Leslie Marmon Silko Critical Essays

Leslie Marmon Silko American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Silko is not a writer whose style is easily defined. Mixing the genres of fiction and poetry, and blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, Silko’s works Ceremony and Storyteller portray a vision of rich complexity. Interested in cultural collision and the violence it sometimes engenders. Silko also explores the possibilities of cultural connectedness. Her primary artistic concern is to celebrate the power of storytelling and ceremony in human life. The forms of her poetry and fictions parallel, to a great extent, the oral traditions of her Indian ancestors.

Silko’s work is also open to feminist interpretation. The opening story of Ceremony is about Ts’its’tsi’nako, or Thought-Woman, who has created the universe with her two sisters. Thought-Woman is the creator who names things; whatever she thinks about appears. Additionally, one of the characters who is most useful in bringing about the protagonist’s healing is a mysterious woman who becomes his lover and warns him of evil he will encounter in his future. The strength of these mythic figures is echoed in many of the narratives related by human women that are part of Storyteller. In the title story, an Inuk girl not only lures her parents’ killer to his death on an icy river (an occurrence that white lawyers want to define as an accident) but also takes over the tribal storytelling function of the old man who has raised her. This demonstration of her power gains her the respect of the villagers, who formerly scorned her.

The culture-bearing function of women is further apparent in the stories that Silko has heard from her own relatives. She received much of her practical and moral instruction through the tales told by her grandmother and aunts. Many of the heroines are women who accomplish exceptional tasks, often by accepting the possibility of the supernatural intervening in their lives.

In “Yellow Woman,” and also in Storyteller, the heroine, an ordinary woman, is abducted by Silva, apparently an outlaw rancher but possibly a Pueblo deity in disguise. Uncertain, but willing to believe that she is living out the stories told to her in childhood by her grandfather, she becomes the beloved Yellow Woman and temporarily escapes her dull life as a housewife to lead a sensuous existence in the mountains. The important ability of women both to create and to accept the truth of storytelling is emphasized repeatedly in Silko’s work, suggesting the valuable contributions Native American women make to the continuation of their cultures.

Silko’s concerns are also modern and political. She examines racism and the violence it engenders and reveals the devastating consequences of war, both for the individuals who participate in it and for the earth itself. Her love and respect for the earth are evident in her many lyrical descriptions of the New Mexico landscape. Part of modern humans’ plight, she suggests, is alienation from the earth that sustains them.

Racism is developed as the counterpart to the selfish misuse of the natural world; it is the force that alienates people from one another. Silko’s primary concern is the racism that has allowed the systematic oppression of Native Americans by descendants of white Europeans, but in Ceremony, especially, she examines the way that racist attitudes can foster and prolong violence against any group or individual defined as different by the majority. Only by recognizing the essential connectedness of human beings and by choosing to refrain from violence can humans break the brutal cycles of hatred. Silko acknowledges that such recognition is not easy—it requires ceremonial, ritualistic healing, as if all suffer from a psychological illness.

That such healing is possible, however, suggests Silko’s fundamentally positive view of human nature and its recuperative powers. In Ceremony, enough knowledge of the ancient ways remains to perform the necessary life-giving ceremonies. More ancient knowledge can be recovered and sustained through storytelling. Silko is trying to capture, in writing, the power and rhythms of oral tradition, a task that fulfills at least two functions. First, it makes accessible to people outside Indian culture the rich myths and beliefs that were fostered by the North American landscape. Second, it preserves those myths for future generations at a time when the integrity of Native American culture is threatened by assimilation into mainstream American society.

Already, many languages are lost; by writing primarily in English, with smatterings of Laguna and Spanish, Silko conveys the essential meaning of many of her tribal myths, while helping to preserve the tribal language. Working with three languages further suggests the strengths of assimilation; each culture can enhance and enrich the others. Such connectedness may be the only hope for a productive future; undivided by racism, less alienated from the natural world, the human community has a greater chance of survival, both physically and psychologically.


First published: 1977

Type of work: Novel

Experiencing deep depression after fighting in World War II, a young man finds health and new meaning after his return to the Laguna reservation.

Ceremony, Silko’s first published novel, won the attention of critics and other Native American writers, particularly N. Scott Momaday. Interestingly, the basic situation of Silko’s novel parallels that of Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. Both writers create protagonists who have been psychologically wounded by service in the Army during World War II and who encounter racism and brutality when they attempt to return to reservation life afterward. Although Momaday’s character eventually experiences a partial return to health, Silko’s main character, a “half-breed” named Tayo, fully overcomes his impulses toward violence by undergoing the traditional healing ceremonies of the past.

The novel continually pits the world of the white race against Indian culture, a contrast that is highlighted by Tayo’s experience as a soldier. Seen only as an American when he is in uniform, Tayo is treated well by white women and store owners, who are eager to help the boys at the front. Out of uniform, Tayo is relegated to the position of second-class citizen, either ignored or insulted by the same people who had been kind previously.

Tayo’s position is further complicated by the fact that he is not fully accepted in the Indian community either, because he has a Mexican father. The racism that contributes to his confused sense of identity also precipitates his breakdown: When he suddenly perceives a Japanese enemy to be no different from his Indian uncle, he collapses on the battlefield. His precarious mental condition is further jeopardized when his cousin Rocky, who has worked hard to assimilate himself into the mainstream culture, is killed in the war. Tayo returns to his aunt’s home on the reservation, convinced that he, not Rocky, is the one who should have died.

Racism is also seen as a major contributor to the self-destructive behavior of other Indian veterans. Tayo’s friends retreat into alcoholism and repetitive recitations of their sexual exploits with white women; eventually they can feel good about themselves only when they commit violent acts of domination, reenacting the atrocities of war. Tayo himself falls victim to this temptation and stabs another veteran before embarking on his ceremonial journey toward psychological wholeness.

The process of healing provides another cultural juxtaposition: Tayo’s illness originally is defined and treated by white doctors, who attempt psychological explanations and scientific cures. Tayo’s stay in a mental hospital is described in images of whiteness; most tellingly, he feels immersed in a white fog. It is not until he goes through the ritual healing...

(The entire section is 3275 words.)