Form and Content (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
In 1969, Leslie Marmon Silko’s first story, “The Man to Send Rain Clouds,” appeared in New Mexico Quarterly, and it was used as the title story of an anthology of Indian poetry edited by Kenneth Rosen in 1974. Silko is half Laguna Indian, and this piece signaled the beginning of her efforts (through her poetry and stories) to put Old Laguna on the map as a source of age-old materials. “This place I am from is everything I am as a writer and human being,” she says. Laguna represents a life, a history, a liturgical culture that in her mind America should not ignore— even though it has been Christianized and many of the old ways forgotten or changed.
The Lagunas are Pueblo Indians for whom space and cyclic time are much more important than linear time and the progressive conquering of place. Such perspectives are evident in Silko’s first book of poetry, Laguna Woman (1974). Here she expresses in meditative as well as humorous ways her reverence for the land and all things living on it. For her the earth is the mother of all, a “sister spirit” that permeates all life—plant, animal, and human. “There was a time,” she says, “long long ago, when animals and humans talked to each other. . . .” This collection also includes reflections on the ways men have abused women, just as they have often mistreated the land.
In connection with America’s bicentennial in 1976, Silko published her first novel,...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Although it includes materials from many different literary genres—poetry, short story, myth, memoir, and biography—Storyteller viewed in its entirety is essentially an autobiography, a portrait, as its title makes explicit, of the artist as a young storyteller. In addition to the literary materials, interspersed throughout are photographs of Leslie Marmon Silko and her family and of various scenes in and around her childhood home, Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. What unifies these diverse materials is the pervasive focus on Silko’s development as an artist, on the familial and cultural factors that shaped her conception of herself as a writer—or, as she prefers to think of herself, a storyteller—working in the tradition of oral storytelling as it was practiced from the earliest times among the Laguna people and concentrating, though not exclusively, on female experience in both the autobiographical and the fictional parts of the book.
The biographical sections, mostly concerning relatives who told Silko stories when she was a child, and the autobiographical sections, mostly concerning experiences related to the stories, are scattered throughout the book and function as introductions to and links between the stories, poems, and Laguna myths that make up the bulk of the book. Some critics have been troubled by what they have seen as a lack of originality in Storyteller since much of this latter material had already been published...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Silko is one of the best-known and most highly acclaimed American Indian writers. She has received many awards for her work, including the so-called genius prize, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, in 1981. One of her greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to portray not only female but also male experience realistically and convincingly. She believes that at the deepest levels of human consciousness, men and women are the same, and she has attributed her success in portraying male experience to the fact that in the Laguna culture boys and girls are not segregated as they are in white American society. Consequently, when growing up she was able to observe both male and female experience equally.
As Silko has also pointed out, however, traditional Laguna society is matriarchal, and she grew up in the midst of a group of strong-minded, intelligent, and hard-working women—such as her Aunt Susie, her Grandma A’mooh (Marie Anaya Marmon), and her Grandma Lillie (Francesca Stagner)—and in a community in which the homes are considered the property of the women and in which the women do much of what white American society would consider man’s work. The matriarchal nature of Laguna culture is reflected in its concept of the deities, the most important of which are female. Corn Woman and Spider Woman figure prominently in the traditional stories that are incorporated in Storyteller. Thus, Silko is important in the history of women’s...
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Native American Rights Movements
It is difficult to conceive of this country's society and culture before the 1960s, yet the very visible markers of sexism and racism were everywhere. Racial segregation was the norm, and few African Americans and other non-European ethnic minorities had progressed appreciably economically or socially. Following in the footsteps of the vocal Black Rights advocates of the 1960s, American Indians began organizing at this time as well. Some actions were bold and angry, designed to capture the attention of the nation and government. For example, the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay for a period of nineteen months in 1970-71. This same organization occupied the territory of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. Other, less militant organizations such as the National Tribal Chairman's Association, also formed around this time (1971). This seizing of power and putting forward of demands worked to the Native Americans' benefit. They alerted a nation and a world to their admirable cultures, received monetary reparations, regained land, and recovered sacred grounds.
The prevailing notion, up until the 1960s, about the multiethnic nations of the Americas was that of a ‘‘melting pot,’’ or the meshing of all the distinct cultures into a vibrant new singular one. Although, certainly, the Americas are unique precisely because of such a meshing of...
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The most prevalent image in this story is that of landscape losing its boundaries. The girl and the old man await, notice, or comment upon the manner in which, during high summer or high winter, all becomes bluegreen or white. Sky and land become the same color, and the line separating them on the horizon is not distinguishable. This dissolution of boundaries symbolizes a number of things in the story. If the ' 'Gussuck'' exploitative management of nature (oil drilling, killing animals for luxury coats as opposed to clothing) is compared to the Yupik living with and in nature, then this symbolism suggests how certain populations live in tandem with nature, as a part of it, as opposed to seeing it as something to be managed and used. That is, the Yupik do not live as if nature were something separate from their own being. This imagery also points to a storyteller's relationship to his or her community. There is no distinguishing a storyteller's concerns from those of the community's. When the boundaries between the two entities have dissolved, then the community knows its storyteller. This sense of boundaries dissolving could also point to a moral or ethical idea regarding the individual, his or her actions, and how the impact of these actions should be imagined. Each person must regard all of his or her actions as a studied ethical choice, as substantially impacting on the environment or others, and as having direct moral significance and...
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Compare and Contrast
1970s: Affirmative action programs, designed to enhance the employment and educational opportunities of ethnic minorities and women, are set into play in the 1960s. By the late 1970s, these programs and quota systems are under attack as forms of ‘‘reverse discrimination’’ (that is, it is argued that the laws that protect minorities discriminate against Euro-American males).
1990s: The passing of Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative, marks a definitive and severe blow to affirmative action in the United States. Its passing encourages other states to draw up similar propositions that make it illegal to give preferential treatment to persons based on their race or sex. One immediate result of the passing of this proposition is that Black and Latino enrollment at the California UC campuses drops considerably.
1970s: Following in the footsteps of feminist and Black Rights' movements, Native Americans join together and organize major demonstrations and protests demanding civil rights, reparations for past wrongs, and the restitution of sacred lands. Political action on the part of American Indians in the 1970s ranges from the highly militant to the more traditional (armed seizures of territory to formations of negotiating bodies).
1990s: A central global concern in the late twentieth-century is the ecological health of the planet. International political bodies such as the Green...
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Topics for Further Study
There are, occasionally, unrealistic details in this short story (for example, at the story's beginning, the young woman is certain that the sun has stopped in its path). How do these elements relate to the plot or themes of the story?
How does the opening and closing of"Storyteller" exemplify the plight of the protagonist in general (the young woman is in prison)?
Research the significance of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in NativeAmerican history. Discuss the 1973 clash between protesting Native Americans and federal marshals, and the historic battle between U.S. soldiers and Native Americans at this site in 1890.
Research early treaties between British colonials and Native Americans. What was the legal status of these treaties in later twentieth-century reparation negotiations and agreements?
Persons indigenous to the American continents at the time of European conquest and colonialism were descendants of Asian peoples. How do anthropologists distinguish the various populations that stretch from Alaska to southernmost South America?
Examine those Native-American nations divided by the Canada-Alaska border or the U.S.-Mexico border. How do these borders affect these split populations culturally?
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What Do I Read Next?
The Man to Send Rain Clouds: Contemporary Stories by American Indians (1974), is an early short story collection of the Native American Renaissance. It takes its title from one of Silko's stories. Edited by Kenneth Mark Rosen.
Ceremony (1977) is Silko's first novel. It is the story of a young American Indian who returns from WWII and who must sort out his experiences, his adult world, and his relationship to his ancestry and heritage.
Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit (1996) is a collection of essays by Silko. The book is subtitled ' 'Essays on Native American Life Today.’’ Silko expounds on topics ranging from Native American legal battles to Native American culture and art.
Love Medicine (1984), by Louise Erdrich, won the 1984 National Book Critics' Circle Award for Best Work of Fiction. It is a highly readable and often funny text set on a North Dakota reservation; it tells the stories of three interrelated families.
Last of the Mohicans (1826) by James Fenimore Cooper is one of this nineteenthcentury author's novels about the North American frontier. Cooper popularized a particularly Americanstyle adventure tale that was internationally popular during his time. Native American characters figure prominently in his novels, and they afford the contemporary reader a glimpse into attitudes and notions of the past.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Jaskoski, Helen, "To Tell a Good Story,'' an essay in Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louise K.Barnett and James L. Thorson, University of New Mexico Press, 1999, 87-100.
Krumholz, Linda,"Native Designs: Silko's 'Storyteller' and the Reader's Initiation,'' an essay in Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louise K. Barnett and James L. Thorson, University of New Mexico Press, 1999, 63-86
Silko, Leslie Marmon, Laguna Woman, Greenfield Review Press, 1974.
Erdrich, Louise, ''Where I Ought to Be: A Writer's Sense of Place,’’ in The New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1985.
Seyersted, Per, Leslie Marmon Silko, Western Writers Series, 45, Boise State University, 1980.
This text offers a short biography of Silko. It is good for information about her social and cultural milieu and early writing days. No other biography, as yet, exists.
Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; an Indian History of the American West, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970.
Brown's book is a classic in Native American letters. It is a moving account of U.S. history from the point of view of Native Americans.
Lincoln, Kenneth, Native American Renaissance, University of California Press, 1983.
Lincoln's book provides an overview of the figures, goals,...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Booklist. LXXVII, July 15, 1981, p. 1431.
Graulich, Melody, ed. “Yellow Woman”: Leslie Marmon Silko. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993. Includes an excellent introduction by Graulich setting Storyteller in its cultural, biographical, and critical contexts. Also includes essays dealing with Storyteller by Linda Danielson, Patricia Jones, Bernard A. Hirsch, and Arnold Krupat.
Library Journal. CVI, May 1, 1981, p. 987.
Ms. X, July, 1981, p. 89.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, May 24, 1981, p. 72.
Saturday Review. VIII, May, 1981, p. 72.
Seyersted, Per. Leslie Marmon Silko. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1980. A good introduction to Laguna culture and to Silko’s early work up to and including Storyteller, which was in press and available to Seyersted when he published his analysis.
Silko, Leslie Marmon, and James Wright. The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright. Edited by Anne Wright. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1986. Correspondence between Silko and poet James Wright from 1978 to 1980, in which Silko discusses Storyteller: its genesis and structure,...
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