Vizenor, Gerald Robert 1934–

views updated

Vizenor, Gerald Robert 1934–

PERSONAL: Born October 22, 1934, in Minneapolis, MN; son of Clement William and LaVerne Lydia (Peterson) Vizenor; married Judith Helen Horns, 1959, (some sources say September, 1960; divorced, 1968); married Laura Jane Hall, May, 1981; children: (first marriage) Robert Thomas. Education: Attended New York University, 1955–56; University of Minnesota, B.A., 1960, graduate study, 1962–65; additional graduate study at Harvard University.

ADDRESSES: Office—American Studies, 325 Campbell Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720. E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Ramsey County Corrections Authority, St. Paul, MN, group worker, 1957–58; Capital Community Center, St. Paul, roving group worker, 1958; Minnesota Department of Corrections, Minnesota State Reformatory, St. Cloud, corrections agent, 1960–61; Minneapolis Tribune, Minneapolis, MN, staff writer, 1968–70; Park Rapids Public Schools, Park Rapids, MN, teacher trainer, 1971; instructor at Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, IL, and Bemidji State University, Bemidji, MN, 1971–73; University of California—Berkeley, lecturer, 1976–80, professor of Native American Studies, 1991–, Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor, division of undergraduate and interdisciplinary studies, 2000–2002; University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, professor of American Indian studies, 1980–87; University of California—Santa Cruz, professor of literature, 1987–90. Kresge College, acting provost, 1990; University of Oklahoma, David Burke Chair of Letters, 1991. Military service: Minnesota National Guard, 1950–51; U.S. Army, 1952–55, served in Japan.

AWARDS, HONORS: Research grants for writing from University of Minnesota Graduate School and University of California—Santa Cruz; Film-in-the-Cities national competition winner, Robert Redford Sundance Film Institute, 1983, and best film citation, San Francisco Film Festival for American Indian Films, both for Harold of Orange; Fiction Collective prize, 1986, and American Book Award, 1988, for Griever: An American Monkey King in China; Artists Fellowship in Literature, California Arts Council, 1989, for professional achievement in literature; Josephine Miles Award, PEN Oakland, 1990, for Interior Landscapes: Autobiographical Myths and Metaphors, and 1996, for Native American Literature; named one of "100 Visionaries," Utne Reader, 1995; Teachers Hall of Fame, University of Minnesota Alumni Association, 1995; Doctorate of Humane Letters, Macalester College, St. Paul, MN, 1999; Literary Laureate honorary literary award, San Francisco Public Library, 2000; Lifetime Literary Achievement Award, Native Writer's Circle of the Americas, University of Oklahoma, 2001.



Born in the Wind, privately printed, 1960.

The Old Park Sleepers, Obercraft, 1961.

Two Wings the Butterfly (haiku), privately printed, 1962.

South of the Painted Stone, Obercraft, 1963.

Raising the Moon Vines (haiku), Callimachus (Minneapolis, MN), 1964, reprinted, Nodin (Minneapolis, MN), 1999.

Seventeen Chirps (haiku), Nodin (Minneapolis, MN), 1964.

Empty Swings (haiku), Nodin (Minneapolis, MN), 1967.

(Contributor) Kenneth Rosen, editor, Voices of the Rainbow, Viking (New York, NY), 1975.

Matsushima: Pine Islands (haiku), Nodin (Minneapolis, MN), 1984.

Cranes Arise (haiku), Nodin (Minneapolis, MN), 1999.


Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart, Truck Press (St. Paul, MN), 1973, published as Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.

Griever: An American Monkey King in China, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1987.

The Trickster of Liberty: Tribal Heirs to a Wild Baronage, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1988.

The Heirs of Columbus, Wesleyan University Press (Hanover, NH), 1992.

Dead Voices: Natural Agonies in the New World, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1992.

Hotline Healers: An Almost Browne Novel, Wesleyan University Press (Hanover, NH), 1997.

Chancers: A Novel, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 2000.

Hiroshima Bugi: Atomu 57, University of Nebraska Press, (Lincoln, NE), 2003.


Wordarrows: Indians and Whites in the New Fur Trade (stories), University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1978, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2003.

Earthdivers: Tribal Narratives on Mixed Descent (stories), University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1981.

Landfill Meditation: Crossblood Stories (short stories), Wesleyan University Press (Hanover, NH), 1991.


Escorts to White Earth, 1868–1968: 100 Year Reservation, Four Winds (New York, NY), 1968.

Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Literatures, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1989.

Native American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.


Summer in the Spring: Lyric Poems of the Ojibway, Interpreted and Reexpressed, Nodin (Minneapolis, MN), 1965, published as Anishinabe Nagomon: Songs of the Ojibwa, Nodin (Minneapolis, MN), 1974, revised edition published as Summer in the Spring: Ojibwa Lyric Poems and Tribal Stories, Nodin (Minneapolis, MN), 1981, published as Summer in the Spring: Anishinaabe Lyric Poems and Stories, New Edition, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1993.

Thomas James White Hawk, Four Winds (New York, NY), 1968.

The Everlasting Sky: New Voices from the People Named the Chippewa, Crowell (New York, NY), 1972, published as The Everlasting Sky: Voices of the Anishinabe People, Minnesota Historical Society Press (St. Paul, MN), 2001.

Anishinabe Adisokan: Stories of the Ojibwa, Nodin (Minneapolis, MN), 1974.

Tribal Scenes and Ceremonies (editorial articles), Nodin (Minneapolis, MN), 1976.

The People Named the Chippewa: Narrative Histories, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1984.

Harold of Orange (screenplay), Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium Video, 1984.

Crossbloods: Bone Courts, Bingo, and Other Reports (essays), University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.

Interior Landscapes: Autobiographical Myths and Metaphors, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.

Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance (essays), Wesleyan University Press (Hanover, NH), 1994, published with a new preface as Manifest Manners: Narratives of Postindian Survivance, Wesleyan University Press (Hanover, NH), 1999.

Shadow Distance: Gerald Vizenor Reader (selected fiction and essays), Wesleyan University Press (Hanover, NH), 1994.

Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1998.

(With A. Robert Lee) Postindian Conversations, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1999.

Member of editorial board for North American Indian Prose Award and American Indian Lives autobiography series, University of Nebraska Press; member of editorial advisory board, Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Ameri-kanistik quarterly journal.

Contributor to books, including Growing up in Minnesota, edited by Chester Anderson, University of Minnesota Press, 1976; This Song Remembers, edited by Jane Katz, Houghton Mifflin, 1980; Stories Migrating Home,edited by Kimberly Blaeser, Loonfeather Press, 1999; Reverberations: Tactics of Resistance, Forms of Agency in Trans/Cultural Practices, edited by Jean Fisher, Jan van Eyck Edition (Maastricht, the Netherlands), 2000; and The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, Norton, 2001. Contributor to periodicals, including Modern Haiku, Star Tribune, Native American Press, California Monthly, Third Text (London), Alaska Quarterly Review, and Cross Cultural Poetics.

Vizenor's manuscripts, letters, and other literary material were collected for the American Literature Manuscripts Collection, Beinecke Library, Yale University.

SIDELIGHTS: Gerald Robert Vizenor is an acclaimed novelist, poet, and teacher. The themes and content of his works have arisen not only from his personal and cultural experiences, but also from the strong oral traditions of his Native American ancestors. Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Alan R. Velie noted, "One of the most versatile, innovative, and productive American writers, [Vizenor] is widely regarded as a leading American Indian writer and as a major presence in American letters." Kimberly M. Blaeser, in her essay for Dictionary of Literary Biography, commented, "Revolutionary in style and vision, Vizenor's works have broken new ground in the field of Native American literature."

Vizenor is of mixed-blood descent. His father, Clement William, was an Ojibwa Indian, originally from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, and his mother, LaVerne Peterson, lived in Minneapolis; the two met when Vizenor's father first came to the city. In 1950 Vizenor joined the Minnesota National Guard and from 1952 to 1955 and served with the U.S. Army in Japan. While serving in Japan, Vizenor became familiar with haiku, an unrhymed, seventeen syllable Japanese poetic form in which nature and human nature are linked in the poet's perception and representation of a single moment. "The Japanese and their literature were my liberation," he later wrote in the Chicago Review. "That presence of haiku, more than other literature, touched my imagination and brought me closer to a sense of tribal consciousness…. I would have to leave the nation of my birth to understand the wisdom and surviv-ance of tribal literature." During the following decade, he produced several volumes of haiku, including Raising the Moon Vines and Seventeen Chirps, both published in 1964, and Empty Swings, published in 1967.

In the years following, Vizenor explored many different genres. In 1973 he published his first novel, Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart, later published as Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles. Bearheart is an almost apocalyptic novel in which Proude Ceadarfair and Rosina, his wife, are forced to leave their home in Minnesota. The United States has run out of petroleum-based fuel, and Proude's cedar trees are needed for fuel. The two travel south, accompanied by an odd collection of pilgrims, and face an assortment of strange villains: an evil gambler who will wager gasoline against the lives of those who choose to gamble with him, "food fascists," who carve witches up to use their flesh as food, and a group of people born crippled due to the pollution of the environment.

In the 1980s Vizenor forewent a tenured position at the University of Minnesota to explore a teaching opportunity in China. Originally planning to write essays during his stay, Vizenor's poetic outlook underwent a radical transformation after attending a theatrical production that included scenes from the Monkey King opera. The Monkey King is a mischievous figure from Chinese myth similar to the "trickster" character found in Native American legend. In an interview with Larry McCaffery and Tom Marshall for Chicago Review, Vizenor confided that this opera had altered his perspectiveand "changed everything" for him. Seeing a dynamic Chinese audience "so completely engaged in the production," led Vizenor to rethink his original, graduate school reading of the Monkey King. Experiencing the performance transformed the material from mere cultural documentation to a work beyond sociopolitical ramifications, encompassing the consciousness of the Chinese people as folk literature. Sensing he had a "powerful theme" for a book born of this experience, Vizenor then developed Griever, a trickster main character, for his award-winning novel Griever: An American Monkey King in China, published in 1987. The Trickster of Liberty: Tribal Heirs to a Wild Baronage, published in 1988, also explores the trickster theme and imagery.

In Griever, the title character is an English teacher at a Chinese university. As a trickster figure, Griever does his best to liberate people from authority, but most of his efforts fail. Velie explained, "In depicting Griever, Vizenor combines the Anishinaabe trickster Nanabozho with Monkey, the trickster hero of Chinese folktale and opera." In The Trickster of Liberty, Griever appears as a minor character, and readers learn that he received his name from the book How to Be Sad and Downcast and Still Live in Better Health than People Who Pretend to Be So Happy, a manual his father didn't take with him when he left Griever to grow up on White Earth Reservation. Most of the stories in The Trickster of Liberty focus on the Browne family. According to Velie, "Vizenor again uses fantasy as a vehicle for his trenchant social and political commentary."

In 1990 Vizenor published an autobiographical volume, Interior Landscapes: Autobiographical Myths and Metaphors. In addition to novels, he has also written several works concerning the economic, social, and political plight of Native Americans, specifically his own Ojibwa tribe. "George Raft was an inspiration to my mother and, in a sense, he was responsible for my conception," Vizenor wrote in Interior Landscapes. "She saw the thirties screen star, a dark social hero with moral courage, in the spirited manner of my father, a newcomer from the White Earth Reservation. 'The first time I saw your father he looked like George Raft, not the gangster but the dancer. He was handsome and he had nerve,' my mother told me. 'The first thing he said to me was, "I got lots of girls but I always like new ones." He came by in a car with one of his friends. Nobody would talk like that now, but that's how we got together.' I was conceived on a cold night in a kerosene heated tenement near downtown Minneapolis. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been inaugurated the year before, at the depth of the Great Depression. He told the nation, 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.' My mother, and millions of other women stranded in cold rooms, heard the new president, listened to their new men, and were roused to remember the movies; elected politicians turned economies, but the bright lights in the depression came from the romantic and glamorous screen stars."

Vizenor's Landfill Meditation is a collection of short fiction that demonstrates the author's concern with the theme of mixed racial heritage and his familiar narrative technique of combining autobiographical elements with fiction. The opening story, "Almost Browne," for example, is a semi-autobiographical story of a pregnant white woman and her Chippewa partner who run out of gas on their way to a reservation hospital. Commented Robert L. Berner in World Literature Today, Vizenor's "fictions are almost stories, almost fictional, almost real." The trickster character Almost Browne, a member of the Browne family first introduced in The Trickster of Liberty, reappears in the novel Hotline Healers, which tells eleven stories of the life and lineage of Almost Browne. These stories "combine [Vizenor's] An-ishinaabe heritage as well as his cutting and clear social commentary on issues such as tribal sovereignty, American politics, and ethnic studies" according to Meredith James in a review for World Literature Today.

In Dead Voices: Natural Agonies in the New World, Vizenor explores the Native American myth of the trickster figure in the context of the modern world. Using the motif of a Native American card game called "wanaki" as the narrative structure, the novel's chapters each begin with the turn of a playing card accompanied by a different animal. Ritual, symbol, magic, transformation, and jokes all play a role in the narrative, which reviewers have alternately found highly inventive and confusing. "The attempt to resurrect traditional myths and set them loose in the modern world is a creditable one," observed Robert Crum in the New York Times Book Review. "Unfortunately, the characters in this book are less animals than puppets." Articulating the challenge Vizenor presents to readers of Dead Voices, David Mogen of Western American Literature asserted: "Because the very voice of the novel embodies a paradox of articulation, this is a difficult book to read, one in which meaning and narrative alike seem to hover just beyond the reach of written language."

As editor of Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, Vizenor selected diverse essays exploring the role of Native American writers in the context of the European literary tradition. "[Narrative Chance challenges] the reader to consider what it means when Native peoples apart from a European critical tradition must write within that tradition to preserve and maintain distinctly different world views," according to Alanna Kathleen Brown in Modern Fiction Studies. Among the noted essays included in the collection are Elaine Jahner's "Metalanguages," Louis Owens's "Gerald Vizenor's Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart," and Vizenor's introductory essay, "Trickster Discourse: Comic Holotropes and Languages Games."

The role of Native American writers, as well as the definition of who an Indian is, comes up in several of Vizenor's works, including Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence and Postindian Conversations, which he wrote with A. Robert Lee. In a review of Fugitive Poses, John Wilson of Books & Culture noted that "no one has thought longer, harder, and more trickily about this trick question [who is an 'Indian'?] than the prodigiously inventive … Vizenor." Fugitive Poses contains a series of essays by Vizenor which deconstruct the image of the "indian" (Vizenor leaves the term without capitalization). Shamoon Zamir of Modern Language Quarterly commented that the book "pursues Vizenor's career-long (and, as far as Native American writers are concerned, unique) attempt to align or bring into dialogue his own sense of meanings of Native American narratives and cultural insights and poststructuralist theory." James Stripes of American Indian Quarterly commented, "Vi-zenor's writing resists the grasp of reductive readings of texts to theses. Instead, his writing provokes attentive and imaginative reading." Postindian Conversations is a collection of interviews conducted by A. Robert Lee with Vizenor. Many of the interviews make references to Vizenor's previous work, which some reviewers thought might be confusing to readers less familiar with Vizenor's writings. The book also makes use of several terms of Vizenor's own invention. Michelle Herman Raheja of American Indian Quarterly wrote, "Through these interviews, the reader gets an intimate glimpse into Vizenor's thoughts on both his personal life and the experiences that influenced his literary career." Lara Merlin, in her review for World Literature Today, noted, "This series of interviews will fascinate Vizenor's fans and foes alike," and called Vizenor "one of the most provocative of Native American writers."

"In his fictions, Vizenor aims for nothing less than a change in the American image of the Indian as a savage on the verge of extinction," wrote Linda Lizut Helstern in an essay for Studies in Short Fiction. This is certainly the case in Vizenor's novels The Heirs of Columbus and Chancers. In The Heirs of Columbus, Vizenor posits that Columbus was actually of Mayan descent: the story he tells has the Mayans "discovering" Europe and the Old World long before the voyage of 1492. By recreating Columbus as a Native American, Vizenor flips the image of the victimized Indian on its head. "One cannot be an innocent and pitiable victim if one is also partially responsible for the atrocity committed," wrote Michael Hardin in his essay for MELUS. Hardin continued, "Giving the storytellers in Heirs of Columbus the power to heal works textually, but it also works self-referentially. As author/storyteller, Vizenor too can be, and clearly wants to be, one whose stories heal." But Christopher Columbus is only a marginal character in the novel; the main character is descendant Stone Columbus, a trickster storyteller. Stone and the other descendants of Columbus meet annually to share stories and envision the creation of a new tribal identity.

In Chancers, Vizenor tackles the issue of repatriation of Native American skeletal remains. In the novel, a group of University of California students calling themselves the Solar Dancers set out to resurrect native remains from the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology. To do this, they sacrifice members of the faculty and museum administration, use the skulls of the academics to replace the native bones; the resurrected spirits are called the Chancers. The Solar Dancers are opposed by a group of trickster figures known as the Round Dancers, and the two groups battle to a comic end. Budd Arthur of Booklist called the novel "a valuable and accessible look at Native American Issues." Ellen Flex-man wrote for Library Journal that Vizenor "capture[s] the dilemmas of modern Native life without succumbing to rage or despair."

In discussing Vizenor's body of works, Blaeser concluded, "The subjects on which Vizenor has wielded his satire include historical and literary representations of Native Americans, contemporary identity politics, repatriation of tribal remains, reservation gaming, American Indian Movement leaders, and Christopher Columbus. His fearsome challenges to romantic Indian fallacies often situate the author and his literary works in the center of controversy, and he thrives there."



Blaeser, Kimberly M., Gerald Vizenor: Writing in Oral Tradition, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1996.

Bruchac, Joseph, Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, Sun Tracks and The University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1987, pp. 287-310.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 103, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 175: Native American Writers of the United States, 1997, pp. 295-307, Volume 227: American Novelists since World War II, Sixth Series, 2000, pp. 324-334.

Krupat, Arnold, The Turn to the Native: Studies in Criticism and Culture, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1996.

Swann, Brian and Arnold Krupat, I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1987, pp. 100-283.

Velie, Alan R., Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1982, pp. 123-48.

Vizenor, Gerald Robert, Interior Landscapes: Autobiographical Myths and Metaphors, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.


American Book Review, January-February, 1988, pp. 12-13, 20.

American Indian Quarterly, Special Issue, winter, 1985, pp. 1-78; summer, 1998, James Stripes, review of Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence, p. 393; winter, 1999, Zubeda Jalalzai, "Tricksters, Captives, and Conjurers: The 'Roots' of Liminality and Gerald Vizenor's Bearheart," p. 20; spring, 2001, Michelle Hermann Raheja, review of Postindian Conversations, p. 324.

Bloomsbury Review, April-May, 1991, p. 5.

Booklist, September 15, 2000, Budd Arthur, review of Chancers, p. 220.

Books & Culture, July-August, 2002, John Wilson, "Mixedblood Trickster," p. 5.

Chicago Review, fall, 1993, "The Envoy to Haiku," pp. 55-62.

Chronicle of Higher Education, July 13, 1994, pp. A8, A12.

Ethnic and Racial Studies, September, 1999, Jay Miller, review of Fugitive Poses, p. 925.

Journal of American Studies, December, 1999, David Greenham, review of Fugitive Poses, p. 555.

Journal of Modern Language, Spring, 1999, Rodney Mader, review of Fugitive Poses, p. 538.

Library Journal, October 15, 1994, p. 73; January, 1995, p. 103; August, 2000, Ellen Flexman, review of Chancers, p. 163.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 8, 1991; October 11, 1992, p. 6.

MELUS, spring, 1991–92, pp. 75-85; winter, 1998, Michael Hardin, "The Trickster of History: The Heirs of Columbus and the Dehistorization of Narrative," p. 25.

Modern Fiction Studies, summer, 1994, Alanna Kathleen Brown, review of Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, p. 362.

Modern Language Quarterly, June, 2000, Shamoon Zamir, review of Fugitive Poses, p. 419.

Nation, October 21, 1991, pp. 465, 486-490.

New York Times Book Review, January 10, 1988, p. 18; November 8, 1992, Robert Crum, review of Dead Voices: Natural Agonies in the New World, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, August 16, 1999, review of Postin-dian Conversations, p. 75.

Studies in Short Fiction, fall, 1999, Linda Lizut Helstern, "'Bad Breath': Gerald Vizenor's Lacanian Fable," p. 351.

Village Voice Literary Supplement, November, 1991, p. 29.

Western American Literature, August, 1988, p. 160; August, 1992, David Mogen, review of Dead Voices, pp. 180-81; winter, 1994, p. 361.

Wilson Library Bulletin, December, 1992, p. 33.

World Literature Today, summer, 1992, Robert L. Berner, review of Landfall Meditation, p. 561; spring, 1993, pp. 423-424; winter, 1999, Meredith James, review of Hotline Healers: An Almost Browne Novel, p. 189; autumn, 2000, Lara Merlin, review of Postindian Conversations, p. 901.