Style and Technique

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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.

Historical Context

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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
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

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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 exclusively Native American cast in all major roles.

The American Indian Movement
Silko' s story was written in the wake of significant political activism among Native Americans. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement led by African Americans, Native Americans in the 1960s began to exert increasingly organized efforts to overcome cultural oppression. The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1968 by four Native American men. AIM organized three highly publicized protests during the early 1970s, including the occupation of Alcatraz Island (in the San Francisco Bay) for nineteen months in 1969-1971; a march on Washington, D.C., in 1972; and a protest at the historical battle site at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, in 1973. Wounded Knee is the site at which over 200 Sioux Indians were massacred by U.S. troops in 1890, and represented the ultimate defeat of Native Americans by the United States. From February 27 to May 8, 1973, 200 members of AIM took over the reservation hamlet by force, in protest against U.S. policy toward Native Americans. The protest turned violent when the AIM members were surrounded by federal marshals, and a siege ended with the surrender of the Native Americans after two of the Indians had been killed and one of the federal marshals badly wounded. The AIM members did, however, win a promise of attention to their concerns by the U.S. government. AIM was disbanded in the early 1980s.

Native American Languages
One theme of' 'Lullaby'' is the language barrier between the Native American woman and the white authorities whose language she cannot understand. Silko's concern with Native American culture and tradition in the modern world encompasses a desire to preserve Native American speaking styles, if not the language itself. According the Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, there were originally as many as 300 different Native languages spoken in North America, before the arrival of the Europeans. In 1962, estimates accounted for about 200 of those still spoken. Although there is no clear understanding of the roots of native North American languages, linguists have categorized them into about 60 different language families.

Pueblo Indians
Silko's cultural heritage is part Laguna Pueblo Indian. Pueblo culture has been traced as far back as the first millenium A.D. The Pueblo Indians are known for the ancient living structures they built into the sides of cliffs, starting in the sixth century, and located in what is now the area of intersection of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. The most famous of these are located in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. According to Encyclopaedia Britannic Online, Cliff Palace, the largest of the remaining structures, housed as many as 250 people in 217 rooms. These were inhabited from the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, after which most Pueblos migrated South into what is now New Mexico. Silko's family are probably descendants of this original tribe. The total population of Indians in New Mexico, where Silko was born, is less than ten percent, and includes a large Navaho reservation, as well as Pueblo Indians living on land grants.

Native American rights
In 1978, The American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed by the federal government as a commitment to protecting and preserving tribal rituals, which are often tied to sacred ground in specific locations. In 1979, Congress passed the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, which protects Native American cultures from the removal of cultural artifacts by archaeologists and other collectors. In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) called for the return of thousands of sacred objects and human remains to their rightful tribal owners.

Setting

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"Lullaby" first appeared in Storyteller (1981), a book in which Silko interweaves autobiographical reminiscences, short stories, poetry, photographs of her family (taken by her father) and traditional songs. The book as a whole is concerned with the oral tradition of storytelling in Native American culture. Through a variety of formats, Silko attempts to reproduce the effect of oral storytelling in a written English form. She is also concerned with the transformative power of storytelling in the lives of her characters and the role of storytelling in maintaining cultural traditions and intergenerational ties, particularly in a matrilinear line from grandmother to granddaughter. Because of this focus, the physical surroundings of the action of "Lullaby" are not central to its narrative. The story begins with Ayah, an old Native American woman, leaning against a tree near a stream, reminiscing about some of the most tragic events of her life, as well as about the role of her grandmother in some of the most happy events of her life: "She was an old woman now, and her life had become memories." She recalls watching her mother weaving outside on a big loom, while her grandmother spun wool into yarn. She remembers her mother and the old woman who helped her give birth to her first child, Jimmie. Yet she also recalls the time the white man came to her door to announce that Jimmie had died in a helicopter crash in the war. Because Ayah could not speak English, her husband, Chato, had to translate the tragic news to her. As Ayah reminisces about her life, including the loss of her children, the eventual rift between her husband and herself, and other tragic losses, the narrative slowly catches up to the present. In recent years, Ayah and Chato have begun receiving federal assistance checks in order to survive—Chato would immediately cash the check and go spend it at the bar. In the present tense of the story, Ayah goes there to look for him. When she does not find him there, she goes out in the snow to search for him, and comes upon him walking toward home. When they stop to rest, he lies down in the snow, and she realizes that he is dying. She tucks a blanket around him and begins to sing a lullaby her grandmother had sung when she was little: "And she sang the only song she knew how to sing for 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."

Literary Style

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Narrative
"Lullaby" is told from the thirdperson-restricted point of view. That means that, although the narrator is not a character in the story, the perspective of the story is entirely from that of the main character, Ayah. An old woman in the present tense of the story, Ayah thinks back on key events in her life. The story thus interweaves the present time of the old woman sitting outside, then going to look for her husband at the local bar, with her memories from childhood through old age. The story is told in non-chronological order, jumping from one time period or incident to another and back again, reproducing the old woman's thought patterns rather than a standard narrative flow of events from beginning to end.

The Oral Tradition
In all of her work, Silko is interested in representing the storytelling style of the Native American oral tradition in the form of written English. Silko's narrative style of interweaving the old woman's memories of the past with her present circumstances creates a nonlinear narrative, in which thoughts and memories circle back on one another. Silko also represents elements of the oral tradition in the story's ending; when she perceives that her husband Chato, lying curled up in the snow, is dying, Ayah sings a lullaby that her grandmother used to sing to her. This is an important element of the story, because Silko is particularly interested in the ways in which the oral tradition is passed on from grandmother to granddaughter.

Recurring Motif
A motif is a minor theme or element that recurs throughout the story, gathering significance with each new appearance. The blanket is a key motif in this story, as it links Ayah with her grandmother and her dead son Jimmie, in addition to associations with both life and death throughout her life. The 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. Here, the traditional handwoven blanket made from scratch by the women in the family 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 at the end of the story, when Ayah wraps it around her husband as he lies curled up to die in the snow. 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.

The Lullaby
The lullaby that lends the story its title, and ends it, is central to the story itself. The lullaby represents the passing of oral tradition from generation to generation of women in the Native American family: ‘‘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.’’ When her husband is dying, this lullaby is the first thing that comes to her mind to sing to him as a means of comfort. The lullaby itself combines images of nature and family to affirm both in eternal unity.

Literary Qualities

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"Lullaby" is told from the third-person restricted point of view. That means that, although the narrator is not a character in the story, the perspective of the story is entirely from that of the main character, Ayah. An old woman in the present tense of the story, Ayah thinks back on key events in her life. The story thus interweaves the present time of the old woman sitting outside, then going to look for her husband at the local bar, with her memories from childhood through old age. The story is told in non-chronological order, jumping from one time period or incident to another and back again, reproducing the old woman's thought patterns rather than a standard narrative flow of events from beginning to end.

Silko's narrative style of interweaving the old woman's memories of the past with her present circumstances creates a nonlinear narrative, in which thoughts and memories circle back on one another. Silko uses her narrative to represents elements of the oral tradition even in the story's ending; when she perceives that her husband Chato, lying curled up in the snow, is dying, Ayah sings a lullaby that her grandmother used to sing to her. This is an important element of the story, because Silko is particularly interested in the ways in which the oral tradition is passed on from grandmother to granddaughter.

In addition to the focus on traditions of oral storytelling, Silko also uses motif—a minor theme or element that recurs throughout the story, gathering significance with each new appearance—to exemplify major themes in the story. The blanket is a key motif in this story, as it links Ayah with her grandmother and her dead son Jimmie, in addition to associations with both life and death throughout her life. The 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. Here, the traditional handwoven blanket made from scratch by the women in the family 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 at the end of the story, when Ayah wraps it around her husband as he lies curled up to die in the snow. 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.

Social Sensitivity

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Silko was part of a new generation of Native American writers who emerged in the 1970s in what has been termed the Native American Renaissance in literature. This particular story was written in the wake of significant political activism among Native Americans. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement lead by African Americans, Native Americans in the 1960s began to exert increasingly organized efforts to overcome cultural oppression. The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1968 by four Native American men. AIM organized three highly publicized protests during the early 1970s, including the occupation of Alcatraz Island (in the San Francisco Bay) for nineteen months in 1969-1971; a march on Washington, D.C., in 1972; and a protest at the historical battle site at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, in 1973. Wounded Knee is the site at which over 200 Sioux Indians were massacred by U.S. troops in 1890, and represents the ultimate defeat of Native Americans by the United States. From February 27 to May 8, 1973, 200 members of AIM took over the reservation hamlet by force, in protest against U.S. policy toward Native Americans. The protest turned violent when the AIM members were surrounded by federal marshals, and a siege ended with the surrender of the Native Americans after two of the Indians had been killed and one of the federal marshals badly wounded. The AIM members did, however, win a promise of attention to their concerns by the U.S. government. AIM was disbanded in the early 1980s.

In the context of the story, all of the major tragedies of Ayah's life are precipitated by the intrusion of white authorities into her home. The cultural oppression of Native Americans in general is indicated through the personal losses Ayah has suffered at the hands of white culture. It is a white man who informs Ayah and Chato of this loss, symbolizing the larger racial issue of Native Americans dying in service to a nation that has oppressed them. Ayah's coercion into signing away her children also has much deeper implications in the context of Native American history. The near-genocide of Native Americans by the U.S. government in the nineteenth century was in part characterized by the practice of tricking Native Americans into signing "treaties" that worked to their disadvantage. Finally, the rancher who employs Chato is another symbol of oppressive white authority. When Chato breaks his leg on the job from falling off a horse, the rancher refuses to pay him until he is able to work again. And when he determines that Chato is too old to work, he fires him and kicks the old couple out of their home to make room for new workers. These actions add class oppression onto the conditions of racial oppression from which Ayah and her family suffer.

Another major theme in "Lullaby" is the language barrier between the Native American woman and the white authorities whose language she cannot understand. The language barrier caused by her inability to understand the English-or Spanish-speaking white people adds to Ayah's experience of being taken advantage of by white people. When a white man comes to the door to inform them that their son Jimmie has died in the war, Ayah is unable to understand him; her husband Chato has to translate for her. The white doctors take advantage of Ayah's inability to understand English by bullying her into signing a piece of paper that gives them permission to take her children away. Although the children are occasionally brought back to visit Ayah, they eventually forget their native language, and can only speak English. The loss of their native language signifies the complete alienation of the children from their traditional Native American culture, as well as from their family. Silko's concern with Native American culture and tradition in the modern world encompasses a desire to preserve Native American speaking styles, if not the language itself. According the Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, there were originally as many as 300 different Native languages spoken in North America, before the arrival of the Europeans. In 1962, estimates accounted for about 200 of those still spoken. Although there is no clear understanding of the roots of native North American languages, linguists have categorized them into about 60 different language families.

Compare and Contrast

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1970s: Silko's novel Ceremony (1977) was the first novel by a Native American woman ever to be published.

1990s: Several Native American women novelists have risen into prominence, including Paula Gunn Allen, whose first novel, The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, was published in 1983, and Louise Erdrich, whose first novel Love Medicine, was published in 1984.

1970s: The Native American rights movement, first formally organized in 1968 as the American Indian Movement (AIM), was still in its early stages. Native Americans were concerned with such issues as the return of land stolen from them by the U.S. government, the return of cultural artifacts and human remains pillaged by white anthropologists and collectors and placed in museums; and the right to practice spiritual traditions on sacred ground, among many other concerns.

1990s: Although AIM was disbanded in the early 1980s, Native Americans in North America have met with some success realizing their civil rights demands.

1970s: Up until 1978, the U.S. government made little effort to protect the freedom to practice traditional religious ceremonies among many Native American tribes.

1990s: A number of federal acts aimed at protecting and preserving Native American cultures have gone into effect, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

1970s: There had never been a major motion picture written and directed exclusively by Native Americans, and casting Native Americans in all significant roles.

1990s: In 1998, Smoke Signals, adapted by writer Sherman Alexie from his own collection of short stories, became the first major motion picture written and directed by Native Americans, and features an (almost) all Native American cast.

Media Adaptations

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Running on the Edge of the Rainbow: Laguna Stories & Poems is a videorecording made in 1978 in which Leslie Silko shares stories and poems with friends and discusses the role of storytelling in Laguna culture. It is directed by Denny Carr in cooperation with the University of Arizona, Radio-TV-Film Bureau.

Native American Novelists is a videorecording of interviews with four Native American novelists, including Leslie Silko, N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, and Gerald Robert Vizenor. It was produced in 1995, directed by Matteo Bellinelli and written by Andrea Belloni.

For Further Reference

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Barnes, Kim. Interview with Leslie Marmon Silko. The Journal of Ethnic Studies (winter 1986): 83-105. Topics Silko discusses include, storytelling, the Native American oral tradition, and women's roles in Native American culture.

Danielson, Linda. "The Storytellers in Storyteller." Studies in American Indian Literatures (fall 1989): 21-31. Explores the narrative structure of Storyteller, with a particular focus on the character of Yellow Woman.

Hirsch, Bernard A. "The Telling Which Continues': Oral Tradition and the Written Word in Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller." American Indian Quarterly (winter 1988): 1-28. Offers an analysis of the ways in which Silko incorporates elements of the oral storytelling tradition into her written narratives.

Machann, Clinton. "Leslie Marmon Silko: Overview." In Contemporary Novelists, 6th Edition. Edited by Susan Windisch Brown. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996. Provides descriptions and brief discussions of many of Silko's works.

Ruppert, Jim. "Story Telling: The Fiction of Leslie Silko." The Journal of Ethnic Studies (spring 1981): 53-58. Considers Silko's technique of integrating aspects of myth into the realistic worlds she presents in her fiction.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Krumholz, Linda, ‘‘Native Designs: Silko's Storyteller and the Reader's Initiation,’’ in Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louise Bernett and James Thorsen, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999, pp. 63-86.

, ‘‘'To Understand this World Differently': Reading and Subversion in Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller,'' Ariel, Vol. 25, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 89-113.

Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth, On Death and Dying, New York: MacMillan, 1969.

‘‘Mesa Verde National Park,’’ Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, Checked 3/22/00.

‘‘New Mexico,’’ in Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, Checked 3/22/00.

‘‘North American Indian Languages,’’ Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, Checked 3/22/00.

Silko, Leslie Marmon, ‘‘Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective,’’ Beauty, Vol. 50.

Swann, Brian, Introduction, Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Literature, edited by Brain Swann, Berkley: University of California Press, 1983, pp. xi-xix.

Wiget, Andrew, ‘‘Identity, Voice, and Authority: Artist-Audience Relations in Native American Literature,’’ in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 258-263.

Further Reading
Brown, Wesley, and Amy Ling, eds., Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land, New York: Persea Books, 1991.
A collection of short stories by immigrant and minority authors that present alternative visions of America. Includes ‘‘American Horse,’’ by Leslie Marmon Silko.

Coltelli, Laura, ed., Winged Words, American Indian Writers Speak, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Books, 1990.
A collection of interviews with contemporary Native American writers, including Leslie Marmon Silko. This book is part of a series entitled American Indian Lives.

Gattuso, John, ed., A Circle of Nations: Voices and Visions of American Indians / North American Native Writers & Photographers, Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishers, 1993.
A collection of Native American literature and photography. Includes a forward by Leslie Marmon Silko.

Jaskoski, Helen, Leslie Marmon Silko: A Study of the Short Fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.
Critical essays that focus on Silko's short stories in terms of her representations of gender and the Southwest in the context of twentieth-century Native American history.

Nelson, Robert M., Place and Vision: The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction, New York: Peter Lang, 1993.
Discusses the works of N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, and Leslie Marmon Silko in terms of their representations of landscape. Covers Silko's novel Ceremony.

Ortiz, Simon J., ed., Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998.
A collection of essays by Native American writers on Native American identity and the writing process. Includes a chapter by Leslie Marmon Silko entitled, ‘‘Interior and Exterior Landscapes: The Pueblo Migration Stories.’’

Roalf, ed., Strong Hearts: Native American Visions and Voices, New York, NY: Aperture, 1995.
Described on the book jacket cover as ‘‘the first comprehensive collection of contemporary Native American photography.’’ Includes a photographic essay by Leslie Marmon Silko entitled "An Essay on Rocks.’’

Salyer, Gregory, Leslie Marmon Silko, New York: Twayne, 1997.
Includes biographical information on Leslie Marmon Silko, as well as critical essays on each of her major works.

Trafzer, Clifford E., ed., Earth Song, Sky Spirit: Short Stories of the Contemporary Native American Experience, New York: Doubleday, 1993.
A collection of short stories by Native American writers that focus on the contemporary experience of Native Americans. Includes "The Return of the Buffalo,’’ by Leslie Marmon Silko.

Velie, Alan, R., ed., The Lightning Within: An Anthology of Contemporary American Indian Fiction, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
A collection of contemporary Native American short stories. Includes "The Man to Send Rain Clouds,'' by Leslie Marmon Silko.

Bibliography

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Aithal, S. K. “American Ethnic Fiction in the Universal Context.” American Studies International 21 (October, 1983): 61-66.

Antell, J. A. “Momaday, Welch, and Silko: Expressing the Feminine Principle Through Male Alienation.” American Indian Quarterly 12 (Summer, 1988): 213-220.

Chavkin, Allan, ed. Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony”: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Danielson, Linda. “The Storytellers in Storyteller.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 5, no. 1 (1989): 21-31.

Dunsmore, Roger. “No Boundaries: On Silko’s Ceremony.” In Earth’s Mind: Essays in Native Literature. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Garcia, Reyes. “Senses of Place in Ceremony.” MELUS 10 (Winter, 1983): 37-48.

Hirsh, B. A. “The Telling Which Continues: Oral Tradition and the Written Word in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller.” American Indian Quarterly 12 (Winter, 1988): 1-26.

Jahner, Elaine. “Leslie Marmon Silko.” In Handbook of Native American Literature, edited by Andrew Wiget. New York: Garland, 1996.

Lincoln, Kenneth. “Grandmother Storyteller: Leslie Silko.” In Native American Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Nelson, Robert M. “Rewriting Ethnography: The Embedded Texts in Leslie Silko’s Ceremony.” In Telling the Stories: Essays on American Indian Literatures and Cultures. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

Sax, Richard. “One World, Many Tribes: Crosscultural Influences in Silko’s Almanac of the Dead.” In Celebration of Indigenous Thought and Expression. Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.: Lake Superior State University Press, 1996.

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