Most of the commentary on Gerald Vizenor's fiction focuses upon trickster and the post-modern implications of Vizenor's texts; however, bears and their meaning within the Chippewa (1) oral tradition and religion appear often and directly in Vizenor's work. Discussing the famous Lakota leader Luther Standing Bear's comments on bears, Vizenor notes that "the bear is an archshadow in the silence of tribal stories, the memories and sense that are unsaid in the name" ("Ruins" 144). If, as Vizenor often asserts, trickster is a figure in a language game, then bear is a shadow in remembered tribal stories and rituals of the Grand Medicine Society or midewiwin, and this shadow looms heavily over Vizenor's texts. A. LaVonne Ruoff notes that "Vizenor's emphasis on bear transformation is explained by that animal's role as the renewer of Ojibwe life in their mide [shaman] ceremony" (44). In the myths and ceremonies of the midewiwin bears transform, sustain, and even regulate human existence. In Summer in the Spring, Gerald Vizenor tells us how gichimakwa, great bear, serves as a means to bring the sun spirit to teach the Chippewa about the midewiwin (91-92). In the rituals of the Grand Medicine Society, bears serve as guides, barriers, the breaker of barriers, and guardians of portals to spiritual power. Great Bear could also restore life (Vizenor, Summer 91); the power of immortality and resurrection are specifically associated with the orders of the midewiwin. (2)
There are eight orders or degrees of membership in the Society: four earth and four sky (Dewdney 111-14, Johnston, Ojibwe Heritage 84, Landes 22). Basil Johnston notes that there were "minor variations in different areas of the land of the anishnabeg" (84). While the first order allows the successful initiate to "conduct funeral ceremonies and preside at Feasts of the Dead" (Johnston 89), the fourth order gives mide masters power over life and death. To go beyond the fourth order was considered by many a perversion of power (Dewdney 114, Landes 52). However, in his 1997 novel Hotline Healers, Gerald Vizenor protests that, "The shamans can be treacherous, unstable, and touchy, but only the envious mistrust their visions" (52).
The process of becoming a mide of any order resides in the initiation ceremonies of the various degrees of the midewiwin and involves the important Bear Spirit as well as other animal spirits. Candidates for initiation traditionally went through a year of preparation including vision quest, learning about spiritual and medicinal issues, and fasting. After the year of preparation the initiation ceremonies into these orders represent death and rebirth into a new spiritual life. As the candidate makes his way around the midewigun, a rectangular structure where the ceremony takes place, bears represent both good and evil (Vizenor, Summer 93-94, Dewdney 117, Johnston, Ojibway Heritage 85-86). Good bears appear at the entrance and serve as guides, but the candidate also meets bears representing "evil and temptation that the candidate would encounter in the moral order" and who serve as barriers to the candidate (Johnston 83-86). An offering is made to bear to purchase entrance to the mide life (Landes 136). At certain moments the shaman conducting the ceremony as well as the candidate impersonate bear (Dewdney 116). While bears can represent barriers, bear and otter are considered the great breakers of spiritual barriers. According to Selwyn Dewdney, "most prominent in the ceremony are the Bear's three hesitating steps and final successful one into the midewigun" (171). After testing, the candidate arrives at the center of the lodge and is shot with a sacred shell (3) and revived, "Such was the dramatic way in which the state of non-existence and resurrection were demonstrated. The candidate now was not what he was before, but transformed. He had been reborn" (Johnston 87).
The bear motifs of bears breaking barriers, of humans being guided by spirit bears, and of rebirth into a new life are central themes in Vizenor's works. Indeed, Vizenor is initiating and guiding his readers through his work by invoking these ceremonial bears in a postmodern context.
In addition to the connection of bears with the Grand Medicine Society, Vizenor's texts incorporate aspects of universal myths of the northern hemisphere, including Europe and Asia as well as North America. These include bear fathers and mothers and bear's sons and daughters. Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders inform us that Bear Mother goddess myths are very old and probably predate and evolve into the Bear's Son tales. The Bear's Son story includes a child who is either born to a bear mother or father and a human or it is totally human but raised by bears and grows up to be a culture hero. The most accessible of the European examples is the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, but Scandinavia is replete with Bear's Son stories and these stories appear throughout the northern hemisphere. (4)
In Vizenor's fictions there are bear guides, spirit bears, bear's sons and daughters, technological bears, and urban bears as Vizenor moves the human connections with bears and bear metaphors from the spiritual to the secular, from past to present, from the pastoral to the technological, from oral to written, from reservation to city. Bear motifs in these texts serve most often as ways for characters and readers to bridge the inconsistencies, even chaos, of post-modem life and be renewed, just as the initiates in the midewiwin ceremonies are reborn with the help of bear guides. In their animal presence and their spiritual being bears inhabit some characters and are the spirit guides for others as Vizenor connects them to their functions in the midewiwin. As the breakers of barriers, they are the beings at the doorways between realism and magical realism, between horror and transcendence in Vizenor's texts. They bridge the gaps between the secular and the spiritual and connect the physical and the spiritual.
Bearheart, the narrator of Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles, is a bear guide who breaks barriers by telling the tale. The protagonist, Proude Cedarfair, is a shaman and spiritual bear guide within the text. In his opening monologue, Bearheart disturbs a young woman from the American Indian Movement, and probably the reader, when he shatters her illusions about tribal culture. In contrast, Proude Cedarfair seems to represent a culture hero in that he displays the spiritual best from the tribal, crossblood, trickster, and the bear shaman traditions for he "is a ceremonial bear" (5).
Throughout the nightmare journey from his ancestral Cedar Circus, where bears and sacred trickster clown crows cavort, Proude is able to retreat into a spiritual world, to remember the ceremonial swimming over his ancestors' bodies buried in a lake, to reinvent his spiritual roots wherever he wishes. Although he leads a group of pilgrims through an …