The Word Collector

“To read inscription without knowing equals the point where night introduces daybreak through the ecstatic songs of circling geese.”  -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 After ordering dark Iowa beer, he handed me pages of his unpublished poems, emails, and essays still being written.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 When he stepped to the restroom, I sipped beer and began to underline an unpublished poem juxtaposing the streets of Florence with life among Iowa’s “aluminum prairies.”When he returned, he noticed my ink.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 Montage and Capulet situation, realistically it did little to keep them apart.”Meskwaki water tower. Photo by Avery Gregurich.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 country club.” – 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 its town coming this way.”Meskwaki members, 1857. Photo courtesy Meskwaki Historical Preservation Department.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 ...Read more

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