boarding schools

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.