(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gerald Vizenor 1934–

(Full name Gerald Robert Vizenor) American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, nonfiction writer, scriptwriter, editor, and educator.

The following entry presents an overview of Vizenor's career through 1995.

Vizenor is considered one of the leading voices on Native American experience, culture, and literature. As a novelist, poet, and essayist, he has published extensively. His writings, while varied in format, center on discussions about control of Anishinabe (Chippewa) culture and the role of the trickster in Native American literature. He has also written about the role of the mixed blood—half Native American and half European—in Native American society.

Biographical Information

Vizenor was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 22, 1934, the son of Clement William, a mixed-blood Anishinabe from the White Earth Reservation, and La Verne Peterson. Vizenor's father worked in Minneapolis as a painter and paperhanger; he was killed by a mugger when Vizenor was 20 months old. Vizenor was shuttled among his mother, his paternal grandmother, and foster homes until he was eight years old. His mother married Elmer Petesch, a mill engineer, with whom Vizenor lived until Petesch's death about nine years later. In 1950 Vizenor joined the Minnesota National Guard, and from 1952 to 1955 he served with the U.S. Army in Japan. Vizenor attended New York University from 1955 to 1956 and acquired his bachelor of arts degree from the University of Minnesota in 1960, where he did graduate work from 1962 through 1965. He later studied at Harvard University. Since then, he has been a social worker, civil rights activist, journalist, and community advocate for Native people living in urban centers. Vizenor organized the Indian Studies program at Bemidji State University and has taught literature and tribal history at Lake Forest College, the University of Minnesota, the University of California at Berkeley, and Macalester College.

Major Works

Vizenor's first forays into literature were as a poet. He was introduced to haiku while serving with the U.S. Army in Japan. His collections of haiku include Raising the Moon Vines and Seventeen Chirps (both 1964) and Empty Swings (1967). In 1984 he published another volume of poetry entitled Matsushima: Pine Islands. Vizenor's first published novel, Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart, appeared in 1973. Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart revealed Vizenor's mastery of Anishinabe myth and storytelling and featured a trickster, a character important in Anishinabean literature and pervasive in Vizenor's writing. The catalyst for Vizenor's 1987 novel Griever: An American Monkey King in China came from a visit to China, where he taught for a short time. The novel explores the relation between the trickster in Native American literature and its counterpart in Chinese literature. Some of Vizenor's most noted other works include Wordarrows (1978), a collection of stories about language and culture, Earthdivers (1981), a short story collection, and The People Named the Chippewa (1984), a nonfiction account of the Chippewa people. Both of the latter works examine the experiences of the Anishinabe in relation to American society as a whole.

Critical Reception

Critics agree that one of the most distinctive aspects of Vizenor's writing is his use of post-modern techniques. He experiments widely with narrative and plot development while fantastic events and mystical characters are common in his works. Commentators disagree, however, on the effectiveness of these techniques. Ward Churchill, for instance, states that Manifest Manners (1994) "combines the very worst of postmodernism's vernacular-driven plunge into cliquish obscurantism…. The result is largely sterile where it is not opaque to the point of sheer meaninglessness." While many critics applaud Vizenor's postmodern style, they agree that his writing is difficult to read. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, reviewing The Heirs of Columbus (1992), writes that Vizenor's writing "requires more intellectual investment than the quickly distracted readers of today are willing to render." Despite these difficulties, reviewers praise Vizenor's writing as original, humorous, and imaginative. They also credit him for raising the general public's awareness of Native American cultural issues and for relating traditional American experiences and history from a Native American viewpoint.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Born in the Wind (poetry) 1960
The Old Park Sleepers (poetry) 1961
Two Wings the Butterfly (haiku) 1962
South of the Painted Stone (poetry) 1963
Raising the Moon Vines (haiku) 1964
Seventeen Chirps (haiku) 1964
Summer in the Spring: Lyric Poems of the Ojibway (poetry) 1965
Empty Swings (haiku) 1967
Thomas James White Hawk (nonfiction) 1968
The Everlasting Sky (essays) 1972
Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart (novel) 1973
∗∗Anishinabe Nagomon: Songs of the Ojibwa (poetry) 1974
∗∗Anishinabe Adisokan: Stories of the Ojibwa (short stories) 1974
Tribal Scenes and Ceremonies (essays) 1976
Wordarrows: Indians and Whites in the New Fur Trade (short stories) 1978
Earthdivers: Tribal Narratives on Mixed Descent (short stories) 1981
Harold of Orange (screenplay) 1983
Matsushima: Pine Islands (haiku) 1984
The People Named the Chippewa: Narrative Histories (non-fiction) 1984
Griever: An American Monkey King in China (novel) 1987
The Trickster of Liberty (novel) 1988
Crossbloods: Bone Courts, Bingo, and Other Reports (essays) 1990
Interior Landscapes: Autobiographical Myths and Metaphors (autobiography) 1990
Landfill Meditation (short stories) 1991
The Heirs of Columbus (novel) 1992
Dead Voices: Natural Agonies in the New World (novel) 1992
Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance (essays) 1994
Shadow Distance: Gerald Vizenor Reader (fiction and essays) 1994

∗This novel has also been published as Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles.

∗∗These works were reprinted in 1981 as Summer in the Spring: Ojibwa Songs and Stories. A revised edition was published in 1993.

Alan R. Velie (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Beyond the Novel Chippewa-style: Gerald Vizenor's Post-Modern Fiction," in Four American Indian Literary Masters: N Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor, University of Oklahoma Press, 1982, pp. 124-48.

[In the following excerpt, Velie provides an overview of Vizenor's works and argues that Vizenor's writing can be best understood through a consideration of Anishinabe beliefs, his life experiences, and the nature of the postmodern novel.]

Gerald Vizenor is a mixed-blood Chippewa or, as the Chippewas prefer to call themselves, Anishinabe. His father's family was from the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. Vizenor's father, Clement, who was half Anishinabe and half white, left the reservation for Minneapolis, where he worked as a painter and paperhanger for three years before he was murdered by a mugger, who nearly severed his head while cutting his throat. The chief suspect, a large black man, was apprehended but was released without being prosecuted. During the same month Clement's brother died in a mysterious fall from a railroad bridge over the Mississippi.

Gerald was twenty months old at the time of his father's murder, too young to remember him. Twenty-five years later, however, he questioned the officer in charge of investigating the crime. The detective defended his shoddy investigation by saying, "We never spent much time on winos and derelicts in those days … who knows, one Indian vagrant kills another."

While Vizenor's mother battled poverty in Minneapolis, she sometimes kept Gerald with her and sometimes left him with his Anishinabe grandmother; sometimes she allowed him to be taken to foster families. When Vizenor was eight, his mother married a hard-drinking, taciturn mill engineer named Elmer Petesch, and this brought some stability if not joy into Vizenor's life. After eight years, however, Vizenor's mother deserted Petesch, leaving Gerald behind. After several months Vizenor also moved out, but Petesch broke his dour reserve and pleaded with Vizenor to return, and for a brief period the two lived together as close friends. After five months, however, Petesch died in a fall down an elevator shaft, and Vizenor was alone again.

Given this childhood, filled with desertion and violent deaths, it is not surprising that Vizenor developed a bizarre and bloody view of the universe. Rather than reacting with despair, however, Vizenor has joined the fight against absurdity and injustice with the elan of the Anishinable trickster Wenebojo.

Vizenor has had a varied professional career. He has served as director of the American Indian Employment and Guidance Center in Minneapolis and worked as an editorial writer for the Minneapolis Tribune. Currently he teaches in both the Department of Native American Studies in the University of California at Berkeley and the English Department of the University of Minnesota.

Like Momaday, Welch, and Silko, Vizenor writes both poetry and fiction. He published thirteen poems in Kenneth Rosen's Voices of the Rainbow, for the most part mordant glimpses of Indian life in America today. He has also published a collection of haiku, the result of his experiences—as a private first-class in the army—on the Japanese island of Matsushima.

Vizenor has published a memoir of his early life entitled "I Know What You Mean, Erdupps MacChurbbs: Autobiographical Myths and Metaphors." In it Vizenor not only relates the violent and bizarre story of his childhood but also tells about his fantasy life. Erdupps MacChurbbs is one of the "benign demons and little woodland people of love" who people his fantasies. These little people provide a rich inner life for Vizenor and help him keep his sanity in a mad world.

They are the little people who raise the banners of imagination on assembly lines and at cold bus stops in winter. They marched with me in the service and kept me awake with humor on duty as a military guard. The little people sat with me in baronial ornamental classrooms and kept me alive and believable under the death blows of important languages.

Chippewa mythology is full of stories about benign demons and little woodland people, and stories about Vizenor's Anishinabe grandmother are probably the chief source for MacChurbbs and his friends. However, as the name MacChurbbs suggests, Vizenor, like most other Americans, probably picked up some Irish fairy lore as well.

In 1978, Vizenor published a series of sketches entitled Wordarrows: Indians and Whites in the New Fur Trade. The book is a series of sketches, principally about Anishinabe whom Vizenor met as Director of the Employment and Guidance Center. In these sketches Vizenor appears to be the Isaac Bashevis Singer of the Chippewa: he combines an extremely keen eye for detail and an appreciation for an interesting story with a scrupulous sense of honesty. The result, like that of Singer's works, is a highly revealing picture of a ghetto people—their power and dignity, flaws and foibles, and, above all, their essential humanity.

Wordarrows is an important key to understanding Vizenor's poetry. The poems, although they often deal with the same characters and subjects as the essays, are cryptic and allusive, and the reader can understand them more fully after reading Vizenor's prose pieces. For example, the nameless heroine of the poem "Raising the Flag" is described more fully in the sketch "Marlene American Horse" in Wordarrows, and the "wounded Indian" in the poem "Indians at the Guthrie" is the Rattling Hail of "Rattling Hail's Ceremonial" in Wordarrows.

Wordarrows also provides valuable background information for understanding Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart, Vizenor's major work. The fictional framework of the book is as follows: Saint Louis Bearheart, an old man who works in the Heirship Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has spent ten years at his desk in the Bureau secretly writing a manuscript entitled "Cedarfair Circus: Grave Reports from the Cultural Word Wars." When members of the American Indian Movement break into the offices of the BIA, one of them, a young Indian girl, encounters Bearheart sitting in the dark, and, after having sex with him, goes off to read the book. What she reads is what we read.

"Cedarfair Circus" is the story of a strange group of Indian pilgrims who wend their way from Minnesota to New Mexico at some future time when, because of insufficient oil supplies, American civilization has collapsed into bloody anarchy. Murderous and perverted figures hold power, among them the Evil Gambler, the fast-food fascists, and the pentarchical pensioners. The wanderers do battle with these forces of evil, sustaining heavy losses, but eventually a few of them make it to freedom.

The leader of the pilgrims is Proude Cedarfair, the last in the line of the Cedarfairs who refused to leave their ancestral home in northern Minnesota to go to the Red Cedar Reservation, the fictional name of the White Earth Reservation where Vizenor's forebears lived. Proude lives in the midst of a large circle of cedar trees named by his family the Cedar Circus (the Cedarfairs have lived as clowns and tricksters for generations, battling the evil incursions of the whites and hostile Indians with their wit).

When there is no more oil available, the government commandeers trees, and Jordan Coward, the corrupt, drunken president of the Red Cedar Reservation government, attacks the trees of the Cedar Circus. Proude decides not to confront the evil chief and the federal agents, however, and with his wife, Rosina, he sets out on his cross-country odyssey. Others join them in their wanderings, until they have assembled quite a ragtag army.

The first to join Proude and Rosina is Benito Saint Plumero, who calls himself "Bigfoot." He is a "little person, but his feet and the measure of his footsteps were twice his visual size." Bigfoot received his cognomen in prison while serving time for stealing from a park the bronze statue he is in love with. The Cedarfairs meet Plumero at the "scapehouse of weirds and sensitives," a survival center established (with federal funds) on the Red Cedar Reservation by thirteen "women poets" from the cities. Bigfoot has been staying at the scapehouse to provide sexual services to the weirds and sensitives with his remarkable penis, President Jackson. The most interesting of the weirds and sensitives are Sister Eternal Flame, whose "face was distorted with comical stretchmarks from her constant expressions of happiness"; Sister Willabelle, whose body is marred by horrible scars from worms and piranhas which attacked her when her plane crashed in the Amazon jungle; and Sister Talullah, the "law school graduate [who] could not face men in a courtroom without giggling like a little girl so she concentrated on interior litigation and the ideologies of feminism and fell in love with women."

The Cedarfairs take Bigfoot with them and soon are joined by Zebulon Matchi Makwa, a "talking writer and drunken urban shaman"; Belladonna Darwin-Winter Catcher, the daughter of a white reporter named Charlotte Darwin and Old John Winter Catcher, a Lakota holy man Charlotte met while she was covering the Wounded Knee episode of 1973; Scintilla Shruggles, a "new model pioneer woman" and keeper of the Charles Lindbergh house for the Minnesota Division of Historic Sites; Iniwa Biwide, a sixteen-year-old youth who "resembles a stranger"; Bishop Omax Parasimo, a religious master who wears a metamask with the same features as Scintilla Shruggles; Justice Pardone Cozener, "the tribal lawyer and one of the new prairie big bellies"; Cozener's homosexual lover, Doctor Wilde Coxswain, "the arm wagging tribal historian"; Sun Bear Sun, "the 300 pound, seven foot son of Utopian tribal organizer Sun Bear"; Little Big Mouse, "a small white woman with fresh water blue eyes," whom Sun Bear Sun carries in a holster at his belt; Lilith Mae Farrier, the "horsewoman of passionless contradictions," a child-hating school teacher who is the mistress (literally) of two massive boxer dogs; and Pio Wissakodewinini, the "parawoman mixedblood mammoth clown," a man who was sentenced to a sex change operation for committing two rapes.

On their travels the pilgrims face and overcome a succession of enemies. First is the Evil Gambler, Sir Cecil Staples, the "monarch of unleaded gasoline," who wagers five gallons of gasoline against a bettor's life in a strange game of chance. Sir Cecil always wins, then allows losers to choose their form of death. Sir Cecil was reared on interstates by a truck-driving mother. Because Ms. Staples had been sterilized by the government (for having illegitimate children while on welfare), she took to kidnapping children from shopping malls. She stole thirteen in all, bringing them up in her truck as she drove back and forth across the country and finally turning them out at rest stops when they were grown. Staples told her children that they "should feel no guilt, ignore the expectations of others, and practice to perfection whatever [they did] in the world." Sir Cecil decided to practice the art of killing people.

Needing gasoline for the postal truck they have obtained, the pilgrims choose lots for who will gamble with Sir Cecil. Lilith Mae Farrier, the lady of the boxers, is selected. When she loses, Proude also gambles with Sir Cecil, with the understanding that, if he should win, Lilith lives and Sir Cecil dies. Proude wins, and kills Sir Cecil by strangling him with a "mechanical neckband death instrument," but Lilith, depressed by her loss, immolates herself and her boxers.

Back on the road, the pilgrims meet a procession of cripples: "The blind, the deaf, disfigured giants, the fingerless, earless, noseless, breastless, and legless people stumbling, shuffling and hobbling in families down the road." Belladonna Darwin-Winter Catcher warns the pilgrims: "Never let the cripple catch your eye. These cripples are incomplete animals lusting for our whole bodies." Little Big Mouse ignores Belladonna's advice and performs a nude dance for the cripples, who become so excited that they pull her into hundreds of pieces.

When they reach Oklahoma, the pilgrims meet the "food fascists" who have hung three witches from the rafters of the Ponca Witch Hunt Restaurant and Fast Foods to season them before cutting them into pieces for takeout orders. The pilgrims decide to save the witches and, sneaking back at night, rescue two of them, but Zebulon Matchi Makwa, the smelly drunken urban shaman and talking writer, is overcome by desire and has intercourse with his witch in the restaurant, where they are discovered and killed by the fascists.

Belladonna Darwin-Winter Catcher is killed by a colony of "descendants of famous hunters and bucking horse breeders," who put to death anyone they catch espousing a "terminal creed," that is, the belief that there is only one true way. Vizenor borrows the idea of terminal creeds from Eric Hoffer's remarks about "true believers." Ridiculing terminal beliefs is a major theme in Vizenor's work, since he detests zealots, whatever their views, and particularly those who are humorless as well as narrow-minded. Belladonna's terminal beliefs, which concern the superiority of the tribal way of life, are views Vizenor finds congenial in many respects, and the people who kill her are unlovable, rigid rednecks, so the story of the death is told with a good deal of ambiguity and irony.

Many other curious events follow. Bishop Omax Parasimo is killed by lightning, and Justice Pardone Cozener and Doctor Wilde Coxswain, the homosexual lovers, decide to stay at the Bioavaricious Regional Word Hospital, a facility established by the government to investigate public damage to the language. Sister Eternal Flame catches Proude's wife Rosina and Bigfoot at fellatio and murders Bigfoot. Proude and Iniwa Biwide travel by magic flight to Pueblo Bonito where a vision bear tells them to enter the fourth world—as bears—through a vision window in the pueblo. The novel ends with Rosina arriving at the pueblo and finding beartracks in the snow.

Clearly this is a strange book…. We can better understand it by examining the Anishinabe and other Indian influences of Vizenor's, by taking a look at what he has written about his personal experiences, and by examining the "post-modern" novel, the tradition in which Vizenor is writing.

Tricksters and clowns are common in Indian cultures. Among the Indians the trickster, under various names and guises, is usually the principal culture hero of the tribe, a figure second in importance only to the supreme god. But he is a highly ambiguous figure. As his name implies, he is primarily one who plays tricks. He is also the butt of tricks, and how often he is the tricker rather than the trickee seems to depend in part on how the tribe views itself. Some tricksters are usually successful; others are almost always the victim of tricks. Although the trickster is generally a benefactor—who in some cases creates man, brings him fire, and rescues him from enemies—he can also be a menace, because he is generally amoral and has prodigious appetites for food, sex, and adventure. He is capable of raping women, murdering men, eating children, and slaughtering animals. In fact, the trickster violates all tribal laws with impunity, to the amusement of the listeners of the tales, for whom he acts as a saturnalian surrogate.

The Chippewa trickster is called Wenebojo, Manabozho, or Nanabush, depending on how anthropologists recorded the Anishinabe word. According to the myths, Nanabush is the son of a spirit named Epingishmook and Winonah, a human. His mother dies shortly after he is born, and Nanabush is reared by his grandmother Nokomis. He has miraculous powers, particularly the ability to transform himself into whatever shape he wants. In his metamorphosis as a rabbit he acts as a benefactor, bringing the Chippewas fire. He saves mankind and the animals by taking them on his raft in a flood, and he teaches the Chippewa the Mide ceremonies, their most important religious rituals.

Like most tricksters, however, Nanabush is also a dangerous figure, and in one tale he murders most of his family before he realizes what he is doing. In another, he marries his sister, bringing shame on himself and his family.

Vizenor's conception of the trickster seems to be in line with Chippewa tradition—tricksters are benevolent but amoral, lustful, irresponsible, and given to fighting evil with trickery. Trickster tales often combine violence with humor. Tricksters are peripatetic, and trickster tales usually start, "Trickster was going along…." Vizenor's pilgrims, and the structure of his book, reflect this.

Sacred clowns are important in Indian religion. Although they appear to have played little part among the Chippewas, Vizenor would have heard of them from members of other tribes. Among the Sioux, Cahuilla, and Maidu, for instance, clowns performed absurd acts at the most important religious ceremonies, mocking shamans and religious leaders, pestering participants by throwing water or hot coals, dancing and cavorting, and trying to swim in shallow puddles. Among the Cheyenne, clowns acted as "contraries" who did everything backwards, saying "goodbye" when they met someone and "hello" when they left, and walking or sitting on their horses backwards. Among Pueblo tribes clowns ate feces and drank urine, pretending that they were delicious.

Anthropologist Barbara Tedlock claims that the purpose of the clowns was to cause laughter, thus "opening up" spectators emotionally to spiritual forces. She also argues that the mockery of sacred objects and rituals by the clowns served to show spectators that terrestrial rituals were not important. It was the meaning behind them, the higher world of the spirits, that was important.

What Tedlock says may be so, but I think that she overlooks the most important function of clowns, a function similar to the clowning at the medieval European Feast of Fools, in which once a year subdeacons sang filthy songs in church, mocked the sacrament, and threw the bishop in the river. These ceremonies allowed a saturnalian release to people whose religious and moral codes were very demanding. In a way the clowns are the reification in the tribe itself of the trickster figure of mythology; that is, they are figures who can ridicule customs, rituals, and taboos with impunity to the delight of spectators who are forced to obey them.

The Evil Gambler is a familiar...

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Linda Ainsworth (review date Winter 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "History and the Imagination: Gerald Vizenor's The People Named the Chippewa," in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1985, pp. 49-54.

[In the following review, Ainsworth argues that in The People Named the Chippewa, Vizenor challenges contemporary beliefs about Native American culture]

It is perhaps a truism of modern history that they who control the past control the future. According to this maxim, those in control have the power to shape memory to suit their own requirements of the future, naively or uncaringly expecting those without control to pay homage to this vision. Official history is most credible then when all those...

(The entire section is 2397 words.)

Franchot Ballinger (essay date Winter 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "History and the Imagination: Gerald Vizenor's The People Named the Chippewa," American Indian Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1985, pp. 55-59.

[In the essay below, Ballinger discusses the vehicle for the "imaginative metaphor" presented in Earthdivers.]

"Earthdivers," says Gerald Vizenor at the beginning of Earthdivers: Tribal Narratives on Mixed Descent (1981), is "an imaginative metaphor." The vehicle for this metaphor is a culture hero (sometimes trickster, like Wenebojo in the Ojibwe story Vizenor cites in his preface) found extensively in native American myth. This figure directs animals to dive into the great flood until one finally returns...

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Maureen Keady (essay date Winter 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Walking Backwards into the Fourth World: Survival of the Fittest in Bearheart," in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1985, pp. 61-5.

[In the essay below, Keady discusses Vizenor's use of language in The Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart, and how his technique emphasizes the importance of a strength of spirit over belief in empty words.]

Gerald Vizenor's book, The Darkness in St. Louis Bearheart, is a comic and brutal satire on all of us who cling to "Terminal Creeds," whose values, and very identities, amount to no more than bundles of words, bereft of meaning. Just as the characters in Bearheart suffer because of...

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A. La Vonne Brown Ruoff (essay date Winter 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gerald Vizenor: Compassionate Trickster," in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1985, pp. 67-73.

[In the following essay, Ruoff discusses the major thrust of all of Vizenor's work, whether poetry, drama, or prose, as being an examination of relationships between tribal and non-tribal worlds.]

Gerald Vizenor (Ojibwe) is one of the most prolific Indian authors writing today. To have published so extensively in so many genres is a remarkable achievement for any author, Indian or non-Indian. Now primarily known as a prose writer, Vizenor began as a poet, publishing early in his career such volumes as Raising the Moon Vines (1964), Summer...

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Michael Loudon (review date Winter 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The People Named Chippewa: Narrative Histories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, No. 1, Winter, 1986, p. 160.

[In the review below, Loudon praises The People Named Chippewa as a witty and imaginative discussion of current Native American culture.]

Gerald Vizenor's writing began in a boldly experimental mode and has moved steadily toward more conventional prose, but even in his most recent nonfiction, he has never once left the battlefield of his "word wars." In the prologue to the "narrative histories" of The People Named Chippewa he deconstructs the unconscious conspiracy of the either-or fallacy that dominates the view which...

(The entire section is 460 words.)

Anthony C. Yu (review date 11 October 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fulbright Monkey in China," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 11, 1987, p. 8.

[In the following review, Yu compares the trickster in Vizenor's Griever with the Mind Monkey in Chinese literature.]

In religion and folklore of Africa and of North and South America, the trickster is a familiar figure often distinguished by his cunning, skill, penchant for adventure and mischief, sexual energy, and frequently exaggerated body parts. True to his name, this mythic figure, which unites in his (or her) person traits of the divine, the human, and the animal, would exploit deceit and trickery to overcome all obstacles or opponents. In the struggle for...

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Gerald Vizenor with Joseph Bruchac (interview date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Follow the Trickroutes: An Interview with Gerald Vizenor," in Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, Sun Tracks and the University of Arizona Press, 1987, pp. 287-310.

[In the interview below, Vizenor discusses his ideas on language, the role of storytelling in Native American culture, and the role of the trickster in Native American literature.]

Since his first publications, Gerald Vizenor has been recognized as a multifaceted writer. His books include collections of haiku poetry, short stories, a novel, reworkings of Anishinabe traditional tales, and several nonfiction works. A member of the White Earth Reservation, his teaching has taken...

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Stanley Trachtenberg (review date 10 January 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Trickster in Tianjin," New York Times Book Review, January 10, 1988, p. 18.

[In the his review of Griever: An American Monkey King in China, Trachtenberg states that the novel is strengthened by Vizenor's use of language.]

"Imagination is the real world," claims the mournful clown Griever de Hocus, "all the rest is bad television." Griever, hero of Gerald Vizenor's second novel [Griever: An American Monkey King in China], is a Native American of mixed blood who abruptly appears as one of an ill-assorted group of American teachers at a Chinese university in Tianjin. Here his trickster heritage of tribal folklore and myth, not to mention his...

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Dexter Westrum (review date Summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Griever: An American Monkey King in China, in Western American Literature, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Summer, 1988, p. 160.

[In the review below, Westrum remarks that Vizenor attempts to keep his readers off balance.]

Reading Gerald Vizenor one begins to feel the fun of ambivalence. In Earthdivers, his finest book, Darkness in St. Louis Bearheart, and now Griever, Vizenor specializes in the difference between what appears to be and what is; he persists in pointing out that the world is not what we see, nor does it have to be left the way we find it. If authority is out for its own good—as it often is—authority should be tickled...

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San Francisco Review of Books (review date Winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The American Monkey King at Home," in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. XV, No. 3, Winter, 1990, p. 23.

[In the following review, the critic provides an overview of Vizenor's works, commenting on the author's varied forms.]

Complainingabout those "wily, more competent Indians" who could use their knowledge of the White Man to make him appear in a bad light, the former head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Dillon S. Myer wrote to Interior Secretary Douglas McKay in 1953: "[They] are capable of making the Bureau … appear as a group of paternalistic bureaucrats who will not allow them to handle their own internal affairs …"

Indians are...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

Ron Carlson (review date 23 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tribal Tribulations," in New York Times Book Review, September 23, 1990, p. 52.

[In the following review, Carlson argues that Crossbloods is an eclectic but revealing look at contemporary Native American culture.]

Gerald Vizenor's Crossbloods: Bone Courts, Bingo, and Other Reports is, as the title suggests, an eclectic collection of essays and articles written over the last two decades by this prolific author, whose subject matter is Native American life and culture. Mr. Vizenor, a mixed-blood member of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe, has been a reporter and editorial writer for The Minneapolis Tribune and now teaches literature at the University...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

Gerald Vizenor with Larry McCaffery and Tom Marshall (interview date January 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Head Water: An Interview with Gerald Vizenor," in Chicago Review, Vol. 39, Nos. 3-4, 1993, pp. 50-4.

[In the following interview, Vizenor discusses the impact of his experiences in Asia on his writing.]

As Gerald Vizenor explains in the following interview, the act of going away has allowed him to return home richer as an individual and as a writer. Asia has been especially important in this regard: it was in Japan just after the Korean War that Vizenor experienced his first major literary discovery—haiku. Then, over twenty years later, after having published numerous books of poetry (including several books of haiku) and journalism, a year teaching in...

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Alan R. Velie (essay date Spring 1991–92)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gerald Vizenor's Indian Gothic," in MELUS, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1991–92, pp. 75-85.

[In the following essay, Velie argues that Vizenor has adapted the traditional "frontier gothic" into an "Indian gothic" which portrays changes in the West from the Native American perspective.]

Much of American literature is concerned with conquering the hostile wilderness and "winning the West." For a long time Americans read little Indian literature, and so we learned almost nothing from the people who "lost" the West, and who considered the wilderness not hostile, but home.

In the past fifteen years, however, there has been an efflorescence of Indian...

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Robert Allen Warrior (review date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Heirs of Columbus, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 2, Spring, 1992, p. 387.

[In the following brief review, Warrior asserts that in Vizenor's novel The Heirs of Columbus, the author takes shreds of a "tragic history and claims them as property of the liberating liberal trickster."]

The Heirs of Columbus, Gerald Vizenor's fourth novel, is a compelling and rewarding contribution to the cacophonous chorus of voices in this quincentenary year. The wild fable [de]centers on the exploits of a group of this continent's Natives who claim to be direct descendants of the famed Genoan explorer. Columbus, in Vizenor's telling,...

(The entire section is 587 words.)

Los Angeles Times Book Review (review date 11 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Dead Voices, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 11, 1992, p. 6.

[In the review below, the critic states that Dead Voices is a difficult but original work.]

A dirty, toothless, malodorous American Indian woman lives in an apartment near Lake Merritt in Oakland. People who wait at a nearby bus stop call her "the crazy bear." This isn't just an insult; it's a remnant of the intuitive animal knowledge that white city-dwellers have almost lost. For the woman, playing the "wanaki game" with cards and mirrors, can indeed transform herself into a bear—or into a stone, a flea, a squirrel, a praying mantis, a crow, a beaver or that staple...

(The entire section is 285 words.)

Robert Crum (review date 8 November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Big Bad Wordies," in New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1992, p. 18.

[In the following review of Dead Voices, Crum commends Vizenor's efforts to retell traditional Native American myths but finds the work unconvincing.]

Those wild animals that hold center stage in the traditional stories and dreams of American Indians, those beings that are mythically empowered with magical talents—whatdo they think about this crazy century of ours? In his latest novel, Gerald Vizenor gives them voice, and it turns out that they easily fit the post-modernist mode.

The governing condition of the animals in Dead Voices: Natural Agonies in the...

(The entire section is 690 words.)

Louis Owens (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Ecstatic Strategies': Gerald Vizenor's Trickster Narratives," in Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992, pp. 225-54.

[In the following essay, Owens considers the role of the trickster in Vizenor's work.]

Born in 1934, Gerald Vizenor has devoted an incredibly prolific career to exploring the place and meaning of the mixedblood in modern America. With more than twenty-five books and scores of essays, poems, and stories published, in addition to a movie (Harold of Orange, 1983), Vizenor is one of the most productive as well as one of the most radically imaginative of contemporary American writers. At...

(The entire section is 12022 words.)

Robert Allen Warrior (review date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Dead Voices: Natural Agonies in the New World, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 423-24.

[In the following review, Warrior argues that while retaining many aspects characteristic of Vizenor's previous work, Dead Voices is more mature and confident.]

Gerald Vizenor's new novel is an ideal followup to his Heirs of Columbus (1991) and other recent books. Dead Voices tells a ceremonial story of urban dwellers who play a tribal card game in which they become various animals, objects, and insects who face various urban challenges and dysfunctions. The elusive and allusive guide through the game is...

(The entire section is 388 words.)

Kathy Whitson (review date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Dead Voices: Natural Agonies in the New World and Summer in the Spring: Anishinaabe Lyric Poems and Stories, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 130-32.

[In the review below, Whitson states the two works under review expand the readers exposure to Anishinaabe culture and literature.]

Gerald Vizenor, a Professor of Native American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, has already contributed significantly to the body of Native American literature. Now we have two more volumes from him—Dead Voices, a novel, and Summer in the Spring, a...

(The entire section is 1303 words.)

David Mogen (review date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Dead Voices: Natural Agonies in the New World, in Western American Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 361-62.

[In the following review, Mogen contends that while Dead Voices is difficult to read, it is an eloquent and original work.]

Like Vizenor's earlier work, Dead Voices dramatizes the complex "word wars" waged between tribal peoples and mainstream culture. Indeed, this strange "novel" creates a living trickster voice—at once profane, lyrical and wondrously bizarre—through which to dramatize a radical perspective on the Western tradition of written culture, embodying "dead voices" that suppress the "natural...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Robert L. Berner (review date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 3, Summer, 1994, p. 616.

[In the following review, Berner states that while Vizenor makes astute points in Manifest Manners, the writing is muddled and infused with jargon.]

Those readers who may wonder what the terms in Vizenor's title mean will have to read the book. "Manifest manners" plays on "manifest destiny" to suggest a variety of cultural realities which falsify the experience of American Indians and exploit their culture for commercial, political, and other inappropriate purposes. "Postindian warriors" are the present generation of...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Kenneth M. Roemer (review date December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance, in American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 871-72.

[In the review below, Roemer argues that while Manifest Manners is at times repetitive, it is nonetheless a powerful book.]

Manifest Manners comes to us with particular authority. Gerald Vizenor is a literary-cultural critic who is an insider literarily and culturally: he is a respected novelist, an Anishinaabe, and a member of the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. Vizenor is also a master creator of tricksters in film and fiction.

All this makes for tricky reviewing. Should Manifest...

(The entire section is 565 words.)

Ward Churchill (review date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance, in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 18, No. 3, 1994, pp. 313-18.

[In the following review below, Churchill argues that when Vizenor relies on his journalistic talents, Manifest Manners provides useful insights but Vizenor's use of postmodern vernacular creates a sterile, unsuccessful work.]

Gerald Vizenor's Manifest Manners is a book one can love to hate. It combines the very worst of postmodernism's vernacular-driven plunge into cliquish obscurantism with its author's already hyperinflated sense of self-importance. The result is largely sterile where it is not...

(The entire section is 1830 words.)

Robert Allen Warrior (review date Autumn 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Shadow Distance: A Gerald Vizenor Reader, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 4, Autumn, 1995, pp. 845-46.

[In the following review, Warrior states that Shadow Distance serves as an excellent introduction to Vizenor's extensive and varied oeuvre.]

For those who teach the work of the Anishanaabe novelist, poet, essayist, and critic Gerald Vizenor but never know what to assign from his massive and growing oeuvre, an answer has arrived. Shadow Distance, a reader of Vizenor's work, follows the many twists and turns of his writing career and offers substantial pieces of his creative path. For readers who have never encountered...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Elizabeth McNeil (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Game Never Ends': Gerald Vizenor's Gamble with Language and Structure in Summer in the Spring," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1995, pp. 85-109.

[In the following essay, McNeil argues that Vizenor continues the work of the original editor of the stories—Theodore Hudon Beaulieu—by bringing them to a general readership.]

The trickster myths in Gerald Vizenor's Summer in the Spring: Anishinaabe Lyric Poems and Stories come nearly verbatim from a series of tales in The Progress, the first newspaper published on an Indian reservation in Minnesota. Appearing in the late 1880s, the series was originally...

(The entire section is 7005 words.)

Jon Hauss (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Real Stories: Memory, Violence, and Enjoyment in Gerald Vizenor's Bearheart," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXXXI, No. 4, 1995, pp. 1-16.

[In the following essay, Hauss discusses the role of violence and history in Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart.]

From the beginning, there is the violence. Critics have remarked on the shocking, often graphic and extended, depictions of physical violence in Vizenor's 1978 novel, Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart. Louis Owens says he had a hard time getting students to read the novel, part of their objection being that it remained true to Vizenor's remark in the preface that it's just a book of "sex and...

(The entire section is 4328 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Haseltine, Patricia. "The Voices of Gerald Vizenor: Survival through Transformation." American Indian Quarterly (Winter 1985): 31-47.

Considers Vizenor's use of the trickster in his novel Earthdivers.

Jahner, Elaine. "Cultural Shrines Revisited." American Indian Quarterly (Winter 1985): 23-9.

Describes Vizenor's use of metaphor to discuss the power of language.

Olsen, Lance. "Third Generation Post-Modernists." American Book Review 9, No. 6 (January/February 1988): 12-13, 20.


(The entire section is 246 words.)