justin eagle gauthier | yl voice | july 2017
I was excited to see “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” during its short-run release in select Marcus Cinemas. Adapted and directed by Steven Lewis Simpson, this feature-length film based on Kent Nerburn's novel chronicles the journey of Nerburn's attempt to create a book out of a haphazard pile of notes given to him by Lakota elder Dan Bald Eagle. Nerburn writes a humdrum first draft only to discover his own perceptions must change before he can truly capture the message Dan has for the world.
Played by Dave Bald Eagle, Dan is one of the most visually striking and enigmatic characters in contemporary Native cinema. Bald Eagle's performance seems effortless and he dominates the screen every time he appears, and his command of his craft all but assures that “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” hits all the right notes.
Despite its ballyhooed screenings, the film has the feel of a low-budget, independent movie. When I discovered it would be playing in the theaters in Green Bay, I was surprised and hopeful. Years ago, “Smoke Signals” had a theater release backed by Miramax studios. I remember watching “Smoke Signals” at a theater in Appleton, Wis. and thinking, “Now we'll start seeing our stories on the big screen.” This turned out to be wishful thinking on my part.
The “Smoke Signals” type of mainstream acceptance has eluded most Native filmmakers. Outside of film festivals, it remains difficult to track down indigenous-centric movies, especially those with indigenous people behind the camera. In recent memory, only “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” stands out as an example of a movie casted and crewed almost entirely by indigenous people. If you haven't watched “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” yet, please seek it out and watch it. I'll wait here until you get back …
Wasn't that great? Every tribe should do what director Zacharias Kunuk did with Atanarjuat. Committing our epics and teaching stories to film can be viewed as a form of preservation, it could also be a surefire way for these stories to do what they were meant to do: teach, only on a global scale.
What teachings does “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” hold? In the final act, Dan brings Nerburn to Wounded Knee. Bald Eagle delivers a chilling recount of the massacre. The emotional gravitas is nearly overwhelming. This encounter stays with the viewer and stands out as a revelatory moment of truth telling. Dave Bald Eagle's eyes, pupils ringed in hemorrhaged blood, seem to peer into the past and his voice conveys the horror of the carnage. This scene is compelling and the actors are masterful in their portrayals of Native and non-Native confronting the darkest side of human nature.
Getting a movie produced is a herculean task. Completing and getting a movie distributed into theaters is close to impossible. Simpson deserves recognition for his efforts for not only bringing this story to the masses but for doing it well to boot.
As for me, I look forward to a day when a passion project from a Native director gets equal distribution and attention. Your move, mainstream cinemas!
Menominee Tribal member Justin Eagle Gauthier has been featured in several literary journals. He is currently enrolled in the LoRez MFA program in creative writing studying screenwriting at the Institute of American Indian Arts.