- Treaty Shirts: October 2034—a Familiar Treatise on the White Earth Nation by Gerald Vizenor
In The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (2013), philosopher John Gray posits that there “are not two kinds of human being, savage and civilized.” Instead, there “is only the human animal, forever at war with itself.”1 Gerald Vizenor’s Treaty Shirts both directly and indirectly addresses Gray’s assertion through the voices, songs, dances, and productions of seven exile narrators. Banished for their constitutional loyalty by a corrupt bureaucrat, these narrators make it their mission to echo the rough ironies of liberty across the United States of America and Canada from their houseboat, the Baron of Patronia, floating along the Lake of the Woods. The water, a fluid and liminal space of freedom yet one that demarcates boundaries and borders, refracts and amplifies “the catastrophe of native sovereignty” (6). It does so by reflecting and enhancing the comic teases, visionary laser light shows, shamanistic song and dance performances, and pirate radio broadcasts of the exile narrators from their buoyant reservation. In a pithy 125 pages of story, Vizenor deftly discusses continental sovereignty, cultural memory, treaty tales, Native creation stories, exotic victimry, totemic unions, and a wide range of other topics, all with the human animal and its intraspecies war at the forefront. Through testimonial and Native trickster stories filled with “marvelous contradictions . . . and ironic enticements of weird and visionary flight” (4), the narrators of Treaty Shirts compile an “original book of teases and counts of the abrogation and [their] experiences as exiles” (73).
A major theme throughout Treaty Shirts that will ring familiar with many readers is the acknowledgment of alternative ways of knowing [End Page 271] and of ironic archives. Principally, “treaty shirts” refers to a new tributary custom of Native governance in which constitutional convention delegates wear the “same unwashed shirt” to all conferences and legislative sessions. These shirts, with their “traces and citations of hors d’oeuvres, silhouettes of chicken wings, spicy meatballs at banquets, and buffet spatters” (11), serve as visual archives of presence and as olfactory narratives. As a material item that can be both donned and removed, the shirt, unlike the body itself, makes self-identification more viable. Upon banishment, these shirts take on an added use-value as rebellious markers for the spirited and loyal constitutionalist narrators. These shirts all but disappear halfway through the novel, only reappearing in the last chapter during a laser show presentation of Native soldiers in the night sky. Nevertheless, they remain for the narrators an important symbolic and archival form of political bric-a-brac and of collective memory.
Sound also functions as a nonmaterial, ethereal archive for these exile narrators. Many of the narrators refer to the “vain drumbeats” (2) of kitschy Native scenes curated at casinos and the commercialization of culture. The narrator nicknamed Archive intrudes to ask that we “come closer” and “listen to the steady crack of totemic bones.” He further implores that we “count out loud the seasons and centuries of peltry stacked in canoes” (3) so that we might become complicit and responsible for the decimation and sale of totemic animals. Narrator Justice Molly Crèche mentions Gerald Vizenor’s 1968 report for the Minneapolis Tribune on verbal hearsay in district courts and the acceptance of nonmaterial evidence in international criminal courts. Narrator Gichi Noodin explains that Panic Radio is a “native wave, a nervy wave in the clouds, the natural motion of passion, shouts, and rage” (68) as opposed to static stories in text. Narrator Waasese advances a critique of the primacy of print culture by advocating for publishing stories in digital journals and questions why printed books continue “to be the measure of a serious literary career” (93). Sound travels through the air and connects us all in ways text trapped on a page cannot. Waasese and Gichi Noodin, along with a Manidoo soprano singer and shaman Chewy Beaulieu Browne, utilize this sonic property from the Baron of Patronia...