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Telling the tales: Longtime former Bemidji resident Kent Nerburn again up for Minnesota Book Award

BEMIDJI — Kent Nerburn is again in the running for a Minnesota Book Award, and if history prevails, he’ll win once more.

History and the American Indian experience have been key in the former Bemidji man’s prolific writing career. His latest book, “The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo” is up for a Minnesota Book Award in the Memoir and Creative Nonfiction category. It’s the third installment in an unexpected trilogy. The first two books are the acclaimed “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” and “The Wolf at Twilight,” both of which also won a Minnesota Book Award. In the second book, “The Wolf at Twilight,” we met the infant daughter, who is now the protagonist in the “The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo.”

Himself a buffalo of a man, Nerburn is devoted to the northern climes and especially to the people he has come to love and respect.

“In ‘The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo,’ I try to give us a respectful glimpse of that spiritual understanding, and to open a window on some of the hidden truths that we need to acknowledge,” Nerburn said in a recent interview. “GSB is a book born of my love for our natural world and the Native people, especially the Lakota and Ojibwe, for whom I have so much respect and who have been so good to me. I just want to bring the Native experience alive for readers in a way they perhaps had not understood before, and to help make Native reality part of public discourse.”

Nerburn said he recognized he had this other character within him that needed a healing voice to speak for her. A voice that needed to speak the truth about the tragedy now confined within a fenced-in plot with 121 names listed on a small monument on a golf course in Canton, S.D. The people buried there died at the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians that stood from 1899 to 1933 in the small town outside of Sioux Falls. Nerburn discovered the plot quite by accident while doing historical research on boarding schools for American Indians. The Hiawatha Asylum was the only such institution devoted to the incarceration of Native Americans and run on the lean, with no medical guidance or oversight. The authorities committed Native people from all tribes, often as a result from following traditional spiritual practices or for opposing the current tribal power structure. Added to the mix were those with physical and mental disorders.

“Once government investigators got a look behind the doors of the asylum, they found people chained to radiators, sitting in their own waste, and breathing air thick with coal dust. Isolated, with no governmental or medical oversight, it was a death sentence for those who found themselves within its monolithic confines,” Nerburn said.

Nerburn, whose education includes the University of Minnesota, Stanford University and a doctorate in religious studies and art from the University of California-Berkley, is well-versed to bring the American Indian experience alive to the non-Native people. He has written numerous books on the subject, and also worked with the students at Red Lake High School. Together, they published two books based on oral history: “To Walk the Red Road” and “We Choose to Remember.”

Nerburn’s Christian upbringing and graduate education has given way to his passion for spirituality and the truth in the concept that spiritual gifts manifest themselves in many ways. In

this latest book, he hopes to bring the reader to the edge of Native spirituality with a new insight and appreciation, he said. Nerburn came to the point in his spiritual journey to admit to a deep respect for every spiritual tradition.

Nerburn and his wife, Louise Menglekoch, a retired journalism professor at BSU, have moved from the northwoods to Minneapolis, where their daughter lives. They are looking for a location that will bring them the peace and connection to the land that they have found here in Bemidji, he said.

“I don’t know where I am heading, but I know the wind is at my back,” Nerburn said. “Maybe I’ll go back to an earlier style, gentle hemolytic, but my publisher is not keen on my idea of writing from the viewpoint of a dog, which I think would be interesting. I kind of like (the idea of) going back to working with young kids.”