‘Neither Wolf Nor Dog’ film portrays Native American real life struggles

By Ken Luchterhand

The new Native American film, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” made its Wisconsin debut at the Ho-Chunk Cinema in Tomah.
In the film, Lakota elder and actor Dave Bald Eagle makes a huge impact on viewers with his wisdom and knowledge of his near century of living. He passed away last July at the age of 97.
The film began showing on Friday, April 21 and will continue until at least Thursday, May 4. The directors of the cinema are considering extending it for another week. Show times are at 1:15 p.m., 4:10 p.m., 7:10 p.m. and 10 p.m.
It’s based on the 1996 novel, “Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder.”
The independent film is a low-budget production, but the producer and director, Steven Lewis Simpson, has created a high-quality movie that is competing with high-budget films from Hollywood.
Tomah is the first town in Wisconsin to show British director, Steven Lewis Simpson's film adaptation of acclaimed, best-selling Native American novel, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” authored in Minnesota by Kent Nerburn: The films narrative is a road trip from Minnesota through the Dakotas, and was filmed mostly in South Dakota.
The film entered selected theatres recently ahead of its wider release. In Bemidji, Minn., “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” was the number one film at the city’s 10-screen theatre. The nine others were all big Hollywood movies, typically with $10 million marketing budgets.
“Reaction to the film has been incredible,” Simpson said. “There are reports of applause at the end of the film and people being rooted to their seats after the lights had come back on. The audiences have been a great mix of Native and non-native people. They have driven from as far as 300 miles away to see it.”
Marcus theatres felt the film would be a wonderful fit for the Ho-Chunk Cinema, he said.
Simpson took a different approach to distributing his film. In the Hollywood film industry, movies usually premiere in New York City and then branch out across the nation from there. Instead, Simpson approached the individual theaters, starting with the Native American populations in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin. A lot of the demand has come through the excitement spread from one person to another.
“Word of mouth is remarkable,” Simpson said. “The film is so embraced by the audience.”
Nerburn, author of the book and screenplay, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” has high praise for the movie.
Having had enough of empty Hollywood promises, Nerburn approached Simpson at a screening of Simpson’s movie “Rez Bomb” that he filmed on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Nerburn gave Simpson a copy of the novel. He accepted the project and tweaked a screenplay Nerburn already developed.
“Yes, Steven changed the book. Yes, he adapted it; yes, he augmented it. But he nailed it. The choices he made were exquisite. His film is at once different from the book and better than the book. In an act of astonishing creative transformation, one stubborn, incredibly talented man with a camera did something I did not think was possible: he made a completely new work of art that honored the original work of art while carrying it to a new level. He took my literary child and made a man of it.”
For the 20 years since the novel was published, film producers had circled it trying to make it into a movie. It ended up having the reputation in Hollywood of being the great unmade, contemporary Native American novel, Simpson said.
“Invariably, producers strived for Hollywood budgets tied with Hollywood sensibilities that distorted the narrative. Hollywood's treatment of Natives in cinema has been atrocious and in many cases were actually pro-genocide. This was too important a novel for it to be subjected to the Hollywood treatment. Thus, the budget would be very low and the elements as real as possible.”
Simpson said that most Hollywood producers don’t understand the Native American culture.
“Hollywood doesn’t understand it. They think that they have to include a powwow in the movie, just a stereotypically way of thinking of Native Americans,” he said.
It was a gamble to produce such a movie and because of that, it was impossible to insure it. After all, the main character was a 95-year-old man, who might not be able to finish the movie. Still, it was important to have him because he was the center of the story and the message was directly connected to him.
The film adaptation of the book was a challenge, Simpson said.
“’Neither Wolf Nor Dog’ is different to any other feature film I have done,” he said. “It is the first I have directed based on another writer's work, which indicates how the work spoke to me. The story, about an outsider getting introduced into the heart of Lakota County, is a story that I can relate to in a way few people can.
“But within that, there were huge differences in my experience and that of Kent Nerburn, the author and screenwriter, and he had based the central character on himself. That in itself was a great gift as it allowed me a third viewpoint, external to the two sides of the dialogue within the film and allowed me to bear witness and know best how to convey that dance.”
The cast for the movie includes Lakota elder Dave Bald Eagle, Christopher Sweeney, Richard Ray Whitman, Roseanne Supernault, Tatanka Means, Zahn McClarnon, and Harlen Standing Bear Sr.
“Only Dave Bald Eagle could have played Dan. He is beyond perfect,” Simpson said. “Audiences are falling in love with him on-screen. He saw it before he passed and said 'it's the only film he's been in about his people that told the truth,'” Simpson said.
Dave Bald Eagle had relatives at the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. The movie's climax was filmed at Wounded Knee, which is considered sacred ground.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog feels part feature film, part documentary. It is a funny, deeply moving and extremely important film.
The story surrounds Kent Nerburn (Christopher Sweeney), who is made an offer he cannot refuse. On his quest for a story, he is taken on a bizarre road trip with two Native Americans, Lakota elder Dan (Dave Bald Eagle) and his friend Grover (Richard Ray Whitman), neither of whom cut him any slack.
As the trappings of his modern life fall away, Nerburn begins to understand the intentions of both men. The physical and spiritual heart of the vast Dakota plains, the contemporary Native American people, and an emotional tragic and shameful history are the main components of the narrative.
Dan (Dave Bald Eagle) appears and disappears as silently as the single buffalo. A heart-wrenching monologue begins in the front seat of a Buick and continues by the grave of the fallen at Wounded Knee. Dave Bald Eagle brings a veracity and weight to the film that is mesmerizing. The dialogue is sharp and the superb soundscape echoes Dan’s words and prayers as he speaks to the dead.
One aspect that is captured accurately is Native American humor, which often confused the main character.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog is a painful and truthful dialogue between the Indian and the white man. What it lacks in structure it makes up for in honesty and heart, and the humorous symbolism of the final scene is dramatic.
“We shot it in 18 days. Shooting that fast normally means long 16-hour days, but we had a 95-year-old star and a very unreliable Buick and so typically we shot around eight hours a day. It was essential for another reason, which was when I rolled into the reservation six days before the start of shooting, little was in place. Not even where we would be staying. But I knew that, in an odd way, that’s how things work best on the reservation – last minute things fall into place more,” Simpson said.
“So I spent most evenings preparing for the next day, including sometimes casting and location scouting or making props. We were chasing our tails, but the weather was spectacularly reliable for the Great Plains and things fell into place,” he said.
Director of Communication Mari Randa of Marcus Theatres Corp. said that ticket sales for the movie at Ho-Chunk Cinema did extremely well.
“At Marcus Theatres, our philosophy is to provide diversity and choices of movies for all our guests to enjoy,” Randa said. “This past weekend, we were excited to show ‘Neither Wolf nor Dog’ at the Marcus Ho-Chunk Cinema. This film, based on a popular book by the same name, was embraced by the community, as it was the second highest grossing film at the theatre. We were pleased to offer the film and excited that the community responded so positively.”