Based on the award-winning 1996 book by Kent Nerburn, Neither Wolf Nor Dog tells the story of a white author’s (Christopher Sweeney) somewhat reluctant road trip with Lakota elder Dan (Dave Bald Eagle) and Dan’s nephew Grover (Richard Ray Whitman). Beautifully filmed on location in South Dakota, it’s a slow-moving film that takes us onto the Rez and into the minds of some of its people and the man who struggles to reconcile his own prejudices and motives while working with them. Recently, I had a chance to ask Scottish director Steven Simpson a few questions about the film.
Dan Stoffel: Was there much improvisation on the set?
Steven Lewis Simpson: Generally the actors stuck to the script other than loosening it up around the edges with some of the Lakota terms that were inserted into the conversation. Where that changed was the climax at Wounded Knee where I threw away the novel and the script and had Dave Bald Eagle totally improvise the scenes, as he was closer to those killed and injured in the massacre of 1890 than the character he was playing. By having him go deep into a place within himself he came out with something more powerful than Kent Nerburn or I could ever write.
The film deals with hostility, shame, and a great deal of sadness about the past. What do you see as the film’s most important message?
For me the most important cultural aspect of the film is having an elder, who very much is the last of an era, take us into the heart of how the echo of the Wounded Knee Massacre and all that came before and since is still resonating through them today.
How much do you relate to Kent Nerburn?
I have a similar experience to the character based on Kent Nerburn in the film in that I had been asked by some Lakota friends to film a lot of testimonies from people there over the years and it spiraled into a feature documentary I made called A Thunder-Being Nation. So there are parallels to the character being asked to write the book, but we differ greatly, too. The real Kent Nerburn carries a lot of that white American baggage into Indian Country, whereas I don’t as a European. I turned up in Lakota country and immediately made friends and have a blast when I’m there.
Whom do you think Neither Wolf Nor Dog is more important to—Native Americans or white people?
To Native viewers I think the film has great value in that having such an amazing elder at the forefront of a film like this and sharing so much has a deep significance, but then I endlessly hear of white members of the audience being rooted to their seats after the lights come up after the film and I understand that it is having a very deep impact on them, too. The film is on its way to be one of the most successful self-distributed films in theatres of all time because the audience has been taking ownership of the film in a remarkable way and helping with its promotion and the word of mouth. In a town in Washington recently we outperformed 9 of the 12 blockbusters at the nearby multiplex.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog plays through at least July 6 at the Harkins Flagstaff 16.