Reflections on Gerald Vizenor
By Pamela Campbell, Aresta La Russo, and Howard Fitzgerald Smith
How does one begin to discuss Gerald Vizenor, especially since he has authored more than thirty books? Kiowa author and Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday has described Gerald Vizenor as, “a brilliant and evasive trickster figure” and “the supreme ironist among American Indian writers of the twentieth century.” While reading Vizenor’s work, one may perceive him as complex and unassuming. In person he is down to earth.
When asked in our seminar what motivates him as a writer, Gerald Vizenor responded, “Rage.” The stark honesty of this answer was refreshing, though given the nature of his writing, perhaps not so unexpected. Gerald Vizenor’s sentences are proclamations. He is simply not happy with the current state of Native America, and he makes no attempt to hide it. Vizenor is urging his readers to wake up and smell the rage. Reading Vizenor can be a challenge. One must read sentences two or three times to make sure they understand what he writes, and even then the full meaning may still be elusive. Vizenor wants vigilance from his readers. One should not be a passive reader, and likewise one should not be passive in their day-to-day lives. Vizenor is anything but passive. When speaking, he uses his concepts and theories, and it is clear that he thoroughly believes in what he is writing. He talks the talk, and he walks the walk.
Gerald Vizenor’s devotion to his ideals showed through in his discussion of writing the White Earth Constitution. Though he used the Japanese Constitution as one of several models, the issues he addressed were specifically related to the White Earth. The difficulties he described in coming to a consensus on what a constitution for the White Earth should look like brought to the surface many pervasive issues in Indian Country. The most notable issue he discussed was that of blood quantum—who should be allowed to enroll as White Earth Chippewa? Should the White Earth Nation go by their own standards, or those the federal government uses to define a “real Indian?” Vizenor solved that issue rather ingeniously in his careful wording of the section outlining White Earth citizenship. Though Vizenor was reluctant at first to take on the task of crafting a constitution, once he accepted the challenge he put his unmistakable stamp on the project. His is likely the first constitution in history to include the words “irony” and “survivance.” The White Earth Nation preamble states:
The Anishinaabeg of the White Earth Nation are the successors of a great tradition of continental liberty, a native constitution of families, totemic association. The Anishinaabeg create stories of natural reason, of courage, loyalty, humor, spiritual inspiration, survivance, reciprocal altruism, and native cultural sovereignty. (http://www.d.umn.edu/~amind/images/WECONSTITUTION.pdf)
Though Vizenor draws amusement from his wordplay, the conviction behind his words is serious. In Native Liberty, he argues that continental liberty is related to survivance and sovereignty. He continues this argument in his book Survivance, in which he appears to be saying that survivance is relative to an American Indian active sense of presence through customs, natural reason, and active tradition, above “historical absence, deracination, and oblivion."
Vizenor is constantly battling to deconstruct what he terms manifest manners and the literature of dominance. Very simply put, manifest manners grow out of persistent misconceptions of Native people that began with Columbus and were cemented through the national idea of Manifest Destiny. The literature of dominance constructed false images of Native people that nonetheless came to eclipse the reality of Native existence. Beads and buckskins, tomahawks and bloodthirsty savages, highly sexualized Indian princesses—all of these ubiquitous stereotypes seem more “real” to uninformed persons than a Native person wearing jeans, driving a truck, and practicing tribal spirituality. Many people are so caught up in these simulated images that they forget the people the images purport to represent. The images lead to simulations of Indian life, which are dangerous because “to simulate is not simply to feign…. Someone who feigns an illness can simply go to bed and make believe he is ill. Someone who simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms” (Beaudrillard, quoted in Vizenor 13). Everyone, Native and non-Native alike, is under the influence of these simulations, and our task is to find a way to combat them. Vizenor combats them with language, and stories. He calls upon postindian warriors (that is, Native people living in the time after Columbus invented the notion of Indian) to use stories to combat manifest manners and practice survivance (a portmanteau of “survival” and “resistance”). The idea of survivance has become so widespread that it is now used without citation, and with good reason. Vizenor has discovered a way to combat the all-encompassing literature of dominance—with tribal stories that are distinctly Native.
During this semester the importance of language as an evocative and liberating gift bestowed upon humanity has been reinforced. It has been through our understanding and use of language that our history and traditions are passed on and preserved for future generations. According to Gerald Vizenor, we may be considered storiers using orality as a means of survivance against simulations of dominance and manifest manners. It is our duty to be informed, and one must always know and understand that language and its politics has the ability create and shape the world around us. Vizenor consistently reminds us of this in his discourse regarding America’s Indigenous population. He uses his gift of language at a level of creativity that brings Shakespeare to mind, coining concepts and realities with which he will be able to combat the forced images of the Indian in modern society.
Many Native people are forced to straddle the world of maintaining tradition while constantly having to adapt to an ever changing world and its crushing monolithic racial/social expectations. This duality provides one with the notion that words should and must continue to be chosen with care. America’s history has been wrought with injustice against those who lack the ability to live beyond the dead voices that have been printed in the books glorifying the terminal creeds of a dominant societal world view. By reducing a marginalized people to an afterthought it is almost possible to write them off as an “endangered species” or “the last of their kind.” Vizenor uses his word arrows to dismantle the hegemonic dynamo. He attempts to prevent the continued bleaching and obliteration of the socio-linguistic and cultural traditions of minority groups. None have experienced this unfortunate turn of events more than Indigenous populations world-wide. By projecting a false image upon a group of people one is able to remove their soul, thus inviting a continuum of deadening conformity to ensue the further atrophy and trauma in keen fashion.
At the other end of the spectrum lies the power of language’s ability to liberate and reignite the heart of a people, be it through the use of the oppressive majority language or their heritage language. Through his writing of creative/contemporary Native American fiction, critical and social discourse, Vizenor has been providing his constituents with the tools to reclaim their reality as well as their imagination. As an educator, writer, and proponent for social change he embodies the trickster in words. Existing in all moments and time it is almost impossible to predict whether or not the social order will be disrupted or if someone will be healed/relieved of their ills projected on them by the simulations of a dominant society.
Rage is Vizenor’s main motivator, and his rage is infectious. It is incendiary and productive. Vizenor harnesses his rage into positive actions for Native people, which is admirable. He explained his prolificacy by simply stating, “I can’t not write.” He has much to say because he still has the task of breaking down these omnipresent simulations that are so strongly affecting Native people, even to this day. By writing his texts, he is inviting his readers to join him in this fight. He is shaking his readers, urging them to wake up and feel their own rage, and use that rage as a jumping off point for social change. It will be a long, slow fight, it will certainly be painful, but the payoff will be worth it.
May 13, 2011