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Up Close with Gerald Vizenor

August 19, 2015

Portrait: Gerald Vizenor

Portrait: Gerald Vizenor
Gerald Vizenor (Photo by Alex Stafford)

This article originally appeared in Legacy magazine, summer 2015.

Rarely does a writer master such diverse genres as fiction, essays, poetry, journalism, criticism, and public policy. But Gerald Vizenor, ’60 B.A., a teacher, advocate, and author of more than 40 books, isn’t just any writer.

A postmodern intellectual of Anishinaabe descent, Vizenor frequently defies conventional narrative structures and instead uses traditional Native storytelling techniques that draw from oral tradition and myth. With the help of the ancient “trickster” character, Vizenor leads the reader into a shape-shifting landscape that reveals life’s multiplicities, ironies, and paradoxes.

If you’re lucky enough to talk with Vizenor or read his work, you’re likely to come away with more questions than answers—which is precisely the point.

You and your wife, Laura, have endowed the Gerald Vizenor Lectures on American Indian Literature in the College of Liberal Arts. What is your vision for the lectures?

We wanted the U of M to invite Native writers to speak on the subject of Native literature and share their work. We envision both young and established writers sharing their stories with the campus community. It will probably be one lecture every year, with the chance to meet and engage with students.

What was it like to be part of the U’s fledgling American Indian Studies program in the early 1970s?

When I began teaching in the department in 1970, there was a potted birch tree in the office, which became an important symbol of the health of the program.

Although we had the full support of the University from the beginning, there were radical forces at the time that rebelled against the academy. With Native politics so complex and open to so many different interpretations, it was a challenge back then to establish an academic program that demanded intellectual rigor.

There were protests from faculty who said they should be teaching tradition, and from those who wanted to romanticize Native history or politicize the program. But there is no single monolithic Native literature, tradition, and history. We kept asking, “Whose tradition? Whose politics? Whose history?” The questions couldn’t be resolved.

The birch lost its leaves and started to languish. When the issues became deadlocked, it was clear that the program couldn’t continue as it was. Then the tree died, and we knew it was time to take a step back.

It was a painful yet important process of establishing a program that eventually regrouped as part of American Studies and is now the new and stronger Department of American Indian Studies in the College of Liberal Arts.

You’re known for coining terms like victimry and survivance. What do they mean?

From a white, European perspective, Natives are always a problem. “We owe them a lot” is a mantra. This is one example of victimry. But when Natives create art, which includes storytelling, it isn’t from the point of view of the victim. It’s playful, original, expressionistic, and grows out of the visionary power of creative writers. It breaks through the passive, two-dimensional approach of those who look from the outside in. The trickster character reveals life’s absurdities and exposes hubris and hypocrisy while telling tales full of natural references, ironies, and cultural ambiguities that are told differently in the dominant literature of Europe and America.

Survivance is a union of presence, resistance, and survival that is deliberate and focused. For example, my grandmother Alice married a blind man who sold brushes door to door, and Alice went with him. Always at the third house, a lonely woman would answer the door, and they’d begin telling stories. They were in survivance, conjuring the teasing trickster in the practice of Native stories, keen in the knowledge of gossip in the community, but transformational for that moment.

How does your writing reflect your Anishinaabe roots?

Oral tradition, family, ancestors, and a sense of place figure largely in my artistic vision. My memoir, Interior Landscapes, doesn’t use the first person singular pronoun, which leaves the story more open. In Anishinaabe dream songs there is some use of first person, but it’s elusive; the language doesn’t cover it. My stories are told from multiple points of view in multiple scenes.

Among those who influenced me most strongly was Theodore Hudon Beaulieu, editor of The Progress, the first newspaper to be published on the White Earth Reservation. Several of my works tell the story of the government’s challenge to the paper’s existence and celebrate my connection to the tribal orators who first claimed the right to publish American Indian perspectives.

In my travels, I’ve discovered new ways of writing that connect me to Native traditions. When I was in the military in Japan, I discovered imagistic haiku. In China it was the translation and retelling of classic trickster tales.

You helped write the constitution for the White Earth Reservation. What did that mean to you?

Erma Vizenor, the elected leader of the White Earth Nation, asked me to serve as a delegate and the principal writer of the constitution. She has an extraordinary sense of integrity and moral bearing, and promised governmental reform in her first term and a new constitution in her second term. The constitution provides a cultural vision, ethos, and principles of the governance of the White Earth Nation.

I was a sworn delegate at four constitutional conventions over two years. The discussions of the 40 delegates were inspired and argumentative, but we were determined to create a new constitution of a democratic government. There were approvals, revisions, and serious issues resolved, and the constitution was ratified and overwhelmingly passed by referendum.

Article 5 says that “the freedom of thought and conscience, academic, artistic irony, and literary expression shall not be denied, violated, or controverted by the government.” Probably no constitution of governance in the world has a specific reference to the protection of literary and artistic irony. For Native storiers, protection of this freedom could not go unstated.