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home : arts & entertainment : arts & entertainment September 20, 2017

9/12/2017 11:39:00 AM
Indie film goes to heart of Lakota country
David Bald Eagle is the heart of Neither Wolf Nor provided
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David Bald Eagle is the heart of Neither Wolf Nor provided

This jumpís for you, Chief
Editor's note: This is a reprinting of a July 2016 column in honor of Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle. At age 95, he starred in the independent film "Neither Wolf Nor Dog," which is premiering Friday, September 15, at Sisters Movie House. See related story, page 3.

"... I can remember everything: From horses and cart days right up until today; jet planes and computers. When I was a boy there weren't even any fences ... all just open prairie. The world has changed so quickly ... It's so short a time ... I've had a long life, but it seems like yesterday..."

- Chief David William Wounded in Winter Beautiful Bald Eagle

The world lost a great man last week.

Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle died on July 22. He was born in a tipi on the edge of the Cheyenne River on April 8, 1919, and he was the grandson of Chief White Bull, who some 43 years earlier had led a memorable charge against Custer at the Little Bighorn. In 1936, Beautiful Bald Eagle joined the 4th Cavalry, and in 1940 re-enlisted with the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg. He was decorated for bravery after his first combat jump at Anzio, and was severely wounded and left for dead on his second, at Normandy, on D-Day.

After the war, he played semi-pro baseball. He acted in movies and served as Errol Flynn's stunt double in "Flaming Arrow." He became a champion ballroom dancer and is enshrined in the Ballroom Hall of Fame. He raised horses. He raised children. A lot of them, 25, in fact, including five that he and his wife - an actress from Belgium named Josee, whom he met at the World's Fair in 1958 - adopted. He raced cars. He went back to rodeo, forking bareback broncs and bulls. He was a close friend of rodeo legend Casey Tibbs, and once danced with Marilyn Monroe. He acted in more movies, including "Dances With Wolves," and starred in his final film at the age of 95.

He was made traditional Chief of the Miniconjou Lakota band and the United Native Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Cheyenne River Sioux, and he went skydiving.


I've seen a lot of that lately, while working the horses or out watering the garden, I look up and see the brightly patterned canopies swinging back to earth, and on some days I can even hear the delighted shrieks and shouts of people living their lives with a dramatically renewed sense of awe.

Surely you know what comes next.

What better way to honor a life of service and dedication to family, friends, neighbors; a life so well lived, so perfectly bookended by tipis and supercomputers, that it almost defies articulation? Why wouldn't we, after considering one man's model, take a minute to examine the mundane routines that we fall into so easily, to throw them out with Monday's garbage, and to purposefully aim for a place completely beyond our comfort zone?

We did, my wife and I.

We drove down to the airport and signed up. We entrusted our lives to a pair of complete strangers, Ryan and Steven, strapping into the harness, and donning the surprisingly simple garb of human flight. And it was not lost on me, as we flew over the drop zone and Ryan cinched up our tandem rig, that Beautiful Bald Eagle believed that the harness he wore on D-Day had saved his life, as he and his brothers from the 82nd were shot, in his own words, "like clay pigeons" descending over Normandy. The harness was so tight, he said, that it prevented him from bleeding out from his wounds when he hit the ground.

I won't tell you I wasn't scared. I was. Ryan, my instructor, told me just before the door opened and we tumbled out - which in that first few seconds is like falling in a vacuum of pure shrieking insanity - that he could feel my heart beating above the vibration of the plane. He wasn't kidding.

But then, just as suddenly, we were flying, buoyant even, as if the air were pushing us back into the sky, and we were carving our descent in a series of controlled and rewarding turns. Fear vanished. It was true flight, loud, windy, with all of Central Oregon spread out beneath us in a vision of mountain lakes and forests and volcanoes holding snow in the lees. We could see St. Helens, Rainier, the raw power of the Cascade peaks marching off into the horizon, and far below, the little town of Sisters, looking something like a cartoon hamlet just recently hacked out of the forest.

And then the parachute opened and we began to float, the world gone so suddenly quiet it seemed we were drifting in the primordial. And there is nothing like hanging lazily under the canopy, taking in the curvature of a world you might never quite see again in the same way, and looking up to see your wife, still streaking earthward at 150 mph, in a pink flightsuit, freefalling.

We could do worse than to model something of our drive for life after David Beautiful Bald Eagle, who just kept living well when age and gravity and time might have forced him to close up shop. But he didn't allow that, and instead seemed to grow bigger and stronger with age.

We should do so well. His example inspired us, and we were happy to shove complacency aside, widen the path, and just get after the good and sweet business of being alive. So ... this jump's for you, Chief Beautiful Bald Eagle - "walk on."

By Jim Cornelius
News Editor

A Lakota elder and his protective friend suck a white author into the heart of Lakota Country, encouraging him to see their reality without falling prey to white men's guilt-ridden clichés, so it can be distilled into a book that the old man can leave future generations.

That is the premise of "Neither Wolf Nor Dog," one of the most talked-about independent films of the year. It will premier at Sisters Movie House on Friday, September 15.

The elder, Dan, is played by David Beautiful Bald Eagle, who died at 97 last summer. Dave Bald Eagle lived a remarkable life, which included dropping into the Normandy combat zone as a D-Day paratrooper and dancing with Marilyn Monroe, and acting in films (see The Bunkhouse Chronicle, page 19). Neither Wolf Nor Dog was his final role, and it spoke profoundly to his heart.

"He saw it before he passed and said it's the only film he's been in about his people that told the truth," director Steven Simpson said.

Simpson is Scottish, but he had unique credentials to bring Kent Nerburn's novel to the screen. Simpson has made three films in South Dakota and the Pine Ridge Reservation, including "Rez Bomb" and the documentary "Thunder-Being Nation."

Nerburn approached Simpson to bring his beloved story to life "from the reservation out, rather than from Hollywood in." The filming of Neither Wolf Nor Dog is nearly as extraordinary a story as the one the film depicts. Crowd-funded, it was shot by a crew of two, with Simpson handling almost all of the technical duties, on a short schedule that had to accommodate for the limited physical capabilities of a then-95-year-old lead actor.

If audience and critical reaction is any indication, Simpson succeeded at every level. The film has garnered critical acclaim and - more importantly - has deeply moved audiences.

In an interview with The Nugget, Simpson noted that Neither Wolf Nor Dog may be one of the rare films where it is best to see the movie before reading the book. That's thanks to Dave Bald Eagle's performance as Dan.

"Dave Bald Eagle was beyond perfect for the role," Simpson said. "With anyone else it would just be a fraction of the film."

It is delightful, the director said, to read the story with the actor as your image of the character of the Lakota elder.

"He left a piece of his spirit with the film," Simpson reflected. "He goes to an incredibly deep place in the last scene at Wounded Knee."

Wounded Knee, in the Dakota Badlands, was the site of one of the most devastating actions of the long conflict between Americans and the Lakota Nation, on December 28, 1890.

Some 200 Lakota Sioux men, women and children were gunned down in the snow on that day, in a scuffle that turned into a confused firefight, which became a massacre that stained the honor of the United States Army and ripped the heart out of the Lakota Nation.

Simpson said that he threw out the script for the scene set at that sacred place, and David Bald Eagle improvised a heartfelt monologue that touched on the lasting scars of that tragic day. At the end of the long take, Simpson recalled, "he turned to Chris Sweeney (who plays Kent Nerburn) and said, 'I've been holding that in for 95 years.'"

Wounded Knee has reverberated across a century and more. In 1973, armed activists of the American Indian Movement initiated a takeover of the site in protest of the conditions under which Indian peoples continued to live. That inaugurated a weeks-long siege, which included significant long-range gunfire from police and government officials surrounding the AIM encampment. Simpson notes the irony of the fact that Bald Eagle, who fought in World War II, and Sweeney, who was awarded the Silver Star for combat actions in the Persian Gulf War, were actually under fire for fewer days than their fellow actor, Richard Ray Whitman, who was never in the service, but spent days under fire during the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee.

The subject matter of the film is fraught - the injustices perpetrated on the native peoples through a long and tortured history, and the intractable problems that continue to plague the contemporary Native American experience. Yet audiences have connected deeply with the story.

"People fall so madly in love with Dave Bald Eagle on the screen that by the time he tells those hard truths, their heart is open," Simpson said. "They're listening in a different way."

Limitations of budget pushed Simpson both technically and in the effort to distribute the film. Somehow, all obstacles have been overcome to create an intimate independent film that has seen remarkable success on an exceptional number of screens for a film of this type, sometimes outperforming big studio blockbusters at the multiplex down the street.

"Budget becomes irrelevant," Simpson said. "It's all about the heart on the screen. You can have a half-a-billion-dollar budget - you can't buy heart."

For more information on screening times, visit

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