Afterword: Black Eagle Child

Stella Young Bear: Meskwaki Bandolier Bag
Stella Young Bear
Meskwaki Bandolier Bag
Minneapolis Institute of Art

In the spring of 1970, during a smoggy, oily-aired evening in Southern California, I jotted down what was perhaps the first outline of this book. It was a simple one and in some respects no different from the drafts to poems I later published. The one aspect, however, which made this outline stand out for many years was the intriguing set of chapter titles and synopses.

Today this outline and the accompanying notes are held permanently between the cold pages of a spiral-backed tablet in storage. They have always been a few feet away, but their sensitive memories have kept me at arm's length-until today. To have gently lifted these words from the light green pages by breathing a heart's pulse into them is a startling juxtaposition to the computer monitor which now records these final entries.

The poetic journey in the making of Black Eagle Child has been a most comprehensive project in terms of message, content, and stylistic approach. There has also been divergence. Considering that the poetic forms I have adopted and adapted (from English, a second language) have little significance in the tribal realm, wordcollecting was met early on with varying degrees of apprehension. Whenever I entertained the prospect of sitting down at the desk, getting beyond serious, and holding these thoughts long enough to boldly arrange their sequences in order, I discovered forthright our shadows change imperceptibly in accordance with the sun's ascension and descension. As a result, there was work which never materialized. Because of the differences of the bilingual/bicultural worlds I live in, it sometimes seems as if what is actually published turns out to be a minute and insignificant fraction of one's perpetual metamorphosis.

Putting stories to page has been a task and a half, for the characters and their situations are taken from both autobiographical experiences and imagination. In the delicate ritual of weighing what can and cannot be shared, a greater portion of my work is not based on spontaneity. And a large segment of what is presented for public dissemination is not so much an act of revealing elements that are close to me as it is an exercise in creative detachment. 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 never clear-cut.

The creation of Black Eagle Child was equivalent to a collage done over a lifetime via the tedious layering upon layering of images by an artist who didn't believe in endings, for the sweeping visions he wanted to capture were constant and forever changing. It was therefore essential to depict these visuals in increments, to keep these enigmatic stories afloat in the dark until dust-filled veils of light inadvertently revealed their luminescent shapes.

My literary perspectives were often subject to bouts of overconcern and grave underestimation of self. Given the number of season-long debates that were held to determine whether the material presented was unnecessary or sacrilegious, there's no doubt an entire book could have been written. One winter, with space becoming more precious, I was forced to incinerate boxes of reasons-pro and con. While I remained enamored with writing and the meticulous rituals one goes through in bringing thought to page, the relationship of the creator and the created worked best behind the iron borders of this word-collector consciousness.

In most tightly knit societies, one must be keenly aware of social responsibility. For the Mesquakie-People of the Red Earth-it is no different. Circumspection is the paradigm of harmony. But as with everything modern and "civilized," there are often casualties among the ignorant, deprived, and unknowing. I, for one among many, plead guilty to the preceding statement. In extreme cases, one's forgetfulness and insincerity arc not effronteries; they are irreversible, unending truths which began in 1492.

Long ago when I first started to publish my work locally, I was apprised by my grandmother to not ever be "dissuaded by anyone" and to continue with only good intentions in mind. While she obviously realized I was too young and naive to know of Importance, she nevertheless taught there were things I could not write about. For years I truly thought I possessed valuable knowledge. The fact was, I didn't know anything. Yes, I may have heard, seen, and experienced firsthand extraordinary occurrences of reality "gone astray," of steps taken into transmutable dimensions, but they could only be seen and understood from one angle: in retrospect.

Reviewing my work with scrutiny and keeping distant from transgression of certain codes and precepts have become inherent parts of the storywriting regimen, the premise being that words have an innate sense of power. With early word-collectors (or informants) and their personal disasters as examples, my grandmother also forewarned commentary was destructive when untethered, for it had the capacity to either inflict or self-inflict harm. As much as has been permissible, I have attempted to hold on to this tenet.

Remarkably, now that my destination is within sight, whatever energy I am able to conjure can only be a semblance of elation. For that I am grateful. There was a time when it could have been worse: I once read of an ancestor who was so exhausted from a military sponsored interview that he lay still for hours in his parents' lodge. For a person whose world had been mystically laid down by a Creator with a fundamental set of understandings and spiritual teachings, I imagine there had never been a structured and compartmentalized perception of Mesquakie ideology as that shown by the white-skinned people, wa be ski na me ska tti kit.

Whether or not the account is authentic, I can commiserate with this exhausted character, for there have been occasions when I thought the best recourse was to reconsider direction, questioning what purpose the narratives served-until the state of vexation passed.

The philosophy that espouses cosmic insignificance, a belief that humans are but a minute part of world order, has shaped my words. My expectations are simply to express myself as only an accomplished instrumentalist can, to arrange in melodic and tragic tones the common chords of one's abraded existence. Yet there exists a ceaseless feeling that more needs to be said than what was offered in the space and time given.

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The Black Eagle Child Settlement is a fictitious counterpart of the central Iowa sanctuary where I am an enrolled, lifelong resident. The character Edgar Bearchild mirrors in part my own laborious Journey of Words. He finds himself in a unique but precarious "little earth" where writing becomes the sole means of salvation.

Encouraged early on by close relatives, Bearchild accepts the medium but he is somewhat late in doing so. As a result, he wants to unfold the mysteries that transported him to the pinnacle of poetry writing. In the process he discovers concrete answers, like windfish, are elusive. Bearchild merely intends to finish out the whizzing star's cataclysmic course, to be (as Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout of England writes and sings) the "Fred Astaire of words."

Ted Facepaint, on the other hand, is a composite of a dozen people met, known, and lost in the last forty years. He's a jigsaw puzzle, an imbrication of humanity, whose pieces belong to everyone. Despite Facepaint's gallant efforts to rid the future of physical and social impediments, there is never a guarantee the passage will go unhindered. His spiritual beliefs and convictions surpass most, but he alone does not think so, for he comes from an unfamiliar place where radiant people freely give away the gift of introspection. Meeting him along the way toward his sky-answering quest, people held out their cupped hands and saw vividly the cascading plainness of their lives. It frightened those who lacked the maturity to grasp the bitter world, while those experienced saw past the technological clutter, seeking signs of validation.

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.

Like nomads who surface and resurface in our lifetimes, there are unassuming and effusive characters like Rose and Brook Grassleggings, Claude Youthman, Patty Jo and her "Hyena," Junior Pipestar, and Pat "D." Red Hat who themselves are composites of other people. They would almost have to be, for the comic and tragic situations they experience border extraordinary and "non ordinary,' reality. There is, however, a deliberate intent to portray their situations as being no different from those faced by anyone else caught up in this diverse but prismatic sea of humanity. There are bound to be successes in the storm of adversity, just as there are disconcertion, loss, and resolve. And permeated throughout arc experiences endemic in tribal society. While a few possess an uncanny ability to detect watery voices rising from the lakes and rivers, the rest of us are convinced the sound is the garbled music of inexperienced vocalists pounding on a rusted truck hood upshore. While these few will always appear despondent and unpredictable, it is frequently their doting powers of healing that work and come through when modern medicines fail.

Throughout the twenty years I have been involved with writing, I have attempted to maintain a delicate equilibrium with my tribal homeland's history and geographic surroundings and the world that changes its face along the borders. Represented in the whirlwind of mystical themes and modern symbols, of characters normal or bizarre and their eventual resolve, the word-collecting process is an admixture of time present and past, of direction found and then lost, of actuality and dream.

Having had the good fortune to study, teach, and contribute to contemporary American Indian literature, I have taken this long awaited opportunity to capture personal and historical fragments of a midwestern tribal community called Black Eagle Child. The geographically and culturally isolated society consists of progressives and conservatives who revolve around the hierarchy of clan names. Historically, there was equality in the First-Named systems, but materialism and greed spawned novel methods by which to manipulate others. The day divine leadership was deemed unimportant was when the sacred myths began to crumble under the wheels of suzerainty.

In the ancient bloodways there obviously remains what is perhaps a disjointed facet of the Mesquakie storytelling tradition, which has inevitably been infused with dynamic trends. Surprisingly, these voices and personas have been at odds more than they have been synchronous. Both, however, resound wholly with imagery, thought, and profound messages for humanity.

This type of rendering has been an artistic process for me, the creative emulation of thought through extraordinary, tragic, and comedic stories of an imagined midwestern tribal existence. It has never sought to be more than that.

© 1992 Ray A. Young Bear

Reprinted from Witness, XI(2), 137-8, 1997.

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