Postmodern Bears in the Texts of Gerald Vizenor

By Barry, Nora Baker | MELUS, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Postmodern Bears in the Texts of Gerald Vizenor


Barry, Nora Baker, MELUS


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.

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