This ever so indie film was funded with a Kickstarter campaign and then self-distributed. And right now it is the longest-running US theatrical release in more than a decade, having premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival back in 2016. And it’s finally making its way to the big cities now. Set in Lakota Sioux country, the film takes a white author on a coerced road trip through Native America as an elder and his friend impart their wisdom to him. The elder is played by the late Dave Bald Eagle who gives the film its deep resonance. Adapted from a semi-autobiographical book of the same name, Neither Wolf Nor Dog isn’t destined to be a blockbuster, but its message from the Native American community is one that should be heard.
The story begins when writer Kent Nerburn (Christopher Sweeney) answers a phone call. He’s home in Minnesota, and the call is from a woman who tells him that he has to come to the South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation and meet an elder. It’s pretty mysterious, but Nerburn is intrigued and goes. There he meets Dan (Chief Dave Bald Eagle) a very old Lakota man who wants him to write a book based on a box of notes he’s scribbled over the years. Nerburn was known to him because he wrote a book based on oral histories of the tribe a while back. Dan’s friend Grover (Richard Ray Whitman) thinks Nerburn is on a fools errand, but because Dan is insistent, he agrees to help put a book of Native American wisdom together. And so Nerburn, Dan, and Grover take a road trip around the reservation as they talk about history and philosophy and anthropology and the tenuous hold the Lakota have on their culture. It’s insightful and funny at times. And it’s a slow lesson that Nerburn as stand-in for the non-Natives in the audience reluctantly takes in.
Most of the actors are first-timers and their performances are pretty uneven, but nonetheless the story comes through of a people’s deep culture. The film would be nothing without the performance of Dave Bald Eagle. He’s sly and wise and keeps you watching. It’s not a great film by any stretch. It meanders and it’s pretty slow. And Sweeney’s Nerburn doesn’t really seem to be that invested in doing the job. I think the film will probably be of interest to those who read the book. But ultimately it’s sad that a white man made this film when it should have had a more indigenous-focused perspective. Wait for it when it streams if you must see it.
The story of Chief David William Beautiful Bald Eagle is actually more interesting that this film. Read it here. He danced with Marilyn Monroe. He drove race cars. He parachuted into enemy gunfire at Normandy. He played professional baseball. He was a leader not just of his tribe, but of the United Native Nations. He was an advocate for Native people. Maybe someone should crowdfund a film about him next.