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  • Trickster Hermeneutics and the Postindian Reader:Gerald Vizenor's Constitutional Praxis
  • David J. Carlson (bio)

In his discussion of Kimberly Blaeser's 1996 book, Gerald Vizenor:Writing in the Oral Tradition (part of the long bibliographic essay that opens the collection titled Reasoning Together), Craig Womack raises significant questions regarding the meaning and value of Vizenor's own writing. While insisting that Vizenor is "a writer I greatly admire," Womack's survey of his work is, in fact, more full of "worry" than praise. Womack questions Vizenor's use of poststructuralist theory and registers anxiety about the implications of that theory for indigenous cultural and political self-definition ("Single Decade" 65). He suggests that the seeming open-endedness of meaning in Vizenor's texts makes it more "theoretically difficult . . . to mount an argument for prioritizing Indian readings of Indian literature" (67). He questions whether Vizenor's signature "trickster" discourse is, in fact, indigenous.1 He wonders whether Vizenor's penchant for neologism is merely "annoying" (69). Finally, and most significantly in light of his own view (forcefully expressed in Red on Red) that "Native literature, and Native literary criticism by Native authors, is part of sovereignty," Womack doubts the "relevance of an inaccessible prose style toward intervening in the real world, where every year Native people face issues of land loss, threats to jurisdiction, new calls from redneck politicians for the federal government to end the trust relationship with tribes, and so on" (72).2 At the end of all this, of course, one might wonder what is left in Vizenor's work to admire, especially at a moment in Native American studies where pragmatic political concerns are increasingly driving the [End Page 13] scholarly agenda. Indeed, if Womack's assessment is accurate, there would seem to be little place for Vizenor in an increasingly praxis-oriented field.

Many scholars have mounted compelling defenses of Vizenor's writing against skeptical criticism, of course, but those defenses have often been primarily literary in focus, exploring Vizenor's aesthetic achievements rather than responding to the kind of political challenge Womack delivers.3 In this essay I begin with the presumption that debates about whether political concerns should trump aesthetic ones in critical assessments of Vizenor are, in fact, misguided; his aesthetic is, in my view, deeply political. Vizenor's recent foray into the "real world" (his work as the principal drafter of the proposed new constitution of the White Earth Anishinaabeg) provides us with an ideal opportunity to explore that claim. Through an examination of both some of Vizenor's nonfiction criticism and his constitutional writing, I hope to demonstrate that a functional approach to understanding his work, one that emphasizes the effects of his language on readers (what that language does, in a performative sense), reveals the presence of praxis, a convergence of theory and practical action.4

But what is the nature of this praxis? In both his relentless dialectical critical essays and self-styled "trickster fiction," Vizenor has consistently challenged attempts to define and constrain "Indian" people within the frameworks of Western legal and scientific discourses.5 His approach to doing so is almost unique among contemporary Native writers. Vizenor invites his audience into a reading process that emphasizes the mobility of concepts and the performative nature of words themselves. Consequently, his prose seeks to interpellate a kind of ideal reader who will be self-consciously resistant, in other ways, to the colonizing effects of "the enemy's language." Vizenorian praxis, then, emerges in the synergy of aesthetics and politics, a synergy that appears most clearly when we focus our attention on the issue of interpretation in his work.

Interpretation is simultaneously the subject and object of much of Vizenor's writing, and in the pages that follow, I suggest that "trickster hermeneutics" (Vizenor's term for the reading practice [End Page 14] into which his texts seek to interpellate their ideal reader) has profound implications in the realm of constitutional law, where debates over the meanings of words and the canons of textual interpretation are central preoccupations. Vizenor's recent foray into constitution writing (the production of a text whose manifest purpose is to be interpreted, with very...


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