Gerald Robert Vizenor (born 1934) (Anishinaabe) is a writer and scholar, and an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, White Earth Reservation. Vizenor also taught for many years at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was Director of Native American Studies. With more than 30 books published, Vizenor is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico.
Gerald Vizenor was born to a mother who was Swedish American and a father who was Anishinaabe. When he was less than two years old, his father was murdered, in a homicide that was never solved. He was raised by his mother and paternal Anishinaabe grandmother, along with a succession of paternal uncles in Minneapolis and the White Earth Reservation. His mother’s partner acted as his informal stepfather and primary caregiver. Following his death in 1950, Vizenor lied about his age and at 15 entered the Minnesota National Guard that year. Honorably discharged before his unit went to Korea, Vizenor joined the army two years later. He served with occupation forces in Japan, as the nation was still struggling to recover from the vast destruction of the nuclear attacks that ended World War II for them. During this period, he began to learn about the Japanese poetic form of haiku. Later he wrote Hiroshima Bugi (2004), what he called his “kabuki novel.” Returning to the United States in 1953, Vizenor took advantage of G.I. Bill funding to complete his undergraduate degree at New York University. He followed this with postgraduate study at Harvard University and the University of Minnesota, where he also undertook graduate teaching. After returning to Minnesota, he married and had a son. After teaching at the university, between 1964 and 1968, Vizenor worked as a community advocate. During this time he served as director of the American Indian Employment and Guidance Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which brought him into close contact with numerous Native Americans from reservations. Many found it difficult to live in the city, and struggled against white racism and cheap alcohol.
This period is the subject of his short-story collection Wordarrows: Whites and Indians in the New Fur Trade, some of which was inspired by his experiences. His work with homeless and poor Natives may have been the reason Vizenor looked askance at the emerging American Indian Movement (AIM), seeing radical leaders such as Dennis Banksand Clyde Bellecourt as being more concerned with personal publicity than the “real” problems faced by American Indians. Vizenor began working as a staff reporter on the Minneapolis Tribune, quickly rising to become an editorial contributor. He investigated the case of Thomas James White Hawk, convicted of murder. Vizenor’s perspective allowed him to raise difficult questions about the nature of justice in a society dealing with colonized peoples. His work was credited with enabling White Hawk have his death sentence on White Hawk being commuted. During this period Vizenor coined the phrase “cultural schizophrenia” to describe the state of mind of many Natives, who he considered torn between Native and White cultures. His investigative journalism into American Indian activists revealed drug dealing, personal failings, and failures of leadership among some of the movement’s leaders. As a consequence of his articles, he was personally threatened. Beginning teaching full-time at Lake Forest College, Illinois, Vizenor was appointed to set up and run the Native American Studies program at Bemidji State University. Later he became professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis (1978–1985). He later satirized the academic world in some of his fiction. During this time he also served as a visiting professor at Tianjin University, China. Vizenor worked and taught for four years at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he was also Provost of Kresge College. He had an endowed chair for one year at the University of Oklahoma. Vizenor next was appointed as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He is professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico.
Vizenor has published collections of haiku, poems, plays, short stories, translations of traditional tribal tales, screenplays, and many novels. He has been named as a member of the literary movement which Kenneth Lincoln dubbed the Native American Renaissance, a flourishing of literature and art beginning in the mid-20th century. His first novel, Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart (1978), later revised as Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles (1990), brought him immediate attention. One of few science fiction novels by a Native American, it portrayed a procession of tribal pilgrims through a surreal, dystopian landscape of an America suffering an environmental apocalypse brought on by white greed for oil. Simultaneously postmodern and deeply traditional, inspired by N. Scott Momaday‘s pioneering works, Vizenor drew on poststructuralist theory and Anishinaabe trickster stories to portray a world in the grip of what he called “terminal creeds” – belief systems incapable of change. In one of the most noted and controversial passages, the character Belladonna Darwin Winter-Catcher proclaims that Natives are better and purer than whites. She is killed with poisoned cookies, purportedly for her promoting racial separatism.
In Vizenor’s subsequent novels, he used a shifting and overlapping cast of trickster figures in settings ranging from China to White Earth Reservation to the University of Kent. Frequently quoting European philosophers such as Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard, Vizenor has written a fiction that is allusive, humorous and playful, but deeply serious in portraying the state of Native America. He has refused to romanticize the figure of the Native and opposes continued oppression. Vizenor’s major theme is that the idea of “Indian” as one people was an “invention” of European invaders. Before Columbus arrived, no one defined Indian as other; there were only the indigenous peoples of various tribes (such as Anishinaabe or Dakota). (They defined “other” among themselves, often divided by languages and associated cultures.) To deconstruct the idea of “Indianness,” Vizenor uses strategies of irony and jouissance, borrowing ideas from Barthes. For instance, in the lead-up to Columbus Day in 1992, he published the novel, The Heirs of Columbus, in which Columbus is portrayed as a Mayan Indian trying to return home to Central America. In Hotline Healers, he claims that Richard Nixon, the American president who he said did more for American Indians than any other in restoring sovereign rights and supporting self-determination, did so as part of a deal in exchange for traditional “virtual reality” technology.
Vizenor has written several studies of Native American affairs, including Manifest Manners and Fugitive Poses. He has edited several collections of academic work related to Native American writing. He is the founder-editor of the American Indian Literature and Critical Studies series at the University of Oklahoma Press, which has provided an important venue for critical work on and by Native writers. In his own studies, Vizenor has worked to deconstruct the semiotics of Indianness. His title, Fugitive Poses is derived from Vizenor’s assertion that the term Indian is a social-science construction that replaces native peoples, who become absent or “fugitive”. Similarly, the term, “manifest manners,” refers to the continued legacy of Manifest Destiny. He wrote that native peoples were still bound by “narratives of dominance” that replace them with “Indians”. In place of a unified “Indian” signifier, he suggests that Native peoples be referred to by specific tribal identities, to be properly placed in their particular tribal context, just as most Americans would distinguish among the French, Poles, Germans and English.
In order to cover more general Native studies, Vizenor suggests using the term, “postindian,” to convey that the disparate, heterogeneous tribal cultures were “unified” and could be addressed en masse only by Euro-American attitudes and actions towards them. He has also promoted the neologism of “survivance”, a cross between the words “survival” and “resistance.” he uses it to replace “survival” in terms of tribal peoples. He coined it to imply a process rather than an end, as the ways of tribal peoples continue to change (as do the ways of others). He also notes that the survival of tribal peoples as distinct from majority cultures, is based in resistance. He continues to criticize both Native American nationalism and Euro-American colonial attitudes.