Leslie Marmon Silko

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Leslie Marmon Silko 1948–

American Indian novelist, poet, and short story writer.

Silko draws from the oral traditions and folklore of her Pueblo heritage to enrich her fiction and poetry and to convey Native American values and experience.

The portrait of the embittered, downtrodden American Indian, painted in much of the literature about Indian culture, is absent from Silko's writing. Although she recounts the abuse of Native Americans by white society, her work maintains an optimistic tone. Pride and awareness of their past provide her characters with confidence and strength.

Ceremony, her first novel and also the first novel published by a Native American woman, relates the circumstances leading to the breakdown of an Indian World War II veteran and traces his subsequent healing through ancient tribal rituals.

Charles R. Larson

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The world that Silko creates in Ceremony is essentially a masculine one. Her story centers upon an Indian veteran named Tayo immediately after World War II. Crippled by more than his involvement in the war, his story (and Silko's novel) becomes an elaborate exorcism of the past, a purification rite of all the emotional tensions inflicted upon him since his childhood. As the narrative weaves in and out of the past and the present—juxtaposing scenes from Tayo's childhood and adolescence with the war and its aftermath—a pattern slowly begins to emerge. Tayo's angst, his feelings of emptiness and aloneness, are less the result of his war experience than they are of earlier events in his life …

The war becomes an incredibly enlightening experience for Tayo—as it did for so many American Indians. For a time, he represses the implications of what he has seen. One episode becomes central to his confusion: the Japanese soldiers, whom Tayo was ordered to kill by his sergeant, look like his own people—especially his uncle, Josiah, who died while Tayo was away fighting. Back home on the reservation, after he is released from the veterans' hospital, whenever the darkness of his past intrudes he confuses his own people with the Japanese. What difference is there between killing the Japanese and white Americans slaughtering his own people down through the ages?

The ending of this powerfully conceived and often violent novel involves a purgation and an epiphany …

Tayo's experiences may suggest that Ceremony falls nicely within the realm of American fiction about World War II. Yet Silko's novel is also strongly rooted within the author's own tribal background and that is what I find especially valuable here: the numerous poems she incorporates into the text of her story, the rich use of traditional ritual, folklore and myth, the evocation of life on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation (where she grew up and now lives with her husband and children.) Ceremony is an exceptional novel—a cause for celebration.

Charles R. Larson, "The Jungles of the Mind," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1977, The Washington Post), April 24, 1977, p. E4

Hayden Carruth

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Did Leslie Marmon Silko have in mind the word tao when she named the protagonist of her first novel? It's a striking resemblance, tao and Tayo. And clearly Tayo, who is a half-breed of the Laguna pueblo in New Mexico, where he is scorned by many for his mixed blood (and where his name, for all I know, may be common), and who is moreover a war veteran critically deranged by his experience of jungle combat, is much in need of finding the "way." He does find it, after prolonged illness and misdirection. He finds it in the traditional but modified beliefs of his Indian ancestors. Hence the title of the novel, Ceremony. (p. 80)

[Tayo] seeks...

(This entire section contains 618 words.)

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purification in the ceremonies of tribal medicine men, to no avail. Only after a long search does he find an old Indian, a maverick and outcast, a man of mixed blood like himself, who seems to possess the real wisdom of the ancient beliefs that is parodied in the rites of contemporary traditionalists.

Ceremony, the old man says in effect, is not ritual, not form. It is the conduct of life; ultimately the conduct of the earth and everything on it, of all motion and change, of the cosmos. And by means of visions and story he lays out a real ceremony, a plan of action, for Tayo to follow. The climax of the novel, which comes appropriately in an abandoned uranium mine (our own mouth of hell), brings Tayo to a recognition of the genuinely ceremonial nature of existence, a recognition which saves him, and can save the rest of us, if we accept it, from participation in the unceremonious, straight-line, terminal progress of violence and death in our world … In ceremony—the ceremony of earth and stars, time and evolution—we are all one.

And so the rains return, the grass and corn grow again, the animals fatten. Is it familiar? We have read this before in many versions…. But here we have a new version, contemporary yet as deeply rooted as the rest, for running throughout it, interwoven with the narrative, are native American songs, legends, parables, a religio-cultural mythology in the fullest sense, i.e., relevant, charged with meaning, ancient and anonymous. Timelessness, history, and the present moment fall together in the perfect alignment they of course fundamentally possess, even if only a few artists attempt to represent it, and fewer succeed. (pp. 80-1)

Some readers, perhaps many, will be angered because, in spite of the vision of concord at the end, most of the novel makes no attempt whatever to soften the bitterness of Indian feeling against the thefts and betrayals of white colonialists; and I imagine some Indians themselves will dislike it because it does not soften either the disagreements in the Indian community today. Militants will find it too moderate, traditionalists too radical. For my part, these considerations are easily set aside. The novel has been a moving, important experience for me, as it will be also, I'm sure, for many others.

Still, it is a first novel. Like most first novels, unavoidably, it is ambitious, thematically very complex. And like most good ones it makes me wish the author had been able to save this story until her third or fourth attempt. Of course she couldn't; psychological and artistic necessity required the present work. Ceremony is flawed, especially in the first half, by narrative devices that seem too contrived and by occasional stylistic inconsistencies. But I'm sure Silko will write this story again. (pp. 81-2)

Hayden Carruth, "Harmonies in Time and Space," in Harper's (copyright © 1977 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the June, 1977 issue by special permission), Vol. 254, No. 1525, June, 1977, pp. 80-2.

Ruth Mathewson

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[In Ceremony] Silko demonstrates that she is a "saver"—of songs, religious rituals, histories, and stories of the Laguna Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. Her determination to preserve so much, however, makes great demands on the reader, who must exercise a selectivity the author has not provided. Theoretically, there is no reason why a work of fiction cannot accommodate both the curator and the scribe of a culture, but Silko, I think, has not found the proper form for combining these offices.

By "ceremony" she means the use of traditional tales to cure the grief and despair of her hero, to bless the land with fertility, and to exercise the ancient "witcheries" that threaten its people with violence and cruelty. This calls for a slow, meditative response to Silko's material. Yet at the same time she exploits popular fictional elements, raising expectations of speed and suspense that she does not satisfy.

The story itself is a good one …

Interrupting, or commenting on, [the novel's] events are chants and poems adapted from the folklore. Some are amusing, others frightening. Many, though, fell flat for me: I was unable to separate them from their familiar non-Indian associations….

These "poetic" passages consort oddly with a prose style reminiscent of long-forgotten novels of the '20s and '30s. Silko employs it all too often to achieve a gratuitous realism…. (p. 14)

Ruth Mathewson, "Ghost Stories," in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LX, No. 12, June 6, 1977, pp. 14-15.


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The literature of the American Indian is ritualistic. Its whole purpose is to establish a sense of unity between the individual and his surroundings, which include the landscape, the weather, history, legends and all other creatures. The very act of storytelling is a part of this process: sometimes its purpose is medicinal, to cure an illness; at the very least it is an act of discovery, a search for physic wholeness wherein nothing is left out.

Leslie Marmon Silko's first novel, aptly entitled "Ceremony," fits into this tradition …

[It establishes Silko] without question as the most accomplished Indian writer of her generation. Her achievement lies partly in the way she has woven together the European tradition of the novel with American-Indian storytelling. She has used animal stories and legends to give a fabulous dimension to her novel. These are set aside from the prose narrative and look like curative and ceremonial chants that are recited in hogans. All of these devices reflect the theme of the novel, which is that that war has made all people one….

Leslie Silko has avoided the easy sentimentality of treating Indians as morally superior to whites; indeed, she has Old Betonie insist that the whites themselves have influenced the ceremonies, and that such changes are necessary in order to keep them alive …

["Ceremony"] is one of the most realized works of fiction devoted to Indian life that has been written in this country, and it is a splendid achievement. (p. 15)

Frank MacShane, "American Indians, Peruvian Jews: 'Ceremony'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 12, 1977, pp. 15, 33.

Peter G. Beidler

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Ceremony will surely take its place as one of a distinguished triumvirate of first novels by contemporary American Indians. Like Momaday's House Made of Dawn and Welch's Winter in the Blood, it presents us with the characteristic protagonist of the contemporary Indian novel: the young Indian male who begins the novel confused and disoriented and who ends it relatively unconfused after reorienting himself to important elements of his family and tribal identity.

The major themes of the novel, then, are conveyed by Silko's account of what Tayo learns on his journey to recovery. First, that Indian ceremonies are not superstitious nonsense, but can help lost Indians discover a living response to the world around them. Second, that life itself is a "story" which will work itself out to the happiest ending only if the liver makes himself aware of the traditions and stories of his people, and thinks of himself as one of "we" rather than as "me." Third, that the white man is a land-thief and a life-destroyer, and that no Indian who chooses to follow the white man's way can avoid the witchcraft that brought the white scourge upon the Indians of this world. And, fourth, that if Indians are to survive they must become aware that they are of the earth, that they must be like the hardy breed of cattle Josiah imports from Mexico, a breed that can adapt to harsh circumstances and so find sustenance in a barren land. As Tayo learns these things, Silko's readers learn them also.

Ceremony will disappoint some readers. Some will find Tayo to be both too lacking in faults to be convincing and too weak to solve on his own the problems that beset him…. Some will wish Silko had made her women characters—perhaps the most memorable characters in the novel—more central to her story. Some will think that Silko is still writing short stories—loosely connected episodes—rather than a fully realized novel.

Ceremony, however, is a magnificent novel. It does what only the best novels do: it brings life to human beings and makes readers care about them. It conveys a loving respect for the problems faced by American Indians and a mature and sensitive feeling for some solutions to those problems. And, most important, Silko is brave enough to make her novel the kind of story she interjects throughout the narrative … Readers have a double reason to remember Ceremony, for in addition to being the story of a life, it is the life of a story. (pp. 357-58)

Peter G. Beidler, "Book Reviews: 'Ceremony'," in American Indian Quarterly (copyright © Society for American Indian Studies & Research 1978), Vol. 3, No. 4, Winter, 1977–78, pp. 357-58.

Elaine Jahner

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Ceremony is about the power of timeless, primal forms of seeing and knowing and relating to all of life. The concept of an on-going communal participation in stories that shapes individual freedom according as the individual chooses to participate in the stories' development serves as the novel's theme and structuring force. Readers must join the novel's characters in a search for the meaning of the story that is revealed bit by bit throughout the book as Tayo, the protagonist, gradually comes to realize that he is not alone in his effort to recover from the effects of active duty in World War II…. In learning to understand his conflicts, Tayo also perceives something of his responsibilities in shaping the story of what human beings mean to each other.

The theme of Ceremony is basic to much American Indian art and literature. Silko's realization of it in novel form is both unique and eminently noteworthy because she is able to choose the telling detail to evoke feelings that enable readers to relate to her tale…. Sensual evocation of meaning is Leslie Silko's main storytelling technique. She uses the technique with unrelenting toughness and power that is, above all else, the power of sensed order amidst seeming madness and despair.

The nature and quality of the order that guides American Indian life and art is what distinguishes both from other forms of life and art. It is Leslie Silko's profound and efficient understanding of the relationship between the tribal sense of order that is perpetuated through oral storytelling and those other models of narrative order—the novel and the short story that makes her a writer whose works enable Indian and non-Indian alike to understand that the traditional written genres can perpetuate some of the creative impulses that were formerly limited to the oral mode of transmission. The creative impulses have a character that is inimitably American Indian and what happens when they are realized in a universally experienced genre like the novel is perhaps best expressed through comparing two images. Much art deriving from western European roots adopts the perspective articulated in that famous line, "All the world's a stage." American Indian literature constantly suggests that all the world's a story. There are profound differences between the two perspectives and writers like Leslie Silko can help us begin to talk about and begin to understand some of the differences. (pp. 415-16)

Elaine Jahner, "All the World's a Story" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 51, No. 4, Winter, 1977–78, pp. 415-16.


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For Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna), the strength of tribal traditions is based not on Indians' rigid adherence to given ceremonies or customs but rather on their ability to adapt traditions to ever-changing circumstances by incorporating new elements. Although this theme is most fully developed in her … [novel Ceremony], it is also present in her earlier short stories, "The Man to Send Rainclouds," "Tony's Story," "from Humaweepi, Warrior Priest," and "Yellow Woman."…

The history of Silko's own Laguna Pueblo, influenced by many different cultures, provides insight into why she emphasizes change as a source of strength for tribal traditions. (p. 2)

The continuing strength of Laguna traditions and the ability of her people to use alien traditions for their own purposes are strikingly portrayed in Silko's story "The Man to Send Rainclouds."… The story deals with an Indian family's observance of Pueblo funeral rituals despite the local priest's attempts to cajole them into observing Catholic ones. Ironically, the young priest is trapped by the Indians into taking part in their ceremony. (p. 4)

Only after the Indian funeral rites are almost completed does the family feel the need for the priest's services—to provide plenty of holy water for the grave so that Teofilo's spirit will send plenty of rainfall…. Silko skillfully and humorously characterizes the conflict between the frustrated priest, who is denied the opportunity to provide the last rites and funeral mass, and Leon, who doggedly insists that these are not necessary….

Thus, Silko emphasizes that these Pueblo Indians have not abandoned their old ways for Catholicism; instead, they have taken one part of Catholic ritual compatible with their beliefs and made it an essential part of their own ceremony.

"Tony's Story" deals with the return to Indian ritual as a means of coping with external forces. However, here the ritual concerns the shooting of a state policeman by a traditional Pueblo who becomes convinced that the policeman harassing him and his friend is a witch. (p. 5)

In "Tony's Story," Silko uses the concept of witchcraft as power used improperly. She also uses many of the circumstances associated with witchcraft…. The all-too-familiar story of the brutal policeman out to harass reservation Indians is made far more complex by Silko's use of the witchcraft theme as well as by her use of irony….

The fact that Leon acts differently from Tony and from the others of his tribe indicates how far his experiences outside his pueblo have changed him. (p. 7)

Ironically, Tony, who advocated avoidance of trouble and who had objected to Leon's murder threats, shoots the policeman with Leon's gun and then takes charge of burning the police car and body. Tony calmly reassures the panic-filled Leon with the words, "Don't worry, everything is O.K. now, Leon. It's killed. They sometimes take on strange forms."… As the car burns, rain clouds form, signalling the end of the drought.

At the moment that Tony decides to destroy the witch, he becomes a self-appointed pueblo war captain—a role in which he later involves Leon. The war captains represent the twin heroes Ma'sewi and Uyuyewi, who appear in many Keres stories. The theme of the destruction of a witch by two young men is based on such exploits of these twins as their jointly killing two giantesses or as Ma'sewi's single-handedly drowning Pa'cayani, whose tricks brought drought and famine…. The hero twins in the mythic past would have been praised for their killing. The formation of rainclouds immediately after the murder seems to indicate that nature approves Tony's act, which has rid the pueblo of a menace. Nevertheless, Tony will be judged by neither Keres nor natural law but rather by non-Indian civil law. The conclusion of the story makes clear that the exorcism ritual is complete. What the conclusion leaves unclear are the consequences Tony will suffer for carrying out the ritual.

In "from Humaweepi, Warrior Priest," Silko presents the theme of the transmission of Pueblo religion and ritual through oral tradition. Here she focuses on the training given a young Pueblo boy which culminates in his initiation at age nineteen into the priesthood. The significance of the continuum of Pueblo beliefs passed down from one generation to the next is demonstrated both through the description of the boy's years of training by his uncle and his later telling his friend about a lesson taught by his uncle. Most important in this apprenticeship is learning to be part of the land and to express this sense of unity through ritual…. The lesson repeatedly emphasized by the old man is that "human beings are special … they can do anything."… As the years pass, Humaweepi unconsciously learns through observing his uncle's religious rites, listening to his stories, and following his example. (pp. 7-8)

By shifting the focus from ritual in the first part of the narrative to storytelling in the second part, Silko emphasizes that both are important to the continuum of oral traditions—that the traditions and the rituals on which these are based can die out if they become the exclusive property of only a select few who fail to transmit them.

The continuum of the oral tradition and the importance of storytelling are also demonstrated in Silko's "Yellow Woman." Here, however, the emphasis is on personal renewal, derived from experience outside the pueblo, rather than on mastery of religious ritual. Adapting the traditional "yellow woman" abduction tales to contemporary circumstances, Silko vividly illustrates the influence of these stories on the imagination of a modern Pueblo woman and the usefulness of the genre for explaining why this woman, and generations of women before her, would suddenly disappear with a stranger, only to return later with a story about being kidnapped. Many of the traditional tales emphasize the subsequent benefits which came to the pueblo as a result of these liaisons. (pp. 9-10)

Although Silko's "Yellow Woman" is based on traditional abduction tales, it is more than a modernized version. Silko is less concerned with the events involved in Yellow Woman's abduction and her subsequent return home than with the character's confusion about what is real and what is not. Underlying this is the character's identification with Keres legends and her temporary rejection of the confining monotony of life within the pueblo. (p. 12)

In all four of these stories, 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. However, Silko advocates a return to the essence rather than to the precise form of these rituals and traditions, which must be adapted continually to meet new challenges. Through her own stories, 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. (p. 15)

A. LaVonne Ruoff, "Ritual and Renewal: Keres Traditions in the Short Fiction of Leslie Silko," in MELUS (copyright, MELUS, The Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, 1978), Vol. 5, No. 4, Winter, 1978, pp. 2-17.

Edith Blicksilver

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[Leslie Silko] attempts in some of her short stories and poems to explore the conflict between traditionalism and modernity. Fortunately, she has been able to transcend the limits of her minority experience…. Her intelligence, sensitivity, and remarkably controlled narrative techniques have produced fictional characterizations that do not typify the simplistic vision of the racial conflict. Even her extremely personal, semiautobiographical poetic renditions avoid the sentimental stereotype, revealing instead a vibrant human being, comfortable in her natural environment while exploring the dimensional limits of her multifaceted role as a child, lover, wife, and mother. (pp. 149-50)

[Her short story] "Lullaby" describes the Anglo's exploitation of the Indian and the tragic consequences of forcing young children to choose between the old tribal reservation traditions and a materialistic, urban, sterile society so alien to their close-knit extended family culture. Unable to adjust, many Indians succumbed to disease, drunkenness, and despair.

Told from the point of view of Ayah, a proud and sensitive old Navaho woman, Silko's story gives us a sense of layers unexposed, mysteries unsolved, and we are reminded that the creative pen of a skilled craftsman can make movingly poignant even the most prosaic situation. She has avoided the literary dangers inherent in writing from an ethnic woman's point of view, never presenting a mechanical and collectivist view of a human being or subordinating the individual in his complexity and unpredictability to the service of some sociopolitical cause. Silko is able to extricate her powerful feelings for this individual from her sympathetic involvement with her as a victim of racial oppression…. Ayah recalls the loss of her beloved son Jimmie in the war, the sickness, the poverty, and the snatching of her remaining two small children by Anglo educators. After their time in the white man's school they return only briefly and feel uncomfortable in what now seems to them her alien and culturally backward world. (p. 150)

The flashbacks and flash-forwards are artistically challenging, but fortunately Silko has a gift for quick, distinct characterizations, so that they are not lost in the fast-paced fragmentally sketched events of the old woman's life.

The Navaho woman emerges as a victim of ignorance, exploitation, and superstition. (pp. 150-51)

Silko has used the impassive image of this Indian woman and the injustices she witnesses in her life to point an accusing finger at the white man who relegated her family to a reservation where diseases and alcoholism engulfed them, where they were refused the basic rights accorded other American citizens, and where they were relieved of their responsibilities as parents by being denied the control of their children's education. (pp. 151-52)

Ayah's stony silence masks a deep hurt, and because she copes she is admired, not pitied, by the reader. Like Hemingway's heroic characters, she has learned to endure with dignity…. Silko skillfully juxtaposes the spiritual and the material needs in life….

This old Navaho woman represents the transitional link between old and new. To see the future, one must look back to understand these people, who they were and what they are becoming. Native Americans possess a rich culture strongly suffused with love of nature and an understanding of their place as part of the harmony of the natural environment. They respected the power of nature because in their arid Southwest the tribe's well-being was largely dependent upon the whims of the winds and the rains.

The Indian woman had her place; shielded by her man she was secure within her circumscribed world, never questioning her identity…. (p. 152)

The Indian woman may not have been liberated according to modern definitions, but she knew her worth. Then life changed. A reservation environment and the white man's paternalism robbed the Native Americans of their self-esteem. The woman's role as wife and mother changed when her man no longer had freedom of movement, challenge, or self-determination in his life….

Perhaps one can criticize Silko because the story emphasizes the Indians' sorrows; the joys described are in the past. But this is her version of the Native American's present-day reality, and the old woman's heroic fortitude is the most sensitively delineated aspect of the characterizations depicted….

But what about the younger Indian woman? How has she adjusted to the liberation movement? Does she have a conflict between traditionalism and modernity? Leslie Silko describes such a woman, her link with tribal culture, and the demands of freedom in a short story called "Yellow Woman." (p. 153)

"Yellow Woman" relies upon religious symbolism, for it is the tale of a young Laguna Pueblo woman's casual love affair with a cattle rustler, who, she tries to convince herself and almost succeeds in believing, may be one of the ka'tsina mountain spirits that haunted the imaginative instincts of her tribal women since the beginning of time. Her hero is a mysterious stranger who may be a Navaho, but she never learns his origins or anything about his past, and this adds suspense to the relationship.

At first glance, the story can be interpreted as that of a contemporary, liberated Erica Jong heroine who leaves a devoted husband to satisfy her sexual desires with a handsome man whose name she has not even bothered to learn….

Upon closer scrutiny, the reader is soon made aware that the story was written by an Indian author steeped in tribal folklore traditions. The heroine remembers her beloved grandfather's fascinating tales about the ka'tsina spirit who lured the "Yellow Woman" to submit to his will, and she feels that this grandfather would understand why she had not returned to fulfill her duties as wife and mother.

Silko has performed an invaluable service for future generations of her people, who have only orally transmitted their folk mythology, by having her heroine tell a tale that her grandfather related to her. In this she is like those who wrote down the Homeric tales. (p. 154)

Silko's poetry also reflects this attempt to retain ancient beliefs, and she uses the mythology of her Laguna Pueblo people, especially the symbol of the coyote as creator-trickster, to explore the imaginative richness and beauty of tribal folk tales. The relationships between human beings and natural forces, the animal and the vegetable kingdoms, are subjects of a series of poems describing different types of love relationships. (p. 156)

Silko's close emotional union with nature and her respect for its power and vitality are evident in her imaginative dependence upon colors such as green and yellow, reminding one of Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill."…

In her poetry she expresses the Native American convictions that the earth is vital, that there is a spiritual dimension in which she rightly belongs. Therefore, she affirms herself in the spirit of the earth; in turn, the earth nourishes and inspires the creative talent within her.

And so Silko, who is both a sensitive poet and a fine fiction writer, uses nature and folklore to tell about the Indian woman's role as child, lover, wife, and mother. She writes with a deep intensity that sets her work apart; hers is an emerging talent from which we can continue to expect new and impressive work.

Her stories sometimes reveal a deeply felt sadness, an awareness that her once great culture is being lost or replaced by an Anglo culture that does not have the same respect for nature that hers had, and in some ways is morally inferior to it. She gives her reader a sense of what it is like to live in a cultural sunset, in a society to which she does not completely belong, to which she frequently cannot relate.

Of course, for the Indian of mixed ancestry the search for acceptance is especially poignant…. (p. 158)

Aware that her Indian culture is threatened with extinction, and even more because of its oral tradition, Silko is determined to preserve literary treasures for future generations. In the past, books by white writers either romanticized red men or pictured them as bestial warriors and ravishers of women. Historically, Anglo readers have had access to pitifully few authentic Indian authors, especially women. In recent years, creative Native American writers have finally emerged as eloquent voices for their people; and Leslie Silko is one of the strongest and brightest. (p. 159)

Edith Blicksilver, "Traditionalism vs. Modernity: Leslie Silko on American Indian Women," in Southwest Review (© 1979 by Southern Methodist University Press), Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 149-60.

Jarold Ramsey

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[To] my mind nobody has drawn on an Indian mythology with more grace and power than the Laguna writer Leslie Silko…. [Even] a cursory survey in Boas Keresan Texts of the originmyth episodes as told by Laguna and other Keresan Pueblo people will reveal the skill and tact with which Silko establishes and maintains a mythic pre-text for [Ceremony], the fictional story of Tayo, the disturbed Indian veteran of World War II….

Silko is no hidebound traditionalist as an artist, certainly, but nearly every page of the novel reveals her loving dedication as a fiction writer to the task of rooting Tayo's story of personal sterility in the old Laguna stories of Nau'ts'ity'i and the regeneration of the world through the recovery of her goodwill. Indeed the whole book testifies to the author's commitment to the native idea of "story" as a metaphor for the mysterious going-on of life itself. (p. 168)

The Indian idea of a world full of traditional stories impinging on one's own story is central to Silko's achievement…. [There is one] episode in this novel of wonders which will allow me to sum up, I hope, what I [believe] … about the interaction, for better or worse, of ethnographic scholarship and criticism, and about the extraordinary fusion of cultural inheritance and imaginative innovation that writers like Silko are beginning to achieve. At the end of Tayo's idyll at the cave with Ts'eh (who I suspect is old Betonie's granddaughter), she foresees death for Tayo and begins to weep. When Tayo asks why she is crying, she replies:

The end of the story. They want to change it. They want it to end here, the way all their stories end, encircling slowly to choke the life away. The violence of the struggle excites them, and the killing soothes them. They have their stories about us—Indian people who are only marking time and waiting for the end.

In an audacious move, the author here turns directly on us as Anglo readers, accusing us through Ts'eh of enjoying the story of Tayo's ordeal even as the Anglo aesthetic to which we subscribe is preparing the way in our imaginations, not unpleasantly, for the eventual tragic outcome of Tayo's entrapment and death. It is, of course, a telling comment on the tradition of novels about Indians by Anglo writers; but I think it is more than that, in context. I fancy it is Silko's declaration of independence, at least for this one novel, from the whole Western tradition of tragic fiction, ending in the heroic death of the protagonist: "the rest is silence." I imagine Silko to be saying, "If this is what you are expecting and wanting, reader, I am hereby refusing to gratify you, for I know a different literary tradition, an endless and sustaining story whose episodes are still unfolding for people like Tayo."

It is hard to imagine a more compelling instance of the freedom of the individual talent, affirming itself against the contrary traditions with which American Indian writers, like all writers in our language, must work. As scholars and teachers, we must be prepared to learn what we can of the old traditions, in order to be able to recognize and appreciate the free play of such talents. (p. 169)

Jarold Ramsey, "The Teacher of Modern American Indian Writing As Ethnographer and Critic" (copyright © 1979 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in College English, Vol. 41, No. 2, October, 1979, pp. 163-69 (and to be reprinted in his Reading the Five: Essays on Traditional Indian Literatures of the West, University of Nebraska, 1982).∗

James Polk

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Memory and invention are the stuff of Silko's storytelling. Although many of her stories [in Storyteller] traverse familiar territory—the dislocation of a disinherited people—her perceptions are acute, and her style reflects the breadth, the texture, the mortality of her subjects.

The title story, set in Alaska, establishes the theme of cultural conflict that dominates the book. The strongest story, perhaps, is "Coyote Holds a Full House in His Hand," a gently ironic tale of a wastrel of the Laguna tribe and his lackadaisical pursuit of a Hopi woman with deliciously fat thighs.

A continuing verse narrative is interspersed with the stories and establishes Silko's credentials: A member of the Laguna Pueblo, she grew up with "an entire history, entire vision of the world which depended upon memory and retelling…." Her skills were shaped by tribal stories and the photographs from Grandpa Hank's old camera that illustrate the book. Silko is more successful here, than in her well received novel Ceremony, as she explores connections between present and past, and spins the storyteller's ancient magic.

James Polk, "Books: 'Storyteller'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 8, No. 5, May, 1981, p. 72.

N. Scott Momaday

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"Storyteller" is a rich, many-faceted book. It consists of short stories, anecdotes, folktales, poems, historical and autobiographical notes, and photographs. It begins with the description of an old Hopi basket in which there are hundreds of photographs, all taken, presumably, at Laguna Pueblo, N.M., near the turn of the century. "The photographs are here," we are told, "because they are part of many of the stories and because many of the stories can be traced in the photographs." Implicit in this statement, of course, is the very notion of an anthology or even a random sampling, rather than a "story" as such or a sustained narrative. The book is a mélange. Here and there are moments of considerable beauty and intensity, moments in which, according to the central tenet of storytelling, the language is celebrated.

Leslie Silko … lived for a time in Alaska, and it evidently left a deep impression on her: the very best writing in ["Storyteller"] comes out of that experience. The title story, for example, is about a girl who lives with an old Eskimo man, a storyteller par excellence. When he dies, she is compelled to tell his story, just as he told it, slowly, entirely, for its own sake. Nothing must stand in the way of that commitment, that trust, that moral necessity. It is a lovely and haunting piece, not to be forgotten…. (p. 8)

[In] its poetic imagery, it conveys a nearly intuitive recognition of infinite distance and absolute cold. And the book also includes a poem entitled "How to Write a Poem About the Sky" on the same subject.

When Leslie Silko draws on her own Hopi Indian tradition, where it would seem she ought to be most at home, she writes to rather less effect, I think. The Laguna stories are there, to be sure, but they are, collectively, not quite so vital as one might wish. Some of them seem to disintegrate in the telling. "Toe'Osh: A Laguna Coyote Story" is a case in point. I'm not sure what the difficulty is here; the piece seems to proceed haltingly as the fragments of two or three unrelated (or, at best, loosely related) stories. Other stories have the look and sound of ethnography, rather than the lyrical intensity of oral tradition. The exceptions are notable. "Uncle Tony's Goat," is a fine bit of work. "Yellow Woman" is a remarkable mixture of folklore and sexual fantasy. Both seem familiar in the best sense; both are narrated in the first person.

At her best, Leslie Silko is very good indeed. She has a sharp sense of the way in which the profound and the mundane often run together in our daily lives. And her sense of humor is acute….

We must take such words as "storyteller" very seriously. And we must make distinctions. A camera is not a storyteller. Neither is a novelist or a poet, necessarily. In view of the title of this book, let us make a distinction here. Leslie Silko is a writer, one of high and recorded accomplishment. If she is not yet a storyteller, she promises to become one. (p. 17)

N. Scott Momaday, "The Spirit in Words," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 24, 1981, pp. 8, 17.

Simon J. Ortiz

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[Ceremony] is a special and most complete example of [the affirmation of knowledge of source and place and spiritual return] and what it means in terms of Indian resistance [to forced colonization], its use as literary theme, and its significance in the development of a national Indian literature. Tayo, the protagonist in the usual sense, in the novel is not "pure blood" Indian; rather he is of mixed blood, a mestizo. He, like many Indian people of whom he is a reflection, is faced with circumstances which seemingly are beyond his ability to control. After a return home to his Indian community from military service in World War II, Tayo is still not home. He, like others, is far away from himself, and it is only through a tracking of the pathways of life, or rebuilding through ceremony of life, that he is able at last to return to himself and to on-going life. Along the way, Silko, the novelist, has Tayo and other characters experience and describe the forces of colonialism as "witchery" which has waylaid Indian people and their values and prevents return to their sources. But Tayo does return, not by magic or mysticism or some abstract revelation; instead the return is achieved through a ceremony of story, the tracing of story, rebuilding of story, and the creation of story.

It is in this ritual that return and reaffirmation is most realized, for how else can it be. Story is to engender life, and Ceremony speaks upon the very process by which story, whether in oral or written form, substantiates life, continues it, and creates it. It is this very process that Indian people have depended upon in their most critical times. Indeed, without it, the oral tradition would not exist as significantly as it does today, and there would likely be no basis for present-day Indian writing, much less Indian people. But because of the insistence to keep telling and creating stories, Indian life continues, and it is this resistance against loss that has made that life possible. Tayo in Ceremony will live on, wealthy with story and tradition, because he realizes the use and value of the ritual of story-making which is his own and his people's lives in the making. "It is never easy," Silko writes; it is always a struggle and because it is a struggle for life it is salvation and affirmation. (p. 11)

Simon J. Ortiz, "Towards a National Indian Literature: Cultural Authenticity in Nationalism, in MELUS (copyright, MELUS, The Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, 1981), Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 7-12.


Silko, Leslie Marmon (Vol. 114)