American Literature Gerald Vizenor
Deborah L. Madsen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0101


Gerald Vizenor is the most prolific of contemporary Native American writers. To date, he is the author of sixteen works of fiction, fourteen volumes of poetry, two dramatic works, an autobiography, and numerous landmark books of cultural theory and intellectual history, in addition to which he has edited several influential collections of scholarly essays, literary anthologies, and an anthology of his own work. He is also the principal writer of the Constitution of the White Earth Nation. Twice the winner of the American Book Award (1988 and 2011), his achievements have been recognized with numerous prestigious accolades. It is notable, however, that direct scholarly engagement with Vizenor’s published work underrepresents his towering influence, which exceeds the domain of Native American literary studies. His neologism “survivance,” for example, features in a permanent exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Permeating public and academic discourses alike, much of his theorizing of Native American experience can be traced to his biography. Born in Minneapolis on 22 October 1934, his Anishinaabe father was murdered while Vizenor was an infant, leading to years moving between the home of his paternal grandmother on the White Earth Reservation, foster families, and periods living with his mother, a third-generation Swedish American. This environment introduced Vizenor to life as a person of mixed descent: a postindian identity that, in his work, exists in tension with the settler-colonial stereotype of “the Indian.” The powerful influence of his grandmother’s Anishinaabe tribal culture has produced in his writings not only his signature trope of the mythical trickster, as well as “re-expressed” traditional stories, but also the concepts like survivance, manifest manners, terminal creeds, Native presence, and transmotion that inform both his writings and scholarly approaches to it. The historic experience of Native people, familiar to Vizenor from his work as a community organizer and political activist, stands behind these concepts, but his writing is also characterized by a theoretical density that reflects his academic standing: he is professor emeritus of both the University of California at Berkeley and the University of New Mexico. There are two corresponding trends in Vizenor scholarship: one teases out the tribal Anishinaabe foundations of his work, the other situates his writings in non-Native contexts such as postmodernism; however, reduction to a simple binary belies the complexity and sophistication of criticism inspired by this most prolific, challenging, and innovative of writers.


For biographical introductions that also include guidelines for understanding Vizenor’s characteristic themes, tropes, and neologisms, readers should initially consult Madsen 2010, with Blaeser 2005 as a complement. The “Gerald Vizenor” entry in the Encyclopedia of American Indian Literature offers a very detailed biography, with a focus on the trickster figure. “Vizenor, Gerald Robert, 1934–,” in Literature Online, offers a useful biographical account of Vizenor’s work and its reception up to the publication of Bear Island, but it lacks bibliographical information. More advanced researchers will find indispensable the guides to Vizenor’s papers and related materials archived at Yale University (Gerald Robert Vizenor Papers) and the Minnesota Historical Society (Gerald Vizenor). Though unavoidably dated, Helstern 1999 remains the best evaluative annotated bibliography of Vizenor scholarship, while Pellerin 2007 is the most ambitious attempt to list all of Vizenor’s publications. See also Lee and Vizenor 1999 (under Interviews) for useful bio-bibliographical information in the introduction and the first chapter, “Postindian Memories,” as well as biographical details discussed in the course of the interviews. Foley 1999 (under Interviews) provides a valuable account of Vizenor’s childhood.

  • Blaeser, Kimberly M. “Gerald Vizenor: Postindian Liberation.” In The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. Edited by Joy Porter and Kenneth M. Roemer, 257–270. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    Detailed bio-bibliographical account of poetry, fiction, autobiography, and cultural criticism, concluding with a short listing of major secondary sources. Describes how recurrent themes, such as Vizenor’s critique of colonialist images of “Indian” identity, the status of language as a vehicle for those images, and Vizenor’s mythic restorying of history, are engaged through postmodernist and post-structuralist “trickster” strategies of representation. Blaeser’s attention to Vizenor’s activism is particularly valuable.

  • Gerald Robert Vizenor Papers. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

    Acquisitions between 2000 and 2015 comprise more than a hundred linear feet of material that includes manuscripts; writing, research, and teaching notes; correspondence; photographs; and audiovisual and digital material. The material dates from the late 1960s to 2015. Of particular interest are the documents relating to Vizenor’s role in the writing of the Constitution of the White Earth Nation (2013). The downloadable “Finding Aid” provides full guidance to the collection.

  • “Gerald Vizenor.” In Encyclopedia of American Indian Literature. Edited by Jennifer McClinton-Temple and Alan R. Velie, 376–378. New York: Facts on File, 2007.

    A comprehensive biographical account that skillfully interweaves biography with the development of his oeuvre in literature and cultural theory up to the publication of Chancers (2000). Cross-referencing to key concepts treated elsewhere in the volume provides useful contexts. The discussion of the trickster figure as a dominant trope in Vizenor’s writing focuses the article, which is followed by a brief bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

  • “Gerald Vizenor.” In Minnesota Author Biographies. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, n.d.

    A brief biography is followed by a useful primary bibliography. Importantly, a bibliographical “Finding Aid” to the “Gerald Vizenor Papers, 1950–1998” held by the Minnesota Historical Society is hyperlinked from this page. While access to the collection is restricted until 1 June 2025, the Finding Aid describes the contents of each of the fifteen boxes of material in sufficient detail to be of interest to scholars of Vizenor’s work.

  • Helstern, Linda Lizut. “Gerald Vizenor: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 11.1 (1999): 30–80.

    A richly annotated account of scholarship through to 1998 organized under the following headings: General Studies, Interviews, Darkness in St Louis Bearheart/Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles, Griever, Hotline Healers, Short Fiction, Poetry/Haiku, Traditional Songs and Stories, Drama/Film, Creative Nonfiction, and Literary Theory and Cultural Critique. Includes reviews and doctoral dissertations. Entries are evaluative and usefully comparative while providing an accurate summary of each source.

  • Madsen, Deborah L. “Gerald Vizenor.” In The Literary Encyclopedia. 2010.

    A useful introductory account of Vizenor’s life and publications up to Shrouds of White Earth (2010). Particular attention is devoted to Vizenor’s use of repetition throughout his oeuvre as a strategy that brings into his writing the effects of Anishinaabe oral storying, as well as key neologisms that are essential to an understanding of his work. A short “Recommended Reading” list is hyperlinked to the article.

  • Pellerin, Simone. “Bibliographic Essay.” In Gerald Vizenor. Profils Américains 20. Edited by Simone Pellerin, 207–229. Montpellier, France: Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2007.

    Collects bibliographical details of all of Vizenor’s writings to 2006; includes exhaustive primary and highly selective secondary listings. Primary works are organized under autobiographical writing, poetry, fiction, story collections, short fiction, drama and scripts, nonfiction books, essays, interviews, reviews, journalism, and anthologies. The list of works that have been translated is a valuable addition. No annotations but reprintings of specific works are noted.

  • “Vizenor, Gerald Robert, 1934–.” In Literature Online biography. ProQuest LLC, 2006.

    A very full biographical account of Vizenor’s work up to Bear Island (2006), with particular attention to Bearheart (1978), The People Named the Chippewa (1983), Griever (1987), Dead Voices (1992), and Manifest Manners (1994). Details the reception of his work in each of his major genres and outlines the development of Vizenor’s scholarly reputation. Unfortunately, does not include a bibliography.

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