Reprinted with permission from Indian Country Today Magazine
Ray Young Bear was born on the Mesquakie Indian Settlement in lowa in 1951. He describes the house where he was born as an unpainted two-room house belonging to his maternal grandparents, and he tells us it was equipped with two woodstoves, one for cooking and the other for heating. Kerosene lamps, wood floors and cardboard panels on the "smoke-darkened ceiling"-it's a familiar place.
Mr. Young Bear still lives on the settlement today, a quarter of a mile from his birthplace, comfortable at last with his life's work which is writing novels and poetry grounded in the history and cosmology of the Mesquakie people.
Now a successful writer, well known and respected in the academic, book world so foreign to the oral culture of his people, he shows Native people everywhere the way toward a bearable future and a recoverable past.
That's no small achievement in a world transforming itself every minute.
Two mixed-genre stories are Mr. Young Bear's major contribution to the contemporary literary scene although he has written several volumes of poetry and many articles and essays.
Black Eagle Child, the Facepaint Narratives, first published in 1992 by lowa University Press introduced us to the author's protagonist, Edgar Bearchild who posed many questions about contemporary Native life, including the questions of what a literary vocation could mean to a tribal writer an his community.
Many of the questions remained unanswered in that book, but it explored them in a format that is accessible and anecdotal, not only about the moral arrogance of the invaders of America but about the strength of a people, the Mesquakie, who refuse to give up their own values.
His most recent book,
Remnants of the First Earth just published by Grove Press, is much more certain of the role such works and their creators must play. It shows the struggle of an artist toward maturity as he finds his own voice.
In fact, it suggests that questions posed by artists from time immemorial are useful to anyone who is thinking about what it means to possess a cherished and threatened tribal heritage.
"Knowledge needed by the next generation" is what concerns Mr. Young Bear and his protagonist Edgar Bearchild. How outrageous is that in a world which produces escapist movies and stories and books grounded only in violence and sex?
The purpose of his own work, Mr. Young Bear tells us is to "solidify the destiny of the Black Eagle Child People." That kind of attention to the literary vocation is almost
unheard of these days from writers who seek only fame and money.
The real and recognizable dilemmas presented by Mr. Young Bear as he tells a tribal story which moves us from Weeping Willow Day School to The Lonesomest Valley are what make this writer and his work so compelling.
Faced with the consequences of tribal council corruption, colonial subjugation, "musty smelling" educational ideas taught in a "meaningless language," theft, tragedy, tribal members who "befriended academics" and became those who would "value forgetfulness,." life at the Settlement is anything but easy, and the future is just out there and distant. Confusing. Dangerous.
In this story, Dorothy Black Heron's murder has gone unpunished for several generations but has had dire consequences for the tribal group. Ted Facepaint's awkward "shadow releasing" request is unattended by his best friend and ignored by those in the modem world who could have made a difference. And you, along with the story's characters, wonder what it all means.
One thing is sure: What goes on here is only a "remnant" of what once was. Rose Grassleggings and Junior Pipestar and Selene Buffalo Husband and Jake Sacred Hammer and Carson Two Red Foot and the countless other residents of the Settlement struggle and then go on. Edgar Bearchild, the quintessential rememberer, continues to make myth, that "crucial element" of all tribal societies.
Mr. Young Bear tells us that in tribal societies the role of the storyteller has always been to give moral, social, and political support to the people, and he struggles with his grandmother's contention that his "sole obligation is to maintain the Principal Religion of the Earthlodge clans."
Finally, he accepts his role as a repository for the people's memory. In the process he tells stories both serious and humorous, gives meaning to the various supernaturals that transform fireflies and child traditional dancers, and he comes to believe that man must develop an "inordinate, premature sense of regard for air, water, fire, the four seasons, plant growth and wildlife."
What I liked most about "Remnants of the First Earth" is that Grandmother and Edgar Bearchild finally come to terms. They conclude that if politics and religion can't save the people from the dangers of the modern world, and if the tribe in its modernity is going to be oblivious to the Sacred Chieftains, then writers and poets must step in "to apprise the greater American public" of what is important.
This is, l suppose, what all Native writers who concern themselves with ethics and the moral imagination want to hear. No contemporary Native writers gives purpose to art with more poise and good humor and realism than Mr. Young Bear.
The book concludes with Edgar Bearchild in the summer of 2004 recalling his own family's personal history, and he is still writing stories such as "How We Delighted in Seeing the Fat" (who knows what that could mean?) and "The Great Flood of the lowa River."
These are the works of an eccentric, funny, sophisticated inventor of stories who speaks in two languages about everything from theology to justice and even violence. And, he is not above name- calling when he thinks it is important for you to see a tribal history of conviction.
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