Suggestions for Teaching

II. Author: Leslie Marmon Silko

Contributing Editor: Norma Clark Wilson, University of South Dakota

1. What are the primary problems you have encountered (or expect to encounter) in teaching this author?

When I first began to read Silko's poetry and fiction, I attempted to use the critical methods I had used in my prior study of European and American literature. I sought primary sources of the traditional stories that appeared in her work. But I soon found that very little of the traditional literature of the Lagunas had been recorded in writing. I realized that I needed to know more of the background--cultural and historical--of Silko's writing.

2. What strategies have you developed for dealing with such problems? How do you think the writer can best be made accessible to students?

In the spring of 1977 I arranged to meet Silko at the University of New Mexico. She explained to me that her writing had evolved from an outlook she had developed as a result of hearing the old stories and songs all her life. She also led me to a number of helpful written sources, including Bertha P. Dutton and Miriam A. Marmon's The Laguna Calendar (Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1936) and a transcript of an interview with Mrs. Walter K. Marmon in the Special Collections Department of the Zimmerman Library, U.N.M. Another source I've found helpful is Leslie A. White, "The Acoma Indians." Forty-seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1932).

3. What are the major themes, historical and personal issues you think it is important to emphasize?

In teaching "Lullaby," the idea of harmony is essential--the Navajo woman is balanced because she is aware of her relation to the natural world, that she is a part of it and that is the most important relationship. This allows her to nurture as the earth nurtures. One should emphasize forced changes in the Navajo way of life that have resulted from the encroachment of industry and the government on Navajo land. Today the struggle centering on Big Mountain would be a good focus. Of course, alcoholism and the splitting up of Indian families would be other important issues to focus on.

4. What are the primary questions of form, style, or artistic convention which you think are important to present in relation to this author?

It is important to note that Silko's fiction is a blending of traditional with modern elements. And as in "Lullaby," which ends with a song, many of Silko's other works are a blend of prose and poetry.

5. In what ways do you consider in class the particular audiences for the work, when it was written, and how?

"Lullaby" seems to be a story from out of the 1950s. We talk about the U. S. government's relocation policy during that decade. Relocation was an attempt to remove Indians from reservations and relocate them in urban environments. We also discuss the long history of the U. S. government's removing Indian children from their families and culture. Recently this kind of removal has been somewhat reversed by the Indian Child Welfare Act which gives tribes authority over the placement of the children enrolled in these tribes.
6. Are there other writers (or texts ) with whom fruitful comparisons/contrasts can be drawn?
One might compare and contrast Silko's work with that of Simon J. Ortiz. One might also consider comparing and contrasting it with the work of James Wright, Gary Snyder, and Louise Erdrich.
7. Are there other particularly effective presentational, strategic approaches to this writer you wish to share?
One can use the videotape, Running on the Edge of the Rainbow, produced by Larry Evers at the University of Arizona, Tucson. I often begin looking at Silko's writing by using a transparency of her poem "Prayer to the Pacific.
8. (a) Are there study questions you find it useful to give students before they read or discuss the author?
One might ask the students to look up specific places mentioned in the story on a map--Cebolleta Creek, Long Mesa, Canoncito, etc.
8. (b) What writing assignments or paper topics have proven useful in helping students engage with the writing of the author, period, genre, or aesthetic?

1. Discuss the importance of the oral tradition in the writing of Silko.
2. Discuss the structure of Silko's fiction. Is it linear or cyclic?
3. What is the image of woman in Silko's fiction? Compare or contrast this with the images of women in the broader context of American society and culture.
4. What criticisms of American society are implicit in Silko's fiction?
5. What Navajo cultural values are evident in the story "Lullaby"?
9. In your experience, to what issues do students respond when confronted with this author's work? What questions do they ask?
They often come to think in new ways about their relationships to nature and about the exploitation of Native American people and the natural earth. They ask such questions as, did the government really do that to the Navajos?
10. Are there sources of information and insight you have found particularly helpful?

This is partially answered in my response to #2. I might also recommend Silko's essay, "An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts," published in Geary Hobson's The Remembered Earth (Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1979). Dexter Fisher's interview, "Stories and Their Tellers--A Conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko" in Fisher's The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States (Boston: Houghton, 1980) should also be helpful.
Contents, No. II