- Turning TricksSexuality and Trickster Language in Vizenor’s The Heirs of Columbus
First published in anticipation of the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas, Gerald Vizenor’s novel The Heirs of Columbus (1991) appropriates the European narrative of discovery to privilege a Native perspective that follows “trickster discourse,” a mode that rejects the tragic narratives of the European “discoverers” in favor of the comic world view offered by American Indian trickster narratives.1 The novel follows a group of crossblood Indians, known as the “heirs,” who claim Columbus as a common ancestor, and explores questions of tradition, nation, and sexuality through the language games of trickster discourse and a post-modern sensibility, invoking narrative traditions of Western culture alongside those from Native cultural traditions.2 Furthermore, Vizenor presents a fictional Columbus who is a “trickster healer” of Mayan descent returning to his American homeland. The novel links Columbus and his crossblood heirs not only through lineal descent but also through their shared connection of “stories in the blood” that have healing properties.
This article examines the roles language and sexuality play in The Heirs of Columbus’s representation of American Indian traditional stories and trickster discourse to address questions surrounding Native identity. However, instead of lamenting historical cultural losses, the work offers a solution to bridging two seemingly opposed cultures. The novel resolves the conflict between modernity and tradition through the language play and sexual innuendo of Vizenor’s trickster, who synthesizes otherwise competing perspectives. The [End Page 1] novel expresses the ability to read or understand a particular language or cultural discourse in sexual terms. Determining who is on the receiving end (literally and figuratively) of a joke reveals which characters and readers know the trickster’s language and embrace its multiple meanings.
The attention to genres and intertextuality reflects the text’s interest in combining and mixing histories, an interest mirrored by the numerous cross-cultural sexual unions and the “mixed” off-spring they produce. Sexual coupling results not just in children, or “heirs,” but in children with “stories in the[ir] blood” from Anishinaabe culture that they wish to communicate to others. The stories in the blood come from Anishinaabe traditional stories but also result from cross-cultural sexual unions. Thus, sexual acts and unions become inextricably connected to language and stories, culminating in the reading of “genetic signatures,” the novel’s term for DNA, linked specifically to Anishinaabe traditional stories. The novel treats language like a scientist who breaks down the components of blood to study cells and genes and even suggests that the two processes are linked.
Much of the critical discussion of the novel has considered language, genre, and even race but has overlooked the place of sexuality. Sexual unions and innuendo, I argue, provide a new perspective on formalist questions while embracing an important thread of the novel’s content: how tradition and narratives are transferred between generations and cultures. The relationship between sexuality and language attaches the human body to narrative practices and makes language an embodied object that can be constructed and deconstructed. Previous scholarship has mainly noted the novel’s postmodern intertextual play with literary genres and forms.3 The Heirs offers a unique representation of language and sexuality that ties it to past literary and historical traditions, a feature of the text that has been a marginalized topic in explorations of nation, race, and blood.4 Reimagining the history of early European and Native interaction using a Native narrative tradition enables the text to at once implicitly critique Eurocentric approaches but also find a solution to issues that have previously been approached from an either/or paradigm. [End Page 2]
The novel’s awareness of the constructed nature of language mimics the formation of nation and, to an extent, race, particularly regarding sexual and technical practices. The acts of reading and understanding language are encompassed within the physical body in the novel’s repeated assertion of the “stories in the blood.” These stories transfer to other people not only through sexual procreation but also through genetic scientific procedures that impart the Native “genetic signature” of the stories into anyone regardless of...