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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Native Voices Leslie Marmon Silko (b. 1948)

[6113] Rudi Williams, Korean War Army Veteran Ted Wood, an Abenaki Indian, in Full Dress Uniform (1998), courtesy of DefenseLINK News, U.S. Department of Defense.

Leslie Marmon Silko was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the house where her father was also born. She grew up in Old Laguna, a town formed several centuries ago by Pueblo tribes. Her family is of mixed descent, with Plains Indian, Mexican, and European ancestors. She has both Laguna and white ancestors on her father’s side and Plains tribe blood from her mother’s side. Even the Laguna part of her heritage is multicultural: Hopi, Jemez, Zuni, Navajo, and Spanish peoples have influenced its culture and oral traditions. Like Louise Erdrich, Silko explores mixed identity in many of her works, particularly the situation of being “neither white nor fully traditional Indian.” Silko received her B.A. from the University of New Mexico—graduating magna cum laude in 1969—and after three semesters of law school decided instead to become a teacher and a writer. She published Laguna Woman, a collection of poems, in 1974 and her first novel, Ceremony, in 1977. In many ways Ceremony was a Laguna answer to N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer prize-winning House Made of Dawn. Like Momaday, Silko weaves myth, history, and personal recollection, but in Ceremony the importance of the feminine landscape replaces the more male-centered story told by Momaday.

In Ceremony, Silko tells the story of Tayo, a mixed-blood Indian who fights in World War II and returns to Laguna physically intact but mentally fractured and deeply in shock from post-traumatic stress syndrome. As critic Greg Sarris puts it, the novel “is about a man who is displaced in World War II, taken away from his home, away from the stories, and about having to come home and reacquaint himself with, if you will, the landscape of who he is, his stories, what he knows from the landscape. And as he reacquaints himself with the landscape and the stories, he sees that his experience even in World War II was never disconnected. That in fact, from the one place we can see all places.” This reconnection begins with the opening, in which we find Thought Woman, a mythic godlike figure, and Spider, creating a story. As the novel progresses, language heals both the characters and the readers; stories from the Pueblo oral tradition are interwoven with contemporary updates of traditional healing rituals and discussions of the development of the atomic bomb and uranium mining.

Among Silko’s other works are Storyteller (1981), a collection of stories and poems; Almanac of the Dead (1991), a blistering, apocalyptic epic of North American minority, marginal, and underworld figures and their struggles for power; and Gardens in the Dunes (1999), which takes place around the turn of the twentieth century and explores the Ghost Dance and the cultural dismay of a young Laguna girl as she is taken in by a well-to-do white couple. Despite their often dark and disturbing qualities, all of Silko’s works address the possibility of renewal or regeneration, particularly of American Indian cultures, values, and ways of life. This hope always rests in part with developing a nurturing and respectful relationship with the landscape of the Southwest. Place is never merely a “setting” in the Western sense; rather, it is inextricable from the life, values, and culture of a people—and their stories. The Laguna are a matrifocal community, and this worldview infuses Silko’s work, which often retells female-centered myths around the figures of Yellow Woman and Thought/Spider Woman. Silko has said, “[Storytelling] is a way of interacting … a whole way of seeing yourself, the people around you, your life, the place of your life in the bigger context, not just in terms of nature and location but in terms of what has gone on before, what’s happened to other people. It’s a whole way of life.”

Teaching Tips

  • In her book The Sacred Hoop, author and critic (and cousin of Silko) Paula Gunn Allen makes a rather bold statement about the position of women in American Indian cultures: she argues that “Traditional [American Indian] tribal lifestyles are more often gynocratic [governed by women] than not, and they are never patriarchal.” Other scholars have refuted aspects of this statement (for example, people have argued that the Sioux and other Plains tribes were in fact patriarchal). However, it is clear that Allen’s statement is important for understanding American Indian communities such as the Pueblos that were matrilineal (descended through the maternal line) and/or matrifocal (female-centered). Allen and others have argued that readers should pay attention to the way gender functions in texts by writers from gynocratic communities since gender is constructed differently in such communities than it is in mainstream American culture. As your students read Ceremony, you might want to ask them how gender is being constructed in this novel. How does Tayo compare to traditional European American male icons (e.g., John Wayne) or even to Black Elk? How do the female characters compare to female cultural icons in American culture?
  • Some readers have suggested that Tayo’s encounter with Ts’eh in Ceremony resembles a Yellow Woman story. Told by the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest, Yellow Woman stories dramatize how humans interact with spirits in the world once it has been created. Although there is always variation, Yellow Woman stories often involve a young married woman who wanders beyond her village and has a sexual encounter with a spirit-man; sometimes she is killed, but usually she returns to her family and tribe having grown spiritually, and therefore has an empowering influence on the people in general. In her influential essay “Kochinnenako in Academe,” Paula Gunn Allen points out that Yellow Woman stories are “female-centered, always told from the Yellow Woman’s point of view,” and that they generally highlight “her alienation from the people,” but that her apparently transgressive acts “often have happy outcomes for Kochinnenako [Yellow Woman] and her people.” This suggests, Allen argues, “that the behavior of women, at least at certain times or under certain circumstances, must be improper or nonconformist for the greater good of the whole.” Like many Native American stories, these narratives have the communal function of both drawing socially important boundary lines and observing where they sometimes need to be transgressed. In particular, according to Allen, they emphasize “the central role that woman plays in the orderly life of the people.” Leslie Marmon Silko frequently draws from the Yellow Woman tradition when she writes of empowered (especially sexually empowered) and empowering women like the spirit-being Ts’eh. Why do you think Silko includes Tayo and Ts’eh’s encounter in her novel? What is the purpose of the Yellow Woman story? How does she update the story? What is the purpose of Silko’s novel? What is the role of the oral tradition in general in Ceremony?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: As the novel begins, what are some of the reasons Tayo is so miserable?
  2. Comprehension: List as many “ceremonies” as you can from the novel. That is, if you think of Ceremony as a spiritual journey for Tayo, how many stages does it have? Who are his guides on the journey?
  3. Comprehension: What exactly do the different ceremonies give to Tayo? How has he changed by the end of the novel?
  4. Context: What is the role of Ts’eh in the novel? Can you compare her to other women characters in the novel? What about to Fleur and Pauline in the story by Louise Erdrich? Does it matter that the main character of Ceremony is a man? How would the novel be different if the main character were a woman?
  5. Context: Compare Silko’s portrait of Native American veterans to Ortiz’s presentation of the issues surrounding veterans in “8:50 AM Ft. Lyons VAH.”
  6. Context: Do a close reading of Betonie’s ceremony. How does Betonie’s ceremony compare to the Navajo Nightway chant? What is the goal of each? What is the significance of innovations in the ceremony?
  7. Exploration: How are time and space represented in the novel? How does Silko suggest characteristics of a “ceremonial” time and space, as opposed to the everyday European American senses of time and space? Indeed, it is worth keeping these questions in mind when reading all of the texts in this unit.
  8. Exploration: In what sense is the novel a “ceremony” for the reader as well as for Tayo? How do you imagine Native American readers would respond differently to this book than would Americans of European heritage? What about readers of African or Asian heritages?
  9. Exploration: Write your own modern Yellow Woman story using the theme of abduction and the traditional elements one would expect to find in Yellow Woman stories.

Selected Archive Items

[5741] Anonymous, Two Navajo Shaman Dry Painting to Cure an Illness (n.d.),
courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.
Navajo sand paintings, or “dry” paintings, are meant to summon and embody the spirits of the holy people and are therefore wiped away immediately after the Night Chant ceremony.

[5882] Boyd Norton, Orange Mallow, Showe Desert Flower (1972),
courtesy of Still Pictures Branch, National Archives and Records Administration.
The desert is home to a surprising variety of plants and animals. Much of Leslie Marmon Silko’s work examines the relationship of humans to the natural world, which she sees as holding the key to spiritual renewal and regeneration.

[5970] Nancy Crampton, Leslie Marmon Silko Portrait (n.d.),
courtesy of Nancy Crampton.
Leslie Marmon Silko is a writer of mixed heritage—European, Mexican, and Native American—and she grew up in the ancient Pueblo town Old Laguna.

[6113] Rudi Williams, Korean War Army Veteran Ted Wood, an Abenaki Indian, in Full Dress Uniform (1998),
courtesy of DefenseLINK News, U.S. Department of Defense.
Abenakis originally come from New England and Canada. Ceremonies honoring veterans are common at Native American powwows, and many communities have adapted special ceremonies (like the Navajo Enemyway Chant) to help heal veterans. Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony portrays the recovery of a mixed-blood Indian who fights in World War II and returns to Laguna physically intact but psychologically shattered.

[6532] Kenji Kawano, Navajo Navy Vet (2001),
courtesy of Kenji Kawano.
A sizable proportion of the Native American population served in World War II. In her best-known work, Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko tells the story of Tayo, a WWII veteran whose horrific war experiences intensify the estrangement he feels because of his mixed background.

[6626] Joel Grimes, Yeibichei Rocks at Monument Valley (1992),
courtesy of Joel Grimes.
The beauty of a sunset at Monument Valley, a part of the Navajo Nation, is captured in this photograph. The traditional Native American reverence for the land is a cornerstone of the thinking of many contemporary writers as well as conservationists.

[6635] Skeet McAuley, Fallout Shelter Directions (1984),
courtesy of Sign Language, Contemporary Southwest Native America, Aperture Foundation, Inc.
Nuclear weapons were tested throughout the Southwest. Such weapons testing, for writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, does not accord with the respect that humans should show to the natural world if we are to retain our hopes for renewal and regeneration.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6