Some thoughts on Neither Wolf nor Dog, The Wolf at Twilight, and Literary Categories

On April 17th, my latest work, The Wolf at Twilight:  An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows won the 2010 Minnesota Book Award in the category of memoir and creative non-fiction.  Next September, The Wolf at Twilight will be featured at the South Dakota Festival of the Book in the category of fiction.  Clearly there is some confusion and misunderstanding.

Or is there?

Can a work be at once a work of fiction and non-fiction, or are the categories so ill-fitting that The Wolf at Twilight belongs in neither one – a veritable situation of being “neither wolf nor dog?”

These are questions that bear some discussion, because they underpin the dilemma that has confronted my two creative works about Native America, Neither Wolf nor Dog and The Wolf at Twilight, from the moment they first came out.

Let me tell you where I stand on the issue.

It is my personal conviction that we human beings are “believing” creatures.  Until we take something into our hearts and embrace it with conviction, we are seeing through a gossamer (and distancing) veil of analysis.  It’s true that the information we gather during analysis guides us toward belief — and one would hope that our information gathering is informed and educated – but it is not belief.  Belief is saying, “Yes, this is the way it is, and I will stand by it and defend it.”  It is a commitment of the heart.

I come from a long background in the study of religion.   One of the ongoing arguments in the intellectual field of religious studies was whether or not one must be a believer to understand a faith or a belief system.  After participating in this discussion for years, I came to the conclusion that the knowledge you gain is different based on whether you are a believer or an observer.  Each has its role:  sometimes it is better to stand on the outside for perspective; but to the extent that you can enter into a belief system and inhabit it, you come closer to the heartbeat of the spiritual experience that it expresses.

I came to believe – and I believe to this day – that the goal of any work of art that addresses spiritual issues should be to bring those who see or hear or read it as close to the experience of real belief as possible.   When I worked as a sculptor I sought to embody spiritual states rather than describe them.  When I turned to writing I sought to recreate moments of spiritual encounter rather than discuss them from the outside, and to walk my readers into them so they could participate in those encounters.

When I came to the unlikely calling of giving voice to the deep and complex spirituality of Native American people – a spirituality that has, I believe, much to teach us all — the challenge became more complex: how could I help you, the reader, enter into a complex spiritual experience not my own in a way that your hearts could be touched and your spirits informed by the richness of their belief?

I did not want you to be able to move to the distance of analysis.  I did not want anyone to leave my writing saying, “That’s interesting.  I’ll have to give it some serious thought.”  Yet I did not want you to think you (or I) could appropriate Native belief – a complex, multiple, language- and culture based-spirituality – for ourselves.  To encourage that would be to continue the long tradition of cultural appropriation that has been our way of dealing with the Native peoples since our arrival on this land, and I wanted no part of it.

What I needed was a way to bring you, the reader, into the presence of Native belief, just as I had been brought into its presence, without allowing you the distance of the observer or the false identification with it as if you were donning its mantle as your own.

This was no easy task.  But I believed that Native experience contained truths we needed to know, and I knew that I had to make readers believe what I told them in order for them to take it into their hearts.   I had to write in a way that would grab you at the level of belief; I had to bring you into the presence of Native experience so that you would participate in it, be inhabited by it, and leave a changed person.

A tall order, yes?  But that’s how important I thought the truths of Native American experience were to the shaping of an authentic American spirituality.  We as a people have gotten lost somewhere between dogma and agnosticism, yet we are a spiritual people who hunger for belief.  The Native way, with its tradition of granting each person the right to his or her own spiritual journey, while finding truth and meaning in the land, seemed to me to feed that hunger with an authority and authenticity that nothing else possessed.   I needed to find a way to lead you into its presence in a way that would invest your experience with the authority of belief.

And so I set upon the task of searching for a literary vehicle that would serve that end.  Neither Wolf nor Dog, and, now, The Wolf at Twilight, are the results of that search.   Though done as traditional narratives, they use aspects of the novel, oral history, mythology, parable, and spiritual homily, to bring readers into the presence of Native experience as participants and not as observers.

How I came to create that narrative form is a story in itself.   It involved learning from Native storytellers, the fortuitous accident of becoming involved with collecting Native oral histories, and long personal and scholarly experience with the methods and purposes of sacred texts.   It also involved exploring ways of using language to describe, evoke, engage, and transport readers to the physical and emotional places I wanted them to go.

The end result, as reflected in Neither Wolf nor Dog and The Wolf at Twilight, was a genre-blending, category-blurring literary vehicle that placed you, the reader, by my side as I walked into another world and handed you off to people whose spiritual reality was so integrated into their daily life that it could not be separated from it or reduced to homily, lecture, or teaching.  What I experienced, you experienced.  What I felt, you felt.  And by making myself and my responses as emotionally authentic as I could (readers can sniff disingenuousness a mile away) I convinced you to follow me, participate with me, and take my experiences into your heart as your own.

To do this, I used first person narrative – that magical, distance-destroying literary point of view — to bring you along as fellow travelers into a world that is populated by actual people (though often well-disguised), actual settings (rendered with as much physical and emotional accuracy as I could muster), real events (though often not experienced in exactly the sequence or the manner in which they are presented), all developed along time-honored, almost archetypal, plot lines and universal stories of the human heart.

But none of this would have mattered if the works had not been absolutely authentic at the places where they touched against Native belief, practice, and understanding.  The words spoken had to be captured and shaped with the fidelity of the best oral history, the conversations and sense of humor had to be pitch-perfect, the experiences of such places as sweat lodges and boarding schools had to be as carefully rendered and factually precise as if this were an historical documentation.   I could take liberties with the characters and their narrative, but not with the world through which they walked. You and the other readers, both Native and non-Native, had to give total assent to the possibility of what I presented.  Factually, culturally, and interpersonally, there could be no false notes.

And so Dan and Grover and Wenonah and Jumbo and I and everyone else – real people all, but well-disguised where necessary – set off to lead you to a place of absolute emotional, cultural, and, to the extent possible, spiritual authenticity.  We went into Native reality and made you part of it.   There were no lies in that world; no falsifications of cultural circumstance, emotional response, or historical event.   You met real people, heard real stories, experienced real emotions, and participated in real events.   To the extent that I was able, I took you beyond understanding into participation.

So, what was I creating — fiction or non-fiction?  I truly don’t know, and, for my part, I truly don’t care.  My job was to bring you into the presence of a people and way of life, not to pass a litmus test of factual accuracy.   For me, the question of “is it fiction or non-fiction?” was as irrelevant as asking if Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows is fiction or non-fiction, or if Bach’s Mass in B Minor is fiction or non-fiction.  My goal was to create something authentic, and to the extent that I was able to do so, I was not bothered that it did not fit neatly into standard literary categories.

To put it another way, I was creating works of spiritual encounter, not literary or historical documents, and the liberties I took were directed toward that end.  In so doing, I was working in a long and honored tradition of spiritual writing.  The Gospel writers employed contradictory narratives to communicate the spiritual richness of Jesus’ mission; Taoist teachers placed stories from many sources into the mouth of Chuang Tzu to help people apprehend the Tao; Kahlil Gibran created the character of Al Mustapha to give proper voice to his spiritual teachings.  Neither Wolf nor Dog and The Wolf at Twilight were my journeyman efforts to use the skills at my command to open people to the interwoven cultural and spiritual reality of Native America.

In the last analysis, I was following the guidance of the man who served as the primary model for Dan:  “People learn best by stories,” he told me,  “Because stories lodge deep in the heart.”   Neither Wolf nor Dog and The Wolf at Twilight were created as teaching stories meant to bring you into the presence of the rich, human, and deeply integrated spirituality of contemporary and historical Native life.   If they did so, they have served their purpose.  How they should be categorized, I leave up to you.

35 comments

  1. Pam says:

    Kent, congratulations on a well-deserved award. I believe that your books truly meet their purpose in enlightening, educating, and moving the hearts of their readers, regardless of the category in which they’re placed. It’s impossible to read “The Wolf at Twilight” or “Neither Wolf nor Dog” without feeling a connection and a changing within.

    On another note, it’s good to hear from you again. Having revisited your blog many times in recent months in hopes that I’d missed some notification that you had posted, it was good to find this today.

    Looking forward to reading more from you soon.
    Pam

  2. terry says:

    Mr. Nerburn, I also want to offer my congratulations for the recognition you received for this wonderful, moving story. Last Fall, I called to order The Wolf at Twilight, and by chance (or maybe not) you answered the phone. In our brief conversation I made the understatement that you have a gift with words. And while that is absolutely true, your greater gift is of the heart. That’s where we — your readers — connected with the people you met, the experiences you lived, the emotions, the feelings, the mystery, the spirituality that so moved you. As for the category, well, truth is where you find it. You can’t label or confine it.

  3. Tarahlynn says:

    Kent we are all cheering here at the Jackpine Writers’ Bloc! CONGRATULATIONS! And, also, very insightful and great blog entry.

  4. steve says:

    Last night I pushed through to finish “The Wolf at Twilight” by midnight. I was caught up in the terrible uncertainty…like what happened to the Sarah-Indian girl cross!? Good story, Nerburn. Great truth. And Bronson…he kicked ass! … thanks for all your books.

  5. Harriette Yazzie-Whitcomb says:

    Upon reading “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” I found ways, better ways to express my beliefs as a Native. I was always given lessons in my native language and upon reading this book found all the lessons written, and in English! This was a wonderful new awakening, re-awakening, to see my Native beliefs, written is such simple, understandable and potently persuasive expressions. I cannot wait to read “The Wolf at Twilight” and continue my enlightenment for easier translation to my children and grandchildren. Thank you, Kent, for sharing your openness to accept Native ways–speaking from the heart and speaking the Native way: slow, thoughtful and truthful.
    Harriette Yazzie-Whitcomb, Navajo, Administrative Assistant at Colby-Sawyer College

  6. Christine says:

    I found “The Wolf at Twilight” quite by accident and cannot hardly put it down (I force myself to though.) Three days later I picked up “Neither Wolf nor Dog” which I look forward to reading. As one who catches glimpses of these truths when I force myself to slow down in this crazy world, these stories are good reminders of what is truly important.

    Miigwetch!

  7. Paul Clark says:

    I grew up with the Navajo and Hopi people on a small “reservation” beside the Colorado river in Arizona. My best friend is Navajo and his mother is a “hand trembler”. She is my “little mother”. My father worked for the BIA and I am white, so my very early years were rough as far as being accepted goes, but it was worth it. I say all this only to let you know I speak from experience and my heart when I say that your book the Wolf at Twilight is wonderful. I look forward to getting the others. I have read some others olong your lines but yours was the easiest to read and very infomative. I too don’t care how it is catigorised, that is way beside the point. Thank you.

  8. Terry Ransom says:

    Fiction or non-fiction? As a society (another category?), we are so convinced that categorizing things somehow makes them more than what they are. By adding something to a commonly understood list, something that was created individually or collectively magically becomes validated, though it is still the same as it was pre-list. What a silly notion! My grown son and I have spent much of our lives trying to understand first nations’ cultures and spiritual awareness. In that journey of seeking, we have learned to speak some Lakota, been welcomed into ceremonies beyond public view, and encouraged to live outside our own white parameters. Reading both of your “Wolf” books confirmed some things we have learned along the way. More than anything, though, it sparked memories and connections that can too often be lost to circumstance and frenzy. So, whether fiction or non-fiction, wolf or dog, thank you for those creations. Once, I literally ran into Charles Bronson (actor, not dog). He was coming out of a store I was hurrying into. He was a good foot shorter than I, but he had that unmistakable and indefinable “look.” Throughout Wolf At Twilight, that “look” defined the character of that clever little dog and made me laugh out loud. Pilamiya.

  9. Stephanie says:

    To me, these two books are the most important ones I have read. They have opened up a world that I am embracing wholeheartedly. I was led to pick up Neither Dog Nor Wolf a few months ago in a used book store….and read it in about a day. I have a friendship with an American Indian that was superficial, but when I gave this book to him to read, I found a wealth of spirituality that I have been searching for my whole life. My relationship with my friend has moved from one of distance to one of mutual sharing. (He is my ‘elder’….and my guide. It is awesome.) He keeps telling me that I follow the same blood line as he….that if I search myself I will know. Your books and he are teaching me new things every day! I cannot put into words exactly how touched I have been by this experience. As a native Californian (8th generation) related to Pio Pico, I have been poorly educated about the tribes here and how the American Indian has been treated…even to this day. My friend, who is extremely political, when it comes to his People has taught me to be outspoken about my involvement in my walk. I can say that I am proud to be a part of this journey.
    Thank you so much for your words…true or not…it is a part of the Indian tradition to tell life in story form.

  10. rafael says:

    Estimados señores;
    en varias librerias de mi pais colombia- Bogotá, he preguntado el titulo de uno de sus libros CARTAS A MI HIJO, el cual no he podido adquirir, ya que soy un hombre divorciado y mi esposa ha puesto en mo contra a mis hijos, y en un viaje a medellin lei a partes de este titulo y creo que hay reflexiones que para mis hijos y para la situacion por la que pasamos son oportunos para ellos y para mi y admas me sirven de acercamiento hacia ellos.

    como puedo tener una copia de ese titulo….

    gracias por la información….

  11. Marc Allen says:

    “The Wolf at Twilight” and “Neither Wolf nor Dog” are two of my all-time favorite books, and your blog was fascinating in so many ways. I disagree with one sentence, though. You wrote: “Neither Wolf nor Dog and The Wolf at Twilight were my journeyman efforts to use the skills at my command to open people to the interwoven cultural and spiritual reality of Native America….” You’re being way too humble here; there is nothing “journeyman” about your writing. You have reached a level of mastery that is rare and wonderful. I wish you a long and healthy life, because I want to read a lot more of your books!

  12. Psymon Fallowfield-Cooper says:

    Hi Kent, I just wanted to thank you for writing Neither Wolf Nor Dog… it is a truly inspiring read… I have past life memories of being a member of the Oglala Lakota, and reading your wonderful book made my heart soar…
    I look forward to reading Wolf at Twilight, I’ve only just now become aware that it was available… I shall look out for it in bookshops…
    I wish you well…
    Mitakuye Oyasin

  13. bob tharinger says:

    July 3
    Happy Birthday Kent!
    I’ve just left a message on your “contact” page.
    Best,
    Bob

  14. Carol E. says:

    In my opinion your “journeyman efforts” are at the master level. Bravo!

  15. Kathleen Said says:

    Neither Wolf nor Dog and Wolf at Twilight are amazing books. While I cried through many sections of both books for what as a nation we did to an amazing people and culture, I am so glad to have found these books. Much of Dan’s musings and theories opened the door to another way of being and thinking. From the smallest detail of a handshake to the powerful ceremony of the sweat lodge these books provide a bridge between our worlds.
    I certainly understand why the Native people would come to you to help tell their story.
    Thank you.

  16. Connie Warren says:

    Not since The Kite Runner did I stay up glued to a book till 2 a.m. with glorious The Wolf at Twilight! As I laughed and wept my way thru I kept thinking it read like a screenplay and must be made into a movie…then researched it today and lo and behold it is being made and cast with August Schellenberg who I wanted to play Dan! (Wes Studi or John Trudell would be great as Grover) I truly believe this film could become the Indian’s Schindler’s List-so important to educate Americans and the world over of the traumatic history and triumph of the First Nations People. Many thanks for such a wonderful book-can’t wait to consume all the others!

  17. Marian McIntyre says:

    Having read ‘Neither Wolf nor Dog’ several times, I was thrilled to find ‘The Wolf at Twilight’. Once again I am reading a book that I find hard to put down. When reading these books I am transported to another place and time. I cried when you cried, I laughed when you laughed. I feel enriched to have read these wonderful books, Thank You

  18. Treasure Omdahl says:

    I just finished The Wolf at Twilight, having read the first book prior to this one. My eyes sped through the last few chapters as I was anxious to find out what would happen. It was sad to read what Natives suffered over the years but I appreciated a better understanding of the different way whites and Natives saw our world. Bronson was a highlight. In my 18 years working in hospice, I heard enough stories of animals and sick and dying patients to know that they have a special insight. My brother in law is a Native from Turtle Mountain and we’ve been privy to his family’s sense of humor, musical and artistic ability along with their tenderness. It’s enriched our lives.

  19. Kay Garth says:

    Hi Kent,
    I just purchased the book Chief Joseph & the flight of Nez Perce. I picked your book because after taking history I was heavily burdened as to the circumstances the Indians endured. It was heartbreaking and unbelieveable how greed led to such disaster in the U.S. As we look today history repeats itself..money, power and respect. I look forward to reading your book and writing about it in class. I appreciate you for taking such a personal role in seeking the truth.
    Thank you

  20. donna duncan anderson says:

    dear brother….
    to encapsulate my feelings of reading the wolf at twilight, after neither wolf nor dog, i can only describe the scenario…..3am….laughing an uncontrollable deep belly laugh between weeping soul-cleansing tears of release……trying to put the book down because of the need to sleep before an early dawn, but unable to tear away from the wonderful spiritual feast of nourishing story, word and deed…..and more than anything else remembering the longing and homesickness for the relatives on the rez in north dakota that i have tried to dull with busyness and doings in this white world of which i only half belong, and wander about in more than a little aimlessly…..thank you for providing a vehicle in which to help remember who i am in my heart and spirit always….pilamiya and wado…….mitakuye oyas’sin

  21. Anita Biers says:

    Dear Kent,

    Congratulations on a wonderful book and your award. You emailed me after a response I gave re: the Indian transformation to white man’s religion saying that this book would be a must read for me and you were right. I just wanted to let you know the journey this book took after I ordered it.

    I took my grandson to a local park and set the book on the seat of the car beside me. A jug full of water was setting on the floor of the car. When we got to the park the book had somehow fallen over and the jug had leaked and part of the book was water soaked. I dried it out and continued to read it.

    The next time I took I took it to the park (it’s about the only place I had time to read), we were hiking on a trail and stopped at a portapotti. I set the book on a ledge and before I was used the portapotti the book slid off the shelf and fell in the water. Fortunately it was heavy and floated and blue cleaner was on the top so I could get the book and it simply smelled like the cleaner. I hated to destroy it so I kept it (gross, huh?)

    Finally the book dried out – smelled fine – and I was finished reading it this summer. On August 4, 2010 my house caught fire from a lightning strike and, of course, all my wonderful library of books and all my beautiful native american pictures were lost. The Wolf at Twilight took quite a journey but I finished it and now it is a part of my memory. I do plan to reorder the book and, in fact, I think I will get a signed copy of it this time, from your website. Just wanted to let you know the long, tedious journey it took.

  22. Tom Doman says:

    Kent: I am really missing your blog posts! Nothing new since April ;( Is everything all right?

  23. Melissa Wells says:

    For my summer vacation in early September (2 weeks in the Yukon wilderness with no electricity or running water) I gathered your books on Chief Joseph and Dan for my study of native culture. Your writing on Joseph was so compelling I’d finished the book even before we left our home in the San Bernardino mountains in southern California to trek to the subarctic regions of North America.

    The journey you provided us with Dan and his white-eye wisdom not only enriched my spiritual retreat in nature, Kent, but has deepened my desire to apply my undeserved white privilege and hard-earned skills as a family therapist to efforts that honor the telling of the tragic suffering of our indigenous brothers and sisters since the invasion of Europeans on this land. Thank you for giving voice to their vicissitudes and spiritual resilience. I hope your stories are adapted to screenplays so that people who are not inclined to read become familiar with the beauty, humor, and long-suffering of the natives of this land.

  24. Wesley Bryan says:

    Kent,

    It was indeed a pleasure to meet you. What great books you continue to write. When I read the introduction and forward to Neither Wolf nor Dog I have either experienced, felt and/or seen the things that you have stressed in these heart-felt words that are so well spoken with compassion and truth for our fellow man, the American Indian. You express our feelings so vividly and acurately as we go about doing our small, but sincere, part of moving forward from a bloody and tear-stained past toward a more humane future. Thank you for the dedication that you have made and all the support that you give to the Native people in so many places in so many ways. Your words and works will help inspire us to coninue this journey.

    Sincerely,
    Wes and Pat Bryan

  25. Janet Gray says:

    Kent, I have just finished Neither Wolf nor Dog and couldn’t put it down. When people are asked which book had changed their life, I really couldn’t think of one that changed mine. But now I can sincerely say that this book changed my life, or rather, changed me. I see with new eyes. Thank you. Janet Gray

  26. Beverlee says:

    The title intriqued me,The Wolf at Twilight. I picked it up and put it in my stack “to read”. And so I am. It has become a personal and emotional journey for me. My great-grandmother, Walks Far Woman, was Chippewa. On the other side was Nez Perce. Had my great grandmother not married a white man my grandmother, father and I might have been raised on the “res”. In reading this book I understand more about my father in death than I did in life. He was a lonely man walking this whiteman’s world with an Indian spirit. I feel him close to me. Thank you for this window on being Indian and the significance of the sparce and few words my father spoke about it. After all who of us, his children, could understand what it meant to be Indian.

  27. Heather Bilyeu says:

    Wonderful work … my vote is for non-fiction of course…thank you for sharing your experience with us.Dan is pleased to be sure and working wonders on the Blue Road! I have also just finished ‘Everyday Wonders’ in one sitting. Another peaceful and beautiful read. Peace be with your on your path and let us know if you come to speak in Seattle.

  28. Debbie says:

    Mr. Nerburn:
    Re: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

    It doesn’t matter.
    Truth is Truth.

  29. […] veiws one another. If intrigued at all or just want to know more about the book and the author, here you can read more about the author and other books by […]

  30. Sandy says:

    Just finished reading Neither Wolf Nor Dog. Thank you for this. It’s opened my eyes wider to First Nation’s ways. It’s answered questions that I didn’t know I wanted to ask.

  31. Alina Dotson says:

    You have done a cool job as mobile + social media marketing whiz Christian Dillstrom is recommending your internet site.

  32. Debra Yonker-Hecht says:

    I recently listened to your interview on “The Thomas Jefferson Hour” podcast. I really enjoyed it and plan to find your books! Thank you.

  33. Jane Ernst says:

    Dear Kent,
    My sister (a school social worker) lent me your books. I was so moved and could not put them down. My husband is an ojibway from the Keweenaw tribe in the upper peninsula of Michigan. He has been trying to search out his heritage and recently was contacted by the bureau of Indian Affairs concerning land from his grandmother that he never knew. I bought him your books for Christmas and he has been reading them. It has always been his dream to build a log cabin and live a simpler life than we are in the Mpls. suburbs. It seems God has put in our paths these steps, one by one, that lead us on our journey to find truth and peace while we travel our own road through life. I am a teacher and work with many children from many cultures. I am not sure why your books have had such an impact on me but think that you could write a book about the paths people take who read these. My sister (who gave me the books to read) was talking to another social worker who came to observe Native American children in her school and asked if she had read your works. She had not….then purchased them and could not put them down either. Thank you for pursuing this huge undertaking which has certainly changed your life. I only wish we could meet you sometime for coffee to talk about this. We loved your writing and it has impacted our lives. God Bless! Jane & Joe Ernst

  34. Jane Ernst says:

    Dear Kent,
    My sister (a school social worker) lent me your books. I was so moved and could not put them down. My husband’s heritage is Ojibway from the Keweenaw tribe in the upper peninsula of Michigan. He has been trying to search out his heritage and recently was contacted by the bureau of Indian Affairs concerning land from his grandmother that he never knew. I bought him your books for Christmas and he has been reading them. It has always been his dream to build a log cabin and live a simpler life than we are in the Mpls. suburbs. It seems God has put in our paths these steps, one by one, that lead us on our journey to find truth and peace while we travel our own road through life. I am a teacher and work with many children from many cultures. I am not sure why your books have had such an impact on me but think that you could write a book about the paths people take who read these. My sister (who gave me the books to read) was talking to another social worker who came to observe Native American children in her school and asked if she had read your works. She had not….then purchased them and could not put them down either. Thank you for pursuing this huge undertaking which has certainly changed your life. I only wish we could meet you sometime for coffee to talk about this. We loved your writing and it has impacted our lives. God Bless! Jane & Joe Ernst

  35. Richard Morgan says:

    A month ago, a good friend gave me a copy of the Wolf at Twighlignt. It was one of the best gifts of my 70 year old life. I recently finished reading Neither Wolf nor Dog and am very thankful and grateful for your skills at leading us along these trails of re-learning and experiencing what life and belief is all about. I’ve shared these with other friends who also are very moved by them in wonderful ways. Thank you and all those who influenced you.

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