Kent Nerburn on being the only white guy in the car

Kent Nerburn

People and events that appear in Kent Nerburn’s books may or may not be based on actual people and events. Let’s get this out of the way first, because it’s not entirely clear in “The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo,” which centers on a journey undertaken by a writer called Kent Nerburn, who bears an exact resemblance to the writer of the book.

“We’re calling it creative non-fiction” —the category in which two of his previous books have won Minnesota Book Awards — Nerburn says. (His latest was nominated Saturday for this year’s competition.)

“Is every part of it factual? No. True? Yes. Everything in there is based on actual physical experience and memory, but for the sake of storytelling, the narrative is reconstructed in places. I don’t want to be tarred by the James Frey brush — as a fabricator. I am writing truth as a person doing spiritual storytelling; these are teaching stories. In the Native tradition, you need to teach by story because stories lodge in the heart.”

Nerburn isn’t a Native writer, but the majority of his work centers on Native American themes. For 25 years, he lived in the woods outside of Bemidji, working as a sculptor and journalist with a background in theology. He developed close ties with individuals in the Red Lake Reservation when he took a job working with high school students who were collecting stories from elders.

The experience taught him how to respectfully bridge the chasm between the white and Native worlds, and he ultimately earned the trust of people who have learned to trust no one who looks like him. His books explore the stories and history of several tribes across North America, and his audience includes white and Native American readers.

“The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo” (New World Library) is the third book in an unintended trilogy that begins with “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” and “Wolf at Twilight,” although the third title stands very well on its own.

In the first two books, Nerburn gets to know Dan, a Lakota elder who asked him to compile a lifetime’s worth of memories. Dan reminds Nerburn of his own grandfather and the two enjoy a close, if sometimes culturally uncomfortable, relationship.

Nerburn finds himself the only white guy in the car on some very strange road trips, and comes away from his journeys with funny, sometimes harrowing stories that explain what it means to be a stranger in your own land, and part of the final generation with memories of Native American culture before the Indian boarding schools largely obliterated it.

In the newest book, Nerburn discovers he has unfinished business with Dan, and he ends up returning to those haunted boarding schools.

From the late 1800s into the 1970s, thousands of Native American children were forcibly removed from their families and raised in institutions where they were renamed, stripped of tribal clothing, language and identity, and physically, emotionally and sexually abused. Parents were forbidden from contacting their children, and high numbers of children died while in the care of the schools — including Dan’s younger sister.

In the second book, Nerburn attempts to find out what happened to the little girl. “The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo” unravels a mystery that ends at a gruesome place in South Dakota called the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians (it has since been demolished and is now a golf course, although the graveyard remains).

“The story of these places went largely untold for many years. If the topic comes up, people just go quiet. Or they will downplay it, say, ‘Oh, it wasn’t too bad.’ But there is clearly a lot of pain associated with this part of history. This was an attempt by a government to impose a foreign culture, language, and religion on an entire race of people. It was a form of genocide, and we never hear anything about it,” says Nerburn.

“Once I walked into a restaurant and the only other person there was a very old man. I asked if I could sit down with him and we talked. He was sweet and gentle and approachable, so I asked him if he went to the boarding schools, and he had. So how was it? He said, ‘Well, I learned good English, and I learned good Christian, but I was no longer the same person. I lost myself in that place.’

“It is a complete tragedy what they did to generations of children, and it affects the native people even today. Mothers were not allowed to touch their children, so their children grew up and never touched their children; they didn’t even know how to hug anymore. The boarding schools are the pivotal experience between native and white people, not the Indian wars. Those schools obliterated almost everything about native culture and people are still so wounded by it. So I needed to tell these stories.”

(The Minnesota History Center’s current exhibit “Then Now Wow” includes a section on the boarding schools.)

It’s tough subject matter, but Nerburn is an expert storyteller, so he delivers the message through a memorable ensemble cast that includes a bad guy who isn’t so bad, a tenderhearted big guy who loves Subway, a 4-year-old girl with an uncanny connection with the past, and a German lady who sells Indian “love bundles” and Made in China peace pipes to tourists.

Like all good road trip stories, this one takes wrong turns, encounters strange places and people, and passes through some gorgeous scenery, moving from Northern Minnesota and the Dakota prairies and back again.

“My books and my life have been profoundly impacted by nature, and the spiritual connection between us and nature is one thing I share with the Native people I write about,” says Nerburn. “I make no claims to being Native or to take on the trappings of their reality, and it upsets me when people think that I am trying to do so — so many things about the Native experience have been co-opted and appropriated by the same people who tried to destroy them.

“So I want to have no part in that. But I do want to help get the message out about these people, what they have been through, and what they have to teach us, especially about the land. The idea of a spiritual quality in the land is something we need to accept and embrace, or we’re all going to end up in a very bad place.”

Nerburn and his wife are currently living with family in Minneapolis as they ponder their next move, and he says he feels a little disconnected in the city.

“An Ojibwe friend said, ‘I’m worried about you here. Your entire emotional sense is based on the north,’ and he’s right. It was a profound experience to be in the woods, and to be near Red Lake, which has such a powerful presence. It’s different than any other lake in Minnesota. When I was a sculptor, the trees spoke to me through their wood, the rings. And my books are written at that ground level, with nature and in the open air.”

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/27/2014 - 01:24 pm.

    Creative non-fiction

    I know it’s fashionable to claim that the government Indian schools were terrible places, but some of this author’s descriptions are a stretch to say the least. Ironically, I never hear these claims from Indians who actually attended those schools.

    My mother and uncle (her brother) were students at the Pipestone Indian School for most of the 1920s. They often talked about the school and what went on there, but with a few exceptions, they enjoyed their stay there.

    Just to set the record straight:
    – They weren’t “forcibly removed from their families.” Their parents were asked if they wanted to send their kids there. Their parents (my grandparents) then asked the kids if they wanted to go. My uncle really wanted to go, and even though my mother didn’t, my grandmother made her go also to look after her little brother.
    – They weren’t “renamed.” They were full-blood Sioux but had been using English names since the previous two generations.
    – They weren’t “stripped of tribal clothing.” They were farmers and so yes, they wore school uniforms instead of overalls.
    – Neither was abused, physically or otherwise.
    – “Parents were forbidden from contacting their children.” Nonsense. They went home on most holidays.

    My mother used to talk about how she played on the girls basketball team that traveled around Minnesota beating the white high school teams with relative ease. She was taught sewing, cooking and baking in addition to her regular school subjects … things she never would have learned in the rural one-room school house that was the alternative. She later became a professional seamstress and baked the greatest pies a boy ever ate. Her hand-written recipe book was considered the family jewels.

    My uncle learned carpentry and wood working, which he parlayed into steady work when he left school.

    Remember, this was almost 100 years ago. If any degrading attitudes or behavior toward Indian kids was likely, it would have been then. They both died with their Dakota language and culture intact.

    I’m the last person to be defending the government, but there seems to be Indian kids who actually benefitted from those schools. Granted, all I know about is the Pipestone school. Other schools may have been bad places but to claim that all Indian schools were “a form of genocide” is simply not true.

  2. Submitted by Leo Van Kints on 01/29/2014 - 10:29 am.

    Boarding Schools were awful

    Dear Dennis,
    I don’t know how many Indians, from where you discussed Boarding Schools, but I can tell you that many, many indian people still suffer from the time they had to spend on those Schools. Even their children still have big problems. Their parents are often still afraid to talk the native language, or they don’t even know how to. Many native languages disappear because the children don’t learn it from their parents. Older people don’t speak aloud and often first look over their shoulder before speaking.

    Of course not all indian Schools were bad. Some did a reasonable good job, but I talked to many indigenous people in Oklahoma, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota. I visited many indian people the last 45 years and I can tell you that Boarding Schools were a real problem. Not all kids were taken to those Schools with force, because their parents hoped that their kids would gain knowledge from the white people. However many kids were taken away from their parents and sent to Schools hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles from home. So going back to the reservation during vacations was to say at least, not easy.

    Pratt wanted to turn indian kids into Christian white kids. They even used chloride to ‘whiten’ the kids. Their hair was cut short, they had to wear School (army) uniforms, were not allowed to speak their native language, no ceremonies and if they had an indian/family name, it was replaced by a European name. They were beaten (sometimes to death), thrown down the stairs, (sexually) abused and many kids died from a broken heart.

    Just read the right books and talk to the right people and look at the right documentaries and you will find that it was a shameful time. Your mother and uncle were some of the lucky kids attending better Schools. And yes, more kids were lucky, like for instance the Pueblo girl who made it to English teacher. But these were exceptions.

Leave a Reply