Authors: Gerald Vizenor

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Ojibwe novelist, poet, journalist, short-story writer, and scholar

October 22, 1934

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Biography

Gerald Vizenor is often recognized as the most innovative writer of Native American fiction ever to put pen to paper. Born to Clement William Vizenor and LaVerne Lydia Peterson Vizenor, he was raised in Minneapolis from the age of two primarily by his father’s family (originally from the White Earth Reservation), following the unsolved murder of his father. After weathering a less than ideal childhood, tempered by Anishinaabe trickster tales, Vizenor joined the National Guard at fifteen and the Army at eighteen.

Stationed in Japan for several important formative years, he returned to civilian life in 1955 and began college at New York University. He transferred to the University of Minnesota the next year, where he earned a B.A. in 1960. In 1959 he married Judith Horns, with whom he had a son, Robert Vizenor; in 1969, they were divorced. He married Laura Hall in 1981. During the early 1960’s, Vizenor first began to write about the problems faced by city-dwelling Native Americans. His inside perspective as a social worker, his community activism and journalism, and his report on the trial of Thomas James White Hawk eventually led him to work as a Minneapolis Tribune reporter. He moved north temporarily to direct the Indian Studies Program at Bemidji State University in 1971–1972 and studied at Harvard University in 1973 before returning to the Tribune as a staff and editorial writer.

Gerald R. Vizenor

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In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Vizenor taught at both Berkeley and the University of Minnesota, and then at Tianjin University, China. In 1984 he returned to Berkeley, leaving for the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1987 and serving as provost of Kresge College in 1989–1990. He then held the David Burr Chair of Letters at the University of Oklahoma before returning again to Berkeley, in 1992, as professor of Native American literature. Over the course of more than seven years, he was the editor of the American Indian Literature and Critical Studies series (which he founded) for the University of Oklahoma Press. Vizenor eventually moved to the University of New Mexico, from which he retired.

First published as a poet in 1960 and renowned for his haiku, Vizenor is probably best known for his novels, perhaps better described as colorful tapestries of strangely talented characters and trickster figures. Additionally, through his large body of nonfiction, Vizenor has contributed immeasurably to modern American ethnic studies, notably in his unceasing efforts to define in dynamic—as opposed to static—terms what it means to be Native American. Appropriately, he has coined the term “crossblood” to signify people of mixed Native American and immigrant ancestry. As Native American and post-immigrant American identities continue to evolve, that concept becomes increasingly relevant.

Although incensed by the many abuses Native Americans have endured, Vizenor has nonetheless never embraced either violence or victim status. Indeed, his own accounts from the early 1970’s, published initially as reportage in the Minneapolis Tribune and later in works such as Interior Landscapes, reveal the often-comic ineptitude of many self-styled revolutionary radicals: Most are described as city-bred opportunists with little real understanding of the ideals, language, and culture of the various rural tribal peoples they have attempted, often inaccurately, to represent. In startlingly fresh style, Vizenor resolves conflicts with humor, skewering radical wannabes, mainstream media materialists, and nabobs of new-age philosophizing left and right, often directing his sharpest gibes—as he does in Manifest Manners—at all who continue to invent and perpetuate the publicly accepted mythic and romanticized images of Native Americans. His novel Chancers embodies most of these characteristics, taking on the topic of the repatriation of Native American bones from museums in a tale that involves tricksters, human sacrifice (of professors by graduate students), resurrected spirits, and more.

Although his work is often challenging to read, his appeal should prove enduring, for his writing illuminates the perils and passions not only of Native Americans but also of all people. His ironic humor, artistically subtle wordplay, unusual plot twists that blur boundaries between the real and the imaginary, and odd characters living in a frustratingly capricious world have won for him an enthusiastic following among readers of postmodern American literature. Throughout his writing, but especially in his fiction, Gerald Vizenor reveals himself as the pre-eminent literary trickster of modern American authors.

Vizenor has gained critical attention for his literary contributions over the years. Among Vizenor's numerous honors are the American Book Award (1988), PEN Oakland's Josephine Miles Award (1991, 1996), the Native Writers Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award (2001), a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western Literature Association (2005), and the MELUS Lifetime Achievement Award (2010).

In addition to continuing to pen novels, works of nonfiction, and poetry, Vizenor remains active in the native community. In 2009, he participated in the White Earth Nation's constitutional conventions and wrote its new constitution, which was adopted in 2013. He followed up that experience with a book containing the draft and essays about the process, as well as the satirical novel Treaty Shirts, involving issues of governance in the White Earth Nation in the 2030s. Vizenor is also an honorary council member of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Author Works Long Fiction: Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart, 1978, revised 1990 (as Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles) Griever: An American Monkey King in China, 1987 The Trickster of Liberty: Tribal Heirs to a Wild Baronage, 1988 The Heirs of Columbus, 1991 Dead Voices: Natural Agonies in the New World, 1992 Hotline Healers: An Almost Browne Novel, 1997 Chancers, 2000 Hiroshima Bugi: Atomu 57 , 2003 Blue Ravens, 2014 Father Meme, 2008 Shrouds of White Earth, 2010 Treaty Shirts: October 2034—A Familiar Treatise on the White Earth Nation, 2016 Short Fiction: Anishinabe Adisokan: Stories of the Ojibwa, 1974 Wordarrows: Indians and Whites in the New Fur Trade, 1978 (revised as Wordarrows: Native States of Literary Sovereignty, 2003 Earthdivers: Tribal Narratives on Mixed Descent, 1981 Landfill Meditation: Crossblood Stories, 1991 Chair of Tears, 2012 Screenplay: Harold of Orange, 1984 Poetry: Raising the Moon Vines: Original Haiku in English, 1964 Seventeen Chirps: Haiku in English, 1964 Matsushima: Pine Islands, 1984 (originally pb. as four separate volumes of haiku during the 1960’s) Cranes Arise, 1999 Almost Ashore, 2006 Bear Island: The War at Sugar Point, 2006 Favor of Crows: New and Collected Haiku, 2014 Nonfiction: Thomas James White Hawk, 1968 The Everlasting Sky: New Voices from the People Named the Chippewa, 1972 Tribal Scenes and Ceremonies, 1976 Crossbloods: Bone Courts, Bingo, and Other Reports, 1990 Interior Landscapes: Autobiographical Myths and Metaphors, 1990 Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance, 1994 Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence, 1998 Postindian Conversations, 1999 Native Liberty: Natural Reason and Cultural Survivance, 2009 The White Earth Nation: Ratification of a Native Democratic Constitution, 2012 (with Jill Doerfler) Edited Texts: Touchwood: A Collection of Ojibway Prose, 1987 Summer in the Spring: Ojibwe Lyric Poems and Tribal Stories, 1981 (revised as Summer in the Spring: Anishinaabe Lyric Poems and Stories, 1993) Native American Perspectives on Literature and History, 1992 (with Alan R. Velie) Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, 1993 Native American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology, 1995 Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, 2008 Native Storiers: Five Selections, 2009 Miscellaneous: The People Named the Chippewa: Narrative Histories, 1984 Shadow Distance: A Gerald Vizenor Reader, 1994 Bibliography Barry, Nora Baker. “Postmodern Bears in the Texts of Gerald Vizenor.” MELUS 27 (Fall, 2002): 93-112. Countering the trend to discuss Vizenor’s work by focusing on his trickster figures, Barry turns attention to his use of the mythologically important figure of the bear in his work. Blaeser, Kimberly. Gerald Vizenor: Writing in the Oral Tradition. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996. Blaeser emphasizes Vizenor’s own awareness of ironic contrasts between his eclecticism and his sense of continuity with the tribal past. Coltelli, Laura, ed. Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. Contains interviews of nine prominent American Indian writers, including Vizenor. Vizenor touches on such topics as tribal history as source material, language, problems with anthropology, and trickster in his stories. Haseltine, Patricia. “The Voices of Gerald Vizenor: Survival Through Transformation.” American Indian Quarterly 9, no. 1 (Winter, 1985): 31. In discussing Vizenor’s multiplicity, Haseltine suggests that one strata of it arises from dream vision experience. Isernhagen, Hartwig. Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing. American Indian Literature and Critical Studies series 32. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. Although Vizenor has given many interviews, this work brings him into the context of N. Scott Momaday’s works, which have been a major influence on Vizenor’s. Lee, A. Robert, ed. Loosening the Streams: Interpretations of Gerald Vizenor. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2000. A collection of essays on a wide range of topics; includes a bibliography. Monsma, Bradley John. “‘Active Readers … Obverse Tricksters’: Trickster-Texts and Cross-Cultural Reading.” Modern Language Studies 26 (Fall, 1996): 83-98. Monsma investigates to what extent Vizenor’s use of the trickster theme expects both the readers and the author to be tricksters. Owens, Louis, ed. Studies in American Indian Literatures: The Journal of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures 9 (Spring, 1997). This special issue devoted to Vizenor contains articles on his contrasts between tribal and legal identity, the way Samuel Beckett, John Bunyan, and he use the past in comparable ways, his employment of Buddhist and wasteland imagery, as well as his changing poetic vision. Velie, Alan. Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982. Contextualizes Momaday, Welch, Silko, and Vizenor's works within their own cultures and within the literary canon. Analyzes the writings of each. Vizenor, Gerald. “An Interview with Gerald Vizenor.” Interview by Neal Bowers and Charles L. P. Silet. Melus 8, no. 1 (1981): 41-49. Vizenor relates the multiplicity, constant change, deliberate provocation, even contradiction in his own works to the traditional function of oral tales as a vivid dialogue between performer and audience, an activity he calls “word cinema.” Vizenor, Gerald. “Mythic Rage and Laughter: An Interview with Gerald Vizenor.” Interview by Dallas Miller. Studies in American Indian Literatures: The Journal of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures 7 (Spring, 1995): 77-96. This interview explores the twin poles of anger and laughter in Vizenor’s writing. Vizenor, Gerald. “On Thin Ice, You Might as Well Dance: An Interview with Gerald Vizenor.” Interview by Larry McCaffery and Tom Marshall. Some Other Fluency: Interviews with Innovative American Authors. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Vizenor considers that the precariousness of his situation has spurred his artistry. Vizenor, Gerald. “‘I Defy Analysis’: A Conversation with Gerald Vizenor.” Interview by Rodney Simard, Lavonne Mason, and Ju Abner. Studies in American Indian Literatures: The Journal of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures 5 (Fall, 1993): 42-51. Vizenor protests against critics’ attempts to classify him.

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