Speculative Constitutions: Gerald Vizenor’s “Treaty Shirts”

By Stina AtteberyNovember 26, 2016

Speculative Constitutions: Gerald Vizenor’s “Treaty Shirts”

Treaty Shirts by Gerald Vizenor

GERALD VIZENOR’S most recent novel, Treaty Shirts: October 2034 — A Familiar Treatise on the White Earth Nation, is an ironic, intertextual, slipstream, futurist, speculative constitution and declaration of the rights of human, chicken, mongrel, holotrope, and mutant fish beings.

Let me unpack that.

Treaty Shirts follows seven self-declared exiles from the White Earth Nation in Minnesota as they set out to practice Native governance on a houseboat that broadcasts radio signals from a lake that straddles the border between the United States and Canada. The seven fugitives contrast their creative, ironic acts of Native governance against the governmental systems of the newly created “federal sectors” that have replaced the federal reservation system in Vizenor’s speculative near future. In this dystopian United States, Congress decides to abrogate all treaties in the hope that they can seize casino money to balance the budget. In the aftermath of this decision, private surveillance agencies and drones overrun the former reservation, casinos are transformed into casino medical centers that require the aging reservation population to gamble for their hospice care, and a new, corrupt sector governor is appointed and promptly murdered. By distancing themselves from this new federal sector system, the seven fugitives reassert their political sovereignty and practice “survivance,” Vizenor’s term for a combination of survival and resistance that actively rejects stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as passive and fading victims of a colonial past.

Treaty Shirts is intertextual. Vizenor invites readers to experience his imagined future as an archive referencing his previous works and as a playful speculation on the continuing relevance of Indigenous literary and political writing. As the premise suggests, Treaty Shirts follows the style of Vizenor’s previous science fictional novels like Bearheart and The Heirs of Columbus; all three novels use SF to explore a key political issue for Indigenous peoples in North America. (Bearheart features a post-petroleum future United States, while Heirs thinks about the relationship between Indigeneity and genetic science.) The intertextuality of Treaty Shirts, however, extends beyond genre similarities; Vizenor also writes himself-as-author into the world of the novel. Heirs of Columbus appears as one of the treasured print books kept by the character Savage Love. Another character notes that Bearheart has been burned by “tradition fascists” within the future White Earth Nation for its objectionable use of irony and eroticism. Many of the characters featured in the novel are direct descendants of characters from Vizenor’s other novels and stories. Even the subtitle — “a familiar treatise” — hints at the intertextuality of the work.

For readers already familiar with Vizenor’s oeuvre, Treaty Shirts can seem at times like a series of Easter eggs inviting reflection on his previous works. Vizenor regularly reuses characters throughout his fiction, but this intertextuality takes on new stakes in the context of Treaty Shirts’s focus on aging, art, and political and personal legacies. At a recent conference on “Indigeneity’s Radical Commitments” at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where I was able to hear him read from the novel, Vizenor chose the date 2034 for his near future because it is the year he will turn 100. Imagining a future where his books might be either treasured or destroyed, Treaty Shirts explores possibilities for alternative literary and political legacies. The seven exiles transform Vizenor’s ideas into artistic, political practices, archiving their literary and cultural ancestry in song, debate, dance, and the titular “treaty shirts” that they wear — unwashed convention shirts archiving the stains and smells of previous community gatherings. All of these practices are reminders that the kind of immortality offered by a literary legacy of publications may be no more lasting than the songs, smells, and memories that make up a community. Not bad for a hundred-year legacy.

Treaty Shirts is slippery; Vizenor is the grand master of Native slipstream. His books tease readers with alternative pasts and futures. As Grace Dillon points out in her anthology of Indigenous science fiction, Walking the Clouds, Native slipstream plays with the conventions of science fiction, using time travel, alternative realities, and other SF tropes as both speculative premises and as expressions of Indigenous worldviews. Native slipstream is one of several genres Dillon identifies within Indigenous futurism, a mode of writing and storytelling that, alongside similar genres such as Afrofuturism and Chicanafuturism, reworks familiar science fictional elements such as the apocalypse, alien contact, scientific inquiry, and time travel to imagine futures for marginalized peoples. Dillon argues:

Writers of Indigenous futurisms sometimes intentionally experiment with, sometimes intentionally dislodge, sometimes merely accompany, but invariably change the perimeters of sf. Liberated from the constraints of genre expectations, or what “serious” Native authors are supposed to write, they have room to play with setting, character, and dialogue; to stretch boundaries; and, perhaps most significantly, to reenlist the science of indigeneity in a discourse that invites discerning readers to realize that Indigenous science is not just complementary to a perceived western enlightenment but is indeed integral to a refined twenty-first-century sensibility.

At a time when science fiction is beset by reactionary attempts to seize awards, to control convention spaces, and to silence fan communities in the name of recovering an apolitical past that never existed, Indigenous futurism offers compelling reasons to value politically assertive SF and speculative thinking. Vizenor is exemplary among Native authors for his refusal to write “serious” fiction, so his return to SF in this latest book is a welcome reminder of the importance of Indigenous futurism for Native writers, science fiction readers, and anyone who cares about what kind of future we create.

Treaty Shirts is a speculative constitution. The fugitives’ project mirrors Vizenor’s own work on the White Earth Nation constitution in 2009, and the author’s note in the novel asks readers to think about Treaty Shirts in the context of recent debates about changing the blood quantum and tribal citizenship requirements in this constitution. Treaty Shirts doesn’t simply respond to these constitutional debates; it creates seven new models for Native governance. Each narrator has a particular vision or practice of Native politics and governance, and each stretches political rights and responsibilities beyond conventional boundaries of blood, citizenship, or even species.

The narrators Moby Dick and Justice Molly Créche fight for the rights of animal beings. Both focus on the past abuses toward beaver populations during the fur trade, arguing that conventional Native totems like beavers, bears, and wolves are too masculinist, too imbricated in the abusive history of the fur trade. Their constitutional totems are deformed fish, insects, and hybrid species, animals from a polluted future. Their constitution recognizes the rights of slaughtered beavers and mutated fish.

Captain Gichi Noodin hosts the mobile Panic Radio, encouraging the catharsis of shouting as a political practice. He broadcasts without a license, taunting Native academics who endorsed the abrogation of the treaties and providing an outlet for all of the gossip and rage left out of recognized political narratives. His constitution recognizes the legitimacy of rage.

Savage Love takes Samuel Beckett as a model for Native politics, pastiching semiotics and literary theory and musing about Native presence and absence. She criticizes the previous constitution for abstracting liberty and territory into meaningless phrases, embracing exile and absence over nostalgia. Her constitution recognizes the power of silence and the emptiness of language.

Hole in the Storm and Waasese both create visual art, using painting and laser holocene technologies to create ironic representations of Native peoples, projecting new creation stories onto canvas and into the air around them. Their constitution celebrates the creation of ironic and grotesque images of Native identity.

Finally, the narrator Archive creates an imperfect account of the exiles’ lives and works, providing the context for the other characters’ performative politics. His constitution encompasses the others, but it always suggests that something important has been left out.

These accounts are interspersed with the actions of dancing chickens, trickster dogs, and other animals who take up residence on the new houseboat nation, a menagerie of animal delegates for the new community. As a speculative constitution, then, Treaty Shirts has an expansive, ecological, and technological vision of citizenship and belonging that doesn’t require the recognition or ratification of any other sovereign nation. However, all of these constitutions are presented playfully, and listing them as I have fails to capture the sense of irony, humor, and shared teasing between the narrators, which, more than any one theme or narrative voice, suggests a model for other speculative trickster constitutions.

All of these accounts use the genre conventions and strategies of science fiction to model Indigenous trickster sovereignty. But aren’t all constitutions speculative? Any constitution, any political document outlining a set of policies and plans for the future, could be read as a science fictional text. For recognized nation states like the United States, a constitution might tell a science fictional story of expansion, imperialism, militarism, and the struggles for recognition and enfranchisement. Within Indigenous futurism, science fictional sovereignty is an ongoing, collaborative practice that rejects and reflects on these values. At a moment when people are taking action to support Indigenous land, sovereignty, and political rights ranging from protectors at Standing Rock opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline (#noDAPL), efforts to protect the ecology at Mauna Kea (protectmaunakea.org), and other ongoing struggles, Treaty Shirts offers science fiction as an ironic, playful space to imagine possibilities for survivance and sovereignty.


Stina Attebery is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses on science and technology studies, Indigenous studies, ecocriticism, and digital humanities.

LARB Contributor

Stina Attebery is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside whose research focuses on science and technology studies, Indigenous studies, ecocriticism, and digital humanities. Her dissertation project, “Refusing Extinction: Biopolitics, Indigenous Sciences, and Posthuman Ecologies,” considers representations of extinction and climate change in Indigenous futurism. She has published articles in the journals HumanimaliaExtrapolation, and Medical Humanities. She currently serves as a managing editor for the Eaton Journal of Archival Research in Science Fiction and as an editorial assistant for SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures.


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