Utne Reader visionary [Originally published as Gerald Vizenor in the January-February 1995 issue of Utne Reader]
Like Coyote and the other great trickster figures of the Native American nations, Gerald Vizenor likes to stir things up. What he likes best to stir up is the hoary notion that the Indian stands for something single and simple—savagery, tragedy, or tribal wisdom—and the idea that life can be lived without amazing, painful (and funny) contradictions every step of the way.
In book after book of poetry, essays, and fiction, Vizenor has expounded on and played with dazzling literary tricks with his Native heritage, showing Indian thought coalescing with, illuminating, and running nimbly ahead of contemporary literary and cultural theory. Out of the pain of Native history, he coins powerful cultural terms like survivance—“not just survival,” he insists, “but a quality and condition of remaining imaginative under domination and getting on with things.”
In books like Griever: An American Monkey King in China (1987) Vizenor sends Native American characters, and finds Native American histories, all over the world. “Indians are usually seen as capsulized,” he says, “limited to one environment, with the illusion of stability in that environment. But Indians have been engaged all over the world for centuries, in Europe, even in Asia. The first ‘Western’ teacher of English in Japan was a Native American.”
Vizenor himself spent three army years in Japan just after the American occupation, and he has studied and written haiku for years. The Japanese verse form flows together with trickster stories and Native dream songs in Vizenor’s literary canon of surprise and delight. “Trickster stories are pleasurable, contradictory, annoying, abrasive,” he says with relish. “They’re powerful, transformational acts of liberation because they are not nailed down to the real, to the representation of something in the world.”
Yet as the products of Native survivance, the stories also testify to something very serious indeed. “When we can see the contradictions and the humor in situations, even the worst ones, then we’re not victims. The idea of victimage is a dreadful thing, a product of a safe middle-class perspective. What people who are not safe develop is a tragic wisdom, a wisdom that embraces contradiction and seeks a sense of balance rather than going to extremes.”
And then Vizenor tells the true story of William Apess, a mixed-blood Pequot who, in 1829, wrote in a compelling and complex way about his dual heritage. “The Massachusetts colonists had tried to wipe out the Pequots, but here was Apess keeping their tradition alive. Later he became, of all things, a Methodist missionary. Much later the remnants of the Pequots reconstituted themselves as a tribe, and today they have the biggest of the casinos! And just a few years after Apess’ ignored book, Longfellow wrote Hiawatha, which became a ‘classic.’ Americans wanted simulations then and they want them now.” Vizenor laughs—at the contradictions, the survivance, the tragic wisdom.