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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...

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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

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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)

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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 in 20th-century white culture. This comic strategy has the end-result of opening our eyes to our general foolishness, and also to the possibility of combining the merits of all races. Joseph Campbell wrote in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space of the change in mythologies away from the local and tribal toward a mythology that will arise from "this unified earth as of one harmonious being." Ceremony is a work that changes local mythologies in that more inclusive spirit.

Silko is the right person to have written this book. She herself is a mixed-blood, and her experience has evidently given her access not only to a variety of problems, but also to a variety of styles of clowning and joking. Although Elaine Jahner has mentioned the presence of jokes in the novel, I have known whites to read Ceremony as not comical at any point. Probably their power of recognition had been switched off by "the picture of the humorless Indian … so common in so much of the literature, in so many of the film and television depictions of Native Americans." Although Ceremony is serious, offering a number of valuable propositions for our consideration, the narrative also spins a web of jokes in the morning sun. If readers' cultural background has not prepared them for Pueblo reverence for the maternal spider, they could think of Silko's writing as resembling the turning and darting of a brown-and-white bird hunting insects in the air, at one moment flashing white sunlight, the next nearly invisible against the browns of this beautiful Earth.

The ceremony Silko narrates is that of a Navajo sing, but one not sung exactly as it would have been done before whites arrived in New Mexico, nor sung by a pure-blood Indian, nor sung on behalf of a pure-blood Indian. As is traditional, the ceremony is to be completed after the sing by the sick man, a Laguna named Tayo. His efforts to finish the ceremony by correct action form the last half of the novel, just as the first half was composed of the events which made him sick. These two series of events, taken together, make it clear that what the Veterans' Administration doctors have labeled battle fatigue is, in Tayo's case at least, really a struggle to make a decision about death. He tries two ways of responding to its invasion of his life that do not work—self-erasure and killing an agent of death. Finally he is able to find a way of opposing destruction which will not lead to his erasure as a force on the reservation, not allow anyone to kill him, and most important, not change him too into an agent of death.

Tayo's difficulty is grave, yet Silko jokes about it frequently. The belief among whites that Indians never laugh is contradicted continually by the sounds of Indians responding to subtle in-jokes or to a corrective kind of teasing crystallized in the work of ritual clowns. Black Elk speaks of clowns appearing when people needed a good laugh. At that time, he says, the clowns based their performance on the minor frustrations of life or on our minor flaws as human beings, such as our tendency to exaggerate our plight. Anne Cameron, too, in The Daughters of Copper Woman, has written of the dedication of a sacred clown, in this case a female Salish or Cowichan clown, to the eradication of foolish behavior and injustice, whether it originated with Indians or whites. I believe that Leslie Marmon Silko is in effect a sacred clown, turning the light of laughter against evils which might otherwise weaken us all.

Most of the clowning in Ceremony is not a deliberate performance by the characters. Tayo, passive, weeping and vomiting, does not apparently experience any amusing dimension of his depression, nor does his audience within the novel seem to think of him as funny, yet the Penguin edition cover painting, "Unfinished Crow," by Fritz Scholder, which can be seen as a portrayal of the sad clown type, applies perfectly well to Tayo's condition as the story unfolds.

Animals also clown in this exhilarating book. The crossbreed cattle who take flight at every opportunity are eventually the death of Uncle Josiah, but this sad outcome eventually turns comic, in the symbolic sense that although half-breeds are the solution to our problems as a nation, they are not an easy solution, or again, that although Tayo correctly grieves over Josiah's death, he is wrong to freeze the moment of that death. By way of ethical comment, animal clowns point up the ridiculous flight of Tayo and his long-time friend Harley toward the nearest bar. While Harley rides a black burro that always veers to the left, Tayo rides a blind gray mule, which although it usually walks in blind circles, now follows the black burro in equally blind confidence. As with the ornery cross-breed cattle, Silko uses or allows story to bring out the light contained in these emblems. Readers soon forget Harley's comical burro, as Harley himself veers more and more toward leaving the road; Tayo's blind mule too, has been only a comical way of introducing Tayo's apparent preference of the gray area between good and evil, his determination to plod along as if he could not see that his fellow veterans are heading down a far worse path than the path to the bar.

Human clowning of a farcical type, exposing our human flaws in a manifestly physical way, builds up Silko's philosophy. The drunk Indian veterans who had attempted to fight over Helen Jean "started pushing at each other, in a staggering circle on the dance floor. The other guys were cheering for a fight. They forgot about her." Their lack of real love for women goes with their general ineffectuality. The whole scene parodies the war, all its supposedly ardent love for motherland, all its proclaimed desire to protect wife and home forgotten in the blundering, futile rituals of fighting.

These clowning scenes become more elaborate as the novel continues. An example of this is the size and complexity of the expedition organized to capture Tayo at his most harmless. He is carefully surrounded at night by V.A. doctors in dark green government cars, Bureau of Indian Affairs police, and some of the old men of the pueblo, just as if he were insane, hostile, and armed, when we as readers know he has spent the summer outdoors looking after his skinny cattle and rediscovering the old religion, or if you like, dreaming of a beautiful Indian woman. The absurdity of this great stake-out does not cancel, but accompanies and points up the danger to Tayo. As readers, we both fear for him and half-expect the ambush will be 100% ineffectual.

If the stake-out nearly loses its humor altogether, the cause is its origin in the evil mind of Emo. His humor is like the glimmerings and grim streaks of a distorting mirror which reflects and mocks the sacred clown. Emo's love of loud laughter at the expense of others is not a part of traditional Pueblo life, to say the least. His amusement at downfall and death is only a parody of the witticism of the Hopi clown who arranged ahead of time for his own corpse to be dressed in his clown costume, swung to and fro on the roof, and thrown into the plaza by his nephews and sons. Again, Emo devoted himself to ritual sacrifice though it hurt others and left him unscathed; a diametric contradiction of the risks and death undergone by the great Salish or Cowichan female clown in order to oppose the exploitation and warping of Indians.

Clearly Silko does not practice Emo's type of humor, for she teases her readers in a gentle manner that can enlighten. When Tayo is ordered to shoot a Japanese soldier and suddenly sees him as his Uncle Josiah, everyone around him tells him that Josiah couldn't be in two places at the same time or that hallucinations are natural with malaria or battle fatigue. This thinking, even though Tayo's cousin Rocky practices it, is anglicized, afraid to contradict Aristotle, afraid to hear about hallucinations because of their association with psychosis, anxious not to reflect on their content. The joke is on readers who believe that Tayo has had a symptomatic hallucination, for if we have allowed this smoke screen to be raised between us and the import of the hallucination or vision, we have to wait many many pages for another chance to understand Tayo's great love for his people. Actually the vision, which I would call a projection of Tayo's or Josiah's mind, illustrates for Tayo the universality of human goodness and the evil of killing. When, reading along, we finally realize this, it's natural to smile at our earlier foolish Europeanized faith in our ideas of mental illness.

Silko teases white readers in a similar way by letting us know the head of an Indian family may say to a grown daughter, "Church … Ah Thelma, do you have to go there again?" or by noting that the Indians in the area credited a certain medicine man, the mixed-blood Betonie, with the ability to aid "victims tainted by Christianity or liquor." Perhaps too, Silko is teasing us a little by getting us to read a book about a group of men whom many whites would refer to as "drunk Indians." She understands white Americans well enough to know that we need to be led to a vantage point where we have to admit that the great spiritual war between good and evil may take place among those our country rejects as being automatically morally inferior. She seems to enjoy arousing our stereotypical interpretations of events so that she can present a different and better interpretation. In this way she can tease us and enlighten us, not only about the issue under discussion, but also about our customary presumption of certitude.

Her Indian readers get a similar gentle ribbing, on occasion. The Laguna medicine man attempts to convince Tayo that he would have received more complete religious training had he had an Indian father, but in reality Tayo's maternal grandmother and his maternal uncle have formed the little boy perfectly. They are the people ancient custom would have preferred as his teachers. While they told him stories and explained their beliefs, Tayo always listened with love and a desire to learn more. Some of the old ways, he rediscovered before the war; after it, he continues to discover the accessibility and power of the old religion. Being a half-breed never kept him from listening to his elders of both sexes, from living with his mind open to the natural world, or from wondering about the sacred manner of life.

Silko lets her special mixed-blood medicine man Betonie answer those Indians who oppose any change in traditional rituals, while she herself modifies those traditional tales she includes in the novel. A happy example is her retelling of the Battle of the Seasons over Yellow Woman, a summer fertility spirit, leader of the Corn Maidens. In Silko's version, Yellow Woman, now called Ts'eh Montano or Water Mountain Woman, still prefers Summer, now represented by Tayo. In Silko's tale, however, the bad spirit of Winter is represented by the hostile cowboy who wants to put Tayo in jail, and a second, good spirit of Winter is introduced in the form of the Mountain Lion, who also appears as an old Indian hunter. As the mountain lion, Winter tricks the cowboy into hunting it so that Tayo can escape. In the form of the Hunter, the good spirit of Winter gives the early snowstorm, not now interpreted as a battle, but as a friendly help in Tayo's recovery of the rustled family cattle. The Hunter, who is most knowledgeable in the old ways, accompanies the younger man down the trail to safety and offers him hospitality. When this old man discovers Tayo's love for Ts'eh, he is not at all distressed. He smiles and makes no objection to her going off with Tayo. When Ts'eh comes to join Tayo where he has pastured the spotted cross-breed cattle, the novel makes it more and more evident that she is a mountain spirit helpful to all forms of life. Perhaps the once wild cattle can be read as Summer's equivalent of the mountain lion, and the once crippled yellow bull as Tayo now in his full health. This affectionate revision is the very opposite of the deterioration or distortion feared by those Indians, perhaps older, who say the old ways must not be changed. To change and expand the story to such an extent while making it an expression of Indian values better suited to this time, when we must get rid of battles and bombs, is a way of teasing while reassuring the traditional minded.

Silko turns her teasing also toward younger Indians like Helen Jean, who evaluates Tayo as the least friendly male at the Y Bar, when in fact he is the only one who cares, even briefly, what is going to happen to her. As for half-breeds like Tayo, Silko repeatedly exposes his gullibility toward erroneous white beliefs. His difficulty in believing that someone other than an Indian will steal, much less that a white man will steal, is typical of Indian jokes about oppression.

Silko does not exclude herself from being teased either. At the end of her innovative portrayal of evil, she allows Tayo's grandmother, the archetypal storyteller, to indicate her boredom at the story of Emo's downfall:

Old Grandma shook her head slowly, and closed her cloudy eyes again. 'I guess I must be getting old', she said, 'because these goings-on around Laguna don't get me excited any more.' She sighed, and laid her head back on the chair. 'It seems like I already heard these stories before … only thing is, the names sound different.'

This narrative irony is a little joke at all of us—Silko for feeling she had written an original work about evil, any Indians who might have been worrying about her modernization of the stories, any whites who might have believed the test of art is originality, or maybe entertainment, rather than spiritual power. The serious effectiveness of Silko's tale is indicated by the passage which follows: "Whirling darkness / has come back on itself … It is dead for now."

All the instances of Indian humor in Ceremony have been overlooked by some of the white readers I have talked with, possibly because of lack of contact with non-European communities or culture. Indian irony can be "either so subtle or so keyed to an understanding from within of what is funny to a people that an outsider would fail to recognize it." Such outsiders tend to take many light passages in Ceremony as solemn or tense, and wear themselves out before the real crisis comes. Yet Silko has given non-Indian readers enough clues to enjoy her inside jokes. Although she grew up on the Laguna Pueblo reservation, she is familiar with our European culture, as she has correctly called it. She went to white schools, and she has read Steinbeck, Faulkner, Poe, Borges, and Flannery O'Connor, some with great interest, others with fascination. She understands this culture so well that she has been able to play with European black humor, which responds, not to the beautiful blackness of the black people, of nighttime outdoors, or of the forest shadows; the blackness involved in black humor is the darkness of opposition to light. Silko splits black humor as she did the spirit of Winter. She delineates one type of black humor, characterized by Emo, which bases its world view on black or unrelieved hatred and acts as the agent of hatred. She deploys a second type of black humor related to the irony of Indian ritual clowns, characterized by Tayo and Betonie, which includes hatred and white oppression in its world view without allowing them to monopolize the world. The former blackness enjoys the degradation of others; the second jokes about degrading things as they are, but shouldn't be. The first is death-dealing; the second, death-paralyzing.

Tayo at times carries irony as far as black humor. When other barflies buzz about their equality with whites, Tayo tells a more truthful, and by contrast, more ironic narrative about their status. When Emo repeatedly brings up how whites have taken everything the Indians had, Tayo wisecracks to himself, "Maybe Emo was wrong; maybe white people didn't have everything. Only Indians had droughts." This private shot of wry acknowledges both white injustice and Emo's dishonesty, thus mentally challenging blackness, not just learning to endure it. By blaming Indian deprivation on whites, however truly, Emo thinks he can deny Indian responsibility to take care of the arid land the Indians do have. Harley laughs over the decimation of a flock of sheep he had left unguarded, but this laughter warns Tayo of the presence of evil. Tayo sometimes goes drinking with these defiant veterans, but what he defies is the blackness in their hearts, what he regrets is their spiritual death.

Readers with sensitivity to the Red Power movement may object to Emo's apparent sympathy with the cause of justice to Indians, but his habit of objecting to Anglo domination is in time exposed as a synthetic wolf-hide masking his hatred for Indian culture and for his Indian brothers. As Joseph Bruchac points out in his article, "Striking the Pole: American Indian Humor," Indian humor gives lessons which "include the importance of humility and the affirmation that laughter leads to learning and survival."

Emo's humor, in contrast, has the blackness of an abandoned house in winter, for his amusement comes from his arrogance and negation, his apathy and love of stasis. His pride is in thinking he can equal whites in their black malice. He cherishes what he thinks was the message of the U.S. Army to him:

He was the best, they told him; some men didn't like to feel the quiver of the man they were killing. Some men got sick when they smelled the blood. But he was the best; he was one of them. The best U.S. Army.

Emo mocks traditional Indian values, despises everything living, and spends his time spreading contempt, resentment, idleness, pleasure in the humiliation and suffering of other people—in short, hatred. His first diatribe in Ceremony is against reservation ranchlands: "Look what is here for us. Look. Here's the Indians' mother earth! Old dried-up thing!" By breaking the law of reverence, his sarcasms raise loud laughter. By speaking only of white women, he gets his fellow veterans, except Tayo, to laugh and cheer at stories about bringing women down. By referring to Japanese soldiers always and only as Japs, as officers, as enemies, he tricks the others into rejoicing at the smashing of fellow people of color. They are fooled because Emo's jokes resemble jokes made "not to take our minds off our troubles, but to point out ways to survive and even laugh." Unfortunately, Emo's references to troubles do not carry hints about survival or corrections of faults. Not noticing the difference, Emo's bar buddies, most of them, commit themselves by every laugh to discard a little more of Indian tradition, their only possible road to a satisfying life.

Emo's gags are those of revulsion; he is a script writer of black comedy. He uses his full artistry when he organizes the complicated stake-out against Tayo. The stake-out puts Tayo in a triple bind, for the outcome must be, Emo thinks, that Tayo will be shot, locked up, or something worse. If captured, Tayo's punishment will be witty by Emo's standards, for Emo has reported him to the authorities for bestiality, for thinking he is a Jap, for living in caves as if he had reverted to the primitive. These slanders invert Tayo's best qualities as an Indian, for he loves caves and pictographs which are connected to the traditional religion, he recognizes his bond with the Japanese people, he works hard to secure and care for the family cattle, and he loves women in a fully sacred, sexual way that Emo has no notion of. Similarly, Emo's reason for including the old men in the stake-out is apparently not only to cut the pueblo off from the help Tayo can give with ideas like that of the hybrid cattle, but also to hurt Tayo for wanting so much to be accepted by the elders. Readers who don't want to believe anyone would think such a downfall funny have only to note Emo's laughter at the novel's climax.

Emo's aim in all his activity is not just to get a laugh. Betonie describes his aim and that of other evil-wishers as:

The trickery of the witchcraft … they want us to believe all evil resides with white people. Then we will look no further to see what is really happening. They want us to separate ourselves from white people, to be ignorant and helpless as we watch our own destruction.

Betonie would rather see a separation between good and evil, starlight and blackness, than between Indian and white. Ts'eh Montano gives the novel's second description of Emo's aim when she calls him and others like him

the destroyers: they work to see how much can be lost, how much can be forgotten. They destroy the feeling people have for each other … Their highest ambition is to gut human beings while they are still breathing, to hold the heart still beating so the victim will never feel anything again … Only destruction is capable of arousing a sensation, the remains of something alive in them.

This lust to end the interior life of others is why Emo's joking around eventually leads to cruelty. When his own laughter finally surfaces, he is openly laughing at the flaws and vulnerability of his loyal friends—at their falling over and insulting each other, at their fighting and mutual contempt, and at the same time at the moral degradation, mutilation, desexing, loss of individuality, death and dehumanization of the only one of his friends who had attempted to befriend Tayo. Emo's perverse comic ecstasy seems to derive from his having proved to his satisfaction that Indians are as worthless as greedy whites have always claimed they are. The validation of his black interpretation of the world makes him laugh, but, having carried laughter at the expense of others to its logical conclusion, he laughs alone.

Some time before this scene at the abandoned uranium mine, Betonie had told Tayo about a witches' contest in which the evilest action award is won by a witch who invents white people with nuclear capabilities. Betonie tells the story to inject laughter into Tayo's overwhelming preoccupation with white dominance. But Betonie does not—and Silko does not—mean to discount destructiveness. In Ceremony Silko calls attention, as she has explained in an interview, to the irony of Los Alamos being so close to the Pueblo people, who "have always concentrated upon making things grow, and appreciating things that are alive and natural, because life is so precious in the desert." Her ironies about uranium mines have thus a good chance to overcome any habits Anglo readers may have of ignoring not only Los Alamos, but also the Pueblo Indians. If the character of the Pueblos is allowed an influence on American life equal to that of other ethnic groups, we will find ourselves not only acknowledging the danger of nuclear and other forms of destruction, but "making things grow and appreciating things that are alive and natural."

Silko sees through Emo's descriptions and can see where his black philosophy must end. To acknowledge evil and study it, has not made a convert of her, however. She plays a worse trick on Emo than he wanted to play on Tayo; as a true comic novelist always does, she thwarts evil and establishes the good in a new and more complete harmony. Hers is the laughter that rises in the spirit, when the preachers of inferiority and inevitable doom have been disproved and defeated. What is finest in her, I believe, is the wisdom of her method of bringing the good out of its trials safely. Her wisdom is that of choosing love. Silko weaves traditional tales, as I mentioned earlier, into her narrative. These tales reveal the only principles by which Tayo can escape Emo and even stop Emo's work against a revitalization of the pueblo. Tayo comes to his most difficult task, to not kill Emo, in the context of two Pueblo tales, those of the Gambler and of Arrowboy. These tales also deal with the worst realities honestly, but in a victorious or comic manner. Tayo, and equally the novel, needs the tales in order to find some way to prevent Emo's triumph without bringing Tayo down. As LaVonne Ruoff has argued,

Silko emphasizes the need to return to the rituals and oral traditions of the past in order to rediscover the basis for one's cultural identity. Only when this is done is one prepared to deal with the problems of the present … Silko demonstrates that the Keres rituals and traditions have survived all attempts to eradicate them and that the seeds for the resurgence of their power lie in the memories and creativeness of her people.

When Tayo resists all the forces that have been turned against Pueblo holiness, he acts much as the legendary Arrowboy and the Gambler act when they oppose the witchery and its sadistic works. Although Tayo had been taught in school to scorn the old stories, he believes them and understands their modernity, their applicability to his situation. This reversal is the ultimate joke about the delusion of the whites who married into Silko's family, who like many other Protestants thought Protestant Christianity should replace Laguna paganism. Not because of Christianity, but because the Gambler attempted to trick the Sun into killing him, Tayo realizes that he must not kill Emo, and even that he must refuse the more adamantly, the more cleverly Emo tempts him to attack. Instead, Tayo has to watch and know, to avoid being seen or known, to resist every pressure, even appeals to his goodness. If he will simply stay out of range, Emo's most powerful attack will whirl back on its point of origin. Tayo has realized before the final show-down that: "He had to bring it back on them. There was no other way." Though Kenneth Lincoln takes the series of deaths that follows as pointless and hasty, he forgets that the young men whose death he regrets have just committed a pointless murder for the fun of it. Silko would be distorting life if she pretended that the natural consequences of their choices could be awarded off or denied.

Although the last scenes of Ceremony have a number of surprises, they have been prepared for. Tayo's refusal to be caught up in the dynamics of mutual destruction is comical because it seems cowardly, as whites judge bravery, even disloyal, by Army standards. In truth, his hiding behind the rock is his least white, least hateful action, even, perhaps, a sort of yellow humor, to go with his Asian connection.

Not only does Silko as novelist arrange for the defeat of Emo's plan either to sacrifice or to corrupt Tayo. She also plots a punishment for the villain which is more appropriate and funnier than the one he has planned for Tayo. In the outcome, Silko, and readers who side with her, laugh, perhaps silently, but also happily at Emo's final defeat, hearts lifting because "he got his". In this way, as a comic novelist, Silko has brought in a third type of black humorist, the one who steals the tricks of the blackest jokers and uses them against their owners. I have found that Anglo or anglicized readers easily miss Silko's punishment of Emo, thinking he has gotten away scot-free. That's because she outfoxes him as Tayo did, aikido style, without violence. He might have died, but the old men of the pueblo only exile him, and he chooses to go to California, the epitome of all that he admires. The joke of it is seen by the now gentle Tayo: "'California,' Tayo repeated softly, 'that's a good place for him.'" This brief and quiet comment scores off evil more aptly than Emo ever scored off good. Emo will be in harmony with California; the apex of his desires is as bad as he is. This joke mocks the White Lie, the delusion that whites are superior, for in it Silko is using the most prosperous part of her region, a proud achievement of white culture in this country, as the most severe punishment she can assign, far worse than mutilation, an early death, or life in Gallup. Emo's exile is a joke, too, about the self-proclaimed superiority of white institutions. If the old men were to bring charges against Emo, government courts would probably either discredit Tayo's testimony or execute Emo. None of their methods would stop Emo's impact on the pueblo. The Laguna answer to capital punishment is more intelligent, avoids imitating murderers, and punishes them less mercifully.

Whites with some appreciation for Indian culture sometimes express a surprising certitude that "this once great culture is being lost or replaced by an Anglo culture that does not have the same respect for nature … and is in some ways morally inferior to it." The celestial laughter Silko calls forth by her Ceremony shows that Indian civilization is living and has the potential to transform anglo culture. As she said in a 1978 interview, "These things will only die if we neglect to tell the stories. So I am telling the stories." Moreover she has turned the quietest laugh against the loudest. With the help of Indian humor, even if we do not entirely get her jokes, she purifies us of our illusions about white culture, and those about Indian culture as well. Ultimately she demonstrates that combining our cultures, as her narrative does, has the power to civilize both.

Susan Blumenthal (essay date Fall 1990)

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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 subtle thematic strands in the complex web of symbols, stories and images Leslie M. Silko weaves through Ceremony; they are the messengers of ancient wisdoms vital to Tayo's quest for healing and identity.

Critics have posited interpretations of spotted cattle but this thematic element has never been explored in sufficient depth because, as Kathleen M. Sands suggested …: "certain aspects of the novel reasserted themselves over and over …" And indeed most critical analysis of Ceremony has focused on several primary areas, which Sands identifies as: "the natural world, the use of myth and ritual in the novel, and the formal design of the work."

While the spotted cattle could be considered an aspect of the first category, "the natural world," there is perhaps a more appropriate designation—animal spirit guides.

Spotted cattle as spirit guides? Charles Larson in a collection of essays, American Indian Fiction, interpreted the cattle much differently, in the context of what Sands called "the natural world" theme:

The cattle are a part of his [Tayo's] people's future. When they disappear after Josiah's death, Tayo feels he has not only neglected his responsibility to his people, but severed his relationship with the land.

In contrast, Peter G. Beidler in a critical study "Animals and Human Development in the Contemporary American Indian Novel," offered a more psychological analysis, describing the cattle as a type of role model for Tayo. He states: "The animals Tayo comes most dramatically to imitate are the hardy Mexican cattle, those cattle which are closer to nature than are stupid white-man herefords."

Both conclusions are valid representative interpretations. Further study however, reveals the concentric nature of the symbol of spotted cattle; ordinary animals/quest object and spirit guides.

Animal spirit guides or helpers are a fundamental part of Native American spirituality and are a common element in the literature. If Tayo seeks wisdom, healing and self-identity, because of emotional traumas suffered during the war, then Paula Gunn Allen's discussion of the importance of spirit guides and self-empowerment in The Sacred Hoop seems particularly appropriate to his situation:

The seeker hopes to gain a vision because through doing so he will also gain a secure adult identity and some "medicine", that is, some personally owned item will empower him in certain ways. He might get a song or a ritual. He might get a powerful crystal, a particularly charged stone, or a spirit guide who is some creature like an eagle, a wolf, a coyote, an ant, but who in any case counsels the seeker in certain crucial situations that have a bearing on the seeker's "path".

James Welsh explores the notion of animal spirit guides in both a contemporary context in The Death of Jim Loney and a historical context in Fools Crow. The protagonist in The Death of Jim Loney is a deracinated alcoholic who has a re-occurring vision of a bird. Loney admits: "This must have some meaning. Sometimes I think it is a vision from my mother's people I must interpret it, but I don't know how."

Fools Crow, set in the nineteenth century, contrasts the confusion of twentieth century Jim Loney. A young Pikuni Blackfeet, White Man's Dog, has no trouble identifying his animal spirit guide. Without hesitation he follows a raven who speaks to him, asking for assistance in freeing a wolverine caught in a trap. After White Man's Dog frees the wolverine [Skunk Bear], the raven tells him: "Dream of all that has happened here today. Of all the two-leggeds [humans], you alone will possess the magic of Skunk Bear."

Jim Loney and White Man's Dog are at opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. Loney has no understanding of the mystical wisdom of his people; White Man's Dog has not experienced the spiritual brain-washing of the dominant culture which insists it is impossible for ravens and other animals to communicate with humans. Tayo of Ceremony is a character whose innate spiritual insights are somewhere between these two extremes. Silko explains: "He [Tayo] never lost the feeling he had in his chest … he still felt it was true, despite all they had taught him in school—that long, long ago things had been different, and human beings could understand what the animals said…."

Through the course of the novel, Tayo discovers the ancient path of wisdom in his own way, one which reflects the technological and cultural aspects of the twentieth century.

Consider the spotted cattle. These are not animals from traditional Pueblo mythology or storytelling tradition. However, by emulating Native American syncretic traditions, Silko created them to represent the hybridization of Indian culture. Indians in the southwest are not a dying race. They select certain desirable elements from the dominant white culture and incorporate these into their own culture to keep it alive and vigorous. Even though the Native American culture in the Southwest often appears in the midst of cultural crisis, it endures and survives. Betonie describes this attitude when he tells Tayo: "She taught me this above all else: things which don't shift and grow are dead things."

As part of their dual symbolic role the spotted cattle are one of the metaphors for this syncretism. Silko describes how they "run like antelope," how they "were tall and had long legs like deer…."

In essence the spotted cattle are a cross between domesticated cattle and wild animals. The Indian people survived on wild game for thousands of years but contemporary white society restricted use of that food source. Native people turned to livestock as a means of maintaining self-sufficiency. Unfortunately ranch-bred livestock are poorly suited to the harsh environment of the reservation. Survivors, such as Tayo's uncle Josiah, must constantly seek ways to overcome even the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of cattle that die during drought. As a leitmotif for survival, the spotted cattle enter to echoes of Spider Woman's Story: "I'm thinking about those cattle Tayo. See things work out funny sometimes."

In the poem which opens the book Silko tells us that stories are origins, beginnings; thoughts are the creative fountain of reality:

       Ts'its'tsi'nako, Thought Woman
       is sitting in her room
       and whatever she thinks about appears.

Josiah and Tayo think about the ideal breed of cattle and they appear:

They would breed these cattle, special cattle, not the weak, soft herefords that grew thin and died from eating thistle and burned-off cactus during the drought. The cattle Ulibarri sold them were exactly what they were thinking about.

The metaphor of the spotted cattle, as related to Native American people who have not abandoned their traditional ways and knowledge, is quite pointed; "These cattle were descendants of generations of desert cattle, born in dry sand and scrubby mesquite, where they hunted water the way desert antelope did."

In the same passage Josiah reinforces this image with one of the more profound insights in the book when he tells Tayo:

Cattle are like any living thing. If you separate them from the land too long, keep them in barns and corrals, they lose something. The stomachs get to where they can only eat rolled oats and dry alfalfa. When you turn them loose again they go running all over. They are scared because the land is unfamiliar and they are lost. They don't stop being scared either, even when they look quiet and they quit running. Scared animals die off easily.

Beidler comes to a similar conclusion regarding the metaphor of the spotted cattle as Indians who survive, and offers this reflective analysis:

And like the wild animals of nature, they are able to forage for themselves in the desert. Unlike the fat, white-faced Hereford (acculturated Indians?) they do not stand stupidly around artificial water tanks (bars?). Instead they find their own water in desert springs, their own food in desert grasslands. They trust their own instincts, drift to the south where they came from, and survive by their own native and natural abilities.

While the symbol of the spotted cattle as a hybrid survivor representative of Native Americans who have retained tradition and adapted to white culture is easily identified as a thematic element, there is also a more subtle symbolism involved. The spotted cattle are not only physical hybrids they are also spiritual hybrids. They have the bodies of livestock but their spiritual essence is deer/antelope, the primary large game animal(s) of the Pueblo people for thousands of years.

Nearly all of the Silko's descriptions of the spotted cattle contain a deer/antelope simile. The cattle run "like antelope." They hunt for water like "the desert antelope." They "had little regard for fences." "They were tall and had long, thin legs like deer…." And, most specifically, they were "more like deer than cattle…."

This emphasis on cattle as a spiritual hybrid of deer or antelope is particularly significant in terms of Pueblo philosophies concerning these animals. The reverence bestowed on deer by the Laguna people is illustrated in the novel when Silko describes the ceremony that will be performed on the deer slain by Rocky and Tayo:

He knew when they took the deer home, it would be laid out on a Navajo blanket, and Old Grandma would put a string of turquoise around its neck and put silver and turquoise rings around the tips of the antler. Josiah would prepare a little bowl of cornmeal and place it by the deer's head so that anyone who went near could leave some on the nose.

The deer are honored, not exploited by the Laguna people. It is important that all the proper ceremonies be performed so the spirit of the deer will not be offended. In this way a balance is maintained: The deer spirits are honored and the deer return to give their lives as sustenance to the people. Silko portrays this relationship when Josiah and Tayo kneel beside the deer's body:

They sprinkled cornmeal on the nose and fed the deer's spirit. They had to show their love and respect, their appreciation; otherwise the deer would be offended, and they would not come and die for them the following year.

Not only does the ceremonial feeding from the deer's spirit insure future hunting successes, it is a reaffirmation of the circular and interconnected life patterns fundamental to Native American spirituality. As Paula Gunn Allen states:

At base, every story, every song, every ceremony tells the Indian that each creature is part of a living whole and that all parts of that whole are related to one another by virtue of their participation in the whole being.

This point of view is not embraced by the majority of the white culture, and for a young man like Tayo who must straddle two cultures it renders the task of self-acceptance and self-understanding particularly difficult. It also challenges the reader's perceptions—Silko wants them to accept realities they may not understand or believe. Critics have remarked on this aspect of Ceremony before. Writing in the South Dakota Review about the concentric story aspects of Ceremony Dennis Hoilman notes: "An acceptance of the Laguna world view (as presented in Ceremony) involves a radically different perspective from the empirically derived perspective of the white culture."

It is this "radically different" perspective that tints the analysis of many images. If viewed from the white perspective, elements such as the spotted cattle and deer are metaphors; from the traditional Indian point of view they are the magical aspects of reality. Or, as Robert Bell notes about this aspect of the novel: "she [Silko] intends for us to perceive in the duality of natural and super natural a fundamental equivalence."

This philosophy of dual realities, visible and invisible is expressed with deer, not only in the ceremonial traditions accorded the slain deer, but also with Tayo himself.

Tayo appears to have a special relationship with deer. In the opening pages of the novel, he tries to hold the image of a deer in his mind in an effort to anchor himself in reality and find comfort in a familiar spiritual image rather than drugs: "And if he could hold that image of the deer in his mind long enough, his stomach might shiver less and let him sleep for awhile."

The symbol of this special relationship seems to be reinforced when Tayo remembers tenderly examining the deer he and Rocky have killed:

When he was a little child he always wanted to pet a deer, and he daydreamed that a deer would let him come close and touch its nose. He knelt and touched the nose; it was softer than pussy willows, and cattails, and still warm as a breath … he knew what they said about deer was true.

This type of spiritual understanding of animals or a particular animal is not regarded as imaginary in Native American culture, and those who do have such a relationship with a particular species of animal are often regarded as healers or holy people. It is interesting to compare the preceding quoted passage describing Tayo's feeling toward deer with the recollections of Don Talayesva in Sun Chief: Autobiography of a Hopi Indian published in 1942 when Talayesva was in his fifties. Sun Chief recounts the experience of a young man raised with traditional native customs who is not influenced by the dominant white culture and is therefore encouraged to explore and understand the other realities he perceives:

As soon as I was old enough to wander about the village my grandfather suggested that I go out to the Antelope Shrine and look for my deer people who were invisible to ordinary human beings. Sometimes I thought I would see antelopes who changed into people. Whenever I dreamed of antelopes in the village my parents would say, "That is to be expected, for you are an antelope child."

While there may be philosophical differences between Hopis and Lagunas regarding very specific spiritual matters and traditions unique to each pueblo, all Pueblo people share this reverence for the spirit world of animals, plants and nature, which they believe coexists, unseen, with the physical world. Therefore, Talayesva's visions could be compared to Tayo's instincts about deer. But where Talayesva's spiritual gifts were recognized and encouraged, Tayo's were ignored and even his traditional respect for the spirit of the deer is questioned by his cousin Rocky when Tayo covers the slain deer's head with his jacket: "Why did you do that?" But Tayo loves deer and knows they deserve respect even if it means derision from Rocky.

The subtle theme of Tayo as "antelope child", as Talayesva calls it, takes on special significance in the theme of healing. Tayo suffers emotional wounds from the war and feels guilt for the drought which has desiccated the land around Laguna. He feels responsible for the drought because he prayed away the jungle rain when he was in the war: "He damned the rain until the words were a chant … He wanted the words to make a cloudless blue sky…."

From the perspective of modern psychologists Tayo's concerns about damning the rain would be considered an abnormal guilt response. Silko illustrates that Tayo's awareness of the unity and connectedness of all things has not been diminished by his exposure to white culture. What has been diminished is his sense of personal power and knowledge that he can reverse the situation. This is what he must discover through his pursuit of the spotted cattle and his interaction with supernatural beings.

All of these experiences may appear purely metaphorical to the non-Indian reader. However, Silko is actually illustrating other realities of which most people have little or no understanding. Allen explains this dichotomy of perceptions in The Sacred Hoop:

In English, one can divide the universe into two parts; the natural and supernatural. Humanity has no real part in either, being neither animal nor spirit—that is, the supernatural is discussed as though it were apart from people, and the natural as though people were apart from it. This necessarily forces English-speaking people into a position of alienation from the world they live in. Such isolation is entirely foreign to American Indian thought.

The self-discovery Tayo comes to realize in the course of the novel/ceremony is that, because he is an 'antelope child,' he is closely associated with rain-bearer spirits and therefore has the ability to affect the drought. As Hamilton A. Tyler writes in Pueblo Animals and Myths: "In Pueblo thinking there is a very close relationship between Kachina dancers and deer since both of them are rainmakers."

This belief that deer spirits are rainmakers provides the basis for another interpretation of Tayo's quest for the spotted cattle which disappear after Josiah's death. When Tayo sets off to find the spotted cattle he in essence embarks on a vision quest to bring back the rain and heal his emotional wounds. The quest begins with old Betonie's prophecy at the end of the healing ceremony: "… the ceremony isn't finished yet … Remember these stars," he said. "I've seen them and I've seen the spotted cattle; I've seen a mountain and I've seen a woman."

Tayo realizes that he must find the spotted cattle, both to honor the commitment to his dead uncle and to continue the ceremony of healing. In this respect he becomes the hunter and the healer, and the spotted cattle become his guide. They bound through his dreams and in essence lead him to his meetings with the mountain spirits Ts'eh and mountain lion man.

He dreamed about the spotted cattle. They had seen him and were scattering between juniper trees through tall yellow grass, below the mesas near the dripping spring … He tried to run after them, but it was no use without a horse. They were gone … He wanted to leave that night to find the cattle; there would be no peace until he did."

In contemporary terms Tayo's quest for the spotted cattle can be juxtaposed to a traditional quest by Don Talayesva for the deer spirit people. When Talayesva returns to his village with yellow stains around his mouth, his family remarks that they know he had been eating sunflowers, which according to Hopi tradition are the food of deer spirits: "They knew I had been feasting with my relations [deer spirit people] and I would probably use my special power soon to heal some person who was sick and unable to urinate.

Yellow represents spiritual food to the Hopis and the Lagunas (cornmeal and pollen) and, as Tayo begins his spiritual quest for the spotted cattle, Silko emphasizes this color in her imagery. As Tayo travels north in the early spring (yellow is the color for north in Laguna mythology), he encounters Ts'eh Montano, a mountain spirit woman who wears yellow and has "ochre eyes … slanted upward from her cheekbones like the face of an antelope dancer's mask."

It is likely Silko meant to represent "the Keresan game goddess Kochinako, or yellow woman," in the character of Ts'eh. She initiates the completion of the healing for Tayo and the return of the rain. There are numerous references to water when Tayo and Ts'eh are together. Ts'eh's moccasin buttons have "rainbirds carved on them." Her blanket has "patterns of storm clouds." Tayo could "feel the damp wide leaf pattern that had soaked into the blanket where she lay." "He squatted down by the pool and watched dawn spreading across the sky like yellow wings."

Tayo makes love to Ts'eh, an act which balances his male power with female power and increases his luck as a hunter: "Other powers such as sex may be especially directed into channels which will aid the hunt."

Tayo dreams of the spotted cattle again and even in that vision there are images of water: "he saw them scatter over the crest of the round base hill, running away from him, scattering out around him like ripples in still water."

After encountering a huge mountain lion, an omen of good fortune and power, Tayo fills the lion's tracks with "yellow pollen." He then discovers the cattle "grazing in a dry lake flat…."

When Tayo returns to Ts'eh he encounters Mountain Lion man, another mountain spirit portrayed as the brother or husband of Yellow Woman, carrying a recently killed deer. All of these visions combine to reinforce the spiritual nature of Tayo's quest and confirm that he is a special person, an 'antelope child'.

Tayo returns again in the summer to find Ts'eh and first sees her "walking through the sunflowers …," the food of the deer spirit people. It is during this second liaison with Yellow Woman that Tayo truly begins to heal as he realizes that love always endures, even if the object of that love (in his case Rocky and Josiah) dies:

The damage that had been done had never reached this feeling. This feeling was their life, vitality locked deep in blood memory, and the people were strong, and the fifth world endured, and nothing was even lost as long as the love remained.

In reality Tayo's soul, as a reflection of the spirit of the pueblo people, can be compared to the desert Spadefoot Toad. This remarkable animal can remain buried in a state of suspended animation, waiting. Waiting, buried in the sand up to ten feet deep; enduring for as long as a decade for the rain necessary for its mating and reproduction. Silko describes these "children of the rain" as Tayo watches them at the edge of the seeping spring.

They were the rain's children. He had seen it happen many times after a rainstorm. In dried up ponds and in the dry arroyo sands, even as the rain was still falling they came popping up through the ground, with wet sand still on their backs. Josiah said they could stay buried in the dry sand for many years waiting for the rain to come again.

Tayo has learned to endure, with love, dignity and no bitterness. Spiraling ever inward in the ceremony of his spiritual journey, Tayo resists the vortex of evil when he watches the murder of his friends Harley and Leroy. He knows his involvement would only lead to his own destruction too. Indeed, Tayo has recognized the futility of war and violence and how these forces upset the delicate balance of the cosmos. This too is a fundamental Pueblo philosophy which is associated with rain. Allen explains this concept: "The rains come only to peaceful people, or so the Keres say. As a result of this belief, the Keres abhor violence or hostility."

His spiritual odyssey complete, Tayo goes to the Kiva where he tells the elders he has seen Yellow Woman. They do not dispute or deny his encounter with a sacred mountain spirit, rather they want to know all the details: "It took a long time to tell them the story; they stopped him frequently with questions about the location and time of day; they asked questions about the direction she had come from and the color of her eyes." Tayo is then accorded the respect due a spiritually gifted person when the elders chant:

      You have seen her
      We will be blessed again.

As spirit guides, the spotted cattle led Tayo, the deer/antelope child on a journey of remembrance and healing. He learned to forgive himself and release the guilt burdens from the war. He chased the spotted cattle, with their infinity-symbol brand, through dreams and into the desert and mountains and learned that love is eternal. As a deer/antelope child he instinctively knew of the deer's love: "They said the deer gave itself to them because it loved them, and he could feel the love as the fading heat of the deer's body warmed his hands." But in the course of the novel/ceremony he learned of the eternal love of people as well. Perhaps it is Yellow Woman, perhaps his mother he thinks about when the healing is complete: "He thought of her then; she had always loved him, she had never left him; she had always been there. He crossed the river at sunrise."

Edith Swan (essay date Spring 1991–1992)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8255

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 Mexico, and both must forge bridges spanning their biogenetic footing in diverse cultural systems.

Tayo is lost, and his quest is to find his place so that he may attain his identity as a mixed-breed person within the world fabricated by Thought Woman, the Spider. Paula Gunn Allen characterizes this source in The Sacred Hoop, stating, "In the beginning was thought, and her name was Woman" or as Silko puts it in her article, "Language and Literature from a Pueblo Perspective," "In the beginning … Thought Woman thought of all these things, and all these things are held together as one holds many things together in a single thought." Spider Woman's tightly woven universe is woman-centered, spun with the warp and weft of matrilineal structure. Edward Dozier isolates three salient criteria of Pueblo social order: first, descent is reckoned along the female line so children belong to the clan of their mother; second, men move to the home of their wife upon marriage so the couple continues to live with or near the bride's mother, forming a residential system congregating women related by blood; and third, women own most property. On the subject of gynecentric groups, Allen remarks that "male relationships are ordered in accordance with the maternal principle; a man's spiritual and economic placement and attendant responsibilities are determined by his membership in the community of the sisterhood."

At the heart of Silko's literary enterprise is the study of relationships: "the perspective I have involves very definitely Laguna and Laguna people and Laguna culture … what I write about and what I'm concerned about are relationships." Therefore, in the ensuing discussion, we shall consider various patterns for masculine relationships not only as they emerge from Silko's pen, but also in terms of how they compare with norms in the milieu of custom and practice at Laguna.

We will chart Tayo's maturation process, noting key prototypes of manhood which frame and influence his behavior. From the "Social Models" established by the men of his immediate family (Uncle Josiah, Robert and Rocky), we will turn to the breed's identification with a traditional figure in folklore in "Tayo as Culture Hero." Next, we will analyze his induction into the travails of manhood in "Lessons for a Warrior" and "Becoming a Hunter," examining the fit between tradition and the literary model. We will conclude by broadening our scope to "Tayo and the Land (Yellow Woman)," showing the articulation between manhood and the feminine principle.

Social Models

For a young Laguna boy, the most important adult male model within his social domain is his mother's brother (Uncle Josiah). Adrift between the Indian world she has come to scorn, and the white world which attracts but won't accept her, Tayo's mother (Laura or Sis) abandons her four-year-old son; she "pushed him gently into Josiah's arms." Tayo's childhood is spent in his matrilineal family trying to reach an equilibrium between his pride about being Indian (through his mother) and his shame about being White (through his father). He attends grade school near home, subsequently going with his cousin/brother Rocky to board at the Indian School in Albuquerque. Both complete their secondary education at the local high school, and throughout mainly have teachers who are Anglo (white), not Native American. As their formal schooling progresses, Rocky increasingly affiliates himself with white values; concomitantly, Tayo grows more skeptical and fearful of Indian beliefs.

Within matrilineal cultures, the extended family forms a household based on the corporate kinline through women; it consists of a mother (Grandma), her spouse and her daughters (Auntie and Sis), their inmarrying husbands (Robert) who move to the wife's place of residence, their unwed brothers (Josiah), children (Rocky and Tayo) and grandchildren. In such families, the father is expected to come and go, but in Tayo's case his biological pater is completely absent. By contrast, mother's brother is fixed, stable and reliable, and the maternal uncle possesses the male jural role for the matriline. Prior to marriage, a man stays with his sister(s) and mother; afterwards, he would leave his wife's house periodically and return to his natal family in order to execute obligations due his maternal kinfolk. He has authority over the children of his sister rather than his own biological offspring, who in turn belong to the clan of his wife. There they would fall under the jurisdiction of her brother, his brother-in-law. To his sister's children, mother's brother is their primary teacher, guardian and disciplinarian; he is the source of their inheritance, makes arrangements for their marriages, and has responsibility for collecting the brideprice for his nephews' marriages. According to Fred Eggan, an anthropologist, the closeness of this relationship is marked at Laguna, and indicated in kinship nomenclature with the reciprocal term "anawe"—the form of address exchanged between mother's brother (Josiah) and sister's son (Tayo, son of Sis, and Rocky, son of Auntie).

Silko's portrait of Uncle Josiah in the novel conforms closely to social standards held for his status as mother's brother. He is warm and affectionate with his nephews; he jokes with them, teaches about life with its hardships and temptations, and guides their behavior. From him, Tayo and Rocky learn masculine tasks pertaining to livestock, horsemanship and hunting. Josiah cooperates with his mother and sister in the management of family affairs and solving problems, although "the sheep, the horses, the fields and everything belonged to them including the good family name." Josiah introduces Tayo to his Mexican girl friend, Night Swan, who bestows sexual favors on both uncle and nephew. Furthermore, she urges Josiah to purchase cattle from her cousin in Sonora; as Swan illustrated in "Symbolic Geography," it is likely that the Mexican herd constitutes Tayo's bridewealth for his union with Ts'eh. Although Josiah dies while Tayo is stationed in the Philippines during World War II, he persists through Tayo's thoughts about him, memories of what Josiah said or did while the boys were growing up. Their interaction is wrought with "all the love there was," and even after Josiah's and Rocky's deaths, Tayo knows that

Josiah and Rocky were not far away … And he loved them as he had always loved them, the feeling pulsing over him as strong as it had ever been … The damage that had been done had never reached this feeling. This feeling was their life, vitality locked deep in blood memory, and the people were strong, and the fifth world endured, and nothing was ever lost as long as the love remained.

In Tayo's legacy from Josiah, his uncle's words prevail. Speech and thought are fundamental human faculties in Laguna precepts. Since words embody thoughts, they create reality. The cosmos sprang from Spider Woman's process of ideation in Ceremony as well as in Laguna origin legends where her intrinsic power is the ability to name. She is regarded, as we have seen, as being the supreme "mastermind" who is the "creator of all" or she is said to have "finished everything." Words mark the inception of reality, so reality becomes a projection of thought made concrete through speech in the verbal art of stories, and storytelling.

Josiah is a consummate storyteller. Silko offers the opinion that "language is story. At Laguna," she continues in "Language and Literature from a Pueblo Perspective," "many words have stories which make them. So when one is telling a story, and one is using words to tell the story, each word that one is speaking has a story of its own too." With all the richness of stories wrapped in stories, Josiah's teachings explain the way the world works. In addition, stories reveal appropriate sanctions indicating what will happen if one breaks normative prescriptions. Behavior and belief among the pueblos unify human with the divine, culture with nature, and thought with reality—they become a single, comprehensive, complex and closely interlocked network. For a people without writing, history is stories. Stories encode the knowledge of generations about how the world and human beings came to be as they are. Stories teach what one must know in order to belong, to have health and prosperity, to survive crisis and rear one's children. Stories are knowledge and knowledge is power over the word. Silko beautifully summarizes this perspective in Ceremony:

They are all we have, you see, / all we have to fight off / illness and death. / You don't have anything / if you don't have the stories … / So they try to destroy the stories / let the stories be confused or forgotten. / They would like that / They would be happy / Because we would be defenseless then.

Everywhere he looked, he saw a world made of stories, the long ago, time immemorial stories, as old Grandma called them. It was a world alive, always changing and moving; and if you know where to look, you could see it, sometimes almost imperceptible, like the motion of the stars across the sky. (emphasis added)

As Josiah's stories recur, they continually refresh and inform his cherished place in Tayo's mind. "Memory insures the preservation of tribal heritage … Thus memories heal Tayo as they make the whole Laguna experience cohere." Tayo comes to understand his terror, realizing that "nothing was lost; all was retained between sky and earth, and within himself. He had lost nothing." One might say, perhaps, the story is there within him all the time but it needs to be drawn out, remembered so to speak from the vantage point of a retrospective view. Ts'eh, his lover, pinpoints memory as the device used to maintain and protect reality. She tells Tayo, "As long as you remember, it is part of this story we have together." Likewise, memory enables the continuance of Tayo's and Josiah's story. In Tayo's recollections, Josiah's words bespeak the reality of tradition, respect for his people's sayings, responsibility for nature, and adherence to conventional practice. Tayo's wrongdoings are firmly but kindly corrected through stories, reminders affirming the "time immemorial stories" weaving Tayo's behavior into the fabric of the Laguna world view, thereby spinning him into the material of "blood memory."

Josiah's death triggers a series of major changes for Tayo. When his American comrades are ordered to execute the Japanese soldiers, Tayo sees them killing the Laguna. He witnesses Uncle Josiah among the victims despite Rocky's patient explanations that this could not be true: "it was impossible for the dead man to be Josiah, because Josiah was an old Laguna man, thousands of miles from the Philippine jungles and Japanese armies." Yet Tayo is convinced Josiah was there, and further that his own inaction was instrumental in Josiah's death. He tells the healer Betonie, "He loved me. He loved me, and I didn't do anything to save him."

Robert, Auntie's husband, substitutes for Josiah. He assumes his brother-in-law's "anawe" role when nephew Tayo returns from the Veteran's Hospital after the war suffering from the illness the white doctors called "battle fatigue." Robert works with Tayo, has warm words of support, brings him supplies at the sheep camp, helps in caring for the livestock and gathering firewood, and assists Tayo in his search for Josiah's spotted cattle.

After Grandma's decision that Tayo needs treatment by the native methods, she turns first to an elder Laguna priest, Ku'oosh. In "Symbolic Geography" Swan suggests that Ku'oosh serves as a "father" in the absence of Tayo's unknown white father through the ritual sponsorship of Tayo into the Kurena medicine society. At Laguna, religious identity and access to ideology pass through men, so a child belongs to the ceremonial Kiva and dance group of their father. Therefore, it is Robert, now Tayo's surrogate mother's brother, who takes Tayo westward to the hills above Gallup for ministrations at the hands of a Navajo shaman, Betonie, whom Ku'oosh recommends to Grandma.

Consequently, we are left with an impression of the temporary and mobile nature of social designs for manhood within the family circle. In terms of the structural dictates of matrilineality, this logic makes sense, for it is women who represent constancy—they ground the system, own property, and confer identity in the clan name. Men move into and out of the corporate web of relationships keyed to their mothers, sisters and wives. The message is clear—men are transitory. Upon each construct of masculinity in the novel is imprinted the metaphor of substitution: Josiah is replaced by Robert, Ku'oosh acts in lieu of Tayo's biological father, Betonie takes up where Ku'oosh left off, Rocky dies, and Tayo exists in his stead:

It didn't take long to see the accident of time and space: Rocky was the one who was alive, buying Grandma her heater with the round dial on the front; Rocky was there in the college game scores on the sports page of the Albuquerque Journal. It was him, Tayo, who had died, but somewhere there had been a mistake with the corpses, and somehow his was still unburied.

To all intents and purposes, Tayo appears as the converse of Rocky, hence he may serve as a counter for his brother. [A table follows in Blumental's essay, which lists the following traits of each character. Rocky is: object of pride, full-blood, wanted, given advantages, can leave, cleancut, all-American, oriented towared white culture, dead; Tayo is: object of shame, half-breed, unwanted, deprived of advantages, must stay, drinking, irresponsible Indian, avoids white ancestry, alive.] Significant oppositions arise in their upbringing; Auntie treats the boys differentially, even though both stand in a relationship where each would call her "naiya" or mother.

The narrative sets forth Rocky as Auntie's "pride" whom she always favors over the unwanted child of her dead sister. When others are around she "pretended" to handle the boys the same, "but they both knew it was only temporary." Kinship protocol would have Tayo and Rocky address each other as "tiume" or brother, but in Ceremony Auntie explicitly prohibits this term of reference, insisting on the Anglicized concept of "cousin." Tayo knows he is expected to remain behind and help so that "Rocky would be the one to leave home." Rocky "withdraws" from his mother (Auntie), and similarly moves away from "what village people thought" without plans for remaining on the reservation. Rocky pursues Anglo definitions of success: "he was an A-student and all-state in football and track. He had to win … (he) understood what he had to do to win in the white outside world" and he accepts the premise of deferred gratification for that success because he "believes in the word 'someday' the way white people do."

The common perception that Rocky is a hero is inscribed by the insults heaped upon Tayo by his war buddies, especially Emo who compares Tayo to Rocky: "You think you're hot shit, like your cousin. Big football star. Big hero … One thing you can do is drink like an Indian, can't you? Maybe you aren't no better than the rest of us, huh?" What Emo "hates" is the fact "that Tayo is part white." Tayo deeply loves his brother—"he was proud that Emo was so envious." When Rocky is badly wounded, Tayo struggles desperately to carry the stretcher, save his brother, and fulfill his parting promise to Auntie, "I'll bring him back safe." The jungle rains are endless and to Tayo they quicken Rocky's passing. He curses the drenching downpours, praying away the rain in a chant that "flooded out of the last warm core in his chest."

Tayo's universe is founded on a "world made of stories." Consequently, he construes his words as causing the drought afflicting his people and their environment. His illness is cultural. It reflects the deprivation brought on by voicing his destructive thoughts, making him in part responsible for his state of alienation. Also, it echoes his disorientation from tribal modes of thought coded in Spider Woman's universal geometry.

These events initiate Tayo's metaphysical quest when he finally returns home, a sick battle-weary veteran. He moves from the social sphere to that of the sacred where he must, according to indigenous tenets, encounter the mentors requisite for his process of recovery.

In turn Tayo, like Rocky, must become a hero.

Tayo as Culture Hero

Another model of the male individuation process appears in stories providing a behavioral code embedded in the lore of a society nourished by an oral tradition. This mythic description of masculinity is crucial as a prototype because Tayo, hero of the novel, is congruent with a traditional folklore hero.

Among the mythologies of many American Indian societies, tales reporting ceremonies, myths and ritual dwell on the character of a "Culture Hero." Spencer presents a cogent synthesis of the series of events in which the hero commonly engages, a sequence which I have annotated with reference to the personnel and plot of Ceremony:

Typically, the hero experiences a series of misfortunes in which he needs supernatural assistance if he is to survive. Sometimes he precipitates the misadventure himself by actively courting danger or intentionally disregarding prohibitions;… behind the hero's seeming passivity in suffering catastrophe the stories show a deep preoccupation with his active responsibility for provoking the mishaps that plague him [cursing the rain]. Rejection by his family [Auntie and his Mother] or ridicule and scorn on the part of associates [Emo] may set the stage for the hero's reckless behavior. His misadventures usually occur during sexual or hunting exploits [The War might be counted here as well as his relationship with Night Swan, Ts'eh, the Hunter and Mountain Lion] … The hero's misadventures are usually bodily attack or capture by animals, natural phenomenon, supernaturals, or aliens. They may leave him ill, destroyed bodily, transformed [Coyote Witchery], or stranded in an inaccessible place. In this predicament the supernaturals come to his rescue or protect him from further harm. They restore him by ritual treatment [Ku'oosh and Betonie] and from contact with them he acquires ceremonial knowledge and power. Usually it is the restoration ceremony performed over him as the patient that he learns in all its details [Betonie and Shush] … With each misadventure and restoration he gains in … ritual knowledge and power of his own to be able to protect himself [Star map on war shield] with little or no help from supernaturals. In the final events of the story the hero returns to his own people [story in Kiva and family], without resentment for whatever part they may have played in his misadventures. (emphasis added)

In the novel, Tayo displays the attributes normally assigned to the Culture Hero as a mythic archetype. Without question, Silko has crafted her hero in this time-honored persona so popular to native storytelling traditions, showing Tayo's metamorphosis from being a wastrel to his status as a full-fledged hero.

Moreover, to a Laguna youngster, the name "Tayo" would be as familiar as Superman or Batman is to a white child. He is a traditional folklore hero. His story tells of being taken to the sky by his pet eagle, and in flight he sings and the people see him. They go to the mountain at the zenith in the upper world where he goes "northward down" to the home of Spider Woman, then hunts with her grandsons snaring robins to procure a gift for her. He stays for a while.

In Boas' collection entitled Keresan Texts, he comments that Tayo's words are Hopi; furthermore, he notes that originally this was a Hopi tale brought to Laguna presumably along with many other elements derived from Hopi and Zuni. If so, Silko named her hero after a borrowed Laguna mythic hero who at a minimum flies on wings of eagles, sings in Hopi and lives with Spider Woman. In addition, the status of the folklore Tayo may have been enhanced by belonging to a Hopi story, a people reputed to be sophisticated and spiritually prominent among the Western Pueblos, exemplifying how cultural admixture is recognized and incorporated into Laguna mythology.

Lessons for a Warrior

This prototypic scenario of the mythic individuation process buttressed by Tayo's correlation with a relatively minor cultural hero sets the core parameters for Tayo's development into adulthood. Tayo's coming of age as a man rests on gaining prowess first as a warrior and then as a hunter. During Tayo's lessons on becoming a warrior, his fundamental battle is within himself, and he must combat witchcraft. His learning is mediated through symbolic themes stressing incarceration, war trophies (scalps and teeth), and connections to the Japanese through evolution, transformation and uranium. Comparable to his analog in folklore, Tayo's journey starts with the outstretched wings of an eagle. When Rocky and Tayo join up, the Army recruiter gives them a glossy pamphlet featuring "a man in a khaki uniform with gold braid … in the background, behind the figure in the uniform, was a gold eagle with its wings spread across an American flag."

In Ceremony, the theater of Indian/white conflict moves from the arid southwestern desert to the rain forest jungles of the Philippines where Indians and whites are pitted against a common enemy, the Japanese. As Tayo learns, the real antagonist is not the Japanese but witchery, and his relationship to the Japanese acts as a foil for identifying this enemy both within and without. The war in the Pacific islands is a pale shadow, a prelude for the witches' plan of nuclear holocaust. Tayo must come to understand that it is all a matter of transitions and transformations—mistaken identities and knowing the clan to which you belong—mixtures requiring that he unfuse and sort out confusing combinations.

Tayo's white sergeant orders his unit to kill the Japanese prisoners in front of the cave and Tayo sees Uncle Josiah among them: "it wasn't a Jap, it was Josiah, eyes shrinking back into the skull and all their shining black light glazed over by death." Thereafter, Tayo, Rocky and the others are captured, but are not executed outright—instead they are marched to a prison camp. On the way there carrying the blanket holding Rocky, Tayo curses the incessant rain, praying for it to stop. And the wounded Rocky dies. Tayo confuses the tall Japanese soldier, who butts Rocky's skull with a rifle, with an Indian from his school days and "the tall soldier pushed Tayo away, not hard but the way a small child would be pushed away by an older brother" (emphasis added).

Prison camps are jails like internment camps. Internment camps are like reservations and asylums, places to fence in those a given society deems undesirable. Liberated from the Japanese prison camp, Tayo is shipped back to the mental ward of the white Los Angeles Veterans' Hospital. He is discharged. In the L.A. train station on the way home to the Laguna reservation, Tayo faints and receives help from Japanese women and children recently released from the internment camps where Japanese-Americans were captives during the war: "he could still see the face of the little boy, looking back at him, smiling, and he tried to vomit the image from his head because it was Rocky's smiling face from a long time before, when they were little kids together" (emphasis added).

Variations on themes of capture and imprisonment are further enhanced by Laguna notions about war trophies. While Tayo was in the Philippines barely surviving the Bataan Death March, Emo, Harley and Leroy Valdez were on Wake Island; "they were MacArthur's boys," "they had all come back with Purple Hearts." White medals for bravery in combat stirred warrior hearts. It brought pride and a sense of belonging; camaraderie spawned carousing, sharing "good times", and swapping stories. Emo had other war souvenirs—the Bull Durham sack containing "teeth knocked out of the corpse of a Japanese soldier … a Jap colonel." He kept rattling the bag; Tayo fought against the rising tide of nausea caused by the sound associated with death and killing. In the bar, Tayo watches Emo play with the teeth; "he pretended to put them in his mouth at funny angles. Everyone was laughing":

the little Japanese boy [whom Tayo identifies with Rocky] was smiling in the L.A. depot; darkness came like night fog and someone was bending over a small body … "Killer!" he screamed. "Killer!"… Emo started laughing …" You drink like an Indian and you're crazy like one too—but you aren't shit, white trash. You love Japs the way your mother loved to screw white men."

Tayo attacks the real slayer of his brother—Emo the witch, one of the destroyers.

It is kinship bonds which disclose the actual enemy, his Laguna buddies who have joined other practitioners on the evil side. Following the courtesy of giving an "inside" place to outsiders, kin status is extended to the Japanese by Tayo, a process of filiation sanctioned by Betonie's reference to shared heritage, "Thirty thousand years ago they were not strangers." So the Laguna men closest to Tayo "become" Japanese in his eyes. Uncle Josiah becomes a Japanese soldier, brother Rocky becomes a Japanese child wearing an army hat, and a Japanese soldier acts towards Tayo as an "older brother" to a child—they are family, kinfolk, members of the same clan:

From the jungles of his dreaming he recognized why the Japanese voices had merged with Laguna voices, with Josiah's voice and Rocky's voice; the lines of cultures and worlds were drawn in flat dark lines on fine light sand, converging in the middle of witchery's final ceremonial sand painting. From that time on, human beings were one clan again … united by a circle of death that devoured people in cities twelve thousand miles away. (emphasis added)

Thinking about this casual reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as he watches Emo extract bloody chunks from Harley's quivering body during the witches' rites, Tayo freely associates the atomic destruction of the Japanese with his own abandonment by his drunken mother. Tayo sees himself and the Japanese as mutual victims of American aggression. Thoughts about bombs echo once more as he is talking with both medicine men about his war sickness. To Betonie: "I wonder what good Indian ceremonies can do against the sickness which comes from their wars, their bombs, their lies?" With reference to Ku'oosh: "Ku'oosh would have looked at the dismembered corpses and the atomic heat-flash outlines, where human bodies had evaporated, and the old man would have said something close and terrible had killed these people. Not even oldtime witches killed like that" (emphasis added).

Oldtime witchery and newtime witchery commingle around the traditional prize of war, the scalp. Laguna warriors joined the scalp society, or opi', after they had slain or touched the enemy and taken the scalp—the same Scalp society Silko poetically represents in Ceremony. This group performs in the Scalp Ceremony or War Dance which was held after battle to welcome, cleanse and celebrate the return of the courageous victors. During the course of this ritual "the warriors eat the flesh of the scalp." Honoring the practice of counting coup, they ingested the enemy, assumed aspects of prowess belonging to the dead, and grew in status in the eyes of their community. It's just that Emo was empowered by teeth instead of scalps: "Tayo could hear it in his voice when he talked about killing—how Emo grew from each killing. Emo fed off each man he killed, and the higher the rank of the dead man, the higher it made Emo."

Another figure said to feed on the exploits of warriors is K'oo'ko—a Katcina giantess:

They had things / they must do / otherwise / K'oo'ko would haunt their dreams / with her great fangs and / everything would be endangered … The flute and dancing / blue cornmeal and / hair washing. / All these things / they had to do. (emphasis added)

These precautionary "things" comprise the Scalp Ceremony in which K'oo'ko, the Katcina, dances exhibiting her giant teeth like Emo did in jest. Returning to the text, it is the Scalp Ceremony which Ku'oosh conducts for the returning Laguna war veterans—it "lay to rest the Japanese souls in the green humid jungles, and it satisfied the female giant who fed on the dreams of warriors." But it isn't enough according to Ku'oosh, "There are some things we can't cure like we used to," he said, "not since the white people came. The others who had the Scalp Ceremony, some of them are not better either." However, Betonie states "there was something else"; "it was everything they had seen—the cities, the tall buildings, the noise, and the lights, the power of their weapons and machines. They were never the same after that: they had seen what the white people had made from the stolen land."

Uranium was among the stolen resources. Theft provided the nuclear reaction for the atomic bomb foreshadowing the witches' holocaust. The A-Bomb. Grandma saw the test explosion at White Sands from her kitchen window while Tayo was gone. The bomb that evaporated the Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but not to the extent that Emo wanted. The bomb made from uranium taken from Mother Earth beneath Laguna feet, mined from their own Cebolleta land grant. The bomb alluded to in Betonie's origin story of witchery as he outlines the destructive and monstrous outcomes of the witches' use for these "beautiful rocks."

The Opi' society for warriors was said to be a "shamanistic society." That is, members assisted in the making, care and feeding of the Katcina masks, called "our mothers," and they were "allowed to impersonate Katcinas." Shamans were thought to possess the same kind of magical powers as deities. Thus, "warriors are believed to know all songs and understand the language of animals and plants"; after they perform the war dance "four seeds of every kind, melon, squash, piñon nuts, and corn are put away to be planted the next spring in order to obtain success in planting." Just as Tayo must learn the lessons of warfare with witchery and whites, so too must he understand the spiritual teachings and discipline requisite for ensuring respect and positive interactions (language) with the network of forces animating his environment. Like Bushido, the way of the warrior in Japan.

Becoming a Hunter

Tayo's mastery of Laguna ideology rests on the balance between giving/taking or providing/killing found in the masculine endeavors of warfare, raising livestock and hunting. This focus is foretold in Betonie's prophecy visioning the elements guiding Tayo's odyssey: "Remember these stars," he said, "I've seen them and I've seen the spotted cattle; I've seen a mountain and I've seen a woman" (emphasis added). These four signs provide critical symbolic markers for various fields of events composing "the Ceremony" Betonie initiates for Tayo's cure. Briefly, the ceremonial structure is this: Tayo travels, spending a sequence of four specific nights on different mountain peaks undergoing treatment and teaching, a plan conforming to the ritual model of many Navajo chantways. On the one hand, his journeys enact the legend of the hero. On the other, his physical movement itself traces the sacred sunwise circuit ordained by Spider Woman, an action intrinsic to his recovery. This was because "his sickness was only part of something larger, and his cure would be found only in something great and inclusive of everything."

Tayo's pursuit of his prophetic signs is related in the second half of the novel. He searches for the spotted cattle, metaphorically portrayed as "desert antelope" on Mount Taylor, Betonie's mountain. The mountain, San Mateo/Mount Taylor, is the mountain where Tayo finds Ts'eh (the Woman), the spotted cattle and himself. It is the Laguna home of Our Mother, Spider Woman with her Emergence Place, and Cakak, the Shiwana rainmaker of snow personified as Winter. (The reader is referred to Swan, "Symbolic Geography," for a more detailed analysis of the underlying structure of this symbolism). Also, it is the stage for scenes of confrontation on the Floyd Lee Ranch. Laguna conceptions include the idea that mountains provide a skeletal framework for the earth; in addition, they become an integral structure within the human being for "It is in their bones." Mountains and bones are coterminous clarifying why Betonie says "It is the people who belong to the mountain" and in Storyteller Silko writes that Mount Taylor is "our mother" where the deceased go to be reborn.

Mount Taylor is the place where aspects of thought so dear to Spider Woman abound—understanding, seeing, prophecy, divination, knowledge, learning and naming—because "Thought Woman, the Spider / named things and / as she named them / they appeared." Powers of this sacred peak are best told in separate Laguna myths presented as Appendix B. These legends endow the Emergence Place (Shipap) and/or Place of Divination with symbolic attributes essential to Tayo's development as a warrior and hunter. The first story is the account of Ts'i'motc'inyi-man (a katcina) entering into a cave or hole on the northern peak of Mount Taylor. His gift to humankind is teeth—teeth that chew; that frame sound into words; that K'oo'ko displays to warriors in dreams and the Scalp Ceremony; that frighten children during initiations when they are whipped by the Katcina, Ts'its'initsi', called "big teeth"; that Emo took in battle as a war trophy. A primary attribute of Thought Woman is her teeth, spider teeth that slant backward to hold her prey. In addition, the identical site is visited by those who wish to see the future as revealed in the story of Ho'tc'ani-tse. This is the spot where you see "anything you think about," surely the epitome of Thought Woman's powerful ability to name.

For Tayo, this awesome power of Mount Taylor is condensed into a deathlike experience where he contacts "the center"—either Spider Woman's Emergence Place where the dead return or the Place of Divination, both of which are situated on Mount Taylor: "He was aware of the center beneath him … he knew how it would be: a returning rather than a separation … he would seep into the earth and rest with the center, where the voice of silence was familiar and the density of the dark earth loved him." He goes to be reborn. There he falls under the aegis of Mountain Lion.

On the flanks of this sacred mountain of the North, Tayo encounters the sacredness of the yellow mountain lion. In Laguna beliefs, yellow is the color of the north, and Mountain Lion authors hunting techniques for the North: he is the sacred animal of the North and the helpmate of hunters. While riding up the North Top of Mount Taylor, Josiah's story about the mountain-lion cub occurs to Tayo, for it describes this locale as traditional Laguna hunting grounds—a fitting background for Tayo's emergence as a hunter. Then, Tayo greets Mountain Lion in person:

He waited for the mare to shy away from the yellow form that moved towards them … The eyes caught twin reflections of the moon; the glittering yellow light penetrated his chest and he inhaled suddenly … Tayo held out his hand. "Mountain Lion," he whispered, "mountain lion, becoming what you are with each breath, your substance changing with the earth and sky." The mountain lion blinked his eyes; there was no fear … and disappeared into the trees, his outline lingering like yellow smoke, then suddenly gone. (emphasis added)

Having gained the hunter's power, Tayo rides in the direction from whence the cougar had come and finds the spotted cattle. He herds them through the hole he cut in the fence on the perimeter of the Floyd Lee Ranch only to lose them. Here Tayo is captured, this time by the Ranch border patrol. Later, the Mountain Lion helps "the hunter" once more, for when the cowboys spot the lion's tracks they decide to let Tayo free so they can pursue new "game," Tayo's mentor of the hunt.

Tayo's offering of pollen in the "four footprints" of the sacred animal stands in stark relief to this wasteful killing by the hunters, which angers Tayo: "he wanted to follow them as they hunted the mountain lion, to shoot them and their howling dogs with their own guns," a reaction expressing his desire to be a trustee of the natural environment, to protect the animals and the earth from the willful, ongoing exploitation of the destroyers.

Imagery of approved hunting techniques continues as Tayo descends Mount Taylor looking for evidence of the cattle's movement. He hears the deer song chanted in Laguna by a hunter who appears carrying a dead deer on his shoulders; Tayo sees blue life feathers adorning the tips of its antlers. The man wears turquoise, silver and traditional garb, "but the cap he wore over his ears was made from tawny thick fur which shone when the wind ruffled through it; it looked like mountain-lion skin" (emphasis added). It seems this is the human personification of mountain lion—"you say you have seen her / Last winter / up north / with Mountain Lion / the hunter." Mountain Lion Man is a katcina who controls game in the North; legends depict him carrying a deer on his back.

From interviews and stories, Boas ascertained that hunters and warriors wear hats made from animal skins. Presumably, then, Ts'eh's companion is the katcina, Mountain Lion Man, since humankind always hunt in pairs rather than alone. They may also possess war shields fabricated from animal skins like the one the Hunter leaves for Tayo to see:

It was made from a hide, elk or maybe buffalo, heavy and stiff enough to stop stones and arrows; long dry years had shrunk and split the edges, and it had lost the round shape. At first he thought the hide had turned black: from age, but he touched it and realized it had been painted black. There were small white spots of paint all over the shield. He stepped back: it was a star map of the overhead sky in late September. It was the Big Star Constellation Old Betonie had drawn in the sand.

Betonie's astronomy elucidates Tayo's sign in the stars. It starts with the story of Kau pa'ta, the evil magician or witch known as the Gambler. He takes the storm clouds—the Shiwana of the cardinal directions—and hangs them on the walls of his house. Capturing the clouds makes the rain cease as effectively as Tayo's curse when he prays away the rain. In both cases, the land and animals dry up. We are told that after receiving a gift, Spider Woman gives the hero (Sun Man) medicine, warnings and instruction; she reveals the secret knowledge he needs to win the guessing game where the stakes are his life and death. She tells him the names of the stars—Pleiades and Orion. So "it happened / just the way Spider Woman said"; he cut out the Gambler's eyes and "threw them into the South sky / and they became the horizon stars of autumn." That is, Pleiades and Orion.

Spider Woman's gift of knowledge to Sun Man permits him to free the clouds so the rains resume. The folklore Tayo visits her, too, and Tayo, hero of the novel, gains her protection (in the form of the stars) ultimately winning back the rain himself like Sun Man does.

Pleiades and Orion, these are Tayo's stars, manifest in the stars Old Betonie drew in the sand; the stars Tayo beholds his first evening with Ts'eh; the stars forming the constellations depicted in the star map painted on the war shield hung on the North wall of Ts'eh's house; the stars heralding the start of autumn—the transition between Summer and Winter when the sun moves "from its Summer place in the sky"; and the stars announcing the fragility of the world at the autumnal equinox. He observes these stars above on his night of nights—his shield:

… but he saw the constellation in the North sky, and the fourth star was directly above him; the pattern of the ceremony was in the stars … His protection was there in the sky, in the position of the sun, in the pattern of the stars. (emphasis added)

Accordingly, the story goes on with these stars of the old war shield; they go on, lasting until the fifth world ends, then maybe beyond. The only thing is: it has never been easy.

During this night of his trial by witchcraft, Tayo consciously refrains from acting out his desire to kill Emo. This decision determines his victory over the witchery practiced by his war buddies. Thereby, Tayo negates the "death" imagery and symbolism associated with his roles as warrior and hunter, destructive aspects of his manhood which might be subject to control by the manipulators of witchcraft. His first action, in consequence, is to collect the plant "of light" which Ts'eh asked him to gather. So he plants the seeds "with great care in places near sandy hills … The plants would grow there like the story, strong and translucent as the stars." Finally, Tayo assumes the shape of the culture hero he was destined to be. He displays the divine knowledge of the Katcina, possesses the "magic of supernaturals," and "understands the language of animals and plants." Tayo's development as "the taker of life" and "shedder of blood" essential for establishing his identity as warrior/hunter is paralleled by another cycle, growing into the opposite side of this duality. To wit: becoming a provider, the planter of seeds, and a caretaker, the keeper of animals. In short, a man connected to life, nurturance and stewardship of the land.

Our review of Laguna prototypes of manhood remains incomplete until we examine a central notion in Ceremony"we came out of this land and we are hers" (emphasis added). For the Laguna the fundamental feminine entity is the earth—it is a holy place. Tayo must, therefore, be reunited with the land. Harmony must be re-newed, integrating nature and culture, the delicate balance shattered by his heedless words praying away the rain.

That humanity and nature are intertwined, a single community in fact, may be seen in Uncle Josiah's sayings. "You see," Josiah said,… "This is where we come from, see. This sand, this stone, these trees, the vines, all the wildflowers. This earth keeps us going … It's people, see. They're the ones. The old people used to say that droughts happen when people forget, when people misbehave."

Tayo's words impacted the wider environment and his illness symptomatically reflects the land's barrenness, brought on by the desiccating consequences of his praying. This can be seen in the dehydration of his tongue and his inability to speak and think of names, especially his own. Without words, Tayo lacks reality; anonymity has dislocated him from Spider Woman's dialect. Literally and figuratively, he has lost the definition granted by a name; he is dried up, "slipping away with the wind," an ephemeral being like "invisible white smoke." His thoughts articulated in words effect him just as they effect the earth to which he is inextricably bound. As the land is waterless and eroding, he is speechless, thoughtless and nameless. His disease is mirrored in his environment.

Tayo regains density of form as well as the capacity for voicing "names" in a healing process activating Josiah's words—to be and become one with the earth. Laguna metaphysics engendered by Spider Woman's thought process make the land just as much a product of her conceptualization as Tayo is since it is Silko's words (her story) which confirm the substance of Spider Woman's ideology. In essence, Tayo must become re-aligned with the mechanisms employed by the Laguna to structure meaning in their society, it might be said that he must assume the tongue and cosmography of Spider Woman.

Like real Laguna youth, Tayo learns the social and ceremonial nature of gender within this matrilineal society through his mentors of both sexes: social identity is mediated through women and access to religious knowledge passes through men. In considering characteristics of the cast of personnel from the sacred precincts of Ceremony, I have noted that Silko's attribution of their powers to the respective cardinal directions accords with a master paradigm of space and time. Moreover, Tayo must also be "turned sunwise" so he is consonant with the cycle of movement ordained by Spider Woman as she places the sun: "His protection was there in the sky, in the position of the sun …" (emphasis added). This sunwise circuit determines the basic path of order. It controls good, by re-establishing wholeness, well being, purity and harmony after evil and disorder are re-moved. As Tayo re-traces the footsteps of the hero portrayed in the legend of Ghostway, he experiences ritual re-instatement. He is re-created through the curative power of words rooted in chants and rites performed upon cardinally-oriented mountain tops. Re-cognition is essential to Tayo's cure through remembrance; he realizes that the placement of the peaks is mapped "in the pattern of the stars" sketched earlier by Betonie in the sand, a position re-inforced and re-presented in the picture adorning the Hunter's old war shield. Tayo's re-turn to the mountain(s) in a sunwise fashion brings re-birth at the home of the Mother, Mount Taylor.

Tayo's re-connection to the enduring feminine principle inherent to Laguna cosmogony is rendered in a gradual process of identification depicted by Silko through imagery of immersion with light, water, the land and women which I analyze in "Feminine Perspectives." This unification takes place in the joining of Tayo with Spider Woman. We have seen the parallel structure between Tayo in folklore as he flies on the wings of an eagle and resides with Spider Woman, while Tayo of the novel goes to war under the insignia of the Army's golden eagle before he lives with Ts'eh, who is a personification of Spider Woman. Allen elaborates this association in her article entitled "The Feminine Landscape of Ceremony":

Our Mothers, Uretsete and Naotsete, are aspects of Grandmother Spider. They are certain kinds of thought forces if you will. The same can be said of Ts'eh.

Ts'eh is the matrix, the creative and life-restoring power, and those who cooperate with her design serve her and, through her, serve life. They make manifest what she thinks.

Ts'eh signifies Yellow Woman, the heroine of many a tale at Laguna and Acoma. "… Yellow Woman," contends Allen, "is in a sense a name that means Woman-Woman because among the Keres, yellow is the color for women … and it is ascribed to the Northwest." Continuing, Allen adds this figure is a "role model" for contemporary Laguna women, "she is … the spirit of Woman." Embodying the feminine principle of the spider matrix, Ts'eh is the source—she becomes Tayo's lover and teacher, his maker and salvation.

But yellow is also the color of personhood at Laguna, a quality invoked in the naming ceremony held for each child. Tayo converts into the color yellow symbolizing the fulfillment of his native identity, a catalytic change fostered by his relationships with both Mountain Lion, who is "yellow smoke," and the Yellow Woman, Ts'eh. Consequently, Tayo's transmutation from one color (white) to another (yellow) in the mythic level may be regarded as a logical transformation of the biological factors enmeshed in his racial identity—he is a half-breed vacillating between the conflicting demands of his paternal "white" blood versus his maternal "yellow" Laguna blood.

This intricate allegory about Tayo's "yellow" nature, then, conveys his re-covery of an Indian name after losing "the thick white skin" that had enclosed him silencing the sensations of living, the love as well as the grief. Following his re-vitalization and re-storation into a sacred manner, Tayo is re-worded with a named position in the linguistic fabric of Spider Woman's theology.

In sum, Tayo emerges as an androgynous being with the content of prototypic models of manhood bonded to the maternal principle which originates and organizes planes of meaning in the Laguna world view. Ultimately, Tayo is defined in terms of Her, the Creatrix, knowing "she had always loved him, she had never left him; she had always been there." Tayo and his people are loved; there is a new sense of belonging as Tayo returns home on the autumnal equinox. He comes as the Katcinas do—at sunrise. Balance is restored as He and She become as one, blending time and space with gender, nature and culture, a union built according to the terms governing the sacred and mundane orders of Laguna experience. Tayo achieves his half-breed stature via the masculine and feminine aspects of his manhood which delimit his place in Spider Woman's cosmic tapestry, and in the end normalcy returns to Laguna. The Culture Hero has safely returned home, and the rainclouds are freed to gather once more. As Grandma says, "It seems like I heard these stories before … only thing is, the names sound different" (emphasis added). Now Tayo is a person with a name, a story that brings people together, a story that is inseparable from the land and the one who made it all possible in the first place, Thought Woman.

Edith Swan (essay date Fall 1992)

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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 perspectives are discerned within Keresan theory, the tenets of which Laguna/Sioux critic Paula Gunn Allen reports derive from a society "reputed to be the last extreme mother-right people on earth." My aim is to portray an archetypical configuration of feminocentric values distilled from literary and cultural dimensions at Laguna Pueblo where these are rooted in solid feminine bedrock. My intent is to encourage others to apply this synopsis more widely, to illuminate critical factors shaping contemporary literature penned by American Indians, especially when either author or text is affiliated with matriliny.

Keres is the language spoken by Silko's and Allen's kinfolk, the Laguna. Their pueblo is located in northwestern New Mexico at the foot of a towering volcanic peak called Mount Taylor, a mountain sacred in traditional theology. Mixed blood predominates due to Laguna's founding, and this community is unique in this respect among the other matrilineal pueblos of the Southwest. Instead of exhibiting the common denominators of genetic and cultural homogeneity, Laguna is a proverbial melting pot, uniting diverse groups and their varying cultures. In an autobiographical interview entitled "I Climb Mesas in My Dreams," Allen remarks, "they were a polyglot people." The resulting social matrix emphasizes the female line inscribed by a hybrid past: in every sense of the term "Laguna is a breed Pueblo."

Scholars employ useful devices for unraveling the organizational fabric of kinship and cognitive systems, and these will help us appreciate the inherent models operational behind the literary form, enhancing our comprehension not only of the novel but also of its internal dynamics. Silko's words energize by granting form, substance, and worth in a way consistent with basic Laguna ideology: the spoken word (a name) brings existence into being, and thought as knowledge informs the conception of words. The font of thought combined with sacredness of the word defines concepts requisite for understanding the inception and continuity of an oral tradition. Because words create, they unify the quintessence of things, on the one hand, and fuse object to referent, on the other; the telling remains undifferentiated from what is told.

At Laguna, thought and the word emanate from a woman. Knowledge and belief are equated; thus both origin legends and Ceremony posit the cosmos as Spider Woman's creation:

     She is sitting in her room
     thinking of a story now
 
     I'm telling you the story
        she is thinking.

"She" is spoken of as "Ts'its'tsi'nako, Thought-Woman." In Silko's article "Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective" we learn that Spider Woman's script incorporates "the whole of creation and the whole of history and time," and it serves as the basis for "the structure of Pueblo expression [which] resembles something like a spider's web—with many little threads radiating from a center, criss-crossing each other." As author, Silko taps Spider Woman's vivifying principles of articulation: Silko becomes Her voice, Her storyteller, following Her techniques. So Silko attributes her story as well as her literary conventions to the authority of ontological genesis, to the feminine universe maker who is a spinner of names.

Woman/word: My unfolding of the picture of the feminine at Laguna Pueblo will take place through consideration of complementary layers of the novel. The first section of this essay, "Women in the Social Sphere," presents the characters typifying everyday life in the form of Auntie, Grandma, and the hero's mother, Laura or Sis. These figures are also secular representatives of "Women in the Sacred Order" discussed primarily in the third section, which gives attention also to Night Swan and Ts'eh. Each signifies aspects of female power, and like the facets of a diamond refracting the prismatic interplay of light, the faces of "Woman" at Laguna are individual personifications condensing into a central being, the "The Mater-creatrix" discussed in the second section, variously known as Spider Woman/Yellow Woman/Thought Woman.

Everything belonged to them, including the good family name.

Examination of relationships is central to Silko's assessment of her writing: "What I write about and what I'm concerned about are relationships." At Laguna, the hub of kinship relations is located in the women, who form the web of belonging that integrates her people. According to Tewa scholar Edward Dozier, major features of social structure in the western pueblos (Hopi, Hano, Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna) "emphasize matrilineal exogamous clans, the importance of women in the ownership of houses and garden plots, [and] matrilocal residence." Unpacking this terminology one finds that descent is reckoned through females so that children belong to the clan of their mother (matrilineality). Exogamy means that a person must marry outside of her clan, yet at marriage a bride continues to live with or near her mother (matrilocality), requiring that her husband move to her household (uxorilocality, stressing residence with the wife), thus spatially concentrating women of the same bloodline. Living patterns arranged by this skein of lineation are briefly alluded to in the novel, as when the hero, Tayo, learns that the woman Ts'eh is eligible:

The tone of her voice said that of course he knew what the people said about her family, but Tayo couldn't remember hearing of that family.

"Up here, we don't have to worry about those things." She was right. They would leave the questions of lineage, clan, and family name to the people in the village, to someone like Auntie who had to know everything about anyone.

Tayo is reared in a matrilineal extended family composed of Auntie and her husband Robert who live with her mother, Grandma, and her unmarried brother, Josiah. Sis is Auntie's dead sister, Laura, who is Tayo's mother. Her waywardness begot Tayo, and subsequently she left her son, relinquishing his care to her sister and mother. This situation nonetheless exemplifies Allen's definition of a unified household: "one in which the relationships among women and their descendants and sisters are ordered."

Auntie's acceptance of Tayo, however, is at best grudging, cloaked with suffering as she emulates the saints and martyrs. Auntie is a "Christian woman," characterized as entrusting propriety to white authorities; she is swayed by opinions of teachers and by those published in books and newspapers. The written word distinguishing Anglo outsiders brings "importance and power" for anyone who writes and reads; such skills she takes pride in for Rocky (Auntie's son), Josiah, and to some extent, Tayo. She dotes on practices of Anglo doctors and the solace or guidance of Catholic priests. Influenced particularly by the power of the word in gossip, a controlling guide in societies without writing, what others think and what Auntie concludes they are saying about her—their stories—hold her firmly to Christian ethics and styles of conduct. In The Sacred Hoop, Allen notes that "among many American Indians, family is a matter of clan membership … membership in a certain clan related one to many people in very close ways, though the biological connection might be so distant as to be practically nonexistent." This notion of the clan's spiritual kindred appears in Ceremony at the heart of the conflict surrounding Auntie, who is waging a fight that only Tayo sees and apprehends, and it ties the two despite the barriers she enforces between them. As Anglo values mingle and confound Laguna assumptions, her war becomes a cultural one revolving around "her terror at being trapped in one of the oldest ways"—her own Indian mindset.

Rules of lineal descent give Auntie no choice about her obligation to raise the half-breed child of her dead sister since that child is viewed as hers—her son. An illustration of this taxonomic merging is, perhaps, most obvious in the fact that Tayo would call his mother (Laura or Little Sister), his mother's sister (Auntie), and the mate of his mother's brother Josiah (Night Swan) all by the same name, naiya or mother. The narrative treats Night Swan as Josiah's lover or Mexican girl friend rather than his wife, but the commitment between the two is deep, and practice of Laguna social mores would have sanctioned their intimacy by marriage if Josiah had lived. In her discussion of Laguna Genealogies, anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons documents matings as "casual," and "couples may live together before the ceremony" in the Catholic Church. By the standard nomenclature of Keresan ontology, then, Night Swan stands in the position of "mother" to Tayo. She is also to him a lover (like Ts'eh) and sexually initiates him. Western sensibilities would dwell on apparent incest here and generational difference of oedipal proportions, but the logic of matrilineal categories permits this possibility without the negative overlay of western interpretation. Simply, clans where intermarriage takes place have the ongoing potential of supplying further spouses to men of the same lineage as to Josiah or Tayo. In addition, male descent-group members are called by the same word. For example, a self-reciprocal term occurs with anawe, mutually identifying "mother's brother" (Josiah) and "sister's son" (Rocky and Tayo). Likewise, Tayo and Rocky should address each other as tiume or "brother," although Auntie continually tries to prevent this association from happening.

Indulgent and nurturing relationships between grandparents and grandchildren tend to characterize matrilineal societies. Alternate generations at Laguna are classified together using the self-reciprocal of papa: to each other, Grandma and Tayo are papa. Anthropologists regard this dyad as being unusually close at Laguna. Grandparents bear responsibility for childcare when the parents are busy, but execute their charge with gentleness, patience, and goodwill; they are also prominent in naming ceremonies. Tayo's warm, positively toned relationship with Grandma is often repeated in the novel, mirroring Silko's strong affection for her own Grandma A'mooh, which she amplified in Storyteller. In Ceremony Grandma is traditional, bearing her Laguna heritage with pride. She exemplifies a generation that adheres to native teachings, respects the wisdom and status of the elders, and honors the way it has always been. She is convinced of the dignity and efficacious nature of tribal methods for curing and sanity—precepts undergirding her insistence that medicine men (Ku'oosh and Betonie) treat her grandson Tayo. As maternal figurehead, Grandma is the living reference point for the "good family name." She is as stubbornly persistent in her survival strategies as she is a powerful force in determining family affairs. Grandma embodies the traditional Laguna ethos in counterpoint to the bicultural entrapment in which Auntie struggles.

Like Silko's great grandmother, Grandma is a storyteller—she wields language with a quick and practiced tongue. Thriving amidst the "goings on" at Laguna, she brokers in gossip: "She liked to sit by her stove and gossip about the people who were talking about their family…. She pounded her cane on the floor in triumph. The story was all that counted. If she had a better one about them, then it didn't matter what they said." Moreover, Grandma relates the "long ago, time immemorial stories" to her grandsons, Rocky and Tayo, sees to it that they receive Indian names from her sister, and overall represents caring, nourishment, and "home."

As indigenous lore would have it, Grandma makes the ritual offering for the deer's spirit, asks Tayo to gather Indian Tea, and in the end feeds members of the medicine society led by Ku'oosh when Tayo speaks in the kiva. Grandma is sensitive to the divisive currents eroding her family, her people, but she does not impose adherence to her viewpoint. However, in keeping with the influential role of maternal grandmothers in matriliny, Silko grants Grandma the last narrative comment in the novel: "It seems like I already heard these stories before … only thing is, the names sound different" (my emphasis).

Ease, humor, and affection mark relationships with grandparents, and this contrasts with the authority and respect vested in the parental generation. In Matrilineal Kinship David Schneider and Kathleen Gough contend that the empirical disposition of group placement runs through women, giving men access to lines of authority through the female line. It is of minor concern in Ceremony, then, that Tayo's father is missing, for it is the mother's brother (Josiah) who acts as the authority figure for the children (Tayo and Rocky) of his sisters, reinforcing the strong bonds of interdependence between a woman (Auntie) and her brother (Josiah). He is the children's teacher, disciplinarian, and source of inheritance; he plans their marriages and provides the brideprice in the wedding of his nephews. So it is not coincidental that anawe, Josiah, sends Tayo to Night Swan carrying a note on blue-lined paper. Further, one may speculate that Josiah's cattle, purchased at Night Swan's urging, serve as Ts'eh's marriage "gift" (bridewealth), thus illustrating how old practices may resurface in new forms. Following norms of ownership, the Mexican longhorns would become Ts'eh's property (or her family's), which she might dispose of as she pleased. Ts'eh indeed tends the cattle and then returns them to Tayo's care after he comes to be with her again in accordance with custom.

Matrilineal principles underscore the "good family name" of Auntie and Grandma. Auntie claims that in the past it commanded esteem: "Our family, old Grandma's family, was so highly regarded at one time. She is used to being respected by people." Several lineages tracing descent from a common ancestor are aggregated, forming the clan, a social unit above the level of the extended family. Parsons's Genealogies discloses 19 clans among the 124 houses scattered through the 8 village settlements comprising the pueblo of Laguna. The name of the maternal line (the matriline) bestows social identity shared with those in the tribe possessing the same name—it makes "relatives." This all-important clan name endows status, ensures etiquette, and gives knowledge of where one belongs. Social place is prescribed as is collective responsibility and life force, expressed in the novel as the "vitality locked deep in blood memory."

Clans have their own stories. Such stories become integral components of Ceremony, blending different personae into the oldtime beliefs and fusing them to the architecture of Spider Woman's cosmic blueprint. Legends record clan origins entwining ancestors with certain plants or animals either during the time of Emergence from the underworlds or in the Migration thereafter. Fundamentally, "the Origin story functions basically as a maker of our identity—with the story we know who we are," Silko says in "Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective," then continues with an example: when "Antelope people think of themselves, it is as people who are of this story [how Antelope and Badger widened the Emergence Place], and this is our place, and we fit into the very beginning when the people first came, before we began our journey south." In Ceremony, Ts'eh is connected to Antelope and Descheeny to Badger. Clan stories furnish a rich inventory of symbolism as well as the familiar mythic backbone of historical precedent, augmenting the poetic scope and sweep of Silko's literary repertoire.

There are also family stories, which "keep track" of the events, "both positive and not so positive—about one's own family." Family stories, like clan stories, mold Laguna character because the idiosyncratic details making a family history unique are related countless times in the communal process of remembering and retelling. In Ceremony, Auntie fears and Grandma relishes these stories. Each generation hears and tells the stories anew—time and again family members learn their family's account of itself, of themselves:

the people shared a single clan name and they told each other who they were; they recounted the actions and words each of their clan had taken, and would take; from before they were born and long after they died, the people shared the same consciousness.

Silko states in "Landscape, History and the Pueblo Imagination" that "human identity is linked with all the elements of Creation through the clan." Clan names stem from the natural environment. At Laguna, Parsons found them divided into a dual entity: among the western clans one finds Bear, Parrot, Coyote, Roadrunner, and Oak—the winter people—under the aegis of the Kurena medicine society, while the Koshare have jurisdiction over the eastern, summer cluster of Sun, Turkey, Corn, Water, and Turquoise. Laguna myth assigns most clan names to one of the four cardinal directions, thus linking the clan to a discrete set of symbols and harnessing the power grounded in that direction. For instance, Ts'eh's "antelope" qualities draw on the South. In turn, this prompts a series of associated symbols, including those of Summer, Thunder and Lightning, Eagle, Red, Red Corn, Wildcat, and Badger. Principles of classification produce a symbolic dictionary or cluster of synonymous symbols, if you will, and a careful reading of the text shows Ts'eh in relationship to these images.

Composing a systematic framework of symbolic representations, the matri-clans thus weave social customs to land, nature, and gender, while knitting the individual into ontology by acknowledging a common source for all existence. Everything germinates from Spider Woman's ideational process, an image beautifully sketched by Silko in "Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective": "In the beginning, Tséitsínako, Thought Woman, thought of all these things, and all of these things are held together as one holds many things together in a single thought." All in one, all is one.

Their theory is that reason (personified) is the supreme power, a master mind that has always existed, which they call Sitch-tche-na-ko [Spider Woman]. This is the feminine form for thought or reason.

Paula Gunn Allen in "The Psychological Landscape of Ceremony" argues that

it is clear that the land is female … the nature of Woman associated with the creative power of thought. Nor is ordinary thinking referred to in connection with Her. The Thought for which She is known is that kind that results in physical manifestations of such as mountains, lakes, creatures and philosophical/sociological systems.

All systems of order are writ larger than life where the cognitive schema bond culture with nature and arise from a powerful gynocratic foundation cementing the Laguna conception of womanhood.

The Mother loves and cares for the Laguna as her children or her family. She lives at Spider Woman's Emergence Place, shipap, in the North, where she ascended with the Kurena shamans from the underworlds. Specific accounts of the Laguna origin myth render several beings as "Our Mother(s)." Her profile is drawn in the following sentiments:

She is the deepest in heart and, through her, religious feeling is most fully expressed. When a baby smiles, the old women say that [Iyatiku] is talking to it, when it cries, [she] is scolding. [She] is mentioned first in prayer, ritualistic origins are dictated by her and … her symbol is too sacred to be exposed commonly to view…. In the ritual, Iyatiku is the cotton-wrapped ear of corn which is possessed by the cheani and set out on altars…. In myth … Iyatiku lived with the earth at shipap … and with her sisters remained within.

Thought Woman is immortal; She is origin and summary, and, to the Laguna, Her presence is all-encompassing, as Fred Eggan explains:

One important pattern at Acoma, which is characteristic of Keresan villages generally, and which contrasts with the Hopi and Zuni to a considerable extent, is the emphasis on the concept of "mother." In the Origin Myth we have seen that the central figure is Iyatiku, who is the "mother" of the people whom she created and whom she receives at death. The corn-ear fetishes represent her and have her power.

Women making themselves women constitutes an act that discloses the pivotal symbolism of matriliny. In Ceremony, Silko puts it this way:

      … Thought-Woman,
          is sitting in her room
      and whatever she thinks about
            appears.
      She thought of her sisters….

As Silko further elaborates in "Landscape, History and the Pueblo Imagination," "they helped her think of the rest of the universe … including the Fifth World and the four worlds below."

Thought Woman is the source of names, language, and knowledge. She is termed the "creator of all," or she is said to have "finished everything." Some versions call her "mother" or, in Kenneth Lincoln's gloss, "Thought Woman, the matrix, deifies an old integrated regard for ideas, actions, being, plots, and things." Anthony Purley, a Keres scholar, writes, "Tse che nako is the all-fertile being, able to produce human beings and all other creatures: 'She is the mother of us all, after Her, mother earth follows in fertility, in holding, and taking us back to her breast….'" Yet another tale sets Thought Woman as being identical to Iyatiku, who is the mother of colored corn women.

If not synonymous with the Mother, female creator of women and people, then Thought Woman figures as her sister in a society that conjoins sisters. Variously, She is Mother, Sister, Grandmother—the syncretic woman who is the "naming" and "knowledgeable" creatrix birthing the universe of stories spun from her abdomen; She is the "mastermind" teaching, nourishing, determining how things will be, and deciding what must be done. A Laguna spokeswoman explains:

My tribe, the Keres Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, put women at the center of their society long ago…. Where I come from, the people believe traditionally that nothing can happen that She does not think into being, and because they believe this they say that the Woman is the Supreme Being, the Great Spirit, the Great Mystery, the All-Being. This WomanGod, Thought/Thinking Woman they call Spider Grandmother, acknowledging her potency as creator, as Dream/Vision Being, as She Who Weaves existence on all material and supernatural planes into being.

Women in the Sacred Order

Our Mothers, Uresete and Naotsete, are aspects of Grandmother Spider, are She at lower voltage, so to speak. The same may be said of Ts'eh, who is Tse-pi'na, the Western Woman Mountain.

Let us expand Allen's statements in the above epigraph and suggest that the entire cast of female characters in Ceremony are individual permutations of Spider Woman—each is "She at lower voltage." Allen goes on to contend that the cure for Silko's hero rests in living in harmony with nature and being "initiated into motherhood…. For Tayo it is planting Her plants and nurturing them, it is caring for the spotted cattle, and it is knowing that he is home," for "he has loved the Woman who brings all things into being, and because he is at last conscious that She has always loved them, his people and him."

Tayo's "initiation into Motherhood"—his rite of passage—develops throughout the novel, encoded in his interactions with and indoctrination by women situated in the social and sacred domains. But his biological mother deserts him: "the birth had betrayed his mother and brought shame to the family and to the people." She is sister to Auntie, and in kinship nomenclature sisters are grouped together, depicting Allen's assertion that "male relationships are ordered in accordance with the maternal principle; a male's spiritual and economic placement and attendant responsibilities are determined by his membership in the community of sisterhood." The sisters called naiya (mother) by Tayo both reject him. He is alienated from his "mothers," literally and figuratively abandoned: as Allen points out, "Failure to know your mother … is the same as being lost."

Tayo's sexual instruction starts with Night Swan who is Mother/Lover: "Mother," by virtue of kinship terminology in her relationship with Josiah, and "Lover," by virtue of initiating Tayo into the restorative pathway of feeling, previewing the love borne to him by Ts'eh. "You will recognize it later. You are part of it now," she says. Night Swan is timeless, likened to "the rain and the wind"; analytically, she is associated with spring, the color of blue, and cardinal West. She is Grandmother with "no age," emblematic of the matriliny, since all her descendants are female. "She moved under him, her rhythm merging into the sound of the rain," and Tayo is immersed, "swimming" in the water that Night Swan represents. Then Night Swan vanishes abruptly after Josiah's death rather like the spring rains seeping into the thirsty earth to become clay.

Analogous to Night Swan, Ts'eh personifies elemental forces of nature, and she too is a Lover/Mother. Her color is yellow. Yellow denotes North, invoking the phenomenology of a symbolic category whose members may stand in lieu of one another or for whom the mention of one implies a reference to the rest: this class of the North includes Mountain Lion as the sacred animal, Mount Taylor the sacred peak, Yellow, Yellow Corn, Snow, and Winter. Yellow pervades scenes involving either Ts'eh or her residence, located on an upper plateau of the sacred northern mountain. Eventide in the late autumn sunset is the temporal stage for Tayo's first glimpse of Ts'eh. She stands beneath an apricot tree wearing a yellow skirt. After acknowledging his presence, she invites him into her house and feeds him chili containing dried corn. To the Laguna, corn is not only a fundamental food staple with its welcome harvest in the fall, but socially it is the name of a clan that is segmented into groups of different colors. Esoterically, corn is the staff of life—the visible form (corn ear fetish) of "Our Mother" fashioned by the Kurena priests and cared for by the cheani, the shamanistic leadership. Corn codifies the origin, maintenance, and blessings of life; it represents sustenance and becomes a critical attribute connoting the essence of matriliny and the matrix—it symbolizes above all the feminine. Allen summarizes: "As the power of woman is the center of the universe and is both heart (womb) and thought (creativity), the power of the Keres people is the corn that holds the thought of the All Power (deity) and connects the people to that power through the heart of Earth Woman, Iyatiku."

It is significant, then, that after enjoying Ts'eh's food and hospitality, Tayo rises to greet "the dawn spreading across the sky like yellow wings"; he remembers the bells and rattles of a late November dawn when the Katcina appear at the moment of "sunrise" after the "pale yellow light," and he haltingly says the prayer welcoming the Sun. Katcinas are supernaturals impersonated by men inducted into certain medicine societies; the initiated don elaborate masks and costumes portraying parts taken by these spiritual beings during performances of the sacred dances. Arrival of the Katcina heralds the start of the winter ceremonial season. Tayo has the impression that Ts'eh is a Katcina, an Antelope Katcina, when he sees that Ts'eh's "eyes slanted up with her cheekbones like the face of an antelope dancer's mask." In the creation myth, Antelope uses her hooves to butt against shipap, helping Badger enlarge the Emergence Place so the holy people can arrive on the surface of the present world. Stories tell it clearly: the Antelope Clan is one of the oldest to have been formed; it is a founding clan at Laguna and associated with the South; it is preeminent among all clans, the hearth of leadership for both Laguna and Acoma Pueblos; unquestionably, Ts'eh's clan is the most venerable of all.

The symbolism of Ts'eh's "antelope" features converges with that of the spotted cattle, which Tayo, Rocky, and Josiah call "desert antelope," cows obtained from the southern climes of Sonora. Uncle Josiah purchased the Mexican herd at Night Swan's behest, and, as I noted earlier, they served as Tayo's bridewealth. If Ts'eh and her cattle are symbolically equivalent, Tayo's "husbandry" illustrates the sophisticated metaphors used by Silko in knotting the social with the natural strata in Spider Woman's thought. The mystical and supernatural are involved as well. Tayo quietly observes Ts'eh preparing her herbs and medicines, paraphernalia signaling her role as a medicine woman and rainmaker. She brings lifegiving moisture—the snow and rain—using her stormcloud blanket and crooked willow staff, and her potency is encoded in the eagle rainbirds imprinted on the silver buttons of her moccasins.

This set of symbols reappears interestingly in connection with a woman in a prophecy made by the Navajo healer, Betonie, midway through the novel: "Remember these stars," he said. "I've seen them and I've seen the spotted cattle; I've seen a mountain and I've seen a woman." This woman is Yellow Woman, who is all women. Heroines and holy women in Laguna myth often live in the North and are named "Yellow Woman." Among these, one Yellow Woman is the wife of Winter. Yellow Woman is the maternal source of the Antelope Clan. Yellow Woman is in fact the generic name—the core integrative symbol—for all female Katcinas. There can be little doubt that Ts'eh is Yellow Woman, the personage Allen considers to be an ultimate "role model … She is, one might say, the Spirit of Woman."

Conforming to the paradigm set by Ts'eh, the hero follows suit: Tayo becomes yellow himself. This metamorphosis occurs when both Tayo and his urine change color. His color symbolism switches from white (father) to yellow (mother) as he takes on qualities of his maternal blood in the process of assuming his tribal identity; in Allen's idiom, Tayo is no longer "lost" and is learning "to know" his Mother once more.

During the illness, which the white doctors called "battle fatigue," Tayo projects himself as being "white smoke" fading into and out of the white world:

For a long time he had been white smoke…. He inhabited a gray winter fog on a distant elk mountain where hunters are lost indefinitely and their own bones mark boundaries…. It was not possible to cry on the remote and foggy mountain. If they had not dressed him and led him to the car, he would still be there, drifting along the north wall, invisible in the gray twilight.

Tayo gets drunk at the Dixie Tavern and fights his war buddy, Emo. That night his urine has no color, but yellow surrounds his body: "The yellow stained walls were at the far end of the long tunnel between him and the world…. He looked down at the stream of urine; it wasn't yellow but clear like water." Responding to Emo's insults, Tayo attacks him: "He moved suddenly, with speed which was effortless and floating like a mountain lion." But he is not the archetypical hunter, not yet. It is highly probable that the distant elk mountain, covered with gray winter fog located "along the north wall," is in Tayo's projection none other than Mount Taylor, sacred mountain of the North, which the Laguna call "Tse-pi'na, the woman veiled in clouds": "The mountain had been named for the swirling veils of clouds, the membranes of foggy mist clinging to the peaks, then leaving them covered with snow." The mountain lion that Tayo encountered near the summit of this sacred peak is "yellow smoke," Tayo's Indian alter ego. Furthermore, Ts'eh's companion there is the Hunter. The Hunter is the human manifestation of Mountain Lion Man, the Katcina charged with the welfare of all game: he is deity of the hunt and serves as a mentor to Tayo. The Hunter's animal counterpart is the cougar, sacred animal of the North, the animal that Tayo speaks to and is identified with: "mountain lion, becoming what you are with each breath."

Now the change occurs: Tayo is yellow, as he "pissed a yellow steaming slash through the snow," while the whiteness of the blizzard's cocoon remains outside his skin. He expresses the quality of personhood—yellowness—spoken in prayer when he receives his sacred "Indian name." Shortly after birth, each child is presented to the sun by the maternal grandmother or her sister, the naming ceremony is held, and the child's sacred name is spoken; thereby she becomes known, the gods recognize her. The child is said to be "yellow"—either a "yellow woman" or "a yellow youth"—the colored essence of Laguna identity. It is not certain whether "Tayo" is a sacred name or a nickname, but it is clear that "Tayo" is a twinned name since the novel's hero shares it with a folklore hero. "Tayo" is the name of a traditional folklore hero at Laguna whose pet eagle takes him to visit and hunt at the home of Spider Woman. Secret names are carefully guarded and rarely mentioned, which leads to the use of "nicknames" such as those of "Ts'eh" or "Rocky."

Both Tayo's environment and Tayo himself have become saturated with the color yellow. He has become a "yellow" person through his love for Ts'eh, the Yellow Woman, a mutation that was catalyzed by inhaling the penetrating yellow moonlight reflected in mountain lion's eyes. This transformation culminates in the slanting rays announcing early morn when "he crossed the river at sunrise." Just as the Katcina reach this river at dawn, Tayo's "safe return" occurs at sunrise at a critical moment of the seasonal cycle: the autumnal equinox when winter commences and summer ends. These diurnal and seasonal periods of time governed by the Kurena shamans prompt the suggestion that Ku'oosh, the Laguna medicine man who treats Tayo, is the cheani heading the Kurena medicine society, and Tayo may also be meeting with its membership in the kiva. Kurena songs are performed early each morning during the calendar of ceremonial dances. "The Kurena lead the people back from the harvest," explains Boas, an event placing their songs in the seasonal cycle between the corn harvest and the winter solstice; they are custodians of the Sun's "turning back," leaders of the winter moiety.

The connection between Ku'oosh and Ts'eh dramatizes the story of the Kurena and Our Mother in Laguna philosophy. Mythology recounts that the Kurena came up with Our Mother from the underworlds, an event ranking the Kurena foremost among the medicine societies. They make and tend the sacred corn fetishes named "Our Mother." "The Shamanistic groups prepare the masks in the houses of Antelope [Ts'eh] and Badger [Descheeny] clans"—masks that Tayo discovers stored in the southwest corner of the kiva, hidden from the eyes of the "uninitiated." The entire "Katcina cult remained under the control" of these two clans, who were the guardians of all spirits. The Kurena go to live in the Northeast—the same direction taken by Ts'eh when she parts from Tayo at the end of Ceremony. But their provenance is in the West, as in Ts'eh's in her guise as Tse-pi'na, whom Allen terms "Western Mountain Woman." The Kurena (Ku'oosh) are the male caretakers of the visible aspect (corn fetishes) of the key female personae in Laguna belief, so it is logically consistent that Ts'eh would share a common destination with them.

Going home, Tayo is bathed in pale light, like the "sunrise" in Silko's verses that open and close the novel; the word "sunrise" also ends the Kurena's dawn songs. This reiterates an earlier baptism by the sun when Tayo was in utero. Auntie reports watching his mother: "Right as the sun came up, she walked under that big cottonwood tree, and I could see her clearly: she had no clothes on. Nothing. She was completely naked except for her high-heel shoes." Silko notes it was customary for Laguna lovers to meet down among the willows and tamarisk beside the San Jose River, so it is a place for conception.

Life is made by Our Mother just as it is taken away, so it is not a surprise that abortions occur in a similar setting. One day near Gallup, a child finds where his mother disposed of bloody rags; the place was "near the side of the arroyo where she had buried the rags in the yellow sand." Instead of being bathed in sunrise's yellow light, he is covered and filled with pale yellow sand like the rags discarded by this mother. Just as the fetus is buried, Tayo is cast off by his social mothers. He is lost. In dreams his loss masquerades as a burial in yellow sand, like that of Old Betonie, the breed medicine man, who was also buried just after birth before he was rescued from the trash pile by his mother. Abandoning unwanted life, mothers leave the fetus or newborn to die in the arroyos, the cutting edge of the landscape.

Comparable imagery recurs in connection with Ts'eh as both mother and lover, though for lovers some of this imagery is revised. To achieve conception of his own life, Tayo penetrates the sand beyond his body and thus preempts the action of burial that signifies death. The first time the two make love, he "felt the warmth close around him like river sand," and later, "he dreamed he made love with her there. He felt the warm sand on his toes and knees; he felt her body, and it was warm as the sand, and he couldn't feel where her body ended and the sand began." Traversing the "sandy ridge" with Ts'eh, crossing the ruins left by the ancient ones, he is struck with the immensity of the grand scheme, "the way the arroyo sand swallowed time" and intuits that Ts'eh is the land, the Mother, and that she is eternal: "He could feel where she had come from, and he understood where she would always be." Ts'eh walks toward the Northeast where the Kurena reside; she admonishes Tayo to "remember everything" and tells him, "I'll see you." Her departure provokes another dream like the one caused by a mother's leaving.

Mother and lover, birth and sex, yellow light and yellow sand. Tayo achieves his identity in union with the land through women. Yellow Woman, the infinite, is the Laguna composite model of Woman—a facet of the Spider mater and creatrix, Thought Woman.

Various ideological principles at Laguna reflect core feminocentric values within a matrilineal system of descent. This model has been detailed as a guide to characteristic structures underlying the powerful feminine in Laguna culture. By summarizing its salient points, I hope to encourage scholars to apply this exemplar more broadly for understanding non-Keresan texts authored by other Native Americans.

In numerous ways, Tayo starts out as being "lost"; his ultimate achievement, therefore, is "belonging." Rites for his "initiation into Motherhood" are eventually completed, and the half-breed finds himself continuously striving for equilibrium within Spider Woman's teleological doctrines. On the human level, the culture hero returns to his natal home, reentering the bosom of his family. Tayo's social position is determined by the maternal line within family, clan, and cosmos—a view confirmed by Tayo's waking dream that "Josiah was driving the wagon, old Grandma was holding him, and Rocky whispered, 'my brother.' They were taking him home." On the supernatural level, Tayo reaches unity with Yellow Woman; he knows at last his Indian identity, his name.

Tayo is mobile and mortal. Ts'eh is grounded and enduring; through her Tayo comprehends the sacred reality that the tribe embodies. She is the source, the female fulcrum of this gynocratic system. As she thinks, reality is named: cosmogony is woven into her linguistic universe. Fashioning celestial and earthly bodies with their finely wrought spatial/temporal designs, the mater-creatrix fabricates women, deities, animals, and humankind, all of which participate in the dialect of creation and are related to everything else material and spiritual; and She designs systems of order according to the cardinal directions, the cycle of the sun, and matriliny. Myth sanctifies the primacy of matrilineal symbolism on the one hand and decrees the sacred vital force of the clan on the other, and this vitality becomes manifest in yellowness, color of the stuff of corn, personhood, women, and Our Mother.

Utilizing methods predicated on the art of telling stories at Laguna, Silko gives shape poetically to Spider Woman's thought world. Her focal point is Tayo as he undergoes a ceremony reuniting him with the land, the place from which he originates, because, as Silko declares, "we came out of this land and we are hers." He can only be healed by enacting Josiah's teachings about being and becoming one with the earth. Silko depicts this transformation through metaphors of Tayo's immersion in women, light, water, and the land: congruent symbols formulating the generative, conceptual power of Spider Woman, who symbolizes the ultimate feminine principle, the template for Yellow Woman/All Women.

Tayo portrays the culture hero, the lyric figure of a yellow man returning to Laguna beneath the shelter of the golden leaves of the old cottonwood where his Mother-Lover stood in another dawn pregnant with his seed. Coming full circle, he arrives in the end at sunrise: whole, loved, and home at last, like the Katcina. His homecoming transpires near the autumnal equinox under the dominion of the Kurena medicine society. In the kiva, thought to replicate Spider Woman's home within the earth at shipap, he is confirmed ceremonially after relating his journey to the world of Spider Woman—a journey that parallels the visit of his analogue in folklore. This is Silko's portrait of the questing half-breed, who overcomes his alienation and untangles the twisted cords of his ancestry.

Out of forgetfulness, Tayo cursed away the rain and became lost. Now he wins back the rain by native rules through his relationship with Yellow Woman when he remembers, realizing that "she had always loved him, she had never left him; she had always been there." Standing on the bridge outside of Gallup, on the way to visit Betonie, Tayo makes a prophetic wish for a "safe return." His self-fulfilling thought is transformed into a named reality, for his ritual process is one of being "called back." Through utterance, Tayo is transported "back home" where "belonging," "long life," and "happiness" prevail, becoming, in other words, a person "our Mother would remember." He has found interconnectedness through Her, the one who makes the unmade into all things: he has a name, he has a place, he has a story, he has returned to his people and the land, he is one with Thought Woman and Her metaphysics—he is laced paradoxically into Her "verbal" legacy of "blood memory."

Karen L. Wallace (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9663

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 define. It is perhaps debatable whether it should be defined at all. As a construct imposed on the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the conceptualization of the indian is fraught with problems. How does one determine who exactly is indian and, perhaps more importantly, who is responsible for that designation? Further, what is the distinction between, for example, a Sioux indian and a Cherokee indian? How can they both be indian yet not the same? The list of questions is infinite. Nevertheless, there are college courses on American indian studies and sections in bookstores on Native Americans that exist ostensibly to study this vague character. "In spite of its wide acceptance, even appropriation, by Native Americans," writes Louis Owens, "it should be borne in mind that the word Indian came into being on this continent simply as an utterance designed to impose a distinct 'otherness' upon indigenous peoples. To be 'Indian' was to be 'not European.'" Indigenous peoples, now Indians, are all the same by virtue of this "othering." Pantribalism is based on this very concept of "sameness": In relation to the U.S. and its history of expansion, non-indians perceive native peoples as an undifferentiated whole, a view sometimes shared, though for different reasons, by indians themselves.

Thus there has been a tendency in American scholarship to cling to either the myth of the Noble Savage or the idea that indians are, in a social darwinistic kind of way, a dying race. These presumptions deny the diverse and continuing experiences of those natives who have survived, often thriving in our contemporary society. "Early novels by American Indian novelists," comments Paula Gunn Allen, "leaned heavily on the same theme of the dying savage partly because it was most acceptable to potential publishers. In addition, popular and scholarly images of Indians as conquered, dying people had deeply affected American Indian self-perception, leading even Indian novelists to focus their works on that stereotype." This tendency is perhaps easiest to explain by virtue of the fact that it is difficult to talk intelligently about specific native groups, given pervasive ignorance and cultural myths. The indian—who is this simple and apparently doomed creature?

Stereotypes of Native Americans are, like other misconceptions, often based on some bit of truth. There were and are indians who drink just as there are indians who are noble or perhaps even savage. They are Cherokee and Navajo and Winnebago. They live in San Francisco or in Detroit, in Navajoland or at Jemez. They are full-bloods and mixed-bloods, "apple" indians and fancy dancers. Which of them is the most, or most authentically, Indian?

Many authors, including the most frequently taught writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, or James Welch, write of an indian who is invariably male and of mixed racial descent, apparently ill-equipped to function in either Native America or Anglo America. "[I]t is through isolated alienated men," writes Judy Antell, "that the authors are able to demonstrate the negative severity of the twentieth century on the lives of Indian people. Indian men are more suited than Indian women to the notion of the 'vanishing savage.'" These novels are attempts to articulate the survival of those people who are known as indians. In challenging the myths of the Noble Savage or the drunken indian by contextualizing and historicizing them, these works are able to create a space within the margin that redetermines liminality and its potential for the reconstruction of self. In discussion of her own writing on marginality, bell hooks writes, "I was not speaking of a marginality one wishes to lose, to give up, or surrender as part of moving into the center, but rather as a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one's capacity to resist. It offers the possibility of radical perspectives from which to see and create…." Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko and The Ancient Child by N. Scott Momaday are novels written according to this line of reasoning: By gaining competence in their tribal communities, the protagonists also acquire a renewed and secure sense of self that allows them to participate successfully in the dominant culture as well.

The interstices of culture that these figures inhabit do not represent the exile that Edward Said describes as "the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home," but rather the site of resistance that bell hooks advocates. Some of these characters are conspicuous within their tribal communities by phenotype, distinguishable by traits such as light-colored eyes, like Tayo in Silko's Ceremony or Grey in Momaday's The Ancient Child, but all are marginalized by virtue of their acculturation, by immersion in non-Indian culture and its institutions. As such, they are, at first glance, modern versions of the Noble Savage who can attain mental and physical health only by returning to their traditions—ceremonies and lifeways that require a return to the reservation and an almost total rejection of modern cultural adaptations. The indian is relegated to the past, to Said's exile. As Gunn Allen comments,

Indians used the colonization theme coupled with the western plot structure of conflict-crisis-resolution to tell their own stories largely because these structures appeared to explain tribal life and its chaotic disorganization since invasion and colonization. In such westernized Indian novels the Indians are portrayed as tragic heroes, beset by an unjust but inexorable fate…. In all of the novels that use the story of conquest, devastation, and genocide as their major theme, white civilization plays the antagonist and becomes imbued with demonic power reserved in classic literature to fate and the gods.

While it is important, necessary, to reclaim and celebrate one's traditions and heritage, there is a significant danger if the cost is the refusal or even the inability to participate in the modern world. Thus the communities to which these protagonists return are vulnerable to the technological and political incursions of a twentieth-century United States, but they are not destroyed. They remain viable options as places of origin and of future for indians.

These authors also demonstrate the capacity indians have to process what is useful from both worlds to create a functional social system that incorporates both tradition and innovation. As Vine Deloria, Jr., comments, "[W]e have seen the appearance of young people who have found a way to blend the requirements of modern industrial consumer life with traditional beliefs and practices." This, I would argue, is not a new phenomenon but rather a newly appreciated one. It is because of the success of indians writing about themselves that both indian and non-indian have had a basis from which to critique and also appreciate what it means to be indian. From D'Arcy McNickle to Wendy Rose, indians represent themselves in a variety of scenes that illustrate their achievements and concomitant survival.

"We are what we imagine," says N. Scott Momaday, "Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves…. The greatest tragedy that can befall us is to go unimagined." Silko and Momaday, who are themselves acculturated and of mixed racial descent, write of indians who perhaps define themselves or allow themselves to be defined in this way. For those indians who are not, at first glance, recognizable as such, there is a need and at times a demand to assert their ethnic identification. Consequently, in the frequent controversy over who is "really" indian, these novels are, in both content and structure, representative of a unique and evolving genre of writing particular to Native Americans in the U.S. that is in large part a response to this challenge to identity and cultural accommodation. They are in many ways a reclamation of the term indian and an attempt to imbue the construct with positive and inclusive characteristics.

The characters presented in these texts occupy fluid positions within and between the cultural spheres they inhabit. They remain in the interstices of cultures yet are still able to function as liaison or at least mediator between more than one system of living in which they feel competent, in the manner of Malcolm McFee's "150% Man":

[I]ndividuals may learn new ways without abandoning the old…. Frequently they occupy important roles as mediators between white and Indian societies; they live with Indians and maintain Indian identity, yet are well educated and capable of competing successfully in the white community…. In the perspective of this article, the traditional problems of the "marginal man" can be seen as advantages rather than liabilities. Rather than being "lost between two cultures," those persons with bicultural capabilities can be seen as having unique combinations of skills which may serve the advantage of both Indian and white society.

This perspective allows for a position within tribal society from which indians who are acculturated or who define themselves as mixed-bloods can function without denying any aspect of their experience. These characters transform the margins from a space in which they are powerless to sites from which to resist. In turn, their liminality and the process of transformation force those in the center to acknowledge the margins as sites of action.

Victor Turner writes in his discussion of ritual,

Liminality, marginality, and structural inferiority are conditions in which are frequently generated myths, symbols, rituals, philosophical systems, and works of art. These cultural forms provide men with a set of templates or models which are, at one level, periodical reclassifications of reality and man's relationship to society, nature and culture. But they are more than classifications, since they incite men to action as well as to thought.

For the American indian of mixed descent, the novel is a means by which to articulate and reconceptualize the social pressures affecting marginalized peoples. Due to the radical changes native peoples have undergone and continue to experience, the mixed-blood often survives in this liminal position as a nonparticipant. Consequently, mixed-bloods in particular (again, often read as acculturated indians) are central to contemporary indian fiction as a new space in which to "act and to incite action." They are able to reconcile the tensions between the dominant culture and native traditions by using a tribal perspective from which to view that which is alien to it and to themselves.

In each of these novels, traditional paradigms of ritual and myth mediate the dominant tropes of cultural incompatibility and psychological trauma. It is this synthesis that allows Silko and Momaday to recontextualize the interstices of culture as liminal space. The "indian novel" is a work by an indian writer that explores or reflects the difficulty of making the margins a site of resistance. Although it adapts various techniques of the bildungsroman, it is unique in that it retains much in the way of non-Western form and content (most generally referred to as the oral tradition). "Literature," as Gunn Allen stresses," must, of necessity, express and articulate the deepest perceptions, relationships, and attitudes of a culture, whether it does so deliberately or accidentally…. What are held to be the most meaningful experiences of human life, from levels which completely transcend ordinary experience to those which are commonplace, are those experiences celebrated in the songs and cycles of the people." Authors such as Silko and Momaday are successful in incorporating these aspects of their tribal heritages to redefine and affirm who indians are without qualification.

In the novels Ceremony and The Ancient Child, the mixed-blood protagonists are psychically split between cultures and, consequently, are unable to maintain any enduring sense of self. The ultimate solution in each comes to be an acknowledgment of tradition and of his own power in that context following a rupture or violent upheaval. Each character's process depends on the conscious assimilation of those elements in himself that are modern and/or "American" through a native framework. This resolution is most explicit in Leslie Silko's novel Ceremony.

As she constructs her story of Tayo, a Pueblo mixed-blood, Silko weaves a Laguna creation story into her narrative to illustrate Tayo's affliction. The stories are inseparable, yet remain distinct and parallel until the end, when Tayo's story enters the mythic framework, the very process reflecting Tayo's recovery. For example, Silko begins the novel by writing,

      Ts'its'tsi'nako, Thought-Woman,
           is sitting in her room
         and whatever she thinks about
             appears.
      ...
         She is sitting in her room
          thinking of a story now
 
         I'm telling you the story
          she is thinking.
      ...
           What She Said:
           The only cure
           I know
           is a good ceremony,
           that's what she said.

The structure of the narrative is thus self-referential and conspicuous, pointing to ritual; Silko reconstructs the protagonist's story in her vision of a native framework, as part of the Laguna worldview and experience. The two stories, so different in form, refer one to the other in content and emphasize the fact that Tayo's life depends on his mastering certain responsibilities within the Laguna community and reconciling them with his experiences off-reservation.

Modern indian texts tend to incorporate the oral tradition through a traditional paradigm: Silko's novel Ceremony is ostensibly Tayo's story expressed through a Western narrative form, yet because Tayo cannot establish a sense of balance or belonging, Silko integrates clan stories of Reed Woman and Corn Woman. As Silko's narrative progresses, we can see how Tayo is living the stories and that his recovery depends on the completion of the proper ceremony. As Susan Perez Castillo writes, "[T]he text emerges, not as a passive mirror of reality, but as a space in which two or more distinct and often mutually exclusive worlds battle for supremacy." Thus, in terms of the novel as a space for action, the story is Tayo's as well as Silko's own.

Silko introduces Tayo as he returns to the pueblo from a veteran's hospital in Los Angeles. A veteran of World War II, he comes home to find the community devastated by drought. Tayo is sure that he is responsible, but he does not know how to repair the damage. He believes that his prayers, made so far from home, have caused the drought in much the same way that Corn Woman causes the water to disappear:

               Corn Woman got tired of that
                     she got angry
                      she scolded
                 for bathing all day long.
               Iktoa'ak'o'ya-Reed Woman
                     went away then
                      she went back
             to the original place down below.
            And there was no more rain then….

Tayo is significantly aware of his place as a Pueblo indian but is totally unable to express that identity because he is estranged from his family and their community.

Raised by his aunt, Tayo feels guilty, too, for having returned alive from the war in which his cousin Rocky, her son, was killed. The terms in which Silko defines his guilt are indicative of the trouble Tayo has reconciling vastly divergent cultural values and, therein, understanding his sickness:

It didn't take Tayo long to see the accident of time and space: Rocky was the one who was alive, buying Grandma her heater…. Rocky was there in the college game scores on the sportspage…. It was him, Tayo, who had died, but somehow there had been a mistake with the corpses, and somehow his was still unburied.

Tayo had never been perceived as a contributing member of either the household or the community, having inherited the alienation his mother had both suffered and caused. Presented as a consequence of his mixed blood, Tayo's alienation is compounded by his inability to master either American or Laguna codes of behavior. Therefore, when Tayo returns, Rocky's death only aggravates his situation. It is Tayo, not Rocky, his aunt seems firmly to believe, who should have been sacrificed. Because of her anger and despair at having lost her only son, Tayo is left on the edges of both his aunt's and the community's life. He is denied because his presence only provokes the sorrow of their loss.

Following his return from the hospital, and in reaction to his liminal status, Tayo is emotionally paralyzed. He has no tools with which to ameliorate his situation, and he realizes the extent to which Rocky's success in school had neutralized his own perceived failure. Finally it is Tayo's grandmother who addresses his alienation and isolation and proposes a solution. She sends him to a medicine man, Betonie, a mixed-blood who successfully negotiates the margins of cultures, maintaining a position in each through his liminal status. Betonie initiates the ceremony revealed at the start of the narrative; through his intervention and care, Tayo regains substance and power and ultimately becomes a significant and active force in his community.

Marked as "other" by his light eyes, Tayo is the legacy of an absent Mexican father. It is via this trait that he "sees" his marginality at Laguna:

"I always wished I had dark eyes like other people. When they look at me they remember things that happened…." His throat felt tight. He had not talked about this before with anyone…. "They are afraid, Tayo. They feel something happening, they can see something happening around them, and it scares them. Indians or Mexicans or whites—most people are afraid of change. They think that if their children have the same color of skin, the same color of eyes, that nothing is changing…. They are fools. They blame us, the ones who look different."

Tayo's identification with Betonie, a mixed-blood Navajo, intensifies his discomfort. An outsider because he is mixed and because he is Navajo, Betonie is able to utilize resources that Tayo does not know how to access. Cognizant as he is of his liminal position as well as its concomitant power, Betonie can articulate the need to synthesize seemingly disparate and, at times, contradictory modes of both thought and behavior; he is an outsider, but he is still indian. His seemingly irrelevant collection of junk symbolizes his facility with the material information of Anglo culture:

(Tayo) could see bundles of newspapers, their edges curled and stiff and brown, barricading piles of telephone books with the years scattered among cities…. He wanted to dismiss all of it as an old man's rubbish, debris that had fallen out of the years, but the boxes and trunks, the bundles and stacks were plainly part of the pattern.

At first Tayo is reluctant to trust the man, but Betonie is reassuring:

All along there had been something familiar about the old man. Tayo turned around then to figure out what it was….

He looked at his face…. Then Tayo looked at his eyes. They were hazel like his own.

Tayo manages to describe his stay at the hospital in Los Angeles for Betonie, to explain the difficulty he is experiencing:

"They sent me to this place after the war. It was white. Everything in that place was white. Except for me. I was invisible…. Maybe I belong back in that place." Betonie answers, "Die that way and get it over with…. In that hospital they don't bury the dead, they keep them in rooms and talk to them."

Betonie confronts Tayo's insecurities and passivity in the face of his supposed worthlessness. He shows Tayo that he must reconnect with the memory of his mother as an indian woman and with the landscape of his people. Only then can Tayo accept his liminality and transform it into a productive space: His is "a transformation from the 'undead' to marginal/powerful."

As Victor Turner states,

The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae ("threshold people") are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial. As such, their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in the many societies that ritualize social and cultural transitions.

Accordingly, Betonie is literally between worlds, yet still participates in each. He lives alone in the hills above Gallup, New Mexico, a troubled community in the midst of Navajoland:

"People ask me why I live here," he said, in good English, "I tell them I want to keep track of the people." "Why over here?" they ask me. "Because this is where Gallup keeps Indians until Ceremonial time. Then they want to show us off to the tourists."

He is on the edges of Gallup, but also of his own community, not because he is mixed, although this is the most convenient reason, but because of his stable identity as a "breed." In a ritualized context, as Turner indicates, difference takes on connotations of power as well as danger.

The mythic structure that Silko juxtaposes with Tayo's story supersedes a world in which most indians are poor and trapped in circumstances not of their own making. "[In the] fusion of the universal and the personal, the spiritual and the secular," writes Kristin Herzog, "identity is established and rootedness revealed. But it is seldom an individualistic identity, and Tayo, after being reintegrated into his tribe, in no way resembles the isolated, individualistic male protagonist of many American novels." As he regains his health, Tayo becomes aware of himself as being responsible to and part of his community. Thought Woman's words then envelop a history with which Tayo must come to terms and in which it is crucial that he participate.

In Ceremony, the consequences of European/Anglo expansion are never far from the consciousness of the author and do much to inform the text. When Tayo searches for his uncle's stolen cattle, for example, he finally understands his position in the superficial hierarchy that he had never before thought to question:

(Tayo) was thinking about the cattle and how they had ended up on Floyd Lee's land. If he had seen the cattle on land-grant land or in some Acoma's corral, he wouldn't have hesitated to say "stolen." But something inside him made him hesitate to say it now that the cattle were on a white man's ranch…. Why did he hesitate to accuse a white man of stealing but not a Mexican or an Indian?

As he becomes aware of his increasing power, Tayo is able to articulate for himself the circumstances against which the pueblo is struggling and, through this articulation, make it a part of the story over which he is beginning to exert influence.

The factors that necessitate acculturation—for example, leaving the reservation to seek work, or accepting severalty and attempting to master non-Indian systems of land management—put into question tribal affiliation and, concomitantly, rights or access to federal aid. Therefore, due to the legal definitions of indianness that recognize native peoples by their relationship to the federal government, of which Silko is as aware as she is of Laguna constructs regulating social/cultural mores, mixed-bloods were and are in a necessarily awkward position. It is by establishing the legacy of U.S.-indian relations within the context of a Laguna narrative structure that Silko redefines what it is to be indian and the extent to which the boundaries of definition can be pushed: Tayo is indian not because of the color of his eyes or skin, but because of his inherent connection to the story Silko presents and therein to his people and their land.

Tayo's experience is analogous to the experience of the Laguna people as a whole, as tribal nations are forced to enter—often unsuccessfully and certainly with difficulty—into the mainstream of American culture. As Tayo relearns his own heritage and traditions, he adapts them to current circumstances without ignoring the purposes for which they were initially created. Tayo's experience with the ceremony represents his transition from a passive, disenfranchised position to an active and powerful, liminal one in which he is aware of his own agency. Thus, as Tayo re-engages with Laguna society through the bear cure, Silko mirrors the process of his healing with her story of the emergence of evil into the world and the pueblo's subsequent efforts to protect against it, if not to control it. We see the history of interaction between the U.S. and Laguna Pueblo through Silko's vision of Laguna cosmology. She writes, for example,

                       Long time ago
                      in the beginning
           there were no white people in this world
                 there was nothing European.
         And this world might have gone on like that
                    except for one thing:
                         witchery.
              This world was already complete
                even without white people.
                  There was everything
                   including witchery.

The myths she creates, told as a related series of events that shape the Laguna worldview, confirm each time the self-referential and thus ritual nature of the book as well as Tayo's experience as a Laguna. As Betonie comments in response to the horrific circumstances in Gallup,

"It strikes me funny,… people wondering why I live so close to this filthy town. But see, this hogan was here first. Built long before the white people ever came. It is that town down there which is out of place. Not this old medicine man."

Tayo overcomes his suspicions by accepting what seem to him at first to be serious contradictions. Yet Betonie remarks to him,

"That is the trickery of witchcraft…. They want us to believe all evil resides with white people. Then we will look no further to see what is really happening. They want us to separate ourselves from white people, to be ignorant and helpless as we watch our own destruction. But white people are only tools that the witchery manipulates."

It is Tayo's responsibility to learn enough about Laguna tradition to challenge the witchery. Silko impresses upon the reader that, because Tayo embraces Laguna culture as a means by which to understand the world as a whole, his experience both on and off the reservation is conflated into one and thus is intelligible. In the end, as a liminal being and a ritual transgressor, Tayo must survive a crisis that foments the moment of his ascension to power: "He knew why he felt weak and sick; he knew why he had lost the feeling Ts'eh had given him, and why he had doubted the ceremony: this was their place, and he was vulnerable." To be healthy, Tayo must reconcile the fragments of his past. Thus he recalls the history of the pueblo, of uranium mining, and of the detonation of the atomic bomb:

[Tayo] cried with the relief he felt at finally seeing the pattern, the way all the stories fit together—the old stories, the war stories, their stories—to become the story that was still being told. He was not crazy; he had never been crazy. He had only seen and heard the world as it always was: no boundaries, only transitions through all distances and time.

From this realization comes the decision to accept his place in the story and guard against the witchery and the destroyers. Unfortunately, it is not the U.S. government or even the Navajo who are the enemy, but Laguna people themselves. Tayo must resist his supposed friends to overcome the drought:

He smelled a fire and saw three figures bending over a small fire … Leroy, Pinkie, and Emo … The destroyers. They would be there all night, he knew it, working for drought to sear the land … leaving the people more and more vulnerable to the lies.

Tayo, who is sick and afraid, watches as his three friends kill Harley, the man who failed to secure Tayo as the sacrificial victim and must therefore take his place. It is finally clear to Tayo that the ritual of the Laguna Pueblo and adherence to tradition are his cure. The problem, Silko demonstrates, is not white people but rather those Laguna who refuse to trust in their community and the history that binds them. Tayo's failure, in other words, would not have made the dominant culture, but rather the pueblo itself, culpable:

At home the people would blame liquor, the Army, and the war, but the blame on the whites would never match the vehemence the people would keep in their own bellies, reserving the greatest bitterness and blame for themselves, for one of themselves they could not save.

Thus Tayo can reclaim power and agency for himself and for his people.

In light of the implicit refusal or even inability of many indian people to participate off-reservation, Tayo and Betonie, "threshold people," are powerful and essential to their communities as they mediate between cultures. They transform the margins into powerful space, allowing for a self-awareness from which indians may assert themselves. Thus Silko writes, "The witchery would be at work all night so that the people would see only the losses … since the whites came…. [T]he old priests would be afraid too, and cling to ritual without making new ceremonies as they always had before." "He had seen them now and he was certain; he could go back to tell the people." Tayo, in completing his cure, sees the position he may occupy within the tribe as a liminal and active one. After this crisis of identity, Tayo returns home, literally and figuratively:

His body was lost in exhaustion; he kept moving, his bones and skin staggering behind him. He dreamed with his eyes open that he was wrapped in a blanket in the back of Josiah's wagon…. Josiah was driving the wagon, old Grandma was holding him, and Rocky whispered "my brother." They were taking him home.

Ku'oosh invites Tayo to tell his story to the "old men" and, as his grandmother comments later, "It seems like I already heard these stories before…. [O]nly thing is, the names sound different." Much of Tayo's anguish stems from the fact that he is a mixed-blood; his aunt took him in because of his mother's alcoholism, but she never lets him forget what he owes her or the shame he keeps in the family. Mixed-bloods, a real consequence of colonization, are in a position to bridge the chasm between cultures. However, before Tayo can act in this capacity, he must come to terms with the fact that he equates his indianness with loss. Therefore, he makes the whole of his experience, including the time spent in the Pacific Islands, part of a liminal context: Tayo can never change the color of his eyes or the circumstances of his birth, or even his exposure to the dominant culture, but he possesses and acts upon the ability to make his marginality a part of his identity as a Laguna. His aunt, too, despite herself, accepts Tayo as family and they are able to move forward together:

Auntie talked to him now the way she had talked to Robert and old Grandma all those years, with an edge of accusation about to surface between her words. But after old man Ku'oosh had come around, her eyes dropped from his face as if there were nothing left to watch for.

The invitation to enter the kiva and participate in the ceremony signifies acceptance and integration. Tayo reestablishes kinship and community ties, emphasizing the significant relationship between the two, and secures himself as an integral member of the pueblo.

In his novel The Ancient Child, N. Scott Momaday also attempts to resolve the conflicts of the mixed-blood by melding the traditions of native and Anglo America. Like Silko, Momaday structures his novel to incorporate myth and weave the past with the present. For example, book 1 of The Ancient Child, entitled "Planes," exposes the multiple levels of consciousness that inform the story. The narrative traverses time and space to allow for the mythic framework that determines the fate of Momaday's protagonists. He begins, following a list of the characters, with the "Kiowa story of Tsoai," the story of the genesis of the Big Dipper: The transformation of the boy into the bear, whose metamorphosis is the catalyst for the formation of the Pleiades, is the focal point of Momaday's narrative. He therefore presents the bear, "the mythic embodiment of wilderness," from the worldview of the Kiowa, establishing a native cosmology as normative before beginning his own narrative.

Set, like Tayo, is estranged, yet the integration of past with present, and Anglo with indian lore, creates a liminal space for Set to occupy within Momaday's story: "The main protagonist and the major turning points of his life," writes M. M. Bakhtin, "are to be found outside everyday life. He merely observes this life, meddles in it now and then as an alien force, he occasionally even dons a common and everyday mask—but in essence he does not participate in this life and is not determined by it." As in Silko's text, there is a larger sacred narrative of which these characters are a part and with which they must be reconciled, which in turn determines their mundane, daily experience. Set's fate depends on his acting within Kiowa narrative space, not within "everyday life." "As in traditional storytelling," comments Louis Owens,

we know the outcome of the story at the beginning, a fact that should shift our attention to the performance itself, to the way the story is told. An audience schooled in Native American storytelling will recognize in the prologue the typical pattern of the questing culture hero and realize that the well-known outline of a traditional story is being adapted to comprehend contemporary circumstances.

Momaday's manipulation of a variety of perspectives is consequently an interesting example of Bakhtin's chronotope as the defining feature of the novel: Set's ultimate transformation into the bear depends on the fluidity and confluence of space and time within the narrative.

Momaday reinforces the centrality of ritual by framing his narrative with both historical and mythic stories. From the mythic time during which the world was first created, Momaday jumps to the more recent past of Billy the Kid, circa 1881, and on again to the present. In this novel, Set and Grey occupy the margins and make them into a productive space, their combined experience effecting a change similar to that in Ceremony. They are both outside everyday life, yet they are able to participate and they are expected to do so.

Locke Setman—Set—a middle-aged painter of Kiowa descent, was raised in California by his Anglo guardian, Bent Sandridge, "a retired man, humane and wise." His father's death estranged Set from his heritage and prevented his connecting with or integrating the past. The theme of the indigenous man estranged from his tribal roots through acculturation is emphasized in this work far beyond Silko's novel. Set, raised in an urban center, is aware of his indianness through a somewhat haphazard recollection of his parents and the stories his father told, decontextualized and thereby stripped of significance. He has no idea how to implement the ideals or cultural information the stories impart. Significantly, Set's mother, who was not indian, represents his despair. It is in terms of her absence that Set perceives his sickness. Momaday introduces Set in the throes of some psychic illness brought on by this estrangement from his traditions:

In Loki [Set] there was a certain empty space, a longing for something beyond memory. He thought often of his mother, dead almost the whole of his life. He knew she was not the pale, lewd ghost of his dreams; she was the touchstone of his belief in the past. Without knowing her, he knew of her having been…. Her reality was that of everything on the bygone side of his existence.

A singular awareness of his power as it is manifested in his art supplants the success by which Set has learned to measure his life: "Art—drawing, painting—is an intelligence of some kind, the hand and eye bringing the imagination down upon the picture plane; and in this a nearly perfect understanding of the act of understanding." Yet, as the first signs of his transformation begin to show, Set becomes afraid and disoriented, bereft of any source of self-definition. His Anglo upbringing and concomitant alienation cause his transformation to be something foreign and frightening: Locke Setman had not thought of himself as indian before and must become Kiowa, using his artistic talents to process that identity. Although he has a vague awareness of the Bear through the myth his father told him about the boy/bear and his sisters, Set, in San Francisco, is surrounded by people for whom his "illness" means little more than a loss of revenue. It is next to impossible, then, for his metamorphosis to be completed in the city:

[T]here was insinuated upon his consciousness and subconsciousness the power of the bear. It was his bear power, but he did not yet have real knowledge of it, only a vague, instinctive awareness, a sense he could neither own nor dispel. He was afflicted. He was losing his physical strength … or he was losing control over the strength within him … He could not tell anyone what was wrong, for he did not know.

Before his role is revealed to him, Set necessarily withdraws. Never having known his native community, he becomes less and less sure of himself without understanding why:

[T]here was a conviction in him, and a commitment to be his own man. And therefore he struggled. Now, at forty-four, he found himself in a difficult position. He had compromised more than he knew … [H]e had become sick and tired…. Yes, he had become sick and tired. And he did the only thing he could think to do under the circumstances; he withdrew—not completely, not all at once, but deliberately…. He would endeavor to save his soul.

Unlike Tayo, who is socialized in a system with which he is familiar and to which he returns, Set resists "becoming" indian because it seems so thoroughly foreign. Ultimately, however, he has no choice. Despite himself, and very much like Tayo, he is overcome by the process:

I did not let the unknown define my existence, intrude upon my purpose, if I could help it. But now there was an intrusion that I could not identify and could not resist. Something seemed to be taking possession of me. It was a subtle and pernicious thing; I wasn't myself…. I began to feel helpless now.

Set's identity is broken down almost completely and reconstituted under Grey's influence. Ritualizing his experience is the way to reconceptualize and then reintegrate his past in terms of an unfamiliar cultural framework. Once he "returns" home to Oklahoma, it is his identity as a painter and the skills he perfected as an artist that allow him to make a successful change. From the crisis he survives, Set emerges as a person of power.

With more complex concerns about her European heritage than either Set or Tayo, Grey is an indian woman, a powerful seer, who has embraced and takes pride in her difference. A mixed-blood of Navajo, Kiowa, and Scottish descent, she remains outside the core existence of her family, despite her power and the apparent ease with which she traverses boundaries. "In Grey," suggests Owens, "Momaday illustrates the act of appropriation essential to the marginalized culture that would wrest authenticity away from the authoritative center. Within the rich heteroglossia of her Kiowa-Navajo-Euramerican life, Grey rejects the world's deadly narrative of epic 'Indianness' with its tragic implications." As a seer, she is of course susceptible to visions, and it is significant that they include Billy the Kid. Throughout the novel, there is an ongoing, supplementary story in which Grey is Billy the Kid's lover and sometime accomplice. Momaday has said that Grey "finds great satisfaction in assuming the dimensions of the stereotype. So she goes around affecting western dialect. She fantasizes about Billy the Kid and talks about him a lot." Thus, while Momaday never explicitly states the purpose of this counternarrative in his plot, it seems indicative of a struggle over which Grey has little control, although it is not necessarily disruptive.

The counternarrative becomes most significant when, early in the novel, Grey is raped by a white man, her lover's father. She is jolted from a vision of Billy the Kid into the realization of being brutalized:

In this unspeakable happening she was forced for the first time to a hatred of the world, of herself, of life itself…. In some feeble resistance she thought of Dog, of how Dog would trample into dust the flesh and bones of this despicable, vicious man. In her delirium, because she so needed, she saw Dwight Dicks looking up into the muzzles of the gun in Billy's hands, seeing beyond them the expressionless, nearly colorless, steady, steady eyes….

The catalyst for Grey's maturation as a medicine person is this assault, precipitating a moment in which her various identities merge. Mirroring Tayo's confrontation with the destroyers in Ceremony and Set's total disintegration of self, Grey's rape is a moment of transgression, the blurring or even obliteration of boundaries. Her vision of love-making with Billy the Kid merges with the brutality of Dwight's attack. Thus, in the same way that Set is no longer able to compartmentalize disparate aspects of his life and is thereby incapacitated, Grey's dream life is shattered by the violence of her waking life. Just as Set must confront his identity as the Bear, Dwight's assault on Grey provokes the fusion of the discrete fragments of her perception. It is from this crisis that she perceives clearly, and accepts, her power as a liminal being.

Grey, in imposing order on her world, is able to exact revenge on the man, but it is thoughts of Billy the Kid, not any traditional native culture hero, that sustain her. Once she has freed herself from this devastating scene, it is a feminine image from her heritage that reconfirms her power: "Then, still naked, she rode the horse Dog hard to the river and bathed herself for a long time. There was an orange moon. There was the voice of the grandmother on the water."

In his treatise on eroticism, Georges Bataille writes that the violence inherent in the sex act foments an instance of the continuity that he claims is the dissolution of the self: "[T]he individual splits up and his [sic] unity is shattered from the first instance of the sexual crisis." "The urge," Bataille goes on to say, "is first of all a natural one but it cannot be given free rein without barriers being torn down, so much so that the natural urge and the demolished obstacles are confused in the mind…. Demolished barriers are not the same as death, but just as the violence of death overturns—irrevocably—the structure of life so temporarily does sexual violence." He writes of transgression—therefore, that "[c]ontinuity is reached when boundaries are crossed. But the most constant characteristic of the impulse I have called transgression is to make order out of what is essentially chaos. By introducing transcendence into an organized world, transgression becomes a principle of an organized disorder. The work of the liminal being is to make sense of chaos, to control (or at least to interpret) what is otherwise inaccessible to the community.

Bataille's discussion, in many ways a critique of Catholicism, sheds light on The Ancient Child's ritualized violence. Momaday, like Silko, foreshadows the ultimate syncretism that is Set's and Grey's solution by incorporating traditional elements alongside images of American culture, including representations of the church. In this novel, Set's recollections of his father and the stories he told are juxtaposed with memories of Sister Stella, the nun at the orphanage where he lived until his adoption. As Momaday writes, "And then Cate [his father] was gone. Set could not clearly remember the sequence of things. There was Sister Stella Francesca, who appeared to him in his dreams…. It had been difficult for him to leave the Peter and Paul home. Curious…. But he loved [Sister Stella], for he was a child, and there was no one else to love. And Set remembered. It is an important story, I think, Cate said, all those years ago." Momaday is able to illustrate that, despite the problems besieging indian communities, there remains a constant tie to the past that serves to support the people as they create new ways that blend traditional culture and adaptations of Western culture. The centrality of ritualized violence—a significant aspect of Catholicism—as a means of transformation is crucial to an interpretation of The Ancient Child.

Momaday prefaces his novel with a quote from Luis Borges: "For myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at its end." Then comes the story of the origin of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major), the transformation of the boy into a bear and the escape of his seven sisters into the sky to form the constellation. Accordingly, Set is equated with the bear and is literally transformed. "Most people cannot recover nature," says Momaday during an interview, "But this boy is an exception. He turns into a bear; that means that he reconstructs that link with nature. Significantly, we must interpret these characters with both tribal and Western mythology and folklore, the second viewed through the framework of the first. This ensnares Set and Grey and their story in the complicated experience of the author: "Set, my work in progress, is about the boy who turns into a bear, and in a sense I am writing about myself. I'm not writing an autobiography, but I am imagining a story that proceeds out of my own experience of the bear power." Even on his first trip to Oklahoma, for example, Set begins to feel the power of his Kiowa heritage:

He had a strange feeling there, as if some ancestral intelligence had been awakened in him for the first time. There in the wild growth and the soft glowing of the earth, in the muddy water at his feet, was something profoundly original. It was itself genesis … not the genesis in the public domain, not an Old Testament tale, but his genesis."

Momaday describes Set's experience in terms of myriad traditions. Section 12, entitled "They sit so, like mother and child," evocative perhaps of the Pietà, ends with the calling forth, resurrection almost, of the bear: "The grandmother Kope'mah had begun to speak names: Set-page, Set-tainte, Set-angya, Set-mante. Setman. Set." As a complement to this image, Set's introduction in the following section begins with his disassociation from the persona he has constructed. Reflecting on his endeavors as a painter leads him to ponder the nature of God: "What sustains Him is the satisfaction, far deeper than we can know, of having created a few incomparables…. He used both hands when he made the bear. Imagine a bear proceeding from the hands of God!"

Correspondingly, Grey is reminiscent of the Lady Godiva, a figure steeped in the traditions of the West, when she rides past Dwight's barn, asking after his health following his "circumcision," the revenge she has taken on the man. She, naked and wearing a mask in the form of an "unearthly turtle," rides past on a horse named Dog. According to Barbara Walker, the original purpose of Lady Godiva's ride was to "renew her virginity," comparable to Grey's successful attempt to restore her sense of self following Dwight's assault. Thus Grey's ride on the horse called Dog is significant in several ways. Momaday comments,

Dogs and horses are closely related in my mind. The horse … was called "Big Dog" by certain Indians in early times. And dogs were horses for the Kiowas before the horse came along…. So the dog is an ancient animal and a fascinating creature.

Walker also writes that dogs were most often considered companions to goddesses and to powerful mortal women or witches and that they are associated with funerary customs: "In myth, dogs accompanied only the Goddess, guarding the gates of her afterworld, helping her to receive the dead."

In their association with death, horses allow for the possibility of rebirth and restoration. Walker states that they represent ritual sacrifice and the phallus or castration. For example, "Death was the significance of Father Odin's eight-legged gray horse Sleipnir, symbol of the gallows tree, where human sacrifices were hung in Odin's sacred groves. Skalds called the gallows 'high-chested rope-Sleipnir', the horse on which men rode to the land of death…." Western narrative thus reconfirms the ritual nature of the violence Grey suffers and in turn inflicts. Additionally, the horse is related to Set, who is alternately known as the "Ass-headed Egyptian deity, once ruler of the pantheon" and the "Good Shepherd Osiris." These stories complete the underlying paradigm for their story. As Walker writes, "Set and Horus were remnants of a primitive sacred-king cult…. The story of the rival gods appeared in the Bible as Seth's supplanting of the sacrificed shepherd Abel." Grey, remarkable in part for her eyes, is linked to Horus, who became known as a female judge: "I am the all-seeing Eye of Horus." Set, when he comes to Oklahoma, usurps the place of Grey's boyfriend Murphy who, being Dwight's son, assumes guilt by association, and both father and son are expelled from her life. Balance is regained through adherence to tradition, the acceptance of "folk-mythological time."

In discussing the temporal-spatial dimension of the traditional Greek romance, of which The Ancient Child is reminiscent, Bakhtin writes,

The novel as a whole is conceived precisely as a test of the heroes. Greek adventure-time … leaves no traces—neither in the world nor in human beings. No changes of any consequence occur, internal or external, as a result of the events recounted in the novel. At the end of the novel that initial equilibrium that had been destroyed by chance is restored once again. Everything returns to its own source. The result of this whole lengthy novel is that—the hero marries his sweetheart. And yet people and things have gone through something, something that did not, indeed, change them but that did … affirm what they, and precisely they, were as individuals, something that did verify and establish their identity, their durability and continuity. The hammer of events shatters nothing and forges nothing—it merely tries the durability of an already finished product.

The separation of real time from mythic time, the mundane from the sacred, becomes less definite and requires mediation. These threshold figures or liminal personae reside on the boundaries between; they belong to both and, as such, are inviolate within the larger story.

Ultimately, though, each character is inseparable from his or her tribal history and from the others: Set is the ancient child, and he needs Grey to help him come into the power of this position. Despite the other influences undoubtedly interspersed throughout Momaday's narrative, it is the story of the bear that provides the frame for the novel. Grey's power and vision allow Set to give up the ambiguity of the periphery, with its concomitant lack of responsibility, and enter into a tribal social structure. Grey has always been aware of her own agency and liminal status; as she admonishes Set while driving to their new home in Navajoland,

"Don't imagine that you have a choice in the matter, in what is going on, and don't imagine that I have one either. You are Set; you are the bear; you will be the bear, no matter what. You will act accordingly, in the proper way, because there is no other way to act."

She, like Tayo, becomes part of a whole that is in itself marginal, deriving strength and power.

Momaday writes of Grey,

She had not decided to become a medicine woman. Such things are not decided after all. She was becoming a medicine woman because it was in her to do so; it was her purpose, her reason for being; she dreamed it…. In her dreams she knew of things that had long since been lost to others. She knew of things that lay in remote distances of time and space…. And she knew of the ancient child, the boy who turned into a bear.

Set embraces his liminal role, his indianness, and leaves San Francisco and his career there to marry Grey and live at Lukachukai. Regardless of Grey's power and guidance, however, it is not until Set feels he has lost control of himself that he is willing to commit to being indian, to being the bear. Upon the death of his adopted father, he returns to San Francisco from Oklahoma and becomes more and more disoriented:

In his desperation he became steadily more self-destructive. There was no longer a design to his existence. His life was coming apart, dis-integrating. He drank heavily, and he did not eat or sleep for long periods…. He began to shake, and a terrible cold came upon his extremities. His whole being suffered a numbness, a kind of paralysis…. Even on the verge of madness there were times of profound lucidity. The dissolution of his life seemed an illusion…. Yes he believed, there is only one story, after all, and it is about the pursuit of man by God, and it is about man who ventures out to the edge of the world, and it is about his holy quest … and it is about the hunting of a great beast…. He must be true to the story.

By accepting Grey's articulation of his marginality, if not his obligations, and by purposefully entering the story of the bear, he accomplishes what Tayo does in entering the story told by Thought Woman. The stories that underlie both Ceremony and The Ancient Child are therefore essential to the theme of identity in each.

The characters that Silko and Momaday introduce must, as liminal personae, come to terms with conflicting aspects of their personalities and somehow make their "otherness" a source of power. Consequently, the stories of which they become a part are pushed to the foreground, making these archetypal roles central and structuring the transgression within the narrative. Set and Grey use the whole of their experience, rather than discrete fragments, to determine what it is to be indian, but the ritual demands a crisis by which this may occur. The story of the bear and the story of Billy the Kid, for example, are both crucial elements of Grey's experience, and both serve to define who she is. In this way, the ritualizing of transgression, not necessarily the specificity of Momaday's story, confirms who these characters are as liminal people and the space they occupy.

Hence Tayo and Betonie, Set and Grey are able to establish a new normative space. Betonie and Grey are holy people, revered and feared by their communities because they transgress boundaries. By entering into relationships with them, Tayo and Set are made aware of and participate in their power. Thus the structure of the traditional society is maintained while, along its edges, things change. The narrative focus shifts to the threshold figures who negotiate this reinvigoration. "Prophets and artists," offers Victor Turner, "tend to be liminal and marginal people, 'edgemen', who strive with a passionate sincerity to rid themselves of the clichés associated with status incumbency and role-playing and to enter into vital relations with other men in fact or imagination." Liminal people may acceptably defy the rules that define the rest of community. As Silko and Momaday illustrate, it is along the edges of tribal cultures that indians reconsider survival. It is from these spaces that one may generate and control the kind of power to effect change through rituals adapted to uncertain circumstances.

As Paula Gunn Allen writes,

For all its complexity, Native American literature possesses a unity and harmony of symbol, structure, and articulation which is peculiar to itself. This harmony is based on the essential harmony of the universe and on thousands of years of refinement.

Ceremony and The Ancient Child affirm indianness by allowing their protagonists to extract from their experiences a perspective informed by both native and Western associations. Like these characters, indians who find themselves participating in often conflicting circumstances must turn what are first perceived as obstacles into sources of regeneration. These characters and their dilemmas illustrate the potential of the liminal positions that many indians occupy and the ways in which it is possible to integrate these roles into the larger context of their traditional cultures without a fragmentation of self. The narrative structures of Ceremony and The Ancient Child reflect and supplement the experiences of these marginalized indians, adapting the conventional Western narrative style of the bildungsroman to incorporate a style of presentation derived from traditional modes of storytelling.

By articulating the liminal experience, Silko and Momaday show the integration of their own experiences in the larger context of native cosmology. The oral tradition, which recalls the history of each group and provides guidance and boundaries for behavior, is now being enhanced by a different but certainly compatible form in the "indian novel." These texts are valuable in shedding some light on the problems and possible solutions that are affecting the lives of people in indian country, but they are also the voices of modern Native America. Theirs are attempts to recoup and reconstruct the indian as a viable means of identification. The margins in which indians live, be they Kiowa, Laguna, or Cherokee, are sites of power and, in revisualizing their potential, of resistance.

Janet St. Clair (essay date Summer 1996)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6304

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 enraged revolutionaries—incapableeven of hatred. Almanac reveals an utterly amoral and atomized society in which each isolated member is indifferent to everything but the gratifications of his own enervated passions. He is connected to nothing: all existence outside himself is reduced to a stock of commodities for which he must compete. There is cause to use the masculine pronoun here: Silko's focus of attack is explicitly the misogynistic, arrogantly hierarchical, and egocentric traditions of Western liberal individualism. The rejection and subsequent disintegration of communal tradition and ethical discipline have left a rutting ground for witchery. Silko's monstrous characters demonstrate that the philosophy of the primacy of the individual has in fact stripped individuals of the social and spiritual structures that define their humanity. Redemption depends upon reclamation of what seems irretrievably lost: a credible telos for ordered conduct and the essential interconnections that lend substance and coherence to such conduct.

The sink of depravity and effete self-absorption the novel records stuns both intellect and imagination: the pages are crammed with atrocities almost too heinous to imagine. Its characters induce nightmares; its plot, paranoia. And the villains (the word is too feeble) are Euro-American males. Vicious, manipulative homosexuality and injurious—even murderous—sexual perversions become relentless metaphors of the insane solipsism and phallocentric avarice that characterize the dominant culture. Gone is even a vestigial sense of those virtues which undergird community: there are no personal values because the triumph of individualism has eroded every rationale for moral discipline; there are no institutional ethics because social systems are inevitably infected by the corruption of their constituents. There is no accountability because there is no one to whom one accounts; each man is his own arbiter. Contemporary Euro-American culture is spiritually and ethically rotted by an ideology that rewards egotism. It is characterized by blind obsessions with infantile self-gratification made terrifying by the vicious, power-mad adult's capacity to seize that with which it is obsessed. Control, sex, and wealth are the prizes of unscrupulous aggression; ruthlessness becomes the fundamental pragmatic. The collation of savage white men, each with his own horrific aberrations, staggers the reader almost into numbness, as if to prove how easily, how willingly, we are desensitized to, and individually dissociated from, the horror of moral vacuity and anomie.

The unrestrained greed and brutality of these hollow men is continually emblematized in dissipated sexual perversions that provide entropic substitutes for anything remotely resembling love. Men's equation of carnal gratification with the infliction of pain and their gynophobic attraction to male partners reveal an endemic phallocentric, misogynistic, and egocentric savagery. The ability to feel even the ecstasy of orgasm is so vitiated that the men typically vacillate blandly between drug-induced stupors that deaden their inability to feel and sexual acts bizarre or sadistic or dangerous enough to titillate them into imagining that they can feel. Beaufrey, who knew even as a small child that "He had always loved himself, only himself," recognizes that his indifference to other people affords him enormous power to manipulate them. As an international broker in torture pornography and snuff films, he has amassed fortunes in proving his theory that men can be divided into "those who admitted" that they "enjoyed watching torture and killing" and "those who lied." Films and videos do not sexually arouse him, however. Because "others did not fully exist—they were only ideas that flitted across his consciousness then disappeared"—Beaufrey requires the warm corpses of young male lovers he has driven to suicide.

The violent, phallocentric self-absorption that characterizes Beaufrey informs the incapacity to love that typifies every so-called "successful" man in Silko's novel. The pseudo-intellectual Mexican General J. confirms Beaufrey's theory on men's appetite for savagery: his favorite scholarly topics with his powerful lunch buddies are bloodshed and rape. He theorizes that the sight and smell of blood is a natural aphrodisiac because "bloodshed dominated the natural world, and those inhibited by blood would in time have been greatly outnumbered by those who were excited by blood"; rape, for the General, is the happy conjunction of bloody violence and sexual subjugation. The corrupt Judge Arne, who presides over the Federal District Court in Phoenix, shares Beaufrey's indifference toward other people. But whereas for Beaufrey women figure only as temporary annoyances to be dispassionately erased, the Judge manifests his gynophobia by physically injuring women during the sex act. Although he claims that he "did not think gender really mattered; sex after all was only a bodily function, a kind of expulsion of the sex fluids into some receptacle or another," he is clearly hostile to women. He becomes aroused in a brothel only by imagining his male companion ramming himself bestially into a shuddering woman, and he maintains his erection by pinching the nipples and clitoris of the gasping, protesting woman he is with until he draws blood. Far more than with prostitutes of either gender, however, who require the exchange of a few words, the judge enjoys sex with his four mute basset hound bitches and his accommodating accomplice, the basset stud.

The gynophobic, phallocentric self-involvement implicit in loveless, degenerate individualism perhaps culminates in the character of Serlo. Disgusted by the touch of men and horrified by even the thought of contact with women, he tries to mate with himself, by himself. Arrogant of his sangre pura, he jealously saves and freezes each opalescent drop of his precious semen in stainless steel vials. Cringing at the filth and corruption of the genetically flawed human female, he invests part of his exploited wealth in his own research center to develop perfect human specimens from his own sperm in artificial uteri, and part of his wealth to develop "Alternative Earth modules … designed to be self-sufficient, closed systems," where he and his hybrid progeny might live in hermetic protection from the defilements of earthly existence.

The absolute self-absorption and consequent utter lovelessness that characterize these men lead them predictably enough to obsessions with personal power. Empty of the sentiments that define humanity, each tries to give himself a sense of substance by amassing more sex, money, and control than anyone else. The social hierarchies that form, accordingly, are determined by the degree to which each can wrest the instruments and emblems of power from the others. Max Blue, suave and despotic mastermind of an international ring of flawlessly disciplined contract killers, spends his time in apparent indolence at the Tucson Country Club, playing golf with his affluent and influential clients. His services are much in demand because Max has elevated cold-blooded murder to an art form. Each job is a custom-designed set piece suspended, isolated and inviolable, in time and space; each death becomes a tangible badge of someone else's supremacy. Max, meanwhile, protected by a network of implicated officials and entrepreneurs, maintains a significantly regal bearing, receiving or refusing to receive supplicants and treating each other with whatever graciousness his station merits.

Beaufrey and Serlo accord themselves the highest position in the social hierarchy by virtue of their aristocratic lineage. Beaufrey sees everything as already belonging to him by birthright. As a child, his "favorite book had been about the Long Island cannibal, Albert Fish … because they shared not only social rank, but complete indifference about the life or death of other human beings." As a college student, "Beaufrey had read European history" and "realized there had always been a connection between human cannibals and the aristocracy": the rest of humanity, by his calculation, is his to devour. His proprietary conviction is at one point briefly ruffled by an apprehension that he may lose total control over David, one of his sex and cocaine slaves, if David comes to love the child he has mindlessly sired on the woman Seese. He needn't have worried about being confounded by love: David's fascination with his child's features is entirely narcissistic. In his ingenuous arrogance, David has long since fallen prey to Beaufrey's "game"—one that begins with Beaufrey's encouraging "gorgeous young men such as David to misunderstand their importance in the world." David fancies himself an artist, a type Beaufrey finds "the most fascinating…. Because they participated so freely" in their own destruction. And David does participate, helping to drive their lover Eric to suicide, then shooting pornographically lurid photos of the naked mangled corpse. But in Beaufrey's theater, "one act followed another": he kidnaps the baby from its mother to watch David's egocentric absorption with his replicated image, then kidnaps the child from David when he recognizes that "David is ripe" for the "final moves of the game." After David is driven to death upon seeing the 35mm color proof sheets of his baby's dismembered cadaver, Beaufrey calmly takes commercial photos of David's broken corpse and turns, in dispassionate gladness, to his next source of cannibalistic satisfaction.

Serlo elevates the importance of his aristocratic blood even more highly. Investing his entire identity in his conviction of hereditary genetic superiority, he perhaps prefigures the end result of misogynistic, earth-gutting, Eurocentric individualism. Fearing the day when the world would be "overrun with swarms of brown and yellow human larvae called natives," he coolly plans their mass extermination and stocks the underground vaults of his huge Colombian estate with food, water, and currency. Acknowledging a certain noblesse oblige to rape underling women and so infuse their tawdry strains with sangre pura, he nevertheless recoils in horror at the thought of so basely defiling his own purity. Casting himself in a godlike image, Serlo disdains the very planet he and his kind have despoiled. He plans his own ascension within space stations that "could be loaded with the last of the earth's uncontaminated soil, water, and oxygen and would be launched in high orbits" where "the select few would continue as they always had, gliding in luxury and ease across polished decks of steel and glass islands looking down on earth … still sipping cocktails" while the rabble killed each other for a share of the dwindling resources of a dying planet.

In a hegemony where status is determined by how much one is capable of taking and keeping, everything—land, money, materials, human bodies and lives—are commodified, priced, and labeled for consumption. Max Blue's anonymous victims, Beaufrey's torture videos that "progressed conveniently into the 'autopsy' of the victim," Serlo's acres of stockpiles that he will surely never use—each characterizes the fundamental mindset of what Silko calls "vampire capitalists." Their motto: buy low, sell high. Beaufrey's raw material includes kidnapped children and street punks lured by cocaine. Trigg, broker in human organs, processes hitchhikers and the homeless. When it occurs to him that men who agree to sell their blood are men who would seldom be missed, Trigg identifies an entrepreneurial opportunity. Those he determines to be alone in Tucson are "slowly bled to death, pint by pint" while Trigg gives them blow jobs to distract them from their own murder. Even at that price, Trigg feels "they got a favor from him": after all, "They were human debris. Human refuse. Only a few had organs of sufficient quality for transplant use." In another case, a police chief capitalizes upon his own resources at hand. As his investment in a lucrative pornography ring, he allows a cameraman to film official interrogations where women are sexually tortured and mutilated. An apt businessman, he recognizes a competitive threat: when he senses that the security of his position may be compromised by the cameraman's excesses, he arranges and videotapes the castration of his potential rival.

The sadistic greed of the police chief reveals the pervasive venom of individual morality. In a commodified and atomized society where malevolence and depravity are prerequisites to power and status, the highest and noblest social institutions are inevitably as corrupt as the men who control them. The novel portrays American justice and judicial systems in which justice and law are never even remote issues. Those characters who wield power within governmental agencies regard their positions quite purely as avenues of access to unbounded power and profit. No one feels anything—except mistrust—for anybody. Senators do business with contract killers over salad at the country club. CIA directors deal with sleazy arms brokers to protect the flow of mind-deadening cocaine across national borders. Drug kingpins arrogantly demand apologies and reparation when they are inconvenienced by inept policemen. Cops are either stupid and depraved, or smart and depraved. The smart ones manipulate the stupid ones, and grow stupendously wealthy through cordial and intimate business relationships with top-level criminals. Jamie, one of the stupid ones, is sexually obsessed with and chemically dependent upon the drug-smuggling Ferro until he is assassinated by his fellow officers at a theatrically staged drug raid. His boss, one of the smart ones, wisely appreciates the prudence (and the profit) in accommodating such manipulators and swindlers as Max Blue, Judge Arne, the senator, the CIA, and the border patrol. The men charged with enforcing the law and upholding the principles of the justice are among the most viciously criminal and egomaniacal characters in a novel full of egomaniacally lawless villains.

The church, that institution which most directly assumes responsibility for teaching and modeling the virtues of human community, is revealed more as the source of moral degeneracy than as an energized force against it. Silko's Indian characters perceive the Judeo-Christian tradition as irrational, bloody, cannibalistic, and cruel. Menardo's full-blood grandfather, explaining Europeans' chronic rootless alienation, compassionately calls them "the orphan people," wounded and eternally broken "because the insane God who had sired them had abandoned them … throwing them out of their birthplace, driving them away." Menardo's driver Tacho (who together with his brother El Feo emblematizes the mythically redemptive Sacred Twins) sees white people's blind violence as culturally systemic: "The European invaders had brought their Jesus hanging bloody and dead from the cross; later they ate his flesh and blood again and again" yet, "typical of sorcerers or Destroyers, the Christians had denied they were cannibals and sacrificers." The old Yaqui grandmother Yoeme notes that "even idiots can understand a church that tortures and kills is a church that can no longer heal": it does not surprise her that the spiritually lacerated whites who came to the Americas sought "to dress their wounds in the fat of slain Indians." The church's culpability in failing to stop the extermination of Indians in the Americas is noted on several occasions by various characters. In a chapter entitled "A Series of Popes Had Been Devils," the paranoid Mosca, whose clarity of thought is revealed in drug-induced visions, damns the clergy for lechery, theft, and duplicity. He sees the good deeds of the church as the work of a few "potential troublemakers" who are deviously coopted to give the Church "good publicity." There is some small ambivalence in Silko's attitude toward Christianity: its efforts—however feeble and spotty—to alleviate poverty and injustice are grudgingly acknowledged. And Menardo, who is both irritated and threatened by educated Indians, blames the priests for having "treated them like human beings." Generally, though, Silko seems to endorse the anti-Christian attitudes expressed by her Indian (and several of her white) characters, who interpret the brutal perversions of Christianity as "the betrayal of Jesus" and of "Jesus' creed of forgiveness and brotherly love." Like the justice and judicial system of the government, the Church is another example of an ideologically compassionate and communally protective institution that has been raped and butchered by the combative avarice of androcentric Euro-American individualism.

Even the civil institution of marriage, which might have served as a refuge against the isolation of individualism, is doomed to fail within a social context that values only self-gratification. Despite an enormous cast of characters, there are few marriages in this novel, and neither love nor contractual fidelity between partners. Trust, respect, and compassion again succumb to the inevitable betrayals of egocentric self-interest. Menardo, the Mexican mixed-blood, thinks he has won a valuable prize when he marries the fair-skinned Iliana with the stainless European lineage. Her prize is incredible wealth. Menardo thinks the polished and cosmopolitan Alegria is an even rarer prize and marries her immediately after Iliana's untimely death. Alegria wants Menardo's money and protection, but joylessly sleeps with the abusive and insensitive Marxist Bartolomeo and yearns after the promiscuous Sonny Blue, who so despises women that he prefers to take them in the dark. The old smuggler Calabazas is married to Sarita, but wants her sister Liria; while he's in bed with his sister-in-law, his wife is in bed with the Monsignor. When Leah Blue learns of her husband Max's death, "she had to fight an impulse to laugh … she felt relief, not loss."

The women characters, while they are typically less vicious and offensive than the men, are nevertheless incapable of love as well. Survival among misogynists has given them few choices. They can adopt the male value system of aggression, greed, and callousness; resist subjugation through a defiant and dehumanizing scorn; or fall in speechless defeat. The cruelest and the most ineffectual women are white: real estate tycoon Leah Blue takes by force what she cannot buy and gives no thought to the consequences that others must inevitably suffer. Hoping—significantly—to impress her father and brothers, she manipulates a corrupt legal system into awarding her the underground water rights to a vast area of drought-choked Arizona in order to fill the network of streams, fountains, and canals in her luxury development, Venice. Training and experience has rendered her incapable of human affection and insensitive to any conception of selfless reciprocity: Leah only takes. Indifferent to her husband and sons, she alleviates her ennui with meaningless exploitative sexual affairs. The most fully developed of her loveless dalliances is with the wheelchair-bound but eternally erect Trigg, whom she callously nicknames "steak-in-a-basket." When she hears he has been brutally murdered and interred in his own organ deep-freeze, she is only marginally interested to note that she "didn't feel anything." Instead of grieving, she immediately begins to hope she'll be questioned about his death "because that young police chief was really quite sexy."

The character Seese is ostensibly the opposite of Leah. Beaten into chronic silence by ruthless misogynists, Seese looks for protection in the invisibility of listless acquiescence and the insensibility of drug-induced torpor. Formerly a topless dancer in a sleazy nightclub where the girls are required to perform "bizarre sex acts for paying customers," she becomes David's lover, unaware that he is merely using her to make Beaufrey jealous, as Beaufrey had used Eric to make David jealous. She accedes under pressure to one abortion, but insists, uncharacteristically, upon carrying her second pregnancy to term. After the baby is kidnapped by Beaufrey's thugs, Seese vacuously dedicates herself to finding her child, putting her entire vague confidence in the psychic powers of Lecha, the mixed-blood, drug-addicted T.V. psychic who can locate only dead people.

The Indian women, likewise victimized and perverted by male aggression and oppression, are equally incapable of love. Zeta and Lecha, twin sisters and putative protagonists of Almanac, are sexually molested by their Uncle Federico throughout their childhoods; Lecha is tricked into surrendering her virginity to him with the apparent complicity of the local priest. Neither woman ever loves a man. Zeta has one sexual experience as an adult—her compensation to the fat and stinking Mr. Coco for a job promotion—then chooses a life of celibacy. Lecha, conversely, amuses herself with strings of casual and indiscriminate sexual affairs but evades even the most tenuous of emotional ties. The strident vituperation of their Yaqui grandmother, Yoeme, is the result of a lifetime of oppression at the hands of white men. Forced to marry a man she typically refers to as "that fucker Guzman"—whose name is clearly meant to recall the monstrous image of "pig-anus [Nino] de Guzman," whose infamous administration exterminated and enslaved Indians by the thousands in the sixteenth century—she spends her lifetime resisting powerful men whose greed and cruelty threaten the earth and the lives and welfare of the Indians who respect it. The revolutionary activist Angelita La Escapia, who names herself "The Meathook," has sex with men who are weaker than she, but cares only for the overthrow of the globally destructive and evilly avaricious institutions that characterize Euro-American males.

Predictably, natural physical and emotional bonds are eroded by the same obsessive self-absorption that debases individuals and institutions. Those men who engage in sex with women see them as commodities to be acquired, consumed, and discarded; those who do not see women as vile, contemptible earth-crawlers who exist beneath their antiseptic intellectual concern. Everyone except Zeta is having sex with multiple partners, but no one loves anyone, and the sex is fruitless. The only children in the novel are the mythical nomadic guardians of the Almanac and Seese's memory of her baby Monte, who is dead before the action in the novel begins.

But even maternity is incapable of engendering love. Although Seese's child is both conceived and kidnapped while Seese is in her usual cocaine-and-alcohol fog, she is the best mother in the novel: she at least feels keenly the loss of her baby. None of the other women seem to care particularly for their children, and the characters almost invariably despise their mothers. Zeta and Lecha, keepers of the sacred pages of the Almanac, are something like co-mothers to the hopelessly maladjusted Ferro. Lecha bore him "one Friday morning"—there is no mention of his father's identity—but "by Sunday noon Lecha had been on a plane to Los Angeles, leaving Zeta with her new baby." Zeta names and rears him, but makes it plain to him from the outset that she is motivated by duty, not affection.

Lecha and Zeta are taught by their Indian grandmother to reject their own mother; Yoeme sees Amalia, the twins' mother, and her other children as sickly, weak-willed, and worthless progeny of Guzman. Lecha's friend Root, understanding that his mother is ashamed of his speech impediment, hates her with a murderous fury. Trigg, who also feels that his mother rejects him out of shame, dreams of somehow making enough money to win even faint favor. Sonny and Bingo, adult sons of Max and Leah Blue, call their mother by her given name, unable to think of her as mother to anyone, much less to them; Bingo fantasizes that she is killed, just to see if he would be able to feel anything if it really happened. Beaufrey, born because his mother was more afraid of abortion than of childbirth, is the unwelcome product of his mother's final middle-aged Parisian fling. Serlo's parents abandoned him to his pederastic grandfather, and Mosca was taken from his incompetent mother and thrust into a series of foster homes. Traditionally regarded as nurturers and instinctual protectors of their children, women are portrayed as emotionally eviscerated victims of misogynistic, egocentric European traditions. Listening to another of gunrunner Greenlee's crass sexist jokes just before she blasts him with her .44 magnum, Zeta "still had to marvel at the hatred white men harbored for all women, even their own." Raped and degraded by centuries of male oppression, women's survival has come to depend upon their ability not to feel.

This malevolence against mothers in particular and women in general is figurative as well as literal: women in the novel are invariably victims of male fear and hostility, but their treatment also metaphorically reflects the culturally male contempt for the female earth. The earth is repeatedly referred to as the Mother by various characters—not all of them Indian. Throughout the novel the word "rape" is applied uniformly to land and women, and to the land as woman. Yoeme argues that the white man's "gaping emptiness" results from his having "violated the mother earth"; Korean computer wizard Awa Gee plots the destruction of the empires so that the "earth that has been seized and torn open, would be allowed to heal and rest in the darkness"; and Sterling, the banished Laguna Indian, recalls the old folks' warning of the terrible consequences of the brutal wounding and scarring of "Mother Earth."

The metaphor is underscored by the correlation between men's relationships with women and their connection to the land and, analogously, their degree of sterile, narcissistic self-absorption. Again, Serlo emblematizes the final result of misogynistic disdain for the earth. He owns and retains sole authority over vast tracts of land, yet he has no emotional or moral connection with it whatsoever, just as he is incapable of the most elemental relationship with any woman, including his mother. He speaks distastefully of raping women not because of even the vaguest sense of human affinity but because rape would necessitate the squalor of physical contact. Just as he has dissociated himself completely from the company of women, he dreams of dissociating himself from the earth, living in a sterile, androgynous womb of steel and glass within sealed orbiting space units.

The women, conversely, must protect both themselves and the earth from such male psychoses. The mission of the strong Indian women—Lecha, Zeta, Yoeme, and the warrior Angelita—is to reclaim the ravished and impoverished land and restore it to its place of respect. Yoeme at first marries the hated Guzman to prevent him and other whites from breaking their land-use agreements with the Yaquis. When that fails, she adopts guerrilla tactics to subvert the silver miners' wanton rape of the earth and barely escapes death for treason and sedition. Angelita, champion of tribal rights to the earth, laments the Euro-American failure to understand that "the earth was mother to all beings." She sees the aliens' exploitative intellectual separation from the earth as artificial and ultimately doomed, because "No human, no individuals or corporations, no cartel of nations, could 'own' the earth; it was the earth who possessed the humans and it was the earth who disposed of them."

Setting and imagery further emphasize the plaited themes of egocentric violence, loveless sterility, and dissociation from the land. The story takes place primarily in Tucson, a "city of thieves" that "had always depended on some sort of war to keep cash flowing," and the surrounding deserts of Arizona and Mexico. The relentless sun is murderous to those who will not learn the land, and the dearth of water threatens all life. Dead lawns of Tucson—tucson, as Calabazas ironically notes, means "plentiful fresh water" in Papago—can scarcely be distinguished from gray pavement, and the spindly landscaping reflects the moral and spiritual drought suffered by its inhabitants. Existing water is so polluted it stinks. "Pools" are typically of blood; "waves," of nausea or hatred. Clear ponds of water are the surfaces upon which float the severed heads of diplomats or the tiny bloated corpses of unwanted newborns. The only remaining pure water belongs to Leah, who is literally sucking the earth dry to create her model desert city for the incredibly wealthy white elite.

There is little vegetation, and when flowers are mentioned, it is almost invariably in connection with grisly death. When Beaufrey's boytoy Eric blows his head apart with a .44 revolver, the critics rave about David's glossy photographs of the suicide that evoke "a field of red shapes which might be peonies—cherry, ruby, deep purple, black—and the nude human figure nearly buried in these 'blossoms' of bright red." When Menardo sees a wall of vining purple flowers he can think only of the "twists of human intestines." The assassinated motorcyclist hanging upside down in the blossoming paloverde tree is reported as a "strange fruit" by the woman who sights the corpse as she drives to work. Water, the source of all life; flowers, the harbingers of renewed harvest; and fruit, the fulfillment of the flowers' promise; are all distorted into sinister images of detached, meaningless death, inevitable legacy of a tradition of isolate, amoral self-absorption.

And yet, the novel is by no means without hope. Rather, it addresses from another perspective the potentials of witchery and the creative value of stories so gracefully expressed in Silko's profoundly hopeful first novel, Ceremony. Almanac is an apparent miscellany of isolated stories that gradually assumes design in the reader's consciousness. This growing awareness of interconnection is, according to the author, the function of stories, which "are always bringing us together, keeping this whole together," combating people's natural tendency "to run off and hide or separate themselves from others" in times of "violent emotional experience."

The Almanac, an ancient collation of sacred story abstracts, serves as metaphor for the importance of memory—one of the central themes of Silko's first novel. As Susan Scarberry-Garcia observed in her early and seminal essay on Ceremony, memory "becomes the bedrock of our humanity" in helping us to define ourselves and to "forestall the witchery which is advanced, if not generated, through forgetfulness." Both novels evoke mythic images to instruct readers, as Paula Gunn Allen has so frequently observed, that "We are the land"; that self-respect is impossible when respect for our sources and sustenance is neglected and forgotten. Ceremony attacks specifically the threat of those who

                grow away from the earth
             then they grow away from the sun
    then they grow away from the plants and animals.
                      They see no life
                      when they look
                  they see only objects.

Almanac of the Dead garishly illustrates the realization of that threat. Yet this story, like Tayo's, becomes dynamically charged within the consciousness of the hearer, and so promises the possibility of a different course.

Bonnie TuSmith sees Ceremony "as an American writer's challenge to the cult of individualism in contemporary society"—as Silko's reminder "that we are all in this together." Almanac of the Dead states both the challenge and the reminder more brutally, but with a similar undercurrent of tenacious faith. As the novel's Euro-American power structure sinks into the morass of depravity borne of its own misguided ideologies of individualism, a resurgence of communality is occurring. Ironically (perhaps), the redeemers of social organization and spiritual values are found among those who are most disenfranchised by the dominant white male "community." Saved from total corruption by the marginalization that has been thrust upon them, various individuals and groups are rising up and converging, nourished by the very injustice that was designed to starve them. Roy, the deeply disillusioned Vietnam veteran, is organizing his Army of the Homeless to fight the "fat cats" who own the government and police. He "had seen for himself women and children hungry, and sleeping on the streets…. Police beating homeless old men," and he had concluded that "This was not democracy…. Something had to be done." Clinton, another veteran, sees the oppression of women and minorities as a carefully planned conspiracy by white men to retain power and wealth. To him, "the entire war in Southeast Asia had been fabricated as a location and occasion for the slaughter of the strongest and most promising young men of black and brown and poor-white communities"; his solution is to declare war upon the deathmongers and "to reclaim democracy from corruption at all levels." Telecommunications genius Awa Gee specializes in network break-ins and the creation of fake identities. Indifferent to personal power, "Awa Gee did not plan to create or build anything at all. Awa Gee was interested in the purity of destruction … in the perfection of complete disorder and disintegration" within a system founded on waste, oppression, and greed. Ecoterrorists are "recruiting the terminal and dying … who saw the approach of the end of nature and who wanted to do some good on their way out" by martyring themselves in kamikaze missions to blow up the restrictive economic infrastructures.

All subversive action will eventually culminate in the overthrow of the destructive Eurocentric and androcentric governments of the Americas, which will make way for a sacred reclamation of land and social solidarity. Divisive distinctions between colors and genders will be transcended as people identify their common oppressor. In Tucson, the white man Roy and the black Indian Clinton come together to lead a burgeoning army of women and men who "all said they'd rather fight. They'd rather burn down the city, take a police bullet, and die quick, because that way they died fighting, they died warriors, not slaves." Roy, Clinton, The Barefoot Hopi, Weasel Tail, and others—each invokes anxious and concerned people of all colors to come together because "this was the last chance the people had, and they would never prevail if they did not work together as a common force."

Community is being built even within the collective unconscious. Tribal healers and spirits are visiting the dreams of prisoners, preparing them to rise up fraternally against the enemies of land and humanity. People everywhere, sensing danger, are beginning to react "without being conscious of what they [are] preparing for," as yet unaware that "their plans would complement and serve one another in the chaos to come." Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, Angelita La Escapia and the young twins Tacho and El Feo are organizing the masses for the march northward to reclaim the sacred earth and all the interconnections that reclamation implies. It might require generations, but the prophecies are clear: "all traces of Europeans in America would disappear and, at last, the people would retake the land."

Hope, though, rests chiefly on faith and patience: Silko extends little reason for immediate triumphant optimism. Schisms continue among those who are committed to revolution. Men versus women, the humble versus the power-hungry, black versus brown versus white, those who believe in the possibility of peaceful transitions versus those who strain toward a purgative bloodletting—the same mistrustful divisiveness they are challenging threatens the unity upon which their success depends. And so far, only a tiny minority of "scattered crazies" with "feverish plots and crazed schemes" are involved at all.

Most find passivity their best defense. The novel's most likable (and least threatening) character is Sterling, a dispossessed Laguna Indian who stands ineffectually at the peripheries, watching the violence and betrayal in mute, bewildered horror. Driven from his homeland by tribal injustice, he wanders aimlessly to Tucson where he accidentally lands a job on Lecha and Zeta's ranch. He stays because it is easier than leaving, and he finally leaves because there is no place to stay. The novel closes with Sterling's return to the reservation from which he has been banished, where he takes up solitary and unobtrusive residence in the remote sandstone hut of the family sheep camp.

Sterling's apparent passivity notwithstanding, he serves as something of a repository of the atrophied but reawakening virtues of communal heritage. Like Tayo, he had been advised by white counselors to beat his depression by forgetting his past. Devoted to white notions of "self-improvement," he tries to forget, but finds in the end that wholeness comes through acts of remembrance. In his youth he had been scolded by his elders "because he wasn't interested in what they had to say," but upon his return "home" he tries "to remember more of the stories the old people used to tell" so that he can better understand the connections they revealed. The ancient myths, whose neglect had resulted in "all the violence and death" he had witnessed, assume profound significance as he begins to piece together his shadowy recollections "of the old folks' beliefs." He sees the resurrection of the south-facing stone snake from the tailings of the Destroyers' uranium mines as a promise of eventual redemption, and looks with the mythic snake "in the direction from which the twin brothers and the people would come" to liberate individuals from alienation. But Sterling's recovery is only beginning. Even as he attempts to remember, he attempts to forget: he blocks from his consciousness an acknowledgment of what he knows exists, gently—but falsely—reassuring himself instead that "the world was not like that. Tucson had only been a bad dream."

The hope that undergirds Almanac of the Dead is more implicit, then, than evident. As Silko once said of Pueblo storytelling, "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." The contemporary America of the novel is on the surface a wasteland of dead possibilities, a treacherous desert where the promise and refreshment implicit in love have been blasted by the rapacious brutality of white male egoism. Among the empowered, all human emotion, sentiment, and compassion have atrophied in the withering aridity of European individualism. Avarice is the only remaining motivation for action; suspicion is the only remaining human connection. Even the sexual urge, the most primal guarantee of regeneration, has turned inward upon itself to produce a mutant brood of scrofulous monstrosities. And yet, although scourged and blighted, hope remains alive. The reclamation and restoration of loving relationships among people and with the land will come, according to Silko's optimistic Indians. The healing will take time, and it will require vigilant attention to history if we are to identify and resist the present sources and manifestations of witchery. But the prophecies of the Almanac are explicit: the blood-maddened male Death-Eye Dog will die; a renewed era of active spiritual and social community in the Americas will ultimately prevail.

Charlene Taylor Evans (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5119

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 "becoming" to their offspring. While this function is not gender specific, the recipient of this information must have full faith and confidence in the one who is teaching. In many cultures, women carry the ontologies to their offspring. According to Leslie Marmon Silko, the Native American woman has been "the tie that binds her people together, transmitting her culture through song and story from generation to generation."

In Silko's Storyteller and Almanac of the Dead, grandmothers serve as mother-surrogates for Native American daughters. This grandmother-granddaughter pairing forms an intergenerational unit, sometimes supplanting the mother-daughter dyad. Native American women often bear the title "aunt" or "auntie" whether the familial relationship is grandmother, mother, aunt, sister, or neighbor. The grandmother or "auntie"-daughter relationship is taken quite seriously in American Indian culture; one of its major functions is to become the "histor" or repository of knowledge for Native Americans. The mother-daughter pair becomes an epistemology or "way of knowing." Mothers and daughters serve as the bridge of continuity for Native American posterity; thus they help preserve the embodiment of cultural values, of the past, and of the individual and collective identities of Native American people. The knowledge they transmit is essential to redemption or survival for a threatened or endangered society and helps maintain their true identity by providing the cultural underpinnings that counter the invasive and corrosive influences of Western culture.

Weaving ancestral/supernatural spirits into her narrative, Silko combines the oral tradition or literal "storytelling" (the past) into writing (the present), which are reconciled by a process of artistic development in her works. An offspring of this union is the highly intricate and almost protean relationship which exists between Native American mothers and daughters formulating myriad epistemological structures. The grandmother-granddaughter storytellers and their stories communicate, as accurately as the medium allows, the reality of the Native American existence.

Storytelling had always fascinated Silko as a child in the Laguna Pueblo district of Arizona. In a matrilineal community, especially the society in Storyteller, the female/mother is a powerful person who is oftentimes the storyteller. In her anthology, Silko establishes the significance of the "story" and discusses the transformation of the oral text to a written one.

Silko reminisces about her Aunt Susie, actually her great grandmother, Marie Anaya Marmon, and contends that at a certain point in the history of the American Indian "the atmosphere and conditions that had maintained the oral tradition had been irrevocably altered by the European intrusion." The onus lay on mothers/grandmothers to protect and to transmit to their daughters an accurate explanation or accounting of the Native American past. These stories were sometimes communicated through pictures, song, and dance. Silko heard her great-grandmother, Aunt Susie, saying "a'moo'ooh," a Laguna expression of endearment for a young child, and she and her sisters began calling her Grandma A'mooh. Grandma A'mooh spent much time with Silko and Wendy and Gigi, her sisters. The girls stayed with her while their mother worked; it was quite convenient since they lived next door to each other. Silko slept with her "in case she fell getting up in the night" (Grandma A'mooh was eighty years old at this time) and was immensely influenced and nurtured in this relationship with her great-grandmother. Silko reveals in the Storyteller volume that Grandma A'mooh used "to tell me and my sisters about the good old days when they didn't have toothpaste and cleaned their teeth with juniper ash." She also notes that when she was only seven or eight years old Aunt Susie (Grandma A'mooh) was in her mid-sixties and listened to all of her questions and speculations. A seasoned practitioner of the oral tradition, Aunt Susie was the last of a generation at Laguna that passed an entire culture and history by word of mouth:

      … an entire vision of the world
      which depended upon memory
      and retelling by subsequent generations

In moving from orality to literacy or "technologizing the word," to use Walter Ong's phrase, Silko suggests that she attempts to use in her writing "certain phrases, certain distinctive words" that her Aunt Susie "used in her telling." Her writing emerges from the auditory and is a retelling:

      … I write when I still hear
      her voice as she tells the story
      … I remember only a small part.
      But this is what I remember
      … This is the way I remember.

The role of the grandmother is to "tell" and "re-tell," and the mother-daughter pair serves as a custodian of culture. In Storyteller, Silko accepts the challenge of being a storyteller as a part of the continuum. She is a "new age" storyteller in that she utilizes another medium—the written page. She also broadens her audience by switching from orality to literacy. Noting the loss in meaning when an oral culture is reduced to writing, Silko, along with numerous scholars and linguists, perceives the inadequacy and inaccuracy of the written word and uses individual portraits, landscape pictures, and other media to facilitate and enhance her story: "'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.'"

It is the responsibility of the storyteller or grandmother/mother figure to preserve the integrity of the written text. In a 1986 interview with Kim Barnes, Silko discusses other techniques she has used to minimize the loss of meaning in the written text: "I play around with the page by using different kinds of spacing or indentations or even italics so that the reader can sense, say, that the tone of the voice has changed. If you were hearing a story, the speed would increase at certain points."

Silko's mothers and daughters occupy a symbiotic relationship as daughters thrive and flourish because of the knowledge passed on to them by their mothers/grandmothers, and mothers/grandmothers likewise thrive because of the knowledge they have transferred to their female offspring. In Grandma A'mooh's last years, she was sent to Albuquerque to live with her daughter, Aunt Bessie. Because Aunt Bessie worked, Grandma A'mooh "did not have anyone to talk to all day." "She might have lived without watering morning glories and without kids running through her kitchen but she did not last long without someone to talk to." The dyadic structure of mother-daughter relationships is essential to the "being"/survival of the Pueblo female. Silko describes the storytelling as a "whole way of being." "I mean a whole way of seeing yourself, the people around you, your life in the bigger context … in terms of what has gone on before, what's happened to other people."

Personal ontologies and epistemologies are tied to the stories and the storytellers. The mothers and daughters are the fountains and reservoirs of knowledge as they interact and exchange on numerous levels. More importantly, the mothers and daughters transfer information for understanding who Native Americans are as a people. The highly revered position of the female as creator of life and preserver of culture is maintained from generation to generation:

In the beginning was thought, and her name was Woman. The Mother, the Grandmother,… is celebrated in social structures … and the oral tradition. To her we owe our lives, and from her comes our ability to endure…. She is the Old Woman who tends the fires of life. She is the Old Woman Spider who weaves us together in a fabric of interconnection. She is the Eldest God, the one who Remembers and Re-members.

The matrix of life and being in the American Indian society is the female. Her role is paramount to God, as the first lines in the excerpt from The Sacred Hoop are reminiscent of John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

The initial dedication of the Storyteller evokes an aspect of timelessness and circularity which also relates to a sense of being for the American Indian, especially the female. An understanding of this infinite relationship between the storyteller and the story, the present and the past, lays the foundation for individual ontologies. The reader can experience the fluidity of time; the past is omnipresent: "This book is dedicated 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."

Memory is an important variable on this historical continuum. Likewise, the storyteller and the story are inextricably linked. The focused and deliberate narratives in Storyteller depict the storyteller or "histor" as a highly revered member of society. Because the "telling" establishes a permanence and maintains the culture, the storytellers (grandmothers and daughters who will become mothers/grandmothers) have a unique relationship with the past. Silko's sense of the role of mother/daughter is very much like Rayna Green's expression of matrilineage in That's What She Said:

The clay shapers, fiber twisters, picture makers, and storytellers—the ones who said what was and what will be—they've always been important in Indian Country. Whether it comes directly from the storyteller's mouth and She writes it down or someone writes it for her, the story has to be told…. Before European writing, there were voices to sing and speak, dances to make real the stories that the people told or to honor the retelling anew. There were hands that talked and drew and shaped…. They kept them [the stories] even when no one asked to hear them—even when the whiteeyes came and asked only the men what they knew. Thus the women have always kept the stories….

Having a spirit-centered culture, Native Americans search for alternative yet appropriate avenues of expression for their ontologies. Not being familiar with the Native American culture, Euro-Americans thought that men were the keepers of the information.

Preserving and maintaining the accuracy of the stories is an enormously difficult task. Silko's mothers and daughters extract from portraits or graphic "rememories" from the past to ensure accuracy. Sethe, the female protagonist in Toni Morrison's Beloved, remembers significant events from her past in colorful flurries of visual slides of meaning called "rememories." Although in an interview Silko denies any similarity to Morrison, Silko's "rememories" bear a striking resemblance to Sethe's visions in Beloved. They also place emphasis on recall and the vivid snapshots of life that tell all and remain eternally etched in one's mind. Silko associates these graphic visual memories with storytelling. Sensitivity to memory and remembering, an important attribute for the mothers and daughters, is illustrated in "Lullaby." Ayah, the protagonist, defines old age as a time of memories: "She [Ayah] felt peaceful remembering … and she could remember the morning her baby was born. She could remember whispering to her mother, who was sleeping on the other side of the hogan." This emphasis on the past and remembering, its relevance and relationship to the present (birth), illuminates the timelessness of the contexts that the mother-daughter dyads draw from as sources for the stories.

Native American literature is significantly different from Western literature, for the underlying assumptions about the cosmos and their experiential bases are different. According to Paula Gunn Allen and Roxanne Ortiz, Native Americans seek—through song, ceremony, legend, myths, and tales—to articulate and share reality, to bring the private self into harmony and balance with their Native American reality, to verbalize the sense of the majesty and reverent mystery of all things, and to actualize, in language, those truths that give humanity its greatest significance and dignity. As innocuous as the stories may sometimes appear to be, they are powerful weapons against assimilation. The emphasis is of course on the "telling," and remembering is a vital element of the telling and of survival, individually and collectively. Silko hallows the stories in Almanac of the Dead by characterizing the narratives as analogues for the actual experiences, which no longer exist, an embodiment or mosaic of memory and imagination. The past is embodied within the rememory: "An experience termed past may actually return if the influences have the same balances or proportions as before. Details may vary, but the essence does not change. The day would have the same feeling, the same character, as that day has been described having had before. The image of a memory exists in the present moment."

Frederic Jameson, a Marxist theorist and philosopher, suggests further that literary form (the story) is deeply engaged with a concrete reality: "narrative is not just a literary form or mode but an essential 'epistemological category'; reality presents itself to the human mind only in the form of stories." This again reinforces the idea of the omnipresence of the past (the story) and suggests that the story vivifies and objectifies experience. Just as females are lifegivers in the physical biological sense, they likewise generate, maintain, and sustain the lives of the Native American people through the narratives. Daughters inherit the stories and must tell and retell them to maintain and sustain their culture.

One of the major themes communicated by the mothers and daughters in Storyteller is the resilient and remarkable relationship between Native Americans and their natural physical environment. Individuals are an expression of the cosmos. Natural phenomena and objects in geophysical space are their kin. Complementing the idea of the past and its omnipresence is the idea of the natural environment being an integral part of the Native American ideology. In "Lullaby" Ayah, an old woman now, remembers the song she sang to her babies. "She could not remember if she had ever sung it to her children, but she knew that her grandmother had sung it and her mother had sung it." The song metaphorically asserts familial relationships between nature and Native Americans:

     The earth is your mother,
     she holds you.
 
     .......
 
     Sleep, sleep.
     We are together always
     There never was a time
     when this was not so.

The belief that American Indian children do not belong to their biological parents but to the land and to the heavens is also implied in the lyric. The last two lines of the song Ayah sings, "There never was a time / when this was not so," suggest an ancient and infinite relationship between the earth (Mother) and the Native American. The people are the earth and the earth is "being," as all creatures are "being." The life-sustaining forces are female in gender. The land (Mother) and the people (mothers) are the same.

Within the web of other familial relationships, mothers and daughters deliver the blueprint for the survival of their culture to the Native Americans. Exactly ten years after the publication of Storyteller, Almanac of the Dead addresses the desecration and violation of the land (the Americas) and the Native American people by Euro-Americans and depicts the mother-daughter unit as the interpreter and purveyor of the American Indian past. American Indians' overriding concern to regain tribal lands is expressed in Silko's assertion of the Indian connection to the resistance movement against Euro-American oppression of people of color in Almanac of the Dead: "Sixty million Native Americans died between 1500 and 1600. The defiance and resistance to things European continue unabated. The Indian Wars have never ended in the Americas. Native Americans acknowledge no borders; they seek nothing less than the return of all tribal lands" (epigraph). The climate of turmoil is exacerbated by the Native Americans' unwillingness to assimilate into the Euro-American culture. Almanac of the Dead chronicles the moral deterioration of the Native Americans brought on by the onslaught of alien aggressors. There is a nostalgia for the past and the restoration of their former lifestyles. Mother-daughter units (combinations of Old Yoeme, the grandmother, and Zeta and Lecha, her twin granddaughters) quietly brace themselves for war and make attempts to protect and preserve their epistemologies.

An example of the protean or shape-shifting nature of the American Indian mothers and daughters is their becoming literal caretakers of Native American history. A chapter entitled "Stone Idols" in Almanac of the Dead affirms the significance and reverence the Native American females, in particular, have for their past (represented by stone figures). The narrator notes that the care and protection of stone figures passed from generation to generation to an elder clanswoman. Readily accepting their responsibility, women are the recipients and conscientious caretakers of these figures; many precious objects belonging to the Indian culture were destroyed by Europeans or sold by weak-hearted Native Americans. These stones are valued for their intrinsic spiritual life force and are extensions of the supernatural beings they represent. Feeding these objects a mixture of cornmeal and pollen sprinkled with rainwater, the women lift the stone figures as tenderly as they had lifted their own babies and call them "esteemed and beloved ancestors." The use of cornmeal is an important part of the birth ritual in the Laguna Pueblo culture. Clearly, reverence and dedication are illustrated in these mother/offspring or characteristically feminine actions.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson support the idea of the investment of meaning in objects into their essay "Ontological Metaphors": "Understanding our experiences in terms of objects and substances allows us to pick out parts of our experience and treat them as discrete entities or substances of a uniform kind…. We can refer to them, categorize them, group them, and quantify them—and, by this means, reason about them." Certain objects in the Native American culture are spiritual embodiments which take on "life" or "being." These objects also serve as epistemologies and may be referred to, grouped, and quantified as Lakoff and Johnson suggest. Because many of these figures/objects are extensions of supernatural beings, the mother-daughter dyad takes on, of necessity, a supernatural aspect.

In Almanac of the Dead, Silko's mother-daughter units delve into the supernatural. Old Yoeme (the grandmother-figure) and Lecha and Zeta, her twin granddaughters, defy categorization and illustrate the supernatural influences of the surrogate mother-daughter unit. Yoeme is an important influence in the self-definition and moral development of both of her granddaughters, and she preoccupies herself with the guardianship of the epistemology or the ancient, arduously preserved journals that contain the history of her own people—a Native American Almanac of the Dead. The ancient prophecies maintain that all things European will disappear from the Americas and that a decipherment of the ancient tribal texts of the Americas foretells the future of all Americans. The future is encoded in arcane symbols and old narratives. It is Zeta's duty to seek, interpret, and tell Lecha, her sister, what to add to the growing epistemology. This spiritually powerful female triumvirate is more than capable of the tedious and painful task of transmitting and preserving the sacred history and future plans for the American Indian culture.

The powerful and supernatural influence of Yoeme over her granddaughters cannot shield them from the hypocrisy and dangers presented by the contemporary American society in which they live. Silko's panoramic view of the Native American diaspora highlights an insidious yet forceful and highly programmed assault by Euro-Americans on the American Indian way of life. Shackled by restrictions and demands for mandatory assimilation, the Native American woman does not respond to this oppression in the weak and reactionary manner in which the Euro-American society has stereotyped her male counterpart. She does not resort to alcoholism or silence. Instead the mother-daughter unit is about the business of fortifying its ranks by enlightening the Indian masses. Old Yoeme speaks to Zeta and charges her with the responsibility of interpreting and keeping the notebooks containing information about the past which is integral to their future. She warns Zeta that nothing must be added to the manuscript that was not already there. Because of the assault of the American Indian culture, the need for secrecy is clearly transmitted from mother to daughter. Again there is the implication of the inaccuracy and distrust of the written word. The window of opportunity to embellish and distort the text is present, yet it must not be considered. Consequently, to assure that they are guarding and transmitting truth, Yoeme and Zeta must be in direct communication with ancestral spirits and the dead.

Yoeme teaches Zeta to communicate and to rely on the big bull snake. The notebook of the snakes is the key to understanding the rest of the old almanac. Yoeme had always consulted "the big bull snake out behind the adobe woodshed." The mystical and ritualistic conferences with the snake conjure elemental truths of being for the Native American:

[Yoeme] had her own picture of things. Snakes crawled under the ground. They heard the voices of the dead; actual conversations, and lone voices calling out to loved ones still living…. Snakes moved through the branches of trees. They saw and heard a good deal…. It [talking to the bull snake] was something Zeta did alone with her grandmother.

Zeta learns from her grandmother Yoeme that death is not final or the end of life; it is a part of the universal cycle. This circular orientation encompasses reincarnation. People do not die unless descendants lose memory of them. In the fall Zeta had watched her grandmother Yoeme pick up the big bull snake while it sunned itself behind the woodshed. Cradling the snake against her chest, Zeta understood that the big snake recognized Yoeme "because he lay quietly, only his tongue moving slowly in and out at Zeta." Zeta never discusses this with Lecha because words cannot explain how one talks to snakes. Because the snake does not actually speak, the information is transmitted in a higher, more spiritual form. The telepathy between the woman and the serpent contributes to the epistemology. Much of the information is already in the notebooks in code; the snake validates and provides information for the void. Communicating with the serpent empowers the mother-daughter pair supplying information for the survival of Native American culture. This operates counter to the Judeo-Christian myth of the serpent corrupting Eve in the Garden; rather than bringing sin and death into the world, this snake supplies positive knowledge for the Indian peoples through the women—mothers and daughters.

Once the notebooks are transcribed, Lecha feels that she will figure out how to use the old almanac. Then she will be able to foresee months and years to come. Interestingly, when Yoeme tells Lecha a story on the beach, Lecha writes the story on the blank pages of the notebook in English. Afterward, Yoeme demands to see it, for she is uncertain about Zeta's competence and intentions. Zeta waits for Yoeme to break into a fury, but instead she sighs with pleasure: this is the sign the keepers of the notebooks had long awaited. Transcribing this information into English marks the fusion of the present with the past.

Lecha recognizes that the almanac is a great legacy, and Yoeme and others believe the almanac has living power within it to unite all the tribal people of the Americas to retake the land. Finally, Lecha feels the life, energy, and power of the words; she recognizes her power and authority as female interpreter and purveyor of life. In "Discourse in the Novel," Mikhail Bakhtin discusses the world of "authoritative discourse," which is represented in Almanac of the Dead as the old almanac:

The authoritative word demands that we acknowledge it, that we make it our own; it binds us, quite independently of any power it might have to persuade us internally; we encounter it with its authority already fused into it. The authoritative word is located in a distanced zone, organically connected with a past that is felt to be hierarchically higher…. It is a prior discourse…. It is akin to taboo…. It demands our unconditional allegiance.

Because Yoeme believes that power resides within certain stories, the power ensures the retelling of the story, and with "each retelling a slight but permanent shift [takes] place." The story is given to the daughter so that she can know and actualize her role of histor; the importance of the story and its relationship to life is succinctly stated in the final entry of Old Yoeme's notebook addressed to Native American posterity: "One day a story will arrive in your town. There will always be disagreement over direction; whether the story came from the southwest or the southeast. The story may arrive with a stranger … or brought by an old friend…. But after you hear the story, you and others prepare by the new moon to rise up against the slave masters."

Convinced of the authenticity of the notebooks and the prophecy, Lecha becomes a conscientious guardian of that history. She is now acutely aware of her function in the mother-daughter dyad. After receiving much notoriety and money from her psychic predictions, the old and now cancerous Lecha hires the blond mixed blood Seese to help type the notebook. The fragments from the sacred notebooks address the importance of the narrative which facilitates the perpetuation of the American Indian culture. The mother-daughter pairing symbolizes the merging of past and present and undermines or minimizes the assault of the Western culture of the Native American people.

In Almanac of the Dead, Silko makes continual reference to the African American/Native American relationship. The Native American and African American cultures share striking similarities in many areas. Historically, the griot figure (histor) in the African society was male, and he transmitted knowledge of the past orally to subsequent generations. Like the Native American, the African followed a pattern of oppression and dispossession in America. The African male histor was replaced by an African American female. Understanding one's past is an essential element of empowerment, and both cultures understand the significance of the past and work to eradicate myths, distortions, and omissions in their respective histories. Most importantly, the common mission and agenda of the African American and Indian American peoples coalesce as a part of the final prophecy in Leslie Silko's Almanac of the Dead. In a section of the text called "Africa," Clinton, the central character, identifies the histor or African griot-figures in his life. Interestingly, they are also women speaking to other women/daughters. Clinton recalls the elderly women talking about the branches of their family, including intermarriages with whites and American Indians. One whole branch in Tennessee had married "Native Americans."

Throughout this section of the novel, Clinton validates the link between the African American and Native American female histor:

Clinton remembered those old granny women sitting with their pipes or chew, talking in low, steady voices about in-laws and all the branches of the family…. [He] remembered the old grannies arguing among themselves to pass time. The older they got, the more they talked about the past; and they had sung songs in languages Clinton didn't recognize….

It is important to note this similarity because Silko notes the interconnectedness of missions for the Native American and African American peoples. Almanac of the Dead with its heavily symbolic and highly allusive style presents five discrete narrative lines. Both African American and Native American cultures are represented by Damballah and Quetzalcoatl, two giant snakes. Quetzalcoatl is the winged serpent and god of amalgamation or expansion. The following is the sacred prophecy guarded by the Native American mothers and daughters:

In Africa and in the Americas too, the giant snakes, Damballah and Quetzalcoatl, have returned to the people. I have seen the snakes … they speak to the people of Africa, and they speak to the people of the Americas; they speak through dreams. The snakes say this: From out of the south the people are coming, like a great river flowing restless with the spirits of the dead who have been reborn again and again all over Africa and the Americas, reborn each generation more fierce and more numerous. Millions will move instinctively; unarmed and unguarded, they begin walking steadily north, following the twin brothers.

Silko refers to Native Americans and African Americans symbolically as snakes and "twin brothers." Native Americans and the earth (Mother) are also kin and have been ravaged by the Europeans. The parallels between both cultures and the earth are obvious, and the conclusion of the novel states the final prophecy and a call to action for a united effort by American Indians and African Americans.

To borrow Zora Neale Hurston's "mules of the world" metaphor, the tremendous burden on women gives rise to and necessitates a mother-daughter relationship of incomprehensible proportions. Using the appropriate media for maintaining and transmitting their sacred and important history, the designated female units in the Native American society labor to provide a pipeline for the people. 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. They hold the fortress after the male power has failed. In The Sacred Hoop, Allen and Ortiz present a society controlled by women: "In a system where all persons in power are called Mother Chief and where the supreme deity is female, and social organization is matrilocal, matrifocal, and matrilineal, gyarchy is happening. However, it does not imply domination of men by women as patriarchy implies domination by ruling class males of all aspects of a society."

Unlike Western society, a struggle for dominance between the sexes does not exist in Native American culture. The various ontologies and epistemologies depicted in Silko's Storyteller and Almanac of the Dead exhibit a strong sense of the reality of the Native American experience. Unfortunately, Native American culture has not been kept completely intact by the stories transmitted by and in the care of these tenacious mothers and daughters. The acculturation of the Native American into Western society has been a rather slow and painful process. Native Americans have courageously resisted total assimilation into Western culture and struggled to survive near extinction. For millennia the social system of the Native Americans has been based on ritual, spirit-centered, woman-focused world views. Consequently, Western culture has difficulty making sense of "who" these people are. The mother-daughter units constitute the complex and fluid Native American relationships which provide representative visions and voices "invoking the inestimable power of the earth and all the forces of the universe" to resolve and complete the Indian American mission of survival.

Further Reading

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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 Quarterly 5, No. 1 (February 1979): 71-5.

Evers asserts that "the special burden of the contemporary American Indian writer is that if he is to survive as an American Indian and as a writer, he must not only get his community but all of us to go along with his story," and holds that Silko has this ability.

Perez Castillo, Susan. "Postmodernism, Native American Literature and the Real: The Silko-Erdrich Controversy." The Massachusetts Review XXXII, No. 1 (Summer 1991): 285-94.

Discusses the issues that divide Silko and fellow Native American writer Louise Erdrich.

Sale, Roger. "Hostages." The New York Review of Books XXIV, No. 9 (26 May 1977): 39-42.

Reviews Anne Tyler's Earthly Possessions, Thomas Berger's Who Is Teddy Villanova? and Silko's Ceremony. Praises Silko's promise, but asserts that the novel wavers in the second half.

Shaddock, Jennifer. "Mixed Blood Women: The Dynamic of Women's Relations in the Novels of Louise Erdrich and Leslie Silko." Feminist Nightmares: Women at Odds, edited by Susan Ostrov Weisser and Jennifer Fleischner, pp. 106-21. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

Argues that the work of Silko and Louise Erdrich "is significant for feminist theories of oppression in that it posits strategies of resistance through language, specifically through story, and, in the process, retheorizes oppression itself."

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