Leslie Marmon Silko Biography

Leslie Marmon Silko Biography

Leslie Marmon Silko is considered one of the great masters of Native American literature. She grew up near a Native American reservation but was never allowed to participate in the rituals of her people because of her mixed heritage. Perhaps in rebellion, she has always identified herself more strongly with her Laguna Pueblo roots than with her European ones. Though Silko has published many nonfiction works, including scathing criticisms of other writers’ work, she’s most famous for her first novel, Ceremony. Still widely read and studied in colleges across the United States today, Ceremony emphasizes the importance of reintegrating older traditions and knowledge into our lives—exactly what Silko herself has been doing since she was a young girl.

Facts and Trivia

  • Silko is the daughter of famous photographer Lee Marmon.
  • Silko’s first story, “The Man to Send Rainclouds,” won a National Endowment for the Humanities Discovery Grant. She was also awarded the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 1981.
  • Silko’s novel Almanac of the Dead has been criticized because many of the book’s villains are homosexual.
  • Silko has been called the first Native American woman novelist, which is a staggering thought considering that Ceremony was published in 1977.
  • Silko grew up feeling isolated because neither white society nor the Laguna society fully accepted her. Her prominent family made the Laguna distrustful, but her skin color kept white society from embracing her. She has said, “I am of mixed-breed ancestry, but what I know is Laguna.”


(eNotes Publishing)

Leslie Marmon Silko is a critically acclaimed Native American author. Her mother, Mary Virginia Leslie, was part Cherokee and part Anglo, and her father, Leland Howard Marmon, was a mixed race Laguna Pueblo Indian. The Laguna Pueblo Indians are a tribe located in west central New Mexico. They take their name from the lake located on their reservation (“Laguna” means “lake” in Spanish). Leslie Marmon was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on March 5, 1948, and grew up near the Laguna Pueblo, northwest of Albuquerque. Because of her mixed heritage, she was not completely accepted into the Laguna tribe. Silko’s biographer Per Seyersted writes that Silko’s family “was included in clan activities but not to the same extent as full bloods." Nevertheless, the Laguna culture left deep impressions on her, and she often describes the beauty of the landscape that surrounded her childhood home on the Laguna Pueblo in her fiction and poetry. As a result of her mixed heritage, the challenges she faced growing up as a “mixed-blood” appear often as autobiographical elements in much of her writing. She explains that “the core of my writing is the attempt to identify what it is to be a half-breed or a mixed-blooded person; what it is to grow up neither white nor fully traditional Indian."

The Marmon family emphasized education and because the Indian school at the Laguna Pueblo was not very strong academically, Leslie attended a private school in Albuquerque. She went on to attend the University of New Mexico where she met her first husband, Richard Chapman. They married in 1966 and later that year, she had her first son, Robert William. Leslie and her husband divorced in 1969, the same year that she graduated summa cum laude in English from the University of New Mexico. She also published her first short story that year, “The Man to Send Rainclouds,” which she began in a creative writing class. After graduating from the University of New Mexico, Leslie was accepted into that institution’s American Indian Law School Fellowship Program. She dropped out of law school after three semesters because, in her words, the legal system “was designed by and for the feudal lords” and only meted out justice “to the rich and powerful.” She remarried an attorney, John Silko, in 1971 and began her career as a full-time writer. Her second son, Cazimir, was born in 1972.

Silko published her first book, a collection of poetry titled Laguna Woman, in 1974. The work was very successful and received critical acclaim for the beauty of the language and the way in which she blended the magnificent landscapes of her childhood into the Laguna myths and folklore. The poems were the first published to reveal a uniquely Pueblo worldview which included sharp criticism of American colonialism that would continue to be her preferred theme in future writings. Silko traveled to Alaska in 1973 where she wrote her first novel, Ceremony. In it, Silko was able to weave together the many stories of Laguna folklore that she had heard since childhood. Silko received excellent reviews for her novel, and many critics and scholars believed her to be the most accomplished Native American author of her generation. Ceremony continues to be one of her most successful works and is taught in colleges and universities nationally and internationally.

In 1980, Silko experienced two tragedies. She and her husband went through a bitter divorce and her longtime correspondent and mentor, the poet James Wright, suddenly died. Although well-established as a writer, it took Silko ten years to complete her second novel, Almanac of the Dead. As with Ceremony, Silko claimed that the stories came to her through the spirits and she could not be done with it until the spirits were done with her. She rented space in Tucson, Arizona, to write the novel and listen to the spirits who she says “rode her” until the novel was completed:

I was forced to listen...I was visited by so many ancestors...it was very hard. It changed me as a human being.

Almanac of the Dead was published in 1991, but it was not well received by critics. Those that praised the novel, however, compared it to such epics as Paradise Lost, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. Interestingly, the imaginary uprising that originated in the Chiapas region of Mexico in Almanac of the Dead coincided with an actual uprising that took place in that same region of Mexico. Named after Emiliano Zapata, an agrarian reformer and commander of the Liberation Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution, the Zapatista revolt began slowly in 1991, the same year Almanac of the Dead was published, and became a full-blown revolt in 1994 when the revolutionaries declared war against the Mexican government. The movement’s main spokesperson is a mysterious man referred to as "Subcomandante Marcos," a character eerily similar to the female revolutionary commander Angelita La Escapía in Silko’s novel. Silko explained in an interview that she started having transmissions from the spirits for Almanac of the Dead the same year that Subcomandante Marcos “went to the mountains.”

Silko is a former professor of English and fiction writing at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She also has been associated with the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and the Navajo Community College in Tsaile, Arizona. She is the author of novels, short stories, essays, poetry, articles, and film scripts. She has won prizes, fellowships, and grants from such sources as the National Endowment for the Arts and The Boston Globe. She is the youngest writer to be included in The Norton Anthology of Women's Literature, for her short story "Lullaby."

Leslie Marmon Silko Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Leslie Marmon Silko was born with a diverse heritage derived from her mixed ancestry (Laguna Pueblo, Mexican, and white). Much of her work examines the culture of Native Americans as it conflicts and combines with those of Mexican Americans and Anglo-Americans in the Southwest. Her biography, mostly revealed through her stories, resonates with the pain of cultural collisions and racism. It also acknowledges, in a self-assured tone, the value of multiplicity, of perceiving things in more than one way as a method of surviving in the modern world.

Vital to Silko’s upbringing was her great-grandmother, Marie Anaya. Married to Silko’s paternal great-grandfather, Robert G. Marmon, a pioneer who moved from Ohio to settle in New Mexico, Marie was known to Silko as Grandma A’Mooh (“A’Mooh” is a Laguna expression of love). A’Mooh cared for Silko when she was a baby and lived into her eighties while Silko grew up. She told Silko many stories of earlier, difficult times, of the ancient traditions that had sustained the Laguna people.

Equally important are Silko’s memories of her great-grandfather Stagner, his wife, Helen, and their daughter Lillie, who was Silko’s grandmother. Helen, of the Romero family near Los Lunas, New Mexico, represents the Mexican influence on Silko’s life and work, making Spanish as important to her as English and the Indian language of Laguna. Silko acknowledged the vital connections between generations of her family when she dedicated Ceremony (1977) to both her grandmothers, Jessie Goddard Leslie and Lillie Stagner Marmon, and her sons, Robert William Chapman and Cazimir Silko.

Perhaps the most significant contributor to Silko’s early perceptions and later work was her father, Lee H. Marmon. A talented amateur photographer, he experienced racism as a young boy when he was denied entrance to an Albuquerque hotel while his light-skinned father was told he was welcome anytime (Hank Marmon, Silko’s grandfather, refused to patronize the hotel for the rest of his life). Like the protagonist of Ceremony, Lee Marmon fought in World War II; his photographic records of the life to which he returned—the Laguna and Paguate villages, the Marmon Trading Post, his daughters, the deer hunts, the desert stretches of New Mexico and Arizona—contribute to the richly patterned texture of Storyteller (1981).

In addition to Silko’s ethnic heritage, the landscapes of her life have profoundly influenced her writing. Most of her work incorporates the distinctive geography around Albuquerque, where she was born, and the Laguna Pueblo Reservation, where she grew up. In contrast to the mountains and mesas of her childhood, Silko, in some of her stories,...

(The entire section is 1125 words.)

Leslie Marmon Silko Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Leslie Marmon Silko was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on March 5, 1948, the descendant of Laguna, Mexican, and Anglo-American peoples. Silko’s mixed ancestry is documented in Storyteller, in which she recounts the stories of white Protestant brothers Walter Gunn Marmon and Robert G. Marmon, her great-grandfather, who, with his older brother, settled in New Mexico at Laguna as a trader, having migrated west from Ohio in 1872. Her great-grandmother Marie, or A’mooh, married Robert Marmon, and her grandmother Lillie was a Model A automobile mechanic. Both were well educated and well informed about both Anglo and Laguna lifestyles. Growing up in one of the Marmon family houses at Old Laguna, in western New Mexico, Silko inherited from these women and from Susie Marmon, the sister-in-law of Silko’s grandfather Hank Marmon, a treasury of Laguna stories, both mythological and historical. Indeed, “Aunt Susie” is created in Storyteller as Silko’s source for many of the traditional stories that shaped her childhood.

Silko’s early years were spent in activities that neither completely included her in nor fully excluded her from the Laguna community. She participated in clan activities but not to the same extent as the full-bloods; she helped prepare for ceremonial dances, but she did not dance herself. Attending the local day school of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, she was prohibited from using the Keresan language which her...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Leslie Marmon Silko Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Leslie Marmon Silko was born to Leland (Lee) Howard Marmon and Mary Virginia Leslie in 1948. Her extended mixed-heritage family (Laguna, Mexican, white) had a rich history of tribal leadership and a rich tradition of storytelling. Growing up at Laguna Pueblo, Silko rode horses, hunted, and was free to explore the land of her ancestors, land that was inextricably tied to the traditional stories told by her aunts and grandmother.

In 1964, Silko entered the University of New Mexico. In 1966, she married Richard Chapman and gave birth to Robert William Chapman. During her sophomore year, she took a creative writing class. Despite the success of a short story written for that class, “The Man to Send Rainclouds,” which...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Leslie Marmon Silko Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The tensions and cultural conflicts affecting many of Leslie Marmon Silko’s characters can be seen as fictional renderings of Silko’s experience. Born of mixed European American and Navajo blood, Silko spent her formative years learning the stories of her white ancestors and their relationship with the native population into which they married. Her great-grandfather, Robert Marmon, had come to the Laguna pueblo, New Mexico, in the early 1870’s as a surveyor and eventually married a Laguna woman. Even more important to Silko’s development as a writer was the later generation of Marmons—half European American and half Native American—who continued to transmit the oral traditions of the Laguna pueblo people. One such...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Leslie Marmon Silko Biography

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Early Life

Leslie Marmon Silko was raised in Laguna pueblo reservation in New Mexico by her parents and her father’s extended family. Her mother was of European and Cherokee ancestry; her father was of Laguna, Plains Indian, Mexican, and European ancestry. She has written that the search for identity as a half-breed is at the core of her works. Her family included a great-aunt, Aunt Susie, who taught Silko the stories of the Laguna oral tradition. Silko attended day school in Albuquerque from 1958 to 1964 and then the University of New Mexico, where she received a B.A. in English. She married, had two children, and finished three semesters of law school.

The 1960’s

Silko began...

(The entire section is 1733 words.)

Leslie Marmon Silko Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Of Native American, Mexican, and Caucasian descent, Leslie Marmon Silko was born Leslie Marmon in 1948 to Leland Howard Marmon and Mary Virginia Leslie. She spent most of her childhood among her extended family on the Laguna Pueblo reservation, which later provided the setting for much of her poetry and fiction. Silko first was educated at an Indian boarding school and later graduated from a Catholic high school in Albuquerque. In 1964, she enrolled at the University of New Mexico. While still an undergraduate, she married, had her first child, and published her first short story, “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” (1969). After graduating in 1969, she briefly attended law school in hopes of becoming a legal advocate for the people...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Leslie Marmon Silko Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Leslie Marmon Silko, one of the most acclaimed writers of the American Indian literary renaissance of the 1970’s, was reared on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation, in the house where her father, Lee H. Marmon, had been born. During her childhood she spent much time with her great-grandmother, A’mooh, who lived next door. A’mooh and Silko’s Aunt Susie, Mrs. Walter K. Marmon, were among the people who taught her the Laguna traditions and stories that became the principal resource for her poetry and fiction. Silko’s family background included Laguna, Mexican, Plains Indian, and white ancestors. Her great-grandfather, Robert Gunn Marmon, was a trader who had been elected to one term as governor of the pueblo. Nevertheless, the...

(The entire section is 970 words.)

Leslie Marmon Silko Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Leslie Marmon Silko grew up on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation. This land is in the southwestern United States and was home turf to...

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Leslie Marmon Silko Biography

(Poetry for Students)

Leslie Marmon Silko was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1948, to a family of mixed white and native blood. Soon afterward she moved to the...

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Leslie Marmon Silko Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Leslie Marmon Silko was born on March 5, 1948, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Raised on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in northern New Mexico,...

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Leslie Marmon Silko Biography

(Novels for Students)

Silko grew up on the Laguna Reservation in New Mexico and is a Pueblo Indian of mixed ancestry—Cherokee, German, Northern Plains Indian,...

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