Her work widely anthologized, Leslie Marmon Silko is considered the preeminent Native American woman novelist, a legend in her achievements in the field of Native American literature. Her writings are included in the syllabus of various American literature courses in high schools and colleges. Raised on the Indian reservation in Laguna, New Mexico, she incorporates into her writing the stories, myths, and legends she heard as she grew up. Of Pueblo, Mexican, and white descent, she was both an insider and outsider in Laguna, and this makes her an interesting chronicler of stories about modern-day life on the reservation. In an interview she has stated: ”Oral literatures of the indigenous populations worldwide contain (these) kind of valuable insights…. You can look at the old stories that were told among the tribal people here in a north country and see that within them is the same kind of valuable lessons about human behavior and that we need them still.” In the Pueblo community, all education is achieved in a verbal, narrative form, and when Silko began writing at the University of Mexico, stories came naturally to her. She has said, “[The] professor would say, now you write your poetry or write a story; write the way you know, they always tell us. All I knew was my growing up at Laguna, recalling some other stories that I had been told as a child.”
It was at the University of New Mexico that she wrote her first story, “The Man to Send Rain Clouds,” which won her a Discovery grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The story is based on an incident she had heard of in Laguna, that an old man had been found dead in a sheep camp and had been given a traditional Indian burial, and that the local Catholic priest had resented the fact that he had not been called in. Having based her first work of short fiction on this incident, “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” brought Silko recognition and established her as a promising Native American author.
Silko claims that Pueblo narratives are lean and spare because so much of what constitute the stories is shared knowledge. Although the larger audience for “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” has no shared knowledge of the landscape or rituals, Silko still chooses to use the lean narrative mode, as the themes are universal and can be understood by any audience. But an understanding of the Pueblo burial customs gives an added dimension to an understanding of the story. In Pueblo culture, it is believed that neglect of tribal rituals can result in death and sickness, because the ghost returns without blessings, having been unable to enter the other world. To avoid this unhappy prospect, a prayer feather is attached to the hair of the deceased, and his face is painted so that the he will be recognized in the next world. These tasks are ordinarily performed by the village Shaman (religious priest), while corn meal is offered to the wind and water is sprinkled on the grave so that the spirit has nourishment on its journey to the other world. The ceremony concludes with the prayer, “Send us rain clouds.” Familiarization with the landscape inhabited by the Pueblo Indians further enhances the reader’s understanding of’ The Man to Send Rain Clouds,” for as Silko has written elsewhere, the landscape sits in the center of Pueblo belief and identity.
A character in Silko’s later novel, Ceremony, says, ”At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong….” Scholar A. LaVonne Ruoff sees this theme as central to “The Man to Send Rain Clouds.” Leon’s strength lies in his creative combination of traditional Indian rituals with Catholic ritual. He does not strictly follow the Indian ways but adds a new element by asking the Catholic priest to sprinkle holy water at Teofilo’s burial service, at his wife Louise’s suggestion. Through this story, Silko emphasizes that the continuing strength of Pueblo traditions lies in the ability of the people to incorporate alien elements for their own purposes. Leon continues to follow the Pueblo rites and persuades the Father Paul to participate in them, as well. Per Seyersted sees the story as an example of Silko’s dual vision as both a Pueblo and as a mixed-blood person who has the ability and freedom to see Laguna from the outside. Linda Danielson sees the sense of community in the story as central to understanding it, and views it in terms of Father Paul’s entry into the community through the flexibility and power of Indian ritual, which assures the continuance of life.
In addition to these themes, the story also treats an indigenous community’s encounters with Christianity. I use the word “indigenous” in the sense that Silko defines it in an interview. She says, ”When I say indigenous people I mean people that are connected to the land for, let’s say, a thousand or two thousands years.” She further adds that one can see similarities in some of the struggles of indigenous peoples in Africa, in the Americas, and in Asia. This is exemplified in the part of the story in which Father Paul is depicted as bewildered by the incorporation of Catholic ritual in an Indian ceremony. Although the reservation Indians are Catholic, they retain pagan rituals and customs. In author Robin White’s works one addresses a similar theme in her works about the American missionary experience in India. In White’s novel House of Many Rooms, a missionary is at first bewildered by his reception by Christianized natives who use Hindu rituals. He refuses to accept the native Christian priest’s hospitality, as his own Western notion of Christianity is offended. Later he ends up being a good friend of the native priest and becomes part of the Christian community in India. Further parallels can be drawn between the history of Christianity in other indigenous cultures, in other literary and historical works.
The theme of death and time is also central to “The Man to Send Rain Clouds.” Death is not an end or a frightening experience, but a fact of life to the Pueblo. The spirit returns to its source and returns bringing rain clouds to the community, staving off drought. A LaVonne Ruoff has written that the dead “are associated with cloud beings (storm clouds or Shiwana in Keres) who bring rain and who live in the six or four regions of the universe.” Death is also, of course, associated with the notion of time. Silko has said that, for the Indian people, time is round, and not a linear string. Time in its historical dimension is unimportant as it is an endlessly repeating cycle in which man is but a minute part of the cycle. Because of these notions of time and death, Leon can accept old Teofilo’s death in a calm, serene manner with the traditional prayer asking his spirit to send rain cloud. This is contrasted in the story with traditional Catholic thinking, which in Seyersted’s words, “looks at (death) as one sinful mortal’s final, critical meeting with his Maker, in which it is hoped that the blessing symbolized by the holy water will help.”: Hence, for Father Paul, the sprinkling of holy water has a much different significance than Leon’s belief that it will simply quench the spirit’s thirst on its way to the other world.
Apart from its thematic concerns and its cultural context, Silko’s short story stands out as a technically masterful story. Skillful use of adjectives and attention to detail are the hallmarks of Silko’s descriptions. For instance, she writes of a “wide, sandy arroyo,” “low, crumbling wall,” a “brown, wrinkled forehead” to enhance the beauty of the narrative. The skillful mixture of narration and dialogue also maintains the reader’s interest. The dialogues between Leon and Father Paul, and between Leon and Louise, present the characters to the readers directly, thus enabling readers to draw their own conclusions as to the characters respective natures and motivations.
With this said, and because of the high accomplishment of the story itself, “The Man to Send Rain Clouds,” a narrative of Pueblo life, deserves to be recognized as a classic Native American short story within the canon of American literature.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Leslie Marmon Silko, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.
Angelina Paul, “Overview of ‘The Man to Send Rain Clouds,'” for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.