is sitting in her room
and whatever she thinks about
She thought of her sisters,
Nau’ts’ity’i and I’tcts’ity’i,
and together they created the Universe
and the four worlds below.
Thought-Woman, the spider,
named things and
as she named them
She is sitting in her room
thinking of a story now
I’m telling you the story
she is thinking.
And it continues, on the next page:
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.
You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.
When the narrative begins, then, we already know that this is a story about the power of story, to harm, to heal, to create and to destroy. What’s not yet clear is how great Silko really believes that power to be.
Tayo, a Laguna Pueblo Indian, has just returned from World War II and from the Bataan Death March. He is terribly ill, tormented by memories of his half-brother’s death as well as by shell-shock, exhaustion, and bewildered resentment that he has been made to fight for a country that has no respect for him. The VA’s medications and therapies aren’t working for him, and neither are the ancient Indian rituals, in which he no longer truly believes. Tayo is lingering close to death.
Then, a medicine man named Betonie comes to see him. He explains that the old rituals have to change and shift; that we all have to tell new stories to adapt to the changing times. This has always been the way. Only people who are afraid cling to the same old stories. With new rituals, new stories, we see and love the world as it is, and we can reject the witchery that desires our death.
This idea that stories change, that new elements become necessary as circumstances shift in order to create new life, resonates throughout the book. Tayo and his uncle reject the standard Hereford cattle that cannot thrive on barren, drought-stricken Pueblo land, in favor of wild, antelope-like Mexican cattle that can seek water for themselves. Tayo, always shunned for his mixed-race heritage, is the only one of his friends to return from the war and to find a way to survive the memories. The underlying theme of reconciliation and the creation of new life through new story is potent.
Yet this is not a soft book. It was written in 1977, just after the end of the Vietnam War, and I often found myself forgetting that Tayo was returning from the second World War and not from a more recent conflict. It is a book that’s not primarily directed at a white audience. There’s anger in it at the stories white people have wanted Native Americans to hear. But the overarching new story, of healing and change, is deeply powerful, and it’s so beautifully and sparely written that it almost comes as a surprise to find out how tense it is, and how much we care about Tayo’s work.
I read about this book over at Eva’s. She describes how moved she was by it, and how it captures both the experiences of one human being and some of the larger essence of what it means to be human. I echo her thoughts. This book was a true and surprising pleasure.