Leslie Marmon Silko was born on March 5, 1948, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Raised on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in northern New Mexico, Silko’s cultural and ethnic heritage was a mix of Laguna Pueblo, Plains Indian, Mexican, and Anglo-American. She attended schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Catholic schools in Albuquerque. Also central to her education were several generations of women in her family, such as her grandmother and aunt, from whom she learned much about her cultural traditions. In 1969 Silko received her B.A. from the University of New Mexico, where she graduated summa cum laude. Her short story “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” was first published while she was still in college, and has since been reprinted in several anthologies. She briefly attended law school, but left in order to pursue a career in writing. Silko has taught at Navajo Community College in Tsaile, Arizona; the University of New Mexico; and the department of English at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She spent two years living in Alaska, where she wrote her first novel, Ceremony (1977).
“Lullaby” is one of the most noted pieces in Storyteller. It is told from the perspective of an old woman reminiscing about some of the most tragic events of her life, all of which seem to be precipitated by the intrusions of white authority figures into her home. She recalls being informed of the death of her son in war, the loss of her children taken by white doctors, and the exploitative treatment of her husband by the white rancher who employs him. Furthermore, these events seem to have led to a long-term alienation between the old woman and her husband. Yet she also recalls strong ties with her own grandmother and mother.
“Lullaby” first appeared in Storyteller (1981), a book in which Silko interweaves autobiographical reminiscences, short stories, poetry, photographs of her family (taken by her father) and traditional songs. The book as a whole is concerned with the oral tradition of storytelling in Native American culture. Through a variety of formats, Silko attempts to reproduce the effect of oral storytelling in a written English form. She is also concerned with the transformative power of storytelling in the lives of her characters and the role of storytelling in maintaining cultural traditions and intergenerational ties, particularly in a matrilineal line from grandmother to granddaughter. Because of this focus, the physical surroundings of the action of “Lullaby” are not central to its narrative. The story begins with Ayah, an old Native American woman, leaning against a tree near a stream, reminiscing about some of the most tragic events of her life, as well as about the role of her grandmother in some of the most happy events of her life: “She was an old woman now, and her life had become memories.” She recalls watching her mother weaving outside on a big loom, while her grandmother spun wool into yarn. She remembers her mother and the old woman who helped her give birth to her first child, Jimmie. Yet she also recalls the time the white man came to her door to announce that Jimmie had died in a helicopter crash in the war. Because Ayah could not speak English, her husband, Chato, had to translate the tragic news to her. As Ayah reminisces about her life, including the loss of her children, the eventual rift between her husband and herself, and other tragic losses, the narrative slowly catches up to the present. In recent years, Ayah and Chato have begun receiving federal assistance checks in order to survive-Chato would immediately cash the check and go spend it at the bar. In the present tense of the story, Ayah goes there to look for him. When she does not find him there, she goes out in the snow to search for him, and comes upon him walking toward home. When they stop to rest, he lies down in the snow, and she realizes that he is dying. She tucks a blanket around him and begins to sing a lullaby her grandmother had sung when she was little: “And she sang the only song she knew how to sing for babies. She could not remember if she had ever sung it to her children, but she knew that her grandmother had sung it and her mother had sung it.”
The role of storytelling in Native American culture is a theme central to all of Silko’s work. “Lullaby” appears in a collection that is especially concerned with ways of translating the oral tradition of storytelling into a written English format. Ayah, the old woman who is the main character, does not tell a story directly to another person; however, the story comprises her reminiscences, which function as a form of internal storytelling. This written story captures the structure of an oral story, in that it weaves past memories and present occurrences through a series of associations, rather than in a set chronological order.
“Lullaby” is told from the third-person-restricted point of view. That means that, although the narrator is not a character in the story, the perspective of the story is entirely from that of the main character, Ayah. An old woman in the present tense of the story, Ayah thinks back on key events in her life. The story thus interweaves the present time of the old woman sitting outside, then going to look for her husband at the local bar, with her memories from childhood through old age. The story is told in non-chronological order, jumping from one time period or incident to another and back again, reproducing the old woman’s thought patterns rather than a standard narrative flow of events from beginning to end.
Silko was part of a new generation of Native American writers who emerged in the 1970s in what has been termed the Native American Renaissance in literature. This particular story was written in the wake of significant political activism among Native Americans. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement lead by African Americans, Native Americans in the 1960s began to exert increasingly organized efforts to overcome cultural oppression. The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1968 by four Native American men. AIM organized three highly publicized protests during the early 1970s, including the occupation of Alcatraz Island (in San Francisco Bay) for nineteen months in 1969-1971; a march on Washington, D.C., in 1972; and a protest at the historical battle site at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1973. Wounded Knee is the site at which over 200 Sioux Indians were massacred by U.S. troops in 1890, and represents the ultimate defeat of Native Americans by the United States. From February 27 to May 8, 1973, 200 members of AIM took over the reservation hamlet by force, in protest against U.S. policy toward Native Americans. The protest turned violent when the AIM members were surrounded by federal marshals, and a siege ended with the surrender of the Native Americans after two of the Indians had been killed and one of the federal marshals badly wounded. The AIM members did, however, win a promise of attention to their concerns by the U.S. government. AIM was disbanded in the early 1980s.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The 1970s, during which Silko’s short story “Lullaby” was first written, were a significant time in the history of Native American struggles with mainstream American culture. Learn more about the political, cultural and economic struggles of Native American tribes from the 1960s through the 1990s. What national organizations of Native Americans are active today? What has changed as a result of these struggles? Was has not changed?
Ceremony (1977), also by Silko, interweaves free verse poetry with narrative prose. The novel tells the story of Tayo, a World War II veteran of mixed Anglo-Indian heritage, who returns to the reservation after the war, psychologically wounded by his war experiences. Rejecting alcohol and other diversions, Tayo must come to terms with his cultural heritage in a process of spiritual and psychological healing. Other stories by Silko that explore the role of storytelling and storyteller in contemporary Native American culture are included in her collection, Storyteller (1981), which is a compilation of autobiographical reminiscences, stories, poetry, songs, and photographs.