What it Means to be a Meskwaki

An Interview with Ray Young Bear

Nationally Recognized Author
from the Meskwaki Settlement near Tama,
Talks about his People's Culture.

What follows is an excerpt of an interview conducted this summer in Tama by Elias Ellefson, a graduate student in English at the University of Northern Iowa, as part of the Third International Conference on the Short Story in English, held at UNI and Iowa State University.

Elias Ellefson: What does it mean to be a Meshwaki? What is unique about the Meskwaki culture?

Ray Young Bear: Well, I guess first and foremost, and this is going back to how I present myself in a university or elementary classroom setting: I tell them that there are a lot of differences within our cultures. One the language, the spirituality therein as well as philosophy. These factors, as well as the history, separate a lot of people. The Meskwaki people, of which I am an enrolled member, are part of this area historically, and so we have beliefs that are animistic. Meaning we have a wide, unbridled respect for all earthly kinds of life, be it a tree, a stone, or a river. We believe implicitly they are very much alive, breathing, feeling, sharing our existence.

When you try to convey that to an Iowa classroom or elsewhere you end up with children and even graduates pondering whether trees are really alive. In a scientific context they respond by saying "yes, they are," but for Meskwaki's it goes beyond that. We believe in the presence of unseen forces, both good and bad. Once in a great while, they reveal themselves, but they are masters in concealing themselves in coincidence. Most Americans I'm afraid can no longer see how these unseen factors influence our day-to-day functions. That would be the greatest difference in being a Meskwaki, that animism is a unique philosophy to cherish and hold.

For the things that have happened to my wife, Stella, and myself, any American--I don't care how intelligent or skeptical--would probably check themselves into a mental ward. While it may be visually stunning to watch movies like The Exorcist or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to be an actual witness or participant in a supernatural manifestation is nightmarish. Steven Spielberg is brilliant, but I doubt if he has ever seen a mega-UFO that fills the sky. We have. But that doesn't mean anything unless its image is embedded in your mind. In the same manner skeptics scoff at these mysteries, I believe it's silly to live without this kind of awareness. I equate it with vulnerability that is next to nakedness.

Think about this: When Catholics partake in the wine/blood of their Deity, I believe that is their belief. It symbolizes something that is concrete and unchangeable for them. Although my late beloved grandmother barely understood English, she would sometimes go to the Presbyterian Church, the one that used to be here. She would say, "Ma ma to mo wa ki-i ni-we ji-ya ma i a wa nit They are praying and that is why I am going." She respected that element of religion. I wish the same could be said for the Euro-American polity that sought to annihilate us in the name of Christianity.

Ellefson: What else makes the Meskwaki people unique?

Young Bear: We are perhaps one of the few tribes in the United States who have actually purchased their land as opposed to having the government allot the land for us. In that aspect we are unique, for it was my great-great grandfather in 1856 who acquiesced momentarily to the Euro-American aspect of money. Money equals a deed. Today, unlike other tribes, we are property owners here in Tama County.

The real question that you should be asking, Elias, is this: With the multimillion- dollar gambling novelty, are we still unique? In Meskwaki prophecy, money is seen as a negativity. In other words, the very act of acquiring land could be lost through similar means. If you buy, you can also sell. But most of our supposed leaders today have already sold themselves out--and the tribe. We may be considered one of the most conservative tribes in the Midwest, but that may be short-lived. When greed comes by way of clandestine agreements and unforgivable bureaucratic mismanagement, the chances of becoming a Hobblelegged Nation are great.

Ellefson: In Black Eagle Child you write, "To be ignorant, uninformed, and oblivious to one's origins was to openly defy 'the one who created you' and invite adversity. " What happens to a people who neglect the past?

Young Bear: Did I say that? Wow! I plead guilty to all of the above. In going back to some of the metaphors I use, they become culturally "hobblelegged." Sure, there are some people who have succeeded by living outside of the Meskwaki Settlement, but for those who remain the responsibilities are immense. In my own case, compared to my late grandmother and my parents, I am a complete waverer when it comes to spirituality. I admit that forthright in my public appearances and my books. I'm no self-proclaimed expert on this subject but I report what I see.

Basically, in order to be the all-around circumspective Meskwaki you have to be attentive to all the factors of what it takes to be such. That's no easy feat. Sometimes this cannot be done to the fullest extent because we are all modernized. However, to the exclusive few who uphold the Principal Religion, I am humbled. To the hypocrites, regrettably, I am ashamed. And myself, There isn't enough space to list my excuses.

In any event, we have all acquiesced to Euro-Americanism: In the way we dress, the way we eat, the way we act and so forth. To openly neglect your origins, therefore, is to invite adversity that can take many forms. Punishment can be divine in origin for someone not living up to expectations. Punishment can also be sent through dark, mystical means. And I suppose someone can suffer by living away from "The Sett" (Meskwaki Settlement), suffer because the daily interaction with the clans is absent. That's what I see.

Ellefson: How does your writing preserve your ties to your heritage?

Young Bear: Writing is very...(pauses, adjusting the "Meskwaki Bingo" baseball cap). How do I put it? In the 1600s--it is said--when we first had contact with the French emissaries-explorers in Wisconsin, we adopted the English alphabet. For nearly three centuries the Meskwaki people have been utilizing the alphabet. But we don't use it in the English context, rather we use it syllabically. Our tribal name, as an example, is written out as "Me skwa kie" proper or The Red Earth People. Contrary to the beliefs of many, writing isn't new. For me, writing is a personal link to the writings of my grandfathers. I have in my possession their journals that date back to the early 1800s. I therefore believe that "word-collecting" is genetically encoded in my blood. I marvel at the process itself because I wasn't comfortable with English until late high school. I marvel at the process itself because I wasn't comfortable with English until late high school, 1967 to 1969. Even then extraordinary luck was involved. To now find myself in this profession is astounding, but when I look into my roots, reading and translating my grandfather's journals, I realize that I'm not far off from my late grandmother's expectations. Although she taught me to be wary of The Outside World, she was the one who saw there was a purpose: Keeping alive my grandfather's writings. I bring the journals out on occasion with white gloves in dim light to let them breathe, to remind them that we are still here. There is a magic there.

Ellefson: I think you answered part of this next question earlier. Who was the greatest influence on your growth as a writer?

Young Bear: My grandmother, no ko me sa, would be the first. From her I learned mythology, the language and customs. Secondly, I would have to say the Upward Bound program at Luther College in Decorah. I am indebted to a program. Thirdly, it would be Robert Bly, a major literary figure, whom I met in 1969. Through him I was able to meet and correspond with a number of editors who eventually published my work. After Bly, it would have to be another institution rather than a person: Pomona College. From 1969 to 1971 I was a student there. I attended most of the poetry readings sponsored by this upper-middle class school. Since they could afford the top poets, I listened to everyone who was popular back then.

Ellefson: In Black Eagle Child you write, "Throughout the 20 years I have been involved with writing, I have attempted to maintain a delicate equilibrium with my tribal homeland's history and geographic surrounding and the world that changes its face along the borders." How do you maintain this equilibrium?

Young Bear: Simple, you have to become your own therapist. Literally. You have to suffer for a while until you reason things out, becoming a sense your own psycho-healer. Being a writer, I sometimes feel as if the world is a giant concrete bridge that is balanced atop my chest and it's about to crash through. The reality is, it won't. There are other priorities in the offing that will need attending to--I know. Eventually. Writing therefore isn't everything. As you've heard, far more is involved to my life than books. I can dish out excoriation but I can also heed it.

This reminds me of something which might be a good closure.

Once in my youth I flew across America on a plane with two other writers who chatted ceaselessly about literature, naming all the books they had read, written articles on, and so forth. Coming from a community where such gibberish is nonexistent, I remind myself of these contemporaries whenever I get lonesome for literary companionship. We may all be in the same "word-collecting" canoe, paddling in unison over a silver glacier-fed lake, but "if Miss Diane Chambers of the TV sitcom 'Cheers' ever strutted into the Why Cheer Pool Hall and put quarters up for a game, I'd rack the balls tightly...myself." Nothing salacious here, please. Just quotes from the novel. My way of saying I like TV and playing pool.

Interview published in the September 4, 1994 issue of the Des Moines Register.

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