It makes sense that Gerald Vizenor would write a satirical novel about the future of the White Earth Reservation. Vizenor was given the task of drafting that nation's constitution a few years back. Vizenor hopes his new novel "Treaty Shirts" will bring an appreciation of what he describes as a unique document.
"Treaty Shirts" is a short but dense novel set 20 years in the future. Vizenor writes of a time when the U.S. government has dissolved the boundaries of all states and reservations.
Seven activists who all were signatories to the White Earth Constitution find themselves exiled by the new regime.
"So my seven exiles, and all different kinds of characters who are native, decide to set out on a houseboat on Lake of the Woods and straddle the border between Canada and the United States for a while," he said.
The exiles wait, hoping Canada will give them an island where they can live under their constitution.
The novel tells the story from the exiles' point of view: there's a writer, a judge, a hologram artist. There's even a casino worker nicknamed Moby Dick who has filled the large aquariums in the middle of the slot machines with deformed fish. Moby Dick calls them his totem animals, naming each after European explorers.
"Treaty Shirts" weaves 18th century history with speculative fiction, literary references with pop culture, Ojibwe dream songs with internet belief, and real people with native trickster stories.
Vizenor, a member of the White Earth Nation and professor emeritus in American Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, has written novels, poetry, journalism and academic treatises about the Native American experience. He has a respect for history and tradition, but has little time for what he calls "tradition fascists," those who use their interpretation of the past to claim power today.
"Because the best of native experience is a creative act, it's not an act of absolute tradition," he said. "And there aren't any such things as everlasting traditions."
He does respect the tradition of irony in native storytelling, as well as the delight in nicknames and a certain amount of teasing evident in "Treaty Shirts." Being a satire, no one gets away unscathed in the novel. It's set in the future so Vizenor can even point to himself as a figure from the past.
He will read from the book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis.
Vizenor hopes his novel will inspire critical thinking about the White Earth Constitution. He was one of 40 delegates at four constitutional conventions to debate the issues. He said he was pressed into service when it finally came to drafting the document.
"I accepted it, but I had no idea what I was doing," he admitted. "It was the most complicated, the most difficult thing, with words, that I have ever done."
After minor revisions from the convention, it was approved and then accepted in a popular referendum in 2013, receiving close to 80 percent of the vote.
"This is an imaginative, ethical document, unlike anything that's been written in the United States."
A real-world constitution for which Vizenor believes it would be worth going into exile.