Past is Present

Leslie Marmon Silko

Yesterday author Leslie Marmon Silko chatted to receptive crowds at the University in conversations that ranged from her writing to her painting, from the Navajo (Diné) relatives to her Pueblo grandparents, and from her rattlesnake neighbors to her hummingbird neighbors.

Silko is an animated speaker, gesturing with her arms, hands, head—her whole body. There’s a glint in her eyes and a ready grin, and she lets the conversation travel its own path: a metaphor to her disavowal of the linear form.

She talked about how readers need to have a sort of leap of faith when it comes to her characters who move through different dimensions of time and space, when tomorrow becomes yesterday. The book Ceremony has sold more than a million copies, and is among the most cherished American novels.

As a kid growing up in New Mexico, Silko would listen to relatives’ stories, including the ones from men who fought in Korea and World War II. Memories, she said, aren’t linear. Silko held her hands in front of her face and said that the memories are right here: they’re not gone, in the past. So it’s silly to discount past events because they happened before today. For the men who fought battles overseas, they feel the pain; there is no yesterday.

Silko said memories run deep, and that her grandparents’ parents remembered the “Long Walk,” what the Diné called the Death March. The US Government wanted to move the Navajo to a reservation in eastern New Mexico, hundreds of miles from their home bordered by the Four Sacred Mountains. According to the PBS program The American Experience, “For 500 years, they had tended their flocks of sheep, and cultivated their fields and orchards.”

As Silko talked about the Death March, she stopped to catch her breath, saying that no one could forget the story just because it happened in the past.

Kit Carson was hired in 1862 to secure the Navajo, but he was unable to round up the natives voluntarily. Instead, Carson “ordered every cornfield to be destroyed, every melon patch, every bean patch. He had his men guard the salt sources and the water sources. And chop down every tree. It was brutal. This was not majestic, heroic warfare, if there is such a thing. This was a dirty little war of attrition with the express intent of starving the Navajos out,” according to PBS.

The starving Diné people—nearly 9,000—began the 350-miles walk and a third died or vanished en route. Silko said we hear a lot about Kit Carson’s exploits as a famed tracker and scout, but few outside Indian Country know that he led the Death March.
You can find the American Experience program at:


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, framing, Indian, Native Science. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s