It took 18 days to film the screen production of the 1996 Minnesota Book Award-winning novel “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” a story about a white author’s journey with a Lakota elder named Dan through Indian country in South Dakota. By comparison, Hollywood feature films on average take somewhere between 45 and 60 days to film.
Independent filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson said filming "Neither Wolf Nor Dog” was unlike a traditional “money maker” movie.
“Most films are either driven by genres or stars or hitting easy markets, and this one is a serious drama with a 95-year-old star," the director said. "It really needed the 95-year-old man to work. He was the key to everything. Without him it would have been a nothing film.”
Dave Bald Eagle, in his last film role, played the Lakota elder. Bald Eagle passed away before the film’s 2017 release, though he did see a preview before his death. “It’s the only film I’ve been in about my people that told the truth," he said.
A year after its release, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is making a return to theaters, and Simpson partnered with the Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff for a three-day special screening event in support of We Care Northern Arizona, a non-profit organization devoted to suicide prevention and awareness.
When author of “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” Kent Nerburn, played by Christopher Sweeney in the film, approached the director about adapting the novel, Simpson said he related to his character in a way that most people might not have.
“I had a similar situation where when I was out in that region. I had a lot of people come to me as a filmmaker, asking me to film certain things and testimonies and then distill it down into a feature documentary,” said the director. “So I could relate to how Nerburn got sort of drawn into such a huge commitment and journey as that. But also my experience was incredibly different.”
Simpson said being of Scottish decent was a big difference between him and Nerburn.
“He’s somebody that’s not trying to put a foot wrong because he always sort of sees the shadow of history on the wall. Whereas I come in, as a non-American, sort of clean to the scenario, just looking to make great friendships and being much more welcomed into the area with open arms. So I could see his awkwardness, and that was a key thing as a character.”
In “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” Nerburn is taken on a journey with Dan and his nephew Grover through South Dakota to Wounded Knee, along the way learning about the residual effects of the white settlers’ colonization efforts and of contemporary life for Native Americans. While the movie focuses on the relationships between whites and Native Americans as well as the larger issues of race, tolerance and injustice, Simpson said it’s more personal than that.
"The problem is so few native films are made that when one comes out, it is put under a microscope and is expected to speak on these whole issues, which we don’t do on any other kind of films really,” he said. “It’s an elder trying to teach someone how to listen as much as anything. You know, take the time to slow down. It’s more building trust and friendship, and I want you to open your heart so you can see what I see and feel what I feel.”
Learning how to listen, Simpson said, is really what the film is about, and his decision to partner with the Orpheum and We Care Northern Arizona is a reflection of that philosophy.
Founder of We Care Northern Arizona Clay McCauslin agrees with Simpson’s message, stating that, “Suicide is unfortunately on the rise in many areas and it affects all ages, races, religions and sexual orientations. It has been such a taboo subject for so long, but I believe that if most people are truly willing to be open and honest, at some point in their life, they have at least felt like they've been in a funk and not sure if they want to continue fighting the good fight."
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in Arizona, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death overall and the second leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 15 and 34. Among Native Americans, the statistics are worse.
“[Suicide is] something that is unfortunate in all of life, but when you step into a lot of native lands, with the way things are today, it’s much more prevalent,” said Simpson, who has lost two close native friends to suicide, even naming a character Harmony in one of his films as an homage to his young friend. “To put it in perspective, with Harmony, she was a case where I was thinking, ‘I hope she can make it to adulthood.’ Where else in the world are you thinking like that?”
McCauslin said it’s not always easy to seek help when dealing with suicidal thoughts and visits to a doctor or a counselor may feel embarrassing or taxing. By putting on events in an informal setting such as the film screening at the Orpheum, he said We Care Northern Arizona acts more as “a conduit for information” to help organizations in northern Arizona that struggle to get their messages out.
“We take the message of help and hope to the community by hosting and sponsoring a lot of concerts and community events that target all different demographics. I think that if you push it as a suicide-related event it may turn people off or cause them to not want to open up,” said McCauslin. “We don't advertise it as a suicide-prevention event as much as an event to promote celebrating life.”