- The Keeping of Ray A. Young Bear
"Can the subaltern speak?" So Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wondered in a seminal essay of twenty years ago, only to answer the question with a resounding no. For Spivak, the "continuing construction of the subaltern" exercised by the hegemonic culture appeared sufficiently powerful to foreclose the possibilities of self-articulation by the subaltern subject.1 But shifting from the British commonwealth context to the American context, one might shift Spivak's question from "can the subaltern speak?" to "should the subaltern speak?" along with the necessary corollary, "speak to whom?" These questions prove especially pertinent to the wide range of Native American cultures that remain relatively under-represented and understudied even within a diversifying contemporary academy, whether this neglect comes as a consequence of hegemonic neglect or subaltern indifference.
Ostensibly welcomed of late into national polities enabled by and predicated upon their own exclusion and elimination, the indigenous populations of the Americas retain a significant measure of cultural agency and independence despite centuries of depredation and disinheritance. While certainly capable of speaking, and doubtless cognizant whereof they speak, they often elect to forego speech whether in outrage against their ongoing debasement or in deference to their enduring sense of veneration for tradition. Such dynamics become especially evident when attending to contemporary Native American poetry and perhaps nowhere more strongly [End Page 282] than in the work of Meskwaki poet Ray A. Young Bear. Though Young Bear has condemned the environmental and social abuses visited upon his settlement, he has also been checked by a relatively indifferent reading public and by a tribal decorum that keeps the better part of Meskwaki discourse shielded from wider view.2 As such, the cultural dynamics of Young Bear's poetic milieu have played a defining role in his work, eliciting a representation of his environment whose holding forth simultaneously functions as a holding back. Even in speaking, Young Bear's rhetorical thrust is driven by that which he keeps from articulating. To hazard an interpretation of such a corpus is fraught with several difficulties, not the least of which is its proper emplacement.
Students of U.S. literature and culture run into a unique quagmire with respect to Young Bear and his fellow Meskwaki (known more commonly to their dispossessors as the Fox): do they exist in a cultural space inside or outside the United States? . . . or do they exist in a cultural space both inside and outside the United States? While the Meskwaki are contained within the state of Iowa, and as such are irredeemably subject to its whims, they also stand apart from that polity in various cultural, economic, and legal respects. The relationship between the Meskwaki and the surrounding population in Tama County has long been fraught with hostility and tension—a tension compounded by the legal vagaries that divide jurisdiction over Meskwaki affairs among tribal, state, and federal authorities.
Within the Byzantine orders of jurisprudence to which the Meskwaki have been subjected, the law stands less as a multilayered line of defense than as a multidimensional means of exploitation. As Eric Mazur rather delicately puts it, "incongruous understandings" between "Native Americans and the American legal system" have left "powerful meanings ascribed by Native Americans to the notions of tribal sovereignty or sacred land . . . virtually unrecognizable in the American constitutional order."3 Denied rights for generations, and thus perhaps more intent to exist apart from rights discourse than to gain purchase within it, a prevailing Meskwaki opinion holds that "there is a white man's law . . . [which is] for the white man and protects the white man."4 That the order of things should be thus is, for Young Bear, a fact encoded on the landscape itself, insofar as "all the beautiful places in America belong to the white people now."5
Driven from the St. Lawrence River Valley westward into the upper Great Lakes, then south to Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa, and finally further westward to Kansas and Oklahoma, the Meskwaki were beset by a series of military conflicts with British, French, and U.S. colonizers, including the First and Second Fox Wars (1712–14 [End Page 283] and 1728) and...