[This article appeared originally in Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays. Eds. Louise Barnett and James Thorson. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1999. 15-22.]
A Laguna Woman
Storytelling comes naturally enough at places like Old Laguna. Each house, and each crumbling adobe shell of a house,
has stories attached to it; every mesa, cerro, arroyo, and spring in the surrounding countryside is home to some recountable
event, or waiting to become so. As a child, Leslie Marmon grew up attaching herself, in memory and imagination, to the
village and then to the land around it; and because this is Laguna land, many of the stories she grew up with were stories from
the Keresan oral tradition, the stories of her father's people and their shared history. In her art as in her life, Silko has
continued to maintain her identity with the story of the people of Kawaika, the People of the Beautiful Lake. The story of
Laguna, like the biography of Silko and the fictional lives of her novels' protagonists, has always been a story of contact,
departure, and recovery.
Leslie Marmon Silko was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico on 5 March 1948. Her mother, Virginia, was originally from Montana; her father, Lee Howard Marmon, was at the time just out of the Army, beginning his career as a professional photographer and managing the Marmon Trading Post in the village of Old Laguna, about 50 miles west of Albuquerque. Along with her two younger sisters, Wendy and Gigi, Leslie was raised in one of the houses on the southeast edge of Old Laguna village, just a short walk away, even for a child, from the Rio San José that arcs below the village on its south and southeast sides, separating the village fromor, seen differently, connecting the village to what is now Interstate 40 and before that was US Route 66. In several of Silko's Storyteller pieces, particularly those featuring the Kochinninako/Yellow Woman motif, this part of the river figures as a contact zone,1 where a female representing Laguna identity "within" meets a male who represents some other cultural or spiritual identity "out there."2 This place is also the liminal zone in which the spirits of the Katsinas, passing through it from the direction of sunrise into the village in November, take on the corporeal form of the masked dancers, a transformative event recalled in Ceremony.3 In the work of many writers, such places take shape as wastelands, deserts, and lifeless or life-threatening expanses; in Silko's work as at Laguna, the site of such transformative contact events appears as a place of comfort and regenerative energy, a place characterized by the twin blessings of shade and moving water even throughout the long summer months. Silko's own affinity for this place reflects, perhaps, her own felt "position," occupying as she does a marginal site with respect to both Laguna "within" and the dominant Anglo mainstream "out there"and as she depicts it, it's not a bad place to be.
This same sense of contact zone becoming meeting ground also characterizes the position of the family household with respect to its Keresan and non-Keresan surroundings. From the perspective of the east-west highway, the Marmon house stands below and in front of the rest of the village; most of the rest of the village's houses are built farther up on the domed, white gypsum mesa that looks over the river and the highway beyond it. On the top of the mesa at the northwest corner of the village is the gleaming whitewashed Mission San José, the setting for her first published short story, "The Man to Send Rain Clouds." Along the south and southeast edge of the mesa are the commercial buildings which during Silko's childhood included the Marmon Store, the U.S. Post Office, and the old railroad depot building that was later to become her father's house. During the '40s and into the mid-'60s the Marmon family's general store, located a house or two nearer the highway interchange than the house in which Leslie grew up, served not only residents of Laguna and the surrounding Laguna Pueblo villages -- Paguate, Mesita, Encinal, Paraje, Seama, and Casablanca -- but also cross-country automobilists and truckers.
Born and raised at this cultural intersection, Silko grew up becoming part of both Anglo and Keresan cultural traditions, as had most of her Marmon ancestors at Laguna. The first Marmons to come to Laguna, Ohioans Walter and his brother Robert, came as surveyors just after the Civil War, married Laguna women, and stayed on, Walter as a school teacher and Robert as a trader; both eventually were elected to serve as Governor of the Pueblo. Conversely, Silko's Keresan great-grandmother Marie Anaya Marmon (Robert's second wife), the "Grandma A'mooh" of Storyteller, left Laguna to attend the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, and Robert and Marie sent their son Henry, Silko's paternal grandfather, to the Sherman Institute in California. Another of the Laguna women among Silko's forebears, her great-aunt Susie (nee Susan Reyes, who was married to Henry's brother Walter), attended both the Carlisle Indian School and Dickinson College (also in Carlisle); upon returning to Laguna she served the community as a schoolteacher and also as a Keresan cultural historiana "storyteller" like Grandma A'mooh, in one of the most important senses of that term. Leslie's father, Lee, served as Tribal Council Treasurer during the time that uranium began to be mined at Laguna. Not surprisingly, given such a heritage, Leslie Marmon Silko grew up in a house full of books and stories, part of an extended family whose members have always been prominent in Laguna's history of contact with Euroamerican social, political, economic, and educational forces. The story of the Marmon family at Laguna is a story of outsiders who became insiders and of insiders who became outsiders -- a story about the arts of cultural mediation, from both sides of the imaginary borderline.
In Storyteller and elsewhere, Silko acknowledges the extended Marmon family of storytellers, including her aunt Susie, her grandma A'mooh, her grandfather Henry, and her father, as a powerful shaping influence on her own creative vision and storytelling repertoire.4 But, as Silko has also pointed out, the extended landscape of her early years was shaping her vision and providing stories as well.5 Beyond the village and the river to the east lay the red rocks of Mesita, patches of rich wet grazing land, and the Cañoncito Navajo reservation on the other side of some lava flats; to the south were sandhills, red and yellow mesas dotted with springs, cool clear water on the hottest summer days; to the west lay most of the other Laguna settlements, and Cubero and Budville, and the Malpais; to the northwest, looming over it all, high and blue in the distance, rose Mt. Taylor, the place for deer hunting, bear country; and due north, up the long hill where bulldozers and Cats would change the landscape forever while creating the Jackpile open-pit uranium mine in the 1950s, was the conservative village of Paguate, where many of the old-timers lived, and beyond that Seboyeta, near the site of the original Laguna sipapu or emerging place in some of the Keresan origin stories. By the time she was a teenager Silko knew something of these places and their stories:
My father had wandered over all the hills and mesas around Laguna when he was a child, because the Indian School and the taunts of the other children did not sit well with him. . . . I started roaming those same mesas and hills when I was nine years old. At eleven I rode away on my horse, and explored places my father and uncle could not have reached on foot. I was never afraid or lonely though I was high in the hills, many miles from home -- because I carried with me the feeling I'd acquired from listening to the old stories, that the land all around me was teeming with creatures that were related to human beings and to me. ("Interior and Exterior Landscapes" 166)
In addition to the informal education she was receiving from the land and the storytellers in her extended family, Leslie
attended the BIA school at Laguna through the fifth grade and then parochial schools in Albuquerque during her teenage
school years. She spent her undergraduate years at the University of New Mexico, where she was enrolled in the general
honors program, and received her B.A. in English (with honors) in 1969, the year the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was awarded to
Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn. She then enrolled in the American Indian law program at the University of New
Mexico Law School, but later transferred into the creative writing M.A. program there.
Though her interest in writing predated her college years -- she was already writing stories in elementary school -- that interest blossomed during her years at the University of New Mexico, during which time she took several courses in creative writing and saw her first work published ("The Man to Send Rain Clouds" in New Mexico Quarterly, Winter-Spring 1969). By 1971 she had chosen writing, rather than the practice of law, as her vocation, and in 1974 (at the end of a two-year teaching stint at Navajo Community College) her career became effectively established with two publications: her collection of poetry Laguna Woman (Greenfield Review Press) and Kenneth Rosen's The Man to Send Rain Clouds, an anthology of 19 Native American short stories, seven of them (including the title story) by Silko. In that same year, another of Silko's short stories, "Lullabye," was published in Chicago Review, and Silko was awarded an NEA writing fellowship. She then moved to Ketchikan, Alaska for two years; there, supported partially by a Rosewater Foundation grant, she wrote most of what was to become the novel Ceremony (1977). The time she spent in Alaska at Ketchikan and the small community of Bethel strongly engaged her imagination -- "Storyteller," the title story of her major collection of short works and the only piece not set at or near Laguna, is unmistakably Alaskan in setting and character. But even while living in Alaska, Silko's creative vision remained profoundly rooted in the landscape of her native Laguna: "When I was writing Ceremony," she wrote to poet James Wright in 1978, "I was so terribly devastated by being away from Laguna country that the writing was my way of re-making that place, the Laguna country, for myself" (Wright 27-28).
Returning to the Southwest from Alaska, Silko continued to write while holding academic appointments first at the University of New Mexico and then at the University of Arizona. In 1981, after her marriage to John Silko had been dissolved,6 Seaver published her book Storyteller, which brought together much of her previously published poetry and short fiction, re-embedded in a webwork of family narrative accompanied by photographs of the sources of her storytelling identity -- photographs, that is, of the people and the settings to which those stories attach. In that same year, Silko was awarded a five-year, $176,000 MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship, allowing her to devote herself full time to her artistic pursuits, including writing the novel that over the course of the next ten years would become Almanac of the Dead.
A few years earlier Silko had been the subject of a short film, "Running on the Edge of the Rainbow" (1978), in which she played herself as a Laguna storyteller;7 during this time Silko began to develop her own interest in the visual arts, in particular filmmaking, an interest encouraged earlier in several graduate courses as well as by her father's career as a professional photographer (arguably, the combination of verbal and photographic texture in Storyteller anticipates this phase of Silko's career). During the late '70s and early '80s, even while her written work was relocating itself in a much larger sociopolitical context with Tucson rather than Laguna at its center, Silko's filmmaking efforts remained anchored at Laguna. There, she founded the Laguna Film Project and, with some additional support from an NEH grant and with an eye to eventual PBS release, began filming and producing "Arrowboy and the Witches," a 60-minute video version of her story "Estoy-eh-moot and the Kunideeyahs" (Storyteller 140-54).8 To film it, she returned to the mesa country south and west of Old Laguna, a landscape of cottonwoods and sandstone caves in an area locally known as Dripping Springs, which has been in the care of the Marmon family for several generations. As part of the setting for this film but also partly, perhaps, fulfilling the words she attributes to her father in Storyteller" -- You could even live / up here in these hills if you wanted" (161) -- Silko erected a stone cottage near the base of the Dripping Springs mesa. It burned down shortly thereafter, but its ruins are still there, along with the shell of the dwelling occupied by Spider Grandmother in that film, parts of yet another story attaching to this place.
As Storyteller does mainly in print and "Arrowboy and the Witches" does mainly in motion picture form, much of Silko's non-fiction work of the past decade continues to integrate the conventional domains of visual and verbal art. In 1989, for instance, an essay entitled "The Fourth World" appeared in Artforum, a journal of the visual arts, and in 1995 her photoessay "An Essay on Rocks" appeared in a special issue of Aperture magazine. In these essays, as in her filmmaking, Silko's creative vision remains grounded in her years growing up at Laguna: in "The Fourth World," Silko speculates about the connections between the high teenage suicide rate around Laguna and the open Jackpile uranium mine, while in "An Essay on Rocks" her story about a boulder in a Tucson arroyo ends with an allusion to the story of a similar rock on Mt. Taylor that first appeared in Storyteller (77-78).
Leslie Silko lives today on a ranch in the mountains a few miles northwest of Tucson, Arizona, where she has been living since the publication of Ceremony. In her most recent novel, Almanac of the Dead (1991), Silko portrays Tucson, the novel's apparent center of gravity and the setting for much of the story, as a hopelessly corrupt city "home to an assortment of speculators, confidence men, embezzlers, lawyers, judges, police and other criminals, as well as addicts and pushers" (frontispiece, Almanac), trembling on the edge of apocalyptic redemption thanks to its locus with respect to the Azteca migration motif. But even in Almanac of the Dead, Sterling, Silko's on-again-off-again protagonist, is a native of Laguna, and the novel can end only when the "Exile" of the novel's second chapter returns to Laguna in its final chapter, titled "Home":
Sterling hiked over the little sand hills across the little valley to the sandstone cliffs where the family sheep camp was. The windmill was pumping lazily in the afternoon breeze, and Sterling washed his face and hands and drank. The taste of the water told him he was home. Even thinking the word made his eyes fill with tears. (757)
Like Tayo's in Ceremony, Sterling's personal history is a story of contact with attractive but dangerous non-Laguna forces,
departure from Laguna, and eventual return to Laguna with the acquired knowledge of how to live with those forces -- the
"Yellow Woman" motif that Silko so strongly associates with the image of the river at Laguna. In Ceremony, Tayo completes
his return by crossing this river from south to north at sunrise (255); in Almanac, the water-spirit of Kawaika is presented in
its alternate shape: in the open pit of the Jackpile uranium mine, the giant spirit snake Maahastryu, who formerly inhabited the
lake after which the Laguna people were originally named, has reappeared, "looking south, in the direction from which the
twin brothers and the people would come" (763) in fulfillment of a prophecy of which the Laguna story is but a small part.
Despite her Arizona address, Silko was recently named a Living Cultural Treasure by the New Mexico Humanities Council. In 1994 she also received the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas lifetime achievement award, an honor she now shares with N. Scott Momaday (1992), Simon Ortiz (1993), and Joy Harjo (1995). No doubt there will be more honors forthcoming. Perhaps Silko, who has never ceased to write out of her experience as a Laguna woman, will like her fictive protagonists one day return to Kawaika and receive them there.
1The term is Mary Louise Pratt's: see "Arts of the Contact Zone"; see also Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera. [back]
2See, for instance, "Yellow Woman" (62), "Storytelling" (94-95), and "The Man to Send Rain Clouds" (182). [back]
3Ceremony 182; see also Auntie's story about Tayo's mother Laura, which positions her at this place at sunrise, returning to Laguna (70). This is also the place that Tayo positions himself at the first sunrise following the autumnal equinox (and the Jackpile mine episode) at the end of the novel (255). A videotaped image of this site, marked by a large cottonwood tree, appears in "Running on the Edge of the Rainbow." [back]
4For a discussion of these sources see Linda Danielson, "The Storytellers in Storyteller." For photographs of the family storytellers Silko credits in Storyteller see Lee Marmon, "A Laguna Portfolio." [back]
5See, for instance, "Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination." Silko reiterates her formative connection to the landscape of Laguna Pueblo in one of her most recent essays, "Interior and Exterior Landscapes." [back]
6This was her second marriage; her first, also short-lived, was to Richard Chapman while she was still a student at University of New Mexico. She bore two sons (one from each marriage), Robert and Cazimir. [back]
7"Running on the Edge of the Rainbow: Laguna Stories and Poems" is one of the series of videotapes of oral literary performance entitled Words and Place, produced by Larry Evers at the University of Arizona; available from Norman Ross Publishing Co., 330 W 58th St., New York NY 10019. [back]
8Silko's project was originally for a trilogy of films, to be collectively entitled Stolen Rain. "Arrowboy and the Witches," the only one of the three to be completed (though it has not undergone final editing), is available from The Video Tape Co., 10545 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood CA 91601-2280. In a 1978 letter to James Wright, Silko had this to say about her intentions for this project:
I am pushing to finish the first of the scripts which attempt to tell the Laguna stories on film using the storyteller's voice with the actual locations where these stories are supposed to have taken place. In a strange sort of way, the film project is an experiment in translation -- bringing the land -- the hills, the arroyos, the boulders, the cottonwoods in October -- to people unfamiliar with it, because after all, the stories grow out of this land as much as we see ourselves as having emerged from the land there. . . . [I]f you do not know the places which the storyteller calls up in the telling, if you have not waded in the San Jose River below the village, if you have not hidden in the river willows and sand with your lover, then even as the teller relates a story, you will miss something which people from the Laguna community would not have missed. (Wright 24) [back]
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.
Danielson, Linda. "The Storytellers in Storyteller." Studies in American Indian Literatures 1.2 (Fall 1989): 21-31.
Marmon, Lee. "A Laguna Portfolio." Studies in American Indian Literatures 5.1 (Spring 1993): 63-74.
Pratt, Mary Louise. "Arts of the Contact Zone." Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. Donald Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, eds. 3rd edn. Boston: St Martin's, 1993.
Rosen, Kenneth, ed. The Man to Send Rain Clouds.
"Running on the Edge of Rainbow: Laguna Stories and Poems. With Leslie Marmon Silko." Videotape in the series Words and Place: Native Literature from the American Southwest. Larry Evers, Project Director. New York: Clearwater Publishing Company, 1978.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Almanac of the Dead. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.
---. "An Essay on Rocks." Aperture 139: Strong Hearts: Native American Visions and Voices (Summer 1995): 60-63.
---. Ceremony. New York: Viking, 1977.
---. "The Fourth World." Artforum 27.10 (Summer 1989): 125-26.
---. "Interior and Exterior Landscapes: The Pueblo Migration Stories." Landscape in America. George F. Thompson, ed. Austin: U of Texas P, 1995. 155-70.
---. Laguna Woman. Greenfield Center NY: Greenfield Review P, 1974.
---. "Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination" Antaeus 51 (1986): 83-94.
---. Storyteller. New York: Seaver, 1981.
Wright, Anne, ed. The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright. Saint Paul MN: Graywolf, 1986.