I recently went to Grand Canyon West, located on the Hualapai Nation in northwestern Arizona. In my narrow-minded, West Coast ways I had known about the “Trail of Tears” but always thought that was just like a Southern, Andrew Jackson type of thing — but at the GCW park I learned about Hualapai history and how the U.S. Government made the Hualapai people move to essentially concentration camps on crappy land 200 miles away (and many that didn’t die on the long, hot walk there ended up dying from malnutrition and disease on the new land that wasn’t their home with life-giving resources). Imagine if somebody made me walk all the way to Bakersfield and made me live in a Costco parking lot. I know that sounds possibly ideal because you could ask people for food on the way to their cars but pretend that it was a deserted parking lot and the Costco had been shut down for a few years. I just wanted you to imagine the vastness, the bleakness, the barrenness, the heat, the pointlessness.
Anyways, I came back from this trip kind of ruffled up about the whole thing. I didn’t know that kind of cruelty — particularly the marching type of part, and the Native American part I mean; I’m well aware of like Angel Island and the Japanese internment camps out here and stuff — took place that close to my idyllic home of California. My boss was saying the other day that Native Americans are only 2% of California’s people, but that’s still 780,000 people and 780,000 people matter, yo!!! She said this in the context of the work we are doing, which is largely in Hispanic communities (because California is increasingly a largely Hispanic community itself), so obviously in terms of reaching the most people with the projects we’re doing we’re going to translate and orient things towards Latino culture first rather than Native American culture simply because of the numbers game there. I say all this just to defend what my boss was saying I guess, to make sure you and I know she was talking in a work project context and not a human value context.
Anyhow, my other coworker recommended this book Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn. I accidentally checked out the sequel to it at the library instead, The Wolf at Twilight, so oops on me, but I read it anyways and it was a good decision. My coworker says the first one is about the author experiencing a change of heart as he experiences and learns about the Lakota people — essentially a white man coming to terms with non-white men on land they both share, despite some tricky history. When I heard that I was glad I’d read the sequel, because I’ve heard/felt that story before, and I liked where the sequel picked up in terms of relationship. That said: if you’re not super versed in Native American / U.S. history (beyond what they teach you about like corn and Squanto in elementary school, or casinos), you should start with the first book.
The Wolf at Twilight starts with a preface by the author explaining that he wrote the first book and then fell out of touch with the people he wrote the book about, which is a weird feeling — did he use these people as a spectacle? Just to make a story? So from a writer standpoint, those were really good questions for me to think about as I watched Kent return to the Lakota people by request of Dan, the Lakota Elder he met in the first book. Dan wants Kent to come help him bury his dog, who died a while ago, but who he’s been keeping in the freezer until he could get a hold of Kent and ask him to come out. What starts as a trip for a dog burial ends up being a search for the story of Dan’s sister Yellow Bird, who was lost to their family when she was taken to go to a white person school. Side note — these schools are terrible. I think that all education back in the day was shitty — think my dad telling me about getting hit by rulers by nuns as a youth — but coupled with the power dynamic of racism and colonialism, it was even worse. Can you imagine being taken from your culture and forced to do weird things you don’t understand, and then punished severely for not doing them? If you can’t you should read this book to make you appreciate the way you were raised and have empathy for the way others might have been.
I have to go to yoga now but I recommend this book a lot. It reads fast. It gives you a glimpse into both present-day reservation life AND the history of the Lakota people in North America (both the peaceful, spirit-led way they lived and the upheavals they experienced when settlers moved into their world). Also on that note, if you’re looking for incredible Lakota fiction, check out Louise Erdich, one of my all-time favorite living authors. Reading her work probably prepared my mind and gave me a little bit of context for the world of Neither Wolf Nor Dog.