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Survivance is a critical term in Native American studies.


Survivance was originally a legal term, but fell out of use in the 18th century.[1] The word was subsequently utilized in the 20th century by francophone Canadians as "La Survivance," and also employed by the French theorist Jacques Derrida to denote a spectral existence that would be neither life nor death.[2]


It was first employed in the context of Native American Studies by the Anishinaabe cultural theorist Gerald Vizenor, in his book Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance. There he explains that "Survivance is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry.".[3] Vizenor makes the term, which is deliberately imprecise, the cornerstone of his analysis of contemporary Native American literature, culture and politics. Several critics (e.g. Alan Velie) have analysed the term as a portmanteau of "survival and endurance," and others (e.g. Jace Weaver) have read it as a portmanteau of "survival + resistance," but there does not seem to be any evidence that Vizenor had such a specific combination in mind. Rather, by changing the suffix from -al to -ance, he insists on an active survival, in which contemporary Native American peoples go beyond merely subsisting in the ruins of tribal cultures to actively inheriting and refashioning those cultures for the postmodern age. The Cherokee-descent poet Diane Glancy demonstrates the ways that an imprecise term can inspire creativity by reconfiguring it: "Poetry is rebound. A turn of writing. (Sur)vivance: Sur - a survival outside survival. Vivance - the vitality of it."[4]

Vizenor frequently defines "survivance" in opposition to "victimry," as some commentators note.[5] Karl Kroeber writes that Vizenor's "work aims to repair a peculiarly vicious consequence of genocidal attacks on native of the Americas: an inducing in them of their destroyers' view that they are mere survivors. By accepting this white definition of themselves as victims, natives complete psychologically the not-quite-entirely-successful physical genocide."[6] Similarly, Joe Lockard calls it "the condition of self-reliant or communal survival without the social or personal indulgence of victimization."[7]

The word has become a term of art in contemporary Native American studies, used far beyond the context of Vizenor's own work. It is now also an interactive video game,[8] and is used in captions for the National Museum of the American Indian,[9] as well as being employed numerous times in titles of books and academic articles.


  1. ^ See OED
  2. ^ Maurizio Calbi, Spectral Shakespeares: Media Adaptations in the Twenty-First Century (London: Palgrave, 2013), p. 165
  3. ^ Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance (Lincoln: Nebraska, 1999), p. vii
  4. ^ Diane Glancy, "The Naked Spot: A Journey toward Survivance", in Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, ed. Gerald Vizenor (Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 2008), p. 271.
  5. ^ E.g. Alan Velie, "N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn and Myths of the Victim, in The Native American Renaissance: Literary Imagination and Achievement, ed. A Robert Lee and Alan Velie (Norman: Oklahoma UP, 2014), p. 59-60
  6. ^ Karl Kroeber, "Why It's a Good Thing Gerald Vizenor is not an Indian," in Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, ed. Gerald Vizenor (Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 2008), p. 25)
  7. ^ , Joe Lockard, "Facing the Windiigoo," in Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, ed. Gerald Vizenor (Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 2008), p. 210
  8. ^
  9. ^ Sonya Atalay, "No Sense of the Struggle: Creating a Context for Survivance at the NMAI," The American Indian Quarterly 30.3&4 (2006) 597-618.