The title of Ishmael Reed and Al Young’s anthology Yardbird Lives! jumps out, meets me, sits with me on the page. It’s a utopian exclamation, analogous in sentiment to Octavia Butler’s “Earthseed,” the science-fictional revealed religion in her Parable novels. I think, too, of Hummingbird and Green Fly’s adventures “in time immemorial” in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony. Read beside “Earthseed,” the others seem like allegories of space travel. Reed runs his Afrofuturism in a way similar to Sun Ra. Time and space travel are returned from Western futurity to their home in Ancient Egypt. In Silko’s Laguna Pueblo cosmology, travel involves movement among “the world of the people” and “worlds below.” In Frederick Douglass, we encounter a similar narrative of flight, do we not? Leaving behind the Garden-that-is-in-fact-a-Slave-Plantation, Douglass travels to another world. With Gary Snyder, meanwhile, the focus is on saving this world, the continent and world of Turtle Island, or what Snyder in another of his books calls Earth House Hold.
Note how Leslie Marmon Silko situates the writing of her novel Ceremony in a particular place. The book conjures the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, though it was written, as Silko states in the book’s preface, “750 miles north of Seattle” in Ketchikan, Alaska. Silko moved to Ketchikan “from Chinle, Arizona in late spring of 1973” (xi). Silko describes for us the room where she wrote the book so that, when we read the poem “Ceremony” that opens the novel, it is her that we recognize as the creation-figure “Ts’its’tsi’nako, Thought-Woman” (1). It is she who, with her sisters “Nau’ts’ity’i and I’tcts’ity’i,” “created the Universe / this world / and the four worlds below” (1). So begins the ceremony of Ceremony. Silko is a writer of mixed ancestry — a borderlands figure stuck between cultures, as the Chicana cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa would say. See Anzaldúa’s famous book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza — a work that, like Ceremony, mixes poetry and prose. Ceremony‘s protagonist Tayo is another such figure. Raised on the reservation but of mixed ancestry.
What happens when Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is read alongside Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony? Both texts mingle mythoi and logoi. They tell tales and give accounts. Healers figure centrally in each novel. In Ceremony, we encounter medicine men like Betonie; in Mumbo Jumbo, we encounter PaPa LaBas, the novel’s “HooDoo psychiatrist” protagonist. Both characters rebel against Western teachings. Their cognitive maps are anti-colonial assemblages containing ancient wisdoms retained by their people — tools used to survive and resist in the age of Empire. Armed with these maps, protagonists interpret America as the work of evil magicians operating in secret across hundreds or even thousands of years. Healing requires use of sacred practice: a counter-magic of indigenous rites and ceremonies, story and dance.
Indigenous people possess a knowledge of the land that settler people lack. Land is part of their being — their idea-systems, their stories, their practices. Much has been taken from them, but they survive, they persist. The way they do so, individually and collectively, is through creation and performance of ceremony. Hoops, star maps, sand paintings: these are architectures used to shelter acts of healing. In Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, we encounter the hogan and the kiva (238). A “kiva” is a room used by Puebloans for rites and political meetings. The room is circular and underground. In Ceremony, a tribal council of old men use a kiva to counteract the influence of the world of the “destroyers” — evil magicians who try to bring on the end of the world through what Silko calls “the witchery.” Capitalism, colonialism, primitive accumulation — all are tools devised by the destroyers. History is understood as the handiwork of an occult, esoteric conspiracy of grand, cosmic, spiritual proportion. All of that may be no more than a “poor person’s cognitive map,” as the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson once said — but it’s one that works, one that allows Tayo and his people to survive. Silko’s ambitions are grand. She weaves into her narrative an awareness of its proximity to Los Alamos and Trinity. When reading, one finds oneself wondering about the meaning of the Manhattan Project as an event in Native American history and cosmology. Native Americans have seen their lands mined, bombed, cut down with US weaponry for centuries. The US tested weapons on native land in the deserts of New Mexico; they then used those weapons against Japanese civilians in 1945. Silko’s protagonist Tayo finds himself caught in that narrative; he and his brother fought the Japanese during their service in the US army during WWII. Tayo returns from the war sick about the loss of his brother Rocky — but sick as well with shame about having left the reservation to serve in the white man’s army.
Leslie Marmon Silko’s prose is rich with description of inner and outer landscapes. Her 1977 novel Ceremony couples an anguished, grieving, war-wounded protagonist with a loving, persevering attention to and care for the land and its people. In her telling of the story of Tayo’s ceremony, Silko conjures before us the space, the territory, the land in and around the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. A couple appears at a key moment in Tayo’s narrative. They go unnamed during this encounter, yet they provide Tayo with the assistance and safekeeping he needs to prevail in his quest to recover his dead uncle’s stolen cattle. Silko floats the idea that this couple might exist in “time immemorial.” They’re indigenous spirits, we might say, who descend and lend a hand. Whatever we make of the ontological status of these beings, they produce effects of a positive sort in the lifeworld of the protagonist. Later in the novel, however, Tayo reconnects with the woman. She tells him she’s a Montaño and that he can call her Ts’eh. Yet her knowledge, and the advice she offers, suggests that she’s not quite of the same substance as Tayo. One suspects that one is reading a kind of ghost story.
There are many concepts and themes I hope to discuss with students when reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s powerful, transformative first novel Ceremony. Tayo, the novel’s Laguna Pueblo protagonist, occupies being, relates himself to land and people, under the burden of a tragic history. But his story tells of healing and survival through belief and practice of indigenous ways of life. Tayo worries that he cursed the rain and caused a drought while watching his brother Rocky die beside him in combat in the Philippines. The book enacts a ceremony to heal him. We can think of the novel here as a form of medicine, prescribed by the medicine man Betonie. I wonder, though: Is a medicine man a shaman? Medicine people are sometimes referred to as “traditional healers.” They lead ceremonies. A review from a 1936 issue of Nature magazine warns against confusing medicine men with “shaman and priest-magicians.” The medicine person’s “theory and practice,” writes the reviewer, “are based on psychology and theology rather than on pathology and pharmacology.” Despite these possibly specious differences in method, though, the figure is like the shaman in that it acts as the tribe’s go-between with the spirit world. The only major difference, as I understand it, is that shaman perform this function among tribes of northeast Asia. The term has been imported injudiciously, in other words, into North American ethnographic writing from elsewhere — so in discussions of Ceremony, it’s important to maintain a distinction between these figures, while nevertheless noting their similarities.
What are we to make of Tommy Orange’s There There, with its story of a Powwow interrupted by violence? Why is that the event where the book’s interlinked narratives connect? Orange is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, as is his character Dene Oxendene, a young documentary filmmaker collecting stories from Native people in his hometown. Dene is thus a version of Orange himself, allowing the novelist to comment metafictionally about the politics of representing one’s community, particularly when one is a member of an oppressed people. Can the one allow the many to speak? Can the many speak through the one?
A short walk and a phone call to wish a nephew happy birthday: things I do over the course of the afternoon. Earlier in the day I rescued my mother-in-law’s earring. The day has been a chilly one — though sunny now after a morning of rain. The day’s walk is a time to range about, thinking about life on reservations. My familiarity with Native American literature, however, is shamefully quite limited. Time to change that. Use the year ahead, I tell myself, as an opportunity to pursue what Fred Moten calls “fugitive study.” But also remain present, centered, exchanging greetings and conversation with members of the community. Note development across time of stories, forms, archetypes, mythopoetic patterns. Parallel compute across multiple modes.