Lullaby Essays and Criticism
by Leslie Marmon Silko

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The Theme of Cultural Loss

(Short Stories for Students)

Leslie Marmon Silko's short story "Lullaby" depicts Native American culture in collision with a white culture that has dominated and oppressed it. Silko's story illustrates the sense of loss experienced by one Native American woman at the hands of white authority figures. As the main character, Ayah, looks back on the most devastating events of her life, she mourns the loss of tradition, language, and family experienced by many Native Americans in the twentieth century. At the same time, however, Ayah, as many of Silko's characters, is able to combine traditional with modern cultural elements in order to make meaning in her life.

Language as a bearer of culture is central to Ayah's sense of loss throughout her life. The language barrier between Ayah and the white doctors who eventually take her children away is an important factor in Ayah's experience. Because she does not speak their language, she has no idea why they have come to her home. It is mentioned in the story that this was ‘‘back in the days before they hired Navajo women to go with them as interpreters.’’ This highlights the fact that the doctors did not bother to find someone who could have translated for them in order to explain to Ayah exactly what it was they wanted. Furthermore, she is unable to read the contract they want her to sign. She sees only that it is being thrust upon her in an intimidating way, and that they are regarding her children as an animal does its prey: "They were wearing khaki uniforms and they waved papers at her and a black ballpoint pen, trying to make her understand their English words. She was frightened by the way they looked at the children, like the lizard watches the fly.’’

Ayah has, however, learned from her husband how to write her name in English. It is in part because she is proud of this new ability that she signs the papers they put before her. "Ayah could see they wanted her to sign the papers, and Chato had taught her to sign her name. It was something she was proud of. She only wanted them to go, and to take their eyes away from her children.’’ The ability of the doctors to essentially trick her into signing away her children thus hinges on a language barrier in several ways. It turns out to be worse for Ayah to know a little bit of English (only enough to sign her name) than not to know any English at all.

This incident becomes a rift between Ayah and her husband, Chato. Chato has learned to speak English, presumably as a means of fairing better in a world dominated by whites, and so she blames Chato for the theft of her children by the white authorities: ‘‘She hated Chato, not because he let the policeman and doctors put the screaming children in the government car, but because he had taught her to sign her name.’’ To Ayah, learning English, or any attempt at assimilation into a white world, does more harm than good:"Because it was like the old ones told her about learning their language or any of their ways: it endangered you.’’ Ayah's anger toward her husband for learning English, and her selfrighteousness in the belief that assimilation carries no rewards, is expressed by her response to Chato being fired by the white rancher and kicked out of their house when he is deemed too old to work: "That had satisfied her. To see how the white man repaid Chato's years of loyalty and work. All of Chato's finesounding English talk did not change things.’’

The strong association with language as a bearer of culture—and the loss of language as loss of culture—is most poignant in Ayah's few brief visits with her children after they have been taken away from her. When Danny and Ella are first brought to visit her by the white woman, Danny is still fluent in his Native Navajo, and is able to maintain a sense of connection with his mother. The Native American home, as well as the Navajo language, however, is seen by the white woman as a negative influence, an unfit environment for the raising of...

(The entire section is 5,704 words.)