Leslie Marmon Silko

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Leslie Marmon Silko
BornLeslie Marmon
March 5, 1948
Albuquerque, New Mexico
OccupationAuthor, Educator, Film maker
NationalityLaguna Pueblo
Literary movementNative American Renaissance
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Leslie Marmon Silko
BornLeslie Marmon
March 5, 1948
Albuquerque, New Mexico
OccupationAuthor, Educator, Film maker
NationalityLaguna Pueblo
Literary movementNative American Renaissance

Leslie Marmon Silko (born Leslie Marmon; March 5, 1948) is a Native American writer of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, and one of the key figures in the First Wave of what literary critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance.

Silko was an original recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Grant, now known as the "Genius Grant", in 1981 and the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994.[1] She currently resides in Tucson, Arizona.

Early life[edit]

Leslie Marmon Silko was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico to Leland Howard Marmon, a noted photographer, and Mary Virginia Leslie.

Silko has noted herself as being 1/4 Laguna Pueblo (a Keres speaking tribe), also identifying as Anglo American and Mexican American.

Silko grew up on the edge of pueblo society both literally – her family’s house was at the edge of the Laguna Pueblo reservation – and figuratively, as she was not permitted to participate in various tribal rituals or join any of the pueblo's religious societies.

While her parents worked, Silko and her two sisters were cared for by their grandmother, Lillie Stagner, and great-grandmother, Helen Romero, both story-tellers. [2] Silko learned much of the traditional stories of the Laguna people from her grandmother, whom she called A'mooh, her aunt Susie, and her grandfather Hank during her early years. As a result, Silko has always identified most strongly with her Laguna ancestry, stating in an interview with Alan Velie, "I am of mixed-breed ancestry, but what I know is Laguna".[3]

Silko's education included preschool Head Start, through fourth grade at Laguna BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) School, and then Albuquerque Indian School (a private day school), her father driving her 100 miles daily to avoid the boarding-school experience he had detested. Silko went on to receive a BA from the University of New Mexico in 1969. She briefly attended the University of New Mexico law school before leaving to pursue her literary career.

In 1965, she married Richard C. Chapman, and together, they had a son, Robert Chapman, before divorcing in 1969.

In 1971, she and John Silko were married. They had a son, Kazimir Silko. This marriage too ended in divorce.

Early literary work[edit]

Silko garnered early literary acclaim for the short story "The Man to Send Rain Clouds," which was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Discovery Grant. The story is still frequently anthologized today.

During the years 1968 to 1974, Silko wrote and published more short stories and many poems, most of which were later featured in her book Laguna Woman.

Her publications include Laguna Woman: Poems (1974), Ceremony (1977), Storyteller (1981), and, with the poet James A. Wright, With the Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright (1985). Almanac of the Dead, a novel, appeared in 1991, and a collection of essays, Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today, was published in 1996. [4]

Literary work: significance and themes[edit]

Throughout her career as a writer and teacher, she has remained grounded in the history-filled landscapes of Laguna Pueblo. Her experience in Laguna Pueblo culture has fueled her interest in the impact of the past on contemporary life and has motivated her work to preserve the traditions of her culture. A well-known novelist and poet, Silko's career has been characterized by resistance to racism and white cultural imperialism and by commitment to women's issues.[5] Her novels are populated with characters who try to survive the violence of modern America by returning to Native American traditions. Return is never a simple process. Reading Silko, one is constantly reminded of the clash of civilizations that continues in the modern Southwest and of the difficult search for balance that the region’s inhabitants still face.[6]

Her literary contributions are particularly important[according to whom?] because they open up the Anglo-European definitions that have dominated the American literary tradition to accommodate the often underrepresented traditions, priorities, and ideas about identity that in a general way characterize many American Indian cultures and in a more specific way form the bedrock of Silko's Laguna heritage.


Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony was first published by Penguin in March 1977 to much critical acclaim.

The novel tells the story of Tayo, a veteran of Laguna and white ancestry returning from fighting against Japan in World War II. Upon returning to the poverty-stricken Laguna reservation after a stint at a Los Angeles VA hospital recovering from injuries sustained in World War II, Tayo continues to suffer from "battle fatigue" (shell-shock), and is haunted by memories of his cousin Rocky who died in the conflict during the Bataan Death March of 1942. Seeking an escape from his pain, Tayo initially takes refuge in alcoholism. However, with the support of Old Grandma, he is helped by ceremonies conducted by the mixed-blood Navajo shaman Betonie. As a result, Tayo comes to a greater understanding of the world and his own place within it as a Laguna man.

Ceremony has been called a Grail fiction, wherein the hero overcomes a series of challenges to reach a specified goal; but this point of view has been criticized as Eurocentric, since it involves a Native American contextualizing backdrop, and not one based on European-American myths. Silko's skill as a writer is evident in the way in which the novel is deeply rooted in traditional stories (for instance, there are several retellings of old stories). Fellow Pueblo poet Paula Gunn Allen criticized the book on this account, saying that Silko was divulging tribal secrets she did not have the right to reveal.[7] These claims have been contested, noting the public circulation and availability of the oral narratives from anthropological texts published in the early twentieth century.

Ceremony gained immediate and long-term success following the end of the Vietnam war as veterans took to the novel's message of healing and reconciliation between races and people in order to cope with the trauma of the military campaign. It was largely on the strength of this work that critic Alan Velie named Silko one of his Four Native American Literary Masters, along with N. Scott Momaday, Gerald Vizenor and James Welch.

Ceremony remains one of the Native American novels featured most on college and university syllabi, and one of the few individual works by any Native American author to have received book-length critical assessments.



In 1981, Silko released Storyteller, a collection of poems and short stories, incorporating creative writing, mythology, and autobiography, which garnered favorable reception as it followed in much the same poetic form as the novel Ceremony.

Delicacy and Strength of Lace[edit]

In 1986, Delicacy and Strength of Lace was released. The book is a collected volume of correspondence between Silko and her friend James Wright whom she met following the publication of Ceremony. The work was edited by Wright's wife, Ann Wright, and released following his death in March 1980.


Almanac of the Dead[edit]

Almanac of the Dead was published in 1991. This work took Silko ten years to complete and received mixed reviews. The vision of the book stretched over both American continents and included Chiapas revolutionaries the Zapatista Army of National Liberation as just a small part of the pantheon of characters. The theme of the novel, like Ceremony, focuses on the conflict between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans.

The work was heavily criticised for its attitude towards homosexuality as Silko pens many of the major villains in the novel as gay,[8] and for an improper interpretation and incorporation of the Popol Vuh. Almanac of the Dead has not achieved the same mainstream success as its predecessor.

Sacred Water[edit]

In June 1993, Silko published a limited run of Sacred Water under Flood Plain Press, a self-organizing printing venture by Silko. Each copy of Sacred Water is handmade by Silko using her personal typewriter combining written text set next to photographs taken by the author at various locations.

Sacred Water is composed of autobiographical prose, poetry and pueblo mythology focusing on the importance and centrality of water to life.

Silko choose ran a second limited printing of Sacred Water in 1994 in order to make the work more accessible to students and academics. This edition used more traditional printing methods for mass production.

Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today[edit]

Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today was published by Simon & Schuster in March 1997.

The work is a collection of short stories on various topics including an autobiographical about her childhood at Laguna Pueblo and the racism she faced as a mixed blood person, stark criticism directed at President Bill Clinton regarding his immigration policies and praise for the development of and lamentation for the loss of the Aztec and Maya codices, along with commentary on Pueblo mythology among others.

As one reviewer notes, Silko "encompass traditional storytelling, discussions of the power of words to the Pueblo, reminiscences on photography, frightening tales of the U.S. border patrol, historical explanations of the Mayan codices, and socio-political commentary on the relationship of the U.S. government to various nations, including the Pueblo." [9]


In 1997, Silko ran a limited number of handmade books through Flood Plain Press. Like Sacred Water, Rain was again a combination of short autobiographical prose and poetry set next to photographs taken by the writer.

The short volume focused on the importance of rain to personal and spiritual survival in the Southwest.

Garden In The Dunes[edit]

Gardens in the Dunes was published in 1999. The work weaves together themes of feminism, slavery, conquest and botany, while following the story of a young girl named Indigo from the fictional "Sand Lizard People" in the Arizona Territory and her European travels as a summer companion to an affluent White woman named Hattie.

The story is set against the back drop of the enforcement of Indian boarding schools, the California Gold Rush and the rise of the Ghost Dance Religion.


The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir[edit]

In 2010, Silko released The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir. Written using distinctive prose and overall structure influenced by Native American storytelling traditions, the book is a broad-ranging exploration not only of her Laguna Pueblo, Cherokee, Mexican and European family history but also of the natural world, suffering, insight, environmentalism and the sacred. The desert southwest setting is prominent. Although non-fiction, the stylized presentation is reminiscent of creative fiction.


A longtime commentator on Native American affairs, Silko has published many non-fictional articles on Native American affairs and literature.

Silko's two most famous essays are outspoken attacks on fellow writers. In "An Old-Fashioned Indian Attack in Two Parts", first published in Geary Hobson’s collection The Remembered Earth (1978), Silko accused Gary Snyder of profiting from Native American culture, particularly in his collection Turtle Island, the name and theme of which was taken from Pueblo mythology.

In 1986, Silko published a review entitled "Here’s an Odd Artifact for the Fairy-Tale Shelf", on Anishinaabe writer Louise Erdrich's novel The Beet Queen. Silko claimed Erdrich had abandoned writing about the Native American struggle for sovereignty in exchange for writing "self-referential," postmodern fiction.

In 2012, the textbook, Rethinking Columbus, which includes an essay by her, was banned by the Tucson Unified School District following a statewide ban on Ethnic and Cultural Studies.[10][11]



Poetry and Short Story Collections[edit]

Other Works[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ List of NWCA Lifetime Achievement Awards, accessed 6 Aug 2010.
  2. ^ Silko, Leslie Marmon 1948 -. (1999). In The Cambridge guide to women's writing in English. Retrieved from http://0-search.credoreference.com.library.simmons.edu/content/entry/camgwwie/silko_leslie_marmon_1948/0
  3. ^ Nichols, Nafeesa T. (Fall 1997). "Leslie Marmon Silko". Emory University. Retrieved January 16, 2012. 
  4. ^ Fabian, A.(1998). Silko, Leslie Marmon (1948--). In The new encyclopedia of the American West. Retrieved from http://0-search.credoreference.com.library.simmons.edu/content/entry/americanwest/silko_leslie_marmon_1948/0
  5. ^ Carden, M.(2005). Silko, Leslie Marmon. In Encyclopedia of women's autobiography. Retrieved from http://0-search.credoreference.com.library.simmons.edu/content/entry/abcwautob/silko_leslie_marmon/0
  6. ^ Fabian, A.(1998). Silko, Leslie Marmon (1948--). In The new encyclopedia of the American West. Retrieved from http://0-search.credoreference.com.library.simmons.edu/content/entry/americanwest/silko_leslie_marmon_1948/0
  7. ^ Allen, Paula Gunn (Fall 1990). "Special Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony". American Indian Quarterly 23 (4): 379–86. .
  8. ^ Romero, Channette. - Project MUSE: "Envisioning a "Network of Tribal Coalitions": Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead". - The American Indian Quarterly. - Volume 26, Number 4, Fall 2002. pp.623-640.
  9. ^ Osborne-Mcknight, Juliene (Summer 1996). "Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today by Leslie Marmon Silko". The Antioch Review 54 (3): 364. JSTOR 4613363. 
  10. ^ Biggers, Jeff (January 13, 2012). "Who’s afraid of "The Tempest"?". salon. Retrieved January 16, 2012. 
  11. ^ Norrell, Brenda (January 14, 2012). "Tucson schools bans books by Chicano and Native American authors". narcosphere. Retrieved January 16, 2012. 

External links[edit]