A 1994 Interview With Ray Young Bear

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A 1994 Interview With Ray Young Bear Essay, Research Paper [An excerpt of an interview conducted by Elias Ellefson, a graduate student in English at the University of Northern Iowa, as part of the Third International Conference on the Short Story in English, held at UNI and Iowa State University. ] ELIAS ELLEFSON: What does it mean to be a Mesquaki? What is unique about the Mesquaki culture? RAY YOUNG BEAR: Well, I guess first and foremost, and this is going back to how I present myself in a university or elementary classroom setting: I tell them that there are a lot of differences within our cultures. One the language, the spirituality therein as well as philosophy. These factors, as well as the history, separate a lot of people. The Mesquaki people, of which I am an

enrolled member, are part of this area historically, and so we have beliefs that are animistic. Meaning we have a wide, unbridled respect for all earthly kinds of life, be it a tree, a stone, or a river. We believe implicitly they are very much alive, breathing, feeling, sharing our existence. When you try to convey that to an Iowa classroom or elsewhere you end up with children and even graduates pondering whether trees are really alive. In a scientific context, they respond by saying "yes, they are," but for Mesquakis it goes beyond that. We believe in the presence of unseen forces, both good and bad. Once in a great while, they reveal themselves, but they are masters in concealing themselves in coincidence. Most Americans I’m afraid can no longer see how these

unseen factors influence our day-to-day functions. That would be the greatest difference in being a Mesquaki, that animism is a unique philosophy to cherish and hold. For the things that have happened to my wife, Stella, and myself any American — I don’t care how intelligent or skeptical — would probably check themselves into a mental ward. While it may be visually stunning to watch movies like "The Exorcist" or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," to be an actual witness or participant in a supernatural manifestation is nightmarish. Steven Spielberg is brilliant, but I doubt if he has ever seen a mega-UFO that fills the sky. We have. But that doesn’t mean anything unless its image is embedded in your mind. In the same manner skeptics scoff at these

mysteries, I believe it’s silly to live without this kind of awareness. I equate it with vulnerability that is next to nakedness. Think about this: When Catholics partake in the wine/blood of their Deity, I believe that is their belief it symbolizes something that is concrete and unchangeable — for them. Although my late beloved grandmother barely understood English, she would sometimes go to the Presbyterian Church, the one that used to be here. She would say, "Ma ma to mo wa ki-i ni- we ji -ya ma i a wa ni. They are praying and that is why I am going." She respected that element of religion. I wish the same could be said for the Euro-American polity that sought to annihilate us in the name of Christianity. ELLEFSON: What else makes the Mesquaki people unique?

YOUNG BEAR: We are perhaps one of the few tribes in the United States who have actually purchased their land as opposed to having the government allot the land for us. In that aspect we are unique, for it was my great-great grandfather in 1856 who acquiesced momentarily to the Euro-American aspect of money. Money equals a deed. Today, unlike other tribes, we are property owners here in Tama County. The real question that you should be asking, Elias, is this: With the multimillion-dollar gambling novelty, are we still unique? In Mesquaki prophecy, money is seen as a negativity. In other words, the very act of acquiring land could be lost through similar means. If you buy, you can also sell. But most of our supposed leaders today have already sold themselves out — and the tribe.