Leslie Marmon Silko

Often considered the first female Native American novelist,1 Leslie Marmon Silko's (1948-present) writing is deeply influenced by her Native American ancestry. Silko is a Laguna Pueblo woman who grew up on the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. Her work examines the tension between Native American culture and white society. Silko writes about themes like the alienation of indigenous people, the power of storytelling, and the importance of nature.

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Table of contents

    Leslie Marmon Silko: Biography

    Leslie Marmon Silko was born on the outskirts of the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico in 1948. Her heritage is a mix of Laguna Pueblo, Mexican, and Anglo-American. The daughter of a photographer and a teacher, Silko was deeply influenced by her Native American ancestry. She was not permitted to experience tribal rituals growing up but instead learned about Laguna traditions and myths through her grandmother's storytelling.

    Silko attended the Bureau of Indian Affairs school on the Laguna reservation until fifth grade and then transferred to the Albuquerque Indian School, which was over an hour's drive away. In 1969, she received a bachelor's degree in English from the University of New Mexico and published her first short story, "The Man to Send Rain Clouds." Silko was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Discovery Grant for the piece, leading her to leave law school at the University of New Mexico in order to pursue her literary career.

    Leslie Marmon Silko, New Mexico Desert, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Silko is from the state of New Mexico.

    Silko published Laguna Woman, her first poetry collection, in 1974. This collection centered around Laguna spirituality and the struggle for Native Americans to fit into the white-dominated world. Silko's first novel, Ceremony (1977), followed three years later.

    Ceremony established Silko as one of the first female Native American novelists and earned her literary acclaim. The story centers around a World War II veteran who heals from the emotional damage of war using Laguna spirituality. With the advent of her first novel, Silko's early short stories began to receive more attention from critics. Her 1981 collection Storyteller featured her short stories and poetry and was met with positive reviews.

    After Ceremony was published, Silko met the poet James Wright. The two became extremely close and influenced one another's work. When Wright died in 1980, his wife collected and edited the correspondence between himself and Silko in the book The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright (1986). This book won the Boston Globe Book Prize for non-fiction.

    Silko was awarded a MacArthur Grant in 1981, which allowed her to quit her job and focus on writing. She spent ten years researching and writing her second novel, Almanac of the Dead (1991). This ambitious and expansive book was not met with the same success as her first novel. She went on to self-publish her next book, Sacred Water: Narratives and Pictures (1993), which features a mix of pieces dedicated to praising the importance of water.

    Sacred Water was followed by Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today (1996), a collection of essays that Silko wrote about Native American wisdom, worth, and power. Silko released her third novel, Gardens in the Dunes, in 1999. It is about a Native American girl who has been captured and taken from her family in the context of the California Gold Rush.

    Silko's latest literary work is the memoir The Turquoise Ledge (2010). She currently lives on a ranch in Tucson, Arizona, and has won many literary prizes, including the American Book Award (1980), the MacArthur Fellowship (1981), and the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction (2000), among others.

    Leslie Marmon Silko's Writing Style

    Silko's writing style is largely based on her identity as a Laguna woman, and she is known as one of the most famous writers of the Native American Renaissance. Silko has often been called the first Native American woman novelist, a term which she dislikes because the indigenous writers before her were largely ignored throughout history. Her work focuses on the clash between Native American culture and white society.

    The Native American Renaissance is a term coined by literary critic Kenneth Lincoln in his 1983 book by the same title. The Native American Renaissance refers to the explosion of literary works by Native American writers, starting in the mid-20th century. Some of the key themes associated with this literary movement are the alienation of indigenous culture, oppression caused by white society, and Native American traditions and spirituality.

    The term is controversial for several reasons, primarily because it insinuates that Native Americans had not produced notable work before this period when, in reality, their literary contributions were overlooked and ignored. The word "renaissance" also has European connotations, taking away from indigenous authority.

    Aside from Silko, other Native American authors that contributed to the "renaissance" include N. Scott Momaday, Duane Niatum, Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich, and many others.

    Many of Silko's works are influenced by the traditional myths of the Laguna people, and the majority of her characters are Native American. While her stories are influenced by tradition, her characters and their issues are modern. Her characters experience social injustice, racism, alienation, oppression, and prejudice at the hands of white society.

    Leslie Marmon Silko, Native American Man, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Silko's writing style is strongly influenced by her Native American heritage.

    Silko often blends poetry and prose in her works, using a variety of genres to tell a story. The flow from one genre to the other is fluid, showcasing how storytelling is diverse, dynamic, and adaptable. In addition to cultural themes, Silko often discusses themes of nature and spirituality in her work.

    Leslie Marmon Silko's Books

    Two of Silko's most famous books are Ceremony and Storyteller.

    Ceremony (1977)

    Ceremony (1977) is Silko's first novel. It was instantly successful and positioned Silko as an important 20th-century novelist. The story centers around Tayo, a half-white, half-Native American World War II veteran. Tayo suffers from PTSD (what his doctors call "battle fatigue") and often has flashbacks to the war. He grieves the loss of people he loved who died on the battlefield and on the reservation while he was gone.

    When Tayo is finally released from the hospital, he cannot cope with civilian life. He suffers from alcoholism and depression. At the same time, his reservation suffers from a drought, and the Pueblo people are close to starvation. Tayo realizes that the fate of his people is tied to his own healing. He meets with a medicine man who helps him heal mentally and spiritually from his trauma. Eventually, he is able to complete the ceremony and save his people.

    Storyteller (1981)

    Storyteller (1981) is Silko's first mixed-genre collection of poetry, prose, and photography. It centers around traditional Laguna stories and myths, as well as Silko's own experience and her family's history. Although each work in Storyteller could stand alone, as a collection, it emphasizes the power behind oral traditions and the connection it builds between indigenous people of the past and the present.

    Leslie Marmon Silko's Poems

    Many of Silko's poems reveal her connection to the natural world and her identity as an indigenous woman. Two of these such poems are "How to Write a Poem About the Sky" (1981) and "Indian Song Survival" (1981).

    "How to Write a Poem About the Sky"

    "How to Write a Poem About the Sky" was published in Storyteller in 1981. The poem begins by describing a frozen Alaskan sky. The speaker characterizes the sky in tangible ways, using living creatures in order to give the sky a life of its own. From the sky emerges birds and elk, along with wind and snow. The sky also acts as an equalizer, in which,

    ...there are no horizons.

    It is all

    a single breath" (9-11).

    Although the speaker is far away in the American midwest, the sky connects her to the frozen landscape of Alaska. No matter if she is smelling the smell of piñon in the breeze of New Mexico or the juniper in the breeze of Alaska, she knows she is at home under the sky.

    Leslie Marmon Silko, Alaskan Sky, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The speaker of "How to Write a Poem About the Sky" gives life to an Alaskan sky.

    "Indian Song: Survival"

    "Indian Song: Survival" was also published in Storyteller in 1981. In this poem, the Native American speaker attempts to flee from the persecution and oppression that results from her indigenous identity. She is hunted by white society, which tells her:

    It is only a matter of time, Indian

    you can't sleep with the river forever" (34-35).

    The speaker escapes into nature for comfort. The branches, rivers, and leaves are her home and sanctuary, and she is able to "hide in spider's web" (22) where her oppressors cannot find her. By the end of the poem, the natural world is more than a hiding place for the speaker. She herself has become the natural world, as sure as the wind and swift as a deer.

    Leslie Marmon Silko: Quotes

    Below are some of Silko's most important quotes about storytelling, identity, and race.

    I will tell you something about stories . . . They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death” -Ceremony (Page 26)

    This quote comes from a poem in Silko's book Ceremony. It speaks to the importance of storytelling in Native American cultures. Much of indigenous history, language, and knowledge has been erased by forced assimilation and social injustice against Native Americans. Storytelling is one of the few ways contemporary Native Americans can connect to and understand the culture of their ancestors in a completely-changed, 21st-century context.

    What effect does the protagonist's PTSD and war trauma have on your interpretation of this quote?

    "I see myself as a member of the global community. My old folks who raised me saw themselves as citizens of the world. We see no borders. When I write I am writing to the world, not to the United States alone."1

    Silko said this quote during an interview for the Write Stuff. It speaks to her sense of identity as a contemporary Native American woman. Many indigenous cultures in the past and present believe that land can not be owned and dominated by any one person. Instead, it is to be shared and respected by all. In much the same way, Silko doesn't see herself as belonging to any one country. She doesn't believe in nationalism and exclusion. Instead, she shares a connection and a responsibility with the entire world.

    Because if you weren't born white, you were forced to see differences; or if you weren't born what they called normal, or if you got injured, then you were left to explore the world of the different.” -Almanac of the Dead (Pages 202-203)

    This quote comes from Silko's novel Almanac of the Dead. It speaks to the racism and prejudice that Native Americans experience in a world dominated by white, Western society. Indigenous people are marginalized and oppressed even today by lack of opportunities, erasure of culture, and environmental and social injustices. Although contemporary society has come far in terms of recognizing and combating racism, it is still an inherent part of everyday life in America.

    Leslie Marmon Silko - Key takeaways

    • Leslie Marmon Silko was born on the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico in 1948.
    • Her identity as a Native American woman influences her novels, poetry, and short stories.
    • Two of her famous books include Ceremony (1977) and Storyteller (1981).
    • Two of her poems are "How to Write a Poem About the Sky" (1981) and "Indian Song: Survival" (1981).
    • Many of her quotes focus on the themes in her work, such as the power of storytelling, identity and culture, and race.


    1. "Leslie Marmon Silko." Poetry Foundation.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Leslie Marmon Silko

    What is a prominent theme in Leslie Marmon Silko's writing?

    One of Leslie Marmon Silko's prominent themes is the clash between a Native American identity and the predominately white United States. 

    What does Leslie Marmon Silko write about?

    Silko writes about Native American life and storytelling. 

    What awards has Leslie Marmon Silko won?

    She won the American Book Award (1980), the MacArthur Fellowship (1981), and the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction (2000), among others. 

    Who influenced Leslie Marmon Silko? 

    Silko was influenced by her Laguna Pueblo heritage and the stories told by her family. 

    Who is Leslie Marmon Silko?

    Silko is am American poet, novelist, and essayist. She is known as one of the most famous writers of the Native American Renaissance. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is Silko's Native American tribe?  

    True or false: the Eskimo girl in "Storyteller" was whipped for not speaking English? 

    True or false: Silko studied law


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