Bold and impassioned, sharp and defiant, Leslie Marmon Silko's essays evoke the spirit and voice of Native Americans. Whether she is exploring the vital importance literature and language play in Native American heritage, illuminating the inseparability of the land and the Native American people, enlivening the ways and wisdom of the old-time people, or exploding in outrage over the government's long-standing, racist treatment of Native Americans, Silko does so with eloquence and power, born from her profound devotion to all that is Native American.
Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit is written with the fire of necessity. Silko's call to be heard is unmistakable; there are stories to remember, injustices to redress, ways of life to preserve. It is a work of major importance, filled with indispensable truths--a work by an author with an original voice and a unique access to both worlds.
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What is the significance of the title "Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit," both in the essay of that name and in the book as a whole? What similarities join all the essays and make them a collection?
Who is Yellow Woman and what does she represent? Why does every culture or group of people need a figure such as Yellow Woman? Are there any such figures in white, European America? If so, who are they? How do figures such as Yellow Woman embody a culture?
Through Pueblo myths, Silko explains how, to Native American people, human identity, imagination, and storytelling are inextricably linked to the land. Discuss this concept-the inseparability of the land, the people, and the stories. For example, how does a giant sandstone boulder about a mile north of Old Laguna become part of a story about Yellow Woman? Discuss how the land itself evokes the stories.
There is fear that, as time goes by, Native Americans will drift further and further from their roots until their culture and customs have disappeared. But Silko writes, "The old people say, if you can remember the stories you will be all right. just remember the stories." How do stories, many of which are not written down, keep Native American culture alive? What is it about "story" that has such power?
Consider, as Silko does, the telling of stories as opposed to writing them down, where the remembering and retelling are a communal process. In her essay, "Interior and Exterior Landscapes," she writes how "the ancient Pueblo people sought a communal truth, not an absolute truth. For them the truth lived somewhere in the web of differing versions." Discuss the advantage of this method. How does it differ from the European-American way of telling stories? How do the ways people tell stories illuminate their culture and systems of thought?
Steeped in the lore, religion, culture, and history of Native America, Silko wrenches our perspective and newly interprets for us that which is familiar -- our notions of land, family, and story. How does she change the way one sees such things as rocks, snakes, and photographs? What is the new perspective on gender and sexuality Silko's essay, "Yellow Woman and the Beauty of the Spirit" gives us? What are some of the other subjects Silko turns her attention to, in which she offers us a new vantage point?
Silko often writes about the old-time people. They have no names and no faces, yet she writes of them so vividly, a portrait of them emerges. Who are they and what do they believe? Why is Silko so attached to them? In naming them the old-time people, does she imply something about the people living today? If so, what might that be?
Silko informs us that the worst injustice against Native Americans does not come from racist citizens, but rather from the federal government itself. She writes: "Without wealth or political power, Indian tribes have to rely upon the constitutional legal system and the moral conscience of society for survival.... If this society, through its government, does not live up to its promises and commitments to Indian people, then no rights are secure." Do you agree or disagree? According to Silko, what are these promises and commitments, and why does she think the federal government hasn't lived up to them? What are your assessments?
In the essay "Border Patrol State," Silko offers us a disturbing firsthand account of how the Border Patrol harassed her and her companion because they appeared "to fit fictional profiles of undesirables." Silko believes that this practice signifies the beginning of a frightening slide toward more government-mandated "race policies" whose only end is genocide. "The slaughters in Rwanda and Bosnia did not occur spontaneously-with neighbor butchering neighbor out of the blue"; she writes, "politicians and government officials called down these maelstroms of blood on their people by unleashing the terrible irrational force that racism is." Do you agree or disagree? What other evidence does she provide in her essays that support this conclusion? Do you think what happened in Bosnia and Rwanda could happen in the United States? What are some of the other controversial issues that Silko addresses in Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit?
In the essay "Tribal Prophecies," Silko asserts that a force has been set into motion in fulfillment of a tribal prophecy in which the Native American people will regain their ancestral lands. She writes, "...all things European will gradually disappear, and the rain will return, and the animals will come back, and the herds of buffalo on the great plains. The tribal people of the Americas, like the tribal people of Africa, will regain their ancestral lands." Does she substantiate this prophecy? If so, in what way or ways? What does she imply will happen to the Europeans? What is your view of prophecies such as this one?
In the essay, "Fifth World: The Return of Ma Ah Shra True," Silko writes, "If it has taken environmental catastrophe to reveal to us why we need the rain forest, perhaps we might spare ourselves some tragedy by listening to the message of sand and stone in the form of the giant snake." According to Silko, what is the message of the giant snake? To what does she attribute its arrival? What do you make of a phenomenon such as the appearance of this sand and stone-formed snake in the midst of the strip-mining operation, Jackpile Mine? What other phenomenon does it bring to mind?
Recommended Readings Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties, Vine Deloria Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich Earthmaker: Tribal Stories from Native America, Jay Miller How to Enroll in an Indian Tribe, Heather Morningstar Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian White Relations from Prophecy to the Present, Peter Nabokov, ed. How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World, Jack M. Weatherford The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture, Walter Williams
Leslie Marmon Silko, a former professor of English and fiction writing, is the author of novels, short stories, essays, poetry, articles, and screenplays. She has won numerous awards and fellowships for her work. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.