Leslie Marmon Silko
b. 1948

Lee Schweninger’s essay “Writing Nature: Silko and Native Americans as Nature Writers,” from the Summer 1993 issue of MELUS, describes Silko as a “nature writer” and puts Silko, as a nature writer, alongside other Native writers who explain or describe the interconnectivity of all forms of life in the natural word.

Schweninger writes:

“According to Luther Standing Bear, ‘Only to the white man was nature a 'wilderness'(38). Fusion of -- or failure to distinguish between -- humans and nonhuman nature, for instance, can seem foreign to the uninitiated reader. Consequently to the Euro-American, American Indian writing or tradition often seems dreamlike or ambiguous in its treatment of humans and nonhuman nature. Native American literature, as evidenced by Black Elk, for example, often insists on the necessity for a clear understanding and a sincere appreciation of land, air, water and the interconnectedness of all animals” (par 5).

How does the passage you read from Silko’s Ceremony offer a commentary on the different views of land held by Native people and white people? How do white people, according to the witch who brings forth white people, see the earth, the sun, the plants, and the animals?

Schweninger writes: “Silko's novel is especially interesting because it is both representative of the traditions in question and unique in its divergences. Like other Native American novelists, Silko contrasts the Euro-American and Native American attitudes toward nature and also demonstrates the alienation of the Indians themselves from their environmental heritage. Oppression of nature, Silko suggests, goes hand in hand with oppression according to race, gender, or class” (par 14).

Silko expresses that Tayo is at once a part of his Laguna community – including its land – as well as at odds with it, feeling that he might as well “go after what [whites] have, and take it from them” (182). Betonie explains to Tayo that he should not desire to “take” anything from white people and should not separate from white people, being “ignorant and helpless as we watch our own destruction” (183). Why, according to Betonie, must Native people not separate themselves from white people? What does the story Betonie tells communicate about this matter? Who are the white people?

Gerald Vizenor, in his essay “Authored Animals: Creature Tropes in Native American Fiction (In the Company of Animals),” from the Fall 1995 issue of Social Research, explains “Native American Indians are commonly perceived as being in close association with nature and the natural presence of animals; these associations are sources of native omniscience and consciousness. The literary interpretations of this presence have presumed the doctrines of nativism, animism, naturalism, realism, and other theories.”

Vizenor continues to describe Silko’s use of the witches who create white people: “Leslie Silko encircles the reader with witches, a hard metaphor that turns the creation stories in Ceremony. Alas, the hardhearted witches invented white people, a distinctive trope that overcomes the temptations of simile and the mere comparison of opposition and wicked extremes. . . . Louis Owens pointed out that ‘Betonie's words and the story of witchery underscore an element central to Native American oral tradition and worldview: responsibility.’ This sense of responsibility, of course, is a metaphor that denies closure; the actions, connections, and intentions are not causal but obscure ceremonies. ‘To shirk that responsibility and blame whites, or any external phenomenon, is to buy into the role of helpless victim’ (Owens, 1992a, p. 93).”

Betonie stresses responsibility to Tayo, but he also stresses power. How does the story he tells Tayo educate Tayo about power, its use and misuse?