How much power do the stories we tell one another hold? How does storytelling help us remember our past and define our future? In Native American culture, storytelling is an essential, sacred activity. It connects contemporary people to their ancestors and helps them understand their place in their current society. Leslie Marmon Silko (1948-present) is a Laguna Pueblo writer whose Native American identity inspires much of her writing. Her 1981 collection Storyteller is a testament to the power of stories and the pain of indigenous people. 

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    Storyteller by Leslie Marmon Silko: Summary

    In summary, 'Storyteller' by Leslie Marmon Silko is a unique blend of prose and poetry that weaves together traditional Native American stories, personal memories, and contemporary experiences. The narrative centers around a young Inuit girl and her experiences in the harsh arctic environment. Through her journey, Silko explores themes of storytelling as a means of cultural preservation, the interplay of past and present, the role of women in Native American societies, and the struggle for survival in an unforgiving landscape. The nonlinear narrative structure reflects the cyclical nature of oral storytelling traditions.

    First published in 1981, Storyteller is Leslie Marmon Silko's first mixed-genre collection of poetry, short stories, and photography. Storyteller was inspired by Silko's Laguna Pueblo heritage and her culture's tradition of storytelling. Although Silko's ancestry is a mix of Native American, Mexican American, and Anglo America, she said in an interview: "I am of mixed-breed ancestry, but what I know is Laguna."1

    Storyteller combines Laguna traditions and mythology with family anecdotes, original short stories, poetry, historical facts, and autobiographical stories. Silko's use of various genres and forms of storytelling shows how storytelling is a dynamic force that continuously evolves. It is not stagnant but a growing, changing, diverse force that speaks in many distinct ways.

    The majority of the photographs included in the collection were taken by Silko's father. They feature Silko's family, the landscape around the reservation, and the Laguna village itself. Poetry makes up most of the collection, outnumbering photography and short stories. Storyteller, however, is best known for the short stories in the collection, including "Storyteller," "Lullaby," and "Yellow Woman," all of which are still frequently anthologized today.

    Storyteller, silhouette of two people talking during sunrise, StudySmarter Fig. 1 - Storyteller focuses on the tradition, importance, and power of telling stories.

    Silko grew up on the outskirts of the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico in the mid-20th century. While her parents were working, Silko's grandparents watched her and her sisters. As is common in many Native American cultures, storytelling was an important aspect of domestic life. Silko learned about Laguna traditions and myths directly from her family. This helped her connect to her ancestors' past and her people's culture.

    As a child, Silko attended a school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where she was prohibited from speaking the traditional Keresan language of her family. After fifth grade, she transferred to a Catholic school, where she learned about Christian theology. One of the main themes in Storyteller is the contrast between the rich culture of Native American peoples and the forced alienation of that culture in white society.

    Storyteller also explores Native American beliefs about nature, spirituality, community, and time. Through the many forms of storytelling in the collection, Silko explores themes of identity, alienation, tradition, and power.

    Leslie Marmon Silko's "Storyteller:" A Short Story

    Storyteller is the title of the collection, as well as a short story by the same name. The story "Storyteller" is about a young, indigenous Eskimo girl in Bethel, Alaska. Her Native American community and traditions are threatened by white men (who she calls "Gussucks") drilling in the area. The Gussucks have tried to force the indigenous people to assimilate into white society. The people must speak in English instead of Yupik, the children are sent away to schools where Christianity and English are forced upon them, and indigenous people cannot frequent certain stores.

    "Gussuck" is a Yupik word that means a non-indigenous person.

    The unnamed protagonist watches the sun from a jail cell, but it is unclear what crime she committed. The jailer will only respond to her if she speaks in English. She thinks of her home, which seems far away, and she remembers how she nailed scraps of red tin on her house last summer. She didn't do it for extra warmth but because the color readied her for what she knew she must do.

    Storyteller, Jail Cell Shadow, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The story starts with the young female protagonist in a jail cell.

    Time flashes back to when the girl lived with her grandmother and an old man in the village. The girl briefly attends one of the government-run schools for indigenous children, but she is whipped for not speaking English and cannot fit in with the rest of the girls. In the summer, the girl returns home to find that her grandmother has died.

    She decides to live with the old man because she refuses to return to school. The old man uses her sexually. He is a storyteller who repeats the same story over and over, prophesying the coming of a great bear that pursues a hunter over the ice. When the girl asks the old man why the Gussucks are there, he tells her they are only there to steal.

    The girl goes into a store that Eskimos are prohibited from frequenting. She taunts the storeowner by sitting with the Gussuck men. She goes home with one of them and has sex with him, although he stares at a picture he has taped on the wall the entire time. The girl has flashbacks of her parents dying after a Gussuck storeowner gave them wine that he promised was safe. Instead, it was poison, and neither the police nor the priest did anything. The girl remembers seeing red on the ground that morning.

    As the old man's health gets worse, the girl plans her revenge. She walks to the frozen river and tests the ice to see where it will hold her weight. She nails scraps of red tin to her house as a sign of her revenge. One night, she lulls the storeowner out into the night. He blindly chases her, running onto a thin part of the ice. The ice cracks and he falls in. When the police come to question the girl, she tells them she killed him.

    An attorney tells her that witnesses have said the man fell and the girl had nothing to do with his death. But she states that her story remains the same. She says,

    I will not change the story, not even to escape this place and go home. I intended that he die. The story must be told as it is." -"Storyteller"

    The old man dies, and people from the village bring the girl food. She tells her story of revenge and reclamation, and the people listen to her story in awe. They give her a king salmon in appreciation of what she has done. As much as her revenge against the storeowner was personal, it was also an act of defiance and reclamation against white power.

    Leslie Marmon Silko's "Storytelling:" A Poem

    "Storytelling" is the title of a poem in Silko's Storyteller collection. The poem serves as a reflection on the art of storytelling and its importance to culture and identity. Silko emphasizes the role of the storyteller as a cultural custodian, preserving traditions and histories through generations. The poem explores themes of memory, heritage, and the passage of time, highlighting the enduring power of stories to connect individuals and communities. The poem's structure and rhythm echo the oral storytelling traditions of Native American cultures.

    In this free verse poem, the speaker draws a connection between the runaway lives of several Laguna women and her own. This comparison shows how all of the women are linked together through a shared experience. Instead of feeling isolated and alone, she relates to the stories of other Laguna women who were disillusioned with their lives and made a change.

    The first connection is to Yellow Woman, an important character in Laguna oral tradition. In the myth, Yellow Woman leaves her village to collect water and meets a spirit, or ka'tsina, by the river. She abandons the water and her family, escaping her responsibility and following the ka'tsina on adventures.

    The most famous retelling of Yellow Woman in pop culture is Silko's short story "Yellow Woman," which was published in Storyteller. In Silko's version, the narrator wakes up with a man she does not know, who calls her Yellow Woman. When she asks him who he is, he simply says she guessed his name the night before. The woman doesn't actually believe he is a ka’tsina and she is the Yellow Woman of myth, but she realizes her ordinary life with a husband and children could be similar to Yellow Woman's.

    She has sex with the man, Silva, and follows him when he pulls her. They ride into the mountains to his home. Eventually, they come face to face with a white rancher, who accuses Silva of stealing from him. Silva tells the narrator to leave as the two men face off and she hears gunshots.

    The narrator returns home to her husband and children but thinks Silva will be back for her.

    The speaker connects the figure of Yellow Woman to a girl who (depending on what you believe) was either kidnapped or eloped during the traditional Laguna Seama feast. Either way, her family was left behind with only her absence.

    Then the speaker discusses a group of four Laguna women and three Navajo men who appeared to have run off together in 1967. When they were caught, one of the Navajo men told police that the Laguna women overpowered and kidnapped the men. However, the wine and panties found along their escape route would make one think it was a mutual decision to run away.

    And finally, the speaker relates these stories to her own life. She said it seems as though the same things always happen to her, with men tempting her to run away from her current life. She falls for a tall, handsome Navajo man. When her husband asks her what happened, the speaker tells him that the Navajo man threatened to kill her if she didn't run away with him. Her husband leaves anyway, and the speaker states that she should have told him a better story.

    Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller: Analysis

    The poems and short stories in Storyteller show how the tradition of telling stories connects communities and empowers individuals. "Storyteller" and "Storytelling" are very different in terms of genre, setting, content, and characters. But they both ultimately convey the power and purpose of storytelling.

    Both the poem and the short story imply that storytelling is an important part of Native American life. "Storyteller" is set in Alaska, and the indigenous people are Eskimos. The practice of storytelling starts with the old man, who repeats the same story about the bear and the hunter over and over again. People bring him food and listen to his story, which is so ingrained in his identity that it is the last thing he carries with him into death.

    Storyteller, Alaskan landscape, StudySmarterFig. 3 - "Storyteller" is set firmly in Alaska, while "Storytelling" is set in New Mexico.

    When the girl begins to tell her story, it becomes more important than her freedom. She would rather tell her people the story of resistance than be free. Her story gives her a respected place in her community and brings the Eskimo people together. Not only does it empower her, but it also reminds her entire community they are capable of protecting themselves and that they can overcome white society's attempt to erase them.

    In "Storytelling," the speaker feels less alone when she tells the story of her ancestors. She is upset about losing her husband, but the stories of her people's past help her cope. Storytelling connects the speaker to other untamed, carefree Laguna women. It situates her in the broader community of Laguna and reminds her she is part of a collective. Storytelling is a way for her to understand the world, her own experiences, and the uncertainty of the future.

    Although the stories are incredibly different, it is through storytelling that both the Eskimo protagonist and the Laguna speaker become closer to their community and better understand their own actions.

    Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller: Themes

    The main themes in Storyteller are the power of oral traditions and the alienation of indigenous peoples.

    Power of Oral Traditions

    The entire collection is dedicated to celebrating the power of storytelling and oral traditions. In Native American cultures, storytelling gives people a place in their community and helps them understand their people's past. Indigenous people have lost so much at the hands of white society: culture, language, history, and life. It is largely through storytelling that indigenous history has survived and overcome centuries of oppression and violence.

    But more than just a tool for remembering, oral traditions connect indigenous people to their contemporary understanding of spirituality, nature, and one another. While their core beliefs remain rooted in their ancestors' past, storytelling enables them to define that relationship on their own terms. More than a repetition of the same myths, storytelling is a dynamic, ever-changing, ever-applicable force that contemporary Native Americans use to understand modern life.

    Alienation of Indigenous Peoples

    The act of storytelling is also a reminder of what has happened to indigenous people at the hands of white society and what is still happening today. In order to exploit Native Americans and their land, European colonizers murdered them, forced them to assimilate, and confined them to poor, infertile reservations. This abuse and alienation is apparent throughout the collection.

    In "Storyteller," for example, the Eskimo protagonist is whipped for not speaking English in school. The Eskimos are not allowed to frequent certain stores and restaurants, which are only for white Gussuck use. The girl's people have become poor while white men drill natural resources from indigenous land and sell it to make a profit. Even the priest and the police officers don't care about indigenous lives as much as white lives, and they ignore the murder of the protagonist's parents.

    As much as Storyteller celebrates Native American life and traditions, it is also a reminder of what indigenous people have lost. Silko does not shy away from the oppression and alienation of Native Americans. Instead, she emphasizes it in her work to remind readers of the dangerous tendency to whitewash history and the racial issues that indigenous people still face today.

    Storyteller - Key takeaways

    • The collection Storyteller is a blend of prose and poetry that was written by Leslie Marmon Silko and published in 1981.
    • Many of the pieces are autobiographical in nature or are inspired by indigenous history.
    • "Storyteller" is a short story piece about oral tradition in Alaskan culture, and "Storytelling" is a poem that connects the contemporary speaker to Laguna women of the past.
    • "Storytelling" is a free verse poem.
    • The main themes are the power of oral tradition and the alienation of indigenous peoples.
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    1. Nichols, Nafeesa T. (Fall 1997). "Leslie Marmon Silko". Emory University. Retrieved January 16, 2012.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Storyteller

    What is Storyteller by Leslie Marmon Silko about?

    The book Storyteller is about the Laguna Pueblo tradition of storytelling. 

    What is the purpose of using different forms of storytelling in Silko's book?

    Silko uses poetry, prose, and photography in this book. The purpose is to show how storytelling is a dynamic force that continuously evolves. It is not stagnant, but a growing, changing, diverse force. 

    What genre is Storyteller?

    Storyteller is a book that contains a mixture of poetry and prose.

    What is the theme of the story "Storyteller"?

    The main theme is the power of oral traditions. 

    Is "Storyteller" a true story?

    "Storyteller" was inspired by Silko's Native American heritage, and many of her poems/short stories are autobiographical.

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