On Young Bear


On Young Bear’s Cultural Politics Essay, Research Paper

Robin Riley Fast

For many Native American writers, issues of audience and community are vexed by the

question of "What is ethical to tell?" Can tradition be offered as a means to

commonality with an eclectic audience? These writers might, for example, honor tradition

by acknowledging in their writing the stories that are their sources, and in so doing

continue the oral tradition that is the ground of Indian cultural survival. On the other

hand, cognizant of the opportunities for misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and

appropriation offered by every translation and sharing of tradition, they might honor

tradition by protecting the old stories and alluding to sacred or otherwise culturally

vital materials cryptically, indirectly, partially, or not at all. Out of such tensions,

many Native poets have created careful balances between protective reticence and

imaginative re-vision.

Young Bear describes the sources of his poetry as including myth, history, and

especially dreams; he illuminates the. places where dreams and other realities meet and

the delicate negotiations involved in evoking those meetings within contested spaces, when

he discusses his writing process. His comments on the constraints he knows, as a Mesquakie

writing in English, recall the question engendered by the gaps between traditional

communities and outside audiences: "What is ethical to tell?" We have already

seen how this question might complicate his allusive appeals to Algonquin relatives and

representatives of non-Native culture, "Emily Dickinson, Bismarck and the

Roadrunner’s Inquiry." His afterword to Black Eagle Child is similarly

suggestive about what might be involved in exploring the interpenetrations of waking and

dreamed experience, a central impulse of the narrative poems I discuss below.

"In the delicate ritual of weighing what can and cannot be shared," Young

Bear tells us in the afterword, a "greater portion of my work is not based on

spontaneity." Declining spontaneity in favor of "an exercise in creative

detachment," his colloquially grounded and cryptically allusive narrative poems

heighten: the disjunction between the esoteric and the public, even as they enact the

potent continuity of dreamed and waking experience, and "the artistic interlacing of

ethereality, past and present." As he says, "the divisions between dream and

myth are never clear cut" (254). For a tribal person like Young Bear the divisions

between myth and contemporary actuality are always potentially permeable.

By Young Bear’s account his Mesquakie community offers compel- ling disincentives to

revealing privileged knowledge: this is strikingly evident in his grandmother’s cautionary

reference to William Jones, a Mesquakie prot?g? of Franz Boas. After collecting and

publishing a considerable body of myth and other materials from the Mesquakie, Jones was

killed in the Philippines, as he attempted to pursue further anthropological studies. The

poet reminds himself of another reason for reticence, the respect intrinsically due to

relations, as to the spiritual, in "The Reason Why I Am Afraid Even Though I Am a

Fisherman"; further, this poem tells us, "answers have nothing / to do with

cause and occurrence" (Invisible Musician 9). Dreams by their nature defeat

illusions of possession, even as they invite interpretation; they seem to offer Young Bear

an oblique, protective way of approaching traditional material. Dream is thus a way of

both telling and not telling. And Young Bear’s cultural location and commitments thus

create the conditions for a rich, distinctively nuanced heteroglossia. By evoking dreams,

the poet inevitably tells about his culture, for self, culture, and dream are inextricably

connected. Doing so cryptically, suggestively mixing the apparently traditional (and note

that an outsider must say "apparently") with the contemporary, the poet may both

keep the traditional alive and protect its integrity, by refusing to concede to the

desires or impositions of outsiders. Thus he is able to deal with the question of ethical

telling in a way that is both creative and respectful of his community.

He illuminates his approach when he likens himself to "an artist who didn’t

believe in endings," whose "sweeping visions . . . were constant and forever

changing"; thus his "essential" commitment "to keep these enigmatic

stories afloat in the dark until dust-filled veils of light inadvertently reveal . . .

their luminescent shapes" (Black Eagle Child 255). The fluid suggestiveness of

his narrative poems is evoked here, as are both their resistance to closure and their

sense of expectancy, of creative waiting, for something like an illuminating veil that may

allow a kind of access to both poet/speaker and reader/audience without offering to either

the illusion of possession or complete resolution.

Toward the end of his afterword Young Bear suggests a link between his awareness of

borderland conditions and his poetry’s combination of openness and guardedness in words

that recall Owens’s "exquisite balancing act" (Other Destinies 15). As a

writer, he says,

I have attempted to maintain a delicate equilibrium with my tribal homeland’s history

and geographic surroundings and the world that changes its face along the borders.

Represented in the whirlwind of mystical themes and modern symbols . . . the

word-collecting process is an admixture of time present and past, of direction found and

then lost, of actuality and dream. (260)

"The Handcuff Symbol," "Always Is He Criticized," and "The

Black Antelope Tine" (all in The Invisible Musician) interweave dreamed and

waking realities in contexts at least partially defined by cultural dislocation. Rather

than providing clear resolutions to either contemporary narratives or elusive threads of

dream, they offer experiences that reverberate within each poem and suggest continuities

within and beyond the poems’ confines. Reading and rereading, we become aware of the

proliferating possibilities of internal cross-references and communal, perhaps mythic,

continuities. And the poems’ subtly offered possibilities seem to clarify, if not the

"meanings" of their allusions, then the dynamics of each poem’s structure and

its spiritual sensibility. At the same time, the layered possibilities contribute to the

poems’ opacity: we see, when we do, through "dust-filled veils of light." This

effect is intensified by Young Bear’s reliance on associative connections; even when he

seems to explain, he does so in a context pervaded by the juxtapositions and fluidity of

dream, vision, and memory. And yet the liberating paradox is that we can see. Though it is

easy to be aware of Young Bear’s "veils," if we are receptive to the

"light" it may, he tells us, "inadvertently reveal" the stories’

"luminescent shapes," and the poems may bring us closer to the world of dream

and myth than we expect or can grasp.

from The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry.

Copyright ? 1999 by the University of Michigan.

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