The Pueblo concept of reciprocity did not allow for evil. They believed that because all things were interconnected, they simply had to keep up their end of the bargain. For example, when a hunter takes a deer, he sprinkles cornmeal to the spirits. If the dances and ceremonies are done, the crops will be plentiful.
However, the Pueblos gradually found they needed an explanation for those evils which violated this theory of reciprocity. They did not alter their cosmology by adding a devil. Instead, they attributed evil to witchery or the manipulation of life’s elements to selfish and violent ends. Furthermore, Native American people out of touch with the stories of the people or wanting to replace those stories are the ones that use witchery and, therefore, only Native American medicine and story can undo witchery. One story about witches explains that Native Americans wear the skins of other animals in order to become that animal for a time.
In the novel, witchery is at work before the war when the young men were convinced they had to enlist in order to prove themselves patriotic Americans. Then, the uniforms-like skins-provided a taste of life as a white American. But the uniforms were taken back. Rather than return to their people and renew contact with the earth, they sit in the bar and tell stories about the witchery-about how much better it was chasing white women and killing “Japs.” Thus their connection with the Corn Woman remains broken. Emo embodies witchery as he encourages them in their storytelling. He manipulates his friends to hate Reservation life, to remain angry and drown in alcohol.
The central theme of Silko’s novel is the relationship of the individual to the story of the community. For Tayo to be cured of the war witchery, he must remember his people’s story and renew his connection with the land and its governing deities. In one specific instance, he is shown a cliff face painting of A’moo’ooh. T’seh explains, “Nobody has come to paint it since the war. But as long as you remember what you have seen, then nothing is gone. As long as you remember, it is part of this story we have together.”
The three central figures in the Pueblo cosmology are Thought-Woman, Corn Mother, and Sun Father. They are interrelated and interdependent. Thought-Woman opens the novel and is considered responsible for the story. Thought-Woman created the universe by speech. She made the fifth world (the earth) and the four worlds below where the spirits of the dead go. She appears throughout Pueblo mythology and throughout the story. Tayo must make contact with her, with the people’s story, in order to bring a story to the elders inside 2 6 the kiva. He tells them he has seen her. “They started crying/the old men started crying ….”
Corn Woman is perhaps the most important deity because corn is essential to the people’s economy. Corn Woman is interchangeable with mother earth. She represents growth, life, and the feminine powers of reproduction. She is honored by prayer sticks and offerings of blue and yellow pollen (Tayo fills animal tracks with yellow pollen). Dances in her honor are done in a zigzag or lightning pattern. Large dances include everyone but only men perform small dances. The Corn dance is done to bring rain, to assure abundant crops, and to increase fertility. The female powers support and grant according to his performance. A male protagonist as a sacrificial intermediary performs the small dance in the novel-Tayo is the fly. Throughout the novel, from the entrance of Harley and the weaving journey astride a donkey, Tayo performs a series of ziz-zags. He also finds zig-zags on the supportive T’seh’s blanket.
The story about Corn Woman involves an evil Ck’o’yo magician. The moral of this story is that if the Corn Alter is neglected and offerings are not given, the life processes supporting the people will not function. This story brings us to the last deitySun Father. He is a creative force unleashed by Thought-Woman to interact with Corn Woman. He represents masculine powers and light and it is his job to awaken the rain clouds. The offering to Sun Father is corn meal-a product of Corn Woman. Tayo’s link with the Sun Father occurs when Old Ku’oosh brings him blue cornmeal. Auntie feeds him, and he is able to keep it in his stomach. Tayo’s ceremony mimics the story of the Sun Father but rather than bring back the rain clouds he must bring back the cattle, thereby bringing prosperity back to the family.
One of the most divisive questions facing Native Americans today is: who is Native American? This question might seem odd, but because there is so much at stake-Native American Tribes are explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution as sovereign nations, and the V.S. Congress must negotiate treaties as they do with any sovereign nation-the United States government has kept the question confused.
By recognizing only those persons with a certain quantum of a specific Nation’s blood as tribal members, the notion of ancestry became a significant issue in the Native American community. In the late 1960s ancestry almost replaced the notion of race as the determining factor for census purposes. This would have greatly diminished the racial wrangling that has perplexed America. Doing so would also have allowed Native Americans to realize they were not a handful but a group of some 30 million-an incredible electoral force.
Be that as it may, because blood quantum notions are so strict, the V.S. government counts very few Native Americans. So, a person who is one quarter Irish, one quarter Mohawk, one quarter Ibo, and one quarter Lakota-but raised as 100% Pueblo–is not a Native American. Furthermore, the D.S. government has only recently recognized some tribes. For example, though Tucson was built around the Yaqui village of Pasqua, it was only in 1973 that Congress recognized the Yaqui as Native Americans.
This tension is everywhere in the novel. Tayo is a half-breed (his biological father was white) who was given up by his mother to be raised by his Auntie. Emo constantly reminds him of this because Emo wanted to be white (so did Rocky). But Tayo reminds him of the truth, “Don’t lie. You knew right away. The war was over, the uniform was gone. All of a sudden that man at the store waits on you last. makes you wait until all the white people bought what they wanted.” But even though they all know it, even though Tayo is a Native American despite what the government might say, there is too much self-hatred. This is the result of the boarding schools that taught them that Native Americans were savage people. “They never thought to blame white people for any of it; they wanted white people for their friends. They never saw that it was the white people who gave them that feeling and it was white people who took it away again when the war was over.”
Night Swan adds to this complexity when she tells Tayo that mixed breeds are scapegoats. People always blame the ones who look different. “That way they don’t have to think about what has happened inside themselves.” Emo and Auntie’s dislike of miscegenation runs counter to the custom of the Pueblo who judge by actions not appearance. As the end of the novel suggests, the people’s survival depends on these mixed breeds like Tayo and Betonie who are able, by force of circumstance, to blend the old and new to tell a more relevant story.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998