An essay by: Desiree Anzalone
Leslie Marmon Silko is one of the most fearless, insightful and poignant writers of our generation. She is a true voice for her Pueblo heritage and all Native American people. In her novel, “Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit,” Silko tells it like it is and tackles down on countless subjects that others dare to go.. or are afraid to hear. She provides her readers with a haunting perspective on Native American life today and how colonial integration played a role in her Pueblo American family and other Native families, past and present.
Silko doesn’t just speak for her own people, she sheds light on controversial topics that are alarming to every human being, which is what makes her a political activist and a true leader. Her voice echoes writers like Paula Gunn Allen and Simon Ortiz, but remains in-tact to it’s own eloquent style and authenticity. Silko’s style is perhaps what makes her novels so addicting. One minute she’ll have you in tears, the next you’ll be cringing from her sarcastic depictions of “the Native American holocaust,” eventually you’re angry at the past, the government, at the pollution and corruption of our society until you’re sitting there questioning your own sheer existence and meaning in this world.
Each chapter in this novel is constructed like mini essays, all intertwining into each other like “a spider’s web,” providing an in-depth look at topics ranging from Native American language/literature, America’s debt to the Indians, U.S. Policies and Presidents, tribal prophecies, Pueblo Indian lifestyle, religion/culture, Mayan culture, environmental troubles, and so much more. Silko’s ability to address these topics accurately and painfully is what makes her readers coming back for more.
No matter what subject Silko touches base on, she always makes it known that America belonged to the Natives first, who are still to this day suffering from the effects of colonial integration, environmental collapse and political corruption. It’s safe to say that “Yellow Woman and a Beauty of a Spirit” is an eye-opening novel that leaves a bittersweet taste in your mouth and a strange desire to go out and change the world...or take down the Government, at least.
Silko begins her novel with the land, “the center of the spiders web” and what the land meant to the ancient Native people, especially the ancient Pueblos whom is Silko’s ancestors. She explains the strong connection that Natives share with the land, known as Mother Earth and argues that all living things which encompass Mother Earth, such as the rocks-the plants-the animals-the tree-the sky...have spirit and life, not to be tormented with but rather left alone and treated with respect.
The Pueblo people allowed Mother Earth to take her course and do what was necessary, like letting what has died turn to dust on its own so that it can be reborn, so that nothing is wasted. By doing this, the ancient Pueblos shared its resources with the other creatures of the forest, thus adding to the harmonious balance. Harmony was the essential practice within all Native communities “Survival depended upon harmony and cooperation not only among human beings, but also among all things.”
She continues on with Pueblo creation stories, which are deeply rooted by Mother Earth who is the Creator of all things and explains how through these stories the people learn who they are. This touches base with another topic; storytelling, which Silko believes is the most important element for sustaining Native American culture to future generations.
Storytelling, she explains, teaches future generations about the landscapes of their forefathers; Like how one can look at a rock for instance, then relate it back to an old account of someone’s uncle or great-grandfather who was at that same location many years ago... In this sense, nothing dies and the spirit of the ancestor and the rock essentially live on. Storytelling also teaches future generations to respect the land like their fore-fathers did, in which Silko argues is not reciprocated by the white society today:
“When humans have blasted and burned the last bit of life from the earth, an immeasurable freezing will descend with a darkness that obliterates the sun.” Because white society doesn’t respect or value the environment, there will come a time when Mother Earth takes over and seizes the land that has been taken from her and gives it back to the true and first inhabitants of this continent.
The most haunting depiction of this novel comes from the telling of the genocide that happened to the Native people and how they will never forget what the Government/colonial men and woman did to their population. Silko tries to explain the suffering by using factual information like death numbers from Indian wars, the effects of Christianity and how it split up their people/their culture, past treaties that were signed, abused, then neglected and forgotten, border patrol abuse, and much more.
The death numbers are disturbing, sixty to eighty-million deaths during the first one hundred years of colonial arrival, in which Silko calls, “the Native American holocaust of Columbus’s arrival.” What the Natives are dealing with today, she claims, is identity crisis, alcohol/drug abuse and a struggle to protect the people and the land from the “greedy profiteers” who violate the Earth. She goes into detail about treaties that were signed long ago between tribes and colonial Government and how todays Government has failed to recognize these treaties. Silko blames the Indian Tribal Councils-calling them “puppet masters” of the U.S. Government, also President Bill Clinton for his unjust immigration laws, which allows the Border Patrol to carry unlawful searches. Lastly, she blames the entire Government for the debt still owed to the Indian Nations-the stereotypes-the forcing of imperialism, and all the suffering still endured in the hearts of the people.
The suffering of Natives in America today goes unrecognized because the people are blinded by the corruption of the Government. The author points out that Americans think the Indians have been given everything back and all is just peachy dory... but we know that’s not the case. She states, “The American public has difficulty believing such injustice continues to be inflicted upon Indian people because Americans assume that the sympathy or tolerance they feel toward Indians is somehow felt or transferred to the government policy that deals with Indians. This is not the case.”
After having read this novel, there is a strong nostalgia for what this country once was and also the sorrowful reality of what it will never be. Whether you are Native American, mixed Native, white, black, yellow or purple, you can connect to the words written on the page and the feelings of the author’s heart. Silko points out the troubles of our society and environmental downfall for everyone to hear, not just Natives.
I would be a liar to say that this book doesn't cause a deep sadness within the mind. It's life changing. Silko's stories will make you see the world differently-react differently-become angry at the things you cannot control and respond differently to the civilized way of life that many of us feel bound to. However you see it, one must realize that these perceptions of change are good. They are truer than rain. They help us mold into the people we need to be. America needs this book.
I get the sense that Silko wants to share this Native philosophy with others, simply for the benefit of Mother Earth, it’s survival and most importantly: the preservation of the culture who respected and loved this country way before our time... and of course, for the people (Native or not) who still do.