The Man to Send Rain Clouds

by Leslie Marmon Silko

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The Man to Send Rain Clouds Themes

The three main themes in “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” are cultural survival, the power struggle between cultures, and the importance of ritual.

  • Cultural survival: The story is a parable of cultural endurance, demonstrating how Native American religions have survived by incorporating new elements from other cultures.
  • The power struggle between cultures: The story is about the power struggle between the Pueblo and the white world.
  • The importance of ritual: Ritual is important to the characters in the story, both for its practical purposes and for its role in cultural identity.

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Themes and Meanings

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The title “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” demarcates the cultural divide between its Native American protagonists and Father Paul; in the priest’s Christian world, only God can send rain clouds, but in the Pueblo world, it is every man’s task hereafter to speak to the cloud people and ask them to make rain for the living. From their positions on either side of this cultural divide, the characters enact an episode in the power struggle between the Pueblo and the white world. The struggle has evolved into a ritual not of confrontation, but of assertion of dominance met by strategies of subversion, evasion, and adaptation that not only maintain the Pueblo way but also warrant analogous subversion and adaptation of form by the writer, in order to make the short story accommodate her cultural stance.

In this brief tale of Teofilo’s burial and transformation to the man to send rain clouds, Leslie Marmon Silko has rewritten one of the dominant narratives of the Encounter—the conversion of native people to Christianity—to demonstrate the means by which Native American religions (and the cultures from which they are inseparable) have survived. Silko has made the story a parable of cultural endurance, not by rendering belief and ritual in ethnographic or archival detail but by tracing the growth and renewal of the traditional ceremony by incorporating new and useful elements from the Roman Catholic ritual. The story anticipates the principle in Silko’s novel Ceremony (1977), where the ceremony that leads to the cure for the main character is a hybrid of an ancient Scalp Ceremony that incorporates new elements.

Ironically, Father Paul is the agent of innovation in the Pueblo ceremony, in spite of his unwillingness and his failure to understand the success and significance of his own actions. The cultural distance between the priest and the Pueblo is skillfully defined and manipulated in the first conversation between Father Paul and Leon, who turns aside his inquiry about Teofilo (and his pastoral care) with the assurance that everything is all right. Believing Teofilo to be alive, the priest tries to manage Leon and his supposed authority over Teofilo by telling him that an old man like Teofilo should not be left at the sheep camp alone. He misconstrues the status of the elder among his clan members and misunderstands their attitude toward death, which the Pueblo characters find (as their response to Teofilo’s death implies) welcome, natural, and not to be feared or avoided.

Leon replies, in truth, that he will not do that any more. The priest does not pick up the strong suggestion that Teofilo is dead, much less appreciate the humor in being deceived by the truth. Father Paul assumes that Leon can assume an authority over Teofilo that he does not have, warranted in part by the authority that Father Paul assumes he has over Leon. Father Paul, assuming he has made himself clear, congratulates Leon and encourages him to come to Mass on Sunday and to bring Teofilo. The ironies continue to build; Leon understands not what Father Paul wants him to, but what Father Paul does not understand, that Teofilo is dead, that Father Paul is not wanted for the funeral, and that inviting Teofilo to Mass the following week is a serious mistake.

The story’s climax places Father Paul, however momentarily, between the Christian and Pueblo cultures. His action has permitted the Roman Catholic element to serve in the Pueblo ceremony, contrary to his church’s doctrines, and could result in the priest’s own conversion, as it were, to a position from which he might better understand the people to whom he ministers. At the climax of Father Paul’s presence in the story, the water he sprinkles disappears “almost before it touched the dim, cold sand,” a phenomenon that “reminded him of something—he tried to remember what it was, because he thought if he could remember he might understand this.” He might have remembered that, among the Pueblo, the living feed the dead, putting pinches of food in a bowl for them to feast on; and so might he have understood the disappearance of the water, and the subsequent swirling away of the corn meal and pollen from the blanket, as a successful offering.

Father Paul seems on the verge of understanding the water’s almost supernatural vanishing. It is inconceivable to him that his Christian ceremony would have an altogether different effect from that of bestowing grace and purification, in a ceremony he would regard as pagan and demoniac. He does not consider the import of Leon’s invitation, that the people acknowledge that his holy water has power to serve vital, pragmatic ends, and that they regard him as custodian of that power. He does not recognize that his medicine has succeeded.

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