Konch Magazine - Tribute to Gerald Vizenor by Linda Lizut Helstern


Gerald Vizenor: A Brief Introduction

            When you think novelist of ideas, humility and generosity are not often the first descriptors that come to mind, but Gerald Vizenor is not your typical novelist of ideas. He continues a Native family tradition of consummate storytelling in three traditional genres—trickster stories, priest stories, and stories of the colonists--but this urban mixedblood began his literary career as a poet. Like his mixedblood trickster protagonists, Gerald Vizenor has spent a lifetime teasing the binaries.

            Vizenor is no stranger among us. In 2005 in Los Angeles he received the Western Literature Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award for an oeuvre that now totals over three dozen books. It’s difficult to imagine the volume of work he might have produced as a professional writer. Like most of us, though, he kept his day job. A pioneer in the field of Native American Studies, Vizenor raised temperatures in cold Minnesota classrooms early in his career, creating the Native Studies Program at Bemidji State University, not far from the White Earth Anishinaabe Reservation, home of his father’s family, and later at the University of Minnesota. He cleared the fog at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and fought wild fires at Cal, Berkeley. Currently, he holds two academic titles, Professor Emeritus of the University of California, Berkeley and Distinguished Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, where he continues to teach.

            Tonight, though, we welcome Gerald Vizenor for his contribution to American letters. The author of some 13 works of fiction and a dozen volumes of poetry, as well as tribal history, ethnography, autobiography, cultural critique, and an award-winning screenplay, he has throughout sustained a focus on nature and culture, on tradition and change. He has created a host of characters and situations that no reader can soon forget: the mixedblood clown Benito Saint Plumero with his president jackson penis in Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles and the bald, white Evil Gambler, whom Louis Owens once called “the malignant Moby Dick of the Heartland.”  The smelly old bear woman Bagese from Oakland and her tenuous protégé Laundry in Dead Voices. Stone in The Heirs of Columbus with his bingo caravel anchored in international waters somewhere near the 49th parallel, not to mention Transom, the shaman-in-reverse who disappears himself, his shaking tent, and two tribal medicine pouches, never to be seen again.

            Gerald Vizenor’s ideas—and he truly is a novelist of ideas—are often so challenging that  the formal experimentation central to his work is overlooked, yet each novel is something of a tour de force, its form never repeated. If Bearheart looks back to the episodic Pilgrim’s Progress—or the equally dangerous Anishinaabe road of life--Hiroshima Bugi finds its formal model in the dialogue between action and commentary on the kabuki stage. Beyond this, the poet’s attention to words and the nuances of language have profoundly enriched our vocabulary. Gerald Vizenor has coined such terms as sovenance, survivance, terminal creeds, and Native transmotion.

            His fiction has been honored with a Fiction Collective Prize, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award, the PEN Excellence Award, and two American Book Awards. He has been honored for lifetime achievement not only by WLA but by MELUS, the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States, and the Native Writers Circle of the Americas.