Style and Technique
The mode of the story is lyrical. There is only one sentence of direct discourse, and the story’s movement follows Ayah’s consciousness through association of images as she moves forward in her journey to find Chato while drifting back in thought to earlier days.
The story’s imagery relates directly to Navajo traditions and culture. The Yeibechei are spiritual beings, called “holy people.” They are powerful individuals who inhabit sacred mountains, springs, and other holy sites, and who are called on in ceremonies, especially rituals for healing the sick or injured. A Yeibechei song is a sacred song, a part of such a healing ritual, and when Ayah hears the wind singing such a song, it signifies that her story may be understood as a healing ritual. The lullaby at the end of the story echoes the form of many healing songs in its structure of verse and repetition as well as in imagery of earth mother and sky father, rainbow sister and wind brother. Ayah’s elegy concludes with a return to the healing song and a reconciliation on many levels.
Concepts of return and circularity also recur in Navajo thought and iconography. The hogan is a roughly circular dwelling, constructed as a microcosm of the round earth. Pathways and motion are also important. The ideal life is conceived as a journey along the correct, fruitful, beautiful road, often pictured as a rainbow, which will take the individual back to the original—that is, the perfect—harmonious balance with the universe.
As she follows her path in search of Chato, to bring the two of them back to their earliest and final home, Ayah twice makes inward observations about her and Chato’s boots, first comparing her worn rubbers to the beautiful elk and buckskin leggings and moccasins that the people formerly had, then chuckling inwardly at Chato’s worn and sock-stuffed boots “like little animals.” Animals also figure significantly in Navajo thought and iconography. The comparison of Ayah to a spider is ironic, for while the men at the bar feel contempt for the creature, the spider, often portrayed as Grandmother Spider, is a revered figure of wisdom for the peoples of the Southwest. Life with animals—sheep, goats, horses, and cattle—had sustained the traditional way of life, yet the natural world can be as harsh as the human one: The hawk circling over Ayah and her children as they hide parallels the government authorities who will return inexorably to take the children away. Animals, like the Yeibechei, are neither good nor evil but are terrible in their power: At the end of the story, Ayah sees the clouds as horses in the sky, figures of tremendous beauty and power, bringing strength and death at once.
The Native American Literary Renaissance
A new generation of Native American writers emerged in the 1970s in what has been termed the Native American Renaissance in literature. Prominent writers of this generation include Leslie Silko, Paula Gunn Allen (b.1939), Louise Erdrich (b. 1954), Scott Momaday (b. 1934), James Welch (b. 1940), and others. Silko was in fact the first Native American woman ever to publish a novel. Erdrich's novel Love Medicine and Allen's novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows have been compared to those of Silko in terms of their perspective on tradition and their portrayal of issues around gender in Native American culture.
Sherman Alexie (b. 1966) has become one of the most prominent Native American writers of the generation following that of Silko. Alexie's output includes collections of poetry (The Business of Fancydancing), short stories (The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven), and novels (such as Indian Killer). Alexie adapted his short story collection to the screen, in a 1998 film production entitled Smoke Signals. Smoke Signals was directed by Native American Chris Eyre and features the Native American actor Gary Farmer. It was the first major film exclusively written and directed by Native Americans and featuring an...
(The entire section is 4,882 words.)