Bear, Ray Young
Ray Young Bear 19??–
American poet and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Young Bear's career.
One of the best known contemporary Native American writers, Young Bear is highly regarded for verse and prose in which he explores the conflicts arising between his Mesquakie heritage and his identity as a writer. Noting his attempts to recreate the Native American oral tradition, reviewers have praised Young Bear's emphasis on dreams, visions, and traditional Mesquakie songs in his poems. While Young Bear's principle theme is the contemporary Indian's search for identity, he deliberately addresses both Indian and non-Indian readers by writing on two levels—one allows the non-Indian reader to appreciate the imagery and traditions of the Mesquakie people without necessarily understanding their sacred tribal significance; the other level speaks to the Indian reader who recognizes the underlying meaning and can thus identify with Young Bear's thematic project. Young Bear is also one of the few tribal-affiliated writers who speaks and writes in his native language. His two best known and critically acclaimed works are Winter of the Salamander (1980) and Black Eagle Child (1992).
Young Bear was born and raised on the Tama Indian Reservation in Iowa, where his grandmother instructed him in the stories and traditions of his people. In the 1960s he attended college and began his writing career. With his wife Stella Young Bear, he co-founded the Woodland Song and Dance Troupe of Arts Midwest and became an instructor of Native American literature at the University of Iowa.
In Winter of the Salamander Young Bear utilizes various Indian songs, myths, and stories to address the plight of the Native American in contemporary American society. For example, in the poem, "i can still picture the caribou," Young Bear examines how Indians and whites have forgotten their origins, thus rendering meaningless the celebration of their ancient festivals and rites. The poetry of The Invisible Musician (1990) focuses on the present cultural, ethnic, artistic, and racial "invisibility" of Native Americans in American society, as seen in the poem "Wa ta se Na ka mo ni, Viet Nam Memorial." Because of the numerous references to tribal customs and culture, this work includes notes explaining many of Young Bear's allusions. In 1992 Young Bear published Black Eagle Child, an autobiographical novel that took him twenty years to complete. The plot follows the life of Edgar Bearchild and his coming of age. Bearchild leaves the Black Eagle Child Settlement and his best friend, Ted Facepaint, in order to become a poet. After achieving some literary notoriety, Bearchild decides to come back to Black Eagle Child Settlement to continue his writing career. Upon his return, he realizes how becoming a poet has saved him from some of the dehumanizing effects that reservation life has had on his boyhood friend and his people.
Critical reaction to Young Bear's works has generally been favorable. Most critics applaud his imagery as colorful and provocative and praise his ability to effectively incorporate Mesquakie oral tradition into his poetry and prose. Several critics also comment on the unique literary character of Black Eagle Child, which employs autobiography, poetry, prose, letter-writing, and Native American oral tradition to tell the story of Edgar Bearchild's coming of age. While some critics suggest that the tone of much of his prose and poetry is too angry, and that some of his dream imagery is too self-centered, obscure, and lacking in general appeal, the majority of critics agree that Young Bear's writings offer valuable insights into the cultural heritage and struggle of contemporary Native Americans. Robert F. Gish has noted that Young Bear "is generally acknowledged by poets, critics, and students of American Indian literature as the nation's foremost contemporary Native American poet."
SOURCE: "The Uses of Oral Tradition in Six Contemporary Native American Poets," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1980, pp. 87-110.
[Former president of the Association for the Study of Native American Literatures, Ruppert is an educator and critic who specializes in English and Native studies. In the following excerpt, he analyzes Young Bear's attempts to recreate the Native American "story world" in his poetry, discussing his focus on song and dreams.]
[Ray Young Bear's poems] do not speak of the old days, of a story world of "a long time ago" or "in the beginning"; rather, they bring that world into our reality. The old story world is a place and time when humans were finding out the power that other beings held—how they acted, and how that power and those unique creatures created the world as we know it today. Beings with power could transform themselves, separate parts of themselves, dominate time and space, create and destroy on a grand scale. While [Peter] Blue Cloud tries to put us in the persona of those story beings, Young Bear tries to have us experience that world—the powers, the perceptions and amazing occurrences germane to it. The time and world of the oral tradition is now, if we will just realize it. Not that the reader defeats monsters, but the powers and perceptions of that story world, those things that define it and give it meaning, are alive...
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SOURCE: A review of Winter of the Salamander: The Keeper of Importance, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 515-16.
[In the review below, Wilson praises Winter of the Salamander, stating that Young Bear's poetry "is best when he looks both inside himself and out at the world."]
Ray Young Bear's first book [Winter of the Salamander] is impressive, his imagery precise. In "grandmother" the woman with "the purple scarf / and the plastic / shopping bag" is hardly the stereotypical Indian grandmother. At the same time she has a symbolic connection to the oldest part of the earth—"a voice / coming from / a rock."
While Young Bear's own people, the Mesquaki, have an ancestral bond with the earth, their present condition is fragmented, and despair permeates the poems. Young Bear's voice, alienated even from his own people, is poignant; in "morning-water train woman" the result of loving one's brother is attempted suicide. The title poem of the collection is about his people dying: "we'd like to understand … / … why the dead grow / in number, the role i play in speaking / to mouths that darken with swollen / gunpowder burns, chapped lips and alcohol.
Young Bear's honesty is commendable. However, while he recognizes some of the causes of the destruction of the earth and his people, he proposes no solutions....
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SOURCE: A review of Winter of the Salamander, in Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 4, Autumn, 1981, pp. 427-30.
[In the following excerpt, Sheridan applauds Winter of the Salamander for its imagery and "ambition," but faults Young Bear for his political and social commentary and his emphasis on dreams.]
Young Bear's book [Winter of the Salamander] is, I am sorry to say, seriously flawed. Too often Young Bear lapses into stilted or bloated language: "faraway trains ring the existence of time"; "i relinquished that i had been correct / in not going out to the night"; "we stood like lonely eagles / huddled against each other …" When Young Bear's poems make political or social commentary, they sometimes sound like letters-to-the-editor:
… they're no different except for the side
of railroad tracks they were born on
and whatever small town social
prominence they were born into.
it is the same attitude shared by lesser
intelligent animals who can't adapt
and get along with their environmental
[from "in viewpoint: poem for 14 catfish and the town of tama, iowa"]
Finally, many of Young Bear's...
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SOURCE: A review of Winter of the Salamander, in Western American Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 4, February, 1982, pp. 330-31.
[In the following positive review, Pavich provides a thematic overview of Winter of the Salamander.]
Ray Young Bear's volume of poetry, Winter of the Salamander, is the tenth in Harper and Row's Native American Publishing Program. The themes are those of much contemporary Native American literature: confusion, violence and death, despair and loss, anger. However, Young Bear exhibits a beautiful command of the language and an ability to elicit strong emotional responses. At times the impact of the imagery is itself like a blast from a shotgun. His landscape is filled with charred trees, half-dead animals, peeling faces, violated humans.
Much of the horror in these poems is a result of the inability of the white and Indian cultures to achieve any understanding at all. Young Bear's handling of the conflict of views ranges from the ironic to the bitter. In "the character of our addiction" he wryly notes that white culture has separated itself from the natural cycles and needs a machine to dictate the changing of the seasons:
… the lawn mower speaks
for everyone. to the majority
of whites on this block
it represents the spring....
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SOURCE: "The Poetic Languages of Ray Young Bear," in Coyote Was Here: Essays on Contemporary Native American Literary and Political Mobilization, edited by Bo Schöler, Seklos, 1984, pp. 124-33.
[In the following essay, Ruppert discusses Young Bear's poetic language, contending that it is "mediative," that it includes "a fusion of public and private voice," and that it "creates a persona in the process."]
Contemporary American Indian writers are mediators. By that I do not mean that they are spokesmen or apologists for a cultural sphere, but rather that they are participants in two cultural and literary traditions. Through their work, they express amazing potential for synthesis and creation. They address two audiences—white and Indian, or maybe three—a local one, a pan-Indian one and a white one. This multiplicity of background and audience forces the work into a complex texture. In this complexity, the writer may utilize the epistemological structures of one culture to illuminate the other, stay within one code or change every other line. This incredible ability to move from one epistemological code to another is what I call mediation. It is the axis which generates the text producing a text which is a record of mediative discourse.
Ray Young Bear's poetic languages illustrate a range of response possible in mediation. While uniquely exploring the functions and processes of oral...
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SOURCE: "Connected to the Past," in Survival This Way: Interviews with Native American Poets, Sun Tracks and The University of Arizona Press, 1987, pp. 337-48.
[Bruchac is an Abenaki poet, short story writer, novelist, author of children's books, editor, educator, and critic. In the following excerpt, Young Bear discusses the development of his literary style and his use of Indian heritage and oral traditions in the composition of his works.]
[Bruchac]: Ray, I'd like to ask you a couple of very simple questions. First, when did you start writing?
[Young Bear]: I think in 1964, to be exact. I was in seventh grade then, and we were given an assignment by the English teacher to compose an essay on our family lives or something to that effect. So, I went home and wrote my paper—or what I thought was a paper—and the next day I went back to class and handed it in to the teacher. I then found out that my essay wasn't among those to be read that day. It came back with a lot of red marks on it, and I got discouraged because this was my first year out from the Bureau of Indian Affairs day school. At that moment I realized just how far I had to go as far as trying to write the English language and write it well. From that day on in the seventh grade I tried to make it a point to learn the English language, write it, and think in it, while at the same time trying to present some aspects...
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SOURCE: "Retrieving the Melodies of the Heart," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, May-June, 1990, p. 9.
[Gish is an American educator and critic of Choctaw and Cherokee descent. In the following review, he favorably assesses The Invisible Musician.]
Mesquakie poet Ray A. Young Bear is generally acknowledged by poets, critics, and students of American Indian literature as the nation's foremost contemporary Native American poet. His first book, Winter of the Salamander, brought together a powerful grouping of Young Bear's poetry which had appeared first in relatively obscure literary journals and then, with more and more frequency, in leading national publications.
Soon after the appearance of Salamander, academic organizations and their annual conferences scheduled sessions on Young Bear and his startlingly atavistic yet modern word way. Courses in American Indian literature soon adopted his book, and, in the wake of such national accolades and attention, Young Bear was invited to teach in southwestern and far western schools and universities. Closer to home, he was invited to teach a course in American Indian literature as part of the American Studies program at the University of Iowa.
Now, with the publication of his second book of poems, The Invisible Musician, Young Bear is destined for even wider and more fulsome recognition (and I say...
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SOURCE: "A Dancer at the World's Rim," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 12, 1992, p. 10.
[Glover is a Canadian writer, educator, and critic whose short story collection A Guide to Animal Behavior was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award in 1991. In the following favorable review of Black Eagle Child, he praises Young Bear's ability to discuss Mesquakie culture without betraying tribal secrets.]
Albert E. Stone, in his foreword to [Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint Narratives], calls this book an experimental autobiography. But the reader quickly discovers two things: This tale is not factual—it is full of composite characters and fictionalized events—and it is only tangentially about its author, the Mesquakie Indian poet Ray A. Young Bear, who eventually disappears behind a series of changed names, false leads, alter egos, digressions, epistories and myths.
Young Bear is a poet who makes his aesthetic home between two worlds, the native and the non-native. He is a dancer at the world's rim—a fan dancer, for he conceals as much as he reveals of himself and his people. Concealment is a key aesthetic principle, for as Young Bear constantly reiterates, there is a price to be paid for telling tribal secrets to outsiders. In his afterword to Black Eagle Child, he recollects how his grandmother taught him that "there were things I could...
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SOURCE: "Weaving the Line of the Spirit," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 12, No. 6, September, 1992, p. 7.
[In the following excerpt, Bankston remarks on the storyline of Black Eagle Child, noting Young Bear's focus on the importance of "bearing tribal heritage and personal experience through a despoiled cultural and physical environment."]
At the opening of The Aeneid, the hero makes his appearance fleeing from the burning city of Troy, carrying his lame father and household goods on his back and leading his small son by the hand. Contemporary American Indian writers find themselves in a situation similar to that of Aeneas: Around them lies an occupied homeland being destroyed by foreign invaders. As the voices of their people, they carry the salvaged traditions of the past into an uncertain future. As modern writers they move toward this future grasping the materials used by other contemporary artists—mainstream literary techniques, formal and pop culture, and Euro-American conventions of individual personality and identity.
Ray A. Young Bear and Sherman Alexie are highly acclaimed young American Indian poets. Young Bear is a Mesquakie of Iowa and Alexie a Spokane Indian of Washington. In their latest books they show two different ways of bearing tribal heritage and personal experience through a despoiled cultural and physical environment.
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SOURCE: "Events Remain Contradictory," in The American Book Review, Vol. 14, No. 5, December, 1992–January, 1993, p. 9.
[In the review below, Ruppert discusses Young Bear's focus on identity, voice, self-definition, and the process of becoming a writer in Black Eagle Child.]
With this experimental autobiography, [Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint Narratives] Ray Young Bear steps confidently into an area of literary endeavor new to him, yet with some familiar touches. The free verse (almost blank verse) format is periodically juxtaposed to prose sections, verse with differing typefaces, and a variety of speaking voices. Through these competing elements emerge narratives from the lives of Edgar Bearchild and Ted Facepaint that poetically suggest the process of becoming a writer and finding a place in the world. While the author does allow other voices to speak, the text is not intended to be a portrait of a community; indeed, looked at from one angle, the book is not even a portrait of Young Bear, for much of its concern is to explore the mix of experience, perception, identity, background, social responsibility, and accident that produces an individual who can find self-definition and even salvation in writing. I get the feeling at times that Young Bear even wants to point out how odd that compilation is. There is no great cracking open of the intimate heart here; rather, there are some stories...
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SOURCE: "Spirit and Substance," in Poetry, Vol. CLXI, No. 6, March, 1993, pp. 339-55.
[In the following excerpt, Murphy discusses various themes in Black Eagle Child, notably the search for self-identity and "the story of humanity."]
Ray A. Young Bear describes Black Eagle Child as a "poetic journey" which began in 1970 when he started outlining this autobiographical work. Subtitled "The Facepaint Narratives," the book is a collection of stories in verse, prose narratives, and letters tracing the growth of Edgar Bearchild, a member of the Black Eagle Child Settlement, a "fictitious counterpart" of the Mesquakie community where Young Bear lives in central Iowa. Parts of the narrative are written in his native language, but translations are skillfully woven into the text. Perhaps because the process of writing the narratives was such a long journey, Black Eagle Child does not read like a heterogeneous compilation, but "a collage done over a lifetime via the tedious layering upon layering of images by an artist who didn't believe in endings."
The story begins with the participation of Bearchild and his friend, Ted Facepaint, in a traditional tribal ceremony in the Well-Off Man Church, presided over by Ted's grandfather. Bearchild is introduced to the "Star Medicine," a natural hallucinogen which leads to visions with sacred meanings. It is typical of Black Eagle...
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Highwater, Jamake. Review of Winter of the Salamander: The Keeper of Importance, by Ray Young Bear. American Book Review 4, No. 2 (January-February 1982): 16-7.
Comparative review in which Highwater discusses Peter Michelson's Pacific Plainsong, Wendy Rose's Lost Copper, and Young Bear's Winter of the Salamander.
Kallet, Marilyn. "The Arrow's Own Language." American Book Review 13, No. 1 (April-May 1992): 10-11.
Comparative review of Young Bear's The Invisible Musician and Joy Harjo's In Mad Love and War.
Saucerman, James R. "A Critical Approach to Plains Poetry." Western American Literature XV, No. 2 (Summer 1980): 93-102.
Examines the poetic writings of Young Bear and several other Native American authors, focusing on the themes of self-identity and the "relationship between the actual and the spiritual."
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