On Teaching: Gerald Vizenor

by Mary Ellen Butler

One day recently, as Gerald Vizenor talked about his great uncle, his eyes quietly filled with tears.

Vizenor, professor of Native American literature, didn't need to explain the deep emotion that welled up at the thought of his paternal grandmother's brother. It was understandable once he related that those two relatives helped raise him and, in doing so, steeped him in the culture of his father's Chippewa tribe.

His great uncle told him "compassionate, playful, contradictory" stories about Chippewa life, lore, and mythology. Later, after a varied career as a social worker, newspaper editorial writer, and teacher trainer, Vizenor began to write and to teach. His great uncle's stories came flooding back.

Since then he has published more than 20 works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoirs, essays and literary criticism, often recasting those stories in the dense, slyly humorous, postmodern style one critic called "magic revolutionary."

He taught at the University of Minnesota, University of Oklahoma, Tianjin University in the People's Republic of China, and UC Santa Cruz before coming to Berkeley in 1991.

Vizenor admitted he's on a mission. "I'm a bit driven to change the way in which people think about the rich and complex and contradictory experience of being Native American," he said.

It's an uphill battle considering that popular culture stereotypes Indians both positively--the healers of the Earth image--and negatively--the noble savage routine--"in ways that have nothing to do with real Indians," Vizenor said.

As a writer, he said, "you can try to overturn those stereotypes either through irony, contradiction, illusion, or in some other way render them powerless, or you can try to present the reality of Indian history and traditions which are as complex and diverse as others."

In fact, Vizenor said, Indian culture "is more complex and diverse than European culture," something that is obscured when Indians are lumped together as if they were all the same.

Vizenor pursues his vision through his prolific and internationally acclaimed writing, including his 1987 American Book Award and New York Fiction Collective Prize-winning novel, "Griever: An American Monkey King in China."

But teaching is also a major part of his life's work.

"I love to teach," he said. "And I find today's students to be smart, assertive, and expressive."

One of the themes in Vizenor's teaching is to challenge his students to realize that just as Indian nations rely on certain interpretations of the world, otherwise known as myths, so do Western societies. For example, he'll start a class by innocently agreeing with his students that Berkeley "is a great university."

But then he'll ask if they've ever realized the campus sits on "stolen land." He takes them back through the American taking of land from the Spaniards to the Spanish land grabs from the Indians.

The point is, he said, "that the slaughter of millions of Indians went along with the European appropriation of natural resources on which to build California." That grim history is not generally included in the official story (or mythology, if you will) of the University.

Vizenor believes the University "has an obligation in every course it teaches to include the fact that the Native American was here. We need to recognize the foundational place of the Native American in history and the (subsequent) displacement of Native American cultures."

The 1993 naming of the interior courtyard of Dwinelle Hall "Ishi Court" after the last member of the Yahi tribe, who was sheltered at Berkeley for the last five years of his life by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, helps in a small way to honor that obligation, Vizenor said.

As the product of a marriage between his Indian father and his white mother, Vizenor often makes the mixed-blood "trickster" central to his novels. A legendary figure in Chippewa oral literature, the trickster escapes tight spots by outwitting white people or his fellow Indians with cunning or laughable exploits.

The trickster also represents the vital role that real-life mixed-blood people play between two races or ethnic groups.

Both Vizenor and Terry Wilson, recently retired professor of Native American Studies, argue that people of mixed heritage are not "marginal" as painted by some social scientists, but are actually valuable "ambassadors," able to live in, and interpret, both worlds.

The son of a Potawatomi Indian father and a white mother, Wilson proved that point by started a seminar at Berkeley 13 years ago called "People of Mixed Race Descent." Since then, the seminar has grown into a large lecture class, now taught by a former student while Wilson turns to book writing and a possible new teaching assignment at a smaller college next year.

The Native American Studies program, started in 1969 when there were all of 12 Indian students on campus, has grown to become an integral part of the Ethnic Studies Department. Students of all racial backgrounds take its courses.

Through their writing and teaching, Wilson and Vizenor have been part of that evolution. As Vizenor recalled, when remembering with such feeling the "compassionate" great uncle who meant so much to him, "many of us are only one generation off the reservation. It's all still in our memory."


Copyright 1994, The Regents of the University of California.
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