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posted: 10/28/2016 1:25 PM

Author Kent Nerburn to speak in Geneva

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  • Kent Nerburn is the author of several books, including "Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads With an Indian Elder."

    Kent Nerburn is the author of several books, including "Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads With an Indian Elder."
    Courtesy of Kent Nerburn

  • From left, author Kent Nerburn and his friend Martin Sensmeier, a Tlingit man from Yakutat, Alaska, sit by the fire outside Nerburn's home. Nerburn, who has written several books about chasms and connections between Indians and non-Indians in the U.S., will speak Friday, Nov. 4, in Geneva.

    From left, author Kent Nerburn and his friend Martin Sensmeier, a Tlingit man from Yakutat, Alaska, sit by the fire outside Nerburn's home. Nerburn, who has written several books about chasms and connections between Indians and non-Indians in the U.S., will speak Friday, Nov. 4, in Geneva.
    Courtesy of Kent Nerburn

 
By Valerie Blaine
Forest Preserve District of Kane County

The din of the 2016 election has become a steady roar. People are shouting from all sides, and the future is up for grabs. At times like these, it's hard to pause long enough to listen, to learn, or to find the right path for tomorrow.

Guest presenter and acclaimed author Kent Nerburn will encourage us to do just that in his lecture "Building Bridges on Sacred Land" from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4, at the Stephen Persinger Recreation Center in Geneva.

Nerburn will discuss the chasms and connections between Indians and non-Indians in the United States, and the indigenous belief in a spiritual relationship with the land.

The Native experience is rich in history, steeped in spirituality, and wrought with tragedy. It is characterized by despair and resilience, strength and resolve. Nerburn embraces all of these aspects in his books about Indians in the United States today. His work is "creative nonfiction," based on decades-long friendships and experiences.

Nerburn describes himself as a lifelong student of religion.

"My work has been a constant search, from various perspectives, for an authentic American spirituality," he wrote on his website, Kentnerburn.com.

He shares his journey in a trilogy of books: "Neither Wolf nor Dog," "The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo" and "The Wolf at Twilight." In these works, beliefs and traditions from the Old World come head-to-head with those of the (not-so-new) New World. There are clashes, and there are connections.

The characters in Nerburn's trilogy are not what you might expect from books about Indians. (First, the term "Indian" is used because it is no more or less politically correct than "Native American.") In any discussion of the Indian experience, preconceived notions can get in the way. Stereotypes run the gamut.

There's the Hollywood Indian, riding bareback in the Wild West, sporting a long, feathered headdress, brandishing a rifle and whooping war cries. There's the romantic, noble Indian, clad in buckskin, treading softly through the forest on mocossined feet.

And, there's the millennial Indian, a smartphone in her purse, a share in the casino, and relatives in poverty on the rez. Nerburn's readers will quickly learn to toss the stereotypes.

In "Neither Wolf nor Dog," it's clear that the bridging between two cultures is a process. The best of intentions on both sides is often met with befuddlement, confusion and sometimes hurt feelings. Hurt, yes, there is hurt. How can there not be in any account of Indians in North America?

The Indian experience has been one of tragedy since Europeans' arrival in North America. There are injustices that cannot be undone. The old-timers may remember their parents' stories of the boarding schools. The young know all too well the specter of poverty. All know about discrimination. Nerburn does not shy away from the painful truth.

Readers may wonder what the proper response should be. Do we heave a sigh and say, "Water under the bridge?" Do we ignore it (fingers in ear, "la-la-la-la-la!"), deny it and forge ahead into the millennium? Do we wallow in guilt? Perhaps, none of the above. This is what the pilgrimage is about.

Nerburn's characters are at times funny, profound, and insightful. They can be baffling and mysterious. They are never predictable.

The stories illustrate cultural differences -- some subtle, some jaunting -- and cultural connections as well. Non-Indians today may puzzle over junked pickup trucks left to rust on the reservation, just as 19th century Indians puzzled over carcasses of slaughtered bison left to rot on the prairie. Some might wonder if tobacco from a pack of cigarettes can be as holy as tobacco from the wild.

Different paradigms reflect a different relationship with the land. Take a walk with Dan, the Lakota elder, or a have a cup of coffee with Jumbo, the Indian mechanic, and you will get the point.

The gap between Indian and non-Indian may be wide, but Nerburn helps his readers to climb up from the crevasse, build bridges between cultures, and strengthen spiritual ties with the land.

"I am deeply concerned with the human condition and our responsibility to the earth, the people on it, and the generations to come," Nerburn said.

"I believe that we are, at heart, spiritual beings seeking spiritual meaning, and I try to honor this search wherever I discover it in the course of my daily life."

Refreshing words, in contrast with the cacophony around us.

It's tough to listen, let alone see, through the maelstrom of this election year, when disagreement and divisiveness are the rule, rather than the exception. Truth and lies are confused. Leaders speak from both sides of their mouth. This may look awfully familiar to those of Indian heritage.

Lives matter. Indian lives, non-Indian lives. Plant lives, animal lives. Indeed, the land is sacred, and it matters. Knowing this is important, as old Dan would point out, and living it is even more important.

How long this takes us to learn, is the big question. Kent Nerburn helps to show that the lesson plan has been written through the history of the American Indian. We should all be willing, if not eager, students, no matter who resides on Pennsylvania Avenue come January.

Don't miss Kent Nerburn's presentation. His words give us much to ponder, much to discuss, and much to hope for.

• Valerie Blaine is the nature programs manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may contact her by email, blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.

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