The Recovery of Native American History in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead

by David Harding

It is often said that history is written by the victors, with the vanquished ending as mere footnotes. Throughout human history it has usually been left to the successful societies and conquerors to tell the story of our past. This has certainly been the case until recently in American history. The standard received interpretation of American history has been written by the dominant elements of United States society, in particular by its male white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. The recognition that there are other views of American history than that presented by the dominant elite has been one of the driving forces behind the movement toward a multicultural broadening of the American literary and historical canons which has been so prevalent, and debated, during the past several decades.

Since the 1960’s, in what Joshua Fishman termed the "ethnic revival," there has been an increasing interest, in the United States, in the history and the historical viewpoints of groups who have previously been marginalized. Perhaps the greatest impetus for this tendency was the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Together with the movement against the Vietnam War, it opened up the national consciousness, calling into question the veracity of the dominant social paradigm. Initially aimed at advancing the cause of African-Americans, the civil rights movement became a model for other previously oppressed and/or ignored elements of society such as Hispanics, women, Native Americans and gays and lesbians, among others. This search for alternative explanations was only fueled by the revelations of Watergate, which rocked the faith that many Americans had in the honesty of their politicians and government institutions.

Reconstructing the history of marginalized groups is not always easily accomplished. One of the ways in which elites establish and maintain hegemony is through the control of the means of cultural production and distribution. By controlling such institutions as academia and church hierarchies, elites not only propagate the dissemination of their own viewpoints, but also hinder the reproduction of viewpoints which conflict with their own. Generally, when attempting to recover the history of marginalized groups, researchers often encounter a dearth of written source materials. Marginalized groups have generally been underrepresented in texts (such as books, journals, newspapers etc.) produced by elites, and when they are represented, they are rarely allowed their own voice. Their representations have also been constructed by the elites.

Reappropriating history has been an aim of most of the major rights groups since the 1960’s. Native Americans are one group that exemplifies this drive to rewrite history, and provides a case that illustrates clearly the problems that such an endeavor involves. In Western society, textual evidence is given primacy when attempting to establish historical truth. As noted above, control of textual production tends to equate to control of history. This tendency is exacerbated when a society with a written tradition of history comes into contact with one with an oral tradition, as was the case with Native Americans in the United States. In Western society, people tend to give more credence to a written text as opposed to an oral narrative. Writing is perceived as being more fixed and accurate, more believable. Oral narrative, on the other hand, is regarded as being fraught with all the imperfections of human memory. Consequently, the oral narratives of Native American history have been largely disregarded until recently in American historiography.

This problem has been compounded in the case of Native Americans by the loss of many native languages since the first contact with Europeans in 1492. At the time of original contact, it is estimated that there may have been over 500 languages actively in use. Today, the number of native languages surviving in the United States has been reduced to 206 (Leap 129). When a tribe or group of native individuals has preserved its history through an oral narrative, and that language dies, its history dies with it. All we are left with are the remnants of physical artifacts that archaeologists must sift for vague clues of understanding.

This situation has obviously presented Native Americans activists with difficulties in attempting to increase awareness of native history. Two problems at least have to be negotiated. The first is the limited number of written records, the bulk of which have been produced by non-native conquerors. The second involves the use of written texts to convey the history of peoples with only an oral tradition. The attempt by some Native American authors to depict oral tradition through written media such as novels and poems has been regarded by some purists as a betrayal and contradiction. They regard such attempts as simply one more co-option of native culture by dominant Western culture

Leslie Marmon Silko is one Native American author who has had to face such criticism. Her first inclination as a Native American activist in the late 1960’s was to pursue the study of law as means of attempting to rectify past injustices against the Indians of the Southwest. Silko is partly of Laguna-Pueblo heritage. Control of the tribe’s New Mexico reservation lands has been a point of contention with the U.S. government for generations. But after only three semesters she became disillusioned with the idea of fighting the federal government on its own terms through legal struggle and switched her focus to the study of English. She had come to the conclusion that words were a better tool with which to advance the cause of Native Americans (Arnold viii). In a 1985 conversation with Rolando Hinojosa she stated, "The most radical kind of politics are not in harangues given at stupid rallies. I mean the most earth shaking kinds of shifts occur when language is plain truth (Hinojosa 95)." This is what she attempts in Almanac of the Dead. Through her fiction, with the lives of myriad characters revolving around the nexus of Tucson, she weaves facts from Native American history. Just as the ancient Mayan almanac told the story of the days and predicted the future, her blend of myth and history culminates to predict how future events will play out in the Southwestern borderlands of the United States and Mexico.

Silko’s almanac is not a mere replica of the ancient Mayan almanac of the days, it functions as a trope with a broader cultural significance at several levels. Beyond reminding us of the existence of the ancient almanac, it also reminds us that Native Americans were not wholly bereft of written texts. Although not consisting of alphabetic language in the Western sense, they did use written symbols to convey meaning and create a permanent record of that meaning. The novel alludes to the factual history of these written records, which were discovered by the Spanish conquistadors. Lending credence to the opening thesis of this article that dominant elites strive to control culture — especially written culture, the Indian writings of Mexico were largely destroyed, with but a few of the codexes remaining, preserved today in European museums. In all, over four hundred thousand manuscripts were burned by the Spanish in Mexico as part of their efforts to inculcate the Indians with Christianity (Vigil 58). Eliminating evidence of the Indians’ own culture was deemed essential to the process imposing a new one.

Silko claims this was a double assault on native cultures. The first involved the obliteration of the native way of life contained in the codexes. The second involved obliteration of evidence of Native America as a literate culture. The second was perhaps the more damaging. Being also in possession of an active oral-storytelling culture, Mexican Indians could switch to that medium to convey those stories contained in the lost manuscripts to subsequent generations. The impact of the destruction of evidence of written texts among the Indians would have a greater impact among Europeans. Belonging to a culture that placed the written text at the apex of human achievement, the fact that they possessed written language and the Indian presumably did not was ample proof that theirs was the more advanced civilization. It was this supposition of cultural superiority that served as the underlying self- justification that allowed Europeans to appropriate Native American lands and embark on a program designed to "civilize" the Indian.

In writing a novel, and centering that novel around the myth of the almanac (albeit a myth grounded in historical fact) Silko is thus not being co-opted by a dominant cultural medium, nor simply appropriating the cultural space normally occupied by the oppressor. Rather, it can be argued that she is actually reappropriating a long-lost Native American written medium, symbolized by the almanac.

By presenting her story in novel-form, she is not betraying oral culture, simply melding it with a long-dormant written tradition. Silko rejects the notion that the use of written texts functions as a cooption by the dominant culture. She regards her family as "book people," who were introduced to reading at the Indian boarding schools and who saw book learning as a means of defense against white culture (Arnold viii).

Another complaint purists sometimes make about modern Native American literature is its lack of authenticity. They would have authors strive for the accuracy of anthropologists in depicting native customs, traditions and myths. Silko rejects this position, not least because it is usually held by non-Native Americans who wish to romanticize the Indian in the long tradition of the noble savage. She has stated, "stories have a life of their own." They exist to serve a purpose, and when that purpose is achieved, they die off (Arnold xi). Legend and myth are not to be preserved out of any romantic sentimentality, but rather cultural utility. Stories exist to serve a purpose in the lives of the people who tell them. Stories, whether oral or written, serve a function. They do not exist as mere ornamentation. The important question is not whether written texts violate a native aesthetic sense, but do they serve a useful social function?

In creating her own stories, she is also guided by this consideration, which is driven from forces outside of herself. She believes that "the words you use . . . are coming from your origin, they are coming from your ancestors (Arnold ix)." In the creative process she considers herself as much a medium as agent. She likens the writing process to that of being "ridden." Spirits of the land and ancestors interject their own motives into the creative process (Arnold xii). Silko does not find this an unnatural state. As an Indian she "think(s) of (her) technical skill as a storyteller as a birthright," (Seyersted 4) and asserts, "Our greatest natural resource is storytelling (Seyersted 5)." The act of storytelling is not then a static act, a mere repetition of dead myth, but an dynamic, ongoing, regenerative creative process instrumental in the survival of native peoples. It is not so much the precise transmission of the details of the story that matters, but the ongoing chain of telling the story, of passing it on. "There have to be stories. It’s stories that make this a community," says Silko (Evers & Carr).

In the chapter of Almanac of the Dead where Silko recounts the northward journey of her mythical almanac in which it was saved from destruction by the conquistadors, she explains the importance of the preservation of the almanac for the survival of its people. The Indians regarded the days and years as being alive and existing in a cyclical time continuum. It was not important to save the whole almanac. If any portion survived, those days would return and the people would survive. In the novel the almanac serves as a metaphor for the nourishment that stories provide. The almanac was smuggled northward by children travelling by night. When they traversed the Sonoran Desert their food supplies ran out and they were reduced to boiling and eating some of the pages, which were made out of animal hides, in order to survive (Silko 246-249). What was important was not that manuscript survived wholly intact, but that some of the days were saved. It is not the perfection of the transmission of the details of the message, but the act of passing on the story that nourishes the soul.

Literary critics would most probably classify Almanac of the Dead as a post-modern novel. Its narrative structure contains many of the elements that are typical of post-modern style. The text is fragmented, its elements pasted together as a collage. Time is asynchronous, not moving in a Western linear fashion, but rather composed of repeated flashbacks, almost cyclical in nature. What is interesting about such a designation is that it could just as well describe pre-modern storytelling. Rather than seeing the novel as an example of the degeneration of modern Western literary convention, it can also be seen as the recovery of the true feel of storytelling as it has occurred around campfires for millennia.

A full synopsis of the novel is far beyond the scope of this article. Silko marshals an array of over eighty characters in the novel, around half of them non-Native Americans. We encounter characters as diverse as Seese, whose baby is kidnapped by its gay father’s cocaine and snuff film-dealing sugar daddy; Max Blue, a semi-retired mafia hit man from New Jersey; and Trigg, a paraplegic real estate developer. She paints an insightful picture life in the nasty underbelly of the Reagan eighties that is Tucson. But the rush of all the characters notwithstanding, the novel is primarily about the struggle by Native Americans to regain their lands to the invading Europeans. Commenting on the bicentennial celebrations in 1976 she remarked that "I just want to make sure that beside all the rhapsodizing . . . that Americans are reminded that this great land, this powerful nation they are celebrating was established on stolen land" Drawing upon her brief legal education she continued " . . . In Anglo-Saxon law, in common law, when something is stolen, no matter how many times the stolen property changes hands, in common law, that piece of property still belongs to the original owner. . . As long as this fact is acknowledged, then I’ll be satisfied . . . (Seyersted 8)" This is one of the main messages of Almanac of the Dead, that the Americas were stolen from the Indian. Silko goes further however, and prophesizes that this will be rectified in time. Just as the ancient almanac predicted the arrival of the Europeans, so does it predict their eventual disappearance and the return of the land to its original owners.

The work is most definitely political in nature. But by weaving its historical facts and political positions within the myth of the story she creates she make her message more accessible, and this is a crucial element. Silko says

I would say that good literature has to be accessible. It’s incredibly narcissistic to be otherwise. Artists can’t work with a chip on their shoulders, and that’s what has happened to a lot of feminists. Politics can ruin anything. It will ruin a picnic. Politics in the most crass sense — rally around the banner kind. I’m political, but I’m political in my stories. That’s different. I think the work should be accessible, and that’s always the challenge and task of the teller . . .(Fisher 26)

Employing the genre of the novel as opposed to simply writing a non-fiction history of Native Americans has the advantage of being more subtle and palatable. She conveys her message in way similar to Greek mythology or Shakespeare. Make it a readable piece of fiction and it will allow more readers to absorb the underlying facts that support the myths she creates.

Toni Morrison has asserted, "Narrative is one of the ways in which knowledge is organized. I have always thought it was the most important way to transmit and receive knowledge. I am less certain of that now — but the craving for narrative has never lessened, and the hunger for it is as keen as it was on Mt. Sinai or Calvary or the middle of the fens (Bordwell & Thompson)." She is of course referring to the Bible and Shakespeare. It is fundamental to the human condition, whether we are referring to the written tradition of Europe or the oral tradition of Native American cultures, that we use stories and myth transmit knowledge about our past. Leslie Marmon Silko is simply employing a time-honored method in using her fiction to educate her readers about elements of Native American history that have long been ignored in received American history.


Works Cited

Arnold, Ellen L. ed. Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film Art, an Introduction, Sixth Edition. New York: University of Wisconsin, 2000.

Evers, Larry and Denny Carr. "A conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko," in Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko. Ed. Ellen L. Arnold. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Fisher, Dexter. "Stories and Their Tellers — A Conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko," in Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Hinojosa, Rolando. "The Boss I Work for Dialogue: Leslie Marmon Silko & Rolando Hinojosa," in Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko. Ed. Ellen L. Arnold. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Leap, William L. "American Indian Languages," in Language Diversity in the USA. Eds. Charles A. Ferguson and Shirley Brice Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Seyersted, Per. "Interview with Leslie Marmon Silko," in Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko. Ed. Ellen L. Arnold. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Almamac of the Dead. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

Vigil, James Diego. From Indians to Chicanos: The Dynamics of Mexican-American Culture. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1998.

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