How is gender and identity reflected in "Yellow Woman" by Leslie Marmon Silko?

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Leslie Marmon Silko is a Native American author. In her short story “Yellow Woman,” she blends the realities of modern Pueblo and Navajo Native American life with the mythical beliefs that continue to permeate Native American culture.

The narrator of the tale is a Pueblo woman caught between...

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Leslie Marmon Silko is a Native American author. In her short story “Yellow Woman,” she blends the realities of modern Pueblo and Navajo Native American life with the mythical beliefs that continue to permeate Native American culture.

The narrator of the tale is a Pueblo woman caught between the two worlds of myth and reality, just as she is trapped between her position as a woman in Pueblo culture and her individual identity. At the center of the story is the ancient legend of the Yellow Woman who is kidnapped by a spirit. The narrator recalls mythical tales related to her by her grandfather that told of “the old stories about the ka’tsina spirit and Yellow Woman.”

The narrator is kidnapped by a man named Silva who has sexual relations with her by a river and plans to take her to his cabin. Upon awakening the following morning, she hears the man refer to her as Yellow Woman. It appears her reality mirrors that of Yellow Woman’s experience in the mythical tale.

The protagonist, unsure of her own identity and subject to the limitations of her gender in society, begins to travel in her mind back and forth between the reality of her contemporary culture and the spirit world of myth. She wants to return home but begins to believe that she is actually the Yellow Woman from the myth. Through internal dialogue, she questions her own identity: “I was wondering if Yellow Woman had known who she was.” She wants to know whether Yellow Woman was also an ordinary woman with a normal life aside from her mythical existence.

Silva denies knowledge of the mythical tale, continues to draw her into sexuality, and insists they are just average people. The narrator remains torn between her reality and the myth, and the longer she remains with Silva, the more she separates herself from reality and her home. In the tale, Yellow Woman was forced to remain with her captor, but eventually, the narrator reasons that she need not succumb to the same fate as Yellow Woman. After all, she has her own identity. She thinks to herself,

I had stopped trying to pull away from him ... I will see someone, eventually I will see someone, and then I will be certain that he is only a man—some man from nearby—and I will be sure that I am not Yellow Woman.

But the protagonist meets no one.

As she arrives at Silva’s cabin, she is expected to do all the things she feels is associated with her gender. She cooks for him and sleeps with him and eventually thinks less and less about returning home. She still sees Silva as a ka’tsina spirit.

The narrator begins to slip back to the physical world when Silva admits being a cattle rustler. She sees him as a man, not a ka’tsina spirit. She concludes “that this man Silva must be Navajo, because Pueblo men didn’t do things like that.” During Silva’s violent encounter with a white man “looking for the thief for a long time,” the narrator escapes on horseback and finds her way back to the Pueblo village. She returns to the normalcy of her ordinary life, yet still thinks of Silva:

I came back to the place on the river bank where he had been sitting the first time I saw him ... And I told myself, because I believe it, he will come back some time and be waiting again by the river.

The narrator has accepted her identity and gender as an ordinary woman from the Pueblo village and as Yellow Woman, which is her fate.

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The question of identity is central to the story "Yellow Woman." The narrator is torn two realities: one based on her domestic life with her family as wife and mother and a second in which she is Yellow Woman, a mythic figure who lives in the mountains as the captive (or companion—it is not clear) of a ka'tsina spirit.

This question of identity influences how we understand what happens to her. In her role as wife and mother, the narrator has been kidnapped by Silvio, a cattle rustler, who takes her to a remote mountain cabin and rapes her. But as Yellow Woman, her "kidnapping" becomes a kind of enchantment; Silvio, as ka'tsina, chooses or makes her into Yellow Woman, and her time with him exists outside of history.

In this reality, Silvio and the narrator become mythic figures, idealized types of male and female. They exist outside of history in a way; their actions are predetermined by the myth they embody. Their lovemaking is at once tender and sexual assault—a kind of inevitable narrative fulfillment. The doubleness is perfectly expressed in Silvio's remark to the narrator when she tries to resist his advances: "You don't understand, do you, little Yellow Woman? You will do what I want."

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“Yellow Woman” is a beautifully narrated tale that reflects sexuality, adventure, identity, and the want to experience something larger than life. The story revolves around a young woman who is identified as a mother, wife, and daughter with responsibilities and duties to her family. And yet, she seeks to have an affair with a stranger. But, she does not do it because she feels attraction to the man himself but more because she feels attracted to the mystical legends and stories that he seems to fit right into. Silva refers to her as “Yellow Woman,” a famous Native American character, and he himself resembles the mythical figure of the Ka’tsina spirit. The woman chooses to believe in an identity—Yellow Woman—as her reality seamlessly merges with the fantasy of the stories she heard while growing up. This story celebrates Native American culture while holding up a mirror to the feelings and experiences of the modern tribe members. The protagonist longs to escape from the modern world and dive into the time when nature, animals, spirits, and souls were intertwined, a time when she could assume the identity of the Yellow Woman and Silva the identity of the Ka’tsina spirit.

Gender representation can also be seen as one of the minor themes prevailing in the story. The Yellow Woman, although a “modern” woman, assumes the roles of a conventional woman without question—frying potatoes, running away from the scene of combat, and going along with Silva’s request and demands without much of a fight. However, these incidents add a fairytale-like touch to the entire narrative, which could be seen as the whole point of the story. Yellow Woman’s desire to melt into the primitive times of legend and fantasy maybe results in her assuming the character and behaving like a woman of the past, with princess-like notions about sexuality and love.

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