blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On Young Bear's Cultural Politics

Robin Riley Fast

For many Native American writers, issues of audience and community are vexed by the question of "What is ethical to tell?" Can tradition be offered as a means to commonality with an eclectic audience? These writers might, for example, honor tradition by acknowledging in their writing the stories that are their sources, and in so doing continue the oral tradition that is the ground of Indian cultural survival. On the other hand, cognizant of the opportunities for misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and appropriation offered by every translation and sharing of tradition, they might honor tradition by protecting the old stories and alluding to sacred or otherwise culturally vital materials cryptically, indirectly, partially, or not at all. Out of such tensions, many Native poets have created careful balances between protective reticence and imaginative re-vision.

Young Bear describes the sources of his poetry as including myth, history, and especially dreams; he illuminates the. places where dreams and other realities meet and the delicate negotiations involved in evoking those meetings within contested spaces, when he discusses his writing process. His comments on the constraints he knows, as a Mesquakie writing in English, recall the question engendered by the gaps between traditional communities and outside audiences: "What is ethical to tell?" We have already seen how this question might complicate his allusive appeals to Algonquin relatives and representatives of non-Native culture, "Emily Dickinson, Bismarck and the Roadrunner's Inquiry." His afterword to Black Eagle Child is similarly suggestive about what might be involved in exploring the interpenetrations of waking and dreamed experience, a central impulse of the narrative poems I discuss below.

"In the delicate ritual of weighing what can and cannot be shared," Young Bear tells us in the afterword, a "greater portion of my work is not based on spontaneity." Declining spontaneity in favor of "an exercise in creative detachment," his colloquially grounded and cryptically allusive narrative poems heighten: the disjunction between the esoteric and the public, even as they enact the potent continuity of dreamed and waking experience, and "the artistic interlacing of ethereality, past and present." As he says, "the divisions between dream and myth are never clear cut" (254). For a tribal person like Young Bear the divisions between myth and contemporary actuality are always potentially permeable.

By Young Bear's account his Mesquakie community offers compel- ling disincentives to revealing privileged knowledge: this is strikingly evident in his grandmother's cautionary reference to William Jones, a Mesquakie protégé of Franz Boas. After collecting and publishing a considerable body of myth and other materials from the Mesquakie, Jones was killed in the Philippines, as he attempted to pursue further anthropological studies. The poet reminds himself of another reason for reticence, the respect intrinsically due to relations, as to the spiritual, in "The Reason Why I Am Afraid Even Though I Am a Fisherman"; further, this poem tells us, "answers have nothing / to do with cause and occurrence" (Invisible Musician 9). Dreams by their nature defeat illusions of possession, even as they invite interpretation; they seem to offer Young Bear an oblique, protective way of approaching traditional material. Dream is thus a way of both telling and not telling. And Young Bear's cultural location and commitments thus create the conditions for a rich, distinctively nuanced heteroglossia. By evoking dreams, the poet inevitably tells about his culture, for self, culture, and dream are inextricably connected. Doing so cryptically, suggestively mixing the apparently traditional (and note that an outsider must say "apparently") with the contemporary, the poet may both keep the traditional alive and protect its integrity, by refusing to concede to the desires or impositions of outsiders. Thus he is able to deal with the question of ethical telling in a way that is both creative and respectful of his community.

He illuminates his approach when he likens himself to "an artist who didn't believe in endings," whose "sweeping visions . . . were constant and forever changing"; thus his "essential" commitment "to keep these enigmatic stories afloat in the dark until dust-filled veils of light inadvertently reveal . . . their luminescent shapes" (Black Eagle Child 255). The fluid suggestiveness of his narrative poems is evoked here, as are both their resistance to closure and their sense of expectancy, of creative waiting, for something like an illuminating veil that may allow a kind of access to both poet/speaker and reader/audience without offering to either the illusion of possession or complete resolution.

Toward the end of his afterword Young Bear suggests a link between his awareness of borderland conditions and his poetry's combination of openness and guardedness in words that recall Owens's "exquisite balancing act" (Other Destinies 15). As a writer, he says,

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 . . . the word-collecting process is an admixture of time present and past, of direction found and then lost, of actuality and dream. (260)

"The Handcuff Symbol," "Always Is He Criticized," and "The Black Antelope Tine" (all in The Invisible Musician) interweave dreamed and waking realities in contexts at least partially defined by cultural dislocation. Rather than providing clear resolutions to either contemporary narratives or elusive threads of dream, they offer experiences that reverberate within each poem and suggest continuities within and beyond the poems' confines. Reading and rereading, we become aware of the proliferating possibilities of internal cross-references and communal, perhaps mythic, continuities. And the poems' subtly offered possibilities seem to clarify, if not the "meanings" of their allusions, then the dynamics of each poem's structure and its spiritual sensibility. At the same time, the layered possibilities contribute to the poems' opacity: we see, when we do, through "dust-filled veils of light." This effect is intensified by Young Bear's reliance on associative connections; even when he seems to explain, he does so in a context pervaded by the juxtapositions and fluidity of dream, vision, and memory. And yet the liberating paradox is that we can see. Though it is easy to be aware of Young Bear's "veils," if we are receptive to the "light" it may, he tells us, "inadvertently reveal" the stories' "luminescent shapes," and the poems may bring us closer to the world of dream and myth than we expect or can grasp.

from The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry. Copyright © 1999 by the University of Michigan.

Return to Ray A. Young Bear