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Leslie Marmon Silko
Leslie Marmon Silko, an accomplished Native American contemporary writer, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1948. She has a mix of Laguna Pueblo, Mexican, and White ancestry. Silko grew up at the Pueblo of Laguna, located in west central New Mexico. She attended a Catholic school in Albuquerque, commuting from Laguna. In 1969 she received a bachelor's degree in English from the University of New Mexico. She later taught creative writing and a course in oral tradition for the English department at the University.
Silko reveals that living in Laguna society as a mixed blood from a prominent family caused her a lot of pain. It meant being different from, and not fully accepted by either the full blooded Native Americans or white people. Silko, despite her pain, was able to overcome the lack of acceptance and identify with the Laguna culture Despite her keen awareness of the equivocal position of mixed-bloods in Laguna society, she considers herself Laguna. As she puts it : "'I am of mixed-breed ancestry, but what I know is Laguna'"(Velie 106).
As a child Silko became familiar with the cultural folklore of the Laguna and Keres people through the stories passed down to her by her grandmother Lilly and her Aunt Susie. These women both had a tremendous effect on Silko, "passing down an entire culture by word of mouth" (Velie 106). While still in college Silko wrote and published a short story "The Man to Send Rain Clouds." For this story she was awarded with the National Endowment for the Humanities Discovery Grant. In 1974 she published Laguna Woman, a book of poetry. In 1977 she wrote her novel Ceremony. The novel received high praise from critics and its readers. She has in fact been called the most accomplished Native American writer of her generation, as well as an "American Indian Literary Master"(Velie npg).
Silko's additional literary works include Storyteller, Almanac of the Dead, and Yellow Woman + the Beauty of Spirit . She has also published several articles dealing with literature as well as other pertinent social issues. Examples of these articles include "In the Combat Zone" and "Race + Racism- Faces Against Freedom."
Although all of her work has received exemplary reviews, Ceremony seems to be the most talked about, and recognized for its literary achievement. There are a variety of positions taken by literary theorists and critics pertaining to the different themes in the book, and this can be an illustration of the many ways to look at Ceremony and its characters. Alan R. Velie, author of Four American Indian Literary Masters, says that Ceremony is not only an Indian narrative that "celebrates tradition," "Ceremony also belongs to another tradition and form older than the novel--the grail romance"(Velie 107).Velie compares the novel to twentieth century novels that feature the legend of the Holy Grail in their fiction. He says that the similarity lies in the fact that there is a very serious connection between the health of the main character Tayo, and the health of his land. He argues that Tayo is the wounded king, Betonie the healer, and the Laguna reservation is the wasteland.
Another critic, Laura Coltelli, asked Silko in an interview if it was not the case that the story stressed the importance of women and their role in society. Silko answered by saying that the role of women in society was part of the theme but not all of it. Suzanne M. Austgen writes from a different perspective in her analysis of the novel, "Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony and the Effects of White Contact on Pueblo Myth and Ritual." She says that the novel "emphasizes the important role that storytelling plays in within the Pueblo culture" (Austgen npag).
In her interviews and publications, Silko emphasizes the importance of stories to the Laguna Pueblo culture. In Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing, Silko writes that "the stories are always bringing us together, keeping this whole together, keeping this family together, keeping this clan together. 'don't go away don't isolate yourself because we've all had these kinds of experiences' . . . This separation not only endangers the group but the individual as well-one does not recover by oneself" (Silko 86). The different perspectives given illustrate of the variety of opinions, thoughts and critiques of Ceremony.
Austgen, Suzanne M. "Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony and the Effects of White Contact on Pueblo Myth and Ritual" nd.: n. pag. On-line. Leslie Marmon Silko's Home Page. Internet. Available: http://history.hanover.edu/hhr/hhr93_2.htm.
Coltelli, Laura. Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln and London : University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
Mariani, Philomena, ed. Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing. Seattle: Bay Press, 1991.
Velie, Alan R. Four American Literary Masters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.
Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna) (b. 1948)
Contributing Editor: Norma C. Wilson
Classroom Issues and Strategies
When I first began to read Silko's poetry and fiction, I attempted to use the critical methods I had used in my prior study of European and American literature. I sought primary sources of the traditional stories that appeared in her work. But I soon found that very little of the traditional literature of the Lagunas had been recorded in writing. I realized that I needed to know more of the background--cultural and historical--of Silko's writing.
In the spring of 1977, I arranged to meet with Silko at the University of New Mexico. She explained to me that her writing had evolved from an outlook she had developed as a result of hearing the old stories and songs all her life. She also led me to a number of helpful written sources, including Bertha P. Dutton and Miriam A. Marmon's The Laguna Calendar (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1936) and the transcript of an interview with Mrs. Walter K. Marmon in the Special Collections Department of the Zimmerman Library, U.N.M. Another source I've found helpful is Leslie A. White, "The Acoma Indians" (Forty-seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932). Leslie Silko's Yellow Woman and a Body of the Spirit:┬ Essays on Native American Life Today (New York:┬ Simon and Schuster, 1996) provides invaluable insights about the beliefs, oral tradition and history of the Laguna pueblo and details Silko's own life experiences.
One can use the videotape, Running on the Edge of the Rainbow, produced by Larry Evers at the University of Arizona, Tucson. A more recent video, Leslie Marmon Silko (produced by Matteo Bellinelli and published by Films for the Humanities in┬ Princeton, New Jersey, 1995), can also be useful. I often begin looking at Silko's writing by using a transparency of her poem "Prayer to the Pacific." Students frequently come to think in new ways about their relationships to nature and about the exploitation of Native American people and the natural earth. They ask such questions as, "Did the government really do that to the Navajos?"
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
In teaching "Lullaby," the idea of harmony is essential--the Navajo woman is balanced because she is aware of her relation to the natural world, that she is a part of it and that is the most important relationship. This allows her to nurture as the earth nurtures. One should emphasize forced changes in the Navajo way of life that have resulted from the encroachment of industry and the government on Navajo land. Today the struggle centering on Big Mountain would be a good focus. Of course, alcoholism and the splitting up of Indian families would be other important issues to focus on.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
It is important to note that Silko's fiction is a blending of traditional with modern elements. And just as "Lullaby" ends with a song, many of Silko's other works are also a blend of prose and poetry.
"Lullaby" seems to be a story from out of the 1950s. We talk about the U.S. government's relocation policy during that decade. Relocation was an attempt to remove Indians from reservations and relocate them in urban environments. We also discuss the long history of the U.S. government removing Indian children from their families and culture. Recently this kind of removal has been somewhat reversed by the Indian Child Welfare Act, which gives tribes authority over the placement of the children enrolled in these tribes.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
One might compare and contrast Silko's work with that of Simon Ortiz. One might also consider comparing and contrasting it with the work of James Wright, Gary Snyder, and Louise Erdrich.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
One might ask the students to look up specific places mentioned in the story on a map--Cebolleta Creek, Long Mesa, Ca├▒oncito, etc.
1. Discuss the importance of the oral tradition in Silko's writing.
2. Discuss the structure of Silko's fiction. Is it linear or cyclic?
3. What is the image of woman in Silko's fiction? Compare or contrast this with the images of women in the broader context of American society and culture.
4. What criticisms of American society are implicit in Silko's fiction?
5. What Navajo cultural values are evident in the story "Lullaby"?
Allen, Paula Gunn. "Special Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony." American Indian Quarterly (Fall 1990): 379-86.
Fisher, Dexter. "Stories and Their Tellers--A Conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko." In The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
Silko, L. M. "An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts." In The Remembered Earth, edited by Geary Hobson. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979.
Wilson, Norma C. "Ceremony:┬ from Alienation to Reciprocity" in Teachng American Ethnic Literatures, ed. David Peck and┬ John Maitino. Albuquerque:┬ University of New Mexico Press, 1996:┬ 69-82.