Ray Young Bear Essay - Critical Essays

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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 Reception

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."

Principal Works

Waiting to Be Fed (poetry) 1975
Winter of the Salamander: The Keeper of Importance (poetry) 1980
The Invisible Musician (poetry) 1990
Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint Narratives (novel) 1992


James Ruppert (essay date 1980)

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 and rediscovered in the world today. This is the goal of many Native American poets, but Young Bear's uniqueness lies in his evocative use of composition and elements of the oral story as a form for his work. His poems use the fantastic events and perceptions of the story world to make new stories, rather than using these elements solely as subject.

In poems like "The Cook," the woman has supernatural powers and is instructed by her contact with those powers. She seems to have a direct power over the weather and an indirect power over any human that may come in contact with her. The poem "The Way the Bird Sat" presents a wind that is jealous, a bird that keeps watch and divides the season with song, and blue hearts in the form of a deer. In the animated universe of this poem, an unidentified narrator is guided by animal spirit power into visualizing and thus participating in a ceremony that transforms him into a hummingbird, the originator of his personal power. These occurrences are not unusual in oral tradition, nor are they unusual in Young Bear's work. Dogs climbing down from the sky on a cord of sunlight, a sun growing on someone's back, a face existing in a mouth and rocks with mouths are occurrences typical to Young Bear's poetry. Through these we feel that spirit, the power that accomplishes these miraculous occurrences and incredible transformations, is still here. It lies under the surface of our daily lives. We can touch that world and experience the story reality if we look hard enough, seek visions and believe. Young Bear's poems seem aimed toward changing those who he says [in "For the Rain in March: The Blackened Hearts of Herons"], "think that all they see is all they will ever see."

Many of Young Bear's images occur and recur in several poems as if they were resonant oral material trying to find an appropriate niche in the cultural mind. Many of these are hauntingly surreal images. However, the images come more from the story reality, the dream and the vision—peyote and otherwise—than from a European art form. Through this imagery, his poetry becomes vivid because the power of the story and the dream is present, an active force in the events and processes of the poem and the world. The visionary quality of the poetry is as haunting as the ghosts that seem to linger around his verbal campfires. The world of his poems is active, in the process of making itself. [He writes in "Through Lifetime"]:

She combed my hair with wings of the seeking owl
she sang of spring birds and how brown running
would be a signal to begin family deaths by
she showed me a handful of ribs shining a land dry

These actions are not so much metaphors as magical occurrences.

As the world is being created in...

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Norma Wilson (review date Summer 1981)

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."


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Michael Sheridan (review date Autumn 1981)

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...

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Paul N. Pavich (review date February 1982)

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...

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James Ruppert (essay date 1984)

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...

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Ray A. Young Bear with Joseph Bruchac (interview date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 2794 words.)

Robert F. Gish (review date May-June 1990)

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...

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Douglas Glover (review date 12 April 1992)

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...

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Carl L. Bankston III (review date September 1992)

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...

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James Ruppert (review date December 1992–January 1993)

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...

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Bruce Murphy (review date March 1993)

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...

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Further Reading


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.


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