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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In 1969, Leslie Marmon Silko’s first story, “The Man to Send Rain Clouds,” appeared in New Mexico Quarterly, and it was used as the title story of an anthology of Indian poetry edited by Kenneth Rosen in 1974. Silko is half Laguna Indian, and this piece signaled the beginning of her efforts (through her poetry and stories) to put Old Laguna on the map as a source of age-old materials. “This place I am from is everything I am as a writer and human being,” she says. Laguna represents a life, a history, a liturgical culture that in her mind America should not ignore— even though it has been Christianized and many of the old ways forgotten or changed.

The Lagunas are Pueblo Indians for whom space and cyclic time are much more important than linear time and the progressive conquering of place. Such perspectives are evident in Silko’s first book of poetry, Laguna Woman (1974). Here she expresses in meditative as well as humorous ways her reverence for the land and all things living on it. For her the earth is the mother of all, a “sister spirit” that permeates all life—plant, animal, and human. “There was a time,” she says, “long long ago, when animals and humans talked to each other. . . .” This collection also includes reflections on the ways men have abused women, just as they have often mistreated the land.

In connection with America’s bicentennial in 1976, Silko published her first novel, Ceremony (1977), which draws on a great body of Laguna myth on “the relationship of man’s health and behavior to the fertility of his land.” Though about a man, Tayo, returning from World War II to his native New Mexico, the novel really depicts a person who has lost his center of being because he is separated psychologically and spiritually from the land of his ancestors. It includes several women, among whom is Ts’eh, the universal feminine principle of creation, through whom Tayo is brought back to his own center of being, to a sense of wholeness. Consciously and unconsciously through ceremony he is healed or reborn to a new connection to the earth. He relives the old stories and is thereby able to close the gap between the isolate human being and the landscape beneath and around him.

In Storyteller, Silko gathered all the themes of her work to date. (In fact, Storyteller incorporates excerpts from both Laguna Woman and Ceremony.) Storyteller includes photographs, letters, and historical vignettes, but it is not a documentary. It includes stories, but it is not a work of fiction. It includes poems, but it is not poetry. Rather, it is a distinctive combination of these diverse forms, juxtaposed and interwoven to reveal the many-faceted nature of storytelling and its vital role in the life of her people.

Basic to the structure of Storyteller are eight short stories, beginning with one titled “Storyteller” and ending with a final (ironic and humorous) trickster story, “Coyote Holds a Full House in His Hands.” These longer pieces show the indigenous place of stories in Pueblo life, including the abduction of women, the interdependence of death and life, the importance of the crops and hunting to survival, and the function of humor as a major ingredient in the Laguna culture. As a backdrop to her book Silko places twenty-six photographs, which tell her story in another way, depicting the people (the storytellers) who influenced her young life, the terrain— mountains, desert, horizon—of Old Laguna, the huge cornstalks, deer from the hunt, and the Pueblo buildings symbolic of her people’s unique way of life.

Connecting and enlarging upon the main stories are poetic inserts—some highly evocative, some prosaic—that expand the main themes and cast them in a larger perspective. Some are mythic in scope, embodying balladlike legends passed on orally for centuries. They include self-conscious expositions of what storytelling is about, reflective pieces on the importance of human relationships and identity with the land,...

(The entire section is 3,924 words.)