|history and the American psyche.Born on 12 November 1950 in Marshalltown, Iowa, to Leonard and
Chloe Young Bear, née Old Bear, Ray Young Bear was raised on the Meskwaki Tribal Settlement
near Tama, Iowa, where he lives today with his wife, Stella Lasley Young Bear, whom he married in
Young Bear's great-great-grandfather, Maminwanike, had purchased the settlement for his people in
1856 on ancestral lands along the Iowa River to prevent federal removal of the tribe to Kansas.
Because of this unique history, Meskwakis do not live on a reservation. Young Bear's maternal
grandmother, Ada Kapayou Old Bear, was a particularly great influence on him: "I'm grateful for my
grandmother," he told John R. Milton, editor of the American Indian II. "She is all of everything to me."
A cofounder of the Woodland Song and Dance Troupe, a cultural performance group that tours on
the powwow circuit and on the Arts Midwest lecture circuit, Young Bear frequently begins his poetry
readings with songs, accompanied by a drum.
Young Bear's first language was Meskwaki, but he began writing seriously in English in his early
teens: "From that day on in the seventh grade I tried to make it a point to learn the English language,
write it, and think in it, while at the same time trying to present some aspects of Meskwaki culture --
without dealing with sensitive material," he explained to Joseph Bruchac in a 1987 interview. Meskwaki
ethical codes prohibit revealing such material, and these codes contribute to his aesthetic. His
purpose is neither to reveal nor to conceal but to correct generations of misrepresentation.
At a poets' and writers' conference during a 1968 Upward Bound summer program, Robert Bly and
David Ray introduced Young Bear, who by then had been writing poems seriously for two years, to
their rigorous modes of revising poetry. David Ignatow also took interest in Young Bear's early work.
Milton, who encouraged many Native American writers, published Young Bear's poetry in his
anthologies American Indian I (1970) and American Indian II and organized a Native American writers'
conference in the spring of 1971 at the University of South Dakota, where Young Bear met James
Welch and Duane Niatum.
He pursued his writing while studying at Pomona College in Claremont, California, from 1969 to 1971;
at the University of Iowa in 1971; at Grinnell College in 1973; at Northern Iowa University in 1975-
1976; and at Iowa State University in 1980.
In the interview with Bruchac, Young Bear mentions Diane Wakoski, Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell,
and Charles Bukowski as being among the non-Native American poets "whose works I looked upon
with great interest and respect. . . . I went to all their readings and tried to absorb some of what they
were saying. But I discovered that they had limitations, such as the absence of one's roots -- which
Native Americans have. So I said, 'Well, maybe I can say something else a little better than what
they're trying to do,' which was this aboriginal, primal sort of poetry."
Early in his career he wrote by thinking in Meskwaki and translating his thoughts into English.
Although he no longer follows that procedure, he often writes in a heightened, formal style that
echoes Mekwuaki oratory. In a revealing passage in Black Eagle Child Young Bear has the character
Ted Facepaint playfully describe hallucinogenic mushrooms in verse lines that resemble a Young
Bear poem: "Tomorrow evening, revived / by rain, thunder, and lightning, the new / Red-hatted
Grandfather will stand / by the forest's edge."
The narrator comments on Ted's parodic tone, explaining that he is "speaking in the reserved
demeanor / of an elder." This reserved manner, simultaneously distant and intimate, characterizes
much of Young Bear's poetry and prose. It includes natural and cultural references ("the forest's
edge," "Red-hatted Grandfather"); a formal, heightened tone of starkly declamatory diction ("revived,"
"will stand,"); and an oratorical sentence structure of cumulative phrases, lists, and periodic climaxes
("rain, thunder, and lightning"). This reserved diction, rooted in cultural allusion and foregoing
excessive language, generates potent aesthetic tension against the stunning leaps of imagistic
association in many of Young Bear's texts.
Drawing on a tradition of oratory handed down from his ancestors' "divine leadership" (as he puts it in
Black Eagle Child ), Young Bear's highly personal voice moves between loneliness and community
and between celebration and self-criticism. That voice is mobile and fluid, taking on various personae
and points of view and relentlessly facing his own ruptures between faith and fear and between
community and alienation -- "waiting," as he writes in winter of the salamander: the keeper of
importance (1980), "to be uplifted and shaken / from the fog."
Young Bear makes it clear that his wife is his partner in artistic expression. Stella Young Bear's
beadwork adorns the covers of Black Eagle Child and his poetry collection The Invisible Musician
(1990); The Invisible Musician is dedicated to her; in interviews he often mentions her and uses the
first person plural in discussing his work; she often accompanies him to his readings; and she is the
cofounder with him of the Woodland Song and Dance Troupe. In Black Eagle Child and in some of the
poems in The Invisible Musician the autobiographical protagonist's wife, "Selene," is a vital and wise
Young Bear's emphasis on Stella's presence is part of a crucial aesthetic: he does not locate his
poetic persona in an individual ego, even though much of his work is intensely personal. Each poem
is a collage of interior and exterior voices. To try to factor out final meanings from his poetry or prose
is to miss the impressionistic values he so carefully constructs. Young Bear said in a 1992 interview,
"when I collect ten or twelve dreams, I piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle and try to form some
sort of statement."
His work is thus like Stella's beadwork: it is an intricately woven collection of small moments, each with
its own intensity, color, and sparkle but without meaning apart from the unique pattern in which it
occurs, a pattern that itself is part of a larger cultural and historical context.
Young Bear's approach to his work, which he describes in Black Eagle Child as "a collage done over
a lifetime via the tedious layering upon layering of images by an artist who didn't believe in endings,"
centers around what he calls "the philosophy of insignificance." A sense of human insignificance in
the universe arises early in Young Bear's writing. In winter of the salamander he quotes his
grandmother: "some people try to hide their lives / as long as they can, but we see them / and help
them when members of their family / pass away. It doesn't work to feel important."
The philosophy of insignificance begins to take explicit form in The Invisible Musician. In the poem
"Emily Dickinson, Bismarck, and the Roadrunner's Inquiry" Young Bear says that "traffic signs /
overshadow the philosophy / of being Insignificant." In the afterword to Black Eagle Child he affirms
this principle even more explicitly: "The philosophy that espouses cosmic insignificance, a belief that
humans are but a minute part of world order, has shaped my words." It is a philosophy of humility and
reciprocity derived from awe of the invisible forces of the world.
The philosophy is not fatalistic but holistic; it is based on a sense of interrelations and of a connected
cosmos. The Native American author Vine Deloria Jr. expresses a similar point of view in the revised
edition of his God Is Red (1992) when he says that all inanimate entities have spirit and personality so
that the mountains, rivers, waterfalls, even the continents and the earth itself have intelligence,
knowledge, and the ability to communicate ideas.
The physical world is so filled with life and personality that humans appear as one minor species
without much significance and badly in need of assistance from other forms of life. Almost anyone can
have almost any relationship with anything else. So much energetic potency exists that we either must
describe everything as religious or say that religion as we have known it is irrelevant to our concerns.
This outlook reduces the significance of the human presence and the need for imposing human terms
on the world, while it simultaneously recognizes the need for assistance from "other forms of life" that
may speak in their own terms in poetry. This intricate polyvocality characterizes what critics have seen
as "surrealistic" or "puzzling" in Young Bear's poetry, but his seemingly surrealistic leaps of
association across images and cultures become realistic ones within this system of the insignificance
of the human role in a living universe.
Young Bear is, however, alert to the stereotype of Indians as spiritual guides, and he frequently
undercuts such images with raucous humor. For instance, the "Star-Medicine" scenes of a sacred
peyote ceremony in Black Eagle Child are peppered with memories of the participants in former "lewd,
This technique, like that of the sacred clowns of various traditional societies, brings the reverential
atmosphere of ceremonies "down to earth," where, in fact, it is strongest because spirit and matter are
not separated. It strengthens the philosophy of insignificance even during the most significant
The need to elude cultural appropriation may be one reason that Young Bear rarely uses the term
spiritual in describing the powers that visit, threaten, or nourish. Instead, in "The Language of
Weather" and "Nothing Could Take Away the Bear-King's Image," in The Invisible Musician, he
introduces a term with less New Age baggage: ethereal. The term describes a notion close to his
aesthetic qualities of open-endedness and intuitive associations, and it also conveys a traditional
sense of the loneliness of the lost souls who have not found their way to "walk towards / the west after
death" (winter of the salamander). In the afterword to Black Eagle Child he explains:
The most interesting facet in all of this has been the artistic interlacing of ethereality, past and
present. As such there are considerations of visions, traditional healing, supernaturalism, and
hallucinogen-based sacraments interposed with centuries-old philosophies and customs. Since these
verities are still a prevalent part of modern tribal society, the divisions between dream and myth are
It is telling that Young Bear does not speak of the common division between dream and reality.
Instead, by linking individual dream with cultural myth, he affirms the continuing life of the Meskwaki
community. That community life, with its poverty and its internal and external conflicts, is as "ethereal"
as it is earthy. His own and his community's visions, healings, supernatural events, hallucinogenic
trips, and echoes of ancient ways are interspersed with profanity, humor, feuds, beer, broken-down
cars, billboards, neighboring rednecks, community dissension, and personal "apprehension and
doubt." To read Young Bear's work is to plunge into an aesthetic experience carefully built to convey
that ethereality even through the people's disenfranchisement, their "abyss of discontent" (Black
Young Bear's winter of the salamander achieves a remarkable expansion of the English language
beyond its usual cultural boundaries in eighty-three poems, many of considerable length, that are
collected from publications such as American Poetry Review, Northwest Poetry Review, Partisan
Review, and South Dakota Review. A bilingual epigraph in the introduction to the volume invites the
reader to enter into linguistic play: "A gwi ma i na ta wi a sa mi ke ko ii na tti mo ya nini a yo shes ki ne
ko qua ta be ya i ke.
There are no elucidations or foresights / merely / experiments with words." While the statement affirms
the Meskwaki presence in the poems, it makes no promises to define what Meskwaki is. The poems
include no capitalization and only loose punctuation. The title and subtitle of the work are explained in
the poems "birds with tears in their bones," where it is "the spirit of the salamander who spread / news
of death," and "trains made of stone," where the "keeper of importance" refers pejoratively to the
speaker, who is "ignorant of the leaves changing color, / ignorant of where i stand." The four sections
of winter of the salamander generally correspond to the seasons.
The first section, "because the blue rain exists," includes a preponderance of winter images. The
second section, "when we assume life will go well for us," may be identified with spring. The third
section is "in the brilliance of summer daylight." The final section, "the sound he makes -- the sound i
hear," includes a many autumn images. Shifts of pronoun in the poems from first to second to third
person and shifts of perspective from limited to omniscient weave through the voices of otters, fish,
men, women, badgers, salamanders, grandmothers, grandfathers, horses, hummingbirds, and crows.
Topics range from cultural loss to cultural celebration; from sacramental protections of family to death
and loneliness on the railroad tracks; from alcoholism and racism to fishing rights: "grinning to the
stars . . . / there is something about / trains, drinking, and being / an indian with nothing to lose."
winter of the salamander opens with one of Young Bear's most distilled poems, "grandmother," a
paean to this principal figure in his life: "if i were to see / her shape from a mile away / i'd know so
quickly / that it would be her. / the purple scarf / and the plastic / shopping bag." He mentions "her
hands / warm and damp / with the smell / of roots," her voice "coming from a rock," and "her words"
flowing inside him "like the light / of someone / stirring ashes / from a sleeping fire."
In the long poem "waiting to be fed," a pregnant woman swims in a river, in spite of "her mother's
constant warning / about rivers." Soon the woman "felt twisted in a dream," "as if the sound / of water
was also the sound / of rustling leaves." Malevolent forces seem not to have been properly appeased;
the woman loses "all revenge to the giants / lifting their heads / in their watch / to her swimming over
the cool / gushing spring."
Things become confused, and death and silence are the result. The poem follows the woman through
her death in childbirth and then moves into the new child's thoughts: "a smile on her face. / her arms
and legs folded to her body. / the sun deep inside her eyes / walking to the river." Without dramatizing
the events, the poem generates an intense human drama that is driven by mistakes like those of
"insects . . . between shadow and sunlight / confused in their decisions." Young Bear's "experiments
with words" become experiments with voices, and it is the voices of ethereal entities that shape the
Young Bear occasionally shifts his focus in winter of the salamander to an attack on the intruding
Euro-Americans. The poem "in disgust and in response to indian-type poetry written by whites
published in a mag which keeps rejecting me" is a case in point, yet even here the explicit anger of
the title is not repeated in the text. Instead, it boils under the surface of the two long stanzas. In the
first stanza a quiet first-person-plural voice reviews the agonies that were foisted on the Meskwakis by
whites: "feeling the strength and prayer / of the endured sacred human tests / we would set aside the
year's / smallpox dead"; "They would carry our belongings / and families to the woodlands / of eastern
iowa to hunt out food / separate and apart / from the tribe."
The second stanza sets up a parallel between demonic possession and white co-optation of Indian
traditions: "the method of entering / the spirit and body / of a turkey / to walk at night in suspension . .
. to begin this line of witchcraft." Young Bear finally turns to the second person, directly addressing
the intruders: "realize there is a point / when you stop being a people / sitting somewhere and reading
/ the poetry of others."
The white poets claim to do what no Native writer presumes: "to feel yourself stretch / beyond
limitation / to come here and write this poem / about something no one / knows about / no authority to
anything." Whites are writing works about Indian values, of which they know nothing, but their
publications may nonetheless take on a false authority. This poem expresses a skeptical Meskwaki
view of both white ethnography and white poetry about Indians.
Another poem is about overt racial prejudice: "in viewpoint: poem for 14 catfish and the town of tama,
iowa" recounts an incident in which Meskwaki ice-fishing rights were challenged by the local whites.
Young Bear empathetically regards "the northern pike and the walleye fish," whose "realization that
the end is near" has resonance for humans, as well. He has "unparalleled respect for the iowa river . .
. but the farmers and the local whites / from the nearby town of tama and surrounding / towns, with
their usual characteristic / ignorance and disregard, have driven noisily / over the ice and across our
lands / on their pickups and snowmobiles, / disturbing the dwindling fish / and wildlife."
The invective continues for six stanzas about the hypocrisy of white merchants who take Indian money
but discriminate against their clientele and the hypocrisy of tribal leaders who are "so infected and
obsessed / with misconceptions and greed" that they manipulate tribal funds for their own profit. The
poem ends with an expression of Meskwaki pride: "in their paranoia / to compare us to their
desensitized lives, / they will never progress into what they / themselves call a community, / or even
for the least, / a human."
The final poem in the collection, "march eight/1979," mirrors the tribute to former generations found in
"grandmother" by celebrating the birth of a new generation in Young Bear's nephew. The child, by
whom the family is "bonded permanently," lies "on top / of grandmother universe." The poem includes
an untranslated reference to the baby's name: "their red-faced son, elgin, ba ke ka maa qwi," another
linguistic affirmation of the cultural context. The poem and the volume end with a glance at Young
Bear's internal struggle: "i pray for him that we shall one day / meet and talk in mutual good health /
and i to explain to him my incredible joy, / how my mixed depression was momentarily / quelled."
The voice in The Invisible Musician , published ten years after winter of the salamander, is more
consistent, and the book's structure and subject matter are more lucid; the many passionate and
eloquent strands of winter of the salamander have matured and converged into a smaller number of
more-compressed and polished poems -- the book is less than half the length of its predecessor. The
volume is not divided into sections, although it is structured around four bilingual transcriptions of
Meskwaki love songs, veterans' songs, and celebration songs, placed at approximately quarterly
Each of the songs reflects the topics of the poems that follow it. In contrast to his disavowal of
"elucidation" in the epigraph of winter of the salamander, in this volume Young Bear provides
clarifying endnotes to some of the poems. The Invisible Musician includes many of the same themes
as the earlier work, as well as a few poems written prior to the publication of winter of the salamander.
"Ethereal" relations are a major theme of The Invisible Musician.
The title refers to a frog whose songs enter into the book. In the poem "Wa ta se Na ka mo ni, Viet
Nam Memorial," the speaker hears the "lone frog" singing on Veterans Day: "the invisible musician /
reminded me of my own doubt. / The knowledge that my grandfathers / were singers as well as
composers." The speaker admits that he lacks the "necessary memory or feeling / to make a Wa ta se
Na ka mo ni, / Veterans' Song." Military service is an honorable vocation for young men in many
Indian societies; medical and student deferments kept Young Bear out of the service during the
Vietnam War, so he lacks a veteran's memories.
Yet the poet has rallied himself to move beyond "country, controversy, and guilt" and to honor the
names on the "distant black rock" of the Vietnam Memorial. Young Bear's song for the veterans is not
included in the poem; he merely refers to it as the song the dead veterans "presently listened to along
with my grandfathers." In the final line of the poem he claims that the song "was the ethereal kind
which did not stop." The poem has described his complex struggle to live up to the tradition of the
The opening poem, "The Significance of a Water Animal," and its explanatory endnote establish a
mythic link between Young Bear's great-great-grandfather's purchase of the Meskwaki Settlement and
the role of the "Earthdiver," Muskrat, in "diving to make land available." In the Meskwaki creation story
the muskrat returned from beneath the floodwaters with soil in his claws, and out of this soil the earth
The practical action taken by a nineteenth-century leader to assure the survival of his people is here
invested with the importance of a cosmological event. Yet in the poem's last lines that survival
continues to be threatened, "as my grandmother tells me / 'Belief and what we were given / to take
care of, / is on the verge / of ending. . . .' " To counter that threat, in this poem "A certain voice of
Reassurance" has referred to the mythical and historical creation stories.
"The Language of Weather" is a portrait of the poet's constant efforts to read the ethereal language
of the natural world. As he watches an approaching storm, "All in one moment, in spite / of my
austerity, everything / is aligned: part-land, part-cloud, / part-sky, part-sun and part-self." He returns
from his epiphany -- "I am the only one to witness / this renascence" -- to castigate himself for
ingratitude: "no acknowledgement / whatsoever for the Factors / which make my existence possible."
Yet the next line reverently describes his own ancestry, immediate and ancient. His parents in their
potato garden call the family to " 'See that everyone in the household / releases parts of ourselves /
to our Grandfathers.' " The storm is an ethereal sign of their balancing presence, while the closing
image of a whirlwind, the endnotes explain, is a sign of a spirit out of balance, one of those "eternally
trapped shadows or 'souls' of the deceased who have yet to be transferred ceremonially to the
Hereafter." The poem concludes: "In the daylight distance, / a stray spirit whose guise / is a Whirlwind,
spins and attempts / to communicate from its ethereal / loneliness."
Many of the poems in The Invisible Musician include a playful juxtaposing of polysyllabic and simple,
unrefined words, as in the title of "The First Dimension of Skunk" and in one of that poem's lines: "In
the midst of change / all it takes is one anachronism, / one otter whistle." This technique of bringing
together the highly literate and the earthy reveals the interpenetration of these ostensibly separate
categories of experience.
One of the most memorable and potent figures Young Bear has created is Bumblebee, a sort of
trickster grandfather who appears in two long poems in The Invisible Musician: "A Drive to Lone
Ranger" and "Race of the Kingfishers: In Nuclear Winter." "Everyone knows the Indian's existence is
bleak," the narrator says in an epigraph at the beginning of the first poem. "In fact, there are people
who have taken it upon / themselves to speak for us; to let the universe / know how we live, eat and
think, but the Bumblebee -- / an elder of the Black Eagle Child Nation -- / thinks this sort of
representation is repulsive."
Entertaining the narrator and his wife during a midwinter visit to Bumblebee's earth lodge, "after our
car conked out," the old insect "confesses that he sleeps / with earphones attached to his apian body.
. . . Over pheasant omelettes and wine / he offers an explanation about his obsession / with
technology. / 'It may seem a contradiction, / but those cassette tapes on the wall / are the intellectual
foundation / of my progeny.' "
Bumblebee thus affirms the paradox of both continuity and change if Meskwaki culture is to survive,
and the young narrator and his wife listen to him: "underneath our Transformation Masks / we respect
the old man, Bumblebee, for he has retained the ability to understand / traditional precepts and
myths. Moreover, / he understands the need to oppose / 'outside' mining interests." Bumblebee warns
of a possible nuclear annihilation that will fulfill Meskwaki prophecies of "the true end," when the
Northern Lights will reach to the South: "celestial messengers in green atomic oxygen, / highlighted by
red -- the color of our impending / nuclear demise." Yet he offers alternatives: "'In time we'll become
prosperous, / or else we'll become martyrs.'"
In the second poem the narrator is recuperating from a drunken, visionary, all-night discussion with
Bumblebee at which spirit women raced in the winter wind, "holding silver saxophones" and dancing in
"Kingfisher costumes." Bumblebee, "our metamorphic guest," proclaims that " 'Imported beer makes
me philosophical' " and "narrates / the meaning of their intricate steps." This meaning proves to be
another warning: " 'to apprise us of the Aurora Borealis / and how such lights will bring / the true end.'
" Bumblebee's political world is changed with prophecy and humor.
In Black Eagle Child the first-person narration moves among at least seven voices: the protagonist,
Edgar Bearchild; his uncle, Severt Principal Bear; his mother, Clotelde; his friend, Ted Facepaint; a
Canadian Cree friend, Junior Pipestar; Junior's sister, Charlotte; and Edgar's great-uncle, Carson
Two Red Foot. There are also extensive passages of third-person omniscient narration.
The effect is to create a community of voices within a Meskwaki universe. Both a bildungsroman and
an incisive social commentary, the novel mixes verse and prose in a remarkable blend of oral and
Trying, not always successfully, to hearken to his grandmother's advice, Edgar Bearchild wanders in
and out of danger among his Meskwaki friends, his enemies, and the "watery voices rising from the
lakes and rivers" toward his eventual "salvation," a career as a writer. Young Bear paints vivid,
relentlessly truthful, and unromantic narratives of contemporary Meskwaki life.
In the afterword to the novel Young Bear says: "The Black Eagle Child Settlement is a fictitious
counterpart of the central Iowa sanctuary where I am an enrolled, lifelong resident. The character of
Edgar Bearchild mirrors in part my own laborious Journey of Words. . . . Ted Facepaint, on the other
hand, is a composite of a dozen people met, known, and lost in the last forty years." The novel
continues a pattern in Native American autobiography that was established in the nineteenth century
by such writers as the Pequot William Apess, the Ojibwa George Copway, and the Dakota Charles
Eastlake, in which personal, cultural, and historical narratives are balanced. Young Bear's
combination of the cultural and the personal is a reaction against generations of anthropological and
Hollywood representations of Indians, which Bumblebee found "repulsive."
Black Eagle Child is told relatively chronologically in sixteen chapters, though with many flashbacks as
the various narrators come to the fore. Edgar recounts his early experiences with sacramental peyote,
along with his trickster friend Ted Facepaint, in the opening chapters, "The Well-Off Man Church" and
"Gift of the Star-Medicine"; he is surprised at the ceremony's successful mixture of Christianity and
traditional ways and impressed by the intensity of the experience. The first chapter also sets up a key
theme, that of internal tribal rivalries: "to denote tribal class, our Black Eagle Child / society was based
The tensions generated "around the hierarchy of clan names" eventually drive the free-spirited Ted
away: "for anyone / who believed in the old labels would live / and plan their lives accordingly. /
Facepaint knew this; he was the one / who said so." Not all traditions are represented as sacrosanct.
A sequence of three chapters, "The Precociousness of Charlotte," "The Brook Grassleggings
Episode," and "A Circus Acrobat on the Grass," presents one of postmodern literature's most vivid
portraits of reservation nightlife. Among peeling tires, tire-iron fights, a hailstorm, cultural commentary,
and mythic memories, Edgar's and Junior's efforts to pick up girls explode into a cosmic allegory of
Junior's ancestors' migrations as the Northern Lights blend in with the spinning lights of "police,
ambulance, and assorted vigilantes" and the flashbulbs of reporters from the local redneck
newspaper who are intent on embarrassing the Indians on their front page.
Edgar's loss of innocence leads to the ninth chapter, "The Human Parchment Period," in which Edgar
commits himself to writing: " 'Because no other voice should ever / can ever / replace the original
voice of the American Indian / poet, especially one who resides at the place / of his birth and not in
the city or academia, / I merely seek to compose meaningful narratives / as experienced within the
Black Eagle Child Nation."
The chapter includes a reworking of the poem "In the First Place of My Life" from winter of the
salamander; Ted Facepaint's recounting of his hitchhiking escapades; and four bilingual songs by
another old friend, Pat "Dirty" Red Hat. Both Pat and Ted die tragically yet transcendently in the
novel. Young Bear juxtaposes their experiences with his own writing struggle in this chapter to place
Edgar's solitary artistic experience within the deep and grievous bonds of friendship, and within the
compelling commitment of both friends to their culture. The novel is a tribute to that friendship.
The second half of the book consists of samples of Edgar's writings. "How We Delighted in Seeing the
Fat" is Edgar's great-uncle Carson Two Red Foot's story of Carson's mother's isolation with her
children, "like a pack of breakaway clouds . . . in the snowy, turbulent hills and fields."
This chapter prepares the ground for "The Supernatural Strobe Light," in which Edgar and his wife,
Selene, encounter UFOs and ethereal spirits at their own isolated home at "a ka me e ki, distant
forestland." "During one warm October evening in 1981, Selene Buffalo Husband and I experienced
an extraordinary but true encounter with a mysterious force that took the guise of owls, fireflies, and
luminescent objects of the night. . . .
To document what took place and to share it only means we are cognizant of invisible forces,
especially the kind who have chosen to reveal themselves and interact momentarily with the
unsuspecting lives of human beings." In both Black Eagle Child and The Invisible Musician Young
Bear refers humorously to Iowa's Scandinavian immigrants as space aliens; thus, this episode, in
addition to providing an extreme instance of ethereality, suggests how colonialism might seem as
bizarre and terrifying to Meskwakis as an interplanetary invasion would appear to whites.
The final chapter, "The Man Squirrel Shall Not Wake," recounts Ted Facepaint's murder by a bigoted
white emergency-room doctor who is so offended by Ted's wisecracking that he deliberately sets a
plaster cast so tight on Ted's arm that the clotted blood pools and creates an aneurysm. As Ted
gradually loses consciousness, earlier episodes in the novel reappear as his memories; finally, he
leaves his body in the form of an eagle: "He peered out past the smoky hills before / unfolding and
stretching his wingtips / upward to test them."
This death imagery echoes that of Edgar's grandfather in the poem "In the First Place of My Life":
"The music lifted above the crowd of dancers and stayed in place before lifting further, flying away,
and then coming back to encircle us like an eagle whose powerful black and golden wingtips brushed
our faces, waking us, telling us to see this dance through for my grandfather."
By linking Ted imagistically in death with his revered grandfather, Edgar underlines the value he
places on such an eccentric personality, "an imbrication of humanity, whose pieces belong to
everyone." The eagle wings also evoke Ted's feeling for the pliant power of Meskwaki tradition:
"Facepaint is a rare personality who is intrinsically attuned to the night sky, and he keeps an ever-
present watch for any change, any subtle repositioning of the Orion constellation." Black Eagle Child
concludes with this sense of soaring vigilance, symbolizing Meskwaki and Native American cultural
renewal. Pouring out the stories of his youth, Young Bear has given the world one of the most
nuanced and evocative portraits of contemporary Native American life yet published.
In moving from poetry to the novel to paint a broader view of Native American experience, Young Bear
has followed a progression shared by such contemporaries as Vizenor, Welch, and Leslie Marmon
Silko. Yet the larger canvas of Young Bear's fiction never loses the intimate precision of his poetry. As
he approaches the height of his stylistic powers, Young Bear will assuredly draw more readers into his
narrations and, like his colleagues, will help to revise America's story of itself.
Young Bear’s Poetry
Young Bear shows his understanding of some of the contradictions of modern Indian culture. In “i can
still picture the caribou” he reflects upon a tribal gathering:
breath made of the day's offering instead of alcohol.
become empty forms which have lost their significance. In the Indian as well as the white world there
are those who have forgotten their origins.
Despite the eschatological mood of many of the poems there is still a sense of reverence for the
ancient traditions and for the land which sustains them. “Four songs of life” celebrates the
continuance of life and the power of the ancient songs to create a sense of beauty, comfort and
meaning. The first two songs are a contrast between a young man who is unsure of things and an old
man who understands “the old hard tests of living.” The last two songs are reflections on the strength
of traditions to guide one through life.
While much of the poetry is concerned with the values of the Indian and white cultures there are also
those which are considerations of the contemporary situation in general. There are poems on
Vietnam, love, nature and dreams. Some are surrealistic visions loaded with startling metaphors and
bizarre scenes. Everyone will find something they love in Young Bear’s work.
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
• Waiting To Be Fed (Port Townsend, Wash.: Graywolf, 1975).
• Winter of the salamander: the keeper of importance (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980).
• The Invisible Musician (Duluth, Minn.: Holy Cow!, 1990).
• Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint Narratives (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992).
• Remnants of the First Earth (New York: Grove, 1996).
Berner, R. L. (2005). Ray A. Young Bear: The Rock Island Hiking Club.: An article from: World
Evertsen, S. (2004). Native American Literatures: An Introduction.
James, Ed. (1981) Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Ray Young Bear, Duane Niatun, Gloria Bird, Anita Endrezze-
Danielson, Steve Francis, Sandra Jim.
|Ray Young Bear