Ray Young Bear Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."