Native American Film 'Neither Wolf Nor Dog' Illustrates Importance Of Empathy
Steven Lewis Simpson is a white, European filmmaker telling a story about Native Americans through his latest film screening now across Montana.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is adapted from the 1994 best-selling novel by author Kent Nerburn. It's about a white writer who gets sucked into life on reservations in the Dakotas by the late Lakota Chief, Dave Bald Eagle, whose people were killed in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Brie Ripley spoke with the filmmaker about the complexities of telling a story that isn’t yours.
Brie Ripley: Why is this film important right now?
Steven Lewis Simpson: This was the last chance to ever have a film that centered around an elder of that era. It’s—it’s not about age, it’s these guys were from a particular era and you know Dave was the greatest embodiment of that of anyone I ever met.
You know, a lot of people make the parallels that this is a perfect time because of Standing Rock. But for me, in a sense, what I feel is powerful through that is – I want people who’ve been allies of Standing Rock to see this film so they can learn far more from the people they’ve been standing shoulder to shoulder with.
And Dave Bald Eagle in this film opens people’s hearts in the most phenomenal way. And so when he starts telling hard truths, we’re listening to somebody that we love and we listen in a different way, we listen with our hearts. I think that it will help break down some barriers, it will help break down some conflicts—and particularly young people moving through life, I think this is a lead character that many will never forget. And as people brush shoulders in this world, there will be less difference. And, you know, difference is a wonderful thing to celebrate but you know on the other side of it it’s a brutal stick and this takes us into that world of celebrating and creating understanding.
BR: What I want to know is how a guy who’s from Britain, who grew up in Scotland, ended up making movies that hit so close to home here?
SLS: In 1999, I came out to Pine Ridge for the first time. There was a ghost shirt, a sacred ghost shirt, which had been taken from the Wounded Knee Massacre that had been sitting in a museum in Glasgow ever since and a group of Lakota came over, requested its repatriation. And because I’d been developing a screenplay about Wounded Knee, the moment I heard, I knew I was going to jump on a plane and follow it out there.
And in a sense there’s a parallel with the, the movie, in a sense, since in the movie an author gets asked to come in and, you know, help tell this particular story of an elder. And because I was a filmmaker I had a lot of people on the reservation saying ‘come here and film this testimony of this person; come here and film this of that’—and that sort of spiraled into becoming a Thunder Being Nation, the documentary I made over many, many years.
You know, some things are meant to be in life. And the way everything unfolded, this truly is one of them.
BR: A lot of interviewers like to ask that question about change after a creation finally is made – and this was a process of over five years from making that commitment to the author of this book and then actually, finally, through you post-producing this alone – I’m curious like if you find that there are just different things that are the most important to you in your life now after creating this film?
SLS: The funny thing is that you get caught up so much in the minutia of everything, and I’ve literally done pretty much everything on this film, you know I get the most beautiful responses from people in the audience. This manager wrote to me because she said this man in his 70’s—this white man in his 70’s came up to her after the film to talk to her and he could barely get the words out because he was sobbing—and this was the second time he had seen the film. And she said the thing that was so extraordinary was also that he was from a generation where you don’t show emotion. And you know, she went to the trouble to extend this to me—she thought I needed to hear this story and I did, it was beautiful to hear. It’s the sort of thing where I should be walking on air with all this impact and the feelings that people are having from it—but at the end of the day I’m going to sleep anxious, waking up anxious because, you know, I have a million things to do every day, you know, promoting and logistics and all these things – and I’m just hoping to have a moment to start smelling the roses.
The one thing that’s remarkable about this film external to the narrative is that it’s almost unheard of for a film to be self-distributed by a filmmaker and yet I’ve been launching this region by region through the country. And where it’s been so far, it’s been doing extremely well. And so much of it is because the audience is getting behind the film in such a powerful way – people are connecting to us so completely on social media, reaching out to us on Facebook, spreading the word. And it’s that direct communication between them and myself that’s created this opportunity. You know people are seeing the volume in the film, in the storyline, and they’re investing parts of themselves. In Montana for example, we’re in the Arthouse in Billings right now, and we’re opening in the Myrna Loy in Helena as well as the Roxy in Missoula – you know that’s three theaters in a state with a million population – that’s not done by an independent film normally. And it’s been because people have been going to the theaters and asking for it, and that sort of thing. It’s just a remarkable example of this modern age we’re living in – the way people can engage in work, and champion it, and take it through the whole process. It’s been quite remarkable.
BR: Steve, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with Yellowstone Public Radio today.
SLS: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
Steven Lewis Simpson is best known in the U.S. film market for his Native American movies, documentary and TV show. His latest film, Neither Wolf Nor Dog, is based on the book by author Kent Nerbern. It is screening right now at the Art House Cinema and Pub in Billings and the Myrna Loy in Helena. It debuts at The Roxy in Missoula Friday Jun. 30.
Late Lakota Chief Dave Bald Eagle was honored with the role of being the First Chief of the United Indigenous Nations Groups that brings Chief’s of many tribal nations around the world together.
His people were killed in the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. Some historians speculate his grandfather, White Bull, killed General Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The Wounded Knee Massacre was the 7th Cavalry’s revenge for their unit being wiped out.
NPR once discussed whether he was “the most interesting man in the world.” He died in Jul. 22, 2016.