‘Reaching Hands Across the Chasm’: Nerburn Journals One Book Adventures Across South Dakota

Caption and photo by Kent Nerburn, describing his appearance at the Watertown Regional Library June 4 to start his 2019 One Book South Dakota Tour. "...for an evening of enjoyable conversation about "Neither Wolf nor Dog" and sundry other topics. Before we started, I told them all to wave to you out there. The group on the right side of the photo clearly got the waving part better than the group on the left. But they all promised to practice. Ostentatious shows of personal exuberance are not the strong suit of those of us of solid midwestern character."

'Neither Wolf nor Dog' Author Chronicles Week 1 of One Book Tour, Which Continues June 9-15

As could be expected from an author who writes books based on his experiences, Kent Nerburn has taken careful notes during his 2019 One Book South Dakota Tour, which began in Watertown June 4.

The award-winning "Neither Wolf nor Dog" author is chronicling the tour on his Facebook page, which you can follow by clicking here.

Below are excerpts and photos from Nerburn's online journals (reposted with his permission) detailing his trips to Watertown, Sisseton, Aberdeen, Timber Lake, Spearfish.

He continues his tour today, June 9, in Rapid City and Custer June 10 before heading back east to Kyle, Lower Brule, Pierre, Miller, Brookings, Sioux Falls and Yankton next week. Find a full list of dates, times, venues and event descriptions at the bottom of this post.

South Dakota One Book Tour, Day 1 (June 4): Watertown

Drove in this morning from Minneapolis. The earth is stretching its limbs, getting ready for planting. Small towns, farm implements on the otherwise empty roads, a farmer kneeling alone in his field, lifting dirt in his hand and examining it. If there is such a thing as an air of agricultural anticipation, this is it. Across the border into South Dakota, temperature rising -- near 90 -- step out into air like devil's breath. Here we go.

Prairie thunderstorms, like prairie fires, are sights to behold. A thunderstorm skirted us last night, but remained hissing and spitting in the distance. The roiling, turbulent sky did not keep...(crowds) from filing into the Watertown Regional Library (depicted in above photo) for an evening of enjoyable conversation about "Neither Wolf nor Dog" and sundry other topics. Before we started, I told them all to wave to you out there. The group on the right side of the photo clearly got the waving part better than the group on the left. But they all promised to practice. Ostentatious shows of personal exuberance are not the strong suit of those of us of solid midwestern character.

Author Kent Nerburn has a conversation with Crystal Owen on the Campus Television station

Kent Nerburn talks to Crystal Owen on air during an interview at the campus television station at Sisseton Wahpeton College in Sisseton on June 5. 

South Dakota One Book Tour, Day 2 (June 5): Sisseton

The drive through the rich farmland, just coming alive, was a pleasure. I had a chance to meet with Joe Williams (pictured below), one of the Sisseton elders and a long time friend of my Bemidji compatriot Joe Day. Joe shared some of his knowledge of the meaning of the petroglyphs at Jeffers and told me of his family's experience on the land. Later, I had a conversation with Crystal Owen on the Campus Television station, and, lastly, was able to see the wonderful Sisseton/Wahpeton tribal college facilities. Tonight it is another reading, then, with luck, some time to look through the truly amazing historical and archive collection of the tribe before I have to push the pedal tomorrow morning. This is one more undiscovered gem of tribal renewal and energy. The time is far too short. The history is too deep, the experience too rich, to be plumbed in such a short visit. May I have a chance to come back.


Kent Nerburn with tribal elder Joe Williams in Sisseton. 

Prairie land near Sisseton, S.D.

South Dakota One Book Tour, Day 3, (June 6): Aberdeen

Hearing the voices of the Wahpeton Sisseton folks is heart-opening. Sat with Joe Williams, who is 85 and one of the true elders of the community, and Tamara St. John, who is both a South Dakota State Representative and the Tribal archivist. Their stories of their experience, both as individuals and as part of their people, reminded me of how important it is to hear their voices and to make those voices known. Again, too soon finished, then back on the road. That good old feeling of prairie travel -- thin ribbon of roadway passing through broad open country. Freshly planted fields, Brahms' violin concerto in D on the radio, 25 miles encountering only three cars and a combine. Beef jerky and a bottle of water from a meat processing facility in a small town of 175, then back on the road. Aberdeen tonight. Slowly working my way west.

The temperature at 5 p.m. cracks 90 degrees. No lucky long sleeved black Irish grandfather shirts for tonight's presentation.

A good group -- 25 or 30. One young Native woman, the first to truly understand ("Neither Wolf nor Dog" character, the mechanic) Jumbo -- all things said and all things hidden. No one else has seen it. The secret remains.

A quick stop for something to eat. My ongoing search for the worst Chinese restaurants in the world. Not even in the top ten. Then back to the motel. A roadside place -- truckers and construction workers. Diesel refrigerator units rumbling outside. The pungent smell of freshly turned fields and manure hangs in the air...common children of a common land. But the divide is real. That's why I'm here -- to help reach hands across the chasm. I'm doing the best I can.

South Dakota One Book Tour, Day 4 (June 7): Timber Lake

About to leave for 150-mile drive to my next stop. You folks who don't live in open country don't have a clue. These distances are daily realities, a joy in good weather, dangerous when things get bad.

I'm hoping to avoid any serious thunderstorms. Well, maybe I'm not. I need at least one towering, looming mass of darkness descending upon me, spitting lightning and cracking the sky, then sending me to the side of the road to wait out a deluge that shakes the car and makes driving impossible. Creates an honest humility not tied to some natural disaster. We all know the world is big and we are small. A prairie or high plains thunderstorm is just a visceral reminder. Gives you a proper sense of perspective and a true understanding of your place in the universe. Gives a person religion. Which one is up to you.

There is so much love in these small towns, and so much sense of loss. If only they could hear the voices of those who lived here before, whose sense of love and loss is as every bit as great and deep as theirs. An American tragedy, playing itself out against the relentless prairie winds. We on the outside simply cannot understand.

South Dakota One Book Tour, Day 5 (June 8): Between Timber Lake and Spearfish

I always experience a shiver when I pass across the Missouri from East River to West River. It is one of the most profound psychic changes I know of anywhere. It rises to the surface in terms of the difference between farmland and range land, grid pattern to meandering roads following topography, farming economy to ranching economy -- in general, from the end of the midwest to the start of the west. But it is the deep changes that cause the shiver. The land changes from glacially ground farmland to rolling, extinct seabed, the air is drier and the light is brighter, the sky has a different weight and color, the horizon draws the spirit in a different way. One side says, "Settle and work," the other says, "Wander and dream." It is a division in the American heart reflected in and born of the land. I never tire of this magical shift, and I set out today with my eyes on a different horizon.

In the car — Schumann and Brahms.
In the Convenience Store — Country Western, cowboy boots, and crosses.
Outside, the song of the open road under the same towering Dakota sky.

South Dakota One Book Tour Day 6 (June 9): Spearfish to Rapid City

Had a fine event at the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish. Folks too often look past these museums and history centers, making them a cursory stop on a tour of a town or an area. But they contain what people think is important about the place where they live. They are an archeology and an anthropology of human experience, as well as an historical record of the pulse of a community. They give you an insider's view of how folks understand what it means to call a place your home.

Often the most lowly and seldom visited offer the richest experiences. I still remember a little museum in St. John, North Dakota that proudly displayed a small tree in its front yard. The man showing me around took me out and stood me by it and said, "This tree has been on the moon." Local students had sent a sapling with the astronauts that landed on the moon, and now, having been brought back, it is growing into a sturdy tree. So in St. John, North Dakota, population 341, I was able to touch a branch of a tree that had been on the moon. And every small museum and heritage center has such wonders.

I had no time to spend in the Heritage Center in Spearfish, but as I was rushing out I saw enough of an old covered wagon to ignite my imagination about the lives of the adventurers and dreamers who came here to mine and make this place their own. It is only one part of a deep history, but it is real and it makes human experience tangible.

I always made these stops with my son when he was little and he still does the same today. Find the little museums and historical centers tucked away in old frame houses on the back streets of small towns and be prepared for an intimate touch with the lives of people who time has often ignored or forgotten. Your travels will gain a texture you cannot imagine. And, if are reading this because you like my books, know that the creative source from which almost all of them springs is these treasured stops at these out of the way and forgotten places. They contain the honest heart of a people.

South Dakota One Book Tour, Day 6 (June 9): Spearfish

"Spearfish Canyon, the sky — as the Nez Perce say — the color of forever, and a Bach Cantata on the radio. You can take me now, God. This is enough."

But God did not take me. Instead, he sent me to a laundromat.

You pretty much get a free pass as a rumpled author, but there are limits. So now I am relatively unrumpled, but the sleeves of my shirts and the legs of my pants are three inches too short.

The mixed pleasures of life on the road.

South Dakota One Book Tour, Day 7 (June 10): Custer and Kyle:

American coffee in general, and motel coffee in particular, are crimes against nature. A two dollar Mr. Coffee from the Goodwill, some filters from the dollar store, and some fresh ground French roast from a local coffee shop, and my life, which is already very good, is 100% better. Should be an interesting day.

Day 7 (cont'd)

I can think of no other place I have ever been that has two such spiritually powerful and distinct land forms, each completely unexpected and self-contained, as the Black Hills and the Badlands. They each come upon you as a surprise, overwhelm you for the short time you are in them, then disappear as abruptly as they appeared. The intensity of their presence is way out of proportion to the relatively small areas they occupy. The badlands could be the surface of some foreign planet, and the Black Hills could be the residence of the Gods. The Badlands defy commercialization, and we are fortunate that they do. The Black Hills are peppered with waterslides and tourist drek. But these are but tiny intrusions on a great spiritual life force. I remember writing in "Neither Wolf nor Dog" about rock outcroppings jutting through the earth like bone through skin. It is a fair description. The whole landscape is alive.

South Dakota One Book Tour, Day 8 (June 11): Kyle to Lower Brule to Pierre

When we're traveling, we inevitably bring out our cameras and cell phones and try to capture an image of those places that quicken our spirit. Inevitably, we're disappointed. You cannot objectify a place, you must feel its presence. Once reduced to an image — unless it's an image created by a true master or in a moment of fortunate genius — that presence eludes us.

Right now, I'm driving through the badlands, and, as always the temptation is there to try to take a photo of what I'm experiencing. But I know better.

You cannot capture this land. You must be satisfied to let this land capture you.

Day 8 (cont'd)

Last night I passed by Wounded Knee, which plays such a large role in "Neither Wolf nor Dog" as well as in my own emotional life, because I see its echoes in the eyes of every Native person I meet. It is a ghost of loss and betrayal, and it humbles me and drives me forward.

I'm not talking about guilt. I'm talking about something more immediate, more demanding: I'm talking about responsibility. As Dan says, we ourselves may not have been participants, but we are drinking the water downstream.

Every American should be haunted by Wounded Knee. In our past there are a hundred, a thousand, Wounded Knees, acknowledged and unacknowledged — from Sand Creek to Gnadenhutten to My Lai. Until we admit that they are part of who we are and take responsibility for the role they have played in our national journey, there is work to be done.

South Dakota One Book Tour, Day 9 (June 12): Pierre

In the plains states and the prairie states, where the sky is large and people are few -- travel is almost a musical experience. Add in the birdsong and the wind and who could wish to be anywhere else?

Interlude - A Note to Readers From Kent: June 13

This blog, which was never intended to be much, has taken on a bit of a life. As I realized it was reaching people far beyond the tour itself, I turned my focus from the human encounters to different forces, because names and faces mean little to those who don't know the participants. If the canvas were larger I could tell the individual stories with the care they deserve. But I am moving quickly, so I leave the individual encounters behind -- the wonderful people, the intelligent audiences, the many kindnesses done to me -- and set my eyes on larger impressions. To those of you I am meeting along the way, know that each of my stops has been unique and wonderful, and you each deserve mention. But it's like a wedding invitation list: the ones you leave off become as significant as the ones you include, and I don't want to leave anybody off. So I bite my literary lip and keep the individual memories in my heart, choosing instead to paint with a larger brush. Just know that you all have given me a great gift. I love this state and am honored to be able to share my journey with you.

So it's off to another day under the impossibly blue skies.

South Dakota One Book Tour, Day 10 (June 13): Miller, Brookings

There are two American bodies of water that speak to me more than any others: Lake Superior and the Missouri River.

Superior — brooding, mysterious, latent with violence  is a story unto itself. The Missouri, where I am standing now, speaks in a very different tongue. Broad and languid, it snakes silently through the great arid landscape of the West involved in an eternal conversation with the earth and sky.

Because you can see it for such great distances as it bends and curves through the land, the Missouri seems completely indifferent to the humans and animals that depend on it for life. It speaks on almost a geological scale, and, like all the other great forces here, it makes you humble.

Folks look at the Mississippi as the mythic American river, all full of riverboats and Huck Finn in our cultural imagination. But the Missouri, which joins up with the Mississippi near St. Louis and is longer from its point of origin to that junction, feels somehow more essential and eternal. It is the lifeblood of a thirsty land, and in its presence you feel an almost palpable sense of gratitude and relief.

If the Mississippi is the father of waters, the Missouri is the mother of waters. It protects and nourishes, and it deserves to be treated with reverence and humility. There is a reason why the Native people are fighting against pipelines and other intrusions, and those reasons are not economic, they are spiritual. We would do well to listen. More than we realize is at stake.

One Book South Dakota Tour, Day 11 (June 14): Sioux Falls

Return from the great meeting of water, earth, and sky to the land of the all-too-human.

The imagination finds its touchstones where it will. Mine is nourished by open spaces and great natural forces. But just when I think that the return to the human is a descent into the ordinary, I happen upon a string quartet playing in a small artists' cooperative in Sioux Falls. The magic they create is something uniquely human, and the joy of their collaboration takes my breath away as surely as a prairie thunderstorm.

Strange and frustrating creatures, we humans, able to do so much damage and create so much beauty. May we create more of the latter and do less of the former. But the jury is still out. It is in our children's hands, and the hands of our children's children, to render a verdict. If you asked me which way it will go, I truly couldn't say. But one must never bet against hope.

South Dakota One Book Tour, Day 12 (June 14): Sioux Falls to Yankton

The loop is complete. I'm back in the east, in Sioux Falls. The trip odometer in the car shows 2500 miles, and I'm not done yet.

Sioux Falls always surprises me with its vibrancy and solidity. The streets are alive and there is a sense of growth and possibility that is lacking in so many American cities. String quartets, sculptures on every corner, outdoor cafes – who knew? Not the folks in the rest of America. This is one of the unknown gems in flyover country.

But my mind has been drifting back to the small towns that have formed the backbone of this trip. They survive on love and grit. America doesn't care about them, doesn't know about them, doesn't remember them. They are vestigial in the national consciousness, romanticized or looked upon as anachronisms that will inevitably dry up and disappear. But they will not dry up. They will not disappear. They have an incredible strength that will not be broken. They survive because people stay there, not because people come there. And people stay there out of love – for the land, for their friends, for a way of life.

You need to get past the Dollar Generals and Pizza Huts and Dairy Queens that anchor their outskirts – imposed franchised entities that serve but have no heart. You need to find the meat lockers that process the beef and sell me my jerky, the local restaurants proud of their pie, the dusty little museums and the junk shops and the thrift shops. Those are the places where you see how people work, what they eat, what they value and what they discard.

I've been traveling too fast to give these towns their due. But I get a glimpse and a flavor. What makes them is not what they've lost, but what has survived. To have a reading in a town of several hundred and have twenty people show up is a testament to how much they care about the civic life of their community.

Life in these small towns is hard, but it is good. These folks work harder than I can ever imagine working. And they are intelligent. I doubt that I share their politics – I see through a different lens and I look at a different world. But they have earned the right to be who they are. And they are not unaware.

Love and grit. That's what makes them who they are and will keep them who they are. Yes, there are tensions and there are deep fractures, and justice here is not colorblind. But this is a land of strong hands and open hearts. I feel like I've been given a gift.

South Dakota One Book tour, Day 13 (June 15): Yankton, and the End of the Trail

Eastern skies now. A little more weight, a little less clarity. When the heat comes calling — and it will do so soon — we will boil rather than bake. But for today, all is soft air and gentle light.

I'm standing on the north bank of the Missouri River, drinking in the sweet scent of the prairie breezes. Above me, the great central flyway where each year millions of birds, guided by some mysterious knowledge, make their way, north to south and south to north, on their annual migrations. Across the river, the chalky bluffs of Nebraska. This is where South Dakota ends. It seems a fitting place to end these musings, as well.

13 days, 2500 miles, 15 talks, dozens of handshakes and smiles and hugs. Farmers, ranchers, Native elders, young mothers with children in tow, people now retired to the place that has always called them home; rough-handed workers, physicians, schoolteachers. They bring their best selves to me, these good folk. Curious, open, welcoming. A plate of cookies here, a braid of sweetgrass there, photos to share and stories to tell. We meet, we touch, then we go our separate ways.

It has been wonderful stitching together this complex state where the spaces are large and the humans are few; where every encounter matters and everyone keeps a watchful eye on the seasons and skies.

Yes, there are fractures and divisions. East River, west river; prairie and plains, farmers and ranchers, native and white. And all are real, all shape the consciousness of the people who live here. Yet, beneath the differences, everyone shares a common humility in the face of the great forces that dwarf the human and shape the land.

But it is the layers more than the divisions that fascinate me, because it is in the layers that the richness of this state is revealed. The native people who lived here first and claim the land as their spiritual heritage. The immigrant settlers who broke the ground and made the land bear fruit. The new migrants, the next wave, now arriving full of hope, to harvest the crops and make a new home. All give their lives to this place, raise their children here, and bury their dead. And all have a claim to it, well-earned and hard-won. But the claims compete, the worlds collide. The layers sit one on top of the other, and they do not always wear that proximity well.

It is getting near time to leave. I look out once more across the turbid waters, stare up at the chalky hills. Steamboats once plied these waters, and trappers' canoes. Santee men and women walked those hills. And I think of the troubles going on upstream, where people committed to progress contend with those who would hallow the land by leaving it untouched, and farmers and ranchers struggle to increase their yields without poisoning the lands and waters that are their inheritance and responsibility.

Yes, this is complex land, and it does not admit of easy answers.

I am reminded of words spoken by two Native men whose teachings have played a large role in my life.

The first, by an elder who worried deeply about what he saw going on around him. "There is going to come a day," he said, "When things can't be fixed. And, you know what? It will be a day just like today."

The second, by Sitting Bull, the great Lakota chief whose presence remains so strong in this land. "Come," he said, "Let us put our minds together to see what sort of life we can create for our children."

Somewhere, between the elder's caution and Sitting Bull's dream, we go forward together and try to make our way.


At most stops, Nerburn will discuss his work, answer questions, and sign books; if the presentation format will be different, that is indicated.

  • Tuesday, June 4, Watertown 7 p.m. – Watertown Regional Library, 160 6th St NE (Coordinator – Maria Gruener, 605-882-6220)

  • Wednesday, June 5, Sisseton 7 p.m. – Nicollet Tower Interpretive Center, 45356 SD Hwy 10 (Coordinator – Sandi Jaspers, 605-268-0006)

  • Thursday, June 6, Aberdeen 7 p.m. – K.O. Lee Aberdeen Public Library, 215 Southeast 4th Ave (Coordinator - Cara Romeo, 605-626-7097)

  • Friday, June 7, Timber Lake 5 p.m. Neither Wolf nor Dog film screening, 7 p.m. discussion – Timber Lake School Theater, 500 Main St (Coordinator – Kathy Nelson, 605-865-3546)

  • Saturday, June 8, Spearfish 1:30 p.m. – High Plains Western Heritage Center, 825 Heritage Drive (Coordinator – Joanna Jones, 605-450-0121)

  • Sunday, June 9, Rapid City 2 p.m. – Rapid City Public Library (Downtown), 610 Quincy St (Coordinator – Janet Parr, 605-394-6139)

  • Monday, June 10, Custer 12 p.m. – Custer County Library, 447 Crook St, Suite 4 (Coordinator – Doris Ann Mertz, 605-673-4803)

  • Monday, June 10, Kyle 5:30 p.m. –Oglala Lakota College Woksape Tipi Library & Archives, 490 Piya Wiconi Rd (Coordinator – Michelle May, 605-455-6064)

  • Tuesday, June 11, Lower Brule 12 p.m. – Lower Brule Community College, 111 Little Partisan Ln (Coordinator – Natalie Anderson, 605-473-9232)

  • Wednesday, June 12, Pierre 7 p.m. – Capitol Lake Visitor Center, 650 E Capitol Ave (Coordinator – Dorinda Daniel, 605-773-6006)

  • Thursday, June 13, Miller 12 p.m. – Hand County Library, 402 N Broadway Ave (Coordinator – Ray Caffee, 605-853-3593)

  • Thursday, June 13, Brookings 7 p.m. – Brookings Public Library, 515 3rd St (Coordinator – Ashia Gustafson, 605-692-9407)

  • Friday, June 14, Sioux Falls 12 p.m. – Siouxland Libraries Downtown Library, 200 N Dakota Ave (Coordinator – Amber Fick, 605-367-8703)

  • Friday, June 14, Sioux Falls 5 p.m. – Full Circle Book Co-op, 123 W. 10th St. (Coordinator – Jason Kurtz, 605-212-8914)

  • Saturday, June 15, Yankton 2 p.m. – Yankton Community Library, 515 Walnut St (Coordinator – Dana Schmidt, 605-668-5275)

About Kent Nerburn and the One Book

A two-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award, Nerburn is the author of 14 books on spiritual values and Native American themes, including "Letters to My Son," "Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce" and, most recently, "Dancing with the Gods."

"For several years I worked on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation helping students collect the memories of the tribal elders," Nerburn said. "This changed my life and introduced me to the native spiritual traditions that have become so central to the message in my writings." 

"Neither Wolf nor Dog" was made into a feature film in 2016. Nerburn is excited that the entire state's citizens will be reading and discussing his book. "I am humbled to have my unique literary child, 'Neither Wolf nor Dog,' chosen as the One Book South Dakota selection for 2019," Nerburn said. "A Native elder once counseled me: 'You should always teach by story, because stories lodge deep in the heart.'"

Born and raised near Minneapolis, Nerburn earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Minnesota in American Studies. He went on to study humanities and religious studies at Stanford University before earning a doctorate in religious studies and art at the University of California at Berkeley. Originally a sculptor, Nerburn became a writer to reach broader audiences with his work. After spending 25 years in northern Minnesota, Nerburn and his wife now live near Portland, Ore.

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