poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

Born in 1950, Ray Young Bear was raised on the Meskwaki (Red Earth People) Settlement in central Iowa. He graduated high school in 1969, the year he began publishing poetry, and attended Pomona College from 1969 to 1971. He has also attended the University of Iowa, Grinnell College, Northern Iowa University and Iowa State University.

His books of poetry include Manifestation Wolverine: The Collected Poetry of Ray Young Bear (Open Road Media, 2015), The Rock Island Hiking Club (University of Iowa Press, 2001), The Invisible Musician (Holy Cow! Press, 1990), Winter of the Salamander: The Keeper of Importance (Harper & Row, 1980), and Waiting to be Fed (Graywolf Press, 1975).

Young Bear is also the author of Black Eagle Child (University of Iowa Press, 1992) and Remnants of the First Earth (Grove Press, 1998), which received the Ruth Suckow Award as an outstanding work of fiction about Iowa.

Young Bear has received numerous honors and awards, including a 2016 American Book Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an honorary doctorate in letters from Luther College, Decorah, Iowa. He has taught creative writing and Native American literature at The Institute of American Indian Art, Eastern Washington University, Meskwaki Elementary School, the University of Iowa, and at Iowa State University. Young Bear and his wife, Stella, also co-founded the Woodland Singers and Dancers.

Among his accomplishments, Young Bear cherishes the ability to speak and write in his first language. He presently lives on tribally owned land that was established by his maternal grandfather, a hereditary Chief, in 1856.



Manifestation Wolverine: The Collected Poetry of Ray Young Bear (Open Road Media, 2015)
The Rock Island Hiking Club (University of Iowa Press, 2001)
The Invisible Musician (Holy Cow! Press, 1990)
Winter of the Salamander: The Keeper of Importance (Harper & Row, 1980)
Waiting to be Fed (Graywolf Press, 1975)

Remnants of the First Earth (Grove Press, 1998)
Black Eagle Child (University of Iowa Press, 1992)

To See as Far as the Grandfather World

The photograph. On this particular March day
in 1961, Theodore Facepaint, who was nine
years old, agreed to do a parody. With hand
balanced on hip and the left leg slightly
in front of the right, my newly found friend
positioned himself on Sand Hill before turning
to face the hazy afternoon sun. This was a pose
we had become familiar with:
                                           the caricature
of a proud American Indian, looking out
toward the vast prairie expanse, with one hand
shielding the bronze eyes. When I projected
the image of the color 35 mm slide onto
the wall last week I remembered the sense
of mirth in which it was taken. Yet somewhere
slightly north of where we were clowning around,
Grandmother was uprooting medicinal roots
                              from the sandy soil
and placing them inside her flower-patterned
apron pockets to thaw out.

Twenty-nine years later, if I look long enough,
existential symbols are almost detectable.
The direction of the fiery sun in descent, for example,
is considered the Black Edge Child Hereafter.
Could I be seeing too much? Past the west
and into the Grandfather World? Twice
                              I’ve caught myself asking:
Was Ted’s pose portentous? When I look
closely at the background of the Indian Dam
below—the horizontal line of water that runs
through the trees and behind Ted—I also know
that Liquid Lake with its boxcar-hopping
                              light is nearby.
For Ted and his Well-Off Man Church,
the comets landed on the crescent-shaped
beach and lined themselves up for a ritualistic
presentation. For Jane Ribbon, a mute healer,
a seal haunted this area. But further upriver
is where the ancient deer hunter was offered
immortality by three goddesses. While
the latter story of our geographic genesis
is fragmented, obscuring and revealing
itself as a verisimilitude, it is important.
Ted and I often debated what we would
have done had we been whisked through
a mystical doorway to a subterranean enclave.
Ted, unlike the ancient hunter who turned
down paradise, would have accepted—
and the tribe never would have flexed
its newborn spotted wings. In the hunter’s
denial we were thus assigned as Keepers
of Importance. But the question being asked
today is, Have we kept anything?

Our history, like the earth with its
abundant medicines, Grandmother used
to say, is unfused with ethereality. Yet in
the same breath she’d openly exclaim
that with modernity comes a cultural toll.

            In me, in Ted, and everyone.
Stories then, like people, are subject to change.
More so under adverse conditions. They
are also indicators of our faithfulness. Since
the goddesses’ doorway was sealed shut by
                      our own transgressions,
Grandmother espoused that unbounded
youth would render tribal language
and religion inept, that each lavish
novelty brought into our homes would
make us weaker until there was nothing.
                      No lexicon. No tenets.
Zero divine intervention. She was also
attuned to the fact that for generations
our grandparents had wept unexpectedly
for those of us caught in the blinding
stars of the future.

Mythology, in any tribal-oriented society,
is a crucial element. Without it, all else
is jeopardized with becoming untrue. While
the acreages beneath Ted’s feet and mine
offered relative comfort back then,
we are probably more accountable now
                      to ourselves—and others.
Prophecy decrees it. Most fabled among
the warnings is the one that forecasts
the advent of our land-keeping failures.
Many felt this began last summer when
a whirlwind abruptly ended a tribal
celebration. From the north in the shape
of an angry seagull it swept up dust.
corn leaves, and assorted debris,
as it headed toward the audacious
“income-generating architecture,”
the gambling hall. At the last second
the whirlwind changed direction, going
toward the tribal recreation complex.
Imperiled, the people within the circus tent-
like structure could only watch as the panels
flapped crazily. A week later, my family said
the destruction was attributable to the gambling
hall, which was the actual point of weakness
of the tribe itself.

Which is to say the hill where a bronze-eyed
Ted once stood is under threat of impermanence.
By allowing people who were not created
by the Holy Grandfather to lead us we may
cease to own that Ted saw on the long-ago day.
From Rolling Head Valley to Runner’s Bluff
                      and over the two rivers
our hold is gradually being unfastened by
false leaders. They have forgotten that their
own grandparents arrived here under a Sacred
Chieftain. This geography is theirs nonetheless.
and it shall be as long as the first gifts given
are intact. In spite of everything that we are
not, this crown of hills resembles lone islands
amid an ocean of corn, soybean fields,
and low-lying fog. Invisibly clustered on
the Black Eagle Child Settlement’s slopes
are the remaining Earthlodge clans.
                      The western edge of this
woodland terrain overlooks the southern
lowlands of the Iowa and Swanroot Rivers,
while the eastern edge splits widely into several
valleys, where the Settlement’s main road winds
through. It is on this road where Ted and I walked.
It is on this road where Ted met a pack
of predators.

Along the color slide’s paper edge the year
1961 is imprinted. Ted and I were fourth
graders at Weeping Willow Elementary.
Nine years later, in 1970, a passenger train
took us to Southern California for college.
It proved to be a lonely place where winter
                              appeared high atop
the San Gabriel Mountains on clear days.
Spanish-influenced building styles, upper-middle-
class proclivities, and the arid climate had a subtle
asphyxiating effect. Instead of chopping firewood
            for father’s nonexistent blizzard,
I began my evenings in Frary Dining Hall
where Orozco’s giant mural with erased privates
called Prometheus loomed above. My supper
would consist of tamales and cold shrimp salad
instead of boiled squirrel with flower dumplings.
Through  mountain forest fires the Santa Ana
winds showered the campus with sparks and ashes.
In a wide valley where a smoke- and smog-darkened
night came early, the family album possessed its
own shimmery light. Pages were turned. A visual
record of family and childhood friends. Time.
                            Ted and I transforming,
separating. During the first Christmas break
in which we headed back to the Black Eagle
Child Settlement, Ted froze me in celluloid:
against a backdrop of snow-laden pine trees
a former self wears a windswept topcoat,
Levi bell-bottoms, cowboy boots, and tinted
glasses. Ted and I, like statues, are held
captive in photographic moments.
                As the earth spins, however,
the concrete mold disintegrates,
exposing the vulnerable wire
foundation of who we are not.

From Remnants of the First Earth (Grove Press, 1996). Copyright © 1996 by Ray A. Young Bear. Used with the permission of the author.

From Remnants of the First Earth (Grove Press, 1996). Copyright © 1996 by Ray A. Young Bear. Used with the permission of the author.

Ray Young Bear

In 1950, Ray Young Bear was born in the Meskwaki Tribal Settlement near Tama, Iowa

by this poet



today a truck
carrying a Tomahawk
missile reportedly tipped
over on the interstate
labelled an “unarmed warhead”
its fabulous smoke had to be
placated with priestlike
words being murmured by

Immediately after the two brothers entered 
The Seafood Shoppe with their wide-eyed wives 
and extra-brown complexioned stepchildren, 
the shrimp scampi sauce suddenly altered 
its taste to bitter dishsoap. It took a moment 
to realize the notorious twosome were "carrying"
medicines, and that I was most

Small-eyed, plump, and with black
leathery hands, Attaskwa, is composed
          and debonair
as it perches on trampled cat tail reeds
beside a quivering, cloud-reflecting pond.
with cosmogony, he’s exceedingly
unselfish,” instructs the branch-shaping