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Leslie Marmon Silko 1948–-

American novelist, short story writer, poet and essayist. See also Storyteller Criticism, Leslie Marmon Silko Literary Criticism (Volume 23), and Leslie Marmon Silko Literary Criticism (Volume 114).

Silko is considered among the foremost authors to emerge from the Native American literary renaissance of the 1970s....

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Leslie Marmon Silko 1948–-

American novelist, short story writer, poet and essayist. See also Storyteller Criticism, Leslie Marmon Silko Literary Criticism (Volume 23), and Leslie Marmon Silko Literary Criticism (Volume 114).

Silko is considered among the foremost authors to emerge from the Native American literary renaissance of the 1970s. In her writings she blends such literary forms as the novel, short story, and narrative poem with the oral traditions of her Laguna Pueblo heritage to communicate Native American conceptualizations of time, nature, and spirituality. Silko focuses on characters, often of mixed Laguna Pueblo and Anglo heritage, who occupy the fringes of both Native American and Western cultures. Through their struggles they must draw on the moral strength of their native community and its traditions in order to overcome the often repressive, alienating effects of Anglo-American society.

Biographical Information

Of Laguna Pueblo, Plains Indian, Mexican, and Anglo-American descent, Silko was born in Albuquerque and raised on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in northern New Mexico. Her family were storytellers among the Laguna; in fact, her relatives were among the Native Americans who taught early twentieth-century anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, traditional myths and stories. As a child Silko attended schools administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs until she was able to commute to school off the reservation. She graduated with honors from the University of New Mexico in 1969 and briefly attended law school before deciding to pursue a writing career. By the early 1970s, Silko was garnering attention as a promising Native American author, known primarily for her short stories and poetry that explore the distinct oral tradition of the Laguna people. In 1969, while still an undergraduate, she published the short story “The Man To Send Rain Clouds” in the New Mexico Quarterly. This story served as the title piece for Kenneth Rosen's 1974 anthology in which he published six additional stories by Silko. The critical acclaim she earned from Ceremony (1977) solidified her position in the literary field and earned her numerous prestigious writing awards. Although she has taught at and has been associated with several universities, she now pursues writing full time from her home near Tuscon, Arizona.

Major Works

Silko's first published collection, Laguna Woman (1974), consists of her narrative poetry based on the oral traditions and culture of her heritage. In Ceremony, her first novel, she interweaves free-verse poetry and narrative prose to chronicle the story of Tayo, a World War II veteran of mixed white and Laguna Pueblo heritage who returns to the reservation shattered by his war experiences. He finds healing with the help of Bentonie, an elderly man who exists on the cusp of Laguna and white societies, and T'seh Montano, a medicine woman who embodies the feminine, life-giving aspects of the earth. In Ceremony, Silko introduces the unique elements that have characterized her fiction; a protagonist of mixed heritage, a conflict between Native and Anglo cultures; the destructive nature of the dominant white culture; and the restive powers of the traditional Native American life-style. Silko developed these themes in Storyteller (1981) and to a stronger extent in her second novel Almanac of the Dead (1991), a work about Native Americans who retain their native lands after whites, lacking the spiritual and moral force of the Native Americans, succumb to crime, perversion, drug addiction, and environmental degradation. In Storyteller—her volume of poetry, short stories, and recollections—Silko attempts to merge the oral tradition of storytelling with the literary form. She creates an unusual form of autobiography through which she describes her personal experiences and her family history by locating them within the larger Laguna society. Thus, she reflects the Pueblo belief that the individual is only significant in relation to their position within the whole. Silko demonstrates the dynamic nature of Laguna culture as she modernizes traditional myths such as “Yellow Woman.” In stories such as “Storyteller,” “Lullaby,” and “Tony's Story,” Silko's characters reside in a no man's land between cultures, destroyed by the tension between them. “Storyteller,” the account of an Innuit girl who seeks revenge for her parents' death at the hands of whites, is one of Silko's best-known and most highly regarded short stories.

Critical Reception

Silko earned critical praise with the publication of her first short stories in the early 1970s. Reviewers noted their strong voice and coherent, tightly written structure. The publication of Ceremony cemented her reputation as one of the best contemporary Native American writers. Most scholars place her second only to N. Scott Momaday in terms of national influence and frequently compare Ceremony to Momaday's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The House Made of Dawn. Some reviewers noted that in Ceremony Silko does not maintain the same level of intensity and precision that characterizes her shorter works. However, critics are intrigued by Silko's efforts to replicate the oral tradition of Native American storytelling. Her subsequent work, Storyteller, earned Silko even greater national recognition. Kenneth Lincoln maintains that “Storyteller” “unfolds with an economy so lucid that nothing is lost.” And N. Scott Momaday praises her sense of humor and her “sharp sense of the way in which the profound and the mundane often run together in our daily lives.” Reviews were not uniformly favorable for her second novel Almanac of the Dead. While some critics praised her subject matter and her skill at handling such an extensive and controversial topic, other reviewers complained that Silko's tone is too dark, she portrays whites stereotypically, and that her plot is too complex and unwieldy. Despite mixed reviews of her other works, William M. Clements asserts that “it remains obvious that [Silko's] poetry and prose—both fiction and nonfiction—represent some of the most stimulating writing produced by a Native American in the late twentieth century.”

Principal Works

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Storyteller (poems and short stories) 1981

Laguna Woman (poems) 1974

Ceremony (novel) 1977

Almanac of the Dead (novel) 1991

Sacred Water (nonfiction) 1993

Yellow Woman (nonfiction) 1993

Arnold Krupat (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “The Dialogic of Silko's Storyteller,” in Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, edited by Gerald Vizenor, University of New Mexico Press, 1989, pp. 55–68.

[In the essay below, Krupat applies Mikhail Bakhtin's literary theories to Silko's Storyteller as he discusses the roles of authority and voice.]

Autobiography as commonly understood in western European and Euro-American culture did not exist as a traditional type of literary expression among the aboriginal peoples of North America. Indeed, none of the conditions of production for autobiography—here I would isolate post-Napoleonic historicism, egocentric individualism and writing as foremost—was typical of Native American cultures.1 To the extent that the life stories, personal histories, memoirs or recollections of Indians did finally come into textual form (traditional Indian literatures were not written but oral), it was as a result of contact with and pressure from Euro-Americans. Until the twentieth century the most common form of Native American autobiography was the Indian autobiography, a genre of American writing constituted by the principle of original, bicultural, composite composition, in which there is a distinct if not always clear division of labor between the subject of the autobiography (the Indian to whom the first-person pronoun ostensibly makes reference) and the Euro-American editor responsible for fixing the text in writing, yet whose presence the first-person pronoun ostensibly masks. Indian autobiography may thus be distinguished from autobiography by Indians, the life stories of those Christianized and/or “civilized” natives who, having internalized Western culture and scription, committed their lives to writing on their own without the mediation of the Euro-American. In autobiographies by Indians, although there is inevitably an element of biculturalism, there is not the element of compositeness that precisely marks Indian autobiographies.

The earliest examples of Native American autobiography are two by Indians dating from the decades surrounding the American Revolution. These did not attract much attention; indeed, the more extensive of the two by Hendrick Aupaumut was not even published until 1827 and then in a journal of rather limited circulation.2 It was only six years later, however that the first Indian autobiography, J. B. Patterson's Life of Black Hawk, appeared. This book did gain widespread notice, coming as it did at a time of increased American interest in Indians (the book was occasioned by the last Indian war to be fought east of the Mississippi) and in the type of writing then only recently named autobiography (in 1809 by the poet Southey). Both of these interests are developed in this earliest type of Indian autobiography, which presents the acts of the world-historical chief or (of particular concern in the first half of the nineteenth century) the Indian hero. The historical orientation of Indian autobiography persisted in some form into the 1930s and 1940s after which none of the warriors was left alive to tell his tale. By that time there had already occurred a shift of interest on the part of Euro-American editors from history to science. In the twentieth century professional anthropologists rather than amateur historians would most commonly edit Indian autobiographies.

In our time Indian autobiographies continue to be co-produced by historians and social scientists working with traditional native people, but their labors have very nearly been overshadowed by the autobiographical writing of a new generation of Indians, educated in Western literate forms yet by no means acculturated to the point of abandoning respect for the old ways. These autobiographies are not only contributions to historical and scientific record, but also works of art (particularly the autobiographies of N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko, whose claim to national attention came not from their relation to American religion, history or anthropology, but from their relation to American literature as previously established in their fiction and poetry).

The history of Native American autobiography could be charted thematically as a movement from history and science to art on a line parallel to the history of European and Euro-American autobiography.3 To chart it thus would demonstrate that Native Americans have had to make a variety of accommodations to the dominant culture's forms, capitulating to them, assimilating them, sometimes dramatically transforming them, but never able to proceed independent of them. However, Native American autobiography differs materially from western European and Euro-American (though not strictly western American) autobiography through its existence in specifically individual and composite forms, or, both monologic and dialogic forms.4

To introduce the terms monologue and dialogue is to invoke an important recent development in literary theory: recent interest in the Russian theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin.

So much has been written on Bakhtin of late that any attempt to summarize his thought is bound to be incomplete.5 In this country, at least, what is generally understood by reference to “Bakhtin,” is very far from settled. To be sure “Freud” and “Marx” mean different things to different people as well; but there seems to be for Bakhtin, more than for these other major thinkers (and it is by no means generally agreed that comparison of Bakhtin to major thinkers is justified), a pronounced ambiguity. This openness may be functional, a practical illustration of what has been theoretically proposed. Perhaps it is not so much “openness,” that Bakhtin's writing exhibits, but such inconsistency and ambiguity that it is difficult or pointless to specify the particulars of his thought. Hence, any attempt at an approximately neutral summary automatically becomes partial, a choice not between nuances but real differences. Nevertheless, the following briefly outlines what is at issue in Bakhtin and therefore at issue in any Bakhtinian reading of Native American autobiography.

Bakhtin calls human language “heteroglossic, polyvocal,” the speech of each individual enabled and circumscribed not so much by language as a system as by the actual speech of other individuals. (In this he differs from Saussurian structural linguistics and its fascination with langue.) Speech is social and meaning is open and in flux, inevitably a dialogue among speakers, not the property or in the power of any single speaker. “… All there is to know about the world is not exhausted by a particular discourse about it … ”6 Bakhtin notes in a typical statement. Still some forms of written discourse and social practice seek to impose a single authoritative voice as the norm, thus subordinating or entirely suppressing other voices. It is the genre Bakhtin calls the “epic” that provides models of this monologic tendency in literature, while the totalitarianism of Stalinism under which Bakhtin lived provides the socio-political model of monologism. In opposition to the totalizing thrust of the epic, the novel testifies to its own (inevitable) incompleteness, its ongoing indebtedness to the discourse of others. The novel is the prime literary instance of dialogized speech.

Bakhtin seems to be committed to dialogue on empirical grounds, inasmuch as the term claims to name human communication correctly, pointing to the way speech and social life “really” are. But Bakhtin seems also to be committed to dialogue on moral and esthetic grounds; he approves of and is pleased by that which he finds bi-, hetero-, poly-, and so on. For him, truth and beauty are one, but what this equivalence is to mean ultimately in a dialogic theory of language and of social life remains to be determined.

Does Bakhtinian dialogic envision a strong form of pluralism in which all have legitimate voice: truth having its particular authority, beauty having its, and both having equal (cognitive) force over other voices, which, although worthy of being heard, can be judged decidably less forceful? Or does Bakhtinian dialogic envision a kind of post-modernist free play of voices with no normative means for deciding their relative worth or authority? We do not know whether Bakhtin's dislike of what he calls monologue permits some forms of relatively stable assertion, in particular truth and beauty. Such statements as “the last word is never said,”—and there are innumerable such statements in Bakhtin's writing—may intend a radically ironic, a schizophrenic refusal (in Jameson's very particular sense)7 of any form, however relativized, of grounded meaning. Or they may insist only that no single language act has the capacity to encompass the entire range of humanly possible meaning, as no single mode of political organization can give full latitude to human potential.

In this latter regard the issue is particularly complicated because, while we do know from Bakhtin that the novel is supposed to provide the fullest literary illustration of relativized, dialogic discourse, we do not know whether the nearest thing he gives us to a socio-political equivalent of the novel, rabelaisian “carnival,” represents an actual model for social organization or an escape from too rigid social organization. In either case, we do not know what Bakhtinian carnival might actually entail for current or future social formations. To examine Native American autobiography from a Bakhtinian perspective, then, is not only to consider it as a discursive type—a kind of literature, generically closer to the epic or the novel as Bakhtin understands these Western forms—but as a social model which allows for the projection of a particular image of human community.

Let me now offer a reading of Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller in relation to these issues.

Merely to consider Storyteller among Native American autobiographies might require some explanation, since the book is a collection of stories, poems and photographs as much as it is a narrative of its author's life. Of course a variety of claims have been made in the recent past for the fictionality of autobiographies in general, the autobiography being recognized as the West's most obviously dialogic genre in which a conversation between historia and poesis, documentation and creation, is always in progress. And some of these claims might easily be used to justify classifying Storyteller as an autobiography.

Indeed, to justify the book's classification as an autobiography in this way, would not be mistaken; it would, however, be to treat it exclusively from a Western perspective, failing to acknowledge that traditional Native American literary forms were not—and, in their contemporary manifestations usually are not—as concerned about keeping fiction and fact or poetry and prose distinct from one another. It is the distinction between truth and error rather than that between fact and fiction that seems more interesting to native expression; and indeed, this distinction was also central to Western thought prior to the seventeenth century. Thus the present “blurring of genres,” in Clifford Geertz's phrase,8 in both the social sciences and in the arts, is actually only a return to that time when the line between history and myth was not very clearly marked. But that is the way things have always been for Native American literatures.

From the Western point of view, Silko's book would seem to announce by its title, Storyteller, the familiar pattern of discovering who one is by discovering what one does, the pattern of identity in vocation. This is useful enough as a way to view Silko's text. In the West it has been a very long time since the vocational storyteller has had a clear and conventional social role. In Pueblo culture, however, to be known as a storyteller is to be known as one who participates, in a communally sanctioned manner, in sustaining the group; for a Native American writer to identify herself as a storyteller today is to express a desire to perform such a function. In the classic terms of Marcel Mauss, person, self and role are here joined.9

Silko dedicates her book “to the storytellers as far back as memory goes and to the telling which continues and through which they all live and we with them.” Having called herself a storyteller, she thus places herself in a tradition of tellings, suggesting that her stories cannot strictly be her own nor will we find in them what one typically looks for in post-Rousseauan, Western autobiography or (as Bakhtin would add, in poetry) a uniquely personal voice. There is no single, distinctive or authoritative voice in Silko's book nor any striving for such a voice; to the contrary, Silko will take pains to indicate how even her own individual speech is the product of many voices. Storyteller is presented as a strongly polyphonic text in which the author defines herself—finds her voice, tells her life, illustrates the capacities of her vocation—in relation to the voices of other native and nonnative storytellers, tale tellers and book writers, and even to the voices of those who serve as the (by-no-means silent) audience for these stories.

It is Silko's biographical voice that commences the book, but not by speaking of her birth or the earliest recollections of childhood as Western autobiography usually dictates. Rather, she begins by establishing the relation of “hundreds of photographs taken since the 1890s around Laguna” that she finds in “a tall Hopi basket” to “the stories as [she] remembers them.”10 Visual stories, speaking pictures, here as in the familiar Western understanding will also provide a voice; and Silko's developing relation to every kind of story becomes the story of her life.

Dennis Tedlock has made the important point that Zuni stories are fashioned in such a way as to include in their telling not just the story itself but a critique of or commentary on those stories, and Silko's autobiographical story will also permit a critical dimension, voices that comment on stories and storytellers—storytellers like her Aunt Susie, who, when she told stories had “certain phrases, certain distinctive words/she used in her telling” (7). Both Aunt Susie and Aunt Alice “would tell me stories they had told me before but with changes in details or descriptions.… There were even stories about the different versions of stories and how they imagined these differing versions came to be” (227). Silko's own versions of stories she has heard from Simon Ortiz, the Acoma writer whom Silko acknowledges as the source of her prose tale, “Uncle Tony's Goat,” and her verse tale, “Skeleton Fixer,” also introduce certain phrases and distinctive words that make them identifiably her own. Yet these and all the other stories are never presented as the final or definitive version; although they are intensely associated with their different tellers, they remain available for other tellings.11 “What is realized in the novel,” Bakhtin has written, “is the process of coming to know one's own language as it is perceived in someone else's language… ” (365) and so, too, to know one's own language as bound up with “someone else's language.” Any story Silko herself tells, then, is always bound up with someone else's language; it is always a version and the story as version stands in relation to the story as officially sanctioned myth, as the novel stands to the national epic. Silko's stories are always consistent with—to return to Bakhtin—attempts to liberate “… cultural-semantic and emotional intentions from the hegemony of a single and unitary language,” consistent with a “… loss of feeling for language as myth, that is, as an absolute form of thought” (367).

Stories are transmitted by other storytellers, as Silko wrote early in her book:

by word of mouth
an entire history
an entire vision of the world
which depended upon memory
and retelling by subsequent generations.
.....… the oral tradition depends upon each person
listening and remembering a portion.… 


But the awareness of and respect for the oral tradition, here, is not a kind of sentimental privileging of the old ways. Indeed, this first reference to the importance of cultural transmission by oral means comes in a lovely memorial to Aunt Susie who, Silko writes:

From the time that I can remember her
… worked on her kitchen table
with her books and papers spread over the oil cloth.
She wrote beautiful long hand script
but her eyesight was not good
and so she wrote very slowly.
.....She had come to believer very much in books

It is Aunt Susie, the believer in books and in writing, who was of “the last generation here at Laguna, that passed an entire culture by word of mouth.… ” Silko's own writing is compared to oral telling by a neighbor, who, finding her “Laguna Coyote” poem in a library book, remarks:

“We all enjoyed it so much,
but I was telling the children
the way my grandpa used to tell it
is longer.”

To this critical voice, Silko responds:

“Yes, that's the trouble with writing… 
You can't go on and on the way we do
when we tell stories around here.
People who aren't used to it get tired”


This awareness of the audience is entirely typical for a native storyteller who cannot go forward with a tale without the audience's response. As Silko writes:

The Laguna people
always begin their stories
with “humma-hah”:
that means “long ago.”
And the ones who are listening
say “aaaa-eh”


These are the stories, of course, of the oral tradition. Silko invokes the feel of “long ago” both in the verse format she frequently uses and in the prose pieces, although perhaps only those sections of the book set in verse attempt to evoke something of the actual feel of an oral telling.

It is interesting to note that there are two pieces in the book that echo the title, one in prose and the other set in loose verse. The first, “Storyteller,” is an intense and powerful short story which takes place in Alaska. The storyteller of the title is the protagonist's grandfather, a rather less benign figure than the old storytellers of Silko's biographical experience; nonetheless, the stories he tells are of the traditional, mythic type. The second, “Storytelling,” is a kind of mini-anthology of several short tales of women and their (quite historical, if fictional!) sexual adventures. The “humma-hah” (in effect) of the first section goes:

You should understand
the way it was
back then,
because it is the same
even now



The final section has its unnamed speaker conclude:

My husband
after he heard the story
and moved back in with his mother.
It was my fault and
I don't blame him either.
I could have told
the story
better than I did


In both these pieces (“Storyteller” and “Storytelling”) we find a very different sense of verbal art from that expressed in the West in something like Auden's lines (in the poem on the death of Yeats), where he writes that “poetry makes nothing happen.… ” In deadly serious prose and in witty verse, Silko dramatizes her belief that stories—both the mythic-traditional tales passed down among the people and the day-to-day narrations of events—do make things happen. The two pieces refer to very different kinds of stories which, in their capacity to produce material effects, are nonetheless the same.

Among other identifiable voices in Silko's texts are her own epistolary voice in letters she has written to Lawson F. Inada and James A. Wright, the voices of Coyote and Buffalo, and those of traditional figures like Kochininako, Whirlwind Man, Arrowboy, Spider Woman and Yellow Woman—some of whom appear in modern day incarnations. In stories or letters or poems, in monologues or dialogues, the diction may vary—now more colloquial and/or regional, now more formal—or the tone—lyrical, humorous, meditative. Yet always, the effort is to make us hear the various languages that constitute Silko's world and so herself. If we agree with Bakhtin that, “The primary stylistic project of the novel as a genre is to create images of languages” (366), Storyteller is a clear instance of novelized discourse, Native American autobiography of the dialogic type. It remains to say what the implications of this particular dialogic discourse may be.

I have tried to read Storyteller as an example of Native American autobiography in the dialogic mode, that is, against the backdrop of Bakhtin's meditations on language and society. By way of conclusion, it seems useful to see what Silko's book has to say about these important subjects, or more accurately, what projections about language and society might be made from the book. To interrogate the text in this way is not to treat it foremost as ethnic or hyphenated literature (although it cannot be understood in ignorance of its informing context), but as a candidate for inclusion in the canon of American literature conceived of as a selection of the most important work from among national texts (American literature) and texts (for all the blurring of genres) of a certain kind (American literature).

Let me review the possibilities. In regard to its understanding of language and the nature of communication, on one hand a commitment to dialogism may be seen as a recognition of the necessity of an infinite semantic openness. Here the inescapable possibility of yet some further voice is crucial inasmuch as that voice may decisively alter or ambiguate any relatively stable meaning one might claim to understand. On the other hand, a commitment to dialogism may be seen as a type of radical pluralism, a more relativized openness, concerned with stating meanings provisionally in recognition of the legitimate claims of otherness and difference. In regard to its implied model of the social, a commitment to dialogism may be seen as envisioning, “a carnivalesque arena of diversity,” as James Clifford has described it, “a utopian… space,”12 where the utopian exists as a category of pure abstraction, an image out of time and oblivious to the conditions of historical possibility: diversity as limitless freeplay. Or a commitment to dialogism may envision—but here one encounters difficulties, for it is hard to name or describe the sort of democratic and egalitarian community that would be the political equivalent of a radical pluralism as distinct from an infinite openness. No doubt, traditional Native American models of communal organization need further study in this regard, although it is not at all clear how the present-day Pueblo or the nineteenth-century Plains camp circle might be incorporated into models of some harmonious world-community to come.

Let me, then, name the alternative to dialogism as carnival and polymorphous diversity, what Paul Rabinow has called cosmopolitanism. “Let us define cosmopolitanism,” Rabinow writes, “as an ethos of macro-interdependencies, with an acute consciousness (often forced upon people) of the inescapabilities and particularities of places, characters, historical trajectories, and fates.”13 The trick is to avoid “reify[ing] local identities or construct[ing] universal ones,” a trick, as Rabinow notes, that requires a rather delicate balancing act, one that the West has had a difficult time managing. For all the seeming irony of proposing that the highly place-oriented and more or less homogenous cultures of indigenous Americans might best teach us how to be cosmopolitans, that is exactly what I mean to say. But here let me return to Storyteller.

Storyteller is open to a plurality of voices. What keeps it from entering the poststructuralist, postmodernist or schizophrenic heteroglossic domain is its commitment to the equivalent of a normative voice. For all the polyvocal openness of Silko's work, there is always the unabashed commitment to Pueblo ways as a reference point. This may be modified, updated, playfully construed: but its authority is always to be reckoned with. Whatever one understands from any speaker is to be understood in reference to that. Here we find dialogic as dialectic (not, it seems, the case in Bakhtin!), meaning as the interaction of any voiced value whatever and the centered voice of the Pueblo.14

If this account of Storyteller's semantics, or theory of meaning, is at all accurate, it would follow that its political unconscious is more easil conformable to Rabinow's cosmopolitanism than to a utopianized carnival. The social implications of Storyteller's dialogism might be a vision of an American cosmopolitanism to come that permits racial and cultural voices at home (in both “residual” and “emerging” forms15) to speak fully and that opens its ears to other voices abroad. This is an image, to be sure, not a political program; and to imagine the “polyvocal polity” in this way is also utopian, but perhaps only in the sense that it is not yet imminent.

Silko's book says nothing of this, offering neither a theory of communication nor of politics. To take it seriously, however, is to see it as more than merely evocative, amusing, expressive or informative (to the mainstream reader curious about the exotic ways of marginalized communities). It is to see its art as a matter of values that are most certainly not only aesthetic.


  1. For a fuller account see Arnold Krupat, For Those Who Come After: A Study of Native American Autobiography (Berkeley: University of California, 1985).

  2. See Samson Occom, “A Short Narrative of My Life,” The Elders Wrote: An Anthology of Early Prose by North American Indians, ed. Bernd Peyer (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1982). Occom wrote in 1768; his manuscript reposed in the Dartmouth College Library until its publication by Peyer. Also see Hendrick Aupaumut, “Journal of a Mission to the Western Tribes of Indians,” which was written in 1791 and published by B. H. Coates in 1827 in the Pennsylvania Historical Society Memoirs, II, part 1, 61–131.

  3. This is William Spengemann's trajectory for Western autobiography which he sees as presenting “historical, philosophical, and poetic” forms, and a “movement of autobiography from the biographical to the fictive mode,” in his The Forms of Autobiography: Episodes in the History of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980) xiv.

  4. An earlier and very different version of this paper was summarized as a presentation to the European Association on American Studies Convention (Budapest, Mar. 1986). It will appear in a publication of the selected proceedings of that Convention edited by Steve Ickringill, University of Ulster.

  5. I hesitate to offer even a selected bibliography of recent work on Bakhtin, so voluminous are the possibilities. For what use it may be let me mention only two book-length studies. Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist's biography, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), is both indispensable and too-good-to-be-true in its shaping of Bakhtin's life and thought into a coherent, but largely anti-communist, whole. Tzvetan Todorov's Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, trans. Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) is a particularly subtle reading. Denis Donoghue's “Reading Bakhtin,” Raritan 2 (Fall 1985): 107–19, offers a more sceptical account. The primary volumes in English of Bakhtin's work are Rabelais and his World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968); The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981); and Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). The interested reader will find many special issues of journals devoted to Bakhtin, several with extensive bibliographies.

  6. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981) 45. All further quotations from Bakhtin are from this volume and page references will be documented in the text.

  7. See Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (1984): 53-82.

  8. See Clifford Geertz, “Blurred Genres: The Refiguration of Social Thought,” Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983), originally published 1980.

  9. See Marcel Mauss, “A Category of the Human Mind: The Notion of Person; The Notion of Self.” In M. Carrithers, S. Collins and S. Lukes, eds., The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).

  10. Leslie Marmon Silko, Storyteller (New York: Viking Press, 1981) 1. All further page references will be given in the text.

  11. In fact there are other tellings because many of the stories in Storyteller have appeared elsewhere, some of them in several places. (Pieces of Silko's novel, Ceremony, also appear elsewhere.) What to make of this? On the one hand it may be that Silko is just trying to get as much mileage as she can out of what she's done, a practice not unknown to both fiction and essay writers, native and non-native. On the other hand, in the context of Native American storytelling, repetition of the “same” story on several different occasions is standard procedure, “originality” or noticeable innovation having no particular value. It should also be noted that the retellings of Silko's stories are not exact reprintings. For example, “The Man to Send Rain Clouds”, as it appears in Kenneth Rosen's anthology of the same name (New York: Viking, 1974), and in Storyteller, have slight differences. In Rosen's anthology there are numbered sections of the story (one to four), while there are only space breaks in Storyteller (no numbers). In the first paragraph of the Rosen version, Levis are “light-blue” while in Storyteller they are “light blue”; “blue mountains were still deep in snow” (3) in Rosen while in Storyteller “blue mountains were still in snow” (182). If we turn to the story called “Uncle Tony's Goat”, in both books, we find differences in the endings. In Rosen the story ends this way:

    … Tony finished the cup of coffee. “He's probably in Quemado by now.”

    I thought his voice sounded strong and happy when he said this, and I looked at him again, standing there by the door, ready to go milk the nanny goats. He smiled at me.

    “There wasn't ever a goat like that one,” he said, “but if that's the way he's going to act, O.K. then. That damn goat got pissed off too easy anyway” (99-100).

    The ending in Storyteller goes:

    … “He's probably in Quemado by now.”

    I looked at him again, standing there by the door, ready to go milk the nanny goats.

    “There wasn't ever a goat like that one,” he said, “but if that's the way he's going to act, O.K. then. That damn goat got pissed off too easy anyway.”

    He smiled at me and his voice was strong and happy when he said this (18).

    The differences in the first example may not amount to much, while those in the second might suggest a slight change in emphasis; a systematic study of the differences in Silko's retellings (something I have not attempted to do) might tell us something about her development as a writer—or might not be all that substantial. My point here is that Silko's retellings in writing, whether she is aware of this or not (and it is always possible that different versions come into existence as a result of the demands of different editors rather than as a result of Silko's own determinations), tend to parallel what we know of the oral retellings of traditional narrators.

  12. James Clifford, “On Ethnographic Authority,” Representations 1 (Spring 1983): 137.

  13. Paul Rabinow, “Representations are Social Facts: Modernity and Post-Modernity in Anthropology,” Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, ed. James Clifford and George E. Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986) 258.

  14. This would not accord very well with what Silko said of herself in Rosen's 1974 volume, Voices of the Rainbow (New York: Viking Press, 1974) where she emphasized that “ … the way we live is like Marmons… somewhere on the fringes … our origin is unlike any other. My poetry, my storytelling rise out of this source.” As glossed by Alan Velie, from whom I take this quotation, this means like “mixed-blood[s] from a ruling family” (in Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982) 107). It goes rather better with what Silko put in her contributor's note to Rosen's 1975 The Man to Send Rain Clouds. She wrote, “I am of mixed-breed ancestry, but what I know is Laguna. This place I am from is everything I am as a writer and human being.” (176)

  15. These are values in relation to “dominant” values as defined by Raymond Williams in “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” in his Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980) 40ff.

Helen Jaskoski (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6331

SOURCE: “Words Like Bones,” in CEA Critic, Vol. 55, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 70-84.

[In the following essay, Jaskoski maintains that by contextualizing stories between cultures, Silko transforms the Laguna tales in Storyteller into universal stories.]

Out of her own body she pushed
silver thread, light, air
and carried it carefully on the dark, flying
where nothing moved.
Out of her body she extruded
shining wire, life, and wove the light
on the void.
From beyond time,
beyond oak trees and bright clear water flow,
she was given the work of weaving the strands
of her body, her pain, her vision
into creation, and the gift of having created,
to disappear.
After her,
the women and the men weave blankets into tales of life,
memories of light and ladders,
infinity-eyes, and rain.
After her I sit on my laddered rain-bearing rug
and mend the tear with string.

—Paula Gunn Allen, “Grandmother”

The problem of contextualizing specifically tribal materials faces every Native American writer who presents such materials to a heterogeneous audience. The editors of New Worlds of Literature, an ambitious anthology of general literature, print Paula Gunn Allen's poem “Grandmother” with a brief introduction including the following comment by the author: “Language, like a woman, can bring into being what was not in being; it can, like food, transform one set of materials into another set of materials” (Beaty and Hunter 264). The only other annotation is two study questions, which bear examination:

1. What does “out of her own body she pushed / silver thread… extruded / shining wire, life, and wove the light / on the void” mean, in your own words?

2. “After” means “patterned on the model of” as well as next in time, and this seems to be the force of the word in the final verse paragraph. But what else in the relationship of speaker to grandmother is implied in the fact that the speaker is mending the rug that, apparently, the grandmother created? (265)

The first question appears to request a paraphrase of literal meaning: A female spider created the universe. The second question goes on to speak about “the rug that, apparently, the grandmother created,” although the plain sense of the poem tells us that Grandmother (the spider) wove “the strands / of her body” (not a rug) “into creation” and that it is “the women and the men” who weave blankets “after her” (in both senses).

In Keresan (Laguna) tradition, with which Allen is familiar,1 Ts'its'tc'idnad k'o (identified in English translation as Thought-Woman or Thinking Woman), who is the creator and great mother of Keresan peoples, is also known as Grandmother Spider. Thinking Woman/Grandmother Spider creates things by thinking of them and naming them (Boas 222, 276; Parsons 192; Silko, Ceremony). If the editors of New Worlds of Literature were familiar with this relevant bit of Keresan myth, which has been noted in discussions of the poem (Bannan; Jahner), one wonders why they suppressed the information. Or to put it another way, what does the student gain by attempting to make the paraphrase called for in study question 1 without knowing that a Spider Creatrix is being talked about? Does such lack of contextualization invite students to make the same mistaken inferences as the writer of question 2? The difficulty for the student, or for any other reader, is unfamiliarity with the cultural lexicon of the poem. It is likely that the non-Laguna reader has not been introduced to the myths, heroes, stories, history, economy, lifeways, and geography that give meaning and substance to the poem. Mediating Allen's poem to a general audience demands more in the way of gloss than the editors of New Worlds of Literature provide.

The problem of contextualization is particularly acute with American Indian texts, which are inarguably “American” yet intractably different from “canonical” American literature. Contextualizing Native American materials has particular relevance for pedagogy: Besides giving access to the inherent richness of the works themselves, it can serve as a paradigm for the process of education.

Here, I will explore issues of contextualization as they are formulated in Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller. Silko, like Allen, draws on Laguna Pueblo heritage. Storyteller, her third book, is a mixed-media production: Composed of traditional tales retold, poems, bits of family history and written short fictions, it defies simple generic classification. Storyteller is a self-reflexive work that takes both form and theme from the traditional relationship between storyteller and audience. It challenges every reader to assume the role of storyteller's audience in co-creating text and context. For the non-native reader, the process may lead to a radical decentering, with a refocusing of signification from the putatively marginal Native American perspective. Indeed, the book calls into question whole categories of “center” and “margin,” prodding the reader to rethink the means by which such positioning itself is accomplished (Babcock, “Tolerated”).


Storyteller simultaneously addresses two different audiences, Laguna and non-Laguna. Cultural boundaries and integrity consistently figure in Silko's philosophy and practice. In “An Old-Time Indian Attack,” an important early essay, she criticizes writers such as Gary Snyder and Oliver LaFarge for improperly assuming a right to claim Indian materials as their own. For her Laguna audience, then, Silko's task is to validate her claim to the elder's role of teacher: She must establish her right to tell Laguna stories. In addressing a non-Laguna, non-Indian audience, the text invites the reader to participate in creating its meaning, yet it must do so without violating the integrity of cultural materials by complicity in an invalid appropriation. Mediation requires boundaries, but assimilation erases distinction and destroys otherness.

Silko's strategy for accomplishing these complicated interchanges is to reverse a (theoretical) historical development whereby oral story became transformed into written fiction and the function of the author displaced the performance of the storyteller. Michel Foucault's discussion of the concept of author offers a relevant paradigm for Silko's undertaking. While Storyteller conforms to the “author-functions” that Foucault says are the only real constituents of the author, it proposes to displace the absent author with the presence of the text as storyteller.

Reinventing the text as storyteller involves a radical reconstitution of audience as well as of author. Unlike writing, storytelling is a communal activity requiring the presence of both teller and audience. As Silko puts it, “Storytelling always includes the audience and the listeners, and, in fact, a great deal of the story is believed to be inside the listener, and the storyteller's role is to draw the story out of the listeners” (“Language and Literature” 57). Storyteller includes the advice of Hopi elder Helen Sekaquaptewa in I'isau and the Birds: “You must be very quiet and listen respectfully. Otherwise the storyteller might get upset and pout and not say another word all night” (254). A different translation of Helen's words affirms even more strongly the constitutive role of the audience in storytelling: “It is known that the storyteller is touchy. If you do not answer she may pout and not tell a story” (Wiget, “Telling the Tale” 299). In Storyteller, the author's text continually promises to revoke the frozen certitude of writing and devolve into the dynamic uncertainty of live performance. The reader, then, must assume the constitutive, creative task of the storyteller's audience.

One of Storyteller's many paradigms for the storytelling performance is Silko's retelling of a tale given to her by her Aunt Susie: the story of Waithea, the little girl who ran away from her mother and whose clothes were transformed into butterflies. As Silko develops the text, she presents first a passage of reminiscence about Aunt Susie's background and education; the story proper follows. However, Silko takes care to embed the story of Waithea within a framing account of the storytelling situation and incorporates details of Aunt Susie's demeanor and expression as well as explanations of Laguna words:

“Yashtoah” is the hardened
crust on corn meal mush
that curls up.
The very name “yashtoah” means
it's sort of curled-up, you know, dried,
just as mush dries on top.


The story embodies the complexities of audience participation noted earlier. The situation and Aunt Susie's intent are clearly didactic: Teaching of many kinds is going on as Aunt Susie instructs her audience in Pueblo language, geography, and history, thus contextualizing for the real little girl the marvelous experience of the legendary little girl. Silko's own role is complex. On the one hand, young Leslie's figurative presence in the story models the reader's role with respect to Storyteller: The reader takes the part of listener/learner, with the text as teller/teacher. On the other hand, Silko as author displaces Aunt Susie as transmitter—and teacher—of the text, while as author she is inevitably absent. The text as presence performs the storytelling function.

Using this story as a model, we may say that following the narrative and absorbing contextual information are activities this book requires of its readers. But this is not enough. The retelling of a traditional story that is printed near the end of Storyteller gives readers directions for more active participation in constructing the text. “Skeleton Fixer,” which Silko notes is “A Piece of a Bigger Story” (245), retells a version of the ubiquitous Bungling Host “collection.”2 In the opening of Silko's story, an unidentified woman finds “[w]ords like bones / scattered all over the place” (242). Old Man Badger comes along and reconnects the bones, fitting back together even the ones that are not clearly recognizable, until—surprise!—“Old Coyote Woman jumped up / and took off running” (246). “Skeleton Fixer” recapitulates the process of fragmentation and reconstitution required of the reader of Storyteller, who must co-create the story by negotiating the apparently scattered, unrelated, and fragmentary texts and illustrations dispersed throughout the book. The synthesizing the reader undertakes will change with each rereading, just as each storytelling situation offers a new version of the “skeleton text.”

Neither the process nor the metaphor is new. In the 1840s, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft—arguably the first non-Indian to pay attention to the native literatures of North America—defined the critical and scholarly work required of anyone seeking to understand (and not merely appropriate) the culture of the “Other”:

To seek among ruins, to decipher hieroglyphics, to unravel myths, to study ancient systems of worship and astronomy, and to investigate vocabularies and theories of language are the chief methods before us.… Who shall touch the scattered bones of aboriginal history with the spear of truth and cause the skeleton of their ancient society to arise and live? (Williams 303)

Schoolcraft's principles (if not his practice) counter the assumption of New Worlds of Literature that New-Critical readings attending exclusively to the internal dynamics of a text, unaided by cultural-contextual information, can revivify “the scattered bones” into anything even faintly resembling what they are supposed to represent.


Storyteller figures its diverse audiences and the processes of instruction and mediation it undertakes with respect to those audiences. In a brief vignette at the center of the book, Silko recalls stopping to chat with Nora, a neighbor in the village. Nora's children have brought home a library book with one of Leslie's poems in it: “We all enjoyed it so much,” Nora says, “but … the way my grandpa used to tell it is longer” (110). Silko responds with a brief analysis of the distinction between writing and storytelling:

“Yes, that's the trouble with writing,” I said,
“You can't go on and on the way we do
when we tell stories around here.
People who aren't used to it get tired.”


This passage brings the Laguna audience within the text, acknowledging the intertextuality of Silko's written and oral materials—even as it suggests for the reader both what is missing and what might be required in approaching the book. Storyteller does set out to recapture a sense of the recursive and elaborative “going on and on” of oral storytelling as it plays and replays themes of hunting, planting, rain-bringing, witchcraft, and, of course, storytelling itself (see Danielson, “The Storytellers”; Hirsch; Krupat).

Silko's address to her Laguna audience also involves functions of legitimation and authentication. Deep respect for elders as carriers of truth and tradition characterizes Laguna (and other Native American) values. Leslie Silko's Keresan audience might remark the audacity of a young woman who claims the important role of storyteller.3Storyteller can be read as a document authorizing Silko's appropriation of the storytelling role, and validating in particular her claim to the role of Laguna, American Indian storyteller. Silko's criticism of Snyder and LaFarge asserts in the strongest terms the background required of the authentic storyteller: “We are taught to remember who we are: our ancestors, our origins. We must know the place we came from because it has shaped us and continues to make us who we are” (“An Old-Time Indian Attack” 213). One function of the family history portions of Storyteller is to authenticate Silko's claim to the materials she includes in the book. The introduction of Aunt Susie, then, not only contextualizes the story of Waithea for the non-Indian reader and provides a paradigm for the storytelling experience but also documents the Laguna genealogy of the story and thereby authenticates the teller/author and her right to reproduce the text.

A non-Indian audience also appears in Storyteller, explicitly in the inclusion of passages addressed to Lawson Inada and James Wright. Portions of letters to these two writers elaborate the didactic, contextualizing functions of storytelling. Writing to Inada, Silko describes the relationship of storytelling to place, illustrating how and why “we must know the place we came from”:

I remember the stories they used to tell us about places that were meadows full of flowers or about canyons that had wide clear streams. I remember our amazement at these stories of lush grass and running water because the places they spoke of had all changed; the places they spoke of were dry and covered with tumbleweeds and all that was left of the streams were deep arroyos. But I understand now. I will remember this September like they remembered the meadows and streams; I will talk about the yellow beeweed solid on all the hills, and maybe my grandchildren will also be amazed and wonder what has become of the fields of wild asters and all the little toads that sang in the evening. Maybe after they listen to me talking about this rainy lush September they will walk over the sandrock at the old house at Dripping Springs trying to imagine the pools of rainwater and pollywogs of this year. (170)

Stories are important not (just) because they describe an ideal world or an imaginary one, but because they offer crucial information about the real, physical world. The stories Silko heard and the ones she will tell about Dripping Springs contain essential knowledge, hidden by drought from direct observation, about this “place where she comes from.”

The letter to James Wright also instructs by example. Silko reflects on rooster stories in her family, on the complicated genealogy of family and story through which she has inherited a particular rooster anecdote, and on the connection between rooster stories of the past—like the one about what happened to Aunt Lillie and Grandpa Marmon's rooster—and her own rooster in the present (226-27). Like other brief, self-contained passages in Storyteller, the fragment recapitulates in miniature the exuberant abundance of the whole book (Silko and Wright 6-9, 22). The letters to Inada and Wright also have another mediating function. Non-Indian readers learn that the text includes them. Storyteller addresses them (us) directly and holds out expectations for their (our) participation.

Implicit in the careful delineation of genealogy of story and storyteller is a related project of reclaiming Laguna (and other Native American) materials that have been appropriated by outsiders. Silko comments in Storyteller on ethnographers' collections of Laguna materials. Prefacing a redaction of a story told by her great-grandfather Marmon to Elsie Clews Parsons, she says,

Boas, as it turns out
was tone-deaf
and the Laguna language is tonal
so it is fortunate he allowed Ms. Parsons
to do the actual collecting of the stories.


This epic critique of the ethnographic record takes the authenticating function from the outsider—ethnographer, linguist, anthropologist—and reclaims it for the subject's own storytelling voice. It also serves as implicit warning to the “tone-deaf” critic who, though well-intentioned, may engage in the colonizing activity of interpreting a work in ways inappropriate to its context.


The synthesizing that Storyteller requires of the reader also postulates a dynamic that requires maintaining difference. That is, the text mediates Indian culture to the non-Indian reader precisely by its delineation of boundaries between Indian and non-Indian. This maintaining of boundaries involves another project of reclamation and reinvention: the constitution of an Indian identity.

It is no secret that Indian is a construct of the non-Indian world. Gerald Vizenor writes of “the Indian” as an invention that European(ized) society uses to mask its failure to perceive the particular and the human (xxi). Hopi linguist Emory Sekaquaptewa offers the notion “Indian” as a mediating agent, a bridge to be left behind in the encounter with specific tribal reality.4 Silko, on the other hand, proposes to reappropriate the designation from within. Storyteller, reinventing the stories and storytellers of Laguna culture and inventing the reader-listener for them, reclaims and reinvents the Indian as well. Like the reclaiming of Laguna texts long buried in anthropological volumes, Silko's invention of an Indian identity reasserts essential values that she distinguishes from and places over against the other, non-Indian world. In affirming “Indian” as a meaningful concept, Storyteller finds the locus of perceptible difference in language. In particular, the contes—the eight written short fictions in Storyteller—examine difference to postulate Indian identity.

These contes first of all focus on protagonists and settings from different Indian cultures: an Eskimo woman, an aged Navajo woman, the Apache Geronimo, a Laguna man visiting a Hopi village, a young soldier returning to an unspecified pueblo. All these diverse characters share a perception of their difference from a powerful, threatening world that speaks a different language. Ayah, the old Navajo woman at the center of “Lullaby,” reflects on the loss of her children. For many years, she had blamed her husband “because he had taught her to sign her name. Because it was like the old ones always told her about learning their language or any of their ways, it endangered you” (47). In “Yellow Woman,” the narrator, a young wife enjoying a romantic interlude with a seductive stranger, perceives that language difference is threatening to a white man the two lovers encounter: “The white man got angry when he heard Silva speak in a language he couldn't understand” (61). The woman's lover uses the tribal language to protect her by explaining how to escape the hostile rancher. In “Tony's Story,” Leon, a young veteran just returned to his pueblo, tries to protect the unnerved Tony from a bullying police officer with the excuse that “he doesn't understand English so good” (126; see Ruoff; Evers; Jaskoski, “From the Time”). What these three stories consistently dramatize is the importance of retaining one's tribal language—whatever it may be—as protection against a hostile and encroaching alien power.

Two contes, “Storyteller” and “A Geronimo Story,” explore in detail the significance of language boundaries. Placed toward the beginning and the end of Storyteller, they also suggest a linear thematic development that plays against the book's circular or weblike matrix (Danielson, “Grandmother”). “Storyteller” and “A Geronimo Story” recapitulate the major themes of Storyteller: relationship of story to teller and audience, displacement from the nominally marginal to the subjective point of view, decentering of the non-Indian reader across the boundaries of culture and background.

“Storyteller” traces the thoughts and memories of a Yupik Eskimo woman in a jail in the Arctic bush as she waits to be interrogated about the death of a “Gussuck” (non-Eskimo) storekeeper. The protagonist's attitude contradicts the polyvocality so abundant in the rest of Storyteller. Her single-minded adherence to the truth as she sees it is absolute and unyielding: Her story, and hers alone, has any relevance and meaning for her. It is this story, which we have followed through her central consciousness, that she begins to tell to her fellow villagers as “Storyteller” draws to an end.

A brooding fatalism hangs over this tragic tale of cruelty, misunderstanding, and revenge; its anonymous characters seem fated to act out some archaic, unfathomable myth. Nature itself seems about to disintegrate: “She told herself it wasn't a good sign for the sky to be indistinguishable from the river ice, frozen solid and white against the earth. The tundra rose up behind the river but all the boundaries between the river and hills and sky were lost in the density of the pale ice” (18–19). The protagonist's vision of nature reflects her perception of the Gussuck world as a hostile, colonizing force bent on dissolving the outlines of her own identity. Although she knows English, she refuses to speak it with the Eskimo jailer or the non-Eskimo attorney. These refusals reenact her previous insistence, at school, on her language as the sign and essence of her integrity: “The dormitory matron pulled down her underpants and whipped her with a leather belt because she refused to speak English” (19). Just as she sees the encroaching cold effacing all boundaries of place and identity in nature, she also realizes that the school's attempt to erase her language is meant to annihilate her as a Yupik woman by a process of assimilation.5 The protagonist's unyielding insistence on her truth as the only truth about these events corresponds with her equally rigid insistence on her own language; maintaining impermeable boundaries of language protects her sense of self in a world of imminent annihilation.

“A Geronimo Story,” by contrast, choruses with many voices, many stories. The narrator, Andy, recounts a trip he took as a twelve-year-old boy when he rode with his uncle Siteye and other members of the Laguna Regulars under Captain Pratt; they were to assist Major Littlecock as he sought to encounter the legendary Apache chieftain Geronimo. “A Geronimo Story” is a deconstructionist parable in which the absence of Geronimo becomes the pretext for a deer hunt, and the subtext is the permeability as well as the toughness of cultural and linguistic boundaries. The story celebrates hunting, storytelling, and the common human ground of difference.

In “A Geronimo Story,” as in the contes discussed earlier, language protects identity and assists survival. However, this time it is a white man, Captain Pratt, who invokes the protective value of language—by refusing to translate. Speaking English, Major Littlecock makes a sexual slur against the Laguna men; Siteye responds in kind in Laguna; then, Captain Pratt deflects the potential hostility by lying: “I'm sorry, Major, but I don't speak the Laguna language very well” (221). This conte contrasts the uncompromising assertion of absolute truth that centers “Storyteller”: The hapless Littlecock must recognize and yet accept Pratt's obvious prevarication. Above all, “A Geronimo Story” insists that “language” is more than lexicon, orthography, or grammar. Although Littlecock lectures Pratt that “it is very useful to speak the Indian languages fluently” and although he himself has “mastered Crow and Arapaho, and… [is] fluent in Sioux dialects” (221), he cannot grasp the information about Geronimo's whereabouts that the Laguna scouts try to communicate to him, even though both Siteye and the captain “told him in good English” (220). (The sly sexual implications in the major's name also reflect the easy-going comedy of this tale, in contrast to the sadism and perversions that underlie the ominous, bitter world of “Storyteller.”)

The Laguna men's commentary on the jokes they make at the expense of Major Littlecock and the white community serves as a gloss on the tragedy of “Storyteller” (and of “Tony's Story” and “Yellow Woman” as well): “Anybody can act violently—there is nothing to it; but not every person is able to destroy his enemy with words” (222). While the nameless protagonist of “Storyteller” believes she has destroyed her enemy, she remains within a cycle of violence and retribution, and the enemy remains. “A Geronimo Story” offers a different view: of boundaries that can be flexible, elastic, a permeable interfacing of differences. There is room for accommodation and compromise. Laguna men ride with U.S. troops, and Siteye admires Captain Pratt for—of all things—his devotion to afternoon tea: “I admire him for that. Not like a white man at all; he has plenty of time for some tea” (215). Captain Pratt is white (as are the storekeeper, priest, and construction workers in “Storyteller”), and paradoxically words do destroy him—as enemy—when he accepts the Laguna language's deep structure as well as its surface manifestations.

Language vanquishes other enemies as well. Geronimo, another putative enemy, is present only in the tracings he leaves—his abandoned campsites (if they are his) and the stories told about him. Pursued by soldiers and scouts, he retreats forever in an infinite regress of language and story. Poor Littlecock, left without enemies, can only fade away: “His face had a troubled, dissatisfied look; maybe he was wishing for the Sioux country. … If he hadn't killed them all, he could still be up there chasing Sioux” (223). This is the paradox of hunting and storytelling (and reading): Success is defeat, for the object is to search—not to find.

“A Geronimo Story” exemplifies the process of contextualization undertaken throughout Storyteller. Captain Pratt derives from Silko's great-grandfather, Robert G. Marmon, whose picture with his young wife—Silko's beloved Grandma A'mooh—opens the book. Marmon's image closes the text as well, in a photograph showing him surrounded by sons, son-in-law and two grandsons (the author's father and uncle). A third photograph, numbered 22, shows “The Laguna Regulars in 1928, 43 years after they rode in the Apache Wars” (224, 272). In it, Marmon stands to the far right of the dozen old soldiers standing under a great oak tree. Stories about Captain Pratt that Andy hears in “A Geronimo Story” echo details that Silko retells from family anecdotes about her great-grandfather: how he was called “Squaw Man” by his white neighbors (16), how he defended his young grandsons from the insults of an Albuquerque hotelier (17). Thus, Storyteller enacts for the reader the process that metamorphoses Robert G. Marmon into Captain Pratt, that invents Andy even as Andy and the scouts invent Geronimo, that reinvents the “history” of the “Apache Wars.”

The contes of Storyteller decenter the non-Indian reader through language and point of view. Written in English, they are written against English. In every case, the reader is inducted by way of the central consciousness into the world of the Other, the putatively marginal. Kenneth Roemer points out that reconsidering supposedly marginal texts—his example being American Indian texts—can offer insight, available in no other way, into all literature. Silko's stories open for any reader the possibility of transformation that the author attributes to her great-grandfather Marmon: “I see in his eyes /he had come to understand this world /differently” (256). Here, we return to the transformative possibilities of language that Paula Gunn Allen asserts in her comment on Grandmother Spider.


The transformation into story of Geronimo and Marmon parallels the transformation of the old storyteller in “The Storyteller's Escape,” another of the narrative poems in Storyteller. The speaker of “The Storyteller's Escape” introduces an aged storyteller. This old woman “has been on every journey /and she knows all the escape stories” (247); she has become storyteller by “turning around /for the last look … so I could tell where these dear ones stopped” (248). Pursued by enemies and weakened by age, the old woman cannot go on. But then a child repeats the old storyteller's act: “A'moo'ooh, the child looked back” (250). Through the child's act of sympathetic imagination, the old woman returns: “This is the story she told, /the child who looked back, /the old teller's escape—the story she was thinking of” (253). The old storyteller makes her way home as part of the child's account, there to remain a living part of the community constituted by stories.6

“The Storyteller's Escape” in the last pages of Storyteller invites the reader back to Aunt Susie's story at the beginning of the book. In the earlier story, the child, Waithea, escapes from her mother; she undergoes transformation into a story even as her clothes metamorphoses into butterflies. In “The Storyteller's Escape,” the old storyteller is transformed into her story even as the “child who looked back” becomes the storyteller. The process of transformation and return through “looking back” parallels Leslie Silko's own relationship to Aunt Susie: Silko invents herself as storyteller and author in the process of “looking back” at Aunt Susie and her story and reinventing them for the readers of Storyteller.

Storyteller and the issue of contextualization have particular relevance to teaching and learning. Aunt Susie's instruction in Keresan vocabulary is but the overture to the compendium of lessons and models that Silko offers her readers. But contextualizing one's private experience and deepest thoughts in order to express, to communicate, to comprehend and be comprehended, is fundamental to the development of a public self that is the special project of education. Especially in the pluralistic society we live in, both locally and globally, the contextualizing of utterances—written and spoken, authored and received—to make sense of discourse across many ethnic, religious, language, and political boundaries has become critical to address. It is precisely in this way, I believe—by explicitly addressing the question of contextualization across these boundaries—that Storyteller reaches out from its local, family, and culture-specific grounding to engage its audience in recovering and repositioning the essential fictions by which we all live. “Storytelling brings us together,” Silko says, “despite great distances between cultures, despite great distances in time” (“Language and Literature” 72).7


  1. Keres is a linguistic category: Keresan languages and dialects are spoken at several of the New Mexico Indian pueblos, including Laguna, home of Leslie Silko and Paula Gunn Allen. Allen's maternal great-uncle, John M. Gunn, collected and translated Keresan history and literature at the beginning of this century (see Gunn, Schat Chen; Allen, The Sacred Hoop 282-83).

  2. The classification “Bungling Host” comes from the Aarne-Thompson motif index. Among many printed versions of this tale are Tristram P. Coffin's “The Bungling Host” in Indian Tales of North America (145-46) and Sam Blowsnake's variations in The Trickster (Radin 41-49). T. C. S. Langen defines “version” and “collection” as a theoretical basis for understanding the relationship of individual instances of a given tale to a set of core elements.

  3. Barbara Babcock (“At Home No Womens Are Storytellers”) analyzes a dynamic of woman artist, traditional role, and change in convention with reference to the ceramics of Helen Cordero. Silko's appropriation of the storyteller role in the medium of print may be compared with Helen Cordero's stylistic and thematic innovations in figural pottery. Silko and Cordero (both members of Keresan pueblos) present their appropriation of material traditionally reserved for elders or males as affirmation rather than critique of tradition.

  4. Sekaquaptewa writes,

    To the non-Indian, “Indian” may have some validity. But it does not derive from a particular Indian culture. It is something that has been concocted by the non-Indian.… It is a stereotype, and not an accurate reflection of our empirical reality.… In terms of bringing awareness of the Indian to the non-Indian, it serves well. Once the non-Indian becomes aware of the existence of Indians and the richness of their cultures, then he is ready to become interested in a specific tribe of Indians. If this is what is happening, then it is a good thing. (41)

    The conceptualization of “non-Indian” seems to require a notion of “Indian,” notwithstanding tribally specific definitions of “self” and “not-self.” I see Silko's construction of “Indian” emerging as response to the perception of “non-Indian.” See Robert F. Berkhofer for analysis of the concept of “the Indian.”

  5. Kate Shanley Vangen discusses this story as an allegory of response to oppressive colonialism. Numerous autobiographies have documented the Dickensian character of U.S. and Canadian boarding schools for Native children; official policy was to destroy familial and tribal ties, thus extinguishing Indian identity. The autobiographies of Basil Johnston and Helen Sekaquaptewa (Me and Mine), for example, offer poignant accounts of this experience. Edgar S. Cahn documents the appalling state of Indian schools into the 1960s, and Roger Dunsmore recounts continuation of counterproductive policies into the 1980s.

  6. The poem incorporates a frequent theme of autobiography and legend. Many versions are embedded in song, ceremony, or family history. Frances Densmore glosses the text of a Mandan song with such an account (Densmore 40-45; Jaskoski, “‘My Heart Will Go Out’” 126-27); M argot Astrov reprints a Chiricahua Apache version (211-12); Chahadinelli Benally narrates the experience of his grandmother, who escaped from enslavement on a New Mexico ranch and walked by herself some hundred miles home, bearing a child on the way (Johnson 57-74). Silko has commented extensively on how she sees stories and storytelling constituting community; see especially “A Conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko” and “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective.” In Running on the Edge of the Rainbow, Silko demonstrates storytelling in many modes.

  7. Preparation of this paper was assisted by a grant from the California State University Fullerton Foundation.

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———. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

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———. “‘My Heart Will Go Out’: Healing Songs of Native American Women.” International Journal of Women's Studies 4 (1981): 118-34.

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Patricia Jones (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6778

SOURCE: “The Web of Meaning: Naming the Absent Mother, in Storyteller,” in “Yellow Woman”: Leslie Marmon Silko, edited by Melody Graulich, Rutgers University Press, 1993, pp. 213-32.

[In the following essay, Jones analyzes Silko's use of the traditional Yellow Woman myth as a means of presenting the stories of the Laguna woman, her mother, and herself—merging myth and autobiography.]

They think
I am stronger than I am.
I would tell this like a story
but where a story should begin
I am left standing in the beat
of my silences.
There has to be someone to name you.

—Wendy Rose, “Naming Power”

Storyteller by Leslie Silko begins with the image of “a tall Hopi basket … inside the basket are hundreds of photographs.” The form and structure of the text reflect this image; it is a collage of stories, poems, myths, folktales, autobiographical notes, letters and pictures. And, like the photographs in the basket, the subjects are frequently the same—only the details change. Silko tells us that the photographs, many of which were taken by Grandpa Hank, “have always had special significance with the people of my family … [They] have a special relationship to the stories/ … because many of the stories can be traced in the photographs.” The book itself is shaped like a picture album or a scrapbook, creating a certain intimacy and familiarity between text and reader. Silko seems to invite the reader to share with her a personal as well as a mythological, historical and fictional set of memories.

The book is, in fact, autobiographical in the sense that it places the emphasis on the shaping of the author's developing self through the influence of her family and friends, the myths and stories she was told, and the place where she was raised. In an interview with Per Seyersted, Leslie Silko says that she sees Storyteller “as a statement about storytelling and the relationship of the people, my family and my background to the storytelling—a personal statement done in the style of the storytelling tradition, i.e., using stories themselves to explain the dimensions of the process.” By “naming” the people, places and stories that were important to her, she defines herself through her relationship to the family, the community and the land. Storytelling for Silko is more than “just … sitting down and telling a once-upon-a-time kind of story” (Barnes 86). It is rather “a whole way of seeing yourself, the people around you, your life, the place of your life in the bigger context, not just in terms of nature and location but in terms of what has gone on before, what has happened to other people … a whole way of being” (Barnes 86). This is a characteristic Native American point of view according to Simon Ortiz, who regards storytelling as “a way of life … a trail which I follow in order to be aware as much as possible of what is around me and what part I am in that life” (quoted in Lincoln 223). The reader, as he or she turns the pages of this “album,” is privileged to participate in the journey.

We are introduced to Silko's family through the pictures and the stories. We see and hear about her father, her sister, Aunt Susie, Grandpa Hank, Uncle Walter, Great Grandmother Anaya, Great Grandfather Marmon, Grandma A'mooh, Aunt Bessie, Great Grandpa Stagner and his brother Bill, Grandma Helen and even old Juana, who raised Grandma Helen. Each photograph tells a story and the story is “written” in the images present, the juxtaposition between photographs and text, and in the pictures omitted. We “read” the pictures as we read the myths and stories, looking for broader connections between them and Silko's life as she presents it in the text. Terry Eagleton, in Literary Theory: An Introduction, suggests that “the process of reading … is always a dynamic one, a complex movement … unfolding through time” (77). The oral storytelling tradition which forms the basic structure of Silko's text involves the reader in such a dynamic process. The reader, in effect, becomes participant in the text, connecting stories, finishing them, rewriting them, and constructing his or her own stories in the “gaps.” These gaps exist in every text according to Wolfgang Iser in “The Reading Process” because

no tale can ever be told in its entirety. … [It] is only through inevitable omissions that a story gains its dynamism … [T]hus whenever the flow is interrupted … the opportunity is given to us to bring into play our own faculty for establishing connections—for filling in the gaps left by the text itself.


The gaps in Silko's Storyteller, however, form a greater and more significant part of the story than those found in traditional texts. Like many Native American and modern texts, it is so fragmentary in form that “one's attention is almost exclusively occupied with the search for connections between fragments” (Iser 55). As we are seduced into the storytelling session, distinctions blur between the teller and the told, and where one story ends, a new one begins.

The most notable gaps and silences in Storyteller revolve around the absence of Silko's mother. In a book that appears to be substantially autobiographical and largely about the significance of female myths and forebearers, Silko's mother is mentioned only once in the entire text and then only in connection with Grandma A'mooh:

It was a long time before
I learned that my Grandma A'mooh's
real name was Marie Anaya Marmon.
I thought her name really was “A'mooh.”
I realize now it had happened when I was a baby
and she cared for me while my mother worked.


Stories about fictional, mythological and surrogate mothers, however, abound in the text. Not only does the book begin with Aunt Susie who functioned as surrogate mother to Silko, listening to her, answering her questions, and passing “down an entire culture / by word of mouth / an entire history / an entire vision of the world” (5-6), but it is dominated by the myths and stories of Yellow Woman. The Yellow Woman myths originate in traditional Cochiti and Laguna Pueblo stories. There are many versions of the story of Yellow Woman, but in each telling of the story Yellow Woman is abducted or seduced by the sexually exciting, potentially dangerous ka'tsina spirit. When she is drawn to him, her “physical sensations and desire … blot out thoughts of home, family and responsibility” (Ruoff 12). She leaves her husband and children to follow him. Sometimes she returns to the family; other times she does not. This union, however, almost always results in positive benefits for the tribe. According to Paula Gunn Allen in Spider Woman's Granddaughters, Yellow Woman may be “a Spirit, a Mother, a blessed ear of corn, an archetype, a person, a daughter … an agent of change and of obscure events, a wanton, an outcast, a girl who runs off with Navajos, or Zunis, or even Mexicans” (211). Whichever role she assumes, Yellow Woman functions as a powerful image of freedom, sexuality, power and creativity. She is simultaneously the “good” mother who fulfills the traditional role of wife and nurturer and the “bad” mother whose sexuality is a powerful force, capable of both creation and destruction. As a daughter and as a woman, Silko must come to terms with the female power and sexuality she recognizes in her mother and in herself; she must negotiate the dangerous territory between mother and daughter, self and other, freedom and responsibility, saint and wanton. To name her mother is to name herself; to acknowledge her mother is to acknowledge her own divided self. Silko must, therefore, silence the literal mother whose power, whose potential for wildness and wantonness, frighten her. Only by putting her into a story, weaving both the mother's and daughter's stories into myths and stories of Yellow Woman, can Silko find her own voice, unite the dual aspects of her own psyche, and take her rightful place in the line of strong women who preceded her.

Like Wendy Rose in “Naming Power,” Silko “tells this like a story” but where we expect her own personal story to begin, with her own birth, with her own mother, we are “left standing in the beat / of [her] silences.” The mother becomes simultaneously and paradoxically both absent from the text, and through her palpable absence, the very center of the text. This is a crucial “gap” in the text and one which leads the reader to struggle for connections. The mother is traditionally the central figure in a child's life and perhaps even more significantly so in a female child's life. It is generally through the mother that a daughter defines herself, her sexuality and her place in the world. As Susan Gubar suggests in “The Blank Page and Female Creativity,” the gaps and silences in the text, the blank pages “contain all stories in no story, just as silence contains all potential sound and white contains all colors” (305). The absence of the mother implies her importance to Silko's sense of self. Furthermore, Silko's repeated retelling of stories of other mothers and wives, particularly in the form of the Yellow Woman stories, seems to reinforce this significance.

The centrality of the mother figure in Laguna life is discussed by Paula Gunn Allen in “Who is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism.” She writes that “at Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, ‘Who is your mother?’ is an important question … [Y]our mother's identity is the key to your own identity” (209). Clearly Silko, who is of mixed Laguna, Hispanic and Anglo ancestry and who spent much of her childhood in and around the Laguna Pueblo, is aware of the importance of the mother figure on a mythical and metaphorical as well as literal level. The exclusion of the mother, then, from a text that focuses so strongly on the mythological aspects of motherhood, acquires increased significance. Certainly, as readers, we cannot overlook the silence; we must assume that this omission is both intentional and telling. Arnold Krupat suggests in “Post-Structuralism and Oral Tradition” that in reading Native American texts, we must “acknowledge that any meanings which appear to be present are never fully present” and conversely, “meaning (according to Terry Eagleton) … is a matter of what the sign is not as well as of what the sign seems to be” (128, italics added). The literal absence of the mother, therefore, invites us, as readers, to look for her in Silko's subtexts.

The mother, so conspicuously absent from Silko's personal memories, appears repeatedly in fictional and mythological forms. The opening story is one told by Aunt Susie about “the little girl who ran away” and drowned herself in the lake because her mother “didn't want [her] to have any yashtoah” (13). Yet after the child's death, the mother grieves and is “very sad” (14). In her grief, she scatters “the little clothing— / the little manta dresses and shawls / the moccasins and the yashtoah— / they all turned into butterflies— / all colors of butterflies / And today they say that acoma has more beautiful butterflies—” (15). The mother fails, at least in Western terms, to meet the child's needs and desires; yet, ultimately, good results for the community out of the individual tragedy. Aunt Susie's voice, relating the story, reflects this as she “spoke the words of the mother to her daughter / with great tenderness, with great feeling / as if Aunt Susie herself were the mother / … But when Aunt Susie came to the place / where the little girl's clothes turned into butterflies / then her voice would change and I could hear the excitement and wonder / and the story wasn't sad any longer” (15). Significantly, it is Aunt Susie, the surrogate mother, who tells this conflicted story of motherhood and establishes the sense of ambivalence and duality that is reflected in the many versions of the Yellow Woman stories that follow in the text.

Motherhood in Silko's stories has a duality that is based in history, tradition and myth and creates conflict for the Native American woman today; motherhood for the Lagunas is greater than a personal and familial state but has implications for the community and for the earth as well. This scope and the conflicts inherent in it are explored in the various tellings of the Yellow Woman stories. In their context Silko opens up the possibility for exploring the many dimensions of motherhood for herself and indirectly for the reader as well. The silences and the gaps in the text allow the reader the freedom to write and rewrite his or her own versions of Silko's stories just as Silko writes and rewrites them herself. The construction of Silko's text integrates the oral tradition into the reader's own experience. Just as Aunt Susie and Aunt Alice told Silko's stories “they had told … before but with changes in details,” the text is open for our own storytelling. Silko remembers that

The story was the important thing and little changes here and there were really part of the story. There were even stories about the different versions of stories and how they imagined these differing versions came to be. … I've heard tellers begin “The way I heard it was. … ” and then proceed with another story purportedly a version of a story just told but the story they would tell was a wholly separate story, a new story with an integrity of its own, an offspring, a part of the continuing which storytelling must be.


In the spirit of such a storytelling tradition, I will tell the stories “the way I heard it was … and then proceed with another story,” my own version of the story just told and yet a “wholly separate story” as well.

In my first version of the story, I imagine that I am telling the story of Leslie Silko's childhood—the story of a little girl who grew up “around Laguna life without begin immersed in it … [living] somewhere on the fringes” (Smith, Allen 188). Silko knew that she was not full Laguna and that

the white men who came to the Laguna Pueblo Reservation and married Laguna women were the beginning of the half-breed Laguna people like my family, the Marmon family. … I suppose at the core of my writing is the attempt to identify what it is to be a half-breed or mixed blooded person; what it is to grow up neither white nor fully traditional Indian.

(Lincoln 233)

Like Yellow Woman, the women in Silko's family had been seduced into marriages that separated them from their culture, leaving Silko “somewhere on the fringes” of Laguna life. If, as Paula Gunn Allen suggests, two of the roles that Yellow Woman may take are that of an outcast and an agent of change, then the responsibility for the isolation and dissonance that Silko feels as a result of her mixed blood lies with the mother. By merging her mother's story and her own with the myth of Yellow Woman, Silko attempts to bring the disparate pieces together, to identify “what it is to be a half-breed.” The process of the telling, revising and retelling of the old stories, the conversion of the traditional into the contemporary, binds Silko to her heritage, allowing her, like Yellow Woman, to return home with a new story to tell.

Since Laguna heritage is strongly matrilineal, the mother's story is particularly crucial in identifying the daughter and establishing her place in Laguna society. Women control the houses, the property, the lineage of the children, and many of the decisions about marriages (Fisher 23). The women in Silko's family provided strong role models for her. With her mother away at work, she was raised by “her grandmother Lillie, who had been a Model A mechanic, and her great-grandmother Marie or ‘A'mooh,’ a full blood from Paguate who … had gone to Indian School at Carlisle as soon as her many children were grown” (Seyersted 13). Aunt Susie attended Dickinson College and “when she returned to Laguna / she continued her studies / … even as she raised her family / and helped Uncle Walter run their small cattle ranch” (Storyteller 3). These women were not only remarkable in their accomplishments but in their ability to mesh the modern, westernized world of formal education and jobs with their traditional values and heritage. Grandma A'mooh “washed her hair in yucca roots and told the child about the old days” (Seyersted 13). Aunt Susie kept the oral tradition of storytelling alive and passed it down to Silko. Silko thinks of these women with affection and pride, saying “I grew up with women who were really strong, women with a good deal of power,” but she adds a line which shows how difficult it is for her to reconcile this power with her mother's power, which she sees as negative: “And I think about that, and I try to think about my mother: is there something about the way she and I have gotten along, or how we related to each other? … If someone was going to thwart you or frighten you, it would tend to be a woman; you see it coming from your mother, sent by your mother” (Barnes 96-97). She can only “try” to think about her mother.

Silko's mother was a “mixed blood Plains Indian” and she kept Silko on the “customary cradle board until she was a year old” (Seyersted 13). Yet she also went out to work when Silko was a young child leaving Grandma A'mooh and her aunts to mother her. Thus, the mother is both present and absent in Silko's life; she weds the traditional Native American customs of mothering with the Western need to leave the home to work. Since much of Leslie Silko's sense of her place in the community is vested the identity of her mother and her mother's family, this dissonance sets up an inevitable conflict.

Among the Keres, every individual has a place within the universe—and that place is defined by clan membership. In turn, clan membership is dependent on matrilineal descent. … [N]aming your own mother … enables people to place you precisely within the universal web of your life, in each of its dimensions: cultural, spiritual, personal, and historical.

(Allen, “Who Is Your Mother?” 209)

Because of her mixed blood, Silko's position in the community was on the periphery. Her house was “situated below the village, close to the river … on the fringe of things” (Silko, “A Conversation,” 29). She was included in clan activities, but not to the same extent as the full bloods; she helped out at ceremonial dances but did not dance herself (Seyersted 13). Silko seemed to belong nowhere and everywhere. Her place in the community is largely determined by her mother and, if her relationship with her mother is distanced or problematic, the consequences, according to Paula Gunn Allen, are the “same as being lost, isolated, abandoned, self-estranged, and alienated from your own life … Failure to know your mother, that is, your position and its attendant traditions, history, and place in the scheme of things, is failure to remember your significance, your reality, your right relationship to earth and society” (“Who is Your Mother?” 209-210). The issues of motherhood in the literal, the figurative, and the metaphorical sense become central, therefore, to Silko's sense of self—her identity both as an individual and as a part of the whole.

Silko, then, must write about her mother in order to understand herself and her place in the community. Yet as Adrienne Rich points out in Of Woman Born, “the cathexis between mother and daughter—essential, distorted, misused—is the great unwritten story” (225). The daughter must both identify with and separate from the mother. It is difficult to see our own mothers in any way other than through their relationship to us, and if that relationship is conflicted, as it often is, we must look for our mother's stories and our own story in the stories of other women. It is both difficult and threatening to imagine our mothers with sexual and emotional needs similar to, yet separate from, our own. It is hard, in fact, to acknowledge those same feelings in ourselves. We, too, are daughters, and perhaps mothers, and in these roles, we bury the stories of our own sexuality as deeply as we do those of our mothers. Our sexuality makes us vulnerable and leaves us open to seduction. We are seduced by men, by words, by stories, by the experiences of others, and by our own needs and desires. The repeated storytelling of the Yellow Woman stories in Storyteller is an attempt on Silko's part to place her life in a larger context—to grapple with the sexuality and seduction of her mother, her grandmothers, herself and her people, to create a new story, a new myth, out of the old stories and the fabric of her life.

In Storyteller, the story of Yellow Woman is told at least six different times and each telling is both the same and different from the preceding telling. The effect of this succession of stories, merged with the content of each story, suggests that, like Silko, we all are caught in a web of storytelling in which the mythical stories that we have known since “time immemorial” inform the patterns that our lives take, the stories that we will live. Kenneth Lincoln in Native American Renaissance says that

Words are believed to carry the power to make things happen, ritualized in song, sacred story, and prayer. This natural force is at once common as daily speech and people's names. The empowering primacy of language weds people with their native environment: an experience or object or person exists interpenetrant with all other creation, inseparable from its name. And names allow people to see themselves and the things around them, as words image the spirits in the world.


The act of telling and of naming is an act of creation. Naming makes it so. In the Yellow Woman stories, Silko tries out a variety of stories and myths, telling each from a different stance. She tells traditional stories, mythological stories, modern versions, versions in which Yellow Woman goes home to her family and versions in which Yellow Woman is killed. Some stories are funny and others are sad; some stories are cynical and brittle, others are lyrical and touching. It is as though Silko tries on a new persona for each story, envisioning both herself and her mother as the Yellow Woman of the story, exploring the choices available to women and the compelling needs and desires that drive women to make those choices.

In “Yellow Woman,” it is the act of telling and naming that transverses the distance between myth and reality, between story and life, and merges the two into one. The stranger by the river calls the woman “Yellow Woman,” and she is seduced into the story, drawn inextricably into its pattern. She follows Silva: she “did not decide to go … [She] just went. Moonflowers blossom in the sand hills before dawn, just as … [she] followed him.” Like the pattern in a spider web, the replication is inevitable. She wonders if

Yellow Woman had known who she was—if she knew that she would become part of the stories. Maybe she'd had another name that her husband and relatives called her so that only the ka'tsina from the north and the storytellers would know her as Yellow Woman.

The story becomes her story. When Silko tells the story, it becomes her story as well; both Silko and Yellow Woman are “drawn inextricably into [the] … pattern” of the stories they create. Yellow Woman thinks that she “will see someone … and then I will be certain that he is only a man … and I will be sure that I am not Yellow Woman. Because she is from out of time past and I live now and I've been to school and there are highways and pickup trucks that Yellow Woman never saw.” But all she can know is the moment. All she can feel is “the way he felt, warm, damp, his body beside me. This is the way it happens in the stories, I was thinking, with no thought beyond the moment.” Perhaps we all live only in the moment and the moment is beyond our control, our stories written and determined by the stories that have gone before, that have already been told; we live out the stories unaware that we are recreating new versions of old stories and it is only in the telling that the patterns become real. In an interview in Sun Tracks, Silko suggests that “you know you belong if the stories incorporate you into them. There have to be stories … People tell … stories about you and your family … and they begin to create your identity. In a sense you are told who you are or you know who you are by the stories that are told about you” (29-30). Our very lives are an act of creation—making new versions of old stories for future storytellers.

Silva tells Yellow Woman that “someday they will talk about us and they will say, ‘Those two lived long ago when things like that happened.’” And Yellow Woman knows that “if old Grandpa weren't dead he would tell them what happened—he would laugh and say ‘Stolen by a ka'tsina, a mountain spirit. She'll come home—they usually do.’” In the end Yellow Woman decides to tell them “that some Navajo had kidnapped me, but I was sorry that old Grandpa wasn't alive to hear my story because it was the Yellow Woman stories he liked to tell best.” In the telling, the story will become a new legend, a new myth, reinforcing the pattern that will inform the next story. As Elaine Jahner suggests, “transmission of the knowledge of ‘stories,’ … involves not only the sharing of knowledge but the sharing of how knowledge has been shaped through one's living with it” (41–42). It is through such stories that Silko is able to integrate past and present, to resolve the conflicts and to restore balance in her life.

In each telling of the Yellow Woman story, Yellow Woman abandons her family and goes off with the ka'tsina spirit, drawn to “his skin slippery against [hers].” Each time her actions are understandable, forgivable, inevitable. This story leads me back to the gaps, the silences, in the text about Silko's own mother. I imagine that this contemporary version of the myth is Silko rewriting her mother's story, justifying her mother's actions. In the story we are told that the “mother and grandmother will raise the baby like they raised me. Al will find someone else, and they will go on like before, except that there will be a story about the way I disappeared while I was walking along the river.” Whether Silko actually felt abandoned by her mother physically, emotionally or spiritually is not relevant for, as Silko reminds the reader, “sometimes what we call ‘memory’ and what we call ‘imagination’ are not so easily distinguished.” The telling of the story makes it real, turns pain into celebration.

Yet, in writing the Yellow Woman story, I imagine that Silko not only rewrites her mother's story, but writes her own story as well. This is a story conceived in both memory and imagination and its genesis is in both the myth and the modern world. In the Sun Tracks interview, Silko tells us that girls meet boyfriends and lovers at the river and that she used to

wander around down there herself and try to imagine walking around the bend and just happening to stumble upon some beautiful man. Later on I realized that these kinds of things that I was doing when I was fifteen are exactly the kinds of things out of which stories like the Yellow Woman story [came]. I finally put the two together: the adolescent longings and the old stories, that plus the stories around Laguna at that time about people who did, in fact, just in recent times, use the river as a meeting place.


Silko weaves together both her own stories and her mother's stories and in the process explores the power and dimensions of female sexuality. In the Yellow Woman stories, women are overcome time and again by their own overpowering passion. They are almost unhesitatingly willing to abandon one life for another. These women must negotiate between two worlds—the world of the family and that of self. The Native American version of this conflict, however, differs significantly from the Western version. In the Western tradition the mother who leaves her family is punished; in the Native American tradition she is celebrated. The Yellow Woman stories validate female sexuality, viewing the wildness and passion that leads to such improper, non-conformist behavior as an ultimately creative act. This sense of self as a sensual and sexual being may at certain times even work for the greater good of the community. Simon Ortiz suggests that “pueblo societies see the survival of the group as more important than the existence of the individual … [and] man as a minute part of an immense natural cycle” (Seyersted 17). The perpetuation of that cycle serves to “bring new blood into the pueblo [and] Yellow Woman becomes a symbol of renewal through liaisons with outside forces” (Ruoff 10). The sexual act, then, “channels the awesome power and energy of our human sexuality—the preserve of wilderness in human beings—into socially useful channels” (Smith, Allen 178). Accordingly, women who step outside the bonds of propriety often bring not disgrace but great good to the tribe. This pattern is reflected repeatedly in the various versions of the Yellow Woman stories.

In “Cottonwood Part One: Story of Sun House,” Yellow Woman leaves “precise stone rooms / that hold the heart silently” and “her home / her clan / and the people / (three small children / the youngest just weaned / her husband away cutting firewood)” (Storyteller 64). She is seduced by the “colors of the sun,” in the form of a spirit who is the sun himself. She is inextricably drawn to him despite the fact that “the people may not understand.” She does it “for the world / to continue / Out of love for this earth / cottonwood / sandstone / and sky.” Because of her actions the sun comes again and again “out of the Sun House,” and the earth will not freeze over and die.

This pattern is repeated in “Cottonwood Part Two: Buffalo Story,” in which Yellow Woman's actions result in bringing food to her people in a time of drought and starvation. Yellow Woman, who goes out searching for “water to carry back to her family,” is seduced by “water … churning … [where] something very large had muddied the water.” Frightened by her own sexuality, she turns “to hurry away / because she didn't want to find out,” but it is too late. She is seduced by a spirit who is “very good to look at / … she had never seen anyone like him / It was Buffalo Man who was very beautiful,” and when he says “Come with me,” she follows. She is killed by her husband when he discovers she is unwilling to leave the Buffalo people whom she “loves.” Yet, her death results in plentiful meat for her tribe. The community benefits from her actions:

It was all because
one time long ago
our daughter, our sister Kochininako
went away with them.


Seduction stories follow one after the other and whether “Yellow Woman” (or her contemporary counterpart) is abducted by “that Mexican / at Seama feast,” or “three Navajo men / headed north along / the Rio Puerco river / in a red '56 Ford” or is seduced “Outside the dance hall door / late Friday night / in the summertime,” the result is always the same. When she is asked “Have you seen the way stars shine / up there in the sand hills?” she usually says “No. Will you show me?” The result of this acknowledgement and acting out of human sexuality generally climaxes in a positive outcome for the community or tribe in the form of the birth of magical children, the acquisition of food or water in time of need, or the gift of a new ceremony. Female sexuality is seen as a positive and creative force in the world, even outside the bonds of marriage.

I imagine that there is another story embedded in this story, however, and it is the story of the land. In “Lullaby,” Silko writes “The earth is your mother / she holds you / … There never was a time / when this / was not so” (51). The earth, as mother, is connected to the human, animal and spiritual world as mother/woman is to a lover. In an interview with Kim Barnes, Silko suggests that

What's operating in those stories of Kochininako is this attraction, this passion, this connection between the human world and the animal and spirit worlds. Buffalo Man is a buffalo, and he can be in the form of a buffalo, but there is this link, and the link is sealed with sexual intimacy, which is emblematic of that joining of two worlds. … there's a real overpowering sexual attraction that's felt. The attraction is symbolized by or typified by the kind of sexual power that draws her to the buffalo man, but the power which draws her to Buffalo Man is actually the human, the link, the animal and human world, those two being drawn together. It's that power that's really operating, and the sexual nature of it is just a metaphor for that power.


So Silko weaves a new story out of the old one—a story about power, sex, love and the earth. Intercourse occurs between mother earth and the spirit and animal world. And, like the other seductions in the Yellow Woman stories, this union results in good for the earth and the community. The mother, as sexual and sensual being as well as mother figure, is of central importance. For Silko to acknowledge and understand her own sexuality as well as her mother's, she must see it in the greater context of mother as earth as well as mother as individual. She must see sexuality as ultimately creative and productive; she must once again tell the story so that the mother's choice between self and child is not only an acceptable but a necessary act. Smith and Allen write:

In such comings-together of persons and spirits, the land and the people engage in a ritual dialogue. … The ultimate purpose of such ritual abductions and seductions is to transfer knowledge from the spirit world to the human sphere. … the human woman makes little attempt either to resist or to tame the spirit-man who abducts her. Nor do men … attempt to control or dominate [the women]. … the human protagonists usually engage willingly in literal sexual intercourse with the spirits. … This act brings the land's power, spirit, and fecundity in touch with their own, and so ultimately yields benefit for their people.


The mother who acknowledges her own sexuality and who acts on that acknowledgment offers men and women a paradigm for healthy and whole relationships with each other; a woman's role as wife, mother, earth is no longer viewed as constricting but as liberating.

This connection to the land must be particularly important to Silko. Today the Jackpile Mine is located in Laguna land, near Pagute. It is the largest open pit uranium mine in existence. The deepest uranium mine shaft is sunk into Mt. Taylor, the sacred Laguna mountain, which is the traditional home of the ka'tsina spirit. These mines have brought economic prosperity to Laguna but at the same time cancer is spreading at an alarming rate; the number of children born with birth defects at Laguna is growing significantly; the ecosystem is contaminated and drinking water has radiation levels two hundred times greater than those considered safe (Seyersted 12). If the mother is to survive, if the earth is to survive, Silko suggests that the relationship between the spiritual, the physical and the human must be one of passion, intercourse and love: We must sleep “with the river” and find “he is warmer than any man.” We must listen to voices and stories that inform us:

Aging with the rock
of this ancient land
I give myself to the earth,
my red feet on the mesa like rust, root
in this place with my mothers before me,
balance end by end like a rainbow
between the two points of my birth, dance
into shapes that search the sky for clouds
filled with fertile water.
Across asphalt canyons, bridging river
after river, a thirty year old woman
is waiting for her name.

Like this speaker from Wendy Rose's “Naming Power,” through accepting and embracing our own passion and sexuality we can “give [ourselves] to the earth,” connect with and come to understand “[our] mothers before [us],” and in so doing, achieve a “balance … like a rainbow.”

The stories merge and converge. The absent mother at the center of the text is the figure around which all the other figures revolve. Each story is her story, Silko's story, and, in a sense, our story also. Just as the stories can be traced in the photographs in the Hopi basket, the stories are told through the blank pages, the silences, and the gaps in the text. When we look through Silko's album of pictures, the absence of a picture of her mother tells a story just as loudly as the presence of the pictures of others. Iser says in “The Reading Process” that

although we rarely notice it, we are all the time engaged in constructing hypotheses about the meaning of the text. The reader makes implicit connections, fills in the gaps, draws inferences and tests our hunches. … [T]he text itself is really no more than a series of “cues” to the reader, invitations to construct a piece of language into meaning.


The series of stories about Yellow Woman, like the pictures, each serve as a different pose, a different landscape, but the subject remains the same—the identity of woman as mother and wife and the tensions between those roles and her sexuality, creativity and productivity. In leafing through the album, telling the stories of the pictures, we see ourselves as well as others. Similarly, in reading the “gaps” in the text, we come to know a series of stories—some of them our own.

In Silko's Storyteller, we must listen to the silence as well as the words, and out of that silence construct our own stories to propel us into the future and connect us to the past. Leslie Silko is the storyteller and

The storyteller keeps the stories
all the escape stories
she says “With these stories of ours
we can escape almost anything
with these stories we will survive.”
“The Storyteller's Escape”


Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. “Cochiti and Laguna Pueblo Traditional Yellow Woman Stories.” Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women. Edited by Paula Gunn Allen. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989, 210-218.

———. “Who is Your Mother?: Red Roots of White Feminism.” The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indians Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986, 209-221.

Barnes, Kim. “A Leslie Marmon Silko Interview.” The Journal of Ethnic Studies 134 (1986): 83-105.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Fisher, Dexter. “Stories and Their Tellers—A Conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko.” The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States. Edited by Dexter Fisher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980, 18-23.

Gubar, Susan. “The Blank Page and Female Creativity.” The New Feminist Criticism. Edited by Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985, 292-313.

Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, 50-69.

Jahner, Elaine. “An Act of Attention: Event Structure in Ceremony.American Indian Quarterly 5.1 (1979): 34-47.

Krupat, Arnold. “Post-Structuralism and Oral Tradition.” Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987, 113-128.

Lincoln, Kenneth. “Grandmother Storyteller: Leslie Silko.” Native American Renaissance. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983, 222-250.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Rose, Wendy. “Naming Power.” That's What She Said: Contemporary Poetry and Fiction by Native American Women. Edited by Rayna Green. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, 218-220.

Ruoff, A. LaVonne. “Ritual and Renewal: Keres Traditions in the Short Fiction of Leslie Silko.” MELUS 5.4 (1978): 2-17.

Seyersted, Per. Leslie Marmon Silko. Western Writers Series 45. Boise: State University, 1980.

Silko, Leslie. “A Conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko.” Sun Tracks 3.1 (1977): 29-32.

———. Storyteller. New York: Seaver Books, 1981.

Smith, Patricia Clark and Paula Gunn Allen. “Earthly Relations, Carnal Knowledge: Southwestern American Indian Women Writers and Landscape.” The Desert is No Lady. Edited by Vera Norwood and Janice Monk. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987, 174-196.

Linda J. Krumholz (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9421

SOURCE: “‘To Understand This World Differently’: Reading and Subversion in Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller,” in Ariel, Vol. 25, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 89-113.

[In the essay below, Krumholz describes Silko's attempts to engage non-Native American readers in Storyteller in order to inform their understanding of Laguna culture.]

Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller is a book of stories and a book about stories: it contains traditional Pueblo Indian stories, Silko's family stories, poems, conventional European style short stories, gossip stories, and photographs, all woven together to create a self-reflexive text that examines the cyclical role of stories in recounting and generating meaning for individuals, communities, and nations. Storyteller has been described as an uniquely Native American form of autobiography and as a simulation of the oral tradition in written form.1 The book simulates the oral tradition both in the compilation of many stories that create their own interpretive context (functioning like an oral community) and in the lack of discrimination made between the many kinds of stories. By eliding distinctions between genres and between old and new stories, Silko creates a dynamic juxtaposition that duplicates the way in which meaning is created in the oral tradition through a constant interaction between the stories and the material circumstances of the community, between the old stories and the on-going creation of meaning. Her image for the oral tradition is a web: strong, flexible, resilient, everchanging, interconnected, and in dynamic relationship with the rest of the world.

Silko's book functions in the “contact zone,” a phrase coined by Mary Louise Pratt to describe “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (444). Pratt describes a certain kind of text created by the colonized or conquered, by those made “other” by the dominating social group, as an “autoethnographic text,” “a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them” (445). Pratt argues that

[autoethnographic texts] involve a selective collaboration with and appropriation of idioms of the metropolis or the conqueror. These are merged or infiltrated to varying degrees with indigenous idioms to create self-representations intended to intervene in metropolitan modes of understanding. Autoethnographic works are often addressed to both metropolitan audiences and the speaker's own community. Their reception is thus highly indeterminate.


Silko's Storyteller is an autoethnographic text, a book that engages with the dominant representations of Native Americans in order to appropriate and transform those representations. The book contains many of the forms of expression and faces many of the perils that, according to Pratt, distinguish writing in the contact zone:

Autoethnography, transculturation, critique, collaboration, bilingualism, mediation, parody, denunciation, imaginary dialogue, vernacular expression—these are some of the literate arts of the contact zone. Miscomprehension, incomprehension, dead letters, unread masterpieces, absolute heterogeneity of meaning—these are some of the perils of writing in the contract zone. (450)

Pratt emphasizes the perilous and indeterminate nature of the reception of texts in the contact zone. In this essay I focus on the role of the reader in Silko's book in an attempt to negotiate the charged terrain of the contact zone. I read Storyteller as a ritual of initiation for the reader into a Laguna Pueblo representation and understanding of the world, a reading that emphasizes the potential for the text to transform consciousness and social structures. Finally, I consider the position of literary criticism and my own work in this paper within this contact zone.

Silko explains in a talk entitled “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective” that “a great deal of the story is believed to be inside the listener, and the storyteller's role is to draw the story out of the listeners. This kind of shared experience grows out of a strong community base” (57). But how does the storyteller address both those inside the community base and those outside it as well? In describing Storyteller as an autoethnography and as an initiation for the reader, I will focus on the reader as outsider, the non-Laguna and non-Indian reader. What serves as an act of transformation for a non-Indian reader may serve as an affirmation for the Indian reader. But insofar as Silko engages with and challenges the dominant representations of Native Americans, she confronts the ideologies that all “Americans” are subject to in varying degrees—many Native Americans have also been educated in Euroamerican schools, for example. Silko begins Storyteller with stories that correlate with, and repudiate, the Euroamerican representation in which American Indians are tragic figures, scattered remnants of a dying culture. As the reader moves through the book, she or he gains greater familiarity with Native American stories and perspectives, until the final stories of the book use the humour and subversion of Coyote stories, stories of the quintessential Native American trickster, to show the vitality and humour of Indian culture, while also laughing at the dominant representations of power, of history, and of American Indians. Silko engages with the terms of the dominant culture and then moves them progressively into a Laguna context, shifting the reader's perspective from one interpretive position to another. Thus Silko creates “resistance literature”; she appropriates the terms of the colonizer in order to change forms of representation, to change readers, and to change the world.2

One of the central ways that Silko challenges dominant representations of Native Americans is by contesting the relegation of Native Americans to the past, and by breaking down the oral/written distinction that is used to support the past/present (them/us) dichotomy. Native American arts and storytelling were for a long time in the academic purview of anthropology, and European anthropologist Johannes Fabian argues that anthropological temporal categories served to construct the colonized “other” as part of the past, excluded from contemporaneity, in order to justify the colonial mission. He writes:

Anthropology contributed above all to the intellectual justification of the colonial enterprise. It gave to politics and economics—both concerned with human Time—a firm belief in “natural,” ie., evolutionary Time. It promoted a scheme in terms of which not only past cultures, but all living societies were irrevocably placed on a temporal slope, a stream of Time—some upstream, others downstream. Civilization, evolution, development, acculturation, modernization (and their cousins industrialization, urbanization) are all terms whose conceptual content derives from whatever ethical, or unethical, intentions they may express. A discourse employing terms such as primitive, savage (but also tribal, traditional, Third World, or whatever euphemism is current) does not think, or observe, or critically study, the “primitive”; it thinks, observes, studies in terms of the primitive. Primitive being essentially a temporal concept, is a category, not an object, of Western thought. (17-18)

Clearly Fabian's analysis of Western temporal categories applies to the colonization of the United States, a colonization justified by a narrative in which Europeans discovered a New World that was empty except for a few nomadic savages who could only profit from contact with a more advanced society, primitives who needed to be brought from the past to the present (even if it killed them). There are also other contemporary manifestations of this evolutionary time concept, as in romantic ideas of Native Americans—new versions of the “noble savage”—that relegate them to some idyllic past to which other Americans wish they could return. Jimmie Durham, a Cherokee artist and writer, states that in “the United States, people phrase their questions about Indians in the past tense” (424).

The distinction between oral and written cultures has been used in anthropology to define the preliterate, prehistorical, and primitive (that is, static and dead) cultures in opposition to the literate, historical, and, by implication, contemporary (European) people. These reified divisions between oral and literate cultures have been criticized by contemporary Euroamerican anthropologists, such as Joel Sherzer and Anthony Woodbury, who argue that

[some statements describing an oral/written distinction] do not come to terms with the nature of oral discourse, but tend rather to take written discourse as a model and then view oral discourse as less complicated, less advanced, and seemingly deficient in relation to the written texts of literate, technological societies. … there is no simple dichotomy between oral and written discourse, between nonliterate and literate societies. Rather there is considerable and quite interesting continuity between the oral and the written, showing diversity within each: There are oral genres in Native America that have such “written” properties as fixed text, “planning,” and abstraction form context, and written genres in European-based societies have such “oral” properties as spontaneity and “repair,” scansion into pause phrases, and context-dependent interpretability. (9-10)

In Storyteller, Silko challenges the distinctions between oral and written by constructing the written as a secondary and diminished version not simply of verbal presence but of the entire dynamic situation of place, people, and stories in the oral community.

Silko also works against the representations of traditional Native American stories as simplistic and static, without any contemporary applicability or pleasure, ideas perpetuated by anthropologists' stylistic choices in transcription and translation. Silko disdains the work of ethnologists Franz Boas and Elsie Clews Parsons, who “collected” stories of the Laguna Pueblo in their book Keresan Texts in order to preserve what they considered a dying culture (“A Conversation” 30). Dennis Tedlock, a Euroamerican anthropologist, has also criticized Boas's and Parsons's methods of transcription and translation as another way of rendering Native American people as primitive precursors. He writes:

[When translating from oral to written] the direction of movement is opposite to that of translation as practiced between two written traditions: whereas the professional translator brings what was said in another language across into the saying of his own, the professional linguist takes his own language partway across to the other, artificially creating a new variety of broken English. Not only that, but as Dell Hymes has pointed out, those who wish to keep what was said in the other language at a great distance, whether giving it the status of an early link in their own evolutionary past or filling out the spaces in a literary bestiary, will even take this broken English as a sign of authenticity.(12)

Tedlock proposes that Native American oral narratives should be written on the page like dramatic poetry to emphasize oral and performative stylistics as they shape the meaning and aesthetics of oral narratives, thereby stressing the continuity of forms between the oral and the written. Silko uses some of the typographical devices that Tedlock suggests (not necessarily at his urging). She uses the ends of lines to indicate verbal pauses, she indents to indicate visually the structural importance of repetition, and she uses italics to indicate verbal asides to the audience. These textual indicators control the pacing and reception of the stories, increasing the accessibility and emphasizing the poetic and narrative effects for readers. Silko also blurs the distinction between oral Pueblo stories and written short stories as Storyteller progresses, in part by rendering them all in writing, but also by obscuring the formal differences on the page until in the final stories the forms of poetry, traditional stories, and European style short stories are virtually indistinguishable.

While blurring the distinctions between oral and written arts and asserting the contemporaneity of Native American verbal arts, Silko also carries Native American concepts of language into her written text. In Native American oral traditions, language is neither a lens offering a mimetic representation nor a problematic social structure—language has the power to create and transform reality. Numerous students of Native American culture have noted the efficacious power of the word. Kenneth Lincoln offers a description of “tribal poetics”: “Ideally generative, words make things happen in Native America; language is the source of the world in itself” (20). Elsewhere, Brian Swann writes, “The Word, in fact, is a sacrament, a vital force, so that, for instance, a hunting song is not just a pleasant aesthetic experience, but possesses an active relationship with the hunting act” (xi). He elaborates: “A truly sacramental sense of language means that object and word are so fused that their creation, the ‘event,’ is itself creative, bringing into this time and place the enduring powers which truly effect that which the event claims, and such action cannot be undone” (xii). The term “sacramental,” with its religious echoes, conveys a spiritual concept in which a symbol becomes what it symbolizes—there is no gap between signifier and signified. The spoken word is thus a powerful creative or destructive force.

The creative and transformative power of language connects linguistic acts to the transformative processes of ritual. Storytelling is a central element in Native American rituals, and Silko refers to the creative and destructive powers of language throughout Storyteller. Anthropological theories of ritual and liminality may be applicable to all acts of reading. But I wish to connect Silko's Storyteller to ritual in order to propose the transformative potential of this book in its particular position in the contact zone and to read the structure of the work as a tool in the transformative process.

Rituals are formal events in which symbolic representations, such as dance, song, story, and other activities are spiritually and communally endowed with the power to shape real relations in the world. The anthropologist Victor Turner divides the ritual process into three stages: rites of separation, rites of limen or margin, and rites of reaggregation or integration (“Are There Universals?” 8-18). Turner theorizes “marginality” or “liminality” as a space and time within ritual in which social classifications break down and social relations are transformed. The rites of separation and reaggregation frame and mediate between the social structure and the status-free experience of liminality. Within the limen, a time and space outside of categories is created, a place where dangers have free play within the limits set by the ritual. This is the arena of the “other” where the power of mystery supercedes the power of the social structure. Within the limen all participants, having temporarily put off their status, will see the world differently. Ritual thus creates a time and space in which the non-differentiation of communitas and the powers of otherness can break into, while being contained within, the preexisting power structures in the society (Ritual Process 128).3

Turner's three phases of ritual can also describe the process of reading, in which ritual processes of separation and reaggregation are compared to the (less formalized) actions of sitting alone with a book and then putting the book down. In this analogy, the act of reading correlates to the liminal phase of ritual. Liminality, according to Turner, is the central phase of ritual, a pedagogical phase in which neophytes about to be initiated are all of equal status outside of structures of social order while a ritual leader has absolute powers. Turner's description of the liminal phase as a time and space of possibility could well describe the ideal reading process:

… the liminal phase [is] in the “subjunctive mood” of culture, the mood of maybe, might-be, as-if, hypothesis, fantasy, conjecture, desire … Liminality can perhaps be described as a fructile chaos, a fertile nothingness, a storehouse of possibilities, not by any means a random assemblage but a striving after new forms and structure, a gestation process, a festation of modes appropriate to and anticipating postliminal existence. (“Are There Universals?” 11-12)

The narrative is a liminal space, both within and outside daily life, a place and time in which a reader may take imaginative risks that may transform his or her perception of the world.

But the conjunction of reading and ritual also has a particular strategic value for Silko writing in the contact zone. Ritual is an indigenous idiom for many Native Americans, and it is a formal element in many contemporary Native American narratives. Paula Gunn Allen asserts that many contemporary novels by Indian authors “derive many of their structural and symbolic elements from certain rituals and the myths that are allied with those rituals” (79). This use of ritual can be read as autoethnography, a way of carrying Indian forms of representation into the European-derived form of the novel, which has the consequence of altering the novel. The convergence of ritual and written narrative brings into the novel—by implication, structure, or artistic effect—more of the physical, spiritual, and communal aspects of ritual that tend to be deemphasized in the individual, intellectual, and often secular experience of reading novels. Beyond this, the assertion of ritual properties in written narratives creates a potent model for change, similar perhaps to narratives aimed at religious conversion, in which the narrative seeks to provide a visionary experience. Silko gives Storyteller ritual properties: the sense of a community of voices, a spiritual vision, a visual, physical relationship to the text, and a structure that moves both progressively towards a vision and in a circle, suggesting cyclical and balanced relations rather than a sense of closure. But the complexity of Storyteller as a text correlates with the danger of the heterogeneity of meaning and the indeterminacy of reception that Pratt noted. As I trace some of the structures I find in the text, I hope my attention to reception can help me to avoid a homogenized reduction of the web of reading and meaning that Silko has constructed while making its powerful vision more accessible to the reader.

In order to describe the structural movements of Storyteller and the way it functions as a ritual of initiation for the reader, I designate six thematic divisions in the text. The first two sections are drawn from Bernard A. Hirsch's discussion of Storyteller, the four remaining sections correspond to those designated by Linda Danielson in her work on the book.4 Hirsch designates the first section as the Survival section (1-53) and describes this section and Storyteller as a whole as “a self-renewing act of imagination/memory designed to keep storytellers as well as stories from so tragic a fate” as to be lost to memory (4). In this section, Silko establishes the familial and collective transmission of stories as vital cultural forces. The stories depict the determination of Native Americans to resist the forces that are dismantling Indian families, traditions, and interpretations. Most of the stories in this section are also tinged with a sense of loss and displacement caused by “European intrusion” (6) and the tensions between Native American and Euroamerican cultures. In the two short stories “Storyteller” and “Lullaby,” the characters reaffirm the power and continuity of the stories, but the situation of the storytellers is perilous. At the end of “Storyteller,” the Yupik protagonist is imprisoned literally by the Euroamerican authorities and figuratively by their interpretations of her story, for which they brand her as criminal or crazy.5 In “Lullaby”, the old Navajo woman sings her songs of continuity as she sits outside with her husband, preparing to freeze to death after a lifetime of losing everything, including all of their children, to white social workers and doctors and white wars. In both “Storyteller” and “Lullaby” stories and songs provide consolation for Native American people beseiged by white culture and authority, but the survival of the people and the stories is threatened by Euroamerican legal and interpretive structures within which these stories are meaningless or unheard. This threatens not only Native Americans; the apocalyptic imagery of “Storyteller” suggests that the survival of the earth depends upon the perpetuation of these stories.

Some of the stories in the Survival section also tell of the matrilineage of storytelling, its power and its tensions. Silko tells two traditional stories that her Aunt Susie told her as a young girl. Both stories—the story of the young girl who killed herself because her mother would not make her yashtoah (her favourite food) and the story of the two little girls who lost their mother in a flood and turned to stone—portray severed relationships between mothers and daughters, and may well have served as solace for Silko in her relationship with her mother.6 Silko also shows her writing to be a continuation of a female lineage of storytellers, such as Aunt Susie, in her family photographs and reminiscences. When Silko recollects her Aunt Susie's stories she writes:

I remember only a small part.
But this is what I remember.


In the balance of these two lines, Silko embodies both the loss of so much of the oral tradition, as well as the perpetuation of the oral tradition in her own memory and her own retellings. In the Survival section the reader is made to feel the depth of loss both of the stories and of the people who attempted to tell the stories and live by them. But Silko does not simply present the tragedy of the loss; she creates in her readers the need, the desire, and the ability to hear and understand those stories from a Native American interpretive perspective.

The second section (54-99), dubbed “Yellow Woman” by Hirsch, contains a number of stories about Yellow Woman, or “Kochininako” in Keres, a generic female character in Laguna Pueblo stories. Yellow Woman encompasses a great diversity of traits: in some stories she is loyal, beautiful, or powerful; in other stories she is selfish, thoughtless, or, worst of all, a witch.7 Here, Silko focuses especially on the so-called abduction stories, in which Yellow Woman is taken from her husband and children by a powerful male figure—Whirlwind Man, Buffalo Man, or the Sun—but in Silko's stories the woman is drawn into the adulterous relationships as much by her own desire as by the man's. Hirsch argues that this focus on women's sexuality shows that “individual fulfillment can be equally important to a tribal community” as individual sacrifice (17), since in this section, and especially in the poem/story “Cottonwood Parts One and Two,” Silko's retelling of two traditional stories, Yellow Woman's desire and agency bring benefits to the people.

In the Yellow Woman section, Silko tells stories of women's roles developing within the dynamic exchange of old and new stories. In the short story “Yellow Woman,” for example, the first person narrator tries to figure out if, in her experience of abduction, she is Yellow Woman: “I was wondering if Yellow Woman had known who she was—if she knew that she would become part of the stories” (55). The narrator's relationship to the old stories is ambiguously resolved both in the title to Silko's story and in the last line of the story, when the narrator thinks “I was sorry that old Grandpa wasn't alive to hear my story because it was the Yellow Woman stories he liked to tell best” (62). The narrator's proximity with the old stories gives her experience a significance and a place in the life and stories of the people. As Silko writes in her poem “Storytelling,” a humorous juxtaposition of traditional and gossip stories, “You should understand / the way it was / back then, / because it is the same / even now” (94).

It is especially pertinent to consider the relations of old and new in the treatment of women's roles. Silko's description of her hunting experiences in this section, connected by a story she was told as a child about a great young girl hunter, point out some of the ways in which “traditional” roles for women mean something quite different for Native American and Euroamerican women. Rayna Green makes these differences explicit:

The ironies multiply when, contrary to standard feminist calls for revolution and change, Indian women insist on taking their traditional places as healers, legal specialists, and tribal governors. Their call is for a return to Native American forms which, they insist, involve men and women in complementary, mutual roles. I underscore these differences because they may teach us more than analyses of Indian female “oppression.” I am not suggesting that a return to tradition in all its forms is “correct” but that attention to the debate about the implications of such retraditionalization would mean healthier, culturally more appropriate scholarship on Indian women. (264)

Silko's focus on women's roles in this section of Storyteller compels the (white?) reader to reevaluate ideas of tradition, often considered by Euroamericans as something static, repressive, and unyielding. The way women construct and imagine their roles and their relation to tradition in Silko's stories parallels the give and take between old and new stories that gives the oral tradition its continuing vitality and relevance.

The next two sections, coming in the centre of the book, comprise a cycle from drought to rain. The Pueblo Indians, as well as the other Indians living in the arid southwest, focus many of their stories and rituals on the need for rain. Drought results from disruptions of harmony, from witchcraft, from bad thoughts or deeds, or from forgetting the old stories and the old ways. Rain results from an establishment of the right order and balance and sometimes from a ritual of healing to counter witchcraft.8 In Pueblo and Navajo religions, witchcraft is a reversal of the right order and balance of things—it is a destructive rather than a creative use of power.

In the Drought section (100-57), Silko recasts the terms of power, so that white power, which is often represented as overpowering and absolute, is treated as a misunderstanding and a misuse of power—the sort of power to bring drought rather than rain. In two stories, the short story “Tony's Story” and the poem/story of the creation of white people by witches, the association between white power and witchery is explicit. In the creation story, in which a witch tells a story of white people that creates them as it is spoken, white people are described as people who objectify their surroundings and who bring death and destruction to people, animals, and land (with clearly historical allusions). The witch's evocation concludes with the white people's use of the rocks “in these hills”: “They will lay the final pattern with these rocks / they will lay it across the world / and explode everything” (136).9 In “Tony's Story,” Silko recounts a true story about a traditional Indian who killed a white state patrol officer. Since the story is told from Tony's (the Indian's) perspective, the reader is left to ponder both the delusions of Tony's vision and the logic of his assumption that the cop is a witch because his manifestation of power seems lifeless, arbitrary, and destructive.

The story of the Ck'o'yo magician connects white “power” to the illusions of “magic” by inference rather than by explicit reference. In the poem/story the magician disturbs the balanced relationships between the people and the land, the animals, and the spiritual powers, and thus he brings drought. The Ck'o'yo magician fools the people with tricks, “magic,” that look like power but prove to be a false power. Like the power of technology, the Ck'o'yo magician can create magical and impressive visions while ignoring and even trampling on the cycles of worship, balance, and reciprocity required for fruitful relationships and necessary to bring the rain.

Following a group of photographs, the Rain section (158-186) begins with a rain chant, “The Go-wa-peu-zi Song,” written first in phonetic anglicized Laguna and then in English: “Of the clouds/ and rain clouds/ and growth of corn/ I sing” (158). This section continues from the previous one, but the emphasis has shifted from the disruptions that cause drought to the positive and creative forces the rain represents. The stories in the Rain section are lighter and more humorous, written in a light-hearted tone that celebrates the creativity, growth, and balanced relationships that bring the rain and that the rain signifies.

This section, halfway through the book, signals a shift into a Laguna Pueblo “language” and understanding. As Pratt has described it, autoethnography collaborates with and appropriates the representations the dominant group has of the dominated. In Storyteller, Silko uses the process of initiation to transform the reader and to shift the interpretive vantage point and the definition of terms from the Euroamerican to Native American. At this point in the book Silko moves toward affirmation and representation of Native American philosophical and spiritual beliefs from a more Native American centred world view. For example, both “Tony's Story” in the Drought section and “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” in the Rain section end with the promise of rain, but in the former story Tony's beliefs seem disturbing and out of touch with his surroundings, while in the latter story it is the Anglo priest whose beliefs seem disturbing and out of touch within the Laguna community. Although the perspective throughout the book is clearly Native American, the weight of Euroamerican representations lifts in this section, and the storyteller exhibits a greater confidence in the reader's ability to engage with Native American concepts and representations.

This shift in the emphasis of the collaborative enterprise is depicted most clearly in “The Man to Send Rain Clouds.” In the story an old Laguna man is found dead by his relatives who prepare for his burial ritual and who ask him to send them rain clouds. It is believed that when the dead leave the fifth world (the world we are most familiar with) and travel to the other worlds below (which have no resemblance to Hades or Hell) they can carry an appeal to the rain clouds to bring rain to the fifth world. When the Anglo priest in the story is asked to bring his holy water to the burial ceremony, the Euroamerican character and belief system are put into the Native American context; the priest is the outsider who cannot comprehend the religious and cultural forms that surround him. The readers are put in the Laguna position, finding humour and pathos in his misunderstanding. In the end of the story, as the priest watches in bafflement as his holy water soaks into the sand, we see the sacred powers of the priest and the symbolism of his water get engulfed by the ceremony and beliefs of the Laguna and their (and our) understanding of the symbolism of the water.

The other stories in this section describe productive relationships and growth as part of the cyclical processes of the world. To illustrate the vastness of the natural and spiritual cycles, Silko depicts the dissolution of illusory boundaries of time and space. Four lyric poems in this section best exemplify this concept, especially “Prayer to the Pacific” in which the cycles of rain become a continual process that links the very origins of life and time to the present and the future, and every part of the globe to every other. Thus Silko presents a world of temporal and spatial coexistence, a world without boundaries, in which all things are interrelated.

The story “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” provides a link between the Rain section and the Spirits section (187-211), since the earth's cycles are connected with the processes of life and death and the presence of the spirits of the dead. The concept of temporal coexistence in the Rain section has direct bearing on concepts of ancestral presences, as Johannes Fabian observes:

… all temporal relations, and therefore also contemporaneity, are embedded in culturally organized praxis. … To cite but two examples, relationships between the living and the dead, or relationships between the agent and object of magic operations, presuppose cultural conceptions of contemporaneity. To a large extent, Western rational disbelief in the presence of ancestors and the efficacy of magic rest on the rejection of ideas of temporal coexistence implied in these ideas and practices. (34)

The dissolution of temporal boundaries in the Rain section prepares the reader for an understanding of spiritual presences and our relationship to them.

In the Spirits section, Silko tells a number of stories about family members who have died, especially about her Grandpa Hank; the section is framed by photographs of her Grandpa Hank and her Grandma A'mooh. The Deer Dance becomes a model for the reciprocal relations between the living and the dead. Silko describes the Deer Dance which “is performed to honor and pay thanks to the deer spirits who've come home with the hunters that year. Only when this has been properly done will the spirits be able to return to the mountain and be reborn into more deer who will, remembering the reverence and appreciation of the people, once more come home with the hunters” (191). This cyclical relationship is also used in poems in the section to describe the pain and homage in love relations, in “A Hunting Story,” “Deer Dance / For Your Return,” and “Deer Song”; and to describe the relations between the old stories and the new with a deeper spiritual dimension than in the Yellow Woman section. “Where Mountain Lion Lay Down with Deer” is a beautiful poetic evocation of the processes by which stories bring the spirits of the past back into existence. And in Silko's description of the anthropologists' explorations on the Enchanted Mesa, she describes a different kind of death that has threatened Indians, when pieces of the past are buried in museum basements, and the spirits and stories of the past are taken out of circulation.

In the last two stories of the section, which are two versions of a story, Silko describes spiritual transformations that affect the living. In one version a young boy taken by the bear people is brought back gradually to his humanity by a medicine man, but he will always be different after his connection to the bears. In the other version, “Story from Bear Country,” the reader, referred to as “you,” is in the position of the young boy, and we are being lured back from the beauty of the bears' world by the narrator—the poem is the song by which the storyteller, in the role of the medicine man, calls the reader back. In these stories Silko conveys the power of stories to create spiritual transformations, thus offering stories that help to understand the reader's initiation and transformation in the ritual process of the book.

In the last section of the book, Silko tells stories of Coyote, the Native American trickster figure and ultimate survivor, to complete the shift to a Native American perspective and tradition. Coyote stories, common in the western and southwestern parts of North and Central America, differ among various people and regions, but the central feature of Coyote is his or her propensity for trickery, immorality, and deception. Exemplifying reprehensible, anti-social behaviours, Coyote is depicted as a lecher, a glutton, a thief, and a clown, whose uncontrolled appetites lead him to death again and again, though his death is never permanent. Jarold Ramsey describes Coyote's outlawry as a focus of social censure and of group humour that provides moral examples and psychological release, education and entertainment (xxxii). But Coyote's foolish errors, his appetite, and his laziness are not just amusing character flaws, they are characteristics that have shaped the world—thus he is also a very human character. William Bright argues that Coyote stories, while teaching morality through Coyote's negative examples, also depict the foolishness and the power of humanity (346).10 In this last section of Storyteller, Silko introduces a character who represents human foibles and human creativity, as well as the power of Native American, and human, survival.

At this point, two structures can be seen in Silko's Storyteller; there is a progressive initiation into the Laguna Pueblo “language” and systems of belief and representation, and there is a mirror or circular structure. The Rain section responds to the Drought section, the Spirits section deepens the dynamics of change treated in the Yellow Woman section, and the Coyote stories reconsider the Survival section, and now the Indian perspective, traditions, and values pass judgment on the white world. The structure of the book can be envisioned as a butterfly: the two halves of the book provide two sides to a Native American perspective—on one side the sadness and struggle, on the other the humour and subversion—and both parts are necessary for a full understanding of power relations. At the same time, through the progressive movement of the book, Silko deflates the “dominant” vision of a “dominating” system of power.

The reader's experience of the text may be compared to the experience of Silko's great-grandfather Robert G. Marmon, a white man who married a Laguna woman and lived the rest of his life in Laguna. Near the end of Storyteller Silko looks at a photograph of Marmon as an old man, and she writes, “I see in his eyes / he had come to understand this world / differently” (256). Her observation, rendered in poetry to control the pace and emphasis, conveys the depth and importance of this difference in her great-grandfather's altered vision. Silko's book works to transform the reader's vision as a lifetime at Laguna did for her great-grandfather—to convey and reinforce the power and beauty of the Laguna vision.

This final section of my essay focusses on a story in the Coyote section, “A Geronimo Story,” that exemplifies the process of initiation that Storyteller as a whole enacts. In “A Geronimo Story,” the reader learns, along with the narrator's younger incarnation, how to “read” Laguna meanings through an understanding of the strategies of humour and subversion. The narrator, Andy, tells the story of a trip he made as a naive young man, when he accompanied the Laguna Regulars, led by his uncle Siteye and a white man, Captain Pratt, on an assignment to track and capture Geronimo. The United States Army, at war with Geronimo and the Apaches in the early 1880s, took advantage of inter-Indian hostilities and employed Laguna men to help them against their Apache enemies.

The narrative voice of the mature Andy follows the young Andy as he learns, through the subtlety of his uncle Siteye's humour and wisdom, about the ability of the trickster to turn white authority back on itself. The reader is put in the same position as the young Andy; the narrator provides the reader with the knowledge Andy already had when he went on the trip, but he does not explain the lessons he learns as the trip proceeds. To understand the story and how it affects Andy, the reader must, like Andy, learn to understand the humour of Siteye.

The story begins by establishing Andy's “horse sense”; he describes his uncle's larger Mexican horse and his own smaller Navajo horse as he ropes and saddles them for the trip. But Andy does not understand why the group heads for Pie Town when Siteye and Captain Pratt know Geronimo is not in that direction. Captain Pratt, a “squaw man” (as was Silko's great-grandfather Robert Marmon), has married a Laguna wife, adopted many of the Laguna ways, and is respected by the Laguna. Captain Pratt, in his respect for Siteye's opinions and for the Laguna people, is contrasted to other white men. Major Littlecock is the other kind of white man, whose authoritative stance, repeated errors of judgment, and racist underestimation of the Laguna are a source for the Laguna of amused contempt, a contempt also signified by his name.

The comradery, stories, and lessons of the trail end when the Laguna Regulars reach the white people's town, Pie Town, and encounter the white people's distrust and hostility, at which the full power of the Laguna sense of humour is released. The more fiercely and foolishly Major Littlecock acts out his authority and prejudice, the faster the jokes fly, until a joking session ends with Siteye's words and Andy's comprehension:

Siteye cleared his throat. “I am only sorry that the Apaches aren't around here,” he said. “I can't think of a better place to wipe out. If we see them tomorrow we'll tell them to come here first.”

We were all laughing now, and we felt good saying things like this. “Anybody can act violently—there is nothing to it; but not every person is able to destroy his enemy with words.” That's what Siteye always told me, and I respect him. (221-22)

The Laguna strategies of humour and collaboration become clearer to Andy by the end, when he puts them fully into the context of survival. First there is the following exchange with Siteye:

Before I went to sleep I said to Siteye, “You've been hunting Geronimo for a long time, haven't you? And he always gets away.”

“Yes,” Siteye said, staring up at the stars, “but I always like to think that it's us who get away.” (222)

Siteye's sentence can be read two ways—to mean that it is “us” who escape from Geronimo, or that he is “us.” Anything enigmatic in the statement is made clearer when, the following day, they prove to Littlecock that he was wrong about the Apaches' proximity. Andy thinks Littlecock was wishing he were still in Sioux country, which was more familiar to him. Silko writes, “Siteye felt the same. If he hadn't killed them all, he could still be up there chasing Sioux; he might have been pretty good at it” (223). The sarcasm and subtle humour of Silko's story suggest that the Laguna “collaboration” is both a strategy for survival and a deception of the white military authorities—a pretence of collaboration.

The journey becomes an initiation ritual for Andy, as he learns new places and the unspoken relations between Laguna and white men. Siteye teaches Andy tracking, explaining the process of memory based on an awareness of details and an ability to etch them into one's mind. The process of tracking Geronimo becomes a metaphor for Andy's initiation process, as he learns not only how to find him, but why they do not seek him. In Siteye's stories of the Apaches and the white soldiers, the soldiers' stupidity is a more prominent element than the murderousness of the Apaches; although there is no love lost between the Laguna and the Apache, the Laguna have even less respect for the white people with whom they ostensibly collaborate. The process of tracking and the idea of the hunt also become metaphors for the reader's initiation, as we trace through the subtlety of Silko's humour to figure out what Andy has figured out. Geronimo is, in a sense, the ultimate trickster figure of the story, the absent focus around whom the Laguna play with the whites and Silko plays with the reader. The hunt for Geronimo comes to mean much different things to the white authorities and to the Laguna. By the end of the story, Andy and the reader understand, without having heard it directly, that a successful hunt for Geronimo means not to find him, and that Siteye's final words in the story—“‘You know,’ he said, ‘that was a long way to go for deer hunting’”—are a great joke on the white men.

Immediately following this story in Storyteller there is a photograph of “The Laguna Regulars in 1928, forty-three years after they rode in the Apache wars” (272). The photograph of a group of older men, some in jeans and workshirts, others in suits and ties, gives Silko's story historical authenticity, while also attesting to the survival of the Laguna Regulars. By bringing together the photograph with the story, Silko demonstrates how history can be rewritten as a Coyote story, which should subsequently enable the reader to reread history. In Silko's version, the power relation generally assumed is reversed. Her story suggests that the Laguna did not act in complicity with white people against other Indians, but instead that they had found better ways to survive white domination than direct retaliation.

In “A Geronimo Story,” Silko uses humour to establish a relationship with the reader and thus to insinuate the reader into another way of understanding Native American history and people; the humour becomes a means of reinterpreting history, power relations, and strategies for survival. Humour, the predominant feature of Coyote tales, is an essential ingredient in Silko's construction of a Native American perspective in the last section of Storyteller. In Custer Died For Your Sins, Vine Deloria, Jr. writes:

One of the best ways to understand a people is to know what makes them laugh. … Irony and satire provide much keener insights into a group's collective psyche and values than do years of research.

It has always been a great disappointment to Indian people that the humorous side of Indian life has not been mentioned by professed experts on Indian Affairs. Rather the image of the granite-faced grunting redskin has been perpetuated by American mythology.


In humour, more than in other kinds of stories, the teller depends on common viewpoints and sensibilities. In the Coyote section, Silko uses humour as a final stage in an initiation process, showing Indian humour, resilience, and self-awareness along with her trust in the reader's ability to laugh with and at Coyote.

Throughout Storyteller. Silko reflects on the role of storytellers; in the final section, she connects the storyteller's art and her own role as storyteller to the strategies of Coyote. The storyteller is, like Coyote, a culture creator and transformer. But the analogy also connects to the subversive role of Coyote, in which Coyote's reversal of power relations and subversion of rules serve to expose the deceptions of white people or to represent Indians undermining white power. In an interview, Silko says:

Certainly for me the most effective political statement I could make is in my art work. I believe in subversion rather than straight-out confrontation. I believe in the sands of time, so to speak. Especially in America, when you confront the so-called mainstream, it's very inefficient, and in every way destroys you and disarms you. I'm still a believer in subversion. I don't think we're numerous enough, whoever “we” are, to take them by storm. (“Interview” 147-48)

By the end of Storyteller, Silko appears to be a Coyote figure herself, as she subverts the dominant representations of history, power, and knowledge.

Finally, I want to raise a question: is it possible for white or non-Indian literary critics, or any critics in white academic institutions, to resist a reading practice that appropriates and diffuses Native American literature and its potentially subversive differences? As Fabian argues, objectification through distancing in time is not just a part of anthropology; it is part of Western epistemology. So although moving the study of Native American literature from the domain of anthropology to departments of English may be an improvement—a recognition that Native American art exists as art—the study still remains in the domain of the colonizer (and here I mean institutions more than individuals). Wendy Rose, a Hopi poet and anthropologist, refers to the current “literary-colonial canon” as another form of “cultural imperialism” (410). To revise Fabian's subtitle, how does literary criticism make its object, and is it possible to avoid objectification in our practice?

I have tried to suggest in this paper that one way to treat these stories may be to ask how they might change us as subjects, as readers—to rephrase Silko's description of the storyteller's role: what story does this book draw out of us? The concept of double consciousness could give those of us who are part of the white institutional structure a means of reconsidering our own subject positions, of viewing ourselves differently. The African American theorist W. E. B. Du Bois identifies “double consciousness” as both a gift of second sight and as an unwelcome psychological repercussion of racism; he describes “this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (17). Autoethnography is, in some sense, an act of double consciousness, a means of addressing the disparity between the two perceptions. The autoethnography, if it does capture the attention of the subjects in the “dominant” social position or institutions, can impose on those readers a “second sight” that reveals their own misunderstandings and misrepresentations of others and of themselves. In the process of initiating the reader in Storyteller, Silko puts the reader (and especially the Euroamerican reader) into this self-critical situation. The Native American perspective and interpretive context that Silko creates puts white readers in the position of feeling the humour and the discomfort of our historical roles and responsibilities. For the subject in the so-called “dominant” social position or institution to take on the responsibility of double consciousness may make possible a less authoritative and a more self-conscious approach to our own reading practice.

Perhaps it will also lead us to rethink our conception of the United States, replacing the vision of an inviolable, “indivisible” political, economic, and ideological entity with a vision of fragmented nation, a contact zone, in which colonized nations are demanding their land and their sovereignty, demanding that international laws and treaties be upheld. And maybe our ideas of contemporaneity as well as of the future will change. In this regard, I conclude with Silko's ideas about the future:

The Pueblo people, of course, have seen intruders come and intruders go. The first they watched come were the Spaniards … But as the old stories say, if you wait long enough, they'll go. And sure enough, they went. Then another bunch came in. And old stories say, well, if you wait around long enough, not so much that they'll go, but at least their ways will go. One wonders now, when you see what's happening to technocratic-industrial culture, now that we've used up most of the sources of energy, you think perhaps the old people were right. (“Language and Literature” 67)

Perhaps we need to learn a Pueblo vision for the future, for the survival of all of us.


  1. The self-consciousness of Storyteller and its roots in the oral tradition have invited critics before me to read it as more than a random collection of stories. Arnold Krupat describes Storyteller as an autobiography that manifests the biculturalism of all autobiographies by Native Americans. According to Krupat, Silko also reconceives autobiography: she rejects the authoritative individual voice common in Western autobiographies and replaces it with a polyphony that indicates the Native American conception of the individual's story as part of the collective stories of the people. Bernard A. Hirsch reads Storyteller as a simulation of the dynamic interaction of stories in the oral tradition. Hirsch suggests that by reading the stories in relationship to each other, the reader gets the sense of “the accretive process of teaching” inherent in the oral tradition. He proposes that Silko confronts the static nature of the written word and the absence of the dynamic context of storytelling by reproducing an episodic structure and a juxtaposition and compilation of stories. Linda L. Danielson describes Storyteller as a feminist work, a continuation of a Laguna matrilineal storytelling tradition, and as a work structured like a web in its circularity and intricate connections.

  2. Barbara Harlow, in her study of postcolonial literatures, argues that the “dynamics of debate in which the cultural politics of resistance are engaged challenge both the monolithic historiographical practices of domination and the unidimensional responses of dogma to them. … the emphasis in the literature of resistance is on the political as the power to change the world” (30).

  3. Turner uses the word “communitas” rather than community to indicate an attitude among people rather than mere proximity. Communitas is constituted by spontaneous, immediate, concrete relations rather than relations dictated by abstract structures (Ritual Process 128).

  4. I got the first two categories and the very idea of thematic categories from Hirsch's article. Since by chance I read Hirsch's article before Danielson's, I owe his work a greater debt, but I was gratified to discover that Danielson's divisions of Storyteller correspond to my own, which suggests that these designations are not entirely arbitrary.

  5. See Vangen's article on “Storyteller.”

  6. When, in an interview, Kim Barnes asked Silko about her ambivalent representation of mothers, Silko replied that in matrilineal and matriarchal society, the mother becomes the authority figure with which the child must reckon. She explains: “So the female, the mother, is a real powerful person, and she's much more the authority figure. It's a kind of reversal. Your dad is the one who's the soft-touch, and it's the mother's brother who reprimands you. … [You feel] more of an alliance with the father because he, in some ways, has less power in the household. … If someone was going to thwart you or frighten you, it would tend to be a woman; you see it coming from your mother, or sent by your mother” (97).

  7. In the Pueblo Indian tradition, and in Native American traditions in general, witchcraft is not a specifically female practice as it tends to be in Christian traditions. I will treat witchcraft practices more thoroughly in my discussion of the Drought section of Storyteller below.

  8. This is especially true of the Navajo, for whom witchcraft is more pervasive—see Silko's “Conversation,” 32. The cycle from drought to rain that composes the centre of Storyteller is also the central ritual movement of Ceremony, which accounts for the fact that many of the stories in these two sections of Storyteller also appear in Ceremony.

  9. Silko refers also to the uranium mines on the Pueblo reservations in her novel Ceremony.

  10. See also Toelken and Wiget on Coyote.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Bright, William. “The Natural History of Old Man Coyote.” Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Ed. Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987, 339-87.

Danielson, Linda. “Storyteller: Grandmother Spider's Web.” Journal of the Southwest 30.3 (1988): 325-55.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969). Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1988.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1902. Greenwich, CN: Fawcett Publications, 1967.

Durham, Jimmie. “Cowboys and … Notes on Art, Literature, and American Indians in the American Mind.” The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance. Ed. M. Annette Jaimes. Boston: South End Press, 1992, 423-38.

Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia UP, 1983.

Green, Rayna. “Native American Women.” Signs 6 (1980): 248-67.

Harlow, Barbara. Resistance Literature. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Hirsch, Bernard A. “‘The Telling Which Continues’: Oral Tradition and the Written Word in Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller.American Indian Quarterly 12.1 (1988): 1-26.

Krupat, Arnold. “The Dialogic of Silko's Storyteller.Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures. Ed. Gerald Vizenor. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1989, 55-68.

Lincoln, Kenneth. “Native American Literatures.” Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Literature. Ed. Brian Swann. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983, 3-38.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Art of the Contact Zone.” Profession 91. New York: MLA, 1991. Rpt. in Ways of Reading. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993, 442-55.

Ramsey, Jarold, ed. Coyote Was Going There: Indian Literature of the Oregon Country. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1977.

Rose, Wendy. “The Great Pretenders: Further Reflections on Whiteshamanism.” The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance. Ed. M. Annette Jaimes. Boston: South End Press, 1992, 403-21.

Sherzer, Joel and Anthony C. Woodbury, eds. Native American Discourse: Poetics and Rhetoric. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. “A Conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko.” Sun Tracks: An American Indian Literary Magazine. 3 (1976): 28-33.

———. Interview. Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Ed. Laura Coltelli. Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 1990, 135-53.

———. Interview with Kim Barnes. Journal of Ethnic Studies 13.4 (1986): 83-105.

———. “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective.” English Literature; Opening Up the Canon. Ed. Leslie A. Fiedler and Houston A. Baker, Jr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981, 54-72.

———. Storyteller. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1981.

Swann, Brian. Introduction. Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Literature. Ed. Brian Swann. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983, xi-xix.

Tedlock, Dennis. The Spoken Word and the Act of Interpretation. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1983.

Toelken, Barre. “Life and Death in the Navajo Coyote Tales.” Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Ed. Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987, 388-401.

Turner, Victor W. “Are There Universals of Performance in Myth, Ritual and Drama?” By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual. Ed. Richard Schechner and Willa Appel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

———. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.

Vangen, Kathleen Shanley. “The Devil's Domain: Leslie Silko's ‘Storyteller.’” Coyote Was Here: Essays on Contemporary Native American Literary and Political Mobilization. Ed. Bo Sholer. The Dolphin 9 (1984): 116-23.

Wiget, Andrew. “His Life in His Tail: The Native American Trickster and the Literature of Possibility.” Redefining American Literary History. Ed. A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. New York: MLA, 1990, 83-96.

Leslie Marmon Silko with Florence Boos (interview date 1997)

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SOURCE: An interview with Leslie Marmon Silko, in Speaking of the Short Story, edited by Farhat Iftekharuddin, Mary Rohrberger, and Maurice Lee, University Press of Mississippi, 1997, pp. 237-47.

[In the following interview, Silko discusses her perceptions of herself as a writer, the role of oral tradition, women and men's roles in Laguna Society, and the nature of Native American political reform.]

Leslie Marmon Silko is noted for her haunting stories based on Laguna folktales, Storyteller (1981), and for the compassion and epic vision of her novels, Ceremony (1977) and Almanac of the Dead (1991). A MacArthur Foundation Fellow, Leslie Silko has also published Laguna Woman (1974), a book of poetry, Sacred Water: Narratives and Pictures (1993), and many individual stories and poems. However, Silko, a distinguished contemporary writer, is most well known for her compassionate novel, Ceremony (1977). It was the generous reception of this book that launched Silko headlong into fame, as well as giving her older stories new recognition. The most recent work of Silko's is Sacred Water: Narratives and Pictures (1993).

[Boos]: Do you consider yourself primarily a writer of stories or a novelist?

[Silko]: I've never tried to categorize what I do according to generic labels. I'm a writer, and I love language and story. I started out loving stories that were told to me. Growing up at Laguna Pueblo, one is immersed in storytelling, because the Laguna people did not use written language to keep track of history and philosophy and other aspects of their lives.

Imagine an entire culture that is passed down for thousands and thousands of years through the spoken word and narrative, so the whole of experience is put into narrative form—this is how the people know who they are as a people, and how individuals learn who they are. They hear stories about “the family,” about grandma and grandpa and others.

When I started out at the University of New Mexico, I took a folklore class, and began to think about the differences between the story that's told and the literary short story. I started writing the “literary” short story, and tried to write it as closely as I could according to the “classical” rules which seemed to manifest themselves in my reading. I wanted to show that I could do it. But I've turned away from this since and haven't really written a short story in the usual sense since 1981. From 1981 to 1989 I worked on Almanac of the Dead, and so I don't think of myself as short story writer. Yet stories are at the basis of everything I do, even non-fiction, because a lot of non-fiction reminiscences or memories come to me in the form of narrative, since that's the way people at home organize all experience and information.

I found the rules of the “classical” short story confining. I think you can see why the post-modernist narrative and the contemporary short story went off in another direction. They're trying to escape the strictures of the formal story form.

I've now tasted the freedom one has with a novel, so I wonder if I'll turn back to more structured forms. I've written one short story, “Personal Property”, which I'm going to read tonight, and which purposely breaks some of the rules of the classical short story. Maybe I'm not done with making trouble with the short story form!

How are your poems related to your stories?

For me a poem is a very mysterious event … my poems came to me mysteriously. I started out to write a narrative, fiction or non-fiction, and something would happen so that the story would organize itself in the form of a narrative poem rather than a short story.

In fact, that happened with “A Story from Bear Country,” in Storyteller. I intended to make a note about a conversation I had had with Benjamin Barney, a Navajo friend, about the different ways our respective Navajo and Pueblo cultures viewed bears. I started a narrative of our conversation, but something shifted abruptly, and before I knew it, I was writing something that looked more like a poem. At the very end of that poem a voice comes in and says, “Whose voice is this? You may wonder, for after all you were here alone, but you have been listening to me for some time now.” That voice is the seductive voice of the bears. Benjamin Barney and I had been discussing the notion that if humans venture too close to the bear people and their territory, the people are somehow seduced or enchanted. They're not mauled or killed, but they are seduced and taken away to live with the bears forever.

So I don't have control [over whether my tale becomes a tale or a poem]. I set out to narrate something—either something which actually happened or a story I was told—and after I begin the piece sorts itself into whether it will be a poem or a short story. I find a mixing of the two in “The Sacred Water,” a piece that I wrote a couple of years ago—a wanting to have the two together—so that there's really no distinct genre. This story also contained a bit of “non-fiction.” I wanted to blend fiction and non-fiction together in one narrative voice.

So I am never far away from oral narrative, storytelling and narration, and the use of narrative to order experience. The people at home believe that there is one big story going on made up of many little stories, and the story goes on and on. The stories are alive and they outlive us, and storytellers are only caretakers of the story. Storytellers can be anonymous. Their names don't matter because the stories live on. I think that's what people mean when they say that there are no new stories under the sun. It's true—the old stories live on, but with new caretakers.

You present yourself as a narrative writer, but it struck me as I read Storyteller that you also think visually. How do you decide where to put the words on the page?

I'm a very aural person. On the other hand, my father was a photographer, and when I was a child, I would go in the darkroom, sit quietly on the stool, and watch as the images of the photographs would develop. As I've written in Storyteller, there was this old Hopi basket full of snapshots. One of us kids would pull a photograph and say, “Grandma, who's this,” or “what's this?” A photograph would be tied to narration. And when I was a child walking in the countryside, I'd see a certain sandstone formation of a certain shape, or a certain mesa, and someone would say, “Look, see that hill over there? Well, let me tell you … ”

Through the years I've done a lot of thinking about the similarities and differences between the “literary” story and the story that's told. I began to realize that landscape could not be separated from narration and storytelling. One of the features of the written or old-fashioned short story was the careful, detailed description of its setting. By contrast, in Laguna oral stories, tellers and audience shared the same assumptions, a collective knowledge of the terrain and landscape which didn't need to be retold. That's why something an anthropologist or folklorist has collected may seem sparser than a literary short story; sometimes the oral short story can seem “too sparse.” I realized that all communities have shared knowledge, and that the “literary” short story resulted when all over Europe—and all over the world—human populations started to move. People didn't have this common shared ground anymore.

Storyteller seemed to evoke a whole context related to your deep kinship with your family. Even the shapes of the stories seemed to arise from your identification with those telling the stories.

Right. One of the reasons that Storyteller contains photographs was my desire to convey that kinship and the whole context or field on which these episodes of my writing occurred. The photographs include not only those of my family, but of the old folks in the village and places in the village. I started to think of translation [from Laguna]. I realized that if one just works with the word on the page or the word in the air, something's left out. That's why I insisted on having photographs in Storyteller. I wanted to give the reader a sense of place, because here place is a character. For example, in the title story, “Storyteller,” the main character is the weather and the free, frozen land itself. Or in the story I'm going to read tonight, “Private Property,” the community itself is a character—although places and communities are not ordinarily characters in the “classical” literary short story. I felt a need to add in these other [visual] components which before were supposed to be extraneous to the narrative, but which existed at Laguna Pueblo as visual cues—a mountain or a tree or a photograph.

When you advise your creative writing students, what suggestions do you give about choosing topics or about technique?

Usually I tell them just to think about a good story, not to think consciously about topic or theme. I tell them that their stories should contain something that they don't know, something mysterious. It's better not to know too much, but to have just the bare bones of an idea, and let the writing be a process of enlightenment for them.

I often say, “Well, you can tell me the idea for the story, so why can't you write it down?” There's a large difference between speaking and writing. But when I'm writing, it's as natural to me as if I were speaking, though the results are different. The most difficult element of writing to teach the student is that ease—writing as if you were talking to yourself or to the wall.

Students are traumatized by the writing process. I've noticed the traumatization begins right from the first grade. Usually kids withstand it till around the seventh or eighth grade, and then they experience a real terror of failure and scolding. People who can talk, who can tell you things, freeze when they sit down in front of a blank piece and a pencil. It shouldn't be difficult to make the transition from speaking to writing, and I blame the United States educational system for the fact that it is.

Though you speak of an oral narrative tradition, you also remark that you speak and write differently. What's different about the writing process for you, and why do you value that?

I was conscious that I wasn't as good a storyteller as the storytellers at home, for the people at home are so good at this. An oral performance is just that, so I needed to go off in a room by myself to evoke that same sense of wholeness and excitement and perfection that I seemed to hear all around me [during their performances].

Also, when I'm writing I'm alone. When I'm speaking to an audience, by contrast, I'm very sensitive to what people want from me or expect from me, whether the audience are becoming restless or whatever, and I'm anxious to please and to serve, putting the comfort of others ahead of my own. When I write I'm alone with the voices … with the people in my memory. Some of the voices that I'm alone with might even be those of people still living, so that I could go and talk to them outside that door, but when I'm alone in the room writing, a connection with the older voices occurs, which cannot happen for me when I'm storytelling.

Writing isn't just inscription of stories, then, but something that requires solitude as well?

Being alone allows me to hear those voices. I think it's aloneness to be able to hear Aunt Susie's voice, for example. If I were in a room with her I would only listen, not write or speak, but solitude enables me to hear [and transcribe] her very distinctive voice. I think it was meant to be distinctive so that I could never forget it.

I've thought a lot about this distinction between oral narration and writing. Storytelling was done in a group so that the audience and teller would respond to each other, and be grounded in the present. As I said, I'm not as good at that, but I learned that it's also dangerous to go into the room alone and hear the voices alone, because those are voices from spirit beings who have real presence … and bring dangers … There's a real danger of being seduced by them, of wanting to join them and remain with them. I'm forty-six, and things are becoming clearer to me, things that before I had only heard about and hadn't experienced, so I couldn't judge.

But now I'm beginning to understand. Old Aunt Susie used to say that when she and her siblings were children, her grandmother started storytelling by bidding the youngest child to go open the door “so that our esteemed ancestors may bring in their gifts for us.” But when we tell the stories of those past folks telling stories, they are actually here again in the room. It's therefore dangerous for a storyteller to write in a room alone without others, because those old ancestors are really coming in.

In writing Almanac of the Dead, I was forced to listen … I was visited by so many ancestors … it was very hard. It changed me as a human being. I came to love solitude almost too much, and it was very frightening.

Don't you ever fear that the presences of the dead might view critically something you wrote?

No, I've never been afraid. I know the voices of the storytellers, and I know that if you tell their truth and don't try to be self-serving, they aren't dangerous—in fact, they bring great protective power—great protective power.

How do you know what is true rather than self-serving?

I can tell. One method to avoid self-serving is to use a male protagonist, as in Ceremony. I wrote two stillborn versions of Ceremony now in the [Beinecke] Library at Yale—though I suspect that the rest of the university may had thought I was the Anti-Christ, so maybe they're not even catalogued! If anyone is interested, they can read the two stillborn drafts—each about sixty pages long—that lead up to Ceremony. “Stillborn” is of course such a grim term, but before I sold them to Yale University I looked at them again and saw that they're not really “stillborns” at all, but a necessary part of writing the novel. This gave me new confidence in the process of writing, and all young writers should understand that even those things that we throw in the trash can are necessary to get us to where we want to be. The first two stillborns had female protagonists.

Why would changing to a male protagonist have enabled you to transcend yourself?

When the characters were females, I identified too closely with them and wouldn't let them do things that I hadn't done or wouldn't do. It's not good to identify too closely with [one's own characters]. All this happened when I was very young; I started writing the “stillborn” versions of Ceremony when I was twenty-three.

Did you start to write short stories before you published poems? You published the poems of Laguna Woman quite early?

I wrote stories before I wrote poems, but the poems were easier to get out. That was because in writing stories I found myself too connected to the main character. Even though I wanted [her] to be a separate character, [she] wouldn't be. When on the third draft of Ceremony, I created Tayo, and I was so liberated by working with a male protagonist.

Also, in a matriarchy the young man symbolizes purity and virginity—and also the intellectual, the sterile, and the orderly. The female principle was the chaotic, the creative, the fertile, the powerful.

Ceremony struck me as a book about the bonds between men, very deep bonds. Why would it be liberating for you to deal with male bonding and the recovery of a man's sense of himself?

When I was a little girl, I hung around adults. I was always the kid who wouldn't go off and play with the other kids, but liked to watch and eavesdrop on adults. I come from a culture in which men and women are not segregated, and so I had a great deal of opportunity to listen to the men talking. When I was really small, I listened to World War II and Korean War veterans. They had drinking problems and lacked regular jobs, but they had good souls and good spirits. Perhaps tragedy and anguish and trouble attracted me right away as a little girl, more than the easier parts of life.

Also, the Laguna people lived in a matriarchy, and in a matriarchy one is more afraid of what women may say and think about oneself. Children feel less powerful than their mothers, and men seemed more interesting to them because they too had less power and were more like themselves.

Needless to say, women are a lot happier in a matriarchy than in a patriarchal society. Also those elements that had given women their strength and continuity were not nearly as shaken by outside pressures as were those reserved for men. I think this was mainly because when outsiders came in, they didn't realize the women's power, and so they left them alone. They stopped more of the things that men did traditionally than those that women did. So you see the men were more broken apart by the invasion. The government imprisoned men for practicing the Pueblo religion. Then of course war came, and the Second World War and the Korean War were devastating for men.

The Pueblo world is the reverse of Anglo-American and mainstream culture, where the final word is the man's word. In the Pueblo world, women have the final word in practical matters. This is a simplification, but women own all the property, children belong to their mother's clan, and all the mundane business—quarrels, problems—are handled by women. The female deity is the main deity, and in the Kiva ceremonies, man dress as women. But formerly the matriarchy was more evenly balanced, for the men were responsible for the hunting and religious ceremonies.

On the other hand, I've heard the theory that because the Euro-American legal system was so patriarchal, it destroyed certain aspects of Indian life that favored or protected women (by enforcing nineteenth-century laws, for example, which gave a married woman's property to her husband). If so, imposition of foreign laws sometimes diminished women's authority.

Well, we're only seeing that starting with my generation. It's taken that long for western European misogyny to arrive in the Pueblo. It's true that the conquerors negotiated only with Pueblo men, ignoring the clan mothers, but in the long run, when they destroyed what they thought was important, they left behind the authority of women.

Yet it's true that women are sometimes disadvantaged. A lot of tribal councils were established which didn't give women the right to vote, even though tribal organization was matriarchal. But that's a superficial level of damage, when you think that if the Conquistadors had really understood how important women were, they might have tried to [undermine their power]. Patriarchal attitudes have touched the Pueblo people only in a superficial way.

Does your identification with Tayo perhaps suggest that an author should try to identify with someone of the opposite sex as a way of moving towards a full presentation of reality?

Totally. When I was growing up, for a long time I felt that I was “just me.” That was easy to be in a matriarchal culture, where women have access to the wide world. Women are everywhere and men are everywhere women are. There isn't this awful segregation that you find even now in the Anglo-American world …

In university life!

Yes, in university life. In the Pueblo, women crack dirty jokes to men who aren't their husbands or close relatives. There's a lot of banter, and a real feeling of equality and strength within the community. There weren't places where a little girl was told, “Oh, you can't go there!,” or things of which a little boy was told, “Oh, you shouldn't do that!” I wasn't told that because I was a little girl, I had to dress or act a certain way. So for along time, although I didn't think I was really a boy, I kind of …

… didn't learn notto identify with men.

Yes, I didn't learn not to identify with men. I had a horse and was kind of a tomboy, and I was glad of it. Although I was intensely attracted to men and males, I saw that as a part of being interested in them and watching their activities.

I finished writing Ceremony in 1977, when it was still not politically correct for a woman novelist to write from a man's point of view. Feminism in America was still so new that feminists wanted women to write of their own experiences, not those of men. Perhaps too, because my name is Leslie, which is kind of androgynous, they may not have realized that I was a woman author. For awhile I didn't hear anything from the feminists. I felt I was punished for using a male protagonist, but that was the only way I could write.

I'd like to ask you about some of your fellow contemporary women writers who have written novels about their own cultures—Michelle Cliff, Toni Morrison, and Maxine Hong Kingston among them. Are there contemporary women writers whose works you've read a great deal, or whose works you believe resemble yours in any way?

Of course Toni Morrison's work has been important to me, and that of Maxine Hong Kingston. Both women have encouraged me to believe that I'm on the right track, and that we share something—that it's not so lonely, for there are other women and other people thinking and writing about the same sorts of things.

It seemed to me that you portrayed discrimination profoundly from within, not preaching about it, but analyzing its different layers and guises. Might I ask you to comment on contemporary Native American political issues and conflicts?

I'll tell you what's happening in terms of history. The largest city in the world is Mexico City, and officials don't really know its population. The uncounted ones are the Indios, the Indian people. A huge, huge change is on the horizon, indeed it's already underway—and there's nothing you can do.

A couple months ago at sundown, a freight train came up from Nogales through Tucson, covered, crawling with human beings. People were sitting on top, people were hanging on the side—and so the great return to Aztlan which the Chicano people talk about is coming to pass in a big way. The Zapatista uprising on January 1st, 1994, was one of the most important signalings of what is to come. After that small demonstrations were held all over Mexico and the United States and Canada, showing the solidarity of Native American people throughout the Americas. We sense that the rising on January 1st was a sign of this awakening.

The most important thing right now which people must watch out for is jingoism and hysteria about immigrants and immigration. [The U.S. government] is building an iron curtain, a steel wall—Rudolfo Ortiz calls it the Tortilla Curtain—but it's ugly. They're trying to seal off Mexico from the United States. But [those they are sealing off] are Indians, Native-Americans, American Indians, original possessors of this continent, and [those who hate them] want to create a hysteria here so that it will justify U. S. troops opening fire and shooting and killing. The future could be a horrendous blood bath and upheaval not seen since the Civil War.

Right now the border patrol stops [Indian] people. I've been stopped three or four times, and have had dogs put on me.


This happened to me on my way from Albuquerque to Tucson. Many people in the rest of the United States don't understand that the U.S. government is destroying the civil rights of all citizens living near the border. Something terrible is developing, and it's being sold to the American people, or shoved down their throats through this hysteria over immigrants and the fear that their jobs will be taken. But I see a frightening collision on the horizon! I'll tell you something—the powers that be, those greedy corrupt white men like Rostenkowski and all those criminals in the United States Congress—their time is running out very soon! The forces from the south have spiritual power and legitimacy that'll blast those thieves and murderers right out of Washington, D.C.

Are there particular Native-American groups that you see working effectively against government wrongs?

Ah, ah, this change that's coming will not have leaders. People will wake up and know in their hearts that it's beginning. It's already happening across the United States. The change isn't just limited to Native Americans. It can come to Anglo-Americans, Chicanos, African-Americans as well. Every day people wake up to the inhumanity and violence this government perpetrates on its own citizens, and on citizens all over the world. That's why the change will not be stopped, for it will be a change of consciousness, a change of heart.

We don't need leaders. They can't stop [this revolution.] They can shoot some, they can kill some—like they have already—but this is a change that rises out of the earth's very being—a Hurricane Andrew, a Hurricane Hugo, an earthquake of consciousness. This earth itself is rebelling against what's been done to it in the name of greed and capitalism. No, there are no groups which bring change. They aren't needed. This change that's coming is much deeper and much larger. Think of it as a natural force—human beings massed into a natural force like a hurricane or a tidal wave. It will happen when the people come from the south, and when the people here [in the North and Midwest] understand.

One morning people will just wake up, and we'll all be different. That's why the greedy powerful white men will not be able to stop what happens, because there will be nothing to grab onto. There are no Martin Luther Kings to shoot, so the F.B.I. can give up on that!

There's no one that can stop us, because [the return to Aztlan] will be a change inside of you! It will happen without your knowing it. And this won't happen because someone preached at you, threatened you with prison, put a gun to your head. No, you'll wake up [yourself]. It will come to you through dreams!

No Martin Luther King will have helped bring about change, but what about Leslie Marmon Silko? How do you see yourself contributing to this movement?

Just be telling people—“Look, this is happening!” As I tried to make clear in Almanac of the Dead, you don't have to do anything, for the great change is already happening. But you maybe might want to be aware of what was coming, and you might want to think about the future choices that you might have to make. Though as I said, in your yeart, you will already know.

Amen, and thank you.

Further Reading

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Barker, Adele Marie. “Crossings.” In Dialogues/Dialogi: Literary and Cultural Exchanges Between (Ex)Soviet and American Women, pp. 340-53. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.

Compares Silko's “Storyteller” and Anna Nerkagi's novel Amiko.Barker considers structure, narrative, language, and other literary devices through which the authors explore the boundaries of culture.

Barnes, Kim. “A Leslie Marmon Silko Interview.” The Journal of Ethnic Studies 13, No. 4 (Winter 1986): 83-105.

Interview in which Silko discusses her purpose for writing Storyteller.

Danielson, Linda L. “Storyteller: Grandmother Spider's Web.” Journal of the Southwest 30, No. 3 (Autumn 1988): 325-55.

Examines Storyteller from a feminist perspective, arguing that Silko reinterprets her culture outside the influence of European and male traditions.

Lappas, Catherine. “‘The Way I Heard it Was … ’: Myth, Memory, and Autobiography in Storyteller and The Woman Warrior.CEA Critic 57, No. 1 (Fall 1994): 57-67.

Explores the ways in which Silko and Maxine Hong Kingston blend myth and autobiography.

Nelson, Robert M. “He Said / She Said: Writing Oral Tradition in John Gunn's ‘Ko-pot Ka-nat’ and Leslie Silko's Storyteller.SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures 5, No. 1 (Spring 1993): 31-50.

Compares John Gunn's novel Schat-chen to Silko's Storyteller,analyzing their different concepts of the role of the storyteller.

Stetsenko, Ekaterina. “Retelling the Legends.” In Dialogues/Dialogi: Literary and Cultural Exchanges Between (Ex)Soviet and American Women,pp. 327-39. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.

Compares the use of oral tradition in Silko's “Storyteller” and Anna Nerkagi's Amiko of the Nago Tribe, contrasting the methods the authors use to depict Native and “civilized” cultures.

Vangen, Kate Shanley. “The Devil's Domain: Leslie Silko's ‘Storyteller’.” In Coyote Was Here: Essays on Contemporary Native American Literary and Political Mobilization, edited by Bo Schöler, pp. 116-23. Denmark: University of Aarhus, 1984.

Considers the tension between Silko's portrayal of the protagonist in “Storyteller” and traditional Western interpretations of women and sin.

Additional coverage of Silko's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 115, 122; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 45; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 23, 74; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 143; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules; and Native North American Literature.

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Essays and Criticism


Silko, Leslie Marmon (Vol. 114)