Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

Biography

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."

Ceremony

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.

Works Cited

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.

                                                                  --The above information is from Nafeesa T. Nichols' website on Silko

Electronic Resources

You can find a brief biography and bibliography of Silko at the Internet Public Library Native American Authors Project site, Davona Brown's site on Silko,  and at the Voices from the Gaps website at the University of Minnesota. Silko also has a "home page" with reviews, media, and contact information.

I strongly recommend you look at the Write Stuff interview Silko did with Thomas Irmer. Although not strictly on Ceremony, she does discuss the novel quite a bit.

Robert Nelson at the University of Richmond has written a couple of useful essays on Silko and her novel: see "A Laguna Woman," which covers biographical information, and "Rewriting Ethnography: The Embedded Texts in Leslie Silko's Ceremony," which discusses the traditional Laguna texts Silko includes in her novel. Other interesting articles include Shawn Riders' "Interpretation Brings Us Together: Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony and the Hermeneutic Circle," Jessica M. Vianes' "American Paradoxes in Leslie Silko's Ceremony," and Suzanne M. Austgen's "Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony and the Effects of White Contact on Pueblo Myth and Culture."

The Pueblo Cultural Center website gives a brief look at 19 different pueblos, including Laguna, where Silko is from.

On the issue of uranium mining on tribal lands, see the following:
        Paula Giese's review of  If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans, by Peter H. Eichstaedt;
        "The Uranium Industry and Indigenous Peoples of North America," a report from the Fourth World Documentation Project.

Since Mount Taylor serves a central place and reference point in Silko's novel, you may be interested in viewing the photos of Mount Taylor that are available on the web.

april 2002

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