Meskwaki: The Red Earth People of Tama.

Dancers, 1830s.

Somewhere deep in the unconscious of most Westerners alive today is buried an image of “Indians” like the one above, the “Redskin” of generations of cowboy movies and Westerns that however nobly they portrayed the “savages”, such “hostiles” were always doomed tribes on the road extinction, barriers to progress.

I could instead have inserted this image of a modern Meskwaki, the writer Ray A. Young Bear signing his book for me in the Full House Cafe at their Casino near Tama, where one of his far-sighted ancestors bought land in 1856, and so halted the driving of his people from government reservation to reservation.

Images of literate Native Americans hard at work in their own communities preserving their languages and cultural traditions, are not yet so embedded – which is a pity. We still have a long way to go before we can ever erase the genocidal propaganda that Hollywood sold as entertainment in the pursuit of profit.

If that sounds harsh, how hard was it for Ray’s parents and grandparents from the 1930s right through until more liberal moviemakers started to peel the stereotype back, with Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves? Smoke Signals was even better, but the long-term damage had been done. It is still being done today.

Nobody is mentioning the “R” word in the current presidential campaign here much, but it is a pretty good guess that much of the hatred directed at the “socialist” and “Muslim” Barack Obama is race hatred only thinly disguised. The sight of a T-shirt back on Facebook – “Let’s put a White back in the White House” – says it all. At least he’s honest.

Ray and his Meskwaki people have seen it all, and suffered the consequences; his many books, unsparing in their depiction of real Indian lives have become American classics, while he struggles to give back what he sees as his dues, to the Tama community.

Ray is a native speaker of Meskwaki and has been long involved with the school at Tama that is working to pass that language on to the next generation. One of his children is a fluent speaker and his other kids are at least passive speakers – but it’s a hard slog in a world saturated by English-language media, especially those that target kids.

The school has older speakers teaching, most often elders without formal teacher training. It’s a familiar story to someone from New Zealand like me, who knows something of the history of Māori language revival, and the battle to keep te reo Māori alive.

Ray also prays Meskwaki language mentors start videotaping themselves at work, to post their lessons on YouTube, like Katie Grant, a young Sauk and Fox college student from Oklahoma. “As with most funds/grants received by Tribe,” he says, ” the tribal community as a whole is inadvertently excluded by administrators and others with belated interests in Meskwaki. This wall of linguistic imbalance denies opportunities to those who could share their speaking skills or family memoirs to aspiring students and even adults”.

As a bilingual writer and singer for forty years, Ray says the Meskwaki lexicon, like English, is expanding and teaching it in school via an outreach or immersion setting is just a start. “To an extent, the Tribe’s efforts are commendable”, he says, “but at-home parents and/or language mentors are facing a 50 year fight against linguistic atrophy – when all is said and done.”

Ray is a sweet guy: he’s used to Anglos and outsiders like me turning up to interview him and take away something from his world to benefit their careers. I wish I could give him more than my respect and a mihimihi, a greeting from us in New Zealand.

I have brought my copy of Black Eagle Child: the Facepaint Narratives – his recreation of the Meskwaki world that is a must read for anybody who cares about the future of Native American languages and cultures. He signs it kindly, drawing me an eagle feather. His most recent literary kudos has been to have a very moving poem for his grandmother published in the Julie Andrews’ collection, “Treasury for All Seasons’. Check it out.

I give him two of my own books, and rabbit on about one poem which laments language loss for people like him. He’s tolerant and when he leaves, I wonder about what lies ahead for him and his people. The shadow of the Romney-Obama face-off hangs over the casino somehow. What will the outcome mean for Meskwaki and all the other tribal groups trying hard to be themselves in a mostly uncaring State of the Union?

I have given him my pounamu pendant and he has given me beads – for once, there has been a fair trade between my pale face and his red skin. I have spoken a mihi to him in Māori, and he has written his Meskwaki words in my copy of his book:

“Ko tā te rangatira kai, he kōrero – conversation is the food of chiefs.”

“Ke te bi – e ka no ne ti i ya ni – thank you for talking to me.
Be no tti – e o ji wo ni – for being from far away”

No wonder there was thunder, lightning and torrents of rain in the early dawn as I set out on my journey to meet him, on the land where he belongs now, until the day he dies.


About paparoa

Writer and researcher.
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4 Responses to Meskwaki: The Red Earth People of Tama.

  1. George Ann says:

    Jeffrey, this is beautifully done. I had hoped to visit the Meswakie when I taught at Oglala Lakota College, but never made it over. They have been long involved with maintaining their language–long before many American Indian groups had even thought about it.

    • paparoa says:

      Kia ora e hoa.
      Well that means a lot to me George Ann.
      Ray and I keep talking, he’s made suggestions to improve the blog.
      Who knows what may come.
      I just had to get there!!

  2. Kevin Childs says:

    Learned a lot today. Thank you.

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