It has been an interesting week.
I spent a day at Michigan State University, speaking with and visiting students. They had been reading Neither Wolf nor Dog for some of their classes. It is always a learning experience for me to find out what others take from my books. In the case of Neither Wolf nor Dog, it is especially interesting, because when I speak about that book, I am not always “preaching to the converted.” Native students bring a set of expectations and judgments to it that are often very different from those brought by non-Natives, and among readers of all races, biases, and predispositions there are reactions that run the entire gamut of emotions.
It was gratifying in this instance to hear the positive comments from Native students. They, in fact, were the ones that had arranged to have me come as part of their Native Heritage Month activities — a real honor for a non-Native writer.
My feeling about this book is that it allows me to walk non-Native readers into a world different from their own without forcing them to lose their own point of view. Since I keep my own non-Native perspective throughout, I very often articulate some of the very concerns and attitudes that other non-Native readers bring. As I am educated, they become educated. We all come out the other side with a greater insight and knowledge.
For Native readers, it is usually a case of them feeling that Dan articulates some of the truths they wish non-Native people would hear and understand. He becomes their voice, just as I become the non-Native readers’ eyes and sensibilities. It is really a very fortuitous match.
But something new came out of this Michigan State visit. What I learned — and this is something the Native faculty advisor pointed out — is that Dan can deliver a message to non-Native readers in a way that does not threaten them. Because he is delivering it to me, and they are simply looking over my shoulder, it becomes less threatening and assaultive when he challenges some of their biases and preconceptions.
This was a new insight for me, though perhaps it should not have been. As I tell people about my books, “I just write them. You read them.” It is only after they have been read and reflected upon that it is truly possible to know what they have or have not accomplished.
This Michigan State experience reminded me that NWND has accomplished a lot. It is used in junior high school settings, any number of senior high schools, and many universities and colleges, both tribal and non-tribal. It is read in England, Holland, Germany, and other countries.
Add in situations like the Eden Prairie Reads program, where an entire community made it the focus of their collective discussion and public discourse, and this book is having an effect far beyond what I might have dreamed.
Dan would be proud. I know I am.
When I put pen to paper for that book it was my hope that I might be of service to Indian people. Now I am beginning to think that the service is far wider and greater. If we are going to bring our nation to a true understanding of the moral responsibility that comes with power, looking at the footprints of our past is essential. If we are to exercise that power with spiritual clarity and intelligent compassion, learning from the Native peoples who have been listening to the voices of this land for aeons is equally as essential. In them is embodied both our guilt and our promise. We need to hear, and hear well. Our responsibility is great.
These two opportunities this month, in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and East Lansing, Michigan, reminded me that I bear a continuing part in that responsibility. I must continue to speak out. I need to do what Dan asked of me — carry the message forward. It is a worthy and necessary task.
11/17 update: Mpls Star Tribune, Nov 2: Book spurs diversity talk.)