by Theresa Delgadillo
This essay, originally prepared in 1996 for Professor Cherríe Moraga in her course on “Prophets/Scribes of Aztlán” at UCLA, has been updated and edited to meet Mujeres Talk requirements. Professor Moraga required students to do a kind of writing different from that typically required in a graduate seminar. She asked us to put ourselves into our critical work, and I took this to mean that we should write in a way that explicitly acknowledged the perspective from which we wrote, making clear and concrete, in writing, our investments and histories in the intellectual projects we undertake. For me, what it yielded was a creative non-fiction essay about a piece of literature, a form different than the academic article and made more so here through editing into a blog essay, a form that also calls upon authors to share more of oneself that one might in an academic journal. The blog essay is also a form necessarily focused on a small part of the literature under discussion, meant to provoke reflection, discussion, and further reading. I refer interested readers to the many excellent articles on Silko’s novel on the MLA International Bibliography.
In Almanac of the Dead (1991) Leslie Marmon Silko re-writes the history of the encounter between Europeans and indigenous peoples in the Americas. It is no longer the story of “civilization” meeting the barbarians, not the moment at which Indians begin to disappear, but a brutal, cunning, bloody, savage conquest that spawns equally brutal societies. It is almost as if Silko, in one massive novel, attempts to reverse generations of schooling on the history of this continent, though one has to be open and ready to hear new stories in order to understand the Almanac.
Growing up Chicana anywhere in the United States presents many challenges to one’s “story,” because our experience is undervalued or denied. We live in a nation where ours is not the official story, and yet it is ours. Like the speaker in Lorna Dee Cervantes’ poem who says, “I’m marked by the color of my skin” (35-7), so, too, have I been marked in every school I’ve been in since childhood. Though I knew it from my first day in school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I only began to understand it in seventh grade. One of my older brothers gave me a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), which I read while my Social Studies class studied the period of westward expansion into the Dakotas and the Black Hills Gold Rush. I was stunned by the glaring difference in these narratives. The two books had completely different things to say about the same events. While Indians were nowhere to be found in the school textbook, they were everywhere in Dee Brown’s account, prompting me to ask our teacher about this discrepancy.
My question to the teacher was not simply about facts or words, it was, as Linda Hogan says, about “ways of thinking and being in the world” (12). Around that time, there were a series of marches and protests by Wisconsin Native Americans in the news. Having already been mistaken for Native American, I knew that discriminatory treatment toward Native Americans was not unlike that directed against Mexican Americans. I was disturbed by how our textbook completely erased Native American peoples from history. Our teacher, however, insisted that our textbook was accurate. He dismissed my question. When I tried to explain what Dee Brown reveals in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, he told me to be quiet. I continued, but the teacher yelled at me. I then did something completely surprising to all, myself included: I yelled back. Another supervising teacher was called in. Lots of tense whispering, then the bell rang, and so did discussion.
When I read Almanac of the Dead, I thought back to this youthful confrontation with history. Today, I also have to wonder about where Latina/os were in that curriculum, but back then I was just beginning to understand then what the novel illustrates so well — the difference between dominant history and story/ies/histories. A conception of history in the singular as the static and unchangeable past shields it from inquiry and allows it to be compartmentalized and separated from both the present and the future. New knowledge cannot alter it. History in that sense is perhaps why the teacher could not accept another version of the same events in the Dakota Hills and why he did not even consider it important enough to discuss–the events were safely in the past and therefore not of major concern, not to mention that Dee Brown’s version of events was in conflict with the textbook narrative.
In Almanac of the Dead, there are two conceptions of the past diametrically opposed to one another: dominant history versus story/ies/histories. These distinct conceptions are really competing worldviews and they create conflicts for individual characters, who must decide which view will guide their lives. One character who experiences this conflict is Sterling:
[He] had been carefully following advice printed recently in a number of magazines concerning depression and the best ways of combating it. He had purposely been living in the present moment as much as he could. One article had pointed out that whatever has happened to you had already happened and can’t be changed. Spilled milk. But Sterling knows he’s one of those old-fashioned people who has trouble forgetting the past no matter how bad remembering might be for chronic depression. (24)
The past Sterling wants to forget is his banishment from Laguna Pueblo, yet he was raised on the stories of his Pueblo, including the dispossessions and indignities imposed upon them by government and dominant knowledge systems (31). He cannot forget one portion of the past without forgetting it all. He enjoys reading the Police Gazette, with its stories of criminals past, in part, because this is one place where Indians to appear in the history of the West with some attempt at understanding their perspective (39-40).
An awareness of the contrast between dominant history and story/histories also operates for the character of Clinton, who, as an African-American Vietnam veteran now homeless, tracks on the discrepancies between the two. Clinton remains highly critical of what he learns in university classes yet he also finds there, in Black Studies, research that confirms his sense of his people as more than mere pawns of history, and gains a wealth of knowledge on the experiences and cultures of Blacks (414-431). When he critically recalls how wealthy Cherokee Indians had been rounded up by orders of Andrew Jackson, Clinton insists that a “a people’s history” must include all the stories: “That was why a people had to know their history, even the embarrassments when bad judgment had got them slaughtered by the millions” (415).
In the novel, characters who refuse the stories of others are racked with fear, and in the novel, doomed to failure. As Linda Hogan observes, “the Western tradition of beliefs within a straight line of history leads to an apocalyptic end” (93). This is what the characters Beaufrey and Serlo see in the future–cities burning and anarchy reigning–which is why they want to develop modules to survive in space (542). An apocalyptic ending is also what the character Menardo sees and why he is obsessed with insurance and security (266). In the novel, his first wife, Iliana, too, proud of the historical pedigree of having been descended from the conquistador De Oñate “still was gnawed by the fear that disaster was stalking all of them” (270). That fear is also one shared and preyed upon in the novel by characters representing the military regimes of Latin America and their U.S. collaborators.
Another view of the future emerges in the novel from the character of the Barefoot Hopi, who presents a perspective challenging for humans when he says:
You destroyers….don’t know how much the spirits of these continents despise you, how the earth hates you….All the riches ripped from the heart of the earth will be reclaimed by the oceans and mountains. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions of enormous magnitude will devastate the accumulated wealth of the Pacific Rim. (734)
Unlike Serlo’s view or Menardo’s view, this prediction of cataclysmic events is not a prediction of end, but of beginning. In the Hopi’s view, the world does not revolve around humans and therefore the end of things human is not a catastrophe. He predicts that the Earth will cleanse itself and continue; this he does not fear. His view parallels Yoeme’s, who says that the sacred Earth “would go on, [it] would outlast anything man did to it” (718). This is what Sterling comes to understand, too: “Burned and radioactive, with all humans dead, the earth would still be sacred. Man was too insignificant to desecrate her” (762). In the course of the novel, several characters arrive at this understanding of the earth’s story, and must re-consider human interaction with it. Yet, do the Barefoot Hopi’s words leave us off the hook for what happens to the Earth or inspire responsibility?
The old woman Yoeme’s notebook, carried by the children in the novel, says, “sacred time is always in the Present” (136). Though it may sound like the same message of the magazines Sterling reads to cope with depression, it is not. Instead, it is akin to what Linda Hogan’s grandmother articulates: “Our work is our altar” (148); or what Hogan herself describes as “what happens to people and what happens to the land is the same thing” (89). The idea of the sacred in the present recognizes the web of existence that links humans with the natural world. It is also an idea that imposes demands on characters in this novel. As Silko says in an article in Artforum, “for the old people, no one person or thing is better than another; hierarchies presuming superiority and inferiority are considered absurd.”
The conception of story in the novel knits together past, present, and future. Story is alive and everything has a story, but not the same one. Story in this novel is not only the narratives characters create to make meaning of life, but movements and experiences of peoples, the variety of plants and animals in the natural world, the Earth itself. To embrace story appears as a way to embrace a worldview that accepts the interconnectedness of organisms through time.
Many characters in Almanac struggle to make sense of their story, trying to fit their past with their present and future. Some try to forget their own story and instead embrace history, like Menardo; some are rejected because they are evidence of a past that their families want to forget, like Root; some think that their own history is everybody’s history, like Bartolomeo; some see only part of the past and therefore mistakenly think they know what the future will be, like Beaufrey and Serlo; some make connections between other stories and their own and organize people to act with others, such as Angelita and El Feo; some people tell their own stories/histories, such as Clinton, Tacho, the Barefoot Hopi, Wilson Weasel Tail Clinton, Angelita and Lecha; while others, most, struggle to understand the relationship between their stories and other stories. Like the children carrying the pages of the almanac north (246-253), each person in Silko’s novel carries a story that is incomplete without the other stories/histories.
The almanac-carrying children are fleeing “the Butcher” who is enslaving and murdering their tribe, an allusion to both a historical genocide and contemporary circumstances forcing children to flee north. In this storyline, the novel represents the very real experience of the Yaqui tribe, who created a testamento of their creation and their land that is passed down today in handwritten notebooks, and even, as Evers and Molina point out, has been carried by messengers who had the document sewn into their clothes (32). Like Silko’s fictional almanac, both a document and an oral story altered with the additions of each narrator, it is expected and necessary that the Yaqui testamento be “unfixed” by those re-telling it (Evers and Molina 23). These are only two examples of the many stories and histories that are embedded in Almanac of the Dead.
As the character Clinton points out in the Almanac, denying people their histories helps to ensure submission and subordination (431), cutting people off from the stories of their ancestors means stranding them in madness and meanness (424). The novel seems to ask us: Do we recognize story/ies/histories, recognize “differences” as Calabazas says (203), and learn from them? Or do we continue to privilege destruction?
Cervantes, Lorna Dee. Emplumada. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.
Evers, Larry and Felipe S. Molina. “The Holy Dividing Line: Inscription and Resistance in Yaqui Culture.” Journal of the Southwest. 34:1. (1992): 3-46.
Hogan, Linda. Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World. New York: Norton, 1995.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Almanac of the Dead. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. “The Fourth World.” Artforum. 28:10. (1989): 124-125.
Theresa Delgadillo is an Associate Professor of Comparative Studies and Coordinator of the Latina/o Studies Program at The Ohio State University. She has served as Editor of Mujeres Talk since January 2011.