White men hear the “dead voices” to which Vizenor refers in his title, the voices of the printed word or carefully prepared lecture. These are the voices not of a ritualistic, storytelling tradition but the desiccated croakings of a literature apart from nature. In this novel, Vizenor focuses on American Indians who live in urban Oakland, California, rather than on a reservation.
Bagese, a shaman, engages in the tarotlike game of wanaki with the seemingly autobiographical narrator. The game extends from December, 1978, until December, 1979, with a prologue dated February, 1982, and an epilogue dated February, 1992. Vizenor has important things to say; he must say them even at the cost of losing some of his Eurocentric audience. His message becomes a moral imperative.
In wanaki, the participants, over an extended period, turn over cards bearing representations of bears, fleas, squirrels, mantises, crows, and beavers. When a card is turned, a participant becomes the creature on the card; accepting this demands a cognitive leap that people raised outside Native American traditions may not comfortably make. The tales that make up this novel—which is perhaps actually more a collection of short fables than a novel—are creation stories. They have to do with the quintessential forces of the universe, but Chippewa forces are far different from those considered quintessential in the Eurocentric world.
Bagese, a “tribal woman who was haunted by stones and mirrors,” warns the narrator never to publish the stories in this collection or to reveal the location of her apartment in Oakland. At the end of the year-long wanaki meditation, she disappears without a trace.
Bagese considers the best listeners for her stories to be “shadows, animals, birds, and humans, because their shadows once shared the same stories.” This suggestion of intergenerational continuity suggests a Native American concept of reincarnation. Like most of Vizenor’s writing, Dead Voices is witty, infused with a pervasive humor that distinguishes the author’s work from that of such other Native American writers as N. Scott Momaday and Sherman Alexie.