The Theme of Cultural Loss

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 2111 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 children. The white woman ‘‘was frightened by what she saw inside (the strips of venison drying on a rope across the ceiling and the children jabbering excitedly in a language she did not know.’’ The last time the children visit, the almost complete loss of their native language signifies that they have become so assimilated into white culture that they cannot even communicate with their own mother. While Ella, the young child, stares at her as if she were a stranger, Ayah speaks "cheerfully'' to Danny. But, "When he tried to answer her, he could not seem to remember and he spoke English words with the Navajo.’’ With this language barrier, Ayah's sense of alienation from her own children is so strong that she does not even say goodbye to them. The loss of tradition which Ayah experiences at the hands of whites is conveyed in part through the motif of the blanket, which she wraps around herself at the beginning of the story, and around her dying husband at the end of the story. A motif is a minor theme or element which recurs throughout a story, gathering significance with each new appearance. The blanket is a key motif in this story, as it links Ayah with her grandmother as well as her dead son Jimmie. The blanket mixes images of traditional Native American culture with modern American culture in a way that becomes meaningful to Ayah. Silko' s work has often been noted for the ways in which her characters create meaning in their lives through such amalgamations of traditional and modern culture.

As she sits leaning against a tree watching the snow in the beginning of the story, Ayah wraps an old army blanket around herself for warmth. The blanket is a reminder of her son Jimmie, who had sent it to her while serving combat in war. Ayah recalls the day the white man came to their door to inform them that Jimmie had died in a helicopter crash. Although the blanket comes from the U.S. government, which is responsible for Jimmie's death, as well as the death of thousands of Native Americans in the nineteenth century, it takes on great significance for Ayah. The army blanket comes to hold great sentimental value, as it is a tangible reminder of Jimmie, whose body was never recovered. When she goes to look for her husband in the white man's bar, an environment clearly unwelcoming toward her, Ayah finds comfort in the old blanket: "The wet wool smell reminded her of newborn goats in early March, brought inside to warm by the fire. She felt calm.’’

Jimmie's army blanket also reminds Ayah of happier times, sitting outside while her mother wove blankets on a big loom and her grandmother spun the yarn from raw wool. Ayah's recollections of the making of these traditional blankets is expressed through rich, colorful imagery: "She watched them dye the yarn in boiling black pots full of beeweed petals, juniper berries, and sage.’’ The blankets themselves are described in terms of the warmth and comfort they provided: ''The blankets her mother made were soft and woven so tight that rain rolled off them like birds' feathers. Ayah remembered sleeping warm on cold windy nights, wrapped in her mother's blankets on the hogan's sandy floor.’’ The traditional handwoven blanket made from scratch by the women in the family also serves as a metaphor for the passing of the oral tradition between generations of women—just as her mother and grandmother wove blankets in a traditional way, so Ayah carries on the tradition of weaving a tale in the style of the oral tradition.

The old army blanket becomes even more significant in the end of the story, when Ayah wraps it around her husband as he lies curled up to die in the snow. Wrapping him in the army blanket given to her by Jimmie, while singing a traditional lullaby taught by her grandmother, Ayah combines elements of Native American tradition with important personal associations from modern culture in comforting her husband as he dies. In singing the lullaby, Ayah carries on an important element of Native American culture, as embodied in language. The singing of the lullaby while wrapping Chato in the blanket also clinches the metaphor of traditional blanketweaving with the oral tradition of song and storytelling. Ayah symbolically weaves the modern white culture (represented in the army blanket) with traditional Native American culture (the lullaby, and, by association, the tradition of blanketmaking). The motif of the blanket is an important element of this story because it expresses Silko's concern with the ways in which Native Americans can combine traditional with contemporary culture in order to create meaning in their lives.

Ayah's life is characterized by a series of traumatic losses of her family members at the hands of white culture. Loss of traditional culture, loss of native language, and loss of family are each brought about by her encounters with white culture. Her son Jimmie dies in a war, fighting for the U.S. government, the very government responsible for the destruction of his native culture. Ayah loses her two younger children, Danny and Ella, when they are taken away to a government institution. Their removal from the family home ultimately leads to their alienation from their native culture and language, as well as their family. Juxtaposed against these traumatic losses is the burial of two of Ayah's babies who did not survive. For Ayah, it was easier to accept the death of two of her babies when she was able to bury them in a traditional way on their native land than to accept the theft of her children by white culture: ‘‘It was worse than if they had died: to lose the children and to know that somewhere, in a place called Colorado, in a place full of sick and dying strangers, her children were without her.’’ By contrast, the burial of the two babies becomes an enactment of tradition and ritual that allows Ayah to heal from the loss:

She had carried them herself, up to the boulders and great pieces of the cliff that long ago crashed down from Long Mesa; she laid them in the crevices of sandstone and buried them in fine brown sand with round quartz pebbles that washed down the hills in the rain.

The death of Jimmie, and the removal of Ella and Danny from her home, thus, are her most painful losses because they represent not just the loss of loved ones to death, but the loss of an entire culture to the hands of white culture.

While the story ends with Chato's death, this is not the most crucial loss Ayah experiences in her relationship with her husband. Rather, it is their encounters with white culture which lead to alienation between them. After her children are taken away, and Ayah blames Chato for teaching her to sign her name, she no longer sleeps in the same bed with him. She even sleeps outside until winter sets in, her only comfort being the army blanket given to her by Jimmie. Ayah's feelings for Chato never recover from the trauma caused by the loss of Danny and Ella. Shortly before Chato dies, as they are walking together in the snow, Ayah looks upon him as a stranger, her sense of alienation from him is so great: ‘‘this man is a stranger; for forty years she had smiled at him and cooked his food, but he remained a stranger.’’ Nevertheless, Chato's death at the end of the story becomes the final episode in a series of losses Ayah has suffered at the hands of white culture: the loss of tradition, the loss of language, and the loss of family. As the old couple sit together in the snow, shortly before he curls up and dies, Ayah invites her estranged husband into the fold of the army blanket, symbolically inviting him back into the warmth of tradition and family that the blanket represents to her: "She offered half of the blanket to him and they sat wrapped together.’’ When Chato lies down and curls up in the snow, wrapping him in Jimmie's army blanket and singing a lullaby learned from her grandmother, Ayah symbolically reconciles all of these losses through a continuation of the oral tradition.

Source: Liz Brent, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2000.

Multiple Voices and the Ritual of Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

As one of the foremost authors to emerge from the Native American literary renaissance of the 1970s, Leslie Marmon Silko is challenged to blend Western literary genres with the oral tradition of her Laguna Pueblo roots. The result is a narrative grounded in two literary worlds, that of the Native American tradition and that of contemporary America. In her work, the past world meets the present in creative if not conflicting ways. Her collection of poems, short stories and non-fiction, Storyteller, uses mixed genres and voices in an attempt to put an oral tradition on the page. The resulting narrative mimics the give and take of oral storytelling and creates a unique reading experience. Silko strives to teach readers how to read this type of work, which is multi-voiced and culturally diverse. The second story in the collection, "Lullaby" harbors many examples of this multi-voiced, mixed discourse. In "Lullaby," the stories and memories of the protagonist, Ayah, enter into dialogue with the reader and initiate the creation of meaning through the act or ritual of reading.

Leslie Marmon Silko's main character, Ayah, in her story "Lullaby,'' watches "wide fluffy snow fill in her tracks, steadily, until the direction she had come from was gone.’’ In real time, the snow's falling spans only a few hours, the capsule of the story, yet in these hours we come to experience a Native American woman's grief process. In the western critical tradition, a reader might experience Ayah's stages of grief as formulated by psychologist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. Ayah follows KublerRoss's grief theory in the cycle of denial, anger, despair and finally reconciliation. Silko's special talent in "Lullaby" and the entire Storyteller collection is in drawing the reader into the text through an anticipated discussion, one that is grounded in a western tradition, such as the Kubler-Ross theory of the grief process, and then turning that discussion around so that it might express crosscultural goals. The resulting voice is a "mixed" discourse, blending a unique Native American voice and a Western Anglo voice that engages readers on many levels. As Ayah's tracks are filled in with snow until she no longer knows where she has come from or where she is going, so are the readers', as they disengage from a strict Anglo, or traditionally western, interpretive tool and encounter the text as both Native American and contemporary American.

Silko, in a talk entitled "Language and Literature from aPueblo Indian Perspective,'' said that"a great deal of the story is believed to be inside the listener, and the storyteller's role is to draw the story out of the listeners.’’ In the case of "Lullaby," the listener is the reader and must fabricate his or her own meaning for the text. The mixed discourse as a tool enables meaning making in a diverse population of readers and initiates the great challenge for Native American writers, which is to teach readers how to read this kind of work, both on traditionally Anglo and Native American levels. The ritual of reading, or the interaction of the reader with the written words, is likened to the storytelling event and is the event that creates meaning. Silko strives to help that meaning-making experience along in the entire Storyteller collection and in "Lullaby."

In order to grasp the idea of a "mixed'' discourse in "Lullaby," or one that engages and encourages readers on a variety of cultural levels, readers may enter the text at the end of the story with the poem or lullaby. The voice of the ending poem is not the protagonist's nor the narrator's. The voice is one of tradition, the great story of the world. In many ways, it is representative of everyone's story. Readers locate the story of Ayah within the universal story of the poem, and as they do, they discover that the voice also leaves room for the reader to read him or herself into the poem. In this act of discovery, readers are undertaking the journey Silko most wants for them. They are experiencing the narrative as ritual.

Reading as ritual is not an easy concept to understand. Paula Gunn Allen, herself a celebrated Native American writer, is quoted by Linda Krumholz in ‘‘Native Designs: Silko's Storyteller and the Reader's Initiation,’’ saying, ‘‘Ritual can be defined as a procedure whose purpose is to transform someone or something from one condition or state to another.'' Readers can use this definition of ritual to describe the stages of grief through which Ayah travels as well as what happens to themselves as they experience Ayah's losses. Through Ayah's progression of memories, readers experience stories as self-renewing acts of imagination, designed to keep cultures and identities from the tragic fate of being lost to memory. Ayah's children return to her and their home without their memory. They don't know their Native language; they have forgotten their history. They have been transformed in dangerous and negative ways. Their transformation elicits transformation for the reader. Krumholz, a Silko scholar, writes in To Understand This World Differently: Reading and Subversion in Leslie Marmon Silko's "Storyteller," that ritual ‘‘is the arena of the 'other' where the power of mystery supersedes the power of the social structure.’’ In other words, that which is foreign, in this case Native American, is given meaning through ritual. Readers experience Ayah's losses and her children' s loss and discover something about themselves and the world. Silko's power as author is through emphasizing not the story but the ritual of storytelling and of reading as the way of creating meaning for the Native American story. Ayah can journey through the stages of grief and arrive at reconciliation because of the stories she actively relives in her few hours in the snow. Her act of remembrance is ritual, and through this ritual her life has meaning. The reader's act of reading becomes ritual as well, which has the power to initiate deep cultural survival as he or she understands the necessity of the story's stories as avenues to preservation and survival of real culture.

As a part of Storyteller, "Lullaby" is in what has been called the "survival'' section. The section deals with the need for stories as a means of survival. In "Lullaby,'' Silko asks for an interpretation of white culture from the reader on conflicting levels. On one level, the Englishspeaking white community uses a language that takes away, that results in the loss of her children. Yet, this is the same language Silko chooses for her story. She uses English as a creative tool to comment on English as a destructive tool. Stories told or written in English are the ultimate tools of survival for the "other,'' or foreign one, as they use the oppressor's language to actively create meaning for marginalized lives. Mixing Native American voices and different genres with traditional western theories and writing in English allows the ritual of reading to shape multiple and rich meanings for the text.

The ability to glean differing and sometimes conflicting interpretations from the ritual of reading is what Silko relies upon in her narrative. According to Andrew Wiget in his article, ‘‘Identity, Voice, and Authority: Artist-Audience Relations in Native American Literature,’’ Silko can't write tradition because it will be misrepresented, misunderstood; neither can she create something utterly "Other," or foreign, from "her historical and cultural entanglements, because that space is occupied by Euro-American voices.’’ How does Silko navigate these challenges, which would seem utterly paralyzing? She denies a commanding narrative voice, which Wiget says, almost disengages her from a Western notion of authorship or author's authority, and allows the act of storytelling, not simply the stories themselves, create the narrative. She relies on a theory of reading, writes Krumholz in ‘‘Native Designs: Silko's Storyteller and the Readers' Initiation," "in which ritual bears similarities to certain reader response theories that describe novels as sites of change.’’ Silko's multiple genres and voices require that the reader read as ritual or fail to understand the goal of any storytelling which is the integration of action and change within the thread of commonality.

The narrative becomes an exciting and fertile place for Silko's readers. The readers' response to the text may be as simple as storytelling and the sacred act of memory preservation. This is ritualistic transformation, when the text becomes a time and place of possibility, where, in "To Understand the World Differently,’’ Krumholz says, a reader "may take imaginative risks that may transform his or her perception of the world.’’ Krumholz writes that the stories told in Storyteller and in "Lullaby," "depict the determination of Native Americans to resist the forces that are dismantling Native American families, traditions and interpretations.’’ The transformative goal of the text is to reveal this resistance and perhaps invite a reader, Native American or non-Native American, to actively take part in that resistance.

The transformation initiated through the ritual of reading takes different forms for Native American and non-Native American readers. Krumholz writes,"What serves as an act of transformation for a non-Indian reader may serve as an affirmation for an Indian reader.’’ In other words, as the reader creates meaning for the text, the meaning can and will be different for each reader. This, perhaps, is the finest example of the success of a "mixed" discourse; it is a text which allows the creation of meaning for a diversity of readers. A nonNative American reader may discover that English is an oppressor's language as Ayah, who prides herself in her ability to sign her name, then signs away her children. What should, conventionally speaking, be empowering, the utilization of language, becomes an instrument of oppression. For the Native American reader, the same illustration may simply affirm what the reader already knows and has experienced. The story offers a community to the Native American reader, as the nonNative American reader is simultaneously offered a new perspective.

The verb that is storytelling, that is the interaction of text and reader, is where meaning is made. The beginning of "Lullaby'' describes Ayah as an old woman whose life had become stories. This is what the text wishes upon readers, a life comprised of stories with which the reader constantly interacts. Ayah travels through her stories to her death. She dies, and readers travel to the end of her story, which becomes, in the words of the poem, a universal story. The song is a song of continuity sung by a dying woman about the living story of which she is simply one small part. Though Native American stories are rendered meaningless or simply unheard by traditional Anglo interpretive structures, the song is a great hope. As it embodies a multileveled discourse, it addresses a collective you, who is Ayah, who is Silko, who is every storyteller, every character, and every reader encountering and experiencing the text. ‘‘The earth is your mother, she holds you. The sky is your father, he protects you.'' With the poem, readers are placed in space, the space in which stories are created and recreated. English, which has been the oppressor's language is taken back by the "other," or the foreign one, as means of empowerment. Language is honored as having the power to create and transform reality, a power Brian Swan in his introduction to ‘‘Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Tradition,’’ describes as "generative," a ‘‘sacrament.’’ The power of the word translates to the reader and effects change in his or her own perspectives. The readers' perspectives are then freed in the literary dialogue.

The discourses, ethnicities, and various "I's" that are carried to the story as author, character and reader, are, as the ending poem promises,"together always.’’ Readers are warned and encouraged to believe in the power of the story, which is echoed in Silko's affirmation that these voices and stories were always enmeshed, that ‘‘there was never a time when this was not so.’’ The great hope of the entire Storyteller collection is that there will never be a time when this is not so as readers learn to read themselves toward a deeper meaning of texts written in multiple and rich voices.

Source: ErikaTaibl, for Short Stores for Students, Gale, 2000.

The Relationship Between Language and Power

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In Leslie Marmon Silko' s lyrical short story "Lullaby,’’ Ayah, an aged Navajo woman, reflects back on her life as she trudges through a snowstorm to retrieve her husband Chato from the bar where he is drinking away their monthly welfare check. Silko's writing balances tragedy against beauty; loss and bitterness scar Ayah's life, but she is sustained by a spiritual connection with nature and its cycles of generational continuity. In "Lullaby," as in many of her works, Silko celebrates the strength of Native American cultures through mixing genres and including aspects of traditional oral forms in her writing. "One of Silko's purposes... is to stress the continuity of her literary work with the oral tradition that she had absorbed'' from her grandmother and other family members, writes William C. Clements in his entry on Silko for the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "Lullaby" celebrates the purity and power of Ayah's connection to her Navajo heritage even as it reveals the costs of her powerlessness in the context of the larger Anglo-American society.

Silko is herself an unapologetic "half-breed." Of white, Mexican, and Native American (Laguna) descent, she has always occupied two cultural worlds and negotiated between them. Raised on a reservation, she was educated at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school and a private Catholic one. Even as these non-Natives trained her mind, she was equally influenced by the stories and traditions passed down by her family and the Laguna community around her. In several of her works, most notably her acclaimed novel Ceremony, blending between Anglo and Native cultures is represented as a strength and a form of survival. It makes sense that someone with Silko's personal history would reflect this view, and her work itself offers an example of such cultural blending. In Ceremony she transforms the Western literary form of the novel by injecting Native American concepts of nonlinear plot and by integrating examples of Native American oral culture. Storyteller, the collection in which "Lullaby'' appears, is another example of multi-generic blending—it mixes poetry, fiction, and photographs and melds Anglo and Native forms and aesthetics.

In Ceremony the protagonist is, like Silko, of mixed ethnic heritage and reflects a hybrid cultural consciousness, capable of understanding both Native American and Anglo sensibilities. But in "Lullaby" Silko lets English-speaking readers inside the mind of a woman who is thoroughly enclosed within traditional Native American belief systems and is highly suspicious not only of the mainstream Anglo society, but of those, like her husband, who try to straddle the two worlds. The majority of the story involves the sundering of Ayah's connections to her family members by the intrusion of a larger and more powerful AngloAmerican culture. At each point, the English language is significant in breaking the bond that ties Ayah and her family together through their Navajo cultural heritage. In Ayah's mind, the destructive force of Anglo culture is represented most clearly by English. "It was like the old ones always told her about learning their language or any of their ways: it endangered you.'' While Chato is proud of his mastery of English, thinking that it will bring him power in the white man's world, Ayah sees that it is otherwise. She sees that while it gets him a job, it does not protect him from his white employer's exploitation of him as a worker or prevent his betrayal and their poverty once Chato becomes too old to work. Even the government welfare check leads only to Chato's drunkenness. ‘‘All of Chato's fine-sounding English talk didn't change things.’’

Language is also pivotal in the Ayah's experience of the loss of her children. When her first son, Jimmie, dies in war, the news comes by means of"a man in a khaki uniform trimmed in gold’’ who ‘‘gave them a yellow piece of paper’’ and told them—in English, of course—that Jimmie was dead. Chato translates for his wife, saying '‘‘Jimmie isn't coming home anymore,' and when he spoke, he used the words to speak of the dead.'' The report of Jimmie's death reveals the chasm between Native and Anglo ways of speaking—and, thus, thinking— of the dead. Because of the way he died and the way the news reached her, the death doesn't feel real to Ayah. Mediated by distance, government institutions, and a foreign language, it isn't part of the rhythm of life and death that she knows and has a spiritual way of coping with."It wasn' t like Jimmie died. He just never came back.''

English is even more central to Ayah's loss of her two remaining children, Danny and Ella, who are taken into custody by a government agency when they test positive for tuberculosis. She is afraid of the doctors who come ‘‘wearing khaki uniforms and they waved papers at her and a ballpoint pen, trying to make her understand their English words.’’ In an attempt to get them to leave her alone, she signs her name on the forms that give them the legal right to take the children away. She blames Chato for having taught her to write her name and refuses to sleep next to him for many years thereafter. The children both survive the sickness, but they are never returned to Ayah's care. Due to prejudice and poverty, she is quietly deemed unfit. Meanwhile, during their brief visits, she feels her children slip away from her and from the land and language that give Ayah's life meaning. ‘‘She knew they were already being weaned from these lava hills and this sky,’’ she thinks after their first visit home. On their last visit, when Ayah speaks to him, Danny "could not seem to remember and he spoke English words mixed with the Navajo.'' This loss to Anglo culture is ‘‘worse than if they had died'' for Ayah. She had lost babies in infancy and buried them in the nearby hills. ‘‘She had carried them herself ... [and] laid them in the crevices of sandstone and buried them in fine quartz pebbles that washed down the hills in the rain. She had endured it because they had been with her. But she could not bear this pain.''

For Ayah, life is a cycle. At the beginning of the story she reaches out to the snow ‘‘like her own babies did’’—an old woman, near death, becoming like a baby again. This snow reminds her of "new wool-washed before the weaver spins it'' and carries her back in memory to the wool that she watched her grandmother spin long ago, when she was young. Nature, the earth and sky, represent continuity with the past—with her heritage, the generations before her, and the beloved dead. Thus death, for her, is not an absolute loss. The Englishspeaking world—which her husband partially inhabits—robs her of this sustaining continuity, bringing about losses that are more profound than even death.

The story ends with the lyrics of a traditional lullaby, which Ayah sings to her estranged husband as he, passed out in drunkenness, freezes to death under the transcendently beautiful night sky. This lullaby has simple lyrics but a complex status in the context of the story that proceeds it. The lullaby is, at once, a sincere tribute to Native American cultural continuity and an ironic statement about all that Ayah has lost. Intended to lull a baby to sleep, it lulls a man to death. ‘‘The earth is your mother, / she holds you. / The sky is your father, / he protects you,’’ it begins. On the one hand, this is true. In death, Chato is not lost to Ayah as radically as Jimmie, Danny, and Ella are. He is with her. The earth on which Chato lies and the freezing sky above him, with the "purity of the half moon and the stars’’ and the ‘‘strength of the stars in Orion’’ usher him gently beyond his hopeless life, so compromised by his concessions to Anglo ways. His death is, thus, a kind of return to her.

‘‘We are together always / We are together always / There was never a time / when this / was not so.’’ These words are both true—in a spiritual sense, Chato and Ayah have reconciled—and heartwrenchingly false. Ayah has lost all of her family and is now alone in the world, a world in which being ‘‘together always,’’ through the perpetual cycle of birth, life, and death, is no longer so. Mother and child, husband and wife, people and land, are wrenched apart by the belief systems and power associated with the English language. Even as Silko reaches toward a sense of continuity and resolution by closing the story with the lullaby, the lyrics' ironies underscore the story's themes of discontinuity and loss. And, given Ayah's feelings toward the treacherous nature of the English language, it is even more ironic that Silko translates the Navajo lullaby into English for the benefit of her largely Anglo reading public. While many readers and critics—Anglo and Native American alike— may appreciate Silko's cultural translation of Ayah's experience and her literal translation of the lovely Navajo lullaby, it is just this kind of translation that Ayah would believe has broken her family and her heart.

Source: Sarah Madsen Hardy for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2000.


Critical Overview