Critical Evaluation

The Heirs of Columbus is a sophisticated satire based on the idea that history—in particular myths concerning the discovery of the New World by explorer Christopher Columbus—is upside down. By reversing concepts of the Old World (the Yucatán Peninsula) and the New World (Europe), the reader can begin to understand the relationships among the novel’s human and animal characters as well as the activities in which they engage. Gerald Vizenor builds an imaginary world, but one that is grounded in North American Indian reality and the dominant culture’s presentation of the colonization of the United States. One of Vizenor’s goals is to force the reader to rethink history in order to understand the novel’s plot and characters.

Certain matter-of-fact actions by different characters reinforce the “opposite” universe of the heirs of Columbus. The mongrel heir Admire hums the tune of Antonín Dvoák’s New World Symphony, a “tribal tune.” The tribe gives out massive quantities of surplus food to anyone who arrives—the opposite of U.S. Army soldiers handing out rations to starving Indians who arrive at their forts. The Indians steal tribal relics, are rich beyond belief, and stake out new land—the opposite of reality for most Indians.

The heirs of Columbus are involved in such serious activities as court battles concerning sovereignty and government interference in the lives of Native Americans and infighting regarding who is considered a full-blood. The heirs triumph through honesty, fairness, respect, and generosity, embodying principles that support community over private ambitions and promoting core values that poke fun at greedy, land-grabbing historical figures, thereby questioning the values that many readers themselves may hold.

The story is related in a realistic manner by a consistent third-person omniscient narrator, making fantasy seem like fact, as if what is being told is history. The factual, reportorial style is supported by quotations from such nonfictional texts as Samuel Eliot Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (1942) and the Ojibwe News. Vizenor also makes extensive use of real historical dates, such as the date on which Columbus’s ship the Pinta sank. Although some of the material presented is historically accurate, other elements—such as locations, names, and actions—are not; part of the fun for readers is to rethink their notions of what happened in the past and what those events mean to the past, present, and future within and beyond the novel.

In some cases in the novel, the...

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