Ray Young Bear, poet of the Tama, Iowa, Meskwaki Nation

 Ray Young Bear is the great-great grandson of Mamwiwanike, who in 1856 purchased from the state this land along the Iowa River near Tama that became the Meskwaki Settlement. —The mystical inner life of a Meskwaki poet by , mkilen@dmreg.com

Good luck finding Mamwiwanike’s story online anywhere but in Mike Kilen’s Des Moines Register story.  “Mesquakie Indians responsible for the establishment of the Mesquakie Settlement,” 1857

The Meskwaki traded with French colonists of the Illinois Country but were forced west by competition in the 18th-century fur trade and later United States development pressures. In the early decades of the 19th century, the Meskawki and Sac were being forced to cede land in Iowa and nearby areas to the United States and to move west of the Mississippi River. The Iowa state legislature passed a law to allow them to buy land, which they did in 1857. In the 21st century, there are three other federally recognized Sac and Fox tribes, who have independent reservations and governments in present-day states of Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska. wikipedia.org

Years ago, a guide at Usher’s Ferry in Seminole Valley Park told me how unprecedented this purchase is–the chief of a displaced Native American tribe used honest means to raise the money to buy the land and create a “forever home” for his people.

To this day,

The Nation operates a tribal school, tribal courts, public works department, and police force. The settlement includes more than 8,000 acres (32 km2). There are about 1,300 members of this Meskwaki Tribe, of whom about 800 live on the settlement; non-tribal members, including spouses, also live on the settlement.

The Meskwaki Casino Resort is located on the Settlement and generates revenue for the welfare of the tribe.[4] The settlement includes land in parts of Indian Village Township, Toledo Township, Tama Township, and Columbia Township. The tribe holds a large Pow-Wow here each year… wikipedia

According to internet information from Meskwaki.org (with an alternative spelling), “This is different than a reservation because the land is owned by the tribe on the settlement whereas a reservation is land set aside by the Government to allow tribes to reside. The Meskwaki Settlement is located in Central Iowa.”

 The “Red Earth People” got their name from the story of creation in that the first people were created from the red earth. It is thought that the first settlements of the Meskwaki were located near land which contained red earth, or for their fondness of red paint. http://genius.com/3121329

See A 1994 Interview with Ray Young Bear [An excerpt of an interview conducted by Elias Ellefson, a graduate student in English at the University of Northern Iowa, as part of the Third International Conference on the Short Story in English, held at UNI and Iowa State University. ]

See also “Reaching Out, Keeping Away”–An Interview with Ray A. Young Bear from Tamaqua

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Ray Young Bear (born 1950 in Marshalltown, Iowa) (Meskwaki) is a poet and novelist. He was raised on the Meskwaki Tribal Settlement near Tama, IA.

Young Bear’s great-great grandfather, Maminwanike, purchased the land that the Meskwaki Settlement was built along the Iowa River. Young Bear’s great-great grandfather was only a boy when he made the decision to move the tribe from Kansas back to Iowa where the tribe is originally from. After his great-great grandfather’s decision, Meskwaki people were sent to negotiate the purchase of land that eventually became the Meskwaki Settlement.

The Meskwaki Tribe is the FIRST, and one of very few tribes, that bought their land instead of having their land allotted to them by the government.

The theme of his poems and other works are American Indians’ search for identity. His poems express the painful awareness of identity loss

Ray Young Bear was raised by his maternal grandmother, No-ko-me-sa, for the first ten years of his life. Young Bear spoke Meskwaki as his first language, taught by his maternal grandmother; she also encouraged him to learn English. He was not comfortable in this language until late in high school. She was also a key teacher of his culture, its customs, and its myths and belief systems, which he embraces. He has been influenced as a writer through his grandmother who he claims is his greatest influence. Other influences that Ray Young Bear attributes his writing to are the journals of his grandfathers that date back to the early 1800s.

As a youth, Young Bear attended an Upward Bound program at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Young Bear also attended the University of Iowa and Grinnell College.[1] Later he met poet Robert Bly, who was very influential. Through Robert Bly, Young Bear was able to meet with many editors that ultimately led to his work getting published.[3] Young Bear also studied at Pomona State College between 1969 and 1971, where he took advantage of the chance to hear readings by visiting poets.[4] Ray Young Bear has taught creative writing as well as Native American Literature at The Institute of American Indian Art, Eastern Washington University, Meskwaki Indian Elementary School, the University of Iowa, and Iowa State University.[1] [At some point in the late ’70s Ray Young Bear was a student at the University of Northern Iowa, (also with his cousin or brother…?) He published his poems in student literary journals.]

He always keeps his grandmother in mind while writing. He said, “My grandmother was always giving me advice on how I should watch what I say, because she would say that the single word itself is very, very powerful.”[5]

He writes about the dislocation of contemporary Native Americans who are pulled by two different cultures. He has written some prose fiction, but says that “all his writing is merely experiments with words” (Kratzert 1998). His novels, starting with Black Eagle Child (1992), describe his youth through the character of Edgar Bearchild. They combine first-person narrative, letters, religious imagery, and poetry. He often switches between English and the Meskwaki language to express himself more fully.

Ray Young Bear helped form the Woodland Drum Group. Members of the group include: Todd and Russell Young Bear who are Ray’s brothers, Ray’s nephew Elgin Young Bear, wife Stella Young Bear, Brother-in-law Gordon Lasley, and Clark and Eloise Lasley.[2] Young Bear and his family formed the Woodland Drum Group in 1983 to entertain other Native Americans by participating in tribal celebrations.[2] The group first performed in 1984. The group has performed over 250 times throughout the United States, Canada, and Netherlands.[2] The group performs songs and dances to Native Americans and non-Native American audiences. The goal of the Woodland Drum Group is to educate non-Native Americans about the meaning behind the dances and songs of Native Americans.[2]

  1. Young Bear, Ray. Ray A. Young Bear. Hanksville, 2006. Web. 23 May. 2016
  2. McGowan, Jim, and Morgan, Bruce, and Len Stelle. “Reaching Out, Keeping Away.” Interview with Ray Young Bear. Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois, 1991. Web. 23 May. 2016.
  3. Ellefson, Elias. “A 1994 Interview with Ray Young Bear.” Interview with Ray Young Bear. Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois, 1994. Web. 23 May. 2016.
  4.  Elias Ellefson, “What it Means to be a Meskwaki”: Ray Young Bear interview, Des Moines Register, 4 September 1994
  5. Moore, David, and Michael Wilson. “Staying afloat in a chaotic world: a conversation with Ray Young Bear.” Callaloo 17.1 (1994): 205+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 23 May 2016.

About carolkean

novelist, reviewer, editor, book critic for Liberty Island and Perihelion Science Fiction; native prairie/guerilla gardener; champion of liberty, indie authors & underdogs; one of the top two reviewers in Editors &Preditors Poll 2015; Amazon Vine, NetGalley Top Reviewer
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5 Responses to Ray Young Bear, poet of the Tama, Iowa, Meskwaki Nation

  1. Alicia Conner Lewis says:

    I taught English at the high school in South Tama County School District from 1965-1968. Ray Young Bear was in my class. I moved to another state and lost track of everyone. So glad to see what he has accomplished. My 16 year old grandson and I are beginning to read his works this summer. I was in Tama last week and love all the improvements–tribal medical center, school, etc.i learned valuable lessons from my Mesquakie students–even though I was the teacher. I’ll never forget being invited to the harvest dinner and being persuaded to dance!!!! I am just thrilled that Ray has done so well. His family and ancestors must be so proud.

    Liked by 1 person

    • carolkean says:

      Alicia, thank you for sharing this – mind if I add it to the blog itself, or a Facebook post? How cool that you taught him as a high school student in your classroom! You’d have enjoyed his visit at Coe. Maybe another time you’ll catch him. 🙂


  2. Ron Adkins says:

    I’ve had the honor of hearing Ray Young Bear read and perform on three occasions. All three times I was entranced. His poetry speaks to me and I love his insights on life, spirituality, and the realism of our existence. Thank you for this article.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ron Adkins says:

    Has Ray Young Bear ever served as Iowa’s Poet Laureate? If not, what say we start a campaign to make this happen …


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