Study Guide

The Heirs of Columbus

by Gerald R. Vizenor

The Heirs of Columbus Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although Vizenor and his publisher call The Heirs of Columbus a novel, it takes an act of faith to accept it as such. The book, an occasional piece written to mark the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, is fanciful, taking great liberties with the facts that historians have unearthed. The concept of the book and the social problems it poses, which are similar to those on which Vizenor has often focused, are significant. Also important are his use of Native American mythology and his emphasis on the trickster tradition that is a fundamental part of Native American lore.

Stone Columbus is a talk-show host made rich by his floating bingo parlor on the Mississippi River—a riverboat destroyed by fire—whose activities were protected by treaties Stone’s forefathers forged with the white invaders of their land. Stone claims direct lineage from Christopher Columbus, whom he declares to be a crossblood with Mayan ancestors who visited Europe before Columbus visited the New World.

Stone claims his lineage through Samana, a “hand talker,” among the first people to greet Columbus when he landed in San Salvador. The explorer was burdened by an incredibly large, deformed penis, twisted in such a way that any sexual experience was excruciatingly painful to him, a fact substantiated by historians, some of whom Vizenor cites in his book. Samana, nevertheless, engages in intercourse with Columbus, who...

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The Heirs of Columbus Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Published shortly before the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage, Vizenor’s The Heirs of Columbus proclaims: “I am not a victim of Columbus!” The novel tells of the nine tribal descendants of Christopher Columbus, including Stone Columbus, a late-night talk radio personality, and Felipa Flowers, a liberator of cultural artifacts. For the heirs, tribal identity rests in tribal stories, and they are consummate storytellers. “We are created in stories,” the heirs say, and “language is our trick of discovery.” Their trickster storytelling rewrites and renews the history of white and tribal peoples. Stone tells a story, central to the novel, asserting Columbus’ Mayan, not Italian, ancestry. The Mayans brought their civilization to the Old World savages long ago, Stone argues. Columbus escaped Europe’s “culture of death” and brought his “tribal genes” back to his homeland in the New World. Columbus did not discover the New World; he returned to it.

For some readers, The Heirs of Columbus might recall African American novelist Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972). Both works have a fragmented style and are concerned with the theft and repatriation of tribal property. Felipa Flowers undertakes a mission to recapture sacred medicine pouches and the remains of her ancestor Christopher Columbus from the Brotherhood of American Explorers. After Felipa’s successful raid, the heirs are taken to court to tell their story. They win their court case, but Felipa is later kidnapped and murdered in London when she tries to recapture the remains of Pocahontas.

After Felipa’s death, the heirs create a sovereign nation at Point Assinika, “the wild estate of tribal memories and the genes of survivance in the New World.” Theirs is a natural nation, where tricksters heal with their stories and where humor rules. Stone plans “to make the world tribal, a universal identity” dedicated to healing, not stealing, tribal cultures. To this end, the heirs gather genetic material from their tribal ancestors. They devise genetic therapies that use these healing genes to combat the destructive war herbs, which have the power to erase people from memory and history. Soon, Point Assinika becomes a place to heal abandoned and abused children with the humor of their ancestors.

Stories and genes in The Heirs of Columbus operate according to trickster logic, which subverts the “terminal creeds” of cultural domination and signals the reinvention of the world.

The Heirs of Columbus Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Stone Columbus is a descendant of the explorer Christopher Columbus, who discovered the Mayans. Stone’s bloodline also descends from ancient stone, and he is designated a “crossblood.” Long ago, Christopher Columbus’s descendants migrated from Florida to Lake of the Woods, on the border between the United States and Canada.

On the lake, Stone sets up a gambling ship called the Santa María Casino. In addition, he owns a restaurant ship named for Christopher Columbus’s ship the Niña and also runs a market that sells tax-free goods on a ship called the Pinta. Combined, the businesses on these ships make him a millionaire. One night, during a violent storm, all three ships sink in the lake.

On the radio talk show that he hosts, Stone explains that he is a descendant of an ancient stone and of the explorer Columbus, who, he says, was Mayan, not Italian: “The Maya brought civilization to the savages of the Old World and the rest is natural. . . . Columbus . . . carried our tribal genes back to the New World . . . ; he was an adventurer in our blood and he returned to his homeland.”

During games one night at a local tavern, more stories are told about the history of Columbus’s heirs. The family history also comes through the dreams of Felipa Flowers, Stone’s wife. As one tale goes, a Mayan pictorial codex written in stone and then translated into stories in the bear codex had been found in the Yucatán Peninsula. The stories, carried by Samana, have been handed down through the bloodline of a female shaman, also named Samana. The earlier Samana had sexual relations with Christopher Columbus when he landed at Rio de la Luna on October 29, 1492; that is when the Old World bloodline started. The name Samana has been handed down through the generations.

Felipa steals tribal artifacts to return them to their heirs at Lake of the Woods. She tries to obtain five medicine pouches from collector Doric Michéd as well as some of Christopher Columbus’s ashes, which are contained in a small silver coffin. Symbols on the medicine pouches identify them as belonging to the heirs of Columbus. Felipa hires a shaman named Transom de Bear to help get the pouches, but she does not trust...

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The Heirs of Columbus Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Suggested Readings

Coltelli, Laura, ed. Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Laga, Barry E. “Gerald Vizenor and His Heirs of Columbus: A Postmodern Quest for More Discourse.” American Indian Quarterly 18, no. 1 (Winter, 1994): 71-86.

McCaffery, Larry, and Tom Marshall. “Head Water: An Interview with Gerald Vizenor.” Chicago Review 39, nos. 3-4 (Summer-Fall, 1993): 50-54.

Vizenor, Gerald, ed. Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourses on Native American Indian Literatures. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.