A gun rests on a buck lain in the back of a pickup truck. It stares lifelessly ahead as children hang off its horns, posing for the photograph, smiling in the sun. At first glance, this is an image of man conquering nature. It seems like a clear statement of the celebration of killing of a buck and a successful hunting season. Even the caption is concise and clear: the author’s sisters, a buck, hunting. Reading beyond this photograph is necessary to completely understanding it. “Uncle Tony’s Goat” (162-166) precedes this picture to make it clear that what we interpreted at first glance is not true: nature is not controlled by human action; it is not at our disposal.
From the beginning of the story we see symbols of the human-nature relationship. The kids try to make bows and arrows from trees by the stream to catch minnows. The arrows they carved “flew around in arcs and curves,” and even when they tried to compensate by finding the “best, straightest willow branches” (162), there was no hope for making the perfect arrow. This small struggle, while innocent in this story, is a symbol of a greater struggle: humans are not meant to manipulate the natural world to get what they want. Civilization has tried to overcome the natural world, and has faced both successes and failures. But rather than expressing a feeling of wanting to overcome nature by force, Silko’s writing makes it seem as though she, and the Indian culture her writing represents, want to co-exist with nature. The kids cannot make perfect bows from nature, so they compromise by learning to shoot the bows nature gives them. We see another representation in the more prominent part of the story, concerning the goat.
“’That goddamn goat.’” The goat for which this story was named is the perfect symbol of man’s relationship with nature. It is, technically, Uncle Tony’s goat, and is referred to this way throughout, but it is never really under Uncle Tony’s control. The goat does what it wants throughout the story, and is never even given a name, as many pets are, further demonstrating the lack of authority humans have over him. He is given a personified description by Silko. She says the goat watches her, “taking us into her memory” (163), and he seems to remember her later on. When she tries to control him by forcing him out of the barn, Silko explains that “he’d recognized me and he wouldn’t come out” (165). The goat is able to cause fear, and even physical harm. While it may be on a small scale, we can still see how uncontrollable the goat is. He is wild and stubborn, but Uncle Tony is proud of him, and seems to respect him and his wishes, despite him being a Billy goat. This relationship gives us insight into the Native American view of nature: it is unruly and impossible to tame, but must be respected. There is no ownership over nature without a rebellion of sorts, which takes the shape of the goat’s escape at the end of the story.
Looking at the photograph again, in light of the idea that nature is a part of human existence, not an obstacle to overcome or conquer, we can see a very different message. Hunting is often seen as a human conquering an animal, and conquering nature in general. After showing very clearly that even a supposedly domestic animal like a goat can behave in such a natural and untamed way, we’re more open to the idea that this picture represents the give-and-take of nature. In a later poem, Silko recreates the “Deer Dance.” In her explanation of it on page 183, she explains that the Laguna perform this to “honor and pay thanks to the deer spirits.” She writes in a way that makes it clear that the deer will give themselves to the people willingly, rather than hunters taking the lives of the deer greedily. This ties even more directly in with the photograph on page 167, as we see this deer’s death more as a celebration of its sprit and sacrifice. Nature is respected by hunters, and it is never taken for granted or expected to bend to the will of conquerors.