Leslie Marmon Silko, a mixedblood Laguna Pueblo, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on this day in 1948. She, along with the author from our first birthday profile post, is another old faithful when it comes to Native American Lit. 101. She also wrote a book that changed my life… but let’s back up a bit.
When Silko was still a child, there was a legal battle between the Laguna people and the State of New Mexico over six million acres of land wrongfully stolen from the tribe. This legal battle was formative in Silko’s budding political consciousness and later inspired her to go to law school in order to fight for the land rights of her people. However, after becoming disillusioned with the American judicial system and its ability to uphold Native sovereignty, she “decided the only way to seek justice was through the power of stories.”
And thank goodness she did because the world needed her literature a lot more than it needed another lawyer. In 1977, Silko published Ceremony. On the surface, the plot seems a lot like House Made of Dawn, except that Ceremony is the book that changed my life, and House Made of Dawn is just a book I like. Ceremony tells the story of Tayo, a fellow mixedblood who returns to the reservation after World War II suffering from serious PTSD and a heavy conscience due to the battlefield death of his cousin whom everyone held high expectations for. The black sheep of his community, Tayo drifts through his days in a hallucinatory haze becoming more and more alienated from a toxic world full of substance-soaked illusion and forces of destruction.
A turning point in the novel comes when Tayo visits Betonie, a strange kind of Navajo medicine man living amongst the drunk and the homeless on the outskirts of the Indian Capital of the World, Gallup, New Mexico. During their brief encounter, Betonie urges Tayo to re-evaluate what it means to live a sacred life. “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…things which don’t shift and grow are dead things…Witchery works to scare people, to make them fear growth. But it has always been necessary, and more than ever now, it is. Otherwise we won’t make it.” I think of Betonie’s words often, especially when thinking of how we indigenous people are not only going to “make it,” but how we will also overcome.
From that point on, the reader comes to realize that the act of reading this book is in a sense a ceremony, that Silko has turned to literature to, in her own way, fight the witchery of Modern America. I have read few if any books that have the poetic force and transformative vision of Silko’s Ceremony. I have not done it justice in this short space. It must be read and then read again and again until it has been absorbed and can be recalled like the sacred stories it weaves.
In doing my background research for this post, I learned that Paula Gunn Allen, a fellow Pueblo poet, criticized Silko’s use of Laguna stories as an inappropriate divulging of tribal secrets. While I mostly agree that tribes have a legitimate reason to protect their knowledge from outsiders, I truly believe Ceremony was in a sense written for Indian eyes only, though it has became adored by the mainstream literary world.To conceive of Ceremony without drawing on the Pueblo stories would be to render null Silko’s entire project: a new kind of literature that is grown from the old in order to fight for the future.
Other criticisms I have heard leveled at Silko pertain to her 1991 opus Almanac of the Dead, which many say contains homophobic stereotypes. I have yet to crack open the behemoth, which my Native American Literature Professor once described as a literary attempt to undo colonialism, but I am very disheartened to hear that such a great writer would commit such an ugly act.
But, on this day, her birthday, I will think of Ceremony and how it convinced me, as Silko herself was convinced as a child, that one of the most powerful ways to seek justice and healing is through stories.