Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421

Vital to Almanac of the Dead is the acceptance of what Native American writer Paula Gunn Allen terms “ceremonial time,” a sense of reality that transcends linear time and embraces the fluidity of past, present, and future. Silko’s structural technique, which gracefully connects people and events while shifting from perspective to perspective, establishes the imperative of reading in this mindframe. The lack of an easily definable plot and protagonist is disconcerting until the accretion is recognized; then characters and occurrences become more fully understood as the multiple stories begin to unite, forming a whole instead of related parts. The reader, like Sterling, is guided toward understanding through accretion and a vision of synthesis. Only when viewed as interlocking and interrelated do the fragmented, jumbled accounts reveal a comprehensible message.

Silko insists that her narratives of the characters’ lives become united, and she similarly merges specific times and places into a boundless reality. Time becomes fluid as events of the past illuminate the future, present illuminates past, and so on. Her literal movement from place to place, character to character, and time to time elucidates the novel’s theme of reality as movement; she demands that characters not be conceptualized as isolated individuals and demands that time not be deciphered linearly. Only witchery enforces the notion of distinct beings in a particular place and time. Rather, the unifying elements of the novel—and, Silko suggests, of reality itself—are the connection to ritual and ceremony and the endurance of the Earth.

Almanac of the Dead shows the Feminine Power, a principal central to Silko’s own Keres Pueblo, rising from forgotten history to reassert its rightful role in Native American cosmology. The passing down of the almanac itself has been matrilineal; the ancient manuscript is passed to Yeome and from her to her granddaughters. Yeome and Old Mahawala, another matriarch in the novel, both ensure the education of their children to the old ways through their written and oral tales. Once Sterling returns to his reservation and begins to compile the knowledge he has gleaned from multiple sources, he finally begins to remember these old tales from his grandmother, tales he had long ago forgotten. He knows that, regardless, the Earth will continue, for “she” will always be sacred; people only “desecrated themselves,” for humanity is “too insignificant to desecrate her.” The taking back of the Native Lands is itself a reclaiming of the feminine; when indigenous peoples identify themselves with the Mother Earth, they become the land, endure, and continue.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1230

Culture Clash

The culture clash between the Euro-American world and the Native American world is the central theme of Almanac of the Dead, but branching out from that thematic center like spokes on a wheel are many secondary themes that are related to or are a result of the culture clash: hypocrisy, resistance, organized religion, oppression, racism, prejudice, injustice, social/political systems, truth, and vengeance. To illustrate the main theme as well as the secondary ones, Leslie Marmon Silko employs a myriad of motifs: storytelling, folklore, dreams, lies, maps, codes, sexual identity, sex, gender, lists, borders and boundaries, blood, twins, balance, animals, snakes, children, movies, photography, history, old people, time, order, plants and rocks, natural forces, addictions, marriage, and many others. When two very different worldviews and ways of life are pitted against each other, the resulting conflicts manifest themselves in all areas of human existence.

Silko outlines the theme of culture clash on the map that she includes at the beginning of the novel. These four sections all contain threads that link them to the main theme:

1. The novel’s structure is an ancient almanac:

Five Hundred Year Map: Through the decipherment of ancient tribal texts of the Americas the Almanac of the Dead foretells the future of all the Americas. The future is encoded in arcane symbols and old narratives

2. The novel’s central setting is Tucson, Arizona. The map lists the other geographical settings and the migration routes of the main characters associated with those settings:

Tucson, Arizona: Home to an assortment of speculators, confidence men, embezzlers, lawyers, judges, police and other criminals, as well as addicts and pushers, since the 1800s and the Apache Wars.

3. The novel’s main characters and conflicts—indigenous people versus Euro-Americans—are outlined:

The Indian Connection: Sixty million Native Americans died between 1500 and 1600. The defiance and resistance to things European continue unabated. The Indian Wars have never ended in the Americas. Native Americans acknowledge no borders; they seek nothing less than the return of all tribal lands.

4. The novel’s main theme of culture clash is itself presented:

Prophecy: When Europeans arrived, the Maya, Azteca, Inca cultures had already built great cities and vast networks of roads. Ancient prophecies foretold the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. The ancient prophecies also foretell the disappearance of all things European.

Following Silko’s map, the novel’s structure illustrates the theme of culture clash because the author is using a European art form, the novel, to tell a Native American saga. The European concept of time clashes with the Native American concept. Euro-Americans see time as linear with a beginning, middle, and end. Native Americans see it as circular where old age is caused by life experience not the passage of years. The novel’s setting illustrates the theme of culture clash because Tucson is symbolic of how the European colonizers corrupted Mother Earth when they stole the land from Native Americans and turned it over to “an assortment of speculators, confidence men, embezzlers, lawyers, judges, police and other criminals, as well as addicts and pushers.” The novel’s characters and conflicts illustrate the theme of culture clash because Native Americans are being called upon to defy and resist all things European. Finally, the culture clash is stated outright as a theme: Europeans arrived with their culture, but “the Maya, Aztec, Inca cultures had already built great cities and vast networks of roads. Ancient prophecies foretold the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. The ancient prophecies also foretell the disappearance of all things European.”

If one were to construct a comparison chart of Euro-American culture versus Native American culture as presented in Almanac of the Dead, it would be clear immediately why the term “culture clash” is appropriate to describe the many conflicts between these two very different worlds. The Euro-American and Native American societies differ in almost every category used to define culture. Their patterns of human knowledge are different; their beliefs and behaviors are different; their capacity for symbolic thought and social learning are different; and their attitudes, values, goals, and practices are different.

In Almanac of the Dead, Native Americans believe that no one can own the land and that there is no such thing as borders or nations. Euro-Americans believe that land possession is an important part of nation-building and that nation-building is acceptable. Native Americans see themselves as being one with the land and do not fear its natural forces such as floods, lightening, and earthquakes. They believe Mother Earth will protect her indigenous people. Euro-Americans in this novel are terrified of the Arizona and Mexico deserts with their “creosote flats and rocky foothills of cactus and brush.” They choose to live near the cities and believe it is acceptable to dig deep wells into sacred Indian lands to force water to appear where Mother Earth does not want it to be. Europeans believe that God gave them dominion over the earth and that man is more important than land.

One of the strongest illustrations of culture clash in this novel concerns religion. Silko presents Christianity as an instrument of colonization, a useful tool for Europeans to subdue the indigenous people. The Europeans wanted to save the Indians’ souls by converting them to what they believed was the true religion. They were horrified by pagan faiths that required blood sacrifices to stone gods. From the Native American perspective, however, Europeans forced indigenous children to attend Indian schools where they were taught that their religion was wicked. The winged serpent god Quetzalcoatl was labeled as "Satan." The Native Americans believed that the European god must be “insane” for creating man and then abandoning him by expelling him from Eden. The keeper of The Almanac of the Dead, the old woman Yoeme, remarks that the Catholic Church was a “cannibal monster” that tortured and killed and therefore “could no longer heal.” Religion is not a helpful power to any of the white characters in this novel. The Native American characters, however, are connected to their gods; the spirits speak to them through animals and in dreams, and the indigenous people are guided by them. The great stone snake god appears at the beginning and end of the novel to warn the people that the time has come to take back the land and rid themselves “of all things European.” The European’s god is conspicuously absent in Almanac of the Dead, referred to only in the angry diatribes of the novel’s characters.

Almanac of the Dead explores many other differences as well. Dreams are surreal to Europeans; Native Americans believe dreams may be just as true as history. Man and Earth are one to a Native American; Europeans believe that God has given man dominion over the earth. Homosexuality is not acceptable in Christianity; dual-spirited people are part of Native American tradition. Women are less in European society; women are more in Native American cultures. Whites would be devastated by a worldwide blackout; Native Americans are used to living without electricity. Indigenous ancestors continually roam the world after death; European ancestors seek rest in the afterlife.

By telling the stories of over 70 characters, Silko re-creates an immense saga of over 500 years of colonization, a story in which “might” wins out over what Silko perceives as “right.” It is also a story that Silko believes can and should be changed.

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