Novel explores the legacy of Indian boarding schools

Kent Nerburn
Kent Nerburn writes both fiction and non-fiction. For his latest book however he takes real stories he has heard on reservations around the Upper Midwest and hangs them on a fictional narrative.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Bemidji-based writer Kent Nerburn sometimes struggles to categorize what he creates. He writes fictional narratives based on the real stories of people he has met on reservations in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Nerburn's latest book, "The Wolf at Twilight," explores the sad legacy of the Indian boarding schools.

For three years, Kent Nerburn worked on the Red Lake reservation collecting oral histories. He said while some people were more articulate than others he was always touched by what he heard. When he wanted to pass along some of those stories, he turned to fiction.

"All the people are absolutely real," he said. "Their names have been changed in some cases, their identities have been changed. The idea was to take real people and set them loose in the fields of history, and let them encounter real events, real people, and to tell there stories and the stories of their ancestors in a way that would be respectful."

A few years ago he published "Neither Wolf nor Dog." It was a popular account of his offbeat friendship with an elder he called Dan, who taught him about Lakota life and beliefs.

For "The Wolf at Twiligh," Nerburn wanted to tell a story about the Indian Boarding schools. In the late 19th and early 20th century many Indian children were taken from their families and sent far away to the schools. There, teachers forced them to set aside tribal ways and learn English. Nerburn heard about them as he collected oral histories.

"The stories, when they came to the boarding schools caused people to move to a distance in their eyes or to become deeply sad," he said. "They didn't know what to say, they didn't know how to speak - they were even afraid to talk about it."

In Nerburn's novel a mysterious message left under the wiper of a car sends off a character called Kent Nerburn on a road trip. He agrees to help his friend Dan, now aged and increasingly infirm, track down his sister who he last saw 80 years before in one of the schools.

"They didn't know what to say, they didn't know how to speak - they were even afraid to talk about it."

There are moments of wry humor in the story, but it's a tough trip fraught with meaning. In the book Nerburn complains to one of Dan's friends about how the old man insists on going through history.

Kent Nerburn said he sets himself up in the book as the foil for the other characters.

"One of the essential elements, and the best elements that I love the most of the native character, and I think this is a broad brush but I think it's fair, is that the individual does not dominate over the group," he said. "So when an individual tries to lift him or herself up, very often they are pulled back down. Better that I be the individual trying to lift myself up as the narrator and getting pulled back down that trying to put one of them on a pedestal as speaking for all the people."

Nerburn acknowledges he can be walking on thin ice as a white man writing indian stories.

"It's a very fair criticism and challenge and I keep it in my mind constantly," he said. Kent Nerburn said though through his experiences and friendships he believes he has something to offer.

"I heard someone the other day on NPR talking about how black culture is always depicted from the outside, and white culture is always depicted from the inside," he said. "What I can do is go to the inside and say 'This is how it looks. This is what I see.' And I can use the skills that I have as an observer and a writer to the stories I see and the stories I hear, and the things that I see, with a compassionate eye and hopefully a solid voice."

Kent Nerburn said he knows some people within the native community dislike what he has done. However he has received ringing endorsements from Winona LaDuke and even Leonard Peltier - which he also realizes will rub other people the wrong way.

He'll read at a launch for "The Wolf at Twilight" at 7 p.m. at Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, which is sponsored by Louise Erdrich's Birch Bark book store.

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