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Native-Centered Movie Stars Actor From Yakima

A new film based on an award-winning novel by a Portland author is playing across the country this summer. It’s star hails from Yakima, Washington.

In “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” Christopher Sweeney plays author Kent Nerburn, who is summoned to write down the story of a Lakota tribal elder. The Lakota characters are skeptical of his motivations and challenge him to write the elder’s story authentically.

Some were skeptical too, when Sweeney visited Yakima this spring. The tribal council asked him to come and talk about the film. 

“They felt like by telling the Lakota story we were also telling their very similar story,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney is white, but he was born in a tiny Indian health hospital in Toppeninsh. Despite that entry into the world, Sweeney said he didn’t grow up knowing much about the Yakama Nation and their culture. He said he learned more about life on U.S. reservations while filming with the mostly Native cast.

Sweeney recalled that on his way inside the gym where council is held, a native woman told him whites aren’t usually allowed to talk in tribal council—that his appearance there was out of the ordinary.

Sweeney said he was nervous, and he got some stern glances from the crowd of about 50 people as he walked up to the lectern.

“It was rather a sobering moment,” he said. “I was at the point of tears. To be granted that level of access, I felt like I was so out of my comfort zone. And now I was in my own valley where I grew up in a different way.”

After his 10 minute talk about the film to council, the some people were smiling and waving and he got some applause, Sweeney said.

“I was honored to be there,” he said.

Sweeney said a native woman even gave him an original sketch of a horse on his way out.

Sweeney hopes the film helps create a dialogue between people living near reservations and Native Americans.

“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” opens in Seattle at the Varsity Theater on July 21 and in Portland at the Cinema 21 on August 4.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.