[This article appeared originally in Telling the Stories: Essays on American Indian Literatures and Cultures. Eds. Elizabeth Hoffman Nelson and Malcolm Nelson. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.  47-58.]

Rewriting Ethnography:
The Embedded Texts in Leslie Silko's Ceremony

Robert M. Nelson

        It is no secret that Laguna oral traditions figure as both text and pretext in Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony. In interviews and elsewhere, Silko herself has often stated that the primary source of the traditional stories contained in her novel Ceremony is Laguna oral tradition, specifically stories she remembers hearing from her Aunt Susie and her Grandma A'mooh,1 and most critics concede (as do I) that family tellings may well have served as source material for much of the "traditional" storytelling that shows up in the text of Ceremony. In fact, a few years ago another Laguna writer, Paula Gunn Allen, criticized Silko for using some of this oral traditional material, contending that by including a clan story in her novel Ceremony Silko has violated local conventions regarding proper dissemination of such stories. Gunn Allen claims, I think correctly, that some clan stories simply should not be told outside the clan, let alone outside the tribe. Nor, in her view, should most literary critics deal with these pretexts in print: "I could no more do (or sanction) the kind of ceremonial investigation of Ceremony done by some researchers than I could slit my mother's throat. Even seeing some of it published makes my skin crawl." Moving from a critique of the critics to Silko's own writing, Gunn Allen continues,

The parts of the novel that set other pulses atremble largely escape me. The long poem text that runs through the center has always seemed to me to contribute little to the story or its understanding. Certainly the salvation of Laguna from drought is one of its themes, but the Tayo stories which, I surmise, form their own body of literature would have been a better choice if Silko's intention was to clarify or support her text with traditional materials. [...] but the story she lays alongside the novel is a clan story, and is not to be told outside of the clan. ("Special Problems" 382-83)

        It may strike some readers as ironic that Paula Gunn Allen, who at the time of her critique of Silko had just published Spider Woman's Granddaughters and was about to publish the patently New Age Grandmothers of the Light, comes off in her argument as the defender of Laguna traditionalism and privacy against Leslie Silko's brazen affronts to them both. Irony notwithstanding, Allen raises a very serious question, one that goes to the heart of still timely issues of cultural appropriation, misappropriation, and expropriation. Were Allen correct in her contention that Silko exposes clan secrets, I for one would have equally serious qualms about undertaking to write about these pretexts.

        Let me direct attention, then, to the traditional stories, or embedded texts, that do appear in Silko's novel Ceremony, some of which, for Allen, constitute evidence of improper publication of secret clan stories. I use the term "embedded" in part to acknowledge the way these portions of text are formally set within the matrix of the prose narrative, like bits of turquoise and coral in some kinds of Zuñi jewelry. Here I read differently from Gunn Allen, who sees these passages as lying "alongside" the novel proper, because I think they are integral to both the novel's text and texture. There are (as I count them) 28 of these embedded texts in the novel, typically typeset as though they were passages of poetry, center-justified on the page and with lines of varying lengths.

       As I have already conceded, Silko may well have heard and recalled the gist of any number of such stories prior to writing the novel. But it is also demonstrably the case that at least all but two of the embedded texts in Ceremony are appropriated, sometimes verbatim, from preexisting ethnographic print texts rather than immediately from remembered oral performance.2 Even if we agree, then, with Gunn Allen that the original performers and transcribers of these ethnographic works might be guilty of violations of clan secrets, the fact that such texts exist in print outside Ceremony, and existed well before Silko was even born, puts a very different spin on the question of cultural expropriation. Or does, at least, for me: once we concede that the pretexts for Silko's embedded texts are printed texts, gathered and published by both professional and armchair ethnographers before her birth, then it makes more sense to claim that in an important way Silko is not revealing or even re-revealing clan secrets but rather repatriating Laguna "artifacts," working to rescue them from their deadening status as ethnographic museum pieces and to return them to living circulation as part(s) of an ongoing, living story.

        For now, though, let me propose that perhaps Silko's use of such materials is better read, not as an exploitation or improper exposure of Keresan materials, but rather as a "re-appropriation" of these previously expropriated materials, and further as re-appropriation in the service of very traditional Keresan purposes. To illustrate this proposition I will examine the function of the fragmented embedded text to which Gunn Allen refers when she writes of "the long poem text that runs through the [novel's] center [that] has always seemed to me to contribute little to the story or its understanding," the story entitled "One Time" in her 1981 book Storyteller (111-21). I want to show how Silko's version of this traditional Keresan story derives from ethnography but functions as a traditional Keresan storytelling trope, fulfilling the role of the "backbone" in a "body" (i.e., her novel) that preserves, by giving new life and voice to, the "long story of the People" (Storyteller 7).

        First, let me try to "flesh out" a little what I mean, and what I think some traditional Laguna storytellers mean, when they talk about the "backbone" of a body of story. As many readers will already know, one of the recurring formal elements of storytelling in orally literate communities is the device of "framing" or "bracketing." Typically this device consists of two conventional phrases, one to mark the shift in discourse from ordinary mode to storytelling mode --as, for instance, the way the phrase "once upon a time" functions in English--and one to mark the other side of the storytelling performance, the shift from story back into normal discourse --as, for instance, the phrase "the end" functions in English.3 "The end" still gets printed, on its own separate line and typographically center justified, at the end of many novels today; however, this and other verbal frame devices are actually superfluous in a print performance, because the two covers of the book demarcate the story "space" pretty unambiguously.4 Such frame elements are still desirable, however, in non-print story performance, even though the exact phrases differ from community to community and even from kind of performance to kind of performance.

        At Laguna, at least among the storytellers both Gunn Allen and Silko remember listening to, as well as among the informants who between 1919 and 1921 contributed the stories collected in Franz Boas's Keresan Texts,5 the conventional initiator phrase of the framing pair is "hama-ha."6 Boas's favorite translation of this phrase is "Long ago--eh!"; according to Paula Gunn Allen in Sacred Hoop, the phrase means something more like "long ago, so far" (147). And although neither Gunn Allen nor Silko directly mentions it, a conventional closure or terminator phrase frequently recurs as well in Boas's transcriptions of turn-of-the-century oral performance.7 In Keresan Texts this phrase is given as tome ts'itcc, translated by Boas "that long it is," or (to give two typical extensions) tome ts'itcca s'ak'o'ya k'ayotsecpi t'itsc, literally translated, "that long is my aunt's backbone," or tome ts'itcca s'ak'o'ya k'ci'n khayotsecpi tyitsc, literally "that long is my Aunt Kachena's backbone."

        The idea that there is an anatomical relationship between stories and their tellers is not just metaphor, in Keresan tradition. Silko touches on this relationship early in Ceremony, when a male storyteller, explaining the role of stories in preserving both the life of the People and the ceremonies, gestures to his belly and says "I keep them here / Here, put your hand on it / See, it is moving. / There is life here / for the people." Like everything else that moves and has power, a story properly understood is a living thing and is thereby related to every other living thing, sometimes overtly and directly and sometimes less obviously. A story may not always have a form that is materially palpable, like a badger or a human being does, but (like any badger or human being) any story has both a life of its own and partakes of the life it shares with all other living things: it holds a kind of life within itself, and it is itself embedded within other life. What we might call the "gist" or "essence" of any particular story, Keresan storytellers are apt to visualize as the backbone of that story, and in so doing they claim that this gist or essence is actually more substantial--denser, longer-lasting, and much less elastic--than the articulated form of this backbone, any particular verbal performance per se. It is also well to keep in mind, as this conventional Keresan closure phrase reminds an audience to do, that without a backbone there is nothing to hold a human being (or a story about being human) up straight, nothing to attach flesh to; on the other hand, given an intact backbone one can conceivably perform all sorts of cosmetic surgery on the surface version of the story that gets told, but the important thing is to work from the backbone out to the surface of things when constructing a story.

        Returning now to Leslie Silko's novel and its responsibility to Keresan oral traditionalism, one might wonder that she doesn't end her written performance with a statement like "And that long is my Aunt Susie's [or my Grandma A'mooh's] backbone." A similar statement does, however, occur at the very opening of the performance, when Silko's authorial voice claims that the story we are about to enter is a project of that mother of all Laguna aunties, Ts'its'tsi'nako/ Thought Woman, and that the present storyteller is merely "telling you the story she is thinking" (1). Continuing to exercise the conventional Keresan backbone trope, working to assemble story in the way that Badger Old Man works for healing in the old stories,8 Silko then lays out the embedded texts in her novel so that formally these "bits and pieces" of Laguna traditional story, far from being positioned peripherally with respect to the prose narrative of Tayo's adventures, rather represent the very backbone--the spinal column--of the novel, the skeleton of story that Tayo's story, the prose narrative, takes shape upon and fleshes out.

        I'd like to draw attention now to the thread, or rather column, of backbone material in Silko's text that Paula Gunn Allen singles out as particularly problematic for her, that "long poem text that runs through the center [that] has always seemed to me to contribute little to the story or its understanding," and again that "story she lays alongside the novel [that] is a clan story, and is not to be told outside the clan" (383). This is the departure/recovery story that features as antagonist Pa'caya'nyi, whose introduction of Ck'o'yo medicine into the lives of the People drives our Mother Nau'ts'ity'i out of the Fifth World and down below, and as protagonist Hummingbird, who along with his sidekick Green Fly works tirelessly on behalf of the People to help effect our Mother's return. In Silko's book Storyteller this story, titled "One Time" in the table of contents, appears as one continuous tale; in Ceremony, it is cast as nine discontinuous segments, the first beginning on page 43 and the last appearing on page 256.

        It is one of the more interesting examples of embedded text in the novel, both in terms of its ethnographic roots and in terms of its function with respect to the prose narrative. Like many of the embedded texts in the novel, this one is clearly a rewritten version of some classic early twentieth-century ethnography. Specifically, the text of Silko's departure/recovery tale follows closely three of Elsie Clews Parsons's transcriptions of part of the body of Laguna story published (both in Keresan and in English translation) in 1928 in Boas's Keresan Texts: "P'acaya.´nyi," "The Hummingbird," and "Origin Legend."9

        One of the first things worth noting about Silko's redaction of these pieces of story is the way she has reassembled the record published by Boas. Boas places the episode dealing with Hummingbird's recovery of Nautsityi prior to the episode that deals with Pacayanyi's visit,10 carefully attributing each to a different informant and attributing each with its separate title. By reversing the order of these two stories and then splicing them together, Silko at once generates a story long and complex enough to serve as a backbone for the whole novel and also recovers the departure/recovery motif that Boas's ordering disrupts.

        A second thing worth noting is that although the text of Silko's performance closely follows Boas's, the texture is dramatically different. For one thing: instead of casting the text as end-wrapped prose the way Boas does, Silko "elevates" these performances to the richer-looking status of poetry, in the process adding or restoring markers of oral performance, such as line lengths consistent with phrase duration and authorial asides rendered in squared brackets. Here, as in her use of embedded texts generally, Silko is in effect working to liberate the Story of the People from the confines of Boas's rather stilted ethnographic prose. That is, she is working analogously to the way Betonie works to help free Tayo of the coyote skin in which he has been too long wrapped and trapped, or to the way Sun Man works to free the storm clouds (which are not only Sun Man's "children" but also the shiwanna or ancestral spirits of the People) whom Kaupata keeps locked up for several years in the northwest room of his mountain abode. Also noteworthy is the way she sequences the nine blocks of this text from one end of the body of the prose narrative to the other, like trail markers for the reader who needs periodic reassurance that the direction of Tayo's story is staying congruent with the story of Our Mother's ceremonial recovery that ontologically precedes it. And finally, of course, this retexturing of the Boas transcriptions also suggests the arrangement of the vertebrae of a backbone, embedded within and giving distinctively human form to the fleshed-out body of Tayo's prose narrative story. And in case we miss the forest here, Silko sees to it that we can see the same point in each tree: each of the fragments, center-justified on the page but composed of lines of varying lengths, takes on a suggestively skeletal appearance. Lives within lives, backbones within backbones.

        But perhaps the most telling difference between Boas's and Silko's presentations of Keresan oral traditional material has to do with context. Boas presents the reader with, and I quote from his very short preface, "the following series of tales [...] collected during the years 1919-1921." Boas sorts the very miscellaneous collection of oral performances into such categories as stories, story fragments, songs, prayers, speeches, and autobiographical remarks, and he also attempts to arrange the origin and migration stories and fragments into a plausible chronological order. The gist of his closing remarks on the materials is, "well, we have all this material now, what shall we do with it?" Laguna oral tradition is presented, that is, as a quantity of collectibles. And for a collector during the 1920s, Keresan stories were becoming more valuable, because most white Americans, even the trained ethnographers among them, believed that Keresan story was dying out, that this might well be the last generation of "authentic" storytellers to gather information from.11 Like Ishi in his glass case at Berkeley, authentic Keresan texts, like their tellers, qualified as museum pieces, and Laguna was as much an archaeological as an ethnographic site. All that's left to do now, Boas's critical apparatus in Keresan Texts tells us, is to pickle as many of these artifacts as we can still find in the preservative of print for future study. It is a telling comment, then, that the Boas book is out of print, impossible to come by except through special interlibrary loan. One is reminded of the boxes and boxes of human bones and "artifacts" in a museum warehouse somewhere, waiting to be sorted and displayed in the museum--or, if they get lucky, repatriated back to Indian Country.

        This, it seems to me, is what Silko's presentation of these same materials amounts to: an act of repatriation, putting those Laguna bones collected by the ethnographers back to their original use--to serve as backbone for a Laguna story about Laguna life in Laguna country. Properly speaking, in the structure of Ceremony the context for Laguna story is Laguna story: the "traditional" story involving Pacayanyi and Hummingbird Man traditionalizes the "now'day" story of Emo and Tayo while simultaneously the prose narrative context revives the backbone of embedded text. In this way, the embedded texts become part of a "now'day" performance, in the process becoming as au courant and contemporary as the narrative skin they are in.

        I want to conclude this essay by readdressing Paula Gunn Allen's comments regarding the propriety of telling clan stories to non-clan members. While I'm sure clan stories exist, I do not think that the story that appears in Ceremony as "the long poem text that runs through the center" is, properly speaking, just a clan story anymore. If it ever was limitedly a clan story, rather than a story common to the repertoire of accomplished storytellers of several clans, it ceased to be exclusively a clan story when, 70 years ago, a man named Ko´tye, along with a man named Gyi´mi, along with a man named Pedro Martin, shared it with Elsie Clews Parsons, who was certainly not a clan sister to any of them. Perhaps there is still a version of that story that gets told only among the members of side corn clan Kawaika; if there is, I strongly suspect no non-clan member will ever hear it told, much less ever see it in print. At any rate, the version of the story of Payacanyi and Hummingbird Man that appears in Ceremony is not about revealing clan secrets but rather is about re-quickening the spirit of storytelling that, until Silko wrote the novel, lay misplaced and, I would say, misrepresented in the form of the ethnographic record.


        1Susan Reyes Marmon, her paternal great-aunt; Marie Anaya Marmon, her paternal great-grandmother. On these and other family sources, see Linda Danielson, "The Storytellers in Storyteller" and Lee Marmon, "A Laguna Portfolio."   [back]

        2More particularly, the Keresan embedded texts derive mainly from Franz Boas's 1928 publication Keresan Texts, while the Navajo ones derive from Leland Wyman's translations of his and others' transcriptions of the oral component of Navajo ceremonial texts. For some discussion of the former, see Nelson, "He Said / She Said"; on the latter, see Robert Bell, "Circular Design in Ceremony."   [back]

        3See, for example, Helen Sekaquaptewa's opening comments on the Hopi frame elements "aliksai" and "poyuqpölö" in the videotape "Iisaw: Hopi Coyote Stories," as well as Andrew Wiget's comments on these elements in "Telling the Tale" and Larry Evers's program notes to the Sekaquaptewa video transcript. Analogously, Scott Momaday uses the traditional Towan frame elements dypaloh and qtsedaba as the first and last words of his novel House Made of Dawn to invoke the spirit of traditional Jemez oral performance (Nelson, Place and Vision 43).   [back]

        4I'm aware that attempts to subvert this convention in postwar fiction are legion. I also think most readers don't fall for it, though: what goes on before and after the first and last words of the written performance, after all, isn't copyrighted.   [back]

        5More precisely, Keresan Texts is Boas's edition of Elsie Clews Parsons's transcriptions of tales she collected at Laguna. As volume 8 of the Publications of the American Ethnological Society, Keresan Texts was published in two parts: 8.2, comprised of holographs of handwritten phonetic transcriptions of performances in Keresan of 47 stories plus miscellaneous materials (biographical tidbits about one of the informants, lyrics to several songs and chants, texts of several prayers) was published in 1925; 8.1, the English language text, was published three years later in 1928, and contains translations of the pieces in Part 2 (in roughly the same order) but also several additional fragments and a section in which Boas collates these materials with other extant ethnographic materials.   [back]

        6Boas attributes each of the stories collected in Keresan Texts to one of six informants, all of whom initiate at least one of their performances with the phrase "hamaha" or "hamaha-eh!" Of the 47 story texts, 36 are initiated with this phrase, while another nine include the term "hama" or "ha'ma" in their first sentence. In Storyteller, Silko's Aunt Susie tells her that "The Laguna people / always begin their stories / with 'humma-hah': / that means long ago" (38). This phrase is still conspicuously in use at Laguna today: in 1991, for instance, a showing of 16 photographs of Laguna and Acoma old-timers mounted at the Wheelright Museum in Santa Fe by Silko's father, Lee Marmon, was titled "Humma-Ha."   [back]

        7Roughly three-fourths (35 out of 47) of the stories and story fragments given to Parsons and Boas end with some version of this phrasing, and all six informants use it at least once.   [back]

        8See, for instance, Silko's "Skeleton Fixer" (Storyteller 242-45) and Simon Ortiz's A Good Journey (42-43).   [back]

        9"P'acaya.´nyi" (the orthography varies, both within Boas and between Boas and Silko) appears in both Parts 1 (13-16) and 2 (19-23), as does "The Hummingbird" (11-13, 16-18). The section titled "Origin Legend" is only in Part 1; the relevant passages are on pp. 223 ("At one time the son of the Giantess (ck`o´yo) who was called P'a´cayanyi arrived from the north-west. He was accompanied by the Mountain-Lion-Man . . . . He took his flint knife and stabbed the north side of the house. Immediately water rushed out of it. Then he stabbed the west wall and a bear came out") and 226 (in which well-fed Hummingbird reveals Nautsityi's whereabouts, "in the fourth world, below," and oversees the creation of "a large fly" inside "a new jar that was covered in buckskin").   [back]

       10Here and throughout the rest of this essay, except where required by the context, I have simplified and regularized the orthography of Keresan words.   [back]

       11Perhaps this is why even living informants become archaicized in Boas's presentation: for instance, the name of one informant gets consistently spelled out phonetically as Gyi´mi ("Jimmy").   [back]

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman's Sourcebook. Boston: Beacon, 1991.

------. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

------. "Special Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony." American Indian Quarterly 14 (Fall 1990): 379-86.

------. Spider Woman's Granddaughters. Boston: Beacon, 1989.

Bell, Robert. "Circular Design in Ceremony." American Indian Quarterly 5.1 (February 1979): 47-62.

Boas, Franz. Keresan Texts. Publications of the American Ethnological Society, 8. New York: American Ethnological Society, 1928.

Danielson, Linda. "The Storytellers in Storyteller." Studies in American Indian Literatures 1.2 (1989): 21-31.

Marmon, Lee. "A Laguna Portfolio." Studies in American Indian Literatures 5.1 (1993): 62-74.

Momaday, N. Scott. House Made of Dawn. New York: Harper, 1968.

Nelson, "He Said / She Said: Writing Oral Tradition in John Gunn's 'Kopot Kanat' and Leslie Silko's Storyteller." Studies in American Indian Literatures 5.1 (1993): 31-50.

------. Place and Vision: The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction. New York: Peter Lang, 1994.

Ortiz, Simon. A Good Journey. Sun Tracks 12. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1984.

Sekaquaptewa, Helen. "Iisaw: Hopi Coyote Stories." Words and Place: Native American Literature from the American Southwest. Videocassette series. Prod. Larry Evers. New York: Clearwater, 1982.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Viking, 1977.

------. Storyteller. New York: Seaver, 1981.

Wiget, Andrew. "Telling the Tale: A Performance Analysis of a Hopi Coyote Story." Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Eds. Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987. 297-338.

Wyman, Leland. The Red Antway of the Navaho. Navajo Religion Series 5. Santa Fe: Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art, 1965.