Somewhere outside Tucson, there’s a Laguna Pueblo/Euro-American/Mexican-American woman living in a house with space blankets tacked inside the windows, with half a dozen mastiffs, a pit bull, a pet rattlesnake, a small flock of macaws (including a twenty-two-year-old named Sandino, with one leg—owl attack), an African gray parrot singing along to Sesame Street, and tables full of crystal quartz and turquoise pieces collected from the arroyos nearby. She’s probably painting canvases to communicate with “Star Beings.” She is Leslie Marmon Silko, best known for her 1977 novel Ceremony.
Here’s a passage from The Turquoise Ledge, a memoir of Silko’s life in Arizona, and her first book in ten years: “If gravity is distributed in this Universe unevenly, then there are places here on Earth where the gravity is weaker or stronger, where even light may speed up or slow down. At a certain walking speed, my eyes received light images from a parallel plane. Parallel planes or worlds may be visible briefly at certain points in this world from time to time. Thus the discrepancies between my recollections and notes immediately after a walk and what I actually find when I attempt to locate those places again.” The book is built on an unsettling amalgam of science, poetry, and Laguna and pan-Indian mythology that at first seems merely batty. But it is in fact an important record and, for a reader, physical experience of a temporality and rationality at least in part outside a linear, empirical (and imperialist) Euro-American cosmology. Silko’s encounters with animals, vegetables, and minerals around her become windows into what she calls—literally or poetically, I can’t say for sure—these “parallel planes” of existence.
The Turquoise Ledge is a record of its own making—there’s basically no narrative, and it has the sedate non-plot of a settled writer’s life. A forty-five-page section on rattlesnakes lists scores of interactions with and thoughts on her serpentine neighbors. Equally long sections cover turquoise and the Star Beings, deities that return to Earth every 700 to 800 years, and whose contempt for and wrath upon humans is heralded by artist/prophets like, say, Silko. An undertone of menace rumbles throughout from the bulldozers of an anonymous developer, threatening a nearby arroyo.
It is not a cleverly structured book and mostly lacks the quality of modern legend that is so compelling in Silko’s fiction. But I loved inhabiting a mind that lives and breathes in space rather than time, in myth rather than report. Theoretical critiques of “historical progress…through a homogenous, empty time” (as in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”) are legion, but how does one begin to live any other way? The disjointed form of the “Theses” reflects the fact that for those of us steeped in European ideas of progress and truth, it is only possible to momentarily turn our backs against the storm of progress that pulls us (like Benjamin’s “angel of history”) forward. But could I practice nonlinear time or non-empirical ontology?
Since Silko’s first novel, Ceremony, she has engaged these questions. Ceremony is one of the best modern American Indian works of literature, and it has become a staple of the multiculturalist canon—though it’s not necessary to confine it on that reservation. It follows a half-Laguna vet who returns from World War II and tries to recover from shell shock through a spiritual journey, from a modern medicine man whose hogan is full of telephone books and Woolworth bags in addition to desert herbs and animal hides; to the sordid Indian bars and shantytowns of Gallup, New Mexico; to a pursuit of some half-wild cattle and a sexual encounter with a supernatural woman—all melded into a moving, nonlinear Southwestern legend. As the protagonist begins to shed the skin of his shell shock, he abandons Euro-American time: “The ride into the mountain had branched into all directions of time. He knew then why the oldtimers could only speak of yesterday and tomorrow in terms of the present moment … and this present sense of being was qualified with bare hints of yesterday or tomorrow, by saying, ‘I go up to the mountain yesterday or I go up to the mountain tomorrow.’” Because Silko is connected to a tradition of nonlinear storytelling as well as Euro-American literary tradition, and because she inhabits a landscape, the desert Southwest, where parallel planes of time and energy are so apparent—in the stratified geology (millions of years made simultaneous), local claims of energy vortices, and the extremely slow decomposition of dead plants and animals—her ideas aren’t as arid or impractical as theory. Nor are they as easily disregarded as New Age hokum, though they come closer to this ledge.
Silko’s writing has a quality like a dream or a drug trip: its internal logic promises a new world, yet it sounds a bit banal and ridiculous when explained the next morning. When I was reading page 98 of The Turquoise Ledge, a section in which Silko sees, four days after her mother’s death in 2001, two “rain cloud blue” rattlesnakes just fifty feet apart on the trails near her house and explains how those snakes are her mother’s “human form and energy changed and joined with the silver blue light of the morning”—when I was reading this, a dragonfly alighted on the cover of the book. It was a gorgeous day in New York, and I was lying on my right side in the grass with the book propped sideways on the ground. The dragonfly landed on the thin edge of the book’s front cover, a cardboard turquoise ledge. The dragonfly was red, all hues of red. The head was brown with a slight rusty tinge in the eyes; it twitched around, sensing invisible signs. The thorax was maroon-brown and furry. The abdomen was burgundy underneath with a shell of nail-polish red on top. Normally I would thoughtlessly brush such a beast away, but I paused for a minute or two to watch it, noting the copper gleam to its legs and its steady patience.
What if one were to live so attentively all the time?
Silko was born in Albuquerque in 1948—“the year of the supernova in the Mixed Spiral galaxy” and “the Year of the Rat,” she tells us in a typical cultural mashup—and grew up at the edge of Laguna Pueblo (the reservations of Pueblo tribes, organized around centuries-old villages, are typically referred to as pueblos). She was formally educated in Albuquerque. Her family roots are Laguna, white, Mexican American, and another unknown Texas Indian tribe, but having grown up in the pueblo she identifies with Laguna storytelling traditions most strongly. “My sense of narrative structure, of how a story needs to be told,” she writes, “all of this came to me from the stories Aunt Alice, Aunt Susie and Grandpa Hank told me.” She also grew up alongside the Pan-Indian activist movement that arose among the large numbers of Indians displaced from reservations to cities in the 1940s and ’50s, either after returning from World War II or through federal efforts to relocate reservation Indians and politically terminate their tribes. In 1969, the same year Silko published her first story, the movement became militant when the first “Red Power” activists took over Alcatraz Island in the name of Indians of All Tribes.
Also that year, the first modern “Indian manifesto” was published: Custer Died for Your Sins, by the Sioux activist and scholar Vine Deloria Jr. Ceremony and the rest of Silko’s work evolved alongside Deloria’s, and her writing reflects the influence of his philosophical and religious thought. She wrote a short foreword to the thirtieth anniversary edition of his 1972 book God Is Red and a blurb for Red Earth, White Lies, his 1995 critique of the Euro-American “myth of scientific thought.” In her foreword to God Is Red, Silko writes that Deloria “expressed what a great many of us Indians felt and thought” and that his importance “will be appreciated by future generations when U.S. history ceases to be fabricated for the glory of the white man.” Deloria helped define a Native identity and worldview in modern, radical terms, and his work illuminates the method in the apparent madness of Silko’s new memoir.
Deloria, who died in 2005, was a stylish and sometimes funny writer, the polemicist to Silko’s poet, and many of his arguments are appealing. The principal difference between Native and European thought, he wrote in God Is Red, is that Indians privilege place in their perception of the world whereas Europeans privilege linear, progressive time. With Yankton Sioux, French, and English ancestors, an Episcopal missionary father (in South Dakota), and training as a Christian theologian, Deloria was as much a critic of Euro-American culture as an explicator of Indian cultures.
Without a respect for the gravity of place, Deloria argues, European thought extrapolates from “the manifestation of deity in a particular local situation” to a universal truth that must be crammed down the throats of everyone on earth. He also contrasts the Judeo-Christian “alienation of nature and the world from human beings as a result of Adam’s immediate postcreation act” (original sin) with Indian beliefs in which, for example, animals and even inanimate objects are included in the invocation “all my relations.” Later, as white America became more secularized, science assumed the role of unquestionable, universal truth that Christianity once held. With Red Earth, White Lies (1995), Deloria took on this new threat to Indian cosmology. Looking at science from the perspective of people who have again and again been its objects of study—implicitly subhuman, better suited to the natural history museum than the art museum—Deloria was wary. Every benefit of Euro-American knowledge has come with a shadow of death, theft, and exploitation, so it’s not surprising that the whole enterprise could look like a big smallpox blanket.
Silko’s work also engages white knowledge and its tyranny over Indian knowledge. Priests and science teachers repudiate Native “superstitions,” sometimes brutally, and then white science, economics, and religion appear in all their destructiveness. Silko is a self-described “down-winder,” and uranium mining and nuclear tests—the dubious fruits of science—are recurring themes in her fiction and nonfiction. The ravages of World War II are the basis of Ceremony. And her most ambitious book, the 750-page bizarre and visionary epic novel Almanac of the Dead (1991), imagines a sordid and legendary end to the white man’s era through organ-harvesting corporations, drug and arms trades, and Indian uprisings in Latin America. Yet its truths remain place-bound: in the novel, Tucson is the center of the world. (The January 2011 rampage in which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head would fit smoothly into its narrative; in it, a part-Indian clairvoyant—a stand-in for Silko herself—imagines murders and sickness in the manner of a fiction storyteller.)
In Red Earth, White Lies—perhaps the scholarly counterpart to Almanac of the Dead—Deloria’s reactionary impulses overtook the philosophical promise of God Is Red. Rather than shun science as outside the realm of theology or reclaim it as reinforcing a Native cosmology, Deloria picked and chose bits of scientific data that appealed to him and reinterpreted them in a way that half-plausibly jibed with similarly cherry-picked stories from Indian country. The result resembles science fiction and “intelligent design” theory as much as any traditional Indian cosmology. He argues that theories about Paleo-Indians migrating to the Americas over the Bering Strait land bridge merely aim to portray Indians as “latecomers who had barely unpacked before Columbus came knocking on the door,” in order to justify further land grabs. Chains of shaky logic lead from there to his own theories that giants in Indian legends are scientifically possible because of elevated carbon dioxide levels in ancient times. I sympathize with his suspicion of a scientific method that, while basically humble and self-questioning, has often been a rhetorical and literal weapon in service of genocide. But here the suspicion metastasizes into madness.
The Turquoise Ledge is not innocent of this way of thinking, which is in its way an alternative to empirical European epistemology, being a travesty of it. Silko mentions offhandedly that in 500 years everyone in the Americas will speak Nahuatl or another Uto-Aztecan language rather than English or Spanish, and later asserts that the sun’s expansion as a red giant has accelerated and that she can feel its subatomic particles pass through her, “leaving behind coded messages in my bloodstream.” Reading the book I got used to her letting fly with one jaw-dropper after another. But unlike in Red Earth, White Lies, I enjoyed these speculations. In part the difference is Silko’s literary voice, which is matter-of-fact but friendly; the writing is patient and poetic and generous, if sometimes, like meditation or extended storytelling, a bit monotonous. Deloria’s voice turned from good-humored erudition back in the ’60s and ’70s to harangue in the ’90s. The difference also comes from the genre, memoir—instead of dodgy scholarship. I picture the theories coming from a wacky hermit with a macaw named Sandino, rather than from an insistent professor. (Other than Laguna storytelling tradition, Emily Dickinson appears as Silko’s biggest influence in The Turquoise Ledge. Three Dickinson poems appear in the text, chosen for their “mysterious glimpses of transcendence and eternity.” It’s easy to see how Dickinson fits in with Silko’s parochial yet prophetic vision.)
As a literary point of view—that’s a white, secular way of saying “truth” or “faith”—her cosmology is singular and compelling. In Deloria’s terms, her manifestation of deity is based squarely in a specific place, and her sense of time is effortlessly discontinuous. “I learned the world of the clock and calendar when I started school,” Silko writes, “but I’ve never lost my sense of being alive without reference to clocks or calendars.” The concept of “Indian time,” which whites use to criticize the lack of hurry and punctuality in Indian country, begins to look like a resistance to temporal colonization.
As a child watching her father, then the tribal treasurer, take Laguna elders to testify for the tribe’s claims to millions of acres of land in federal court, she took the lesson that “if I could tell the story clearly enough then all that was taken, including the land, might be returned.” Like the psychic in Almanac of the Dead, she would narrate justice into existence. And yet she doesn’t push her truth as exclusive; it is, like those elders’ accounts, testimony. Her theories can’t wholly supplant Euro-American science or philosophy in our broader culture, but they’re not trying to.
I keep thinking of an example Deloria cites in God Is Red, a parable related by the Sioux physician Charles Eastman in his 1911 book, The Soul of the Indian. A missionary tells a group of Indians the story of Genesis: the creation of the earth in six days and the fall of Adam and Eve. The “courteous savages listened attentively,” as Deloria wryly paraphrases it, and then one of them responds with his tribe’s story of the origin of maize. The missionary of course demurs at the Creation Story being equated with “mere fable and falsehood.” And the Indian scolds him: “It seems you have not been well grounded in the rules of civility. You saw that we, who practice these rules, believed your story; why, then, do you refuse to credit ours?”
Josh Garrett-Davis was born and raised in South Dakota. His first book, Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains, will be published next year by Little, Brown. His writing has appeared in dislocate, High Country News, TheRumpus.net, Lapham's Quarterly online, and South Dakota History. He has an MFA from Columbia University and is now a PhD sutdent in U.S. history at Princeton. He lives in Philadelphia.
The Turquoise Ledge
Leslie Marmon Silko
2010, Viking, $25.95 hardcover