Return of the Native Americans: Leslie Marmon Silko

Voice Literary Supplement


An article on the work of the native American writer, Leslie Marmon Silko, especially her epic novel, Almanac of the Dead.


            The end of the world is coming. Tucson is devastated; the only businessmen left are gun-runners, dope smugglers, and collectors of blood plasma. Its canyons are filled with the homeless, whose Viet vet leaders feed them by expropriating credit cards from the houses of absentee rich people. What remains of Tucson's ruling class—Mafiosos and real estate developers, a CIA arranger, and a judge who'll have sex with anything but prefers basset hounds—will soon call in the National Guard, for millions of Central American and Mexican Indians are marching north, led by the spirits of their ancestors, who speak through blue macaws, and by the twin brothers who have always come in time of need. The indigenous peoples of the Americas are taking back their land.

            This stunning vision is the culmination of Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead, a novel of such sweep and grandeur it should be spread out on a block-long ceiling like a Diego Rivera mural.  All Rivera’s characters are here: on one side of the mural, we have the Mexican bourgeois society women, Iliana and Alegria, with their empty, made-up faces and high heels; on the other, the tough old Yaqui twin sisters, Lecha the TV talk show psychic and Zeta the arms smuggler. In the center, marching toward us, are the revolutionaries: La Escapia, "the Meat Hook," her strength matched by that of the twin brothers, El Feo, her lover, and Tacho, who reads the future in dreams and pebbles, and serves the blue macaws. Overhead fly the spirits of all the murdered dead from Cortes and Montezuma on.

            At the bottom of the mural are the whites, led by a cherub, the kidnapped baby son of David and Seese. Seese knows that David's lover, Beaufrey, the drug dealer, is evil, but she is so coked up she can't defend her child until it's too late; then all she can do is latch onto Lecha the psychic and ask her help in finding the baby. Seese is one of the book's innocent whites, but it's Beaufrey who dominates the stage, flanked by a throng of other destroyers, torturers, murderers, drug-consignment men, male and female coke whores, and their contacts in the CIA, the military, and the police on both sides of the border.

            Sterling, the old Laguna Indian whose story frames the rest, is so sane and matter of-fact that he functions as a normative voice; what he believes, we can believe. He shouldn't be in Tucson at all, but he got in trouble when a movie crew chose his pueblo for a location. The Tribal Council appointed Sterling to keep them under control, because he had experience with whites—he'd spent most of his life off the reservation, working on the railroad. Sterling can't control the Hollywood people; they steal prayer sticks, sunbathe at the sacred water hole, and do so many drugs a raid is inevitable.

           "I don't know why you are blaming me," says Sterling. "I was living in towns like Winslow and Barstow, not Hollywood. How was I supposed to know why they all had runny noses?” The Tribal Council is most upset by the cinematographer’s attempt to film the giant stone snake which had miraculously appeared next to the tailings of the old uranium mine from World War II. Lecha and Zeta know from their ancestors' Almanac that the serpent's reappearance signals great changes; when Sterling mentions it late in the book, everyone scatters, some to hide and some to organize. The epoch of Death's Eye Dog, inaugurated by the twin destroyers, Montezuma and Cortes, is coming to an end. But no one knows if it will end in a slow peaceful process by which millions of Indians recapture their ancestral lands through sheer force of numbers, or in a cataclysm of fire, earthquakes, and war.

            This epic theme doesn't begin to sum up the book, for Almanac of the Dead is an immense work, 700 pages long, with at least 12 sets of characters and interlocking plots. Leslie Silko's ambition is breathtaking. For the first hundred pages, my heart was in my mouth; I felt the kind of suspense I remember from first reading One Hundred Years of Solitude or The Brothers Karamazov—suspense that came not from the plot, but from wonder at the audacity of the work and fear that the author would not be able to pull it off. But I soon got so involved in Almanac of the Dead that I stopped worrying; despite its elaborate structure and tonal complexity, the book is truly engrossing.
            The cover of the Penguin edition of Ceremony, Silko's last novel, quotes The New York Times Book Review as saying she is "the most accomplished Indian writer ofher generation." After reading Ceremony, I thought, why qualify it?  She may well be the most accomplished writer, period.  Almanac of the Dead defies comparison by age or ethnic group; few writers of any generation attempt something so difficult. This is world-class literature, written with luminous faith in its own meaning and the importance of preserving the story for those who come after. Sure, there are occasional sags, subplots that don't get completely tied up, characters whose function is unclear, but what's a birthmark or two on a baby this size? 
            From her first novel, Storyteller (1981), a collection of traditional Laguna tales interspersed with memories of her own childhood and family, through Ceremony, to Almanac of the Dead, Silko has made story her transcendent value; in stories, a culture compresses vast loads of mythic, symbolic, and historic meaning into simple, memorable narratives. La Escapia, the Mayan revolutionary in Almanac of the Dead, concludes from her studies at the Cuban school in Mexico City that Marx's importance was as a storyteller, as the first white man who told the truth about what vampires other white men were.

            The stories of the people or their "history"had always been sacred, the source of their entire existence. If the people had not retold the stories, or if the stories had somehow been lost, then the people were lost; the ancestors' spirits were summoned by the stories. This man Marx had understood that the stories or "histories" are sacred; that within "history" reside relentless forces, powerful spirits, vengeful, relentlessly seeking justice.

            Needless to say, this is not what the Cubans hoped she would learn; Bartololemeo, the teacher, goes crazy at her "primitive animalistic tribalism" and threatens to cut off aid to the Indians. She doesn't care.  The dispossessed in Almanac of the Dead may be poor, but they're not dumb, nor are they tools for anyone's purpose but their own. They use all they learn to fit their own conception of the task: Take back the land and renew the earth.
            For Silko, the story does more than record history; by functioning as prophecy, it intervenes in history, like Marx, like the Almanac left Lecha and Zeta by their Yaqui grandmother, tattered pieces of parchment carried north 500 years before by children fleeing the Butcher, Guzman, who would sit young girls on pointed stakes and stack coins in their laps until the weight impaled them. The Almanac tells the past and predicts the future: One day the whites came and one day they will leave. 

            In these backlash times, when no remark seems too stupid to voice, some critics will probably be frightened by the anger in Almanac of the Dead and denounce it as anti-white. In fact, Silko's politics are the antithesis of crude, reactive counterracism. The enemies in her books are not whites, but destroyers, sorcerers who are excited by others' pain. As Tayo, the hero of Ceremony, who was nearly driven mad in a Japanese prison camp, tells the old medicine man who is trying to cure him, some vets came back from the war in love with the smell of blood:

            “Emo plays with these teeth—human teeth—and he says the Indians have nothing compared to white people. He talks about their cities and all the machines and food they have.... I wonder what good Indian ceremonies can do against the sickness which comes from their wars, their bombs, their lies?"

           The old man shook his head. "That is the trickery of the witchcraft," he said. "They want us to believe all evil resides with white people. Then we will look no further to see what is really happening. They want us to separate ourselves from white people, to be ignorant and helpless as we watch our own  destruction. But white people are only tools that the witchery manipulates; and I tell you, we can deal with white people, with their machines and their beliefs."

            Europeans have destroyed the land, the animals, the people of the Americas. But they are not the only destroyers. As Tacho, the twin brother with the macaws, says in Almanac of the Dead: "Long before Europeans ever appeared, the people had already disagreed over the blood and the killing. Those who went North refused to feed spirits blood anymore."
            Sterling takes up the story: "Somehow the offerings and food for the spirits become too bloody, and yet many people had wanted to continue the sacrifices. They had been excited by the sacrifice victim’s feeble struggle; they had lapped up the rich spurts of hot blood." Montezuma and Cortes were analogues, mirror images, brothers in sorcery: "The Europeans who came had been human sacrificers too," says Tacho. Silko's own people, the Laguna, migrated to New Mexico before the Conquest, fleeing the Inca culture of blood sacrifice. 

            As for the Europeans, what people in their right mind would leave their own land? They were driven mad by grief because of "their God [who] created them but soon was furious with them, throwing them out of their birthplace, driving them away.  The ancestors had called Europeans 'the orphan people' and had noted that as with orphans taken in by selfish or coldhearted clanspeople, few Europeans had remainedwhole. They failed to recognize the earth was their mother. Europeans were like their first parents, Adam and Eve, wandering aimlessly because the insane God who had sired them had abandoned them."

            Such ridiculous creatures could hardly be the source of all evil. Silko is very clear about the nature of evil. It is witchery, in the pueblo sense: blood, torture, enslavement, the delight in destruction for its own sake, the erotic thrill of inflicting pain felt by those so dead inside they can no longer get off on anything else. There are plenty of them in Almanac of the Dead; we go in and out of the minds of people like the womanhater Beaufrey, who deals cocaine and torture films:

            The demand for films of ritual circumcisions of six-year-old virgins had doubled itself every year. There were waiting lists of creeps who got weak at the mention of hairless twats and tight little buds. Massaged and teased into its first and also its last erection, the little girl's clitoris in close-up looked like a miniature penis. It was a great relief to see the dark, thick fingers of the operator pressing the wet, quivering organ into full extension for the blade of the razor.

            Though Almanac of the Dead is crawling with Beaufrey and his like—drug dealers, police torturers, psychopaths, characters who would feel right at home in novels by Elmore Leonard or William Burroughs—they do not have things all their own way. Here evil is opposed not by innocence, but by justice. The army of destroyers will have to deal with the army of the dispossessed, just coming to consciousness, still unorganized, but vast.  Its leaders are smart, strong, energetic, and well informed; it has its own demolitions experts, computer geniuses, and suppliers of military hardware.  These people remember their ancestors’ stories; they will not let themselves be victimized without fighting back.

            The war has already begun.  As La Escapia says,“because…the great shift of human populations on the continents was under way, and there was nothing human beings could do to stop it.  Conflicts and collisions were inevitable, but it was better to start from scratch anyway. Nothing European in the Americas had worked very well anyway except destruction.”

            Almanac of the Dead has themes in common with Ceremony, particularly the need to return to sources of strength in the land and Indian spiritual traditions, but it is a much more complex work, moving in and out of the minds of a succession of characters. Silko's combination of modernist literary techniques and left-wing politics is rare in the literature of the United States. Since the '30s, when the New Massesdismissed Henry Roth's stream-of-consciousness novel Call It Sleep as "introspective and febrile," novels by left-wing writers have tended to be radical in politics and conservative in form. The death throes of the Old Left in Europe brought forth experimental novels like Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook and Jorge Semprun's The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez; we got Howard Fast. Add to our lack of a tradition the racism so entrenched in our culture and Silko may have a problem—readers who open this book expecting to find a simple Indian maid are going to get very confused.

            Many of the warriors in Silko's army of justice are either a little crazy or drugged up most of the time; they can be trusted, but only to a point. Political monologues that seem on first reading to be straightforward radical polemics are undermined, refracted through the skeptical reaction of other characters, or delivered under such bizarre circumstances they become comic revelations of character as much as serious ideas. 

          Some of the book's most inspired insights are, for instance, given to Mosca, a loco drug runner so stoned he can barely keep his Chevy van on the road. Mosca's chief revolutionary deed is to kill a British poet by mistake at the Yaqui Easter Dance. He was aiming at a Mafioso. Then there is Clinton, the black Viet vet who has a number of moving political riffs. Clinton keeps getting evicted because of his religion. He has a red velvet shrine, upon which he burns incense to the ancient African god Ogou as manifested in the blade of his army knife. He pours rum on the blade, then puts a match to it. Some people feel this is a fire hazard; others object to the smell of the apples he leaves as an offering, being a vegetarian. "Clinton did not blame people for their ignorance....He explained the apples had to be left to rot so the ancestor spirits could 'eat' them."

           Most of the book's strands come together near the end at the International Holistic Healers Convention in Tucson, where Lecha, Zeta, Mosca, La Escapia, Wilson Weasel Tail, the Lakota lawyer-poet, and the Barefoot Hopi, a prison organizer, all connect in a hilarious set piece.

           Lecha saw a hotel conference room full of women chanting over and over, "I amgoddess, I am goddess." In the next room freshly cut evergreen trees were arranged in a circle by white men wearing robes; it looked as if tree worship was making a comeback in northern Europe. In the corridors there were white-haired old hippies selling cheap crystals and little plastic bags of homegrown chamomile. There were white men from California in expensive new buckskins, beads, and feathers who called themselves "Thunder-roll" and "Buffalo Horn." African medicine men seven feet tall stood next to half-pint Incas and Mayas selling dry stalks of weeds wrapped in strips of dirty rag.

            Silko's treatment of the Holistic Healers Convention is like a brief digest of her method for the whole book. In alternating currents of irony and crackpot occultism, pity and disgust, common sense and messianic vision, she shows that her intention is the Brechtian one of alienation; she sucks readers in only to tip them off balance, the purpose being not to make them identify but to make them think.

            When I was a girl, writers—mainly Norman Mailer—used to talk about “the Great American Novel,” and wonder which of them would master her. (The Great American Novel, like the White Goddess, was a female, needing to be mastered.) I always figured there could be more than one great American novel, so it didn't have to be such a hot competition. What a joke on all those big-mouthed New York guys: This one was written by a woman, and a Native American at that.