Published on December 7, 2012 by Amy
Gerald Robert Vizenor (born 1934) is a Native American (Anishinaabe) writer, and an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, White Earth Reservation. One of the most prolific Native American writers, with over thirty books to his name, Vizenor also taught for many years at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was Director of Native American Studies. Vizenor is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico.
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Gerald Vizenor’s father was murdered in an unsolved homicide when he was less than two years old. He was raised by his Anishinaabe grandmother, his Swedish American mother, and a succession of uncles in Minneapolis and the White Earth Reservation. Following the death of his informal stepfather, who had been his primary caregiver, Vizenor lied about his age to enter the Minnesota National Guard in 1950 at age 15. Honorably discharged before his unit went to Korea, Vizenor joined the army two years later, serving in Japan as the nation was still reeling from the impact of nuclear attack. This period would inspire his interest in haiku, and much later his 2004 “kabuki novel” Hiroshima Bugi.
Returning to America in 1953, Vizenor took advantage of G.I. Bill funding to start a degree at New York University: this was followed by additional postgraduate study at Harvard University and the University of Minnesota, where he also undertook graduate teaching. During this period he married and had a son.
Between 1964 and 1968, Vizenor was a community advocate. During this time he served as director of the American Indian Employment and Guidance Center in Minneapolis, which brought him into close contact with dislocated Native Americans from reservations, many finding it profoundly difficult to survive in a culture of white racism and cheap alcohol. This period is the subject of his collection Wordarrows: Whites and Indians in the New Fur Trade, some of the stories in which were inspired by real events. Working with homeless and poor Natives may have been the reason Vizenor looked askance at the emerging American Indian Movement (AIM), seeing radical leaders such as Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt as being more concerned with personal publicity than the “real” problems faced by American Indians.
In this spirit, Vizenor began working as a staff reporter on the Minneapolis Tribune, quickly rising to become an editorial contributor. His investigation into the case of Thomas James White Hawk, while never pretending that White Hawk was innocent, raised difficult questions about the nature of justice in dealing with colonized peoples. It was credited with being the work that led to the death sentence on White Hawk being commuted.
During this period Vizenor coined the phrase “cultural schizophrenia” to describe the state of mind of many Natives torn between Native and White cultures. His investigative journalism into the activities of American Indian activists uncovered many instances of hypocrisy and drug dealing among the movement’s leaders, and earned him a number of death threats.
Beginning teaching at Lake Forest College, Illinois, Vizenor was quickly appointed to set up and run the Native American Studies program at Bemidji State University. Later he was professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis (1978–1985), which he satirized mercilessly in his fictions. During this time he was also a visiting professor at Tianjin University, China. Following four years at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he was Provost of Kresge College, and an endowed chair for one year at the University of Oklahoma, Vizenor took up a professorship at the University of California, Berkeley. He is current professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico.
Vizenor has published collections of haiku, poems, plays, short stories, translations of traditional tribal tales, screenplays and of course many novels. He has been named as a member of the literary movement Kenneth Lincoln dubbed the Native American Renaissance. His first novel, Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart (1978), later revised as Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles (1990), brought him immediate attention. One of few science fiction novels by a Native American, it portrayed a procession of tribal pilgrims through a surreal, dystopian landscape of an America suffering an environmental apocalypse brought on by white greed for oil. Simultaneously postmodern and deeply traditional, inspired by N. Scott Momaday’s pioneering works, Vizenor drew on poststructuralist theory and Anishinaabe trickster stories to portray a world in the grip of what he called “terminal creeds” – belief systems incapable of change. In one of the most famous and controversial passages, the character Belladonna Darwin Winter-Catcher proclaims that Natives are better and purer than whites, and is killed for her belief in racial separatism with poisoned cookies.
Subsequent novels have seen a shifting and overlapping cast of tricksters turn up anywhere from China to White Earth to the University of Kent. Frequently quoting philosophers such as Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard, Vizenor’s fiction is allusive, humorous and playful, but always ultimately serious in dealing with the state of Native America. Proclaiming himself as much the enemy of those who would romanticize the figure of the Native as he is of those who would continue colonial oppression, Vizenor constantly returns to the theme that the “Indian” was an invention of European invaders – before Columbus’ first landing, there was no such thing as an “Indian”, only the peoples of various tribes (such as Anishinaabe or Dakota).
To deconstruct the idea of “Indianness,” Vizenor uses strategies of irony and jouissance. For instance, in the lead up to Columbus Day in 1992, he published The Heirs of Columbus, in which he teasingly claims that Columbus was in fact a Mayan Indian trying to return home. In Hotline Healers, he claims that Richard Nixon, the American president who did more for American Indians than any other, did so as part of a deal in exchange for traditional “virtual reality” technology.
Vizenor has authored several studies of Native American affairs, including Manifest Manners and Fugitive Poses, and in addition has edited several collections of academic work on Native American writing. He is the founder-editor of the American Indian Literature and Critical Studies series at the University of Oklahoma Press, which has provided an important venue for critical work on and by Native writers.
In his own full-length studies, Vizenor is concerned with deconstructing the semiotics of Indianness. For instance, the title of Fugitive Poses relates to Vizenor’s assertion that the term indian is a social-science construction that replaces native peoples, who become absent or “fugitive”. Similarly, the term “manifest manners” refers to the continued legacy of Manifest Destiny, especially the way native peoples are still bound by narratives of dominance that replace them with “indians”. In place of a unified “Indian” signifier, he suggests that Native peoples be referred to as tribal, and always where possible put into their own particular tribal context. To discuss more general Native studies, he suggests using the term “postindian,” which would get across the idea of disparate, heterogeneous tribal cultures unified only by Euro-American attitudes and actions towards them. Among his many other neologisms is “survivance”, a cross between the words “survival” and “resistance,” which Vizenor uses as a replacement for “survival”, saying that it carries an implication of an ongoing, changing process, rather than the simple continuance of old ways into the modern world, and pointing out that for tribal peoples, the act of survival is based in resistance.
He continues to be critical of both Native American nationalism and Euro-American colonial attitudes.