“I write emotive stories about Natives who have been absent in history.”
(Gerald Vizenor, personal interview)
Gerald Vizenor’s historical novel, Native Tributes, will be published in August 2018. And here is one important reason why you should read it: Native Tributes will encourage you to re-visit the aftermath of World War I – from a Native American perspective.
Native Tributes is the sequel to Vizenor’s Blue Ravens, a historical novel published in 2014 that tells the story of Basile and Aloysius Beaulieu, Native Anishinaabe brothers who leave the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota to fight in World War I. Although Native Tributes could be read as a standalone novel, all of its events are triggered by the Great War in Europe and the brothers’ experiences in Blue Ravens. Basile and Aloysius – one a writer, the other a painter – have returned home, but even a decade later the war has not left their lives. They join the Bonus Expeditionary Force, a historical event that most readers probably know little to nothing about. More than 30,000 veterans gathered in Washington D.C. in the summer of 1932 and camped on the National Mall and Anacostia Flats to demand payment for their service in the war. The broken promise to the veterans came in a long line of broken treaties and promises to Native people. As Vizenor puts it in Native Tributes,
The United States Congress passed the World War Adjustment Act on Monday, May 19, 1924. Five years and hundreds of promises after the armistice of the First World War, and hardly anyone noticed the war bonus legislation that most veterans turned down. The Bonus Act provided only limited loans, not a real bonus of cash, and the loans would be deducted with interest from final cash payment in some twenty years. The Indian Citizenship Act was passed two weeks later, one more overdue bonus. Reservation Natives were declared citizens of the United States of America. The act was ironic, of course, and with no trace of remorse. The provisions of citizenship would not “in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property.” The white pine stumps, dams and flooded wild rice beds were the ironic provisions of “other property.” The Bonus Act empowered tricky loans, and rightly named the Tombstone Bonus because most natives would probably be dead by the time the government dealt with payments.
Vizenor narrates the Beaulieus’ participation in the March with a mixture of sadness and gentle humor. The experience of the Bonus Army is filtered through the brothers’ perceptions and through a series of personal episodes featuring beautifully crafted hand puppets, diva mongrels, and By Now Rose Beaulieu, a Native who rode a horse named Treaty from the reservation to the National Mall. However, there is an overarching sense of the terrible and lasting impact of this war on all cultures, not only in Europe and America (Pankaj). Vizenor’s historical novel highlights the link between Euro-American colonialism and global politics that climaxed in two world wars, ushering in the fascist regimes of modern times.
Native Tributes guides us into the decades after the First World War where the two beloved Native characters, already familiar from Blue Ravens, are the only constant during a time of insecurity, poverty, and lasting racist imperialism. When asked why he would recommend his upcoming novel to readers, Vizenor had this to say: “I write emotive stories about Natives who have been absent in history. […] If for no other reason, read Native Tributes for the history of the Bonus Army and to appreciate the Natives who were there.”
Please visit Gerald Vizenor’s works and words at: www.geraldvizenor.site.wesleyan.edu/.
Personal note: I’m indebted to Gerald Vizenor for sharing his ideas with me in an interview and in his essays – and most of all for always being a patient teacher.