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Leslie Marmon Silko and Simon J. Ortiz: Pathways to the Tradition
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Native American1 literature in North America has been in a self-declared state of renaissance since 1969. This rebirth is perhaps more aptly described as an attempt to recover traditions, beliefs, and even languages that were lost, suppressed, or marginalized during a centuries-long history of conquest that ended near the close of the nineteenth century, at least in military terms. The object of this recovery is to rediscover and revivify an identity uniquely Indian in its cultural and traditional affiliations (for example, Owens 1992:3–16). Native American writers such as Simon J. Ortiz and Leslie Marmon Silko have been at the forefront of this recovery, and both authors have been instrumental in suggesting how Native American oral traditions can be extended into the realm of a comparatively young literature.2 Aside from the great inherent differences between oral traditional and literary modes of expression, this undertaking is rendered problematic by the fact that the majority of Native American literature is written in English. Since students of Native oral traditions have focused much of their effort on delineating an ethnopoetics of those traditions,3 it appears at first blush that scholars of the traditions and the Native American writers who are seeking to extend those traditions may not have much in common even though the traditions are of central concern to both. Certainly their priorities are different. Also, it is clear that a literary tradition, by its very nature, must utilize oral tradition in ways that are convenient to its individualized ends, resulting in an abundance of divergent approaches even within the work of a single writer. Studies in Native American literature are in a creative ferment; the field is very diffuse, and much of the scholarship is exploratory and tentative in nature, as we shall see.

John Miles Foley’s recent work provides a convenient model on which to structure an inquiry into the links between Native oral traditions and literature. Foley’s Pathways Project (2011-) likens oral tradition to a network whose nodes are “linked topics.” This network “mime[s] the way we think by processing along pathways . . . . In both media it’s pathways—not things—that matter” (ibid.:“Home Page”).4Silko’s (1996:48–49) description of the Pueblo tradition as a spider’s web, though placing less elegant emphasis on functionality, is analogous. The literary tradition can also be described as a network if emphasis is placed on the associative processing humans apply to it—the natural perspective to adopt here, where the goal is to link two traditions. Silko’s and Ortiz’s stories provide vivid examples of how pathways can be drawn. Before turning to these stories I will first briefly—and tentatively—review the conjoining of Native literature and Native oral tradition. In the context of this background, I will then show how Silko’s and Ortiz’s stories cut pathways from a vibrant literary tradition to an equally vibrant, living oral tradition, and how traversal of these pathways gives rise to a mode of expression that enriches both traditions.

It is worth asking what traditional features are preserved in Native literature and how students of oral traditions can apply their knowledge to that literature. The answer is simplified by the fact that Native American writers are, to varying degrees, literary conservatives, a quality observed in oral traditions in general, as Walter J. Ong reminds us in his classic study Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982:41–42). This literary conservatism has more than one source; it is to some degree the product of a conservative culture that has survived under duress and to some degree a consequence of the search for an Indian identity rooted in Indian values and practices, especially storytelling. One of Leslie Marmon Silko’s goals has been to “translate this sort of feeling or flavor or sense of a story that’s told and heard onto the page” (Barnes 1993:50). Similarly, Ortiz, commenting on his own poem “That’s the Place Indians Talk About,” identifies his desire to “achieve a ritual-chant prayer poem” carefully tailored to accommodate performative imperatives like controlled breathing, “accents on certain words (emphasis), body language in...

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