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Native Sun News: Cheyenne River Sioux elder stars in forthcoming film

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

David Beautiful Bald Eagle stars in the forthcoming film Neither Wolf Nor Dog. Photo from Facebook

Moviemaker lauds David Beautiful Bald Eagle at Black Hills Film Festival
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News correspondent

RAPID CITY –– “We found the perfect Dan,” said independent filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson in describing how he managed to bring the book Neither Wolf Nor Dog to the movie screen.

Simpson meant that the key to realization of the picture was Cheyenne River Lakota elder David Beautiful Bald Eagle, cast in the role of Dan in the soon-to-be-completed fiction film by the same name as the book.

A producer-director and cinematographer from Scotland, Simpson spoke at a presentation entitled “Book to Film,” which was among several special events at the Black Hills Film Festival that were made possible by the South Dakota Humanities Council.

Before shooting the film on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 2014, Simpson spent years adapting the Minnesota Book Award-winning novel together with its author Kent Nerburn to depict the story of a non-Indian who is faced with the challenge of relating an illiterate Lakota man’s legacy to the reading public.

The book is subtitled On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder, and the elder’s named is Dan.

Darren Thompson, David Beautiful Bald Eagle and filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson at Black Hills Film Festival. Photo by Talli Nauman / Native Sun News

“Adapting a novel into a movie is a precarious situation,” Simpson said. But Nerburn had asked him to do it when the filmmaker was rolling his previous production Rez Bomb. “If I could make Kent happy, that was always important to me,” he noted.

In the novel, Dan was 80, and it was written 20 years ago, so Bald Eagle -- at 96 when he did the acting --was of the generation that embodied the essence of the character Simpson sought.

Many other Native American actors of that generation passed onto the Spirit World while the film was waiting to be made. “Those people are just going,” Simpson lamented.

The climax of the film takes place at Wounded Knee, Simpson explained to the listening public at the Elks Theatre in Rapid City during his presentation on May 7.

For that scene, Simpson threw out the scripted words retelling the Wounded Knee Massacre story and left the monologue entirely up to Bald Eagle.

“There’s nothing Kent or I could ever or would ever write that would have the force of David Bald Eagle’s words through Dan. We just had Dave take complete control of it,” he said.

Likewise, he said, when a question arose about a reference to a pipe ceremony or other sensitive issue, he just asked Bald Eagle “How should we do this?” Bald Eagle’s guidance gave Simpson the assurance that things were done right, he said.

Nerburn, who was on the film set during the first days of the shoot at the Sharps Corner ranch of Todd and Carolyn O’Bryan, was another source of assurance. His book had generated ample response, and he wanted the film to reflect the book’s respect for the “profound impact of nature and place on the human spirit,” the author said.

Simpson said Nerburn “had feedback from the book over the years. It was important for me to get that sort of feedback,” as well as endorsement from many local people.

“The biggest challenge was how to set up Kent as a character,” Simpson noted. Nerburn wrote the book in first-person, and he was played by Los Angeles-based actor Christopher Sweeney.

A poster for Neither Wolf Nor Dog. Image from Facebook

In the movie, the Nerburn character was made to be more confrontational than the real Nerburn for dramatic impact, Simpson said. Sweeney recalled the real Nerburn saying he “would never show that disrespect.”

Sweeney was among the co-producers, cast and crew members from across the United States and from Canada and the United Kingdom to attend the film festival and a private showing of their work-in-progress.

Among them were Yuchi Muskogee Creek Richard Ray Whitman of Oklahoma, who plays a leading role of Grover, and 2013 American Indian Film Festival Best Actress Roseanne Supernault of Canada, who plays both of the two Lakota sisters in the movie. Bald Eagle, now 97, and his wife Josee, who has a bit part in the movie, were among many other local area members of the production team in attendance.

“I’ve seen a lot of Indian movies, and I’ve played in some of them,” Bald Eagle said. “But this is the one that’s closest to the truth.”

(Contact Talli Nauman at

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