60 pages 2 hours read

Leslie Marmon Silko

Yellow Woman and a Beauty of Spirit

Nonfiction | Essay Collection | Adult | Published in 1993

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Summary and Study Guide


Yellow Woman and a Beauty of Spirit is a collection of twenty-one nonfiction essays examining modern Native American life. The collection is told entirely from the author-narrator’s point of view and concerns many of her own experiences growing up within the Laguna Pueblo community. Silko weaves her own personal experiences and observations with the stories told to her by other people, both ancient stories concerning Pueblo mythology and familial stories depicting the actions of her ancestors. In this way, these essays mimic the tradition of Pueblo storytelling, an oral tradition in which stories—both familial and mythological—are passed down through generations in communal narratives meant to convey knowledge.

The essays place special attention on the female experience, as many of the characters within the essays are female. Silko contrasts this Laguna attachment to female identity with the patriarchy of Anglo-Western societies. Although female identity—and identity in general—are viewed by Pueblo culture as always being in flux, Silko creates a space for the importance of female characters within the history of her people via these essays. Although Laguna is not a full-fledged matriarchy, it is important to note that traditionally, homes and land belonged to females within the family units, affording children stability without concern for paternal lineage. As such, patriarchal constructs, such as marriage, are much more dynamic within the Pueblo community as opposed to the Anglo-Western world. Sexuality is much less stringent as well, allowing Pueblo community members freedom to express themselves and love whomever they chose. This freedom in personal identity is expressed both in familial stories and in the mythological origin stories, corresponding to and resultant from a stable concept of the communal Pueblo identity.

Silko explores the importance the Pueblo community places upon harmony, both within the Pueblo community and with the outside world. By drawing special attention to the harsh terrain that the Pueblo inhabit, she is able to communicate the need for social and ecological harmony in order for the Pueblo to survive. In this way, the Pueblo people value cooperation above all, as it is the only method by which they are able to survive. Pueblo tradition stresses the interconnectivity of all things—both living and nonliving—which places great import on action, as opposed to appearance, when passing judgment upon other human beings.

In keeping with this ideal of interconnectivity, Silko does not hold back in her judgment of Anglo-Western society, especially regarding the atrocities and betrayal committed by the U.S. government. While Silko believes that most Anglo-Americans are sympathetic to Native Americans—although she also maintains that they are unintentionally racist and exoticize Native Americans—the predominately-white U.S. government has taken the lands of the Native peoples and given Native Americans nothing in return. She is particularly incisive in her criticism of the U.S. Border Patrol, an entity she believes has no right to inhibit people’s migratory freedom, especially when the land that inhabited by her ancestors was stolen. She does not believe in the Anglo concept of national borders and thinks it futile to attempt to mitigate people’s movement. As a part of nature, humans cannot be constrained by man-made laws, such as borders. Silko believes that, as foretold by Native Americans before her, the Europeans will eventually disappear from the land. As such, many of her essays focus on the deconstruction of Anglo ideals and traditions.

Many of the narratives and essays repeat themselves, both in terms of form and in content. The essays are lyric in nature, moving from one concept or story to the next at the behest of the narrator. In this way, the essays mimic the oral storytelling of the Pueblo people, who often used repetition in order to ensure that the knowledge contained within the stories was effectively communicated. Similarly, many of the essays explicate the same underlying theme, told from a slightly different perspective. Silko links these divergent themes via repetition, rendering her collection of essays interconnected, much like the Pueblo people themselves.