The Heirs of Columbus

heirs of columbusBy this time, I’ve read more than a handful of Native American novels, several of them from the Native American Renaissance during the 1960s. There’s a thematic similarity to the ones I’ve read from that time period: they are often coming-of-age novels, in which a young native man struggles with his dual identity as a member of his tribe and a citizen of the United States.

Gerald Vizenor’s The Heirs of Columbus is… not that.

I would love to explain and discuss this entire book with you, but it is too much. Let me try to give you some part of the gist of it:

The ancient Mayans, long ago, sent explorers to Europe. Christopher Columbus was a descendant of theirs, so when he went to the “New” World he was actually being drawn back to his ancestral home. (This, of course, subverts the entire Columbian discovery narrative and turns it on its head.)

Today, the Heirs of Columbus — a group of his descendants in the New World — have created a sovereign nation on the border between Canada and the US. They have three boats (the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, of course), one of which is a floating casino. More importantly, they have built a pavilion where they will use Columbus’s remains to create gene therapy in order to heal the thousands of indigenous children who have been born wounded or sick by living in this toxic world. But gene therapy — even gene therapy that goes back to the ancient Mayans and has survivance in its chromosomes — is not enough for healing. The Heirs will also tell the children healing stories, the stories that are in their blood, and use… er… manicures to heal them.

Okay, I know, but I’m not done yet.

The book contains many amazing episodes. There is a court hearing about who can own human remains, such as those of Christopher Columbus — or any piece of the natural world, like trees or water. There is a flashback to Pocahontas, and her last days in England with John Rolfe. There’s a murder, and a daring rescue. The characters are mongrels and crossbreeds and panthers and hand talkers and radiant blue puppets and fierce women, besides the ordinary ones like lawyers and judges and shamans and Sephardic Jews.

There. There’s so much more, but that gives you some of the ambiance.

This is a postmodern novel, and the pieces it’s made of are not what I was expecting at all. Some of it is pure fantasy, like the puppets. Other things are absolutely real, like the hand talkers. Other things…? I had to guess. Vizenor makes reference over and over again to “panic holes,” for instance, which from context are holes you shout your stories into. Are those real? According to the Internet, he made them up, but they sound like something I need. Other parts are quoted directly from research sources; still other parts are farce. And the humor is trickster humor, which is different from European/American satire. For Vizenor, the trickster is language and imagination, not morality, and certainly not theory. The book is full of strange sideways jokes and references I caught on the fly.

There’s a repetitive rhythm to the style, as well. Vizenor repeats the same phrases many, many times: “stories in the blood,” “blue radiance,” “hand talkers,” “survivance,” “crossbloods.” After a while, it becomes almost a kind of meditative chant. With so many strange, marvelous things happening in the story, it’s grounding once you get used to it.

This book wasn’t anything remotely like what I expected, and in the end it was eerily beautiful and full of hope. The healing of the children in this strange sovereign pavilion between two colonialist nations — healing through science, stories, and manicures — almost glowed with weird love. I want to read it again and see what happens to me this time.

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9 Responses to The Heirs of Columbus

  1. confuzzledbooks says:

    Wow what an interesting book. It sort connects to a documentary on National Geographic channel called America Before Columbus. We watched last night. Some very interesting new facts historians know now.

    • Jenny says:

      Great point! This is a novel rather than a documentary, but it has a lot of seriousness behind the trickster laughter. I think readers coming at it from straight history would be confused, but coming at it from a place of imagination is enlightening.

  2. realthog says:

    Sounds fascinating! I see another of Vizenor’s novels is available through my library, so I’m grabbing it. Many thanks for the headsup.

  3. Jeanne says:

    I think you had me at manicures…

  4. Jeane says:

    That has got to be one of the more unique premises I’ve ever heard of. What’s the difference between “hand talkers” and those using sign language? And the “panic hole”- isn’t there an old folktale about a man who whispered a secret into a hole on a riverbank, and then the reeds that grew there spoke his secret when the wind moved them? Don’t recall where I read or heard it.

    • Jenny says:

      So “hand talkers” is a term used by some Native Americans (especially a number of Plains tribes) for a system of sign language they set up in order to communicate between tribes that didn’t all speak the same language. It was also used by deaf members of these tribes. It’s fallen largely out of use, because white people imposed ASL, but it’s still in existence and being taught in some places.

      And for the second thing — you’re thinking of Midas! The man who cut his hair knew that Midas had donkey’s ears and knew it was too dangerous to tell anyone, so he whispered it into the hole in the riverbank, and the reeds told his secret. This “panic hole” idea definitely has echoes of that, but it’s not exactly the same thing — which of course is like global folktales, absolutely. I hadn’t thought of that at all.

  5. Jeane says:

    Ah, yes. Now I recall both. I had heard of the Native American hand talkers but didn’t know there was a specific term. And you’re right, that’s the fable!

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