Kent Nerburn’s new The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky is a wonder. The final volume in a trilogy that is neither Western-style history nor fiction, it does what neither can do on their own: take you into the mind, and now also the spiritual awareness, of traditional Indians. Traditional knowledge is often imparted through story, and this is what Nerburn does, story that is not really fiction. (To learn more how he does what he does explore his website.)
The first two in the series: Neither Wolf Nor Dog and The Wolf at Twilight are wonderful on their own terms. They constitute the most penetrating views I have ever read of how Indians live in today’s world. They are told from the perspective of a white guy chosen by an Indian to tell these stories, and to do this he has to know both cultures deeply. In his own way he is neither wolf nor dog. They are rich with history, humor, fascinating people, tragedies past and present, and a deep rootedness we Americans mostly can only wish we had. But the spiritual world in which traditional Native Americans live, and its cultural and psychological tensions with the West were only lightly touched upon.
When I read them I suspected Nerburn pulled his punches a little in his first two books. There are many good reasons for his having done so. But no punches are pulled in this one. Among other things the first two books gave those of us who read them the grounding not so much to understand, as to accept and respect the unfolding of the third. In the course of the third Nerburn gives us a powerful taste of a world European culture has sought to destroy. It takes us as far as a white guy on the outside can go in how they experience it.
Many years ago, three days alone on Mt. Shasta took me much farther, and changed, deepened, and complicated my life. But compared to characters in his account, I was and will always remain a beginner, too enmeshed in the modern world to carry my understanding much farther than I have. I did go far enough to appreciate from the EuroAmerican side the same dilemmas his Indian characters faced, and understand why some tried to protect Nerburn from having to confront this dilemma. Once you begin to see you can’t really go back. But perhaps it is time for more and more whites to set aside their arrogance or their fear (which often lies under the arrogance) and open ourselves to really grasping the world is bigger than we are at levels we cannot even begin to imagine.
I think the most important single thing American culture can do is free itself of its arrogant belief it has a uniquely accurate take on the world in which we live. Our culture is like a sociopath who cannot empathize with others’ feelings and so cannot do more than seek to manipulate them. Small wonder then that America is dissolving around us into a world where corporations are considered human beings with more legal standing than people; where as soon as an infant is born those claiming to be ‘pro-life’ ignore his or her health, nutrition and education; where hospitals and schools are shot up by the spiritually depraved while the spiritually empty argue that with enough guns we can overcome our fear of other people, our fellow Americans, our neighbors, and at root, ourselves.
Nerburn demonstrates that we have, as we have always had, an alternative, and that we carry the door into that alternative within our hearts. But this alternative opens into the More-than-human. With heart we also need respect and humility, two other very human values American culture has largely forgotten about. He is hardly the first to have said this and will not be the last, but few have said it as movingly, as beautifully, and as powerfully as Kent Nerburn does in The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo.