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
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, Cañoncito, 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.