Overview of "The Man to Send Rain Clouds"

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Her work widely anthologized, Leslie Marmon Silko is considered the preeminent Native-American woman novelist, a legend in her achievements in the field of Native-American literature. Her writings are included in the syllabus of various American literature courses in high schools and colleges. Raised on the Indian reservation in Laguna, New Mexico, she incorporates into her writing the stories, myths, and legends she heard as she grew up. Of Pueblo, Mexican, and white descent, she was both an insider and outsider in Laguna, and this makes her an interesting chronicler of stories about modern-day life on the reservation. In an interview she has stated: ‘‘Oral literatures of the indigenous populations worldwide contain (these) kind of valuable insights ... You can look at the old stories that were told among the tribal people here in a north country and see that within them is the same kind of valuable lessons about human behavior and that we need them still.’’ In the Pueblo community, all education is achieved in a verbal, narrative form, and when Silko began writing at the University of Mexico, stories came naturally to her. She has said, ‘‘[The] professor would say, now you write your poetry or write a story; write the way you know, they always tell us. All I knew was my growing up at Laguna, recalling some other stories that I had been told as a child.''

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It was at the University of New Mexico that she wrote her first story, ‘‘The Man to Send Rain Clouds,'' which won her a Discovery grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The story is based on an incident she had heard of in Laguna, that an old man had been found dead in a sheep camp and had been given a traditional Indian burial, and that the local Catholic priest had resented the fact that he had not been called in. Having based her first work of short fiction on this incident, ‘‘The Man to Send Rain Clouds’’ brought Silko recognition and established her as a promising Native-American author.

Silko claims that Pueblo narratives are lean and spare because so much of what constitute the stories is shared knowledge. Although the larger audience for ''The Man to Send Rain Clouds'' has no shared knowledge of the landscape or rituals, Silko still chooses to use the lean narrative mode, as the themes are universal and can be understood by any audience. But an understanding of the Pueblo burial customs gives an added dimension to an understanding of the story. In Pueblo culture, it is believed that neglect of tribal rituals can result in death and sickness, because the ghost returns without blessings, having been unable to enter the other world. To avoid this unhappy prospect, a prayer feather is attached to the hair of the deceased, and his face is painted so that the he will be recognized in the next world. These tasks are ordinarily performed by the village Shaman (religious priest), while corn meal is offered to the wind and water is sprinkled on the grave so that the spirit has nourishment on its journey to the other world. The ceremony concludes with the prayer, ''Send us rain clouds.’’ Familiarization with the landscape inhabited by the Pueblo Indians further enhances the reader's understanding of ''The Man to Send Rain Clouds,’’ for as Silko has written elsewhere, the landscape sits in the center of Pueblo belief and identity.

A character in Silko's later novel, Ceremony, says, ''At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong....’’ Scholar A. LaVonne Ruoff sees this theme as central to ‘‘The Man to Send Rain Clouds.’’ Leon's strength lies in his creative combination of traditional Indian rituals with Catholic ritual. He does not strictly follow the Indian ways but adds a new element by asking the Catholic priest to sprinkle holy water at Teofilo's burial service, at his wife Louise's suggestion. Through this story, Silko emphasizes that the continuing strength of Pueblo traditions lies in the ability of the people to incorporate alien elements for their own purposes. Leon continues to follow the Pueblo rites and persuades the Father Paul to participate in them, as well. Per Seyersted sees the story as an example of Silko's dual vision as both a Pueblo and as a mixed-blood person who has the ability and freedom to see Laguna from the outside. Linda Danielson sees the sense of community in the story as central to understanding it, and views it in terms of Father Paul's entry into the community through the flexibility and power of Indian ritual, which assures the continuance of life.

In addition to these themes, the story also treats an indigenous community's encounters with Christianity. I use the word "indigenous" in the sense that Silko defines it in an interview. She says, ''When I say indigenous people I mean people that are connected to the land for, let's say, a thousand or two thousands years.’’ She further adds that one can see similarities in some of the struggles of indigenous peoples in Africa, in the Americas, and in Asia. This is exemplified in the part of the story in which Father Paul is depicted as bewildered by the incorporation of Catholic ritual in an Indian ceremony. Although the reservation Indians are Catholic, they retain pagan rituals and customs. In author Robin White's works one addresses a similar theme in her works about the American missionary experience in India. In White's novel House of Many Rooms, a missionary is at first bewildered by his reception by Christianized natives who use Hindu rituals. He refuses to accept the native Christian priest's hospitality, as his own Western notion of Christianity is offended. Later he ends up being a good friend of the native priest and becomes part of the Christian community in India. Further parallels can be drawn between the history of Christianity in other indigenous cultures, in other literary and historical works.

The theme of death and time is also central to ‘‘The Man to Send Rain Clouds.’’ Death is not an end or a frightening experience, but a fact of life to the Pueblo. The spirit returns to its source and returns bringing rain clouds to the community, staving off drought. A LaVonne Ruoff has written that the dead ‘‘are associated with cloud beings (storm clouds or Shiwana in Keres) who bring rain and who live in the six or four regions of the universe.’’ Death is also, of course, associated with the notion of time. Silko has said that, for the Indian people, time is round, and not a linear string. Time in its historical dimension is unimportant as it is an endlessly repeating cycle in which man is but a minute part of the cycle. Because of these notions of time and death, Leon can accept old Teofilo's death in a calm, serene manner with the traditional prayer asking his spirit to send rain cloud. This is contrasted in the story with traditional Catholic thinking, which in Seyersted's words, ‘‘looks at (death) as one sinful mortal's final, critical meeting with his Maker, in which it is hoped that the blessing symbolized by the holy water will help.’’: Hence, for Father Paul, the sprinkling of holy water has a much different significance than Leon's belief that it will simply quench the spirit's thirst on its way to the other world.

Apart from its thematic concerns and its cultural context, Silko's short story stands out as a technically masterful story. Skillful use of adjectives and attention to detail are the hallmarks of Silko's descriptions. For instance, she writes of a ''wide, sandy arroyo," "low, crumbling wall,’’ a ‘‘brown, wrinkled forehead’’ to enhance the beauty of the narrative. The skillful mixture of narration and dialogue also maintains the reader's interest. The dialogues between Leon and Father Paul, and between Leon and Louise, present the characters to the readers directly, thus enabling readers to draw their own conclusions as to the characters' respective natures and motivations.

With this said, and because of the high accomplishment of the story itself, ‘‘The Man to Send Rain Clouds,’’ a narrative of Pueblo life, deserves to be recognized as a classic Native-American short story within the canon of American literature.

Source: Angelina Paul, ‘‘Overview of 'The Man to Send Rain Clouds,'’’ for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.

Storyteller: Grandmother Spider's Web

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Over the last twenty years, the general development of scholarship about women's lives and art parallels an unprecedented flowering of creative writing by American-Indian women. But in view of these parallel developments, American-Indian women have shown little interest in the feminist movement, and conversely mainstream feminist scholarship has paid strikingly little attention to the writing of American-Indian women.

Leslie Silko's Storyteller (1981), a product of this literary florescence, has remained virtually undiscussed as a whole by critics of any stamp. With its emphasis on women tradition bearers, female deities, and its woman author's personal perspective, Storyteller seems to ask for a feminist critical treatment...

Particularly applicable to Silko's Storyteller are feminist critical strategies to reclaim as legitimate literary subjects, women's experience and female mythic power. Sandra M. Gilbert sees this strategy as a matter of revision, seeing anew: ''When I say we must redo our history, therefore, I mean we must review, reimagine, rethink, rewrite, revise, and reinterpret the events and documents that constitute it.’’ [Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, edited by Elaine Showalter, 1985].

Silko's Storyteller represents just such a revision of the world from her vantage point as a Laguna Indian woman. In fact, understanding her revision and reinterpretation of personal and tribal memory leads us past the easy impulse to call Storyteller a collage, a family album, or pastiche, on into a conception of its unity and significance as a literary work. In seeing anew, Silko expresses a deeply unified view of the world, reclaiming as central to her craft the tribe, the significance of ordinary women's and men's lives, and the set of values arising from the female power of the primary Keresan deities....

Silko presents a highly personal view of tribal ways and at the same time a tribal slant on her personal memories, richly fed by the foremothers and forefathers whose words inspire Storyteller. Through the book she reclaims both personal and tribal traditions about men and women, animals and holy people, community and creativity....

‘‘The Man to Send Rain Clouds’’ returns to themes of creativity and community. In accordance with Keres tradition, Old Teofilo, even in death, is still a valued member of the community, for the people are looking to him to send them big thunderclouds. There is seriousness and ceremony, but no sorrow at his death. He is not lost, just redefined within the community as a Katsina spirit associated with the cloud beings who bring rain.

[A. La Vonne] Ruoff observes that the strength of Indian tradition for Silko is not in rigid adherence to old ways, but in creative incorporation of new elements [MELUS, 5, 4, Winter, 1978]. In ‘‘The Man to Send Rainclouds,’’ modern Indian people not only create new ritual, but offer community to an outsider. The gift of water for the old man's spirit comes from the Catholic priest whom Leon induces to participate in the funeral, on Indian terms. But the priest remains an outsider, suspicious of ‘‘some perverse Indian trick—something they did in March to insure a good harvest''. Nonetheless, his action brings him to the edge of the community: ‘‘He sprinkled the grave and the water disappeared almost before it touched the dim, cold sand; it reminded him of something—he tried to remember what it was, because he thought if he could remember he might understand this." The flexibility that can find needed ritual power and extend the hand of community to the outsider assures the continuance of life, like water and thunderclouds.

Source: Linda L. Danielson, ‘‘Storyteller: Grandmother Spider's Web,’’ in Journal of the Southwest, Vol. 30, No. 3, Autumn, 1988, pp. 325-55.

Leslie Marmon Silko

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In a sense [Leslie Marmon Silko] started to write in the fifth grade: ''A teacher gave us a list of words to make sentences out of, and I just made it into a story automatically’’ (interview in Dexter Fisher, ed., The Third Woman...). But it was only at college in 1967 when she was forced to write a story in a creative writing course and found again that what was difficult for others came naturally to her, that she realized she was a writer. Back at Laguna she had just heard in headline form that an old man had been found dead at a sheep camp and had been given a traditional burial and that the priest had resented the fact that he was not called in. Unable to think of anything else, she decided to write about this incident and to try to imagine the scene and how the people had felt. The result was ''The Man to Send Rain Clouds,’’ which was quickly published in New Mexico Quarterly and also earned for her a ‘‘Discovery Grant.’’

In Rosen's 1974 anthology, Silko wrote about herself: ''I am of mixed-breed ancestry, but what I know is Laguna. This place I am from is everything I am as a writer and human being.'' And she has also said (in Laguna Woman): ‘‘I suppose at the core of my writing is the attempt to identify what it is to be a half-breed or mixed blooded person; what it is to grow up neither white nor fully traditional Indian.’’ It is as if she is saying that she is wholly a Laguna Pueblo and will write about the place where she grew up, but that at the same time she is a mixed-blood and therefore has been given the ability and the freedom to see Laguna also from the outside. Her first story exemplifies this double vision.

When Ken and Leon in their pickup come looking for old Teofilo, they already have with them what is needed to perform the preliminaries for a traditional burial, such as painting his face. When they have completed these tasks, Leon smiles and says, ‘‘Send us rain clouds, Grandfather.’’ Returning to the pueblo with the body under a tarpaulin, they meet Father Paul, who is led to believe that Teofilo is alive and well at camp. Later at home, the funeral is performed with clanspeople and old men with medicine bags attending. While the others go to the graveyard, Leon acts upon Louise's suggestion that he ask the priest to sprinkle ''holy water for Grandpa. So he won't be thirsty.’’ Father Paul protests that a Christian burial would require the Last Rites and a Mass, but in the end he reluctantly comes along, and when the besprinkled body is lowered, Leon is happy: ‘‘now the old man could send them big thunderclouds for sure.’’

Silko's interest in this story does not lie in the descriptions of the rituals themselves. She has said that while she has looked at anthropologists' reports on Laguna, she does not consult them. For one thing, she doubts that the informants (among whom were some of her own ancestors) always gave the scholars the true story, and more important, their reports are dead to her compared to the living reality of what she has heard and seen and felt herself. Also, she is an artist who wants to apply her imagination to the telling of tales, and to her, the essence of this particular incident is the story of this instance of cultural clash with the feelings and ideas involved.

To be sure, she does want us to see that these are Laguna rituals and attitudes. For example, she gives us such local details as that Leon ties a gray feather in Teofilo's hair and that he paints the old man's face with stripes of certain colors. But she does not tell us what the medicine men do at the important event of the funeral in Teofilo's home. Thus we have to guess that some of the things they all do, such as Leon's application of paints, may be part of the task of making ''him so that he may be recognized'' in Shibapu, and that others, such as Louise's sprinkling of corn meal and her concern that her Grandpa shall not be thirsty, are intended to make sure that he has ‘‘water ... and also food for his traveling provisions’’ (Boas, Keresan Texts, 1928; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1974 ...).

What we have in the story are two different ideas of death, or rather, of our whole existence. The Indian, as Vine Deloria has reminded us, is wedded to place rather than time and to group rather than individual. On the one hand, as Ortiz has written, "Indian traditions exist in, and are primarily to be understood in relation to, space; they belong to the place where the people exist or originated,’’ their existence being likened metaphorically to that of a plant. And he adds: ‘‘time in its linear, historical dimension ... is unimportant’’ compared to ‘‘cyclical, rhythmic time, time viewed as a series of endlessly repeating cycles, on the model of the seasons or, again, plants’’ (Indian Historian, Winter 1977 ...). And on the other hand, as already suggested, pueblo societies see the survival of the group as more important than the existence of the individual. That is, man is a minute part of an immense natural cycle, and his death has nothing threatening in it because, after a life which contained both the good and the bad that all Pueblos brought with them from Shibapu, he simply goes back to where he came from, and in line with the communal thinking, it is hoped that his spirit will help the group he leaves behind by returning with rain clouds. This is of course wholly alien to Catholic thinking, which sees death in terms of the individual rather than the group and which looks at it as one sinful mortal's final, critical meeting with his Maker, in which it is hoped that the blessing symbolized by the holy water will help.

It is part of the mastery of this short story that Silko only lightly suggests all this in her spare, highly controlled narrative, in which she hardly enters into the protagonists' minds. Furthermore, as an objective writer, she does not take sides, but gives a balanced, sensitive presentation of the characters. In her depiction of the Pueblos she makes us feel what David B. Espey has termed ''the mood of peace and simplicity, the quiet assurance with which [they] react to death,’’ accepting from Catholicism only what they can use; and in her sympathetic picture of the priest we sense both his good will and his bewilderment. In the one riddle she leaves us with—Father Paul is reminded of something, but does not know what, when the water immediately disappears into the sand—she seems to suggest that he is on the verge of understanding the impossibility of Christianizing this proud, independent, ‘‘foreign'' people who look to Mt. Taylor, looming up behind the graveyard, as a holy shrine and who have decorated most of the walls of the church in which he works with signs of thunder, clouds, and rainbows. In the quiet dignity of the telling of this moving tale, Silko makes it clear that she is an intelligent writer and a born storyteller.

Source: Per Seyersted, in Leslie Marmon Silko, Boise State University, 1980, pp. 15-18.

Ritual and Renewal: Keres Traditions in the Short Fiction of Leslie Silko

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For Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna), the strength of tribal traditions is based not on Indians' rigid adherence to given ceremonies or customs but rather on their ability to adapt traditions to everchanging circumstances by incorporating new elements. Although this theme is most fully developed in her recent novel Ceremony (1977), it is also present in her earlier short stories, ‘‘The Man to Send Rain Clouds," "Tony's Story," "from Humaweepi, Warrior Priest,'' and ''Yellow Woman,'' included in the volume The Man to Send Rainclouds: Contemporary Stories by American Indians [edited by Kenneth Rosen, 1974].

The history of Silko's own Laguna Pueblo, influenced by many different cultures, provides insight into why she emphasizes change as a source of strength for tribal traditions. According to their origin legends, the Laguna tribe (in existence since at least 1300), came southward from the Mesa Verde region. Some versions indicate that after pausing at Zia, they were joined by the head of the Parrot clan, who decided to take his people southward with them. After wandering further, first southward from the lake at Laguna and then northward back to the lake, they settled Punyana, probably in the late 1300s. After founding Old Laguna (Kawaik) around 1400, they issued invitations to other pueblos to join them. Those which responded were the Parrot clan from Zia, the Sun clan from Hopi, the Road Runner and Badger clans from Zuni, and the Sun clan from Jemez. The tribe occupied the site of what is now called Laguna by the early 1500s. Additional immigration occurred during the 1690s, when the Lagunas were joined by Indians from the Rio Grande, probably fleeing both drought and the hostility of the Spanish after the Pueblo Rebellion in 1680 and the renewed uprising in 1696. These immigrants came chiefly from Zia, Cochiti, and Domingo, but a few came from Jemez, Zuni, and Hopi. Although some remained to join the Laguna tribe, others returned to their own pueblos when conditions improved. Over the years, a few Navajos intermarried with the tribe, bringing with them the Navajo Sun clan and kachina.

The Spanish first entered the area in 1540, when Francesco de Coronado led an expedition to Zuni and two years later passed through the present site of Laguna on his way back to Mexico. Antonio Espejo, who commanded an expedition to New Mexico in 1582, visited the area in 1583. Between the appointment of Juan de Onate as New Mexico's first governor in 1598 and the Pueblo Rebellion in 1680, there is little historical data on Laguna. Although the pueblo was not subjected to as many attacks from the Spanish as the Rio Grande pueblos, it was forced to surrender in 1692 after an attack by the troops of Governor Diego de Vargas.

Concerning the mixture of people who settled at Laguna, Parsons comments that ''it is not surprising that Laguna was the first of the pueblos to Americanize, through intermarriage'' [Elsie Clews Parsons, Pueblo Indian Religion, 1939]. Around 1860 and 1870, George H. Pradt [or Pratt] and two Marmon brothers (Walter and Robert) came to the pueblo, married Laguna women, and reared large families. Silko indicates that her great grandfather Robert and his brother had a government contract to set out the boundary markers for Laguna. Walter, appointed government teacher in 1871, married the daughter of the chief of the Kurena-Shikani medicine men. The chief's son later took his place. According to Parsons, this group led the Americanization faction which was opposed by the pueblo hierarchy. The conservatives removed their altars and sacred objects from Laguna and moved to Mesita; around 1880, part of this group resettled in Isleta. While Robert Marmon served as governor, the two kivas of Laguna were torn down by the progressives and what was left of the sacred objects was surrendered. There were no kachina dances for some time after the Great Split and the laying of the railroad on the edge of the village. When a demand arose later for the revival of the dances, Zuni influences were introduced into Laguna rituals. Parsons closes her description of Laguna with the comment that although the ceremonial disintegration was so marked when she first studied it (around 1920) that it presented an obscure picture of Keresan culture, it now (1939) offered ‘‘unrivaled opportunities to study American acculturation and the important role played by miscegenation.’’ Silko herself comments on these changes in her description of the impact of mixed-blood families on Laguna clan systems and the varying attitudes toward these families in the stories of that pueblo:

People in the main part of the village were our clanspeople because the clan system was still maintained although not in the same form it would have been if we were full blood.... The way it changed was that there began to be stories about my great-grandfather, positive stories about what he did with the Laguna scouts for the Apaches. But then after World War One it changed. Soon after that there came to be stories about these mixed blood people, half-breeds. Not only Marmons but Gunns [John] and Pratts too. An identity was being made or evolved in the stories the Lagunas told about these people who had gone outside Laguna, but at the same time of the outsiders who had come in. Part of it was that the stories were always about the wild, roguish, crazy sorts of things they did [Lawrence Evers and Dennis Carr, Sun Tracks, III, Fall, 1976].

The continuing strength of Laguna traditions and the ability of her people to use alien traditions for their own purposes are strikingly portrayed in Silko's story ‘‘The Man to Send Rainclouds.’’ The title alludes to the belief that the dead are associated with cloud beings (storm clouds or shiwanna in Keres) who bring rain and who live in the six or four regions of the universe (Parsons). The story deals with an Indian family's observance of Pueblo funeral rituals despite the local priest's attempts to cajole them into observing Catholic ones. Ironically, the young priest is trapped by the Indians into taking part in their ceremony. The importance of ritual in Pueblo Indian life is emphasized at the beginning of the story when Leon and Ken, after finding old Teofilo dead, immediately observe the first stages of the funeral rites. Neglect of burial or death ritual can result in death or sickness because the ghost returns (Parsons). Before wrapping the body in a blanket, the men tie a gray prayer feather to the old man's long white hair (a custom similar to that of the Zuni) and begin to paint his face with markings so that he will be recognized in the next world—tasks ordinarily performed by a shaman. The face painting is interrupted by an offering of corn meal to the wind and is concluded with the prayer ''send us rain clouds, Grandfather.’’

The pressure on Pueblo Indians to practice Catholicism is introduced when Father Paul stops Leon and Ken on their way home to ask about Teofilo and to urge them all to come to church. Using the age-old Indian technique of telling the non-Indian only what they want him to know, Leon and Ken answer the priest's questions about the old man's welfare ambiguously enough to keep him from learning about Teofilo's death. Only after the Indian funeral rites are almost completed does the family feel the need for the priest's services—to provide plenty of holy water for the grave so that Teofilo's spirit will send plenty of rainfall. Corn meal has been sprinkled around the old man's body to provide food on the journey to the other world. Silko skillfully and humorously characterizes the conflict between the frustrated priest, who is denied the opportunity to provide the last rites and funeral mass, and Leon, who doggedly insists that these are not necessary: ‘‘It's O.K. Father, we just want him to have plenty of water.'' Despite his weary protests that he cannot do that without performing the proper Catholic rites, Father Paul finally gives in when Leon starts to leave. Realizing that he has been tricked into participating in their pagan rites and half suspecting that the whole thing may be just a spring fertility ceremony rather than a real funeral, he nevertheless sprinkles the grave with a whole jar of holy water. Leon feels good about the act which completes the ceremony and ensures that ''now the old man could send them big thunderclouds for sure.’’ Thus, Silko emphasizes that these Pueblo Indians have not abandoned their old ways for Catholicism; instead, they have taken one part of Catholic ritual compatible with their beliefs and made it an essential part of their own ceremony....

In all four of these stories, Silko emphasizes the need to return to the rituals and oral traditions of the past in order to rediscover the basis for one's cultural identity. Only when this is done is one prepared to deal with the problems of the present. However, Silko advocates a return to the essence rather than to the precise form of these rituals and traditions, which must be adapted continually to meet new challenges. Through her own stories, Silko demonstrates that the Keres rituals and traditions have survived all attempts to eradicate them and that the seeds for the resurgence of their power lie in the memories and creativeness of her people.

Source: A. LaVonne Ruoff, ‘‘Ritual and Renewal: Keres Traditions in the Short Fiction of Leslie Silko,’’ in MELUS, Vol. 5, No. 4, Winter, 1978, pp. 2-17.

http://www.altx.com/interviews/silko.html. An Interview with Leslie Marmon Silko, by Thomas Irmer (AltX Berlin/Leipzig correspondent).

White, Robin, House of Many Rooms, New York: Harper, 1958.

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