Tom Kanthak's Reviews > The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo

The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo by Kent Nerburn
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it was amazing
Recommended for: anyone. See review.
Read 2 times. Last read September 5, 2013 to September 10, 2013.

The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo:
A Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky
By Kent Nerburn

This time Nerburn starts having vivid dreams. They’re relentless, confounding, and ominous. Eventually, they propel him into his third encounter with the American Indian world of Dan the Elder; Grover the grouch; Jumbo the gentle giant; a slobbery orphan dog; a wistful, young girl with an old soul; a woodland Anishinaabe man known by Dan as one of “the old ones” who raises buffalo; and a gruesome Indian insane asylum in South Dakota.
Of the three books Nerburn has written on his experiences with the Indian people of “Dan the Elder’s” world, “The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo.” is the most fleshed-out, mysterious, awe-inspiring, sad, humorous, suspenseful, and courageous. Nerburn walks to the edge of a deep precipice of human understanding and shows us the terror and magnitude of things Western Europeans may never fully understand. In the framework of indigenous spirituality, cosmology, and culture all things are connected. In the hands of the literary master craftsman Kent Nerburn, the disparate landscapes, personalities and situations in his book are also connected and profoundly meaningful.
Nerburn has an understanding of the Native culture that transcends the best efforts of theologians, anthropologists, sociologists, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, American government, and zealot do-gooders. He puts himself in situations he knows will pummel his ego but lead him to a place of knowledge and understanding. To be available for these teachings, he is lead across axel-busting-back-country roads, greasy roadhouses, a senior citizens home, deep forests, encounters with a menacing buffalo bull, and a historically suppressed Indian insane asylum. Most often, he is reluctant to challenge his own comforts but always committed to his friendship with Dan the Elder, and subsequently, the search for Dan’s long-lost sister, Yellow Bird.
The Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians, Canton, SD (1901 – 1934) was an institution in a small town in southeastern South Dakota that was the brainchild of Indian agent and Republican Senator R.F. Pettigrew and Canton’s former town mayor, Oscar Gifford. The former mayor wanted to promote jobs and bring esteem to an otherwise unknown entity on the edge of the western prairie. It was, ostensibly, erected to serve the truly desperate Native individual who suffered from “mental illness” and needed institutionalization. In fact, Gifford was a land developer who made out pretty well on the deal and became the first Administrator of the asylum without any prior medical experience, knowledge of hospitals, psychiatry, or Native Americans.
The Indians? You guessed it – they got screwed again: chained to radiator pipes; abandoned in locked cells to lie in their own filth for weeks; forced labor; beaten and tortured; and most of them never heard from again. One hundred and twenty one “inmates” were buried in graves that now lie between the fourth and fifth fairways of the local golf course. The asylum was the last place Dan’s sister was suspected of being seen or heard of alive.
Enter Nerburn. Armed with new information about Dan’s sister that is related to his unusual dreams, Nerburn travels back and forth between Minnesota, South Dakota, and remote forests of Northern Minnesota more than once finding, again and again, one more clue or possibility in the search for Yellow Bird. In between the many miles of his travels, he witnesses events and situations that tear at the tenuous membrane of our understanding of reality. For “the old ones”, it is business as usual. For the readers of this of this book, it is phantasmagoric.
There are “homilies” in all of Nerburn’s “Dan the Elder” books that should be required reading for every history, social studies, and religious studies program in our public schools. The words of Grover in chapters 16, “Priests and Pelicans” and Dan’s in chapter 24, “Two Worlds Inside You” are examples of the words of the Native people that need to be heard by everyone. What Nerburn relates to us is “No Bullshit” (Chapter 17) and we need to hear it.
Kent Nerburn is committed to mutual understanding between the dominant society of the Christian Western European and the indigenous people of this continent. He, of course, is not alone in that effort. However, he is one of the few who brings humanity and perspective to an acrimonious relationship between two opposing cultures. He knows the difference between the humanity of his Indian characters and the “idea” of what an Indian should be.
Below the surface of his literary skill rides the underlying question posed by Harvard researcher and ethno botanist, Dr. Wade Davis, “What does it mean to be human and alive?” Nerburn brings humanity to the indigenous milieu and gives flesh and bones to people who were perceived as “non-human” by a society that felt it knew what was best for the “savages.”
Abandon all preconceptions ye who enter this realm of the indigenous world of the seen and the unseen. You may not believe what you see and hear but for the Indian people it’s all connected.
To hear and see Kent Nerburn talk about his work, go to:

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
September 5, 2013 – Started Reading
September 10, 2013 – Finished Reading
October 1, 2013 – Shelved

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