyone involved with him felt both the personal difficulty he was experiencing and the sheer moral authority he possessed. In the end, he gave the world and the Indian people a gift that we all must cherish: he offered us a glimpse into the heart of a true Indian elder born into the old language and old ways. He brought Dan alive, and in so doing, gave voice to the Native experience in a way that a lesser man could never have done.
Sometimes I’ll sit back and wonder what my artistic life has been all about. When I think of Dave and what he gave us in his portrayal of Dan, it is not impossible — and I think that Steven would agree from his perspective — that my artistic purpose in life was to create an opportunity for this incredible man to articulate on screen something that the rest of America needs to see.
Thank you, Dave, for the gift of your presence. I am better for it. Steven is better for it. Chris and Richard and everyone else involved in the creation of the film is better for it. We will do our best to make sure that the world gets to see what you showed us. It was a privilege to walk a few steps with you on your life’s journey.