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  • "Next Time, Just Remember the Story" Unlearning Empire in Silko's Ceremony
  • Adrienne Akins (bio)

Leslie Marmon Silko concludes the preface to the thirtieth anniversary edition of her novel Ceremony by stating that "in all things related to the writing of Ceremony, I feel I was blessed, watched over, and protected by my beloved ancestors, and the old ones who told me the stories—Grandma A'mooh, Aunt Susie, and Grandpa Hank. May the readers and listeners of this novel be likewise blessed, watched over, and protected by their beloved ancestors" (xix). Silko tells the personal histories of these "old ones" who shared with her "the stories" in her 1981 work Storyteller; significantly, all three of the family members she mentions in the preface to Ceremony were students at historic American Indian boarding schools, and Silko explores their experiences with education in detail in Storyteller. Silko's great-grandmother "Grandma A'mooh" and great-aunt "Aunt Susie" graduated from the infamous Carlisle Indian School, whose founder Richard Henry Pratt summed up his educational philosophy in stating: "A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man" (260-61). Silko's Grandpa Hank graduated from Sherman Institute, a boarding school that, at the time of his attendance, similarly promoted American Indian assimilation into the mainstream of white American society, though not, as Silko highlights in her telling of Grandpa Hank's story, to the extent of offering equal opportunity. [End Page 1] During his time at Sherman Institute, Grandpa Hank "became fascinated with engineering and design and wanted to become an automobile designer. But in 1912 Indian schools were strictly vocational schools and the teachers at Sherman told Grandpa that Indians didn't become automobile designers. So when Grandpa Hank came home from Sherman he had been trained to be a store clerk" (Storyteller 192). Throughout Storyteller, Silko highlights how her influential relatives Grandpa Hank, Grandma A'mooh, and Aunt Susie both utilized and resisted the lessons they learned during their boarding school educations.

Silko most fully explores the educational philosophy of her great-aunt Susie Reyes Marmon, who pursued higher education after graduating from Carlisle and taught for many years in a one-room schoolhouse at Laguna Pueblo. The author characterizes Aunt Susie as a lifelong learner, a "scholar / of her own making" (Storyteller 7), noting that "[w]hen she returned to Laguna / she continued her studies / particularly of history" and that "[s]he had come to believe very much in books / and in schooling" (Storyteller 3-4). Silko underscores Aunt Susie's dedication to education in general as well as her profound awareness of the ways in which the "oral tradition in Laguna culture / had been irrevocably altered by the European intrusion— / principally by the practice of taking the children / away from Laguna to Indian schools / taking the children away from the tellers who had / in all past generations / told the children / an entire culture, an entire identity of a people" (Storyteller 6). Aunt Susie reconciles the tension between her love of all learning and her recognition of the potential dangers of white-dominated schooling by devoting herself, through both written and oral storytelling, to the preservation of "an entire culture" that was "passed down" through "word of mouth / an entire history / an entire vision of the world / which depended upon memory / and retelling by subsequent generations" (6). Silko further describes Aunt Susie's teaching philosophy in terms that emphasize the collective nature of learning and the preservation of cultural memory: "As with any generation / the oral tradition depends upon each person / listening and remembering a portion / and it is together— / all of us remembering [End Page 2] what we have heard together— / that creates the whole story / the long story of the people" (Storyteller 6-7). Given the prominent place that Silko gives to Aunt Susie and her other highly educated relatives in her preface...


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