Author of nearly three dozen books, coiner of such terms as survivance, storier and victimry, the poet, novelist and critic Gerald Vizenor is a unique voice in the world of Native American letters. His unconventional, provocative vision has been honored most recently with a 2011 American Book Award. Bestowed by the Before Columbus Foundation, the prize honors Vizenor’s novel Shrouds of White Earth (SUNY Press, 2010), his tale of American Indian artist Dogroy Beaulieu revealing all to a Native writer.
“In this book, the master trickster takes on the disciplines of visual art, narrative and song in his ongoing campaign against victimry, to set Natives upright and to insure the truth of Native survival,” wrote Diane Glancy, Native author of The Reason for Crows, in a press release about the book.
Although he inhabits the vivid land of survivance, Vizenor’s Dogroy is still subject to the vagaries of reservation politics. Banished by casino politicians for his outspoken work, he embarks on an “unforgettable journey of discovery and creativity,” the Before Columbus Foundation said in citing the award, which was given on October 16. Shrouds of White Earth “ranks as one of the finest stories from the pen of the irresistibly witty and insightful Gerald Vizenor.”
Vizenor is an intellectual polymath, with not only books but also movies, photographs and other media works to his credit. His output is examined by academics in the new volume Gerald Vizenor: Texts and Contexts (University of New Mexico Press, 2010), written by an international array of contributors (see review). Throughout all of Vizenor’s endeavors, his goal has been to reframe the one-dimensional notion of Indianness, with survivance as a cornerstone.
“Indians are usually seen as capsulized,” he told the Utne Reader in 1995, “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.”
An enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, White Earth Nation, Vizenor was born in 1934 in Minneapolis. A professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, he has taught at many institutions, among them Lake Forest College, Bemidji State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Oklahoma and the University of California at Berkeley. At the University of California at Santa Cruz, he both taught at and was provost of Kresge College.
Vizenor’s intellectual credo is as straightforward as it is passionate. “Survivance has become my literary signature in the past 30 years,” he said in an interview with A. Robert Lee included in the essay book. “The word survivance portrays and embodies a natural practice, a condition of resistance, endurance and perseverance. Survivance is not only a mere literary description; the practice of survivance must be observed in Native transmotion or in natural visionary motion and in individual strategies. Natives have created a sense of presence by the practices of survivance and have resisted the historical absence of victimry. Otherwise, Native would have vanished more than a century ago.”