Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

As a mixed-blood Anishinabe who grew up in Minnesota off the reservation, Vizenor had a traumatic childhood (the murder of his father is unsolved) and acquired a varied education before beginning his writing career. Biographical information about the author shows that Bearheart is more than a fantasy; rather, it is a piece of fiction that reverberates with the totality of the author’s personal, professional, academic, tribal, and American experiences. Vizenor’s use of the trickster as a privileged figure within a narrative text employing techniques and devices suggestive of “trickstery” is closely tied to beliefs derived from those experiences.

Bearheart, like many of Vizenor’s other works, challenges assumptions about Native Americans and their literature. At the most radical level, it refutes the notion of “Indians” and seeks to undermine the structure of thinking that sets up the “Indianness” of tribal people as the containable Other of Western civilization. Because such a challenge also applies to Indians who pride themselves on their Indianness, the book stands out as an unorthodox text with a special message for Native American readers and authors. Nevertheless, Bearheart is paradigmatically Native American in its efforts to confront the internal colonialism of America and to affirm the vital spirit of tribal traditions at a higher level of consciousness. On this higher level, the Indian ends where the tribal mixed-blood begins.

Because Bearheart draws its inspiration from tribal myths, it can be associated with the body of work created by authors such as James Welch, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich. In addition, however, the novel is also full of allusions to such canonical works of the Western tradition as the poems of Geoffrey Chaucer. Furthermore, Vizenor’s academic and scholarly expertise has contributed to the book’s distinctly philosophical, postmodern, and poststructuralist outlook. Thanks to his balancing—though not necessarily reconciling—of insights from Native American, European, and possibly Asian sources, Vizenor has created a fluid text with abundant possibilities for interpretation.