An Interview about The Wolf at Twilight. Read it, use it, pass it on.

Dear Readers,

Here is an interview that I recently did on The Wolf at Twilight.  I think it will give you an insight into the book that is well worth having.  We have permission to use this interview in any way we like.  So I offer it up to any of you who wish to use it, publish it, excerpt it, or pass it on.  I encourage you to do so, not only because I would like the book to sell well, but because the more I get feedback on it from Native and non-Native readers, the more I become convinced that it contains an important story that must be told.  That I was able to tell it has been my good fortune.  It is now up to all of us to make sure that we pass it on.

Enjoy the interview:

Kent Nerburn’s new book, The Wolf at Twilight: An Elder’s Journey into a Land of Ghosts and Shadows, is a follow-up to his award-winning classic, Neither Wolf nor Dog. It continues the story of the Lakota elder, Dan. But this time it brings us along on Dan’s search for his lost sister who disappeared decades ago in the Indian boarding school system. I talked to Kent via email about The Wolf at Twilight. I’d like to share our conversation with you.

Neither Wolf nor Dog has long been one of my favorite books. I was concerned that The Wolf at Twilight wouldn’t measure up. But it is every bit the equal of Neither Wolf nor Dog, and, in some ways, it’s superior.

That’s kind of you to say. I tend not to compare books. They’re like children: each is unique with its own strengths and weaknesses. However, I’m curious, what is it that you found “superior” about The Wolf at Twilight?

I was taken into the book on a different level. Neither Wolf nor Dog was a road trip with revelations and insights. The Wolf at Twilight reads like a mystery with revelations and insights.

That’s because it’s based on a mystery – the mystery of what happened to Dan’s little sister, Yellow Bird.

But there was something else, too. There was a different emotional texture to the book – kind of an undercurrent of sadness and loss.

That ‘s there, no doubt. And it’s quite intentional. Much of contemporary Native life is about sadness and loss – more than most of us can ever understand. I wanted to bring that timbre to the book. But I hope that’s not all you took from it.

On the contrary. That’s just the added textural element that intrigued me and made the book so satisfying. Other than that, it had the same quality of insight, the same wonderful sense of humor, the same surprising combination of comedy and tragedy, and the same rich cast of characters that made Neither Wolf nor Dog so unique. But this time you offered up a” can’t put it down” plot line and shed some light into the darker corners of Native experience.

Well, I wanted to tell more of Dan’s story, to be sure, so readers would have a further glimpse into the world of contemporary Native American life and its spiritual insights and beliefs. But I also wanted to go a little deeper into some of the darker places than I did in Neither Wolf nor Dog, so readers would come face to face with some of the hidden history of Native America. I guess if it were up to me to describe, I’d say that Neither Wolf nor Dog was written in a major key, and The Wolf at Twilight was created in a minor key.

I like that description. But let’s change gears for a moment. The Wolf at Twilight is a difficult book to categorize. It reads like fiction, but you say it is based in fact.

It is, absolutely. It’s a strange literary beast, to be sure, but that’s how I wanted it. It falls into the squirmy literary category of “Novelized non-fiction,” which is as shapeless, amorphous, and contradictory a category as I can imagine. I prefer to think of The Wolf at Twilight as a teaching story. Dan once said to me, “People learn best by stories, because stories lodge deep in the heart.” I wanted to tell a story that would lodge deep in the reader’s heart, and would do so in a way that reveals some of the dark truths of Native experience while giving voice to the bright truths that Native reality contains.

You keep referring to the light and the dark truth of Native reality. Can you explain this a little more?

Sure. As regards The Wolf at Twilight, the dark truth is the tragic, often horrific reality of the boarding school experience where Indian children were taken from their parents’ homes, stripped of their language and identity, and made to become someone they were not. It’s a truth of childhood rapes, forced labor, unbearable loneliness and dislocation, and an indoctrination into self-hatred that has repercussions to the present day.

The bright truth is the beautiful and deeply insightful way of teaching, learning, and understanding, that the boarding schools tried to destroy, but which still beats at the heart of the Native experience.

In The Wolf at Twilight I try to bring you into the presence of both these truths through the story of Dan’s search for his little sister, Yellow Bird, who disappeared from the boarding school system under mysterious circumstances when both she and Dan were very young.

Give me some examples of the dark truths of the boarding school experience.

Here’s one that is told by Dan’s friend, Grover, in the course of the book. He recounts the story of a young boy in a boarding school who was falsely accused of using his handkerchief for toilet paper and was dropped down in the outhouse and made to crawl back and forth on his hands and knees digging for his handkerchief while the school matron stood above and watched.

These things really happened?

Absolutely. These, and worse.

But the book doesn’t seem to dwell on things like this.

No, just like the Native people don’t dwell on them. They are always present in the mind and heart, and the trauma runs deep. But life needs to go on. Dan and Grover reveal these dark truths as much as is necessary, but I wanted to focus on the bright truths that Dan reveals about the traditional Native way of teaching and understanding the world.

Tell me some of these bright truths.

Sure. Let me read you a short passage where Dan is speaking:

“We do not look at our children as ‘full-growns waiting to be.’ We see them as special beings who bring us the freshness of wonder. They keep our hearts soft and our hands gentle. They keep us from thinking only about ourselves. They give the elders a reason to live, because we entrust the elders with the shaping of their hearts and setting their feet straight upon the path of life.”

This is part of a long teaching he gives about the circle of life. Like so much else he says, it offers us a glimpse into a beautiful way of life that we came close to destroying, but which still beats strong in the Native heart.

They sound like teachings worth learning.

They are, and throughout the book Dan speaks about them at length, revealing such things as the way the elders taught the young by training their powers of silence and observation, and the way that moral behavior was taught to children through observation of the animals.

And he offers his usual interesting takes on modern culture – for example, saying that Native cultures are “honoring” cultures, while European cultures are “discovering” cultures.

As always, he’s a deeply insightful man whose thoughts, to my mind, are well worth hearing.

I can’t let this interview pass without noting the wonderful sense of humor that The Wolf at Twilight shares with Neither Wolf nor Dog.

I’m glad that came through. It’s an essential part of Native life and has been part of every situation I’ve had the good fortune to experience.

Like Jumbo, the four hundred pound mechanic, and Shitty, his assistant Shitty who drives a pickup truck with a plywood door and a mason jar for a carburetor?

Exactly.

And Mr. Peanut?

We don’t talk about Mr. Peanut.

Understandably.

But, yes, this is exactly the kind of humor that I so treasure about the Native world. The tragic and the comic are inseparably intertwined, as are the sacred and the ordinary.

I’m glad you mentioned that intertwining of the sacred and the ordinary.

To me it is one of the key elements of Native culture that the rest of us should embrace. The spiritual is ever-present in their lives, no matter how ordinary or even debased the particular situation might be.

Like the time Dan berated you for not offering thanks to the Creator for a half-cooked rancid hotdog?

You’ve got it.

What else is it that attracts you to Native cultures?

The love of family, the deep connection to the land, the belief in honor, the respect for the elders – I could go on and on. But I hope all these values are revealed in the book.

Well, you’ve been very kind to answer so many questions. Let me try to sum up. Would it be safe to say that The Wolf at Twilight is a teaching story that is part history lesson, part spiritual lesson, and part road novel, and part mystery?

That’s a lot of parts. But, at its best, “yes.” I would add that it’s a glimpse into contemporary Native life that few non-Natives ever see and a story worthy of the hearing.

Let me close with one last question about your interest in Native issues. How did you come by it, and what do you see as your responsibility to Native materials as a non-Native writer?

Thank you for asking this. Part of my interest in Native issues is due to circumstance. I live between three reservations in the woods of northern Minnesota where the white footprint does not run deep. Living and working among Native people where the land still feels like theirs makes it easy to care about the world as they see it and live it.

But part of my interest is because of my belief that a true spirituality should grow naturally from the land. America is Indian land, and the Indian peoples have shaped their spiritual understanding in a way that feels authentic and integrated. We all have much to learn from it, and I want to do my part to assist n that learning.

However, having said that, it is a challenge being a non-Native writer working in Native subject matters. You must always be taking your spiritual temperature to see where you’re at. And you are always open to the criticism of “dabbling in Native themes for fun and profit.” But I look at it as a chosen obligation to use such skills as I have to help bring Native issues and knowledge to as wide an audience as possible.

We are all common children of a common land, and there are wrongs that must be acknowledged and healing that must take place. But more than that, there is a richness in Native tradition – spiritually, culturally, and morally – that has much to teach us all. We need to find a way to listen to that richness without trying to appropriate it or twist it.

My job, as a writer, is to serve as an ally to the Native people to get their story told to the extent that they want it shared, and to help bring the depth of their spiritual insight to bear on the world in which we all live.

The Wolf at Twilight, like it’s predecessor, Neither Wolf nor Dog, is an effort to do this. I hope that you and your readers will find my efforts worthwhile.

25 comments

  1. Dr. David Levine says:

    We are all common children of a common land, and there are wrongs that must be acknowledged and healing that must take place. But more than that, there is a richness in Native tradition – spiritually, culturally, and morally – that has much to teach us all. We need to find a way to listen to that richness without trying to appropriate it or twist it.

    Beautifully and succinctly put. Stewardship without ownership.

  2. Marion Johnson says:

    I am anxiously waiting for the book. Thank you for sharing the interview which gives me a special thoughts before I read the book. How different our earth would be if we originally had the wisdom to value the knowledge, morality and spirituality of the native people. But this is the ‘now’, and your book will help us value the Native American culture more than ever.

  3. Tom Kanthak says:

    Published today, Nov. 3rd, 2009 in the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

    Entertainment

    Nerburn’s latest Native American tale a heartbreaker
    By Mary Ann Grossmann
    mgrossmann@ pioneerpress.com

    “I think about her every day, Nerburn. I think about her every day.”

    That’s what Dan, a 90-year-old Lakota man, told author Kent Nerburn about his little sister Yellow Bird. The mystery surrounding the girl’s disappearance from a reservation boarding school almost 80 years earlier is at the heart of Minnesotan Nerburn’s “The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows” (New World Library, $14.95).

    This tender, unsettling book — part history and part personal reminiscence, written like a novel — begins with a cryptic note left on Nerburn’s windshield: “Fatback’s Dead.” The author, who lives near Bemidji and has written 12 books on spirituality and Native themes, knew this was a summons from Dan, whose story he told in “Neither Wolf nor Dog.”

    So Nerburn, who holds a doctorate in theology and worked with young people at Minnesota’s Red Lake Ojibway reservation, headed to the Lakota reservation to help Dan trace Yellow Bird. After a lot of what Nerburn thinks is aimless driving, they end up at the long-abandoned boarding school where Yellow Bird disappeared, and what happens there will break your heart. Among other characters in the book, some of whom lend humor, are 400-pound mechanic Jumbo and a scruffy little dog Dan adopts to replace his deceased canine friend, Fatback.

    Nerburn didn’t want to write this book. In his preface, he talks about how Dan’s wisdom in “Neither Wolf nor Dog” touched people around
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    the world. But when Dan died in 2002, Nerburn felt his work with the sometimes-grumpy old man was complete. Then Nerburn had a chance meeting with an Indian who talked about how boarding school had taken his identity. Searching for answers inside a sweat lodge, Nerburn realized he had to revisit the past to tell about Yellow Bird, because her story embodies the cruelty and injustice at boarding schools that robbed a generation of Indians of their heritage.

    It is always tricky, and sometimes disrespectful, for a white person to write about Indian culture. Nerburn does it right, earning praise from the Indian community. He will talk about his books at 7 p.m. Friday at Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church, 2020 W. Lake of the Isles Parkway, sponsored by Birchbark Books, owned by award-winning Native American writer Louise Erdrich.

  4. Pam says:

    I’ve just finished reading “The Wolf at Twilight” — for the first time; I’m about to go back and read it again more slowly for all that I missed the first time through! What a wonderful gift you’ve given us with this story, Kent. It’s enlightening, funny, troubling — so many things that are hard for me to categorize or name, but I think that what I take most from this book is a sense of hope and thankfulness for the teaching moments within it. There’s so much here that needs to be heard and embraced. I wish I had your gift with words to be able to express my thoughts more clearly; as it is, I think that the best I can do is to say “thank you” for sharing this journey, and for honoring the trust that was placed in you by Dan. I believe that you’ve succeeded.

  5. Scott says:

    Just finished The Wolf at Twilight. Much like the interviewer, I never thought I would read a book that moved me as much as Neither Wolf Nor Dog but this book is every bit the equal. Thank you for bringing us back for another round with Dan and all the others. The story shares lessons that need to be heard, and you tell it in a way that is very accessible. I blew through the book in only a couple days and I enjoyed every page.

  6. Eric Read says:

    Words cannot express the emotions that I felt as I read The Wolf at Twilight. What happened to the Native Americans is inexcusable. We can’t go back and change what happened, but we can resolve to change what we can here and now. I was moved by Neither Wolf nor Dog but not nearly as much as I was by The Wolf at Twilight. Very seldom do I feel as though I am a member of the group being talked about in a story except those relating to similar experiences to my tours in Vietnam. I walked with you on this journey and am glad for the opportunity to have done so. Thank you, Kent!

  7. Susan Hauck says:

    I just finished reading both “Neither dog nor wolf” & “the Wolf at Twilight” and was deeply
    moved by both. I was interested because I was researching my heritage and think maybe I have some Indian descendants. I also don’t live too far from where Mr. Nerburn lives, I live in northern WI and we have a business in which we deal with “Indians” on and off the “rez”. I have also been to the Dakotas and Mt Rushmore, badlands, etc and will never look at them or the Indian people the same. In fact I saw some at the grocery store this am and was so tempted to go and give them a hug—- but they probably would have thought I was nuts!!! I also think this books should be in our school systems so we can learn both sides of our American heritage and how it came to be. Thank you for the eye opener!

  8. Warren Lind says:

    “The Wolf at Twilight” exposes readers to the dark side of Indian boarding schools, which existed not that long ago. Physical abuse and sexual abuse of the children happened, as well as cultural genocide, i.e., trying to erase the “Indian” side and implant white values. As a former mental health professional, I have heard that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has been passed down across generations in Native American families. Just like Germany had a “Jewish” problem, we in the U.S. have an “Indian” problem, but the difference is Germany confessed and delt with their “sins”; we haven’t. Instead we have closed our eyes to what happened and what is happening to Native Americans. I agree with Susan’s blog that Kent’s books should be required reading in our school’s history curriculum.

  9. Alexandra Saperstein says:

    HOw did I miss that you had a new book out??? I hope to pick it up this weekend! ( :

  10. Rob Miller says:

    I too have just finished reading the two books. My heart is sickened by the things western society has done to the original peoples of this continent … but at the same time I am also glad to have been given the opportunity to review these historic events from a new perspective … their perspective.

    In his own way Dan has given us a great gift! On a very personal level he has shared his own living experiences with the incredible cruelties mankind is capable of heaping upon itself. But his point goes much deeper than that. He knew there was no way the things his people lost could ever be returned … so he could only have been looking toward the future … with a question … or perhaps a challenge. That question, that challenge has to do with how we continue to conduct ourselves as a species moving forward.

    Economic viability and personal gain can no longer be the only yardsticks we use to gauge society. We really need to take another look at our value systems. We need to reassess priorities, restructure our governments, and revamp our educational and legal systems.

    I’m ready … lets just do it (while we still can)!

  11. Karen Johnson says:

    Truly enjoyed Neither dog nor wolf in 2005 and kept looking for Mr. Nerburn to write another. So when I happened to be in the bookstore and saw Wolf at twilight december 2009, I was so happy. I so enjoyed your book. I am Canadian First Nations and know the boarding schools were a terrible place for many. There is a group called Creating Hope Society in Edmonton that addresses the topics of First Nation adoptions and those sent to boarding schools. Anyway, I ended buying Wolf at Twilight for a great Navajo friend who liked Neither dog nor wolf!

  12. Bob Willis says:

    Thank you and Dan for “The Wolf at Twilight” I haven’t been moved so much by a book since John Steinbeck wrote “Grapes of Wrath”

  13. Wade says:

    Thank you

  14. Ann says:

    I just finished reading “The Wolf At Twilight.” Although I have always admired and respected Native Spirituality, I have never felt it in such a way as from reading your beautifully written words. I felt I was truly there with you throughout the journey.

  15. Ann says:

    I just finished reading “The Wolf At Twilight.” Although I have always admired and respected Native Spirituality, I have never felt it in such a way as from reading your beautifully written words. I felt I was truly there with you throughout the journey. Thank you so much for your gentle sensitivity and truth.

  16. Marv Stasak says:

    I just finished “Wolf at Twilight”. Though it is the tail end of Winter here in Michigan and still cold, your word pictures of the Dakota plains are so vivid I felt I could feel that heat myself. Dan’s pain and anger with the schools were uncomfortable, too, because I was reminded so much of my 12 years in parochial schools and the institutional violence that was part of our daily lives. Paddling, slaps across the head, kneeling for an hour on a concrete floor for some minor “sin” like inattention or even smiling at the wrong time. I am 72 years old and I still sometimes rage at the inequity and the sense of powerlessness. How much more must it have been for native americans forced into those schools.

    By the strangest coincidence, I finished your book and then found an autobiographical account by Edwin Chalcraft, an Indian Schools Supervisor in the early 1900s. The two viewpoints of his writing and your book are so diametrically opposed that it makes for fascinating reading. He’s stilted and wordy and often unintentionally patronizing when it comes to Native Americans but the book (it’s an ebook available through your library) gives a wonderful picture of the attitudes toward the indians of the time, the many people with good intentions who worked to protect the tribes, and the politics he had to deal with throughout his career including dealing with the Dawes Act, etc.. Despite the presumption and patronizing, I have no doubt the man went to his eternal reward feeling he did a great job. If you haven’t read it, you should.

  17. Qukin Palki says:

    When I first read Dance Me Outside- I thought WP Kinsella had read my diary. Now, I think Kent Nerburn got into my parent’s diary. This fiction is our real life stories and we can relate. It’s so tragic it has to be presented through humor. That’s how we stay sane. Talk show host, Bill Mahr once asked my daughter why Indians like to laugh and joke around- the Wolf at Twilight can answer that question. It’s how we stay sane in an anti-Indian society.

    I recommended the book to Charlene Teters, subject of In Whose Honor? and joked that Nerburn handles the Mascot issue very delicately. We will never heal wounds but when we get beyond the lies and secrets, Indians will be better understood.

    Husukil qukni Nerburn. Taxas.

  18. Jim says:

    I can’t thank you enough.

    Having grown up in South Dakota as a bleeding heart liberal both by nature and nurture and surrounded by many Lakota friends I thought I had a good grasp of the soul of the people. Due to the great fortunes of love I was thrust even further into the lives and hearts of the traditional Lakota and soon learned that my understanding was superficial at best. Between the stories that are too painful to tell and the feelings, both emotional and spiritual, that are next to impossible to express I found that my understanding was far more incomplete than I would ever have admitted to myself. Even in that incomplete understanding I found a beautiful view of the world and some of the most admirable people I ever hope to meet.

    Your books have helped me understand everything from the profound to the mundane, right down to that wonderfully soft Lakota handshake and the art of listening. Your words have the power to bring a tear and a smile in the same sentence. Nerburn, you and Dan and Grover and Fatback and Bronson and all the rest have made quite a footprint on this world that I hope never erodes through the ravages of apathy and ignorance. You’ve changed lives and hearts for the better and I can think of no more noble accomplishment for one of God’s children.

    Again, I can’t thank you enough.

  19. Cathy says:

    Thank you!

  20. Mike says:

    I was in the book store looking for something to experience. The Wolf at Twilight said,
    “I’m what you’re looking for”…and it is. I’ve been trying to read it a little bit at a time, so I can savor it. I don’t want to lose these people too quickly. Thank you for this labor of love.
    This is the first book of yours that I’ve experienced…there will be more in my library and
    given to friends.

  21. Great job, Kent! After reading Neither Wolf Nor Dog, I jumped right into Wolf at Twilight. Amazing reads, both of them. In fact, I feel so strongly about NWND, that I bought 30 copies to give away. Everyone who reads it will be compelled to buy Wolf At Twilight themselves. Readers will be forever changed as they begin to consider the Native experience. Thank you.

  22. Kerry says:

    Congrats on winning the MN Book Award – all deep, true stories are a mixture of fact and fiction, afterall. I read Wolf at Twilight when it came out last Fall – and am still haunted by the stories…

  23. Terri Twiddy-Butler says:

    Congratulation on your award. I check your website often, just to make sure you have not written something new that I might be missing. I recently did a presentation at my job for Native American Heritage Month, and it made me think about times in my life where I might not have felt as welcome, but I must say, that I have never been more proud of my own Native American Heritage. Believe it or not, your books have even helped in my journey to this place in my life! I constantly recommend your books to everyone. If you ever get back to Washington, remember you are always welcome at Skokomish Nation.

  24. Tammy Gilstad says:

    My daughter read NEITHER DOG NOR WOLF in a communciations class at North Dakota State University and suggested I read the book. As a high school English teacher, I teach a unit of Native American literature, including some chapters from BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE. The corresponding chapter in your aforementioned book speaks volumes as a followup to Dee’s book. Through this combination of literary gems, my students learn another side of what they see when they meet the Standing Rock opponents on the football field, volleyball and basketball courts.

    Yesterday I finished reading THE WOLF AT TWILIGHT, which was an excellent followup read. I love the combination of serious and humorous anecdotes which are so much a part of the modern Native culture. Some of my dear friends in high school and college were Ft. Berthold Natives with whom I maintain relationships today. I sincerely appreciate your dedication to telling the true Native story.

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