Yellow Woman by Leslie Marmon Silko, 1974
by Leslie Marmon Silko, 1974
Leslie Marmon Silko's "Yellow Woman" was first published in The Man to Send Rain Clouds: Contemporary Stories by American Indians in 1974. In l981 Silko included the original story with other accounts of the mythic woman and spirit man in Storyteller. The story has subsequently been reprinted many times. It should be considered as part of the literature of the Native American renaissance created by contemporary American Indian writers such as Silko, Paula Gunn Allen, Louise Erdrich, Simon Ortiz, and Scott Momaday.
The figure of Yellow Woman assumes many forms in the Indian traditions of the Southwest. She lives in Laguna or other Keresan pueblos. She can be a spirit, an archetypal mother, or a tribal daughter or woman. She is a symbol of the powerful woman, an archetype for fertility, and an agent of change and renewal. Silko's retelling of the story of Yellow Woman focuses on identity, sexuality, empowerment, and cultural loss, and it is done in powerful, sensuous language that appeals not only to feminist and minority communities but also to a wider readership that relishes storytelling, fine writing, and cultural traditions.
Silko's short story and its considerable reputation can also be understood by reference to its context and the author's career. Silko is a poet, novelist, short story writer, film writer, and essayist who has had the distinct good fortune to be selected as a recipient of a so-called genius grant, the fellowship awarded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to recognize intelligent, creative individuals who are making unique contributions to society. Her work has also been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. She has garnered acclaim as an advocate for the legal rights of Native Americans to land, and her essays and stories offer a spirited defense of Native American culture. Thus, her gender and minority status have served her well.
In her writings Silko describes herself to be of "mixed-breed ancestry," Indian, Mexican, and white. She straddles two worlds, the contemporary world of America and the world of the American Indian in the Southwest. She is a contemporary woman who attended the University of New Mexico and held positions in academe and spent a brief stint as a student in law school. At the same time she is a woman who was raised in the Laguna Pueblo on the stories of old folks, who was educated first at a Pueblo school and then at a white school in Albuquerque, and who returned as an adult to the lands, mesas, and deserts of the Southwest that exert such a powerful hold on her imagination and physical being. In Yellow Woman and A Beauty of the Spirit she wrote: "I was acutely aware of the inherent conflicts between Indian and white, old-time beliefs and Christianity…. The mesas and the hills loved me; the Bible meant punishment. Life at Laguna was a daily balancing act of Laguna beliefs and Laguna ways and the ways of the outsiders. No wonder I preferred to wander in the hills by myself, on my horse, Joey, with Bull's-eye, my dog."
Always simultaneously seeing the world through the lenses of the insider and outsider, Silko carries the baggage of her ethnic identity, her gender, and her writerly talents. In "Yellow Woman" she explores the sexual encounter of the first-person narrator and Silva against the ancient story of "ka'tsina from the mountains." In one version of the story, an Indian woman is kidnapped—whether willingly or not is left deliberately open—by a mountain spirit (ka'tsina) and taken away from her husband and tribe only to return after two years with two children. In some versions of the tale, the husband kills Yellow Woman, jealous of her willing complicity with the mountain spirit, but when rain later comes to mend the lands, the tribe sees a virtue in her demise. In other versions, as in Silko's story, the narrator, who is a Laguna Pueblo woman, encounters and departs from Silva, the cattle rustler and perhaps the spirit from the north, and returns to her community to resume her domestic life with her mother, husband, and child. The final note of this story captures the quotidian, while the narrator teases out the idea that she is not just herself but also her mythic ka'tsina counterpart, Yellow Woman. The narrator is playful, jestingly telling her husband that she has been kidnapped by a Navajo and that she is "sorry that old Grandpa wasn't alive to hear my story because it was the Yellow Woman stories he liked to tell best."
Silko uses the tale to provide tribal community and connectedness to her past and future. Through the ritual of storytelling, the narrator finds meaning that can transcend her isolation. The reader is left to ponder in what ways Yellow Woman's sexual desire constructed the tale, imbuing both her and Silva with spiritual meanings only half-believed in. At the same time the story affirms the narrator's and Silko's self as a powerful woman, one who can choose to be taken sexually even though the narrator within the story crafts the situation as if she had no choice but to answer her own and Silva's physical hunger.
Silko has written about her love of the stories and myths told by the old people when she was growing up at Laguna Pueblo. The particular tale of Yellow Woman is one that touched her imagination and fueled her sexuality, causing her to rework it many times throughout her writings. The tale of the Indian woman who has run away or been kidnapped by the mountain spirit is an apt metaphor for Silko to explore her relationship to contemporary society and to her Indian heritage. It brings her in close conjunction with the land she loves and knows so well, and it enables her to see her connection to her tribal culture and community at the same time as it allows her to understand. Through the story of Yellow Woman, Silko is able to weave a story about the identity not only of Yellow Woman and the particular narrator but also, by extension, about storytellers and Silko herself. It is also a story about desire and longing, domesticity and the wilderness, the outlaw cattle rustler and his willing "captive," and the traditions of storytelling. The key to its success lies in its deft handling of ambiguity.
Silko writes her story from instinct and intuition more than from the body of anthropological writings by Franz Boas and others that record the many versions of the Yellow Woman tale. She is insistent on her right to record the Native American stories told by her ancestors, by Aunt Sallie and Susie or by Grandpa, not from the perspective of a cultural anthropologist but in the voice of a storyteller who has heard and cherished oral tales about the Laguna Pueblo land and its people and who wishes to capture them in writing. There is thus a certain naïveté that characterizes the way Silko writes about anthropology and the oral culture. Nonetheless, in "Yellow Woman" there is enough craftsmanship in the writing and enough passion in the story to compensate for what otherwise might appear to be a work pandering to multiculturalism and feminism. The story, told with a gift for language, a sense of how words should be placed on the page and how sections should be divided, and a feeling for the way in which the rhythm of the telling can give emphasis to the landscape and to spiritual aspects, avoids the problem Silko encounters in other writings where her translation of oral tales into written text is sometimes awkward and amateurish.
—Carol Simpson Stern