Story by Avery Gregurich
Cover art by Sara Williams
“To read inscription without knowing
equals the point where night
introduces daybreak through
the ecstatic songs of circling
-from “Dish Shapes and Remnant Pools” by Ray Young Bear
Ray Young Bear was waiting for me before happy hour began, sitting in the corner of the bar behind a stack of papers.
It was late last year, in what he called “sore throat season” in the middle of Iowa, and I joined him at a booth in Lucky’s Grill and Taproom at the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel. After ordering dark Iowa beer, he handed me pages of his unpublished poems, emails, and essays still being written. He carried them tucked into a worn copy of a spiral-bound Meskwaki dictionary. When he stepped to the restroom, I sipped beer and began to underline an unpublished poem juxtaposing the streets of Florence with life among Iowa’s “aluminum prairies.”
When he returned, he noticed my ink. “That’s my only copy,” he said. “I just brought all originals. You’ll get a copy. Eventually.” Fool that I am, I had marred Ray Young Bear’s first drafts with blue ink in a bar booth.
He is more than a poet or novelist: Ray Young Bear is a word-collector who has been at work transcribing and assembling on the Meskwaki Tribal Settlement, near Tama, Iowa, for nearly fifty years. His work is not done in obscurity: last year saw two of his poems (he calls them “word songs”) published in The New Yorker, his second publication in the magazine. And his collected poetry, Manifestation Wolverine, won an American Book Award back in 2016.
And yet, that night, he talked about dreams, dark beer, and Steely Dan. Later, after I drove him home and left the Meskwaki Settlement, I realized that in underlining his words, I had emulated what readers and those few academics who have studied him have been doing to Young Bear’s work for decades: grating only the surface of a truly singular writer’s work, missing the point entirely.
“The Black Eagle Child Settlement is a fictitious counterpart of the central Iowa sanctuary where I am an enrolled, lifelong resident.”
-from Black Eagle Child
______Young Bear and I had been corresponding for months—via email, letter, and phone—before he agreed to get together at the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel. The casino is a sprawling complex on the Meskwaki Settlement in central Iowa, which is comprised of more than eight thousand acres of tribally-owned land flanking Highway 30. The Settlement began with eighty acres that Young Bear’s great-great grandfather, Ma mi nwa ni ke, helped to secure from the governments of Iowa and the United States in 1856. Young Bear emphasized this year, 1856, because the tribe’s official stance is that the Settlement was founded when the land was formally purchased a year later, in 1857.
To the outsider, this may seem like minutiae. But on the Settlement (population somewhere around fifteen-hundred residents), differences of opinion like these are bone deep. Young Bear knows this well. He is himself the product of the two prominent factions of the Meskwaki: his father was a radical Young Bear, and his mother a more traditional Old Bear. “Gradually, perhaps during the formative years, I became aware of what can only be described as ideological differences between my late parents’ families,” he wrote in a note to me ahead of our meeting. “Basically, my father came from progressives and my mother from conservatives. While I’ve equated their companionship, in fiction, as a Montague and Capulet situation, realistically it did little to keep them apart.”
Young Bear first learned English in the public schools in Tama. He was raised until the age of ten by his maternal grandmother, Ada Kapayou Old Bear, who encouraged him to learn to speak and write in English to preserve the Meskwaki history and culture. “I reflected upon this fact several days ago,” he said in the casino booth. “I asked myself basically in an essay just how important English was for me. Its only importance dwelled within the contact I had in town by necessity. By getting supplies or getting gas, and basically that’s it. There’s minimal contact with town, nevertheless there’s something I often look back upon and wonder: How could I transcend from this minimal contact to this kind of stuff now?”
Though he’s lived the totality of his life on the Settlement, Young Bear did spend a few semesters at Pomona College in southern California during the late ‘60s. He landed there after they offered him a $30/month stipend based on a poem he wrote in high school. While there, he even got to encounter a trademark Charles Bukowski reading. “My roommate poet got sick of him and got up to leave. Bukowski was at the podium with a pitcher of orange juice and a bottle of vodka, mixing it,” Young Bear told me. “He said, ‘Hey! Where in the F are you going? Sit down. I’m not done you MF’er.’”
He does not curse, at least not in English, choosing instead to let the letters do the work of meaning. Young Bear, freshly sixty-eight years old, is just as much a Baby Boomer as a member of the Meskwaki Tribe. In conversation, he quotes the Lovin’ Spoonful and continually uses words like “wherein” and “wicked”. He ends all of his phone calls and email messages with “Later,” like this one: “Well, almost time for Sr. Citizens lunch home delivery. Later.”
“The city lights of Why Cheer soon came into view
over the hill beside the fashionable Indian Acres
–Black Eagle Child
Tama is a tired town.
That day, before our meeting, I kicked around the town Young Bear calls “Why Cheer” in his work, waiting for him to call me. While I waited, I found the physical counterparts to many of his words. I drove past the Tama-Toledo Country Club and stopped at the King Tower Cafe that promises “SOUVENIRS” on the sign. (Young Bear told me it was “a place we used to go after hours. I didn’t want to be there at noon or six o’clock in the evening when lots of people were there.”) I walked the Main Street strip where nearly all the store fronts and bars are empty or FOR SALE, a fitting image of the effect of the tribe’s casino on the neighboring community’s economy.
Young Bear’s power as written delegate of the Meskwaki tribe and this part of the world is such that, his masterwork, Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint Narratives, is categorized as “Reference” in the Tama Public Library. His poetry collections bookmark each of the last four decades: Winter of the Salamander (1980), The Invisible Musician (1990), The Rock Island Hiking Club (2001), and Manifestation Wolverine: The Collected Poetry of Ray Young Bear (2015). He’s also published two related books of blended fiction, nonfiction, and poetry: Black Eagle Child (1992) and Remnants of the First Earth (1996).
In most places over on the Settlement, however, it is as though these books don’t even exist. I asked Ray how many people read his work here. “Very few,” he said. “You have the people who unfortunately—no discredit to them, who are not informed about the differences between fiction and nonfiction, and that’s something that some have to teach themselves. That’s the experience that I had in sharing my work. Fiction wasn’t received well because they thought fiction is nonfiction…It’s bizarre how several would raise their arms and say, ‘Is that me? No, it’s not you.’”
The relationship between the Meskwaki tribe and its neighboring communities is one of the stalwarts of his work. I asked him about the casino and how it has affected the lives of—and relationships between—himself, the tribe, and nearby Tama. “It’s based on economics. There’s stability in the community,” he said. “It’s an interdependence that basically stabilizes any present or former hostilities. We were the ones going to town, and now it’s town coming this way.”
The notion of identity is paramount in Young Bear’s work. He writes from a collective consciousness, emulating in words his wife Stella’s beadwork patterns, which adorn most of his book’s covers. There are as many references in his work to Jell-o, Woody Woodpecker, and Ashley Judd, as there are to ancient ceremonies and rituals. This partly explains the fuzzy nature of his literary reputation: his work obfuscates and denies any easy, traditional readings. Everything is a medley of voices from the real world and beyond, perhaps a truer anthropological statement about being raised and living on the Settlement than any others that have been cobbled together by journalists and academics.
Take his character, Luciano Bearchild, for example. “I can just take various cousins and various friends and just combine them and get a character like him. Someone who dresses up in a suit in Tama, Iowa,” Young Bear said, laughing. “Wicked sharp-toed Italian shoes and dancing James Brown-style in a bar in downtown Tama.”
One of his most persistent characters is Ted Facepaint, a man he describes in the afterword of Black Eagle Child as a “composite of a dozen people met, known, and lost in the last forty years. He’s a jigsaw puzzle, an imbrication of humanity whose pieces belong to everyone.” When I asked him what Facepaint would say if he walked into the bar right then, he paused, then answered quietly: “I don’t know what to say about that. He’s a composite character. Facepaint is the guy I saw yesterday. I said, ‘Are you just as mischievous as before?’ He only touched my shoulder and he said, ‘Well I had a real good teacher.’ That’s Facepaint.”
Thinking and writing in composites, he uses both singular and plural consciousnesses and transcribes them into the duo languages of Meskwaki and English: both constant partners and warring factions. Call the result what you want—poems, fictions, dream sequences, word-songs—Young Bear, to me, resembles something closer to a woodworker.
“Woodworking is a hard craft; so is poetry,” he told me. “I can understand the equation that it’s hard for me to basically mold and shape from that wood which is the English language, to make it what I want it to be. I think most of it is based on experimentation: How thin can you carve this wood before it breaks and how much can it hold? Talk about tensile strength.”
“By visual projection I’m relegated,
not appointed, to wander the unholy
of aluminum where I’ll speechlessly
implore all parties met or detected:
translating everything I say onto
a loom again?”
-from “The Last Day Geese Drones Circled Home” by Ray Young Bear
Some of the tools that Ray Young Bear has used for decades in his word-collecting are failing. He told me he had to “disable” his old Hewlett-Packard back in April, so now he retypes lines from photographs, taken on an iPad, of the pages contained inside the old HP. He said that despite the time it takes, it gives him a chance to rethink every word: “It’s just a madhouse, but eventually something comes out of it.”
He said he works “the whole freaking day,” and admitted that he doesn’t read contemporary poetry, furthering his image as a true outlier out here in cornfield country. “It’s hard for me to read other people’s work unless I can go over and over it three or four times and try to get into their mindset, perhaps, or to see whether they are upfront or whether they are hiding between the lines as I often do,” he said. “There’s a choice of being upfront or concealing yourself. I’ve done both and I’ve enjoyed both forms. You can write yourself real good using different words, but eventually you will ask yourself ten years later, ‘Why did I do that when I could have just said the truth?’ But those are the things you go through.”
He’d been at work on the poem he showed me that day for more than four years. Some take longer. As a young man, he wrote poems with titles that he describes now as “biting.” There’s “In Disgust and in Response to Indian-Type Poetry Written by Whites Published in a Mag Which Keeps Rejecting Me.” And: “In Viewpoint: Poem for 14 Catfish and the Town of Tama, Iowa,” which condenses into a few stanzas the entire state of affairs between the Meskwaki and neighboring Tama for the last 150 years.
“Those things at the time were relevant in terms of the antagonism that we underwent with the community of Tama,” he said. “Historically, that was in there. You could go through the archives of the Tama News Herald and see. There was a certain mayor that had ‘seen more Indians than Custer.’ They said at one point that they chased some kids down and took some pictures of them, kinda like on a safari.”
He opened his palms up to the pages in front of him. “I can marvel at some passages from both of my novels and think back: ‘How in the F did I do this?’ Basically, that’s how it works now. I’ve begun thinking that every time I go back four or five years to one of my passages, it seems like it was written by somebody else, but there’s nevertheless a déjà vu-like effect. Some of those passages astound me and makes me underestimate myself even more because how am I going to top that stuff? It’s my own work, somebody might think it’s mediocre, but I ask myself, ‘So how do I top that?’…Twenty years ago it was nice and easy to do that, but it gets harder.”
Many of his poems begin buried as dream fragments, remembered and eventually saddle-stitched together over time, like “The Lone Swimmer of Henry County, Virginia,” and “The Three Brothers, 1999.” Over the last two decades, Young Bear employed a La-Z-Boy recliner as a “spirit guide.” “I would break that La-Z-Boy down and start thinking about stuff. I could feel it rock two or three inches each way. What the hell is it?” he said. “I still don’t know what that is. Whether it’s mental or my bizarre imagination as a writer and an artist, who knows, but I equate it as being otherworldly. My thoughts are it was probably my Grandmother, basically being there.”
Often times, Young Bear used the La-Z-Boy to seek out answers to the whereabouts of missing persons and the victims of crimes. “Eventually, I began posing questions: Can you help me figure out where they are at?” he told me. There were many times over the years, times when he would emerge from the La-Z-Boy with potential leads: a license plate, a geographic indicator, or the color of someone’s hair. “It’s macabre,” he added. “There was once or twice when it eventually became an emotional burden, but the time is well spent in myself trying to get close to a missing person or to what might have happened. Eventually it all makes it to the page and makes for real interesting writing.”
In between the work, he is taking care of new pups he’s inherited, and singing. “I sing in the morning, I sing in the afternoon, I sing in the evening. In all temperatures, which is not good for my throat, but at sixty-eight, I’ve done that for fifty years anyway,” he said. “It’s a good exercise. It’s a good stress release. From that, I can start composing songs.”
He was working on one when we met: rewriting Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” with Meskwaki words. As is his way, he was holding back meaning and replacing “water” in the opening verse, (which is, “In the morning you go gunnin’/For the man who stole your water”), with “so-and-so.” “It could be a daughter. It could be a wife. It could be anything,” he explained.
Through his work, Ray Young Bear is preserving a language and a culture in his mind, and transcribing those sounds and signs into English, his second language. Over the years, he has had to invent Meskwaki words to describe the work that he does. For example: Meskwaki, a language in the Algonquian family of languages, has words for “story” and “song,” but not “poetry.” So he came up with one: pekwimoni, or “story folded up like a fist.”
“Soon, I expect Caterpillars
to scoop out the reddish brown sand.”
-from “Laramie’s Peripheral Vision” by Ray Young Bear
Later, as we were walking through the casino parking lot to leave, Young Bear pointed out a late ‘90s model Ford Ranger and said, “I want something like this. You’ll see why.”
We got into my car and drove along Highway 30, which is being scooped out for miles between Cedar Rapids and Marshalltown, the two cities that bookend the Meskwaki Settlement. The work ended just before the Settlement started, yellow Caterpillars waiting to trudge west—yet another of Young Bear’s visions that had come in some way true.
When we arrived at Young Bear’s house, I saw that his driveway, off of Red Earth Drive, is largely vertical, meaning it will be nearly impossible to traverse in the coming winter. He got out of the car, thanked me for the beer, and said to call him if I needed anything else, as he was going to be “off the Internet for now.” He’s got work to do: the third novel, tentatively titled The Chair Shall Conduct All Meetings, to complete his trilogy of Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint Narratives and Remnants of the First Earth; and a book of essays regarding the history of the Meskwaki Settlement, tentatively titled From Red Earth Drive.
Out there on Red Earth Drive, Young Bear’s poetry writes reality into a physical form, fleeting as it is. He wants a Ford Ranger to be able to get back and forth from the world when he needs to leave the house, only to return back here, to his viewpoint on the hill.
It’s a practical, humble, and recently revived model of transportation, much like Young Bear himself. There aren’t many left like him, and his work is blinking like an AM radio tower somewhere in the middle of America. Those that tune in sing his praises, and now, at nearly seventy years old, he might just be collecting his best words yet. ■
This story was produced in collaboration with The New Territory.
Avery Gregurich is a writer living and working in Des Moines, Iowa. He was raised next to the Mississippi River and has never strayed too far from it.
Sara Williams is an artist currently living in Des Moines, Iowa. She spends all of her free time happily distracted by Iowa’s waterways, timbers, farms and fields. To see more of her artwork, visit http://tenacioustimbers.com/.
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