29 pages 58 minutes read

Leslie Marmon Silko

Yellow Woman

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1974

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Yellow Woman”

Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Yellow Woman” is narrated in first person by an unnamed woman as she navigates an ambiguous sexual encounter with a man named Silva. Silko is an accomplished Indigenous American poet, novelist, and essayist who explores themes of Female Power and Sexuality, Cultural Alienation related to Indigenous American identity, and the conflict of Tradition Versus Progress, especially as it relates to the Indigenous American experience. “Yellow Woman” was originally published in the anthology The Man to Send Rain Clouds: Contemporary Stories by American Indians in 1974 and has been reprinted in Silko’s collection Storyteller, among other publications. This guide uses a version of the story freely available on Open Library.

The narrator wakes on the bank of a river and feels her skin against the skin of the man beside her. She observes the nature around her—the birds, the water, the leaves—and watches the man as he sleeps on the sand. After she brushes the sand off her feet, she follows their footsteps back to the horses that they left corralled in cedar branches. She looks in the direction of the pueblo, her home, and mounts the horse, but then she dismounts and returns to the sleeping man.

The woman wakes Silva to tell him she is leaving. He smiles and tells her that she will come with him, calling her “Yellow Woman” as though it is her name. She asks who he is, but he insists she knows already. She smells the natural world around her but is only able to remember the moon and the feeling of Silva’s body against hers.

The narrator tries to separate herself and her identity from the story of Yellow Woman, both in her dialogue to Silva and in her own thoughts. She remembers her grandfather telling her the story of Yellow Woman. In this story, Coyote and Badger find a woman, and Coyote tricks Badger so that Coyote can sleep with Yellow Woman, while Badger is trapped in his underground burrow. The narrator muses on whether the woman in the story is real and whether Yellow Woman has another name.

Silva pulls her back to the present moment by pushing her down into the sand and pulling her body to his. Her mind drifts between the story and her current physical experience. She says, “I was afraid lying there on the red blanket” (Paragraph 23), but it is not clear whether she fears sexual violence and Silva himself, or the potential loss of her identity. She tells him she does not have to go and argues that the stories only dictate the past. He rises, invites her to come with him, and they leave. As they walk, he holds her wrist. Whether she has gone with him willingly or out of fear is ambiguous.

As they walk, the narrator tries to convince herself that she cannot be Yellow Woman because she lives in modern times with “highways and pickup trucks that Yellow Woman never saw” (Paragraph 27). They ride on horseback up the mountain to the north, and she watches the progression of the trees as they get closer to the mountain. Silva sings as they ride and gently strokes her hand. The narrator is hungry and thinks of her home and her family, but they arrive at Silva’s mountaintop home instead, and she follows him inside.

Silva has the narrator cook potatoes for the two of them to eat. As they eat, they talk about the nature of stories, and whether their story will be told one day. The narrator claims that the stories of the past are stuck in the past, but Silva argues that someday this day will be the past as well. After the narrator eats, she joins Silva outside, and they survey the landscape.

Silva describes the landscape as a map of people, pointing out the boundaries of the Navajo reservation, the Pueblo lands, the Texan ranch lands, and the areas where the Mexican cattle runners work for the ranchers. Silva reveals that he steals from these ranchers, and the narrator concludes that “Silva must be Navajo” (Paragraph 47). When she tells him this, he says, “[Y]ou never give up do you? I have told you who I am. The Navajo people know me, too” (Paragraph 49). After they go back inside, he lies down, and she joins him.

He undresses and kisses her, but when she pulls away, he holds her down. She is afraid again, as she was by the river, but feels affection for him after he is asleep—another instance of ambiguity in their relationship. When she wakes, he is gone, as is his gun. She plans to walk home now but lingers on the mountaintop, eating apricots and drifting in and out of light sleep. She reflects on the world of the Pueblo and “real life” below, as well as the mountaintop and the “story life” she is experiencing. She returns to Silva’s house and remembers her intention to go home, but she stays.

Silva is washing up, and she tells him where she has been. He asks her to come with him to sell the meat he has stolen, so she mounts a horse and follows. She asks him again if he is Navajo, and this time he ignores her question. She asks why he is bringing the gun, and he suggests that meeting with Mexicans could lead to violence.

As they ride the horses down the mountain, the narrator describes the natural world around them again, and then they meet the white rancher. The white man questions them, asking Silva where the meat came from and accusing Silva of theft. Silva tells the narrator to go back, speaking in Pueblo. In doing so, he angers the white man, who is left out of the conversation. The narrator starts to ride away and notices the white man is unarmed. He orders her to stop. She looks at Silva, and after seeing a darkness in his eyes, she gallops away.

As she rides the horse away from the scene, she hears four gunshots. Once she reaches the bottom of the mountain, she lets the horse go with the meat still hanging from its flank. She returns to the river and thinks about Silva. While she is sad to leave him, she follows the path from the river back to the village. She hears her family inside and decides to tell them that a Navajo man kidnapped her, thinking of her grandfather and how he would have loved her story.

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