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.
In the context of the story, all of the major tragedies of Ayah’s life are precipitated by the intrusion of white authorities into her home. The cultural oppression of Native Americans in general is indicated through the personal losses Ayah has suffered at the hands of white culture. It is a white man who informs Ayah and Chato of this loss, symbolizing the larger racial issue of Native Americans dying in service to a nation that has oppressed them. Ayah’s coercion into signing away her children also has much deeper implications in the context of Native American history. The near-genocide of Native Americans by the U.S. government in the 19th century was in part characterized by the practice of tricking Native Americans into signing “treaties” that worked to their disadvantage. Finally, the rancher who employs Chato is another symbol of oppressive white authority. When Chato breaks his leg on the job from falling off a horse, the rancher refuses to pay him until he is able to work again. And when he determines that Chato is too old to work, he fires him and kicks the old couple out of their home to make room for new workers. These actions add class oppression onto the conditions of racial oppression from which Ayah and her family suffer.
Another major theme in “Lullaby” is the language barrier between the Native American woman and the white authorities whose language she cannot understand. The language barrier caused by her inability to understand the English- or Spanish-speaking white people adds to Ayah’s experience of being taken advantage of by white people. When a white man comes to the door to inform them that their son Jimmie has died in the war, Ayah is unable to understand him; her husband Chato has to translate for her. The white doctors take advantage of Ayah’s inability to understand English by bullying her into signing a piece of paper that gives them permission to take her children away. Although the children are occasionally brought back to visit Ayah, they eventually forget their native language, and can only speak English. The loss of their native language signifies the complete alienation of the children from their traditional Native American culture, as well as from their family. Silko’s concern with Native American culture and tradition in the modern world encompasses a desire to preserve Native American speaking styles, if not the language itself.