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Envisioning a "Network of Tribal Coalitions": Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead

From: The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 26, Number 4, Fall 2002
pp. 623-640 | 10.1353/aiq.2004.0008

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The American Indian Quarterly 26.4 (2002) 623-640

Leslie Marmon Silko's second novel, Almanac of the Dead, attempts to overcome the limitations of the American Indian Movement by presenting readers with the model of "tribal internationalists," individuals who work with international alliances to reclaim their Indigenous land. In Almanac Silko suggests that cross-cultural spiritual coalitions made up of "tribal internationalists" would provide a more powerful means of combating the social, political, and economic injustice faced by American Indians (and many oppressed peoples around the world) than secular politics based on ethnicity and race alone. In a 1976 interview with Per Seyersted, given toward the end of the American Indian Movement's heyday, Silko critiques the secular organization for being "too similar to other American political groups." Silko implies that although some positive changes resulted from the American Indian Movement, it failed to bring about the total amelioration of injustice because it mimicked the oversimplifications and divisions of secular identity politics. She states, "I feel it is more effective to write a story... than to rant and rave. I think it is more effective in reaching people." For Silko novels and stories offer a more effective way to enact social change because they are capable of "reaching people" on a profound emotional level and connect them "through time—back to a time before this person was born." Almanac attempts to succeed where the American Indian Movement failed by overcoming the divisiveness and limitations of secular politics with the expansiveness of coalition politics that connects individuals "through time" and space to each other, living and long dead. Silko sees this connection as one of the "spirit," connecting living readers to the spirits of dead ancestors and the spirits of the earth and natural world. Silko believes that these cross-national spiritual connections have the power to resist injustice in the Americas more effectively than secular political and nationalist movements.

It is not surprising that this aspect of Silko's fiction has drawn powerful critiques from scholars. In Why I Can't Read Wallace Stegner and Other Essays, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn states that Silko, like other successful contemporary American Indian writers Louise Erdrich, Michael Dorris, James Welch, and N. Scott Momaday, "may have moved away from nationalist concerns in order to gain the interest of mainstream readers." Cook-Lynn suggests that to ignore American Indian nationalist concerns regarding tribal sovereignty is irresponsible because literature can act as a basis for political action. Although Cook-Lynn includes Silko in her list of irresponsible American Indian writers because of her earlier works, she praises Almanac of the Dead for its "nationalist's approach to historical events." She argues that the novel ultimately "fails in this nationalist approach," however, because Silko's focus on "pan-Indian" connections "might seem unworkable or even offensive to those nation-states that insist upon the accuracy of their own specific histories." She explains Silko's "offense" as perhaps a product of the Laguna Pueblo tribe Silko was raised in because Laguna's nation status is secured under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, unlike most American Indian sovereignty claims based on tribally specific treaties.

In a similar attempt to explain Silko's "misjudgment" in focusing on cross-cultural connections, Arnold Krupat argues that rather than presenting a nationalist or Indigenous position, Silko's status as a "mixed-blood" leads her to explore "post-Indian" cosmopolitanism. His reference to Silko's mixed racial heritage hearkens back to Paula Gunn Allen's famous critique of Ceremony as being a novel "about a half-breed," written as a "plea for inclusion by a writer who felt excluded and compelled to depict the potential importance of breeds to Laguna survival." The word "breed"—alerting readers to Silko's mixed American Indian/white heritage—is used by Allen to attempt to explain why Silko's first novel presented a clan story to a cross-cultural readership. Cook-Lynn, Krupat, and Allen seem compelled to explain Silko's focus on cross-cultural political and spiritual connections as being a negative product of her environment or racial heritage rather than as a conscious attempt to strengthen American Indian tribal sovereignty. I believe, however, that...



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