Leslie Marmon Silko Essay - Silko, Leslie Marmon (Vol. 23)

Silko, Leslie Marmon (Vol. 23)


Leslie Marmon Silko 1948–

American Indian novelist, poet, and short story writer.

Silko draws from the oral traditions and folklore of her Pueblo heritage to enrich her fiction and poetry and to convey Native American values and experience.

The portrait of the embittered, downtrodden American Indian, painted in much of the literature about Indian culture, is absent from Silko's writing. Although she recounts the abuse of Native Americans by white society, her work maintains an optimistic tone. Pride and awareness of their past provide her characters with confidence and strength.

Ceremony, her first novel and also the first novel published by a Native American woman, relates the circumstances leading to the breakdown of an Indian World War II veteran and traces his subsequent healing through ancient tribal rituals.

Charles R. Larson

The world that Silko creates in Ceremony is essentially a masculine one. Her story centers upon an Indian veteran named Tayo immediately after World War II. Crippled by more than his involvement in the war, his story (and Silko's novel) becomes an elaborate exorcism of the past, a purification rite of all the emotional tensions inflicted upon him since his childhood. As the narrative weaves in and out of the past and the present—juxtaposing scenes from Tayo's childhood and adolescence with the war and its aftermath—a pattern slowly begins to emerge. Tayo's angst, his feelings of emptiness and aloneness, are less the result of his war experience than they are of earlier events in his life …

The war becomes an incredibly enlightening experience for Tayo—as it did for so many American Indians. For a time, he represses the implications of what he has seen. One episode becomes central to his confusion: the Japanese soldiers, whom Tayo was ordered to kill by his sergeant, look like his own people—especially his uncle, Josiah, who died while Tayo was away fighting. Back home on the reservation, after he is released from the veterans' hospital, whenever the darkness of his past intrudes he confuses his own people with the Japanese. What difference is there between killing the Japanese and white Americans slaughtering his own people down through the ages?

The ending of this powerfully conceived and often violent novel involves a purgation and an epiphany …

Tayo's experiences may suggest that Ceremony falls nicely within the realm of American fiction about World War II. Yet Silko's novel is also strongly rooted within the author's own tribal background and that is what I find especially valuable here: the numerous poems she incorporates into the text of her story, the rich use of traditional ritual, folklore and myth, the evocation of life on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation (where she grew up and now lives with her husband and children.) Ceremony is an exceptional novel—a cause for celebration.

Charles R. Larson, "The Jungles of the Mind," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1977, The Washington Post), April 24, 1977, p. E4

Hayden Carruth

Did Leslie Marmon Silko have in mind the word tao when she named the protagonist of her first novel? It's a striking resemblance, tao and Tayo. And clearly Tayo, who is a half-breed of the Laguna pueblo in New Mexico, where he is scorned by many for his mixed blood (and where his name, for all I know, may be common), and who is moreover a war veteran critically deranged by his experience of jungle combat, is much in need of finding the "way." He does find it, after prolonged illness and misdirection. He finds it in the traditional but modified beliefs of his Indian ancestors. Hence the title of the novel, Ceremony. (p. 80)

[Tayo] seeks purification in the ceremonies of tribal medicine men, to no avail. Only after a long search does he find an old Indian, a maverick and outcast, a man of mixed blood like himself, who seems to possess the real wisdom of the ancient beliefs that is parodied in the rites of contemporary traditionalists.

Ceremony, the old man says in effect, is not ritual, not form. It is the conduct of life; ultimately the conduct of the earth and everything on it, of all motion and change, of the cosmos. And by means of visions and story he lays out a real ceremony, a plan of action, for Tayo to follow. The climax of the novel, which comes appropriately in an abandoned uranium mine (our own mouth of hell), brings Tayo to a recognition of the genuinely ceremonial nature of existence, a recognition which saves him, and can save...

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Ruth Mathewson

[In Ceremony] Silko demonstrates that she is a "saver"—of songs, religious rituals, histories, and stories of the Laguna Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. Her determination to preserve so much, however, makes great demands on the reader, who must exercise a selectivity the author has not provided. Theoretically, there is no reason why a work of fiction cannot accommodate both the curator and the scribe of a culture, but Silko, I think, has not found the proper form for combining these offices.

By "ceremony" she means the use of traditional tales to cure the grief and despair of her hero, to bless the land with fertility, and to exercise the ancient "witcheries" that threaten its people with violence and cruelty. This calls for a slow, meditative response to Silko's material. Yet at the same time she exploits popular fictional elements, raising expectations of speed and suspense that she does not satisfy.

The story itself is a good one …

Interrupting, or commenting on, [the novel's] events are chants and poems adapted from the folklore. Some are amusing, others frightening. Many, though, fell flat for me: I was unable to separate them from their familiar non-Indian associations….

These "poetic" passages consort oddly with a prose style reminiscent of long-forgotten novels of the '20s and '30s. Silko employs it all too often to achieve a gratuitous realism…. (p. 14)

Ruth Mathewson, "Ghost Stories," in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LX, No. 12, June 6, 1977, pp. 14-15.


The literature of the American Indian is ritualistic. Its whole purpose is to establish a sense of unity between the individual and his surroundings, which include the landscape, the weather, history, legends and all other creatures. The very act of storytelling is a part of this process: sometimes its purpose is medicinal, to cure an illness; at the very least it is an act of discovery, a search for physic wholeness wherein nothing is left out.

Leslie Marmon Silko's first novel, aptly entitled "Ceremony," fits into this tradition …

[It establishes Silko] without question as the most accomplished Indian writer of her generation. Her achievement lies partly in the way she has woven together the European tradition of the novel with American-Indian storytelling. She has used animal stories and legends to give a fabulous dimension to her novel. These are set aside from the prose narrative and look like curative and ceremonial chants that are recited in hogans. All of these devices reflect the theme of the novel, which is that that war has made all people one….

Leslie Silko has avoided the easy sentimentality of treating Indians as morally superior to whites; indeed, she has Old Betonie insist that the whites themselves have influenced the ceremonies, and that such changes are necessary in order to keep them alive …

["Ceremony"] is one of the most realized works of fiction devoted to Indian life that has been written in this country, and it is a splendid achievement. (p. 15)

Frank MacShane, "American Indians, Peruvian Jews: 'Ceremony'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 12, 1977, pp. 15, 33.

Peter G. Beidler

Ceremony will surely take its place as one of a distinguished triumvirate of first novels by contemporary American Indians. Like Momaday's House Made of Dawn and Welch's Winter in the Blood, it presents us with the characteristic protagonist of the contemporary Indian novel: the young Indian male who begins the novel confused and disoriented and who ends it relatively unconfused after reorienting himself to important elements of his family and tribal identity.

The major themes of the novel, then, are conveyed by Silko's account of what Tayo learns on his journey to recovery. First, that Indian ceremonies are not superstitious nonsense, but can help lost Indians discover a living response to the world around them. Second, that life itself is a "story" which will work itself out to the happiest ending only if the liver makes himself aware of the traditions and stories of his people, and thinks of himself as one of "we" rather than as "me." Third, that the white man is a land-thief and a life-destroyer, and that no Indian who chooses to follow the white man's way can avoid the witchcraft that brought the white scourge upon the Indians of this world. And, fourth, that if Indians are to survive they must become aware that they are of the earth, that they must be like the hardy breed of cattle Josiah imports from Mexico, a breed that can adapt to harsh circumstances and so find sustenance in a barren land. As Tayo learns...

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Elaine Jahner

Ceremony is about the power of timeless, primal forms of seeing and knowing and relating to all of life. The concept of an on-going communal participation in stories that shapes individual freedom according as the individual chooses to participate in the stories' development serves as the novel's theme and structuring force. Readers must join the novel's characters in a search for the meaning of the story that is revealed bit by bit throughout the book as Tayo, the protagonist, gradually comes to realize that he is not alone in his effort to recover from the effects of active duty in World War II…. In learning to understand his conflicts, Tayo also perceives something of his responsibilities in shaping the...

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For Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna), the strength of tribal traditions is based not on Indians' rigid adherence to given ceremonies or customs but rather on their ability to adapt traditions to ever-changing circumstances by incorporating new elements. Although this theme is most fully developed in her … [novel Ceremony], it is also present in her earlier short stories, "The Man to Send Rainclouds," "Tony's Story," "from Humaweepi, Warrior Priest," and "Yellow Woman."…

The history of Silko's own Laguna Pueblo, influenced by many different cultures, provides insight into why she emphasizes change as a source of strength for tribal traditions. (p. 2)

The continuing strength of...

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Edith Blicksilver

[Leslie Silko] attempts in some of her short stories and poems to explore the conflict between traditionalism and modernity. Fortunately, she has been able to transcend the limits of her minority experience…. Her intelligence, sensitivity, and remarkably controlled narrative techniques have produced fictional characterizations that do not typify the simplistic vision of the racial conflict. Even her extremely personal, semiautobiographical poetic renditions avoid the sentimental stereotype, revealing instead a vibrant human being, comfortable in her natural environment while exploring the dimensional limits of her multifaceted role as a child, lover, wife, and mother. (pp. 149-50)

[Her short story]...

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Jarold Ramsey

[To] my mind nobody has drawn on an Indian mythology with more grace and power than the Laguna writer Leslie Silko…. [Even] a cursory survey in Boas Keresan Texts of the originmyth episodes as told by Laguna and other Keresan Pueblo people will reveal the skill and tact with which Silko establishes and maintains a mythic pre-text for [Ceremony], the fictional story of Tayo, the disturbed Indian veteran of World War II….

Silko is no hidebound traditionalist as an artist, certainly, but nearly every page of the novel reveals her loving dedication as a fiction writer to the task of rooting Tayo's story of personal sterility in the old Laguna stories of Nau'ts'ity'i and the...

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James Polk

Memory and invention are the stuff of Silko's storytelling. Although many of her stories [in Storyteller] traverse familiar territory—the dislocation of a disinherited people—her perceptions are acute, and her style reflects the breadth, the texture, the mortality of her subjects.

The title story, set in Alaska, establishes the theme of cultural conflict that dominates the book. The strongest story, perhaps, is "Coyote Holds a Full House in His Hand," a gently ironic tale of a wastrel of the Laguna tribe and his lackadaisical pursuit of a Hopi woman with deliciously fat thighs.

A continuing verse narrative is interspersed with the stories and establishes Silko's...

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N. Scott Momaday

"Storyteller" is a rich, many-faceted book. It consists of short stories, anecdotes, folktales, poems, historical and autobiographical notes, and photographs. It begins with the description of an old Hopi basket in which there are hundreds of photographs, all taken, presumably, at Laguna Pueblo, N.M., near the turn of the century. "The photographs are here," we are told, "because they are part of many of the stories and because many of the stories can be traced in the photographs." Implicit in this statement, of course, is the very notion of an anthology or even a random sampling, rather than a "story" as such or a sustained narrative. The book is a mélange. Here and there are moments of considerable beauty and...

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Simon J. Ortiz

[Ceremony] is a special and most complete example of [the affirmation of knowledge of source and place and spiritual return] and what it means in terms of Indian resistance [to forced colonization], its use as literary theme, and its significance in the development of a national Indian literature. Tayo, the protagonist in the usual sense, in the novel is not "pure blood" Indian; rather he is of mixed blood, a mestizo. He, like many Indian people of whom he is a reflection, is faced with circumstances which seemingly are beyond his ability to control. After a return home to his Indian community from military service in World War II, Tayo is still not home. He, like others, is far away from himself, and it is...

(The entire section is 434 words.)