Leslie Marmon Silko Silko, Leslie Marmon (Vol. 114) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leslie Marmon Silko 1948–

American novelist, poet, essayist, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Silko's career through 1996. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 23 and 74.

Silko is considered among the foremost authors to emerge from the Native American literary renaissance of the 1970s. In her works she blends such western literary forms as the novel and the short story with the oral traditions of her Laguna Pueblo heritage to communicate Native American concepts concerning time, nature, and spirituality and their relevance in the contemporary world. Her protagonists, often of mixed Laguna and Anglo heritage, must draw upon the moral strength of their native community and its traditions in order to overcome the often repressive, alienating effects of white society.

Biographical Information

Of Laguna Pueblo, Plains Indian, Mexican, and Anglo-American descent, Silko was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on March 5, 1948, and raised on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in northern New Mexico. As a child she attended schools administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and learned about Laguna legends and traditions from her great-grandmother and other members of her extended family. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of New Mexico in 1969 and briefly attended law school before deciding to pursue a writing career. Silko taught at Navajo Community College in Tsaile, Arizona, for two years, and then spent two years in Ketchikan, Alaska, where she wrote her first novel, Ceremony (1977). Silko taught at the University of New Mexico and then at the University of Arizona before receiving a five-year MacArthur Foundation grant in 1981 which enabled her to work on Almanac of the Dead (1991). She has also received a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant to make films based on Laguna oral traditions.

Major Works

Silko's work is concerned with the common representation of Native Americans in literature and her attempt to overcome what she sees as misrepresentation. Ceremony is a novel about healing and discovering one's identity. The main character, Tayo, is a mixed-blood Native American strug-gling to come to terms with his ancestry, his wartime experiences, and the changing culture of the Laguna. It is through traditional rituals and his relationships with Betonie, an old man who is also a mixed breed, and T'seh, a medicine woman who represents the feminine principal, that Tayo will achieve healing, regain his identity, and grow into manhood. Storyteller (1981) is a collection of traditional Pueblo stories, Silko's own family stories, poems, and conventional short stories. The collection expresses the importance of storytelling to cultures and individuals alike. By making Native American stories relevant to contemporary society and by celebrating oral tradition, Silko overcomes the common misperception of Native Americans as a dying and primitive people. Almanac of the Dead is an apocalyptic tale which lacks the harmonizing effects of Ceremony. The novel tells the story of the Americas since the conquest by the Spanish, who arrived in the Yucatan and burned the entire written record of the Mayan people. The premise of the book is that one of the Mayan almanacs was smuggled to safety and is now passed down from generation to generation in a family charged with its protection. Citing a world filled with violence, cruelty, and crime, the book argues that 500 years of European civilization has failed in the Americas, and that all land should be returned to Indians, who have always been its true caretakers. Rampant individualism has torn people from the community and spirituality on which survival depends. Despite the repressive brutality of the novel, Silko leaves the room to hope that in throwing off Euroamerican individualism and embracing community, the Americas will survive. Sacred Water (1993) contains forty-one short tales with water as their guiding principal. The stories tell of Silko's own experience, her family's experience, Laguna society's experience, and Native Americans' experience with water in the arid region of the Southwest. Water is a life-giving force, and the book focuses on the integral nature of water to the spiritual life of the Pueblos.

Critical Reception

Critics consistently note Silko's use of subtle, Native American humor, and assert that white audiences may miss the many instances in her work. Reviewers note the positive nature of Silko's Ceremony and her attempt to show the value of both Anglo and Native American traditions. In her discussion of Silko's Ceremony, Elizabeth N. Evasdaughter states, "Ultimately, she demonstrates that combining our cultures, as her narrative does, has the power to civilize both." Reviewers had a mixed response to Almanac of the Dead and were often put off by the harsh judgement made against Anglo society. Some reviewers, however, found Silko's conclusions warranted. Linda Neimann states that "she does succeed in creating a world, eerily like the world we read about in the newspapers, that one would be only too glad to help overthrow." Another common complaint about Almanac of the Dead was that its sprawling nature and huge cast of characters were out of control and lacked focus. Silko's ability to render the feeling of oral tradition in a written form has been noted by many critics. In her discussion of Storyteller, Linda J. Krumholz states that "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." Critics praise the fluidity of Silko's writing and assert that she does not see books as finished, unchanging products. Many reviewers discuss the importance of myth and ritual in Silko's fiction, and her ability to draw those outside of the Native American community into her narratives. Ceremony is Silko's most recognized and praised book, but Silko's entire body of work expresses a consistency and continuity that makes her an important figure in the continuing tradition of Native American literature.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Laguna Woman: Poems (poetry) 1974
Ceremony (novel) 1977
Storyteller (poetry and short stories) 1981
With the Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright [with James A. Wright] (letters) 1985
Almanac of the Dead (novel) 1991
Sacred Water (short stories) 1993
Yellow Women and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today (essays) 1996

Elizabeth N. Evasdaughter (essay date Spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony: Healing Ethnic Hatred by Mixed-Breed Laughter," in MELUS, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 83-94.

[In the following essay, Evasdaughter asserts that, "the celestial laughter" Silko evokes in Ceremony "shows that Indian civilization is living and has the potential to transform anglo culture."]

In Ceremony, Leslie Silko brilliantly crosses racial styles of humor in order to cure the foolish delusions readers may have, if we think we are superior to Indians or inferior to whites, or perhaps superior to whites or inferior to Indians. Silko plays off affectionate Pueblo humor against the black humor so prominent...

(The entire section is 5139 words.)

Susan Blumenthal (essay date Fall 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Spotted Cattle and Deer: Spirit Guides and Symbols of Endurance and Healing in Ceremony," in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. XIV, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 367-77.

[In the following essay, Blumenthal analyzes the symbolism of the spotted cattle and their importance to Tayo's journey for healing in Silko's Ceremony.]

Spotted cattle. Running with the grace and delicacy of deer, but tough, rugged, enduring, lost in a landscape of desert and mountains. Deer. Silent, spiritual sentinels whose being nourishes the soul as well as the body of its slayer when properly honored in Pueblo ceremonial traditions.

Spotted cattle and deer are strong but...

(The entire section is 4112 words.)

Edith Swan (essay date Spring 1991–1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Laguna Prototypes of Manhood in Ceremony," in MELUS, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1991–1992, pp. 39-61.

[In the following essay, Swan discusses the male relationships in Silko's Ceremony and how they relate to the customs and practices of the Pueblo of Laguna.]

Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony unfolds a half-breed's search for identity amidst fragmented shards of his own tribalism, a way of life torn asunder by centuries of oppression. His story is written by a Laguna woman of mixed ancestry who does not speak the old language. Neither does her hero whose name is Tayo. Both however, make their homes at the Keres Pueblo of Laguna, New...

(The entire section is 8255 words.)

Edith Swan (essay date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Feminine Perspectives at Laguna Pueblo: Silko's Ceremony," in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall, 1992, pp. 309-28.

[In the following essay, Swan analyzes the influence of matriliny typical of the Laguna Pueblo on Silko's Ceremony.]

If we are to grasp the social and symbolic significance of the feminine in Native American writing, then western presumptions must be set aside so that they do not adversely bias or manipulate tribal structures of meaning. Native premises must be allowed to stand on their own terms. Therefore, in the following study of ethnology evident in Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony, feminine...

(The entire section is 7068 words.)

Karen L. Wallace (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Liminality and Myth in Native American Fiction: Ceremony and The Ancient Child," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 20, No. 4, 1996, pp. 91-119.

[In the following essay, Wallace discusses Silko's Ceremony and N. Scott Momaday's The Ancient Child and states that the novels "are attempts to articulate the survival of those people who are known as indians."]

An indian [Wallace explains in a footnote that "For the purposes of this paper, I will use indian rather than Indian to defamiliarize the term and to refocus attention on the history on which its significance depends"] identity is a tricky thing to...

(The entire section is 9663 words.)

Janet St. Clair (essay date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Death of Love/Love of Death: Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead," in MELUS, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 141-56.

[In the following essay, St. Clair discusses the wasteland of contemporary America as portrayed by Silko's Almanac of the Dead, yet acknowledges the expression of hope contained in the conclusion of the novel.]

Leslie Marmon Silko's second novel, Almanac of the Dead, portrays a nightmarish wasteland of violence, bestiality, cruelty, and crime. Deformed by grotesque familial relationships and debauched by sexual perversion, its characters are incapable of love. Even more chillingly, they seem—except for a few...

(The entire section is 6304 words.)

Charlene Taylor Evans (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mother-Daughter Relationships as Epistemological Structures: Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead and Storyteller," in Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in 20th-Century Literature, edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, 1996, pp. 172-87.

[In the following essay, Taylor Evans asserts that, "One of the basic unspoken feminist assumptions—that women are essentially powerless—is debunked within Silko's texts, for the mothers and daughters are bastions of the American Indian society in times of great crisis."]

For the past twelve thousand years, most cultures have practiced the tradition of passing on the explanation of "being" and...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Beidler, Peter, ed. "Silko's Originality in 'Yellow Woman.'" Sail 8, No. 2 (Summer 1996): 61-84.

Series of essays comparing Silko's short story "Yellow Woman" with the traditional Keresan versions of the Yellow Woman story.

Copeland, Marion W. "Black Elk Speaks and Leslie Silko's Ceremony: Two Visions of Horses." Critique 24, No. 3 (Spring 1983): 158-72.

Discusses the vision of horses in Black Elk Speaks and Silko's Ceremony.

Evers, Larry. "A Response: Going Along with The Story." American Indian...

(The entire section is 345 words.)