The people of the Anasazi tradition inhabit the area of what is now the Southwestern United States (from Taos, New Mexico, to the Hopi mesas in Arizona). They are named Pueblo, meaning “village Indians” in Spanish. They live in concentrated villages of buildings constructed from adobe local clay, and stone. These buildings are entered from the top floor. The buildings, often reaching to five stories, surround a plaza with a central kiva-a ceremonial place dug into the ground.
Of these people, the western Keres Tribe inhabits Acoma and Laguna. Acoma, perched atop a 400-foot mesa, has been continuously inhabited since at least 1075 AD. Laguna was established more recently. The Pueblo economy centered on a sophisticated system of dry farming and seed cultivation. The matrilineal culture had its labor division: men farmed and performed the ceremonial dances; women made intricate basketry, exquisite pottery, and built the houses. Government was carried on by consensus; warfare was avoided; and trade took place with the Plains tribes to the north and the empires to the south.
Around the time the novel was written, two tragedies struck the Laguna-Acoma communities in the 1970s. First, a teenage suicide pact led to funerals for a number of boys and girls in 1973. Second, a man murdered and dismembered two friends. The murderer then bullied another friend to borrow a car from which he scattered the parts. He later said that he found the ax irresistible.
Spanish rule began with Don Francisco Vasquez de Cornado in 1540. Soon thereafter, the tribes and their lands were recognized as subject to the King of Spain. This recognition is important to this day as it supersedes, by international law, the claims of Mexico and then the United States. It was this charter that Silko heard discussed when Tribal officials charged New Mexico with land theft. The Spanish conquest brought Christianity, missionaries, and death to the Pueblos. To survive, they accepted baptism and Christianity as an extension to their religion.
The Mexican authorities came in the early 1800s. They demanded that the people speak Spanish, live in rectangular houses, adopt a representational government, enroll their children in Mexican schools, and, more drastically, accept individual land holdings owned by the male head of household. On the positive side, Catholicism was not as rigorously imposed and so indigenous religion regained some of its popularity.
The United States took over in 1848 when the Treaty of Guadeloupe-Hidalgo ended the MexicanAmerican War. The Americans substituted English for Spanish and added the choice of Protestantism as a religion for the Pueblo people. The Americans also demanded that the people farm like Americans-who farmed like Europeans. This style of agriculture, however, depends on European or Eastern seaboard rainfall. The Pueblo crescent receives an annual rainfall of 13 inches (a proper amount for a desert). It was not long before the region was ruined economically. Since then, the Pueblo cities have been declared reservations and surrounded by white society.
World War II
By the start of World War II, every Native American group had been relegated to reservations for at least 40 years. That was enough time for the boarding schools and missionaries to have broken many spirits and fostered a sense, among some, of patriotism for the United States. When war broke out, many young men saw enlisting as an opportunity to gain entrance into mainstream white society. The United States also saw a need for Native Americans. They became invaluable, cheap, and immediate code talkers. From the Pacific Theater to the European Theater the Native American languages of the Lakota, Comanche, Navajo, Kiowa, and many others were heard over the airwaves. Strangely, it is difficult to know how many Native Americans fought in World War II because only the code talkers were ‘racially’ identified.
In addition to their language, the Native Americans possessed other resources. Vast amounts of plutonium, uranium, gold, oil, and other valuable deposits lie beneath the barren reservations of South Dakota, Oklahoma, and the Pueblo Crescent. On the Laguna reservation they dug up the materials needed for the research being done at Los Alamos, a mere 70 miles away. Trinity-test site for the A-bomb–was also close to the Pueblo reservation.
The Indigenous Revival
From N. Scott Momaday’ s Pulitzer Prize to the seizure of Alcatraz Island, Native Americans were on the move in 1969 and showed no signs of slowing. In 1970, the Cherokee nation formed a new constitution and took the first steps toward rejecting the American notion of race. Their constitution allowed membership in the tribal roles by virtue of ancestry. In 1970, they reclaimed the lands illegally stolen from them after they were removed to Oklahoma. Activists from the Cherokee nation were joined by hundreds of other Native Americans in their walk retracing the Trail of Tears. In 1975, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes filed a claim for nearly the entire state of Maine.
The most notorious, feared, and militant group came from Minneapolis in the 1960s. AIM (American Indian Movement) led a caravan to DC in 1972. When the Nixon administration refused to meet with them, they took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs building. Yielding to the threat of force, they absconded with tons of records. These records were given to their lawyers and used in lawsuits against the FBI.
The tension that resulted led to the showdown at Wounded Knee. There the United States military surrounded AIM activists for 71 days. AIM won. The media presence kept fatalities to one. AIM also brought its one concern-the Laramie Treaty of 1858-to public awareness. The tie-ups in court, unfortunately, slowed down the Native American Ceremony activists by the late 1970s. By then the whole world was aware of the civil rights violations committed against Native Americans. This awareness was all the greater because of a march on the UN Conference on Indigenous Peoples held in Geneva in 1977. Prominent leaders from Canada, the Iroquois nation, Mexico, South America, and the Hopi nation were joined by AIM and paraded in under drum and song. There they made their speeches and met with world leaders. The American press corps boycotted the event.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998