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To Be There, No Authority to Anything: Ontological Desire and Poetic Authority in the Poetry of Ray A. Young Bear

Robert Dale Parker

The Wordsworthian preoccupation with identity, targeted by writers as diverse as Robert Pinsky, Jacques Derrida, Kathy Acker, and Charles Bernstein, takes another kind of hit in the poetry of Ray A. Young Bear, deep-image surrealist, Mesquakie, cultural isolato, and--at the same time--communal cultural nationalist. Young Bear's first two books, Winter of the Salamander: The Keeper of Importance and The Invisible Musician, have a contemplative intensity that often risks the indecipherable. His third and latest book, Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint Narratives, explains itself more patiently, integrating cultural exposition with poetic narrative, at times almost like a novel. The blend might recall the way some of Leslie Marmon Silko's poems displace anthropological annotation by having an elder explain things to a child (Mattina 146-47), except that Young Bear's irreverence keeps the sensibility more ironic and slippery.

In all three books Young Bear pursues something like a Euro-American surrealism while also writing more thoroughly from within a native culture than any other Native American writer I know of. Readers often feel lost amid the esoteric reference points; and the abrupt, often dream-inspired zigs and zags do little to accommodate our bewilderment. (A typical title, for example, is "in dream: the privacy of sequence.") The tight, crowded cultural frame is possible, perhaps even likely, for a Mesquakie, because the Mesquakie, compared to most other American Indian peoples, have a history of tenacious cultural and linguistic independence.[1] With the mix of the Mesquakie and the surreal, it is difficult for non-Mesquakie readers versed in European and American poetic tradition, and I should think for those Mesquakie readers not so versed, to pick out what in Young Bear's poems we can usefully call surrealist, Mesquakie, or somehow his own.

Young Bear also writes against some thorny cultural resistances. The Mesquakie prefer to keep their culture to themselves. When Fred McTaggart went to the Mesquakie settlement expecting to find people happy to tell stories for him to record and write about, he should not have been surprised to find them courteously uncooperative. Young Bear himself insists that there is much he cannot say.[2] Moreover, he writes in a larger culture that is mostly too ignorant, impatient, or hostile for the immensely detailed ontological routine of Mesquakie life and thought. Even compliments, of course, can betray. A favorable review of The Invisible Musician dwells on the beautiful cover, praising Stella Young Bear for the photo of a beaded bag without realizing that the cover credits her for beading the bag, not for photographing it (Kallet). Mesquakie culture is a self-reinventing flow of the present, not a relic of the past.

Meanwhile, as Robert E Gish writes, "'Young Bear is generally acknowledged by poets, critics, and students of American Indian literature as the nation's foremost contemporary Native American poet," and is "destined for even wider and more fulsome recognition." Still, this is a curious claim for a writer who remains almost unwritten about, daunting to read and teach, and much of whose work is out of print.[3] For now, Young Bear's readers are confined to the small if growing audience committed to reading Indian poetry, rather than the still small but much larger audience for American poetry in general.

That sorry limit need not be so big a problem; many Indian writers are quick to say that they write mostly for other Indians. Young Bear doesn't discuss other Indian poets, but two of his poems address non-Indian poets' and editors' readings of Indians in general and, in one case, of the Mesquakie in particular. The same two poems, "in disgust and in response to indian-type poetry written by whites published in a mag which keeps rejecting me" and "for the rain in march: the blackened hearts of herons" (Young Bear has a particular genius for titles), also address Mesquakie identity and the Mesquakie world with the suggestive obscurity of so many of his other poems, but their address to the non-Mesquakie literary world helps make the obscurity more penetrable to outsiders. For Young Bear's cultural worlds and imaginative universes, like any other writer's, are hybrid, including his sense of what it means to be Mesquakie .[4]

"in disgust and in response" puts the question of being Mesquakie in its first line, "you know we'd like to be there," and then takes up the many things that line struggles to enunciate. "You know" has a casual talkiness, yet also the oracular tone of a culture formally elaborated and reproduced, from generation to generation, through oral tradition. It also sneers sarcastically at those who only presume they know, those who see Indians as a vanishing remnant (the last of the Mohicans) mired in the past. Yet at the same time, Young Bear's "you know" suggests that the Mesquakie would like to be there. This is a poem, and in many ways Young Bear's is a body of poetry, about trying to be wherever there is, there where Mesquakie culture is, [5] or in this case where it once was, since even Mesquakie can get drawn into the cultural fantasy that displaces a people's identity and essence to a vanished past. Being there promises to mean being in some kind of "balance," to pick out words from later in the poem, "whole and complete." Or maybe not so whole and complete, if that turns out to be impossible, but still in a dream of wholeness and completeness, a vision that--in the poem's final line--"is no authority to anything."

Indeed, Young Bear puts so much weight on how "we" "would" like to be there, repeating the expression in a separate line, that he sets up an expectation that such desire will be trailed by a "but we can't" that the poem never fills out, as if to rely on our sense of the ever-receding différance between the wish and its object, between the present and the ever-receding past that pulls at the present so strongly:

you know we'd like to be there
standing beside our grandfathers
being ourselves
without the frailty
and insignificance of the worlds
we suffer and balance
on top of now
unable to detect which to learn
or which to keep from
wearing the faces
of our seasonal excuses
constantly lying to each other
and ourselves about just how much
of the daylight
we understand
we would be there:
with the position of our minds
bent towards the autumn fox
feeling the strength and prayer
of the endured sacred human tests
we would set aside the year's
smallpox dead
whole and complete
with resignation
like the signs from the four legs
of our direction
standing still
sixty years back in time
breathing into the frosted lungs
of our horses the winter blessings
of our clan gods (Winter 118)

This is not typical of Young Bear's poetry, for mostly he writes without nostalgia about contemporary life, not about the past that is all that most popular myths can see for Native Americans. Here, however, he opposes "beside our grandfathers" to a "now" of "frailty / and insignificance, " of "constantly lying to each other / and ourselves." Then, when he specifies the past he refers to as sixty years ago, the notion of grandfathers hardens into the literal. Rather than referring to ancestors at large, it zeroes in on the specific past of two or three generations ago, repeated in the reference to smallpox, which ravaged the Mesquakie in 1902 (Joffe 298). The specificity allows us to suspect that such grandfathers may sometimes have felt as frail to themselves as they now appear strong to their grandchildren, who may in turn gain strength in the nostalgia of their descendants. The mythical past shatters before the immediate Mesquakie specificity that, more in Young Bear's usual mode, magnifies through the rest of the poem. Only against the back, drop of that Mesquakie world, in so many ways unintelligible to outsiders, does Young Bear at the end of the poem finally address the disgust and response that his title promises.

On the way, he specifies "grandfathers" even more. It is a masculine term (as the "we" of this poem turns out to be masculine), and here it refers to the men of a group that is "separate and apart," for-as Black Eagle Child explains-in those days "the tribe broke into family groups during winter" (166). The horses, Young Bear writes,

would carry our belongings
and families to the woodlands
of eastern iowa to hunt our food
separate and apart
from the tribe
following and sometimes using
the river to cleanse the blood
from our daughters and wives
not knowing that far into
our lives we'd be the skulls
of their miscarriages
as a result:
the salamander would paralyze
our voice and hearing
under instruction
our sons the mutes would darken
their bodies with ash and we'd assist
them erect sweatlodges with canvas
water    plants    fire    and     poles
from the river
the scent of deer and geese
the hiss of medicine
against the heated rocks
belief would breathe into their bodies
camouflage and invisibility (Winter 119)

The masculine focalization may seem automatic, but in other poems Young Bear writes more of grandmothers than grandfathers, especially his own grandmother. He opens his first collection with his best known and most accessibly eloquent poem, "grandmother." Here, in "in disgust and in response," it is not easy to read the consequences of gender distinctions. Like so much of Young Bear's poetry, these are difficult lines to follow through their cultural assumptions and suggestive enjambments, and sometimes they seem to ask us to rest in uncertainties, in "not knowing," and in the paralysis of "voice and hearing / under instruction." Not that the uncertainties can never be diminished so much as that uncertainty itself is part of the intercultural and interpersonal being that these poems labor to represent and to suspend in continuous performance.

Indeed, Young Bear often suspends his lines in opposite notes, as in the haunting "one chip of human bone," which reads, in its entirety:

one chip of human bone

it is almost fitting
to die on the railroad tracks

i can easily understand
how they felt on their long staggered walks back

grinning to the stars.

there is something about trains, drinking, and
being an indian with nothing to lose. (Winter 19)

One chip isn't much, but this chip marks a death. It is almost fitting, but it doesn't fit. Young Bear can easily understand the many suicides on the railroad tracks that bisect the Mesquakie settlement, suicides that multiply through his poems, because he knows the world that produces them. Yet in another, uncapitulating sense he can never understand such tragedies. He is "no authority to anything." As in "in disgust and in response," it boils down to "being an indian." Or as Black Eagle Child puts it, "All this internalized agony led us to hurt / or seriously injure one another for no reason / other than sheer disgust in being Indians," and "All else has been a long uncomfortable adjustment to being an Indian, E ne no te wi ya ni, in the world of the white man" (5, 167). In "one chip of human bone," that being provokes Young Bear to wonder whether Indians can know themselves and their cultures when it is so hard to see through the veil of all they have lost. If they decide they have nothing left to lose, then that can make them lose everything.

"in disgust and in response" sets out to define the ontological anguish of that wondering. It describes the ceremonial production and reproduction, in sweatlodges with "the hiss of medicine / against the heated rocks" of "belief" that "would breathe into their bodies / camouflage and invisibility." But invisible belief will not translate easily into a world of schooling disputes and mass-marketed, tv-induced urges to conform.[6] The modesty that even the strongest belief assumes, if its form seems invisible, makes it a hard sell in a world that wants things to buy and that refuses to see or hear such opposite notes.

Part of the difficulty is that at some level of existential challenge, "in disgust and in response" suggests that it is no easier for Young Bear--the "invisible musician"--or for any other Mesquakie to say in a "whole and complete" way what is Mesquakie than it is for outsiders. In some ways, none of us knows who we are. The Mesquakie people would "like to be there ... / being ourselves." But like anyone else, they can always feel as if they are only "wearing the faces" of themselves, can always feel the gap between being one's self and the expression of such being without which, in a vicious cycle, we can't conceptualize our being in the first place. Thus being is never convincingly being, and expressing can never reach the signified it would express. Identity, as a social narrative shaped by traditions in disequilibrium, is always evolving, versus the cultural myth that Native Americans shape native identity only by looking to the past. "We would set aside the year's / smallpox dead / whole and complete," as if the only way to be whole and complete were to be dead.

Beyond that grim hint, this may all sound ordinarily poststructuralist, but I am not suggesting that this poem submits to the poststructuralist formulas that spin my discussion of it, any more than it submits to the formulas of cultural fantasy about Native Americans. For in Young Bear's spin on Mesquakie ontology, identities can be appropriated. That is not what poets do; it is what witches do.

somewhere an image of a woman's hand
would lunge out from the window
of a longhouse
and it would grab from our fingers
the secret writings of a book
describing to the appointee
the method of entering
the spirit and body
of a turkey
to walk at night in suspension
above the boundaries of cedar incense
to begin this line of witchcraft
traveling in various
animal forms
unaware of the discrepancy
that this too is an act of balance
a recurring dream of you
being whole and complete
sending the glint of your horns
into the great distances
of the gods
acquainting yourself with ritual
and abandonment of self-justification
to realize there is a point
when you stop being a people
sitting somewhere and reading
the poetry of others come out easily
at random
unlike yours which is hard to write
to feel yourself stretch
beyond limitation
to come here and write this poem
about something no one
knows about
no authority to anything (Winter 119-20)

There, without a period's closing authority, the poem ends. The words "this too" signal an analogy. Young Bear likens the secret writing of witchcraft, which tells how to take animal forms, [7] to the transformations of poetic imagination, for each is a "suspension / above ... boundaries," "an act of balance / a recurring dream of you"--addressing himself in the second person, as if to make his readers hear their own poetic transformations--"being whole and complete." A romanticizing essentialist might stop at "whole and complete," asserting the organic unity so iconized by New Critical tradition and still in many ways dominant, even more in the world of belles lettres and poetry "mags" than in literary and cultural criticism.

But that would entail a "self-justification" at odds with the personal humility of Mesquakie culture and ritual. And beyond the personal, it would provide a romantic cultural chauvinism hardly better than that of the white writers of "indian-type" poetry and the editors who favor them.[8] Instead of offering an image of the Mesquakie as whole and complete, Young Bear--whose poems neither shy away from nor obsess over differences between Mesquakie--musters a Mesquakie resentment to help him take being Mesquakie to more than being Mesquakie: "to realize there is a point / when you stop being a people / . . . / to feel yourself stretch beyond limitation."

Thus he projects a post-Wordsworthian transcendence of identity, yet at the same time describes himself escaping such limits so as to reimmerse himself in them. For if he would stretch beyond the limits of identity, it is still his self that he professes to stretch.   His insistence that this poems "stretch / beyond limitation" clashes with his insisting nevertheless that this poem is "about something." He aspires to "write this poem / about something no one / knows about," which is also to be someone who knows about it. The two uses of "about" invert each other. The first one affirms, while the second denies yet remains embedded in the affirmation. That ontological corkscrew permits Young Bear to open his claim both to be "no authority to anything" and to have an authority that other poets assume only by fraud.

Whirling out of such an extra-logical stance, the cultural consequences of Young Bear's position evade any neat formula. At the frankest common denominator, it means that he can write about it and non-Indian poets can't. The tougher part comes in the why. The writing of such poems is not the province of just any Mesquakie--far from it. Nor can he write such poems simply because he knows what he's talking about while the white dabblers and impostors do not.[9] The difficulty lies, again, in the always receding object of "about," the about what (what is a Mesquakie, what is an "I," a self, a "we," an identity, a subject position). And it lies in Young Bear's sense not only that he can never catch, mount, and display that object, but also that the quest to catch it and the recognition that it will always flutter over the horizon are not the same for him and for someone outside the Mesquakie world, anymore than they would be for him and for another Mesquakie.

"We'd like to be there," then, but we can't be there. We'd like to be our truest selves, but the limit of "self," "our," and "truth" always disappears over memory's horizon. Still, if it is not always easy for Young Bear or other Mesquakie or anyone else to say who they are, that hardly means they are not anything. Wearing a face is not the same as being a self, but masks can perform self, dramatizing and producing the subjectivity and displacement that they figure. That includes the mask of self-contradiction, the extra-logical cultural stance that allows Young Bear to claim an impossible knowledge about what no one knows about, and to say that his position as a Mesquakie gives him an authority to write about Mesquakie being, even though a Mesquakie--like anyone else--is "no authority to anything." A Mesquakie is not even an authority on "being whole and complete" as a Mesquakie, except in the performative sense that such wholeness and completion are what this poem calls "a recurring dream."[10] Thus in an interview, Young Bear can say "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." Even his verb, "is" rather than "are," underlines his sense that Mesquakie language, belief, history, and ideology are one and the same. He explains that "self-prescribed, self-imposed geographic isolation has vastly contributed to our stability," yet in the same interview he discusses how Mesquakie music has recently adapted to the "southern style of drumming" and "the latest Northern Plains style of high-pitched singing." He adds: "There is a high probability that Mesquakie song, dance, and drum styles have changed because of cultural change and adaptation. . . . 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."[11]

As long, he says, as the people are Mesquakie. What then is a Mesquakie? There is no doubt that, compared to most Native American peoples, the Mesquakie have steadfastly kept up their cultural independence. Still, any notion that they have hovered in place flies in the face of everything we know about post-contact Mesquakie history. The French, for example, aimed an explicit policy of genocide directly at the Mesquakie and came so close to accomplishing it that the Mesquakie could recover only through large-scale adoption from other native peoples, who brought much from their own cultures, as well as large-scale return of captured Mesquakie, who brought much from the cultures that had held them captive. And like other Indian peoples, the Mesquakie have absorbed a great deal from widening intertribal contacts and an intensifying, pan-Indian sense of common cultural position.[12] They have stuck it out so successfully (by comparison) not only because of their conservatism but also because of their resourceful mix of conservatism and adaptability, or, in Young Bear's term, improvisation. In Black Eagle Child, he describes the resistance to change while concluding, nevertheless, that "Change was unavoidable" (60). For Young Bear, conservatism and isolation are not sufficient to explain Mesquakie cultural survival. As his remarks about music indicate, a Mesquakie is not anything we can capture in static definition; a Mesquakie is, circularly and performatively, a "Mesquakie improvising at being Mesquakie." Hence, although a Mesquakie has a special authority about such "being," still, since such being is always recreating itself, a Mesquakie is at the same time "no authority to anything."

Indeed, the anthropological literature singles out the Mesquakie for their indifference to authority. Walter B. Miller argues persuasively that European concepts of authority, hierarchy, and leadership were deeply foreign to the Mesquakie social system when astonished Europeans first described it in the seventeenth century. Even after almost three hundred years of change, Miller finds that twentieth-century practices pervasively reiterate what he finds for the seventeenth century. Things may get done, but the institutions of social power that accomplish them are so informal as to seem almost invisible. In a similar vein, Frederick O. Gearing describes modern Mesquakie independence and resentment of authority as well as the factional political strife that such a perspective leads to now that the Mesquakie must articulate their social system to non-Mesquakie institutions and expectations.[13] Thus when Young Bear, having already asserted his position as a Mesquakie and Native American authority, beginning with the comic, resentful title of his poem, then arcs to an anguished conclusion in denial of that authority, his very denial enacts the ontology of authority as it appears--almost invisibly--in Mesquakie performance.


As "in disgust and in response" decries "indian-type poetry written by whites," so "for the rain in march: the blackened hearts of herons" denounces two particular poems: W D. Snodgrass' "Powwow" and James Wright's "I Am a Sioux Brave, He Said in Minneapolis." [14] Like "in disgust," "for the rain in march" goes most of its length without even mentioning the offending poems; Young Bear may occasionally respond to white poets, but he has plenty to say on his own without needing them to prompt him. He may be their "other," but they are not his.

On the contrary, "for the rain in march" begins with modesty and interiority, begins as "no authority to anything":

i see myself sleeping
and i see other ignorant people
locked securely in their houses
unaware of the soft dawn-lit
forbearing animals
wrapping themselves with the bark
and cone from pinetrees
within each of their thoughts
there is the vision
of the small muskrat's
clasped hands
the struggling
black and yellow
spotted body of a salamander
freeing itself from a young
girl's womb (Winter 163)

This has nothing to do with Snodgrass' poem (which I will focus on) or with Wright's. This poem is "for" the rain in March, not for the white poets, not even deigning, until it is mostly over, to respond with disgust.

But even while the bulk of this poem has nothing to do with Snodgrass' poem, it also has everything to do with it. For the disconnection shows how ludicrously far afield Snodgrass is when he takes it for granted that he knows the Mesquakie mind. He assumes he has been to the Mesquakie interior, weighed it, and found it wanting, found nothing there but a false consciousness that reflects the ideologies of Snodgrass' own world in degraded derivation. [15] Where, to Snodgrass, do the Mesquakie get their culture? "They all see the same movies," he begins, as if that will explain everything, not only for the Mesquakie but also the Sioux, the Chippewa, and (in a lump) all the rest, which tells more about what Snodgrass himself does not see when he looks at the Mesquakie (such meager looking as he pauses for). "The Indians," Snodgrass explains elsewhere, "seemed dreadfully beaten down, poverty-stricken, sodden or didn't seem to know any more than I did about Indians. I really had the feeling that they also had picked up all their Indian lore from Grade B movies. Yet, that was our fault, too, so it just seemed like one more guilt" (qtd. in Gildner and Gildner 133). He sees no Indian subjectivity. To Snodgrass, Indian culture--represented solely by what ignorant eyes can see at a powwow--is a passive product of "our" culture, as if only readers who are part of his "our" were allowed. [16] He does not see the Mesquakie being, the visionary but modest (Young Bear even says "ignorant") being that lives with animals, the forbearing animals wrapping themselves with bark, the muskrat like a fetus, the spotted salamander slithering from a girl's womb. Such things, such being, invisible to Snodgrass, not only do not come from movies, they also antedate movies by millennia and remain utterly invisible within them. They are unparaphraseable in the cultural and linguistic vocabulary of Snodgrass' dominating world, which, to say the least, includes (more or less) the world of written and English-language literary criticism, as opposed, for example, to Mesquakie oral tradition.

In that vein, Young Bear then continues the poem by telling about a certain badger:

in my dark blue pickup
i came upon a cigar-smoking
who invited himself and
later came to my home
gathering chips and splinters
of my firewood and starting
a fire
for an hour we sat
and then he suddenly stood
on his hindlegs and walked
over to the stove
and opened it
he took out two narrow pieces
of burning wood and rammed them
into his eyes
he fell on all fours
and then he made rumbling sounds
mocking my pickup with its two
dull headlights
disappearing into
the forest (Winter 164)

Like the opening lines, the story of this trickster badger has nothing directly to do with Snodgrass, but it has the effect of satirizing him by reversal. He reads the Mesquakie through the lens of his own cultural being, whereas Young Bear reads an ill-mannered animal rather like Snodgrass through the lens of Mesquakie being. Like the badger, Snodgrass comes to Young Bear's home uninvited, or if he is invited in the sense that everyone is invited to the annual powwow (a major source of income for the settlement), then he exceeds that invitation in the invasive presumptions of his poem. Before this badgering trickster with his rumbling mockery, the securely locked homes of the opening lines seem exposed and threatened. But the badger's mockery, like the mockery from tricksters through much of Native American oral literature, soon turns back on him, driving him from the home he invades and the hospitality he abuses.

Though not always unsubtle, the rampant abuses in Snodgrass' poem make it an inviting target. In language imported from racism against African Americans, he sneers at the dancers' "shuffling," recalling that sorry epithet, "prairie niggers." If Indians are all the same to him (he excepts "Only the Iroquois," apparently unaware that there are hundreds of American Indian peoples, most of whom couldn't be represented at even a well-attended powwow), it almost seems as if nonwhites are all the same to him too. Their ceremonial clothing amounts to "braveries" (he might almost as well say squaw-eries, if that were a word) they are "tricked out" in. If he "others" them as shuffling blacks, then he others both blacks and Indians, en masse, by feminizing them: "They all dance with their eyes turned / Inward--like a woman nursing." If we stop there, at the end of an enjambed line, the feminization might almost appear laudatory, suggesting contemplation and gentleness. But the false pause turns out to be an abuse of late-forties and fifties high-formalist play, for nothing else in the poem corroborates such softness. On the contrary, when we cross the enjambment to find that the dancers are "like a woman nursing / A sick child she already knows / Will die," it turns out that we have been set up for another patronizing, infantilizing, and misogynist cliché about the femininely impractical and childish red man, vanishing ward of the state, the sort of counter-factual dirge that would help make possible the Eisenhower administration's disastrous effort to do away with ("terminate") reservations.

Young Bear, writing from a conservative culture with its own language, cosmology, and social system, with a body of ceremonial ritual large enough to beggar the Vatican, a culture so private that it finally succeeded in repelling a sixty-year onslaught of anthropologists, skims through most of these insults and focuses with incredulity on the thinness of his culture in the eyes of Snodgrass and Wright:

coming back I read the poem pow-wow 
written by w. d. snodgrass
after visiting my people's annual tribal
you can't get away from people
who think what they see
is in actuality all they will
ever see
as if all in one moment they can sense
automatically what makes a people
what capabilities they have of
knowledge and intellect
he was only shown what was allowed
to be shown
what the hell did he expect
out of his admission fee?
and as far as he thinking that he knew
more about indians than they themselves did
he should have thought twice
it's the same way with the poem
i am a sioux brave, he said in minneapolis
by james wright and countless others
he will never know the meanings
of the songs he heard
nor will he ever know that these
songs were being sung long before
his grandfathers had notions
of riding across the ocean
long before translators
and imitators came some
claiming to be at least a good 64th
grabbing and printing anything
in scrapbook form
dedicating poems to the indian's loss
writing words and placing themselves
within various animals they knew nothing of
snodgrass will never know what spirit
was contained in that day he sat above
the feathered indians
eating his hot dog

he saw my people in one afternoon
performing and enjoying themselves
i have lived here 26 years and although
i realize within my life i am incomplete
i know for a fact that my people's ways
aren't based on grade-b movies (Winter 171-72)

Young Bear, a composer, singer, and drummer with a huge repertoire of songs, like many other Mesquakie spoke only Mesquakie until he went to school. For years he wrote his poems in Mesquakie and then translated them into English ("Connected" 340-41). From that perspective, Snodgrass and Wright's ignorance of Indian song and ritual, if it were not so stultifyingly familiar, would be as unimaginable as Indian song and ritual are to Snodgrass and Wright. Snodgrass even supposes that the old drummer cannot remember what the song's words mean, just because Snodgrass presumes the song is too ancient and the culture too disconnected from its traditions. Yet Snodgrass thinks that he knows it is the "tribe's song for the restless young," as if any Indian song the man sings would have to be a Mesquakie song and belong to the people as a whole. Nor does it occur to him that the song could be contemporary or that it could be rehearsed, with its words part of a patterned genre regularly repeated through diverse variations in ritual or daily life.

And yet Young Bear says that despite the thickness of ordinary Mesquakie life that he knows so closely and that Wright and Snodgrass do not even suspect, Young Bear himself does not know. Knowing that he does not know, however, allows him to "think twice" as he complains that Snodgrass will not. Ironically, soon after Snodgrass wrote "Powwow," he won fame as a poet of self-examination, but here he speaks from a position of self-presumed authority, by contrast with Young Bear, who calls his own position "incomplete." A smaller-minded poet would take the argument to the level of children in a sandbox: I know this stuff and you don't. But Young Bear continues to offer his knowledge as "no authority to anything," or, as he puts it in more personal and familial terms in "for the rain in march":

i will never know who i actually am
nor will the woman who lives with me
know me or herself or the children
we want
i am always surprised at how many
different minds drift across each other
some resenting everyone
some imitating what they will
never be
others make room for others
and then there are us
afraid of everyone
because they are afraid of us
unable to fit anywhere (Winter 169)

At a level more interpersonal than intercultural, this draws a more delicate taxonomy than any drawn by the anthropologists that Steven Polgar describes who, sometimes with considerable interpretive resourcefulness, graph ascending and descending degrees of acculturation, more delicate even than those Polgar himself draws when he speculates helpfully about Mesquakie "biculturalism," as if such doubleness had not long before been described in W.E.B. Du Bois' notion of "double consciousness" (16-18). At Snodgrass' crude level, biculturalism or double-consciousness is unimaginable: Mesquakie culture, in a proto-Baudrillardian parody, comes straight out of Hollywood. Thus when the Mesquakie don World War II combat issues, to Snodgrass their khaki must be castoff. He seems unaware that these Mesquakie would be veterans like himself, and that military service is a point of extraordinary pride for the Mesquakie and for most Native American peoples. Young Bear, for example, has published poems in honor of veterans and takes particular pride in singing songs in their honor.[17] Serving in the armed forces is not simply a way for Indians to move into the dominant culture; it is also itself a proud feature of contemporary Indian culture.

Matching the ethnic stalemate between Snodgrass' irritation and Young Bear's mixture of disgust and incredulous indifference lies a conflict pitched along class lines. In this sense, the first two words of "Powwow" are key: "They all," soon repeated in the line "They are all the same." Snodgrass' superior tone implicitly pits elite culture and the caressed distinctions of high formalist verse against a patronized mass culture of dungarees, trailers, and "jobs in truck stops and all-night filling stations," a culture that, he supposes, foregoes fine distinctions to wallow in the undifferentiated morass of "they" and "all" and the "same." The Indians depend on a powwow with hot dogs and bleachers for their income, versus the erudite poet who can afford to go slumming. He'll even step down for a moment to eat a hot dog, a detail that Young Bear's canny ear picks out, as if to suggest Snodgrass' patronizing humor. Snodgrass can look, but beyond eating his hot dog, he erects an intellectual quarantine to seat himself off from the Indian world and from the broader culture of poverty and the working class that he consigns it to. He specularizes the powwow, enjoying the cheap frisson of looking at it while sustaining the fiction that he and his family share none of the desires it represents. It is for "they" and them. The real beauty of it, if you can find the way out that those unaccommodating Indians won't explain to you, comes in the relief of escape, the driving away.

Young Bear plays on the class anxieties by having the Snodgrassian badger mock Young Bear's pickup, exactly the kind of vehicle that threatens Snodgrass. Eventually, staggered by Snodgrass' presumptions and fears, Young Bear extends the badger parody into an astonishing ad hominem, as if to bring out how such responses are beneath arguing with. It remains only to show Snodgrass how it feels to be Snodgrassed, and perhaps even to out-Snodgrass him:

and i also know that the only thing
he will ever experience in life as being phenomenal
will be his lust
stirring and feebly coming alive
at the thought of women
crumbs from the bread
of his hot dog
being carried away
by images of crushed
insects (Winter 172)

Young Bear mocks Snodgrass by extrapolating from one poem to Snodgrass' whole life, just as Snodgrass extrapolates from an afternoon at the powwow to all of Mesquakie culture. Young Bear even has the insect images from the end of Snodgrass' poem carry away his poor hot dog, figuratively castrating him for the wish to make entomological profundity compensate for Indian superficiality. Ironically, Young Bear's response concludes in the kind of "deep image" associated with Wright. The Wrights and Snodgrasses of the world, he suggests, sacrifice their lust to their images. Aesthetically colonizing their denied selves and the cultures they look at and barely see--a repressed analogy between self and other that only colonizes the more--they convert their evasions into poetic capital.

Of course, any poem transmutes experience into poetic capital. Young Bear is not free of that. In "The Dream of Purple Birds in Marshall, Washington," he recounts (to quote his prose summary) that he "realized through dream or reincarnation that I had once witnessed the brutal homicide of two white women by two white men" (Invisible 96-97). Two birds, the souls or "once-life of [the] two women / whose body parts lie scattered / and hidden safely under the blue rocks," come "beckoning" him "from dream, from Iowa. from yourself." but he insists:

 I refuse to be
their spiritual conduit and release

. . .
in a valley where a large, red fluorescent
cross is physically so much stronger
than I . . .

(Invisible 88, closing ellipses are Young Bear's)

How should we compare Young Bear's transmutation of experience to Snodgrass'? Readers might wonder what provokes Young Bear's dream, and if imagined or projected violence against women provides the raw, material of his poetic capital as disturbingly as patronizing racism does for Snodgrass' "Powwow." Indeed, for a poet more readily assimilable to the dominant culture, it might seem grandiose to compare one's powers, even unfavorably, to those attributed to the Christian deity. But such a reading would entail a colonizing misconception of the routines of Mesquakie ontology, in which there is nothing so extraordinary about dream power.[18] And it would miss the fact that, unlike Snodgrass’ Olympian sneer, Young Bear's dream pretends no superior vantage point over the spirits he describes. Distrustful of authority, he only backs away from the presumption that he can assume any authority or do anything to resolve their suffering. Contrary to pop-critical vulgarizations, Freud describes dreams not as wish-fulfillments per se, but as compromises of the dream-work that makes competing wishes clash, as congealings of a dialectic between defenses and drives. Hence Young Bear dreams of more than violence against white women. He also dreams of resisting that violence. And since such violence, terrifyingly commonplace, is regularly dealt out to the Mesquakie by whites, directly and indirectly, the condensation of dream-work suggests a still broader resistance to violence, both in the reversal of races and in the urge to rescue the victims. Yet Young Bear, still stirring the stew of competing urges, pleads no thank you to the rescue fantasy (as Freud called it), in his typical, un-pin-downable way of making melody from cacophonous notes: the invisible musician.

Hence Young Bear's universe of poetic authority, instead of converting others' labor to his own poetic capital, seeks a place in a communal arena where there is room for his imagination and room for others. Not that anything others might do is okay. As we have seen, Young Bear is ready to oppose what some poets write. His politics of poetic and cultural authority is rather more like politics on the Mesquakie settlement, where factional strife proliferates, but the factions hold together in their disdain of pressures to distribute land for private ownership (allotment) and in favor of communal ownership.

Mostly, Young Bear writes about the Mesquakie, not about whites. Occasionally, as with "in disgust" or "for the rain in march," he criticizes white poets' presumptions about Indians, and in "in viewpoint: poem for 14 catfish and the town of tama, iowa," he seethes in a blistering critique of local white racism. In another mode, Young Bear can also write of how the modest refusal of authority can make common ground across cultures. In "Quail and His Role in Agriculture," Young Bear goes to the Tastee Freez, drumming on the dashboard while he waits his turn. The beat attracts the attention of several farmers who also wait in line, but they do not chuckle or sneer like Snodgrass. Young Bear imagines that,

With the constant drone of harvesting
machinery in their ears, they probably
thought the tapping was yet another
mechanical trouble to contend with. (Invisible 77)

They allow him to imagine that they imagine his doings as part of their own, even while, when they look, they can surely see the difference as well as hear the rhythmic likeness. Then he completes the poem with these lines:

It was a hot September day, and we
had all stopped to have strawberry
sundaes; I, to celebrate my song;
and they, to soothe the grain and dust
in their throats. Midwesterners, all,
standing in the monolithic shadow
of a hydraulic platform, which lifted
the semi-truck's cab to the sky
to violently shake and dislodge
its cargo of yellow corn—
the historic sustenance
which was now to some
a symbol of abject poverty.
For others, like myself and all
my grandfathers before me, it continues
to be a transmitter of prayer.
Beautiful yellow corn ...
(Invisible 78, ellipsis is Young Bear's)

Their differences and their likenesses need not always undermine each other, even if they sometimes do. Perhaps, especially for a poem with a national audience, a giddy hint of comedy creeps into the pride in the corn harvest and heartland solidarity, and yet that pride also sounds a note of anti-coastal defiance. "Midwesterners, all," in their differing ways, differing senses of being, they are not "all the same." But Young Bear and these "horticulturalists" (77), as he calls them half-reverently and half-teasingly, all produce their evolving, competing, and overlapping cultures in ways he can envision as analogues to all the grandfathers of his past and to each other.


1. The Mesquakie, which means Red Earth People, now live near Tama in central Iowa. The French mistook a clan name for a tribal name and thus dubbed the Mesquakie the Fox, a name that stuck to them against their preference. There is a great deal of anthropological writing on the Mesquakie, most of it dated but none of it yet considered in relation to Young Bear's poetry. For overviews, see Gearing et at., McTaggart, and Callender. [Back to text]

2. Black 255-56, "Connected" 348, "Reaching Out" 26, Bataille 17.[Back to text]

3. Winter of the Salamander, which is four times as long as most books of contemporary poetry, is out of print. Young Bear usually receives brief mention in surveys of American Indian literature, and his poems are often anthologized, especially the shorter and more accessible ones. Aside from book reviews, I know of only one article about his poetry (Ruppert, "Poetic Languages"), but McTaggart gives an extensive portrait of him. As an undergraduate, Young Bear--already an accomplished poet and musician--played something like an informant's role for McTaggart, and he gradually becomes one of the most intriguing figures in McTaggart's book. I note his role there with reluctance, given that McTaggart disguises the Mesquakie with fictional names, but the portrait is so obviously Young Bear that it can hardly stay unrecognized, and McTaggart himself says that it may have been unnecessary to use fictional names (xvi). For other discussions of Young Bear's poetry, see Ruppert, "The Uses of Oral Tradition," and Wiget 114-16. [Back to text]

4. Here I am thinking of the re-theorizing of ethnicity by such people as Hall and Clifford. See also Krupat's response to Clifford. [Back to text]

5. See also the liner notes to The Woodland Singers, Traditional Mesquakie Songs: "Under the leadership of Ray Young Bear . . . , Woodland has gradually become an important vehicle for the retention of traditional Mesquakie music. While artistic self-expression is the sole motivation, the members also feel their endeavor is a testament to the wishes of the Settlement's early founders--to be Mesquakie." [Back to text]

6. In the most storied squabble of local, interracial identity politics, the Mesquakie, after initially trying to keep their children out of school, have tried to keep them in a school on the settlement. See Gearing et al.; Gearing; McTaggart; and United States, Race Relations (39-46). [Back to text]

7. While the particulars here may be Mesquakie, the outlines, including the focus on transformation, fit witchcraft in many native cultures. In his classic yet oddly cursory ethnography of the Mesquakie, William Jones, a Mesquakie anthropologist who studied with Franz Boas, reviews witches, evil spirits, and ghosts, referring to ghosts who "take on various forms," including the form of a turkey (26-30; see also Jones, "Notes" (216-17) Young Bear quotes Jones in Black Eagle Child (163). For his considerable familiarity with Jones' work, see McTaggart 83-90, 98, 103-104 and Young Bear, "Connected" 348. [Back to text]

8. For more on Young Bear's frustration with poetry editors, see Young Bear, "Connected" 341-42. [Back to text]

9. On the white imitators, see Silko and Castro. [Back to text]

10. Ruppert ("Poetic Languages") also uses the term performative while discussing Young Bear's poems, although his usage differs from my own. [Back to text]

11. Young Bear, "Reaching" 22-24. It may help place Young Bear's humor to add that he has spoken enthusiastically about his love for opera (Young Bear, Poetry reading, 1991). [Back to text]

12.  Early post-contact Mesquakie history is too widely documented to cite here in detail, but see Fisher, Joffe 259-62, 279-99, and Callender 643-44. Fisher concludes that, even by 1900, "it would be remarkable if many specifically Fox traits survived" (1). Peattie provides a wide-ranging review of Mesquakie cultural change from about 1900 to the mid-1950s. [Back to text]

13. On Mesquakie biculturalism, see Polgar. Most discussions of the modern Mesquakie social and political world address factionalism. See especially Miller, "Authority," and Gearing et al. [Back to text]

14. Given the need to quote at length from Young Bear's long, little known, out-of-print, and difficult-to-remember poems, I will put Snodgrass' poem and the more relevant half of Wright's poem in a note.

They all see the same movies.
    They shuffle on one leg,
        Scuffing the dust up,
    Shuffle on the other.
They are all the same:
    A Sioux dance to the spirits;
    A war dance by four Chippewa;
    A Dakota dance for rain;
        We wonder why we came.
Even tricked out in the various braveries--
    Black buffalo tassels, beadwork, or the brilliant
    Feathers at the head, at the buttocks--
Even in long braids and the gaudy face-paints,
        They all dance with their eyes turned
    Inward-like a woman nursing
A sick child she already knows
    Will die. For the time, she nurses it,
    All the same. The loudspeakers shriek;
        We leave our bleacher seats to wander
    Among the wikiups and lean-tos
In search for hot dogs. The Indians
        Are already packing; have
    Resumed green dungarees and khaki--
    Castoff combat issues of World War II.
        (Only the Iroquois do not come here--
They work in structural steel; they have a contract
        Building the United Nations
    And Air Force installations for our future wars.)
These, though, have dismantled their hot-dog stand
        And have to drive all night
To jobs in truck stops and all-night filling stations.
        We ask directions and
    They scuttle away from us like moths.
        Past the trailers,
    Beyond us, one tepee is still shining
Over all the rest. Inside, circled by a ring
        Of children, in the glare
    Of one bare bulb, a shrunken fierce-eyed man
Squats at his drum, all bones and parchment,
        While his dry hands move
    On the drumhead, always drumming, always
Raising his toothless drawn jaw to the light
    Like a young bird drinking, like a chained dog,
Howling his tribe's song for the restless young
        Who wander in and out.
        Words of such great age,
Not even he remembers what they mean.
        We tramp back to our car,
    Then nearly miss the highway, squinting
Through red and yellow splatterings on the windshield--
    The garish and beautiful remains
    Of grasshoppers and dragonflies
That go with us; that do not live again.
    (Snodgrass, After Experience 51 –52)

from "I Am a Sioux Brave, He Said in Minneapolis":
He is just plain drunk.
He knows no more than I do
What true waters to mourn for
Or what kind of words to sing
When he dies. (Wright, Above the River 152)

"Powwow" first appeared as "Powwow (Tama Reservation, Iowa, 1949)," and was reprinted in The New Yorker Book of Poems, indicating its high ranking in editors' eyes. Apparently Snodgrass did not know or care to learn that the Mesquakie settlement, founded by the Mesquakie on land they purchased, is not ordinarily called a reservation. In the only remarks I have found on "Powwow" by a critic or reviewer, Robert Phillips accepts the poem's inaccuracies, calling it "magnificently reverberant . . . , a trenchant comment on the destruction of the culture of the American Indian." He concludes, in defiance of the U.S. Census, that "The bright guts of insects [on the windshield] resemble the bright war paint of the Indians, who also flung themselves against the oncoming force and shall not live again" (65-66). [Back to text]

15. For a review of the concept of false consciousness and the problems with it, see Eagleton. [Back to text]

16. Snodgrass' remarks appear in an anthology that sandwiches "Powwow," "appropriately or inappropriately," as Young Bear has said, between two poems by Young Bear, who first saw it there ("Connected" 346). [Back to text]

17. Poetry reading, 1992. See also the two veteran's songs on The Woodland Singers, Traditional Mesquakie Songs. [Back to text]

18. For example, one otherwise insightful review goes astray, I would argue, by submitting Young Bear's poems only to the ordinary standards of mainstream belletrism, lamenting that the poems are often "concerned with dreams, or contain dream passages; and while everyone is fascinated by his own dreams, it is awfully tedious having to listen to someone else's" (Sheridan 428). [Back to text]


Bataille, Gretchen. "Ray Young Bear: Tribal History and Personal Vision." Rev. of Winter of the Salamander, by Ray Young Bear. Studies in American Indian Literature os 6.3 (1982): 1-6. Rpt. in Studies in American Indian Literatures ns 5.2 (1993): 17-20.

Callender, Charles. "Fox." Handbook of North American Indians. Gen. ed. William C. Sturtevant. Northeast. Vol. 15. Ed. Bruce G. Trigger. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1978. 636-47.

Castro, Michael. Interpreting the Indian: Twentieth-Century Poets and the Native American. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983

Clifford, James. "Identity in Mashpee." The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth. Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988. 277-346.

Du Bois, W E. Burghardt. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Fawcett, 1961.

Eagleton, Terry. Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso, 1991.

Fisher, Margaret Welpley. Introduction. Jones 1-7.

Gearing, Frederick O. The Face of the Fox. Chicago: Aldine, 1970.

Gearing, Fred, Robert McC. Netting, and Lisa R. Peattie, eds. Documentary History of the Fox Project, 1949-1959: A Program in Action Anthropology Directed by Sol Tax. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960.

Gildner, Gary, and Judith Gildner. Out of This World: Poems from the Hawkeye State. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1975.

Gish, Robert E "Retrieving the Melodies of the Heart." Rev. of The Invisible Musician, by Ray Young Bear. The Bloomsbury Review 10.3 (May/June 1990):9.

Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation." Frameworks 36 (1986):68-81.

Joffe, Natalie F. "The Fox of Iowa." Acculturation in Seven American Indian Tribes. Ed. Ralph Linton. New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1940. 259-331.

Jones, William. "Ethnography of the Fox Indians." Ed. Margaret Welpley Fisher. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 125, 1939.

------."Notes on the Fox Indians." Journal of American Folklore 24 (1911): 209-237.

Kallet, Marilyn. "The Arrow's Own Language." American Book Review (April 1991): 10.

Krupat, Arnold. Ethnocriticism: Ethnography, History, Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Mattina, Anthony. "North American Indian Mythography: Editing Texts for the Printed Page." Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Ed. Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987-129-48.

McTaggart, Fred. Wolf That I Am: In Search of the Red Earth People. 1976. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

Miller, Walter B. "Authority and Collective Action in Fox Society." Gearing et al. 126-66.

------."Two Concepts of Authority." American Anthropologist 57 (1955): 271-89

Peattie, Lisa. "Being a Mesquakie Indian." Gearing et al. 39-62.

Phillips, Robert. The Confessional Poets. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973.

Polgar, Steven. "Biculturalism of Mesquakie Teenage Boys." American Anthropologist 62 (1960): 217-35.

Ruppert, James. "The Poetic Languages of Ray Young Bear." Coyote Was Here: Essays on Contemporary Native American Literary and Political Mobilization. Ed. Bo Schöler. Spec. issue of The Dolphin 9 (1984): 125-33.

------. "The Uses of Oral Tradition in Six Contemporary American Indian Poets." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 4 (1980): 87-110.

Sheridan, Michael. "Secret Places." Rev. of Winter of the Salamander, by Ray Young Bear. Southwest Review 66 (1981): 427-29.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. "An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts." Yardbird Reader 5 (1976): 77-84.

Snodgrass, W D. After Experience: Poems and Translations. New York: Harper, 1968.

------."Powwow (Tama Reservation, Iowa, 1949)." The New Yorker 2 June 1962: 28. Rpt. in The New Yorker Book of Poems. New York: Viking, 1969. 566-67.

United States. Race Relations in Tama County: A Report Prepared by the Iowa Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1981.

Wiget, Andrew. Native American Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

The Woodland Singers. Traditional Mesquakie Songs. Canyon Records, CR-6194, 1987.

Wright, James. Above the River: The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, 1990.

Young Bear, Ray A. Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint Narratives. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

------. The Invisible Musician. Duluth, Minn.: Holy Cow! Press, 1990.

------. Poetry reading. Champaign, Ill., 15 Oct. 1991.

------. Poetry reading. Urbana, Ill., 31 Oct. 1992.

------. "Reaching Out, Keeping Away." Tamaqua 2.2 (1991): 19-29.

Young Bear, Ray. "Connected to the Past: An Interview with Ray Young Bear." Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Joseph Bruchac. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987- 337-348.

------. Winter of the Salamander: The Keeper of Importance. San Francisco: Harper, 1980.

[from Arizona Quarterly 50. 4 (Winter 1994): 89-115. Copyright © by Arizona Board of Regents.]

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