Vizenor, Gerald

Vizenor, Gerald (1934– ) – Enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, White Earth Reservation, a prolific poet and author of academic and imaginative works, and professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Vizenor’s writing is multifaceted and complex, but often turns on the relationship of presence and absence in conversations, myths, films, writing, and politicking and other discourses and contexts. His work is full of neologisms that provocatively challenge dominant preconceptions; for example, the term postindians rejects the identification of Native people, especially urban “mixed bloods,” with the “Indians” invented (not “discovered”) by Columbus and his followers. This is significant to the roles played by shamans in Vizenor’s works. In Earthdivers (1981), drawing on traditional knowledge and practices, especially Ojibwe ceremonial complexes like the Midewiwin, and narratives like those of the trickster Nanabozo or Nanabush, he writes: Some shaman sprites and tricksters are spiritual healers, with warm hands and small medicine bundles loaded with secret remedies, and some shaman spirits are clowns who can tell and reveal the opposites of the world in sacred reversals, natural tilts in double visions, interior glories. The shaman clowns and tricksters are transformed in familiar places and spaces from common grammars, the past and the present are shapes of animals and birds.

However, as in the short stories of Sherman Alexie, these “familiar places and spaces” are not those of traditional or reservation villages but urban environments. In following Jacques Lacan’s liberation of “signifiers” from too close an identification with “the signified,” Vizenor’s trickster-shamans are “comic holotropes.” Although they may possess a “thick memory” of tribal and continental history, they reject the posture of homogeneity and spirituality and insist on trickster revelations of the presence of varying, complex, and real-life Native people. Characters such as “Captain Shammer” (a name resonant of accusations that shamans “sham” and that neoshamans are pseudo-shamans at best) satirize contemporary academic postures, while “Bagese” brings bear ceremonialism into impoverished urban places.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007