Leslie Marmon Silko is a pretty rad chick, and quite the accomplished author to boot—but she probably wouldn't tell you any of that herself. When she published Ceremony in 1977, she was reluctant to accept the title of "first female Native American novelist." As she points out in this interview, a lot about Native American history has been lost. "There might have been some Native American woman long ago that we don't know about," Silko speculates. Sounds like someone's been eating her fair share of humble pie.
Nevertheless, Ceremony earned Silko a place in the history books and caused The New York Times book review to call her "the most accomplished Native American writer of her generation." Whoa, that's some heavy praise, especially when you consider that Silko's generation was responsible for what would come to be known as the "Native American Renaissance." That's when, in the late 1960s and 70s, Native American writers began to draw the attention of mainstream publishing houses, critics, grant-bestowing foundations (Cha-ching!), and universities began establishing Native American Studies departments. And Leslie Marmon Silko was right in the middle of it all.
In 1981 Silko became one of the original recipients of the MacArthur Foundation Grant, which later came to be known informally as the "Genius Grant." And in 1994 she won the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award. Not too shabby, if you ask us. We're still excited about that trophy we got at the end of little league soccer when we were seven.
But all of these accolades aside, what really impresses us about Silko's writing is the way she uses it to tackle the prickly theme of race. The author's talent for navigating the tumultuous history of relations between Puebloans and white Americans probably has a lot to do with her own mixed heritage (she's Laguna Pueblo, Mexican, and Anglo American). Through her characters, which also embody similar multiethnic identities, she discusses racial tension and conflict with honesty and sensitivity.
While Ceremony was certainly important in the 1970s, it's perhaps even more relevant today. After all, the United States has its first multi-racial President, and more young Americans are identifying themselves as being of "mixed race" than ever before. We don't think it's too much of a stretch to call Silko a visionary.
Next time you're in the cafeteria, take a look around. Do the jocks sit at the lunch table with the math club kids? Do the emo songsters share fries with the swim team? Do the Young Democrats and Republicans glare at each other from behind rival card tables? OK, we know—those are some pretty petty differences. But what about more serious divisions in the student body? Does socioeconomic status determine a student's chance of being elected to Homecoming Court? Do race, language, or physical disability determine who you can hang out with? Does resentment and envy threaten to create violent rifts in the student body?
These divisions aren't just kid stuff. As any Glee fan will tell you, high school is a microcosm of society at large. Biases and divisions among teenagers are often a reflection of problems that affect an entire community, city, or country. In other words, sometimes high school drama isn't all about the different cliques. Serious issues of discrimination are as present in high school as they are outside of it. What's a Shmooper to do?
Well, you can start by reading this book. Sure, lessons about tolerance have been around since Dr. Seuss wrote about the Star-bellied Sneetches, but Ceremony digs a little bit deeper. The protagonist, Tayo, knows what it's like to live in a world of discord. The racial divisions in his society are extremely serious, and Silko doesn't let white people off the hook for the ways they have historically mistreated Native Americans. But this novel is about healing, and learning to forgive past wrongs in order to move forward.
Forgiveness is a difficult lesson to learn. After all, nothing feels quite as tempting as sweet revenge. But Tayo eventually learns that you don't have to take vengeance on the people who treat you badly, and that sounds pretty liberating to us. In fact, it may be the only way any of us are going to make any progress—after all, we're all in this together.
A biography of Leslie Marmon Silko
Leslie Marmon Silko's biography at the Poetry Foundation.
The Laguna Pueblo
Laguna Pueblo history and culture at the website of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
More on Silko
All about Leslie Marmon Silko's life and work, according to the Wikipedia-style website "Native Wiki."
Interview with the Author
Leslie Marmon Silko's interview with the German magazine Alt-X, in which she wonders whether or not she really is the first female Native American novelist.
Like this book? Try another by the same author . . .
The New York Times reviews Silko's latest book, The Turquoise Ledge.
Silko at the University of Arizona
Leslie Marmon Silko gives a lecture for the University of Arizona's series on Poetics and Politics.
How to Appreciate Nature
Silko gives an interview about her latest book, The Turquoise Ledge, and tells us how to appreciate nature, even in the city.
Songs from Laguna
Performed by Laguna Pueblo Singers.
Keres, the language of the Pueblo people
Information on the Pueblo language of Keres, with links to some audio recordings of a few Keresan words.
Cover of the Penguin Books edition.
Portrait of the Artist
Ladies and gentlemen, the author herself.
Yes, We Do Think 'Butte' is a Funny Word . . .
Photos of Pa'to'ch, the butte near Tayo's ranch that Ts'eh seems to feel strangely attracted to.
Gosh These Place Names Are Confusing. You Know What Would Be Helpful? A Map.
You're welcome. (Actually, kudos go to Professor Robert Nelson at the University of Richmond. Thanks, Professor!)