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"Reaching Out, Keeping Away"--An Interview with Ray A. Young Bear

from Tamaqua

A resident of the Mesquakie (Red Earth) Tribal Settlement near Tama, Iowa, Ray A. Young Bear has been a frequent contributor to the field and study of contemporary Native American poetry since the early seventies. His poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, and in his two books, Winter of the Salamander (Harper & Row, 1980) and The Invisible Musician (Holy Cow! Press, 1990). Young Bear has taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Eastern Washington University, and the University of Iowa.

On September 25,1990, Young Bear visited Parkland College with the Woodland Drum Group, a performing-arts troupe of 14 children and adults from the Mesquakie Settlement. The group performed songs and dances from a repetoire of traditional and contemporary Mesquakie music. The following interview is a composite of information Young Bear provided during his visit and of answers to questions he responded to by mail. The questions were composed by Parkland faculty Jim McGowan, Len Stelle, and Bruce Morgan.

TAMAQUA: What is the background of the Mesquakie tribe? How did they--and you--come to live at the Mesquakie Settlement in Iowa?

Young Bear: First of all, I should say that I am not an historian, but this is what I know of the Mesquakie tribe, of which I am an enrolled member and lifelong resident in central Iowa. The first recorded contact took place in the Green Bay, Wisconsin region in the 1600's with early French explorers and missionaries. From there, through a series of cultural/territorial struggles, for hundreds of years with both white and Indian adversaries, the Fox--as they are known in government terminology--weathered the fierce storms of fate. Many times the Mesquakie Nation was in a state of near-death, but from spiritual strength there came survival. We suffered tremendously, but our grandfathers were tenacious, becoming highly adept at "what to keep, what to keep away."

However, with the steadily increasing encroachment of the Euro-American, the Fox, along with their Sauk allies, found themselves in a precarious situation in the 1830's, which eventually removed them from the ancestral homelands along the Mississippi River in western Illinois.

Exiled by the U.S. government, the Sauk settled in Oklahoma and the Mesquakie (Fox) in Kansas. Seeking change in the 1850's and a return to the green, fertile landscape of the Midwest, my great-great maternal grandfather, Mamwiwanike, who was but a boy-chieftain at the time, made the monumental choice (under his grandfather's advice) to begin the journey, politically and physically, back to Iowa. Mesquakie intermediaries and interpreters returned to negotiate the eventual purchase of the first acres from the Iowa legislature. This was finalized in July of 1856, the first approvals to have ownership of Iowa property. With that, the other Mesquakie families/clans returned, travelling the long distance from the plains of Kansas with their horses and meager belongings. According to my grandmother, the trip was plagued with hardship, for the travellers "sometimes picked and ate plums from trees."

My connection to the Mesquakie tribe, their homestate, and their beloved cultural sanctuary, therefore, is quite close.

TAMAQUA: Could you tell us something about the activities of the Woodland Drum Group, and the reasons you formed it?

Young Bear: The music troupe, the singers, is comprised of my brothers, Todd and Russell Young Bear; my nephew, Elgin Young Bear; my wife, Stella; her brother Gordon Lasley, who is a renowned Fancy Feather dancer, as well as Clark and Eloise Lasley; and myself. We formed in 1983 for the specific purpose of entertaining other Native Americans via participation in tribal celebrations, but we soon discovered non-Indian audiences were very interested in experiencing what we promote as "a small but important facet of tribal arts." Knowing people who had devoted their lifetimes to the craft of singing and dancing contributed to our beginning.

Our first performing-arts performance took place in 1984 at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. We are in part indebted to Dr. Char Hawks, who had originally contacted me for class visits and a poetry reading at Augustana. When she inquired if I knew of singers and dancers that might be able to highlight the presentations, I saw it as an opportunity to put into action what I had always thought of doing--sharing "the first poetry, the word-songs" of our traditional tribal music, along with my own contemporary poetry.

We now have to our credit over 250 performances throughout the midwestern United States, as well as the Netherlands and Saskatchewan, Canada. Over the past six years we have had the good fortune of being represented by over ninety dancers and singers from the Mesquakie tribe, and some of the dancers are highly acclaimed on the tribal celebration circuit. Two--Derris Keahna and Gordon Lasley--have been distinguished as the best dancers of the International Championship Pow-Wow of Bismarck, North Dakota.

While the drum and the singers remain the core, the foundation of Woodland, the dancers are plainly the ones who enhance, give beauty to, and magnify the songs from the repetoire. Without dancers we would be a simple, traditional concert group--which in my opinion is hard work, for one is limited to sounds alone. With professional Mesquakie dancers, there is a festive intermingling of colors, energy, serenity and agile physicality. The synthesis of our songs and dances is, for me, a most invigorating form of self-expression.

Our mission is a simple one. We hope that we can educate the non-Indian about the meanings behind the largely misunderstood and mispresented dances and songs of the Native American. It is obviously an extraordinary task, for we are up against hundreds of years of cultural malignment. Fortunately there are many people who are keenly aware of the Native American’s cultural strength. And these are the people we reach, young and old people who desire to take a brief glimpse into the traditional performing arts of the Mesquakie Nation.

TAMAQUA: Ethnic song and dance is common to all peoples: in what ways is yours distinctive? Does it have a spiritual and symbolic quality lacking in the song and dance of contemporary society?

Young Bear: Our Mesquakie songs and dances are distinctive in the sense they were released a long time ago for public use. At least that is what is often said, that our people collectively agreed to use some ceremonial-related songs for the non-Mesquakie. You could say they were transformed from spirituality, for commercial purposes.

During the Mesquakie Tribal Celebration held every second week in August, you can see most of these dances which attest to our past. In the "pow-wow circuit" where professional dancers from all classifications compete every summer and fall throughout the United States and Canada, our celebration is the least known, for it is a different affair entirely. The emphasis is not on money, on how many different tribes you can gather, or how well you can dance among others. Rather it is an affirmation of Mesquakie identity. This you can tell from the extensive repetoire (and history) of Mesquakie word-songs.

TAMAQUA: What characterizes Mesquakie identity, as distinct from the larger American society you are part of?

Young Bear: I am extremely fortunate to come from a tribe that is known for its conservative practices. As such, our language, beliefs, history and ideology is unaffected by cultural deterioration. Part of this, of course, comes from the establishment of our Red Earth Tribal Settlement. While we reside in the heart of the Iowa agricultural landscape, this self-prescribed, self-imposed geographic isolation has vastly contributed to our stability as a special Woodlands-oriented people. We are all a constant reminder to each other of clan reciprocity and obligation. In a close-knit society, you see quite vividly where you stand in accordance to tribe and cosmogony. As a contemporary Mesquakie poet-writer-singer, an artist who happens to follow a journey of words rather than the chosen pathway, I can only stand near the edge of this little earth, make room for, and give homage to the unrecognized and courageous "Keepers of Importance."

TAMAQUA: How are the dances performed at the Mesquakie Tribal Celebration in August different from the music and dances performed by the Woodland Drum Group?

Young Bear: The major difference would be the number of performers and participants. There obviously are more dancers for the community-oriented event than the 10-14 people who travel with us. And there are dances like the Buffalo Head, Swan, and Shawnee Dances which look better with 75 to 125 people dancing.

TAMAQUA: How have the drum, songs, and dances changed over the years in response to public performance, contact with Anglo society, and contact with other Native American groups? For instance, have the Mesquakie traditionally employed a southern drum style?

Young Bear: There is a high probability that Mesquakie song, dance, and drum styles have changed because of cultural change and adaptation. As a relatively young person of forty years of age, who has had a profound interest in tribal music of all kinds, I think I can offer some opinions, but there really isn't anything dramatic to report. My feeling is, as long as the people who are responding to these subtle idiosyncrasies are Mesquakie--Mesquakie improvising at being Mesquakie--then it is of little concern. Should there ever be a time when the influence of Puccini, Verdi, Beethoven can be heard in our music, then I'd be worried.

In response to the question about the Mesquakie employing the southern style of drumming, I would have to say it is a recent acquisition and no different than the latest Northern Plains style of high-pitched singing used by most Mesquakie drum groups. Both are essentially borrowed and improvised upon.

TAMAQUA: The songs or chants usually seem to be delivered in a rather high-pitched register. Why is that?

Young Bear: Actually I'm vocally flexible. I deliver or "throw out" songs in accordance with the mood and situation presented. For performances or formal concerts I sing in a higher, energetic register to entice the dancers to equal the singer's efforts. In community events where one has to gradually persuade a large group of people to express themselves, I start from a lower scale and progress upward.

TAMAQUA: The first dance at last year's Mesquakie Pow-Wow was the Veterans' Dance, in honor of Mesquakie-American veterans. And in your book The Invisible Musician the poem "Viet Nam Memorial" is a tribute to Viet Nam veterans. Are these reflections of a traditional Mesquakie attitude toward military service?

Young Bear: It may be considered romantic by non-Mesquakie people, but there is a certain sense of honor about being affiliated with the military service. It is not so much patriotism as it is a personal demonstration of bravery and heroism. There is still engrained in our blood the warrior.

Personally, whenever my thoughts squeeze past the technological and ideological clutter of modern society, I have a great respect for Mesquakie veterans who have actually taken part in battles overseas. The Mesquakie veterans are an essential part of the Mesquakie celebration that reminds us of the unsteadiness of the world.

TAMAQUA: In general, minorities tend to be quite limited in how much control they have over how their experience is presented in the popular media. What problems has this caused for Native Americans? Do you see any reason to expect popular perceptions of the Native American experience to change? Do you expect there may eventually be someone who presents a distinctive Native perspective on contemporary experience through a popular medium like film, the way Spike Lee has recently done with the black experience?

Young Bear: The problems caused by non-Indian representation of the Indian are horrendous. Sometimes I think they are almost irreversible. In my travels throughout the Midwest and elsewhere, addressing white-dominated schools, churches, colleges, and so forth via poetry or performances, I have learned this country has progressed very little in terms of portraying us in a proper and just manner.

A classic and unfortunate example is the University of Illinois, where we performed the day after TAMAQUA sponsored us at Parkland. In spite of what I am about to say, the Krannert Center gig was one of our most successful recent performances. There were many there who wanted to know firsthand the meanings of tribal songs and dances. I'm sure we reached the young people there. It is mostly the older people who are stuck in time, stagnating. Which brings me to my main response to your question: the stubbornness which was exhibited recently by the university trustees in refusing to abolish the Chief Illiniwek sports mascot is indication that many people, even those who are supposedly educated, refuse to let go of pacifiers filled with gel that reeks of blatant racism and stereotypes. The answer lies in these misguided people finding something else "to suck on," for lack of a better term. (Incidentally, I was so glad when the University of Iowa whipped Illinois in football!)

But that's just one example. There are many others, and I'm sure each tribe has problems endemic to their region. And so it will take some doing to change popular perceptions of tribal people. As I've said in our performances, one way to reverse centuries of cultural malignment is to educate people, slowly and accurately.

As far as a Spike Lee Native American equivalent, we can only hope....

TAMAQUA: As sympathetic observers who are aware of the taint of cultural imperialism and exploitation in the existing scholarly literature, how can we find out more about the Mesquakie people?

Young Bear: That is a difficult question. Number one, to offer an enlightening answer--if there is one--would mean I support self-serving "outsiders," those wishing to somehow gain via academic research and the like. Very few of those "sympathetic observers" that I know of are interested in keeping it on a friendship level with us. It seems most are after something and once it is obtained they disappear.

Secondly, I am not sure Mesquakie people would like to make themselves known. The intent has always been to remain culturally and geographically isolated. "Fencing out" is the key.

TAMAQUA: Many of your poems refer to your grandmother--notably the opening poem of The Invisible Musician, entitled "The Significance of a Water Animal." Could you talk a little about her and her influence on your work?

Young Bear: Having been raised by my maternal grandmother for the first ten years of my life and being dependent on her for career advice and spiritual and medicinal guidance, I am indebted to her for apprising me of Mesquakie codes and precepts, ways to live. (In my case, it'd be debating ways how to live.) There is no way to repay her for all she's done in reinforcing the voice in my poetry. In my opinion, she is one of the few persons on the Mesquakie Settlement who is a direct recipient of the Creator's kindness. She has seen and experienced things few of us will ever have a chance to imagine were possible.

TAMAQUA: In "A Drive to Lone Ranger," the character Bumblebee is presented with an odd mixture of matter-of-fact realism (the talk of cassette tapes, mineral rights) and supernaturalism (Transformation Masks, transparent wings). Could you comment on this apparent incongruity?

Young Bear: The incongruity is reality. The juxtaposition of everyday items like Shredded Wheat, computers and automobiles to supernaturalism is a testament that a belief in invisible forces still exists today. What the non-Indian is commercially deluged with via television, movies, scientific research, and books on unexplained mysteries and so forth, the traditional home-based Indian lives and contends with daily. In short, in spite of all the hype the civilized white American society gives itself in terms of intellect, productivity, and militarism, there are events that take place daily that they cannot see. You could think of this as a diluting of ancient blood and the inability to see beyond the visible.

This question tires me, so I'll stop, for 99% of American people no longer have the mental capacity to fathom these phenomena.

TAMAQUA: Many of your poems refer to Black Eagle Child. Who or what is Black Eagle Child?

Young Bear: My next book is entitled Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint Narratives. Basically, Black Eagle is my father's name, and since I am his son, I added the Child part. Simple. And in some poems I have used the name in place of the Mesquakie Settlement where I have resided for forty years. This is perhaps the only liberty I have taken with names, and even then it is fictitious. I know people who have resorted to legally changing names for commercial purposes. Funny. Had my name been Smith, it would still be Smith.

TAMAQUA: How to transmit a cultural heritage is a dilemma: to keep it as the most pervasive influence it is necessary to remain apart from the wider culture, but to remain apart from the wider culture makes it invisible to that wider culture. How do you envision the ideal way to maintain the Mesquakie culture for those succeeding generations who will venture into the wider culture?

Young Bear: Exposure to the wider culture happens automatically, so the key thing is to participate in the tribal culture. One way is through music and dance. While a Mesquakie, realizing the tribal realm is encompassed by larger realities, may not be able to see right away that social songs and dances eventually contribute to retention of our roots and heritage, they do have subtle effects.

First and foremost our songs and dances are a form of self-expression. What makes them interesting and captivating is the fact that every Mesquakie takes part in the art form, whether one is a participant or observer. Yet it is simply but one fabric of the daily adornments worn by us. This is how a fellow Mesquakie would perhaps perceive it--as largely inconsequential but important as a tradition-based art form.

My perceptions, however, as an educator/teacher allow me to see beyond the ancient routines of vocals and choreography, especially if tribal youth are involved. Mesquakie songs and dances, no matter how simple or inconsequential, are in the foreground of where the transference of culture begins.

It never fails to astound me to see Mesquakie babies who are less than a year old emulate the singing/drumming done by their parents and grandparents. And the best part is the encouragement given; it is forthright and direct. "Na ka mo no, (You) sing." When a child this young is taught that music will command attention and the respect of people, that child will grasp and retain for a lifetime what is important for the Mesquakie. With this interest, especially in the precious jaunt to the year 2000, there exists Mesquakie music "which talks, ka na wi mi ka to." For the 1990s Mesquakie child who has been accustomed to communicating primarily in the English language, all of which is enticed and reinforced by dime-store interests such as "Ninja Turtles," "Nintendo," brand-name tennis shoes and skateboards, tribal songs can be pivotal in guiding a child toward the honoring of tribal identity via the original language.

From Tamaqua 2.2 (Winter/Spring 1991). Copyright 1991 by Tamaqua. Reprinted with permission.

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