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.”