Storytelling in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

21 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents


1. Storytelling
1.1. An Introduction to Oral Storytelling
1.2. Oral Storytelling in Writing

2. Functions of Storytelling in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony
2.1. Forms of Storytelling
2.2. Functions of Storytelling




Oral storytelling is a tradition inherent to all cultures. By definition, its genre is determined by its original oral transmission; many of the world’s greatest literary classics such as El Cid, La Chanson de Roland, Beowulf or the Odyssey were originally orally transmitted. In most cases the author is unknown and the story has undergone many modifications in the course of the telling processes; still they are today’s primary testimonies for language, history, culture and people of the past. In this paper, a definition of oral storytelling will be provided along with an introduction in order to define the subject matter as well as the significance of putting oral storytelling into writing as Silko did in Ceremony.

Leslie Marmon Silko was brought up in the Laguna Pueblo community in New Mexico, a Native American1 tribe where storytelling plays an important cultural role2. For Silko, the process of writing her novel Ceremony was not only a way of staying sane - as she states herself3 - but also to identify with her Native American origins. In this novel, she points out the opposition between the Native stories about reciprocity with nature and Euro-American stories of dominion. This confrontation is a conflict of two paradigms reflecting the protagonist’s, Tayo’s, inner state of mind; he has to reconstruct stories to reestablish an agreement with both cultures4 - for himself. The main focus will therefore be on the forms and functions of storytelling in the novel itself. Hereby, crucial aspects revolving around the cultural differences between Native American and Euro-American culture, the clash of cultures and both sides’ impact on the individual will be in the center of discussion.

The conclusion summarizes the paper’s assessment of the results attained.

As opposed to the Native American, many of today’s Europeans are not familiar with Native American literature (and, according to Louis Owens5, neither is the academic Euro-American) with an unbalanced co-existence of the two cultures. The genre of storytelling itself has been studied for example by Walter Ong, who ironically analyzes the opposition between “oral” and “written” through writing, or Ruth Finnegan, who distinguishes between “the oral” and “orality”6.

The importance of storytelling is a subject that has been discussed in various fields of research with regard to the aspect of language, culture and writing by Jeannette Armstrong, Blanca Schorcht or even Leslie Marmon Silko herself in Storyteller. Concerning the treatment of this field in academic circles, it needs to be stated that often theoretical writings refer to Native American literature as “post-colonial literatures”, which implies a historical response to colonization. In Silko’s Ceremony, the Native reflects a context, a worldview that connects with the Native experience of the world, not to a literary assimilation7. Owens, taking into account the USA as the country of origin for Native American literature, deplores the lack of interest in the English departments of universities. Native American literature is only now finding its way into academic fields, but Native American voices in major cultural theoretical works are still not found8 although this would certainly be a great contribution to the literary world, to the knowledge of Native American and also all other cultures, as well as a step forward in exploring the world of storytelling for our needs.

1. Storytelling

1.1. An Introduction to Oral Storytelling

Storytelling is an ability reserved to humanity in the sense that only humans are able to use words to communicate complex concepts from one person to another or one generation to another. It presupposes a complex neural structure which has evolved only in our species; all attempts to teach language - the basis for storytelling - to non-humans have failed9.

When looking at Silko’s Ceremony, it becomes obvious that the term “story” cannot be defined in one single dimension. It is probably by its multitude of elements that a story can be identified as such. A story can be fictitious or true, it can have fantastic elements or realistic ones; in fact, storytelling becomes probably the freeest genre existing in the literary world. Ceremony is only one testimony of this freedom. In order to be able to grasp the idea of what a story means to Native American culture as well as their concept of storytelling, it is important to define oral storytelling in particular.

The first forms of storytelling were oral, reinforced only by gestures and expression. Oral storytelling is, generally speaking, a means of transmitting fictitious events in words; words transmit events into sounds and images the listeners actively create in their minds10. Storytellers try to instil a sense of engagement and dialog with the audience. It is Robert Begiebing’s theory that a good storyteller provides just enough material to stimulate the audience’s imagination, intellect and emotions11. Interestingly, John S. Brown states that a sense of chaos has to precede a sufficient amount of order to give the recipient the satisfaction of a good story12. Storytelling presupposes a sort of dialog between at least two essential components which are firstly, the narrator, and, secondly, the audience13. The narrator can be considered the instigator of the whole process of oral storytelling: He or she is the one who creates a certain atmosphere, but above all an experience the audience (which can consist of one or more listeners) absorbs with the ear14. The audience functions as a co-creator, that is, images instilled by the narrator’s words are created in the listeners’ minds. The quality of the story being told not only depends on the narrator’s expressive faculty and the gestures he or she uses but also on the contributions from the listener such as ideas, images and, of course, his or her cultural, historical or social background15. In this mode of presentation, words are passed on to another person to communicate a certain feeling or message, even from one generation to another, surviving only by memory. Memory is reconstructed every time the story is being told. The core of the story is usually retained but with time, however, minor changes can accumulate until the story is unrecognizable. Especially in modern European culture, it might be difficult to fully understand what it is like to be part of a community by having a common memory of the stories being told because we take things as facts only when they are written down.

Traditional oral storytelling is also different from today’s way of narrating stories, often based on multimedia and supported by visual aids - for example in a movie or in a Powerpoint presentation. Oral storytelling, using almost no visual aids, requires much more cognitive aptitude and concentration; what is more, the effect on the listener is a fundamentally different one: a story has to be experienced inside the mind of the narrator first and then inside the audience’s, in oral as well as in written narrative; but a described image will be imagined differently by every member of the audience. As opposed to the story supported by visual aids, the impact on imagination will be greater and the scope of imagination automatically restricted to what is seen in the visualization, which can be a picture, a series of pictures, a movie, or something similar.

Stories are shared in every culture as a way of entertainment, education or preservation of a culture. Especially in Native American storytelling, traditional stories function as a device of identity formation. Collective memory is passed on from one generation to another and preserved only in its orality. Stories likes this are important to these cultures as their tellers can, at the same time, include and exclude members of this special group by letting them participate or not. Members of those communities have been known to refuse to share their stories in order to let them die, as a form of protest against adaptation to the modern ways16. Only by knowing these stories, members of the community can ascertain that they are alive. The stories serve as a communication device between the people and the land.

1.2. Oral Storytelling in Writing

Schorcht states that orality and writing do not necessarily exist independently as both interact and influence each other17. It is important to know that in many Native American worldviews the world is brought into being through storytelling, and this is valid for written or oral stories. One assumes naturally that once a story has been written down, its essence has changed fundamentally or its quality is lowered as certain elements have been lost in the process of translation.

A frequent characteristic of Native American literature is that new elements are absorbed and transformed in the form of new tellings of old stories18. Silko represents the inclusive character of writing, that is, her contemporary Native literature incorporates cross-cultural aspects from literary works, popular culture and historical facts and - most importantly - traditional Native stories. Oral tradition and modern culture are reframed by the interaction of both. Silko’s writing reflects an oral storytelling tradition in focus. Written “translations” of oral stories reveal the ability of stories to take on new forms; it is only by evolution that they can persist. Silko’s writing has been criticized by various scholars who consider Silko’s works as a revelation of secret clan stories that should not be told outside the clan19. Paula Gunn Allen fears a westernization of the traditional story by translating it into English as there appear heroes, points of view and conflicts. The result is a Western story with Indian characters20. Allen takes this view of the plot of Ceremony but other Laguna Indian critics say it is a dialog between oral and literary traditions21.

It is Mikhail M. Bakhtin who says that the genre of the novel is radically different from other, earlier literary forms: they establish the fundamental liberation of cultural-semantic and emotional intentions from the hegemony of a single and unitary language, and consequently the simultaneous loss of a feeling for language as myth, that is, as an absolute form of thought.22

For Bakhtin a novel includes more than one language - as does Ceremony23. Silko maintains that traditional oral storytelling still exists in communities like her own; this is the case even though there are no artefacts of those stories left once they have been told. The story being told remains in the minds of the listeners and the teller and from this moment on it has two different determinations: either it dies with the teller and the narrator, or it is told again, possibly modified by adding, changing or leaving out elements. In Laguna culture not every story has to persist, a fact not easily graspable by most people belonging to Western culture24. It is a natural process of oral storytelling that a story will either die or persist with somebody telling it again; however, it is not considered an option to save stories by writing them down, not even for Leslie Marmon Silko. For her, it becomes clear that in order to save a story, more than one person is necessary as “the life of a story is not something that any individual person can save and certainly not someone writing it down or recording it on tape or video“25. She writes down her stories certainly because she was influenced by Western culture and got acquainted with the tradition of writing novels at university, but especially because she sees writing as a continuation of storytelling traditions26. This is possible since the different cycles in the oral tradition work as a novel does.

It is Bakhtin who argues that the idea of dialog comprises both oral and written forms27. Just as the listener in oral storytelling, the reader of Ceremony functions as an active participant in shaping the story. The shifting from one story type to another can be perceived as abrupt and the reader has to show a certain acceptance towards a style of writing that sometimes plays with him. Elaine Jahner calls this an “experience of sharing”28.


1 In the need for a term „Native American“ as opposed to the term „Indian“ was chosen throughout the paper because it is often used by Leslie Marmon Silko. But it needs to be clarified that especially when speaking about rites, habits and culture of Native Americans, you cannot speak for all tribes at the same time. The same is happening with the broad term „Western culture“and “Euro-American” prefered here to others despite its generalizing character.

2 "Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony and the Effects of White Contact on Pueblo Myth and Ritual" Suzanne M. Austgen, nd.: n. pag. On-line. Leslie Marmon Silko's Home Page. Internet. Available: (accessed 17.12. 2006).

3 Dexter Fisher, “Stories and Their Tellers-A Conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko”, Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko, ed. Ellen L. Arnold (Mississipi: University Press of Mississippi, 2000) 22.

4 Rachel Stein, “Contested Ground”, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, ed. Allan Chavkin (New York: Oxford UP, 2002) 193-194.

5 “(…) I have often noticed that the majority of my colleagues in various ‘English’ departments around the United States know very little if anything about Native American literature, written or oral (…)” Louis Owens, “As If an Indian Were Really an Indian. Native American Voices and Postcolonial Theory.” Native American Representations. First Encounters, Distorted Images, and Literary Appropriations, ed. G.M. Bataille (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2001)12.

6 Qtd. in Blanca Schorcht, Storied Voices in Native American Texts: Harry Robinson, Thomas King, James Welch, and Leslie Marmon Silko (London: Routledge, 2003) 14.

7 Schorcht 14.

8 Owens 12.

9 Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct ( London : Penguin Books, 1995) 41.

10 NCTE, Commitee on Storytelling, Article 107637, (las accessed 12. 12. 2006).

11 Cf. Robert Begiebing, „Interchange: Genres of History.” Journal of American History 91 (2004): 585.

12 John Seely Brown, Stephen Denning, Katalina Groh, and Laurence Prusak. Storytelling in Organizations: Why Storytelling is Transforming 21st Century Organizations and Management (Boston: Elsevier, 2004).

13 Begiebing 586.

14 The ear as another crucial part in Laguna storytelling is mentioned by Leslie Marmon Silko in the interview mentioned above. Here, she speaks of the ear in terms of a good that has developped, a potential. Interestingly, she compares it to uranium, which exists accidentally as well. Cf. Fisher 1977: 193.

15 Ansgar Nünning, (hg.), Metzler Lexikon Literatur- und Kulturtheorie, (Weimar: Metzler Stuttgart, 2004) 475.

16 Nünning 475.

17 Schorcht 35f.

18 Schorcht 35f

19 Paula Gunn Allen, Special Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, P. 383.

20 Cf. Paula Gunn Allen, „Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale“, „Yellow Woman”: Leslie Marmon Silko, ed. Melody Graulich (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers UP, 1993): 105- 107.

21 John Peacock, „Un-Writing Empire by Writing Oral Tradition“, (Un)Writing Empire, ed. Theo D’Haen (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998) 301.

22 Qtd. in Dennis Cutchins, “So that the Nations May Become Genuine Indian: Nativism and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.” Journal of American Culture 22:4 (Winter 1999): 77.

23 Qtd. in Cutchins 77.

24 Peacock 300.

25 Qtd. in Kim Barnes, “ A Leslie Marmon Silko Interview,” “Yellow Woman”: Leslie Marmon Silko, ed. Meldoy Graulich (New Brunswick NJ: Rutger UP, 1993) 47.

26 Elaine Jahner, „The Novel and Oral Tradition: An Interview with Leslie Marmon Silko,“ Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko (University Press of Mississippi, 2000) 46-47.

27 Qtd. in Cutchins 77.

28 Jahner 46.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Storytelling in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony
University of Münster  (Englisches Seminar)
Contemporary American and Canadian Fiction
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Storytelling, Leslie, Marmon, Silko, Ceremony, Contemporary, American, Canadian, Fiction
Quote paper
Berenice Walther (Author), 2006, Storytelling in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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