Sunday, September 14, 2014

Storyteller and the Natural World

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.


  1. Firstly, I really liked your first two sentences. Nice and catching. I like the argument that she sees nature as to be respected instead of conquered. I would wonder if there are other hints of that in the story other than the arrows at the beginning and the goat. I do wonder about the point on the goat's lack of a name. It's usual for us to name pets, but was it a common thing in her culture? I honestly don't know the answer. If it was in the story I missed it. I do also feel like there is a lot more to the story that you could add should you decide to expand. You only mention two specific scenes- the beginning with the arrows and the part where she tries to force him out of the barn. Those are both great passages for your argument, and I think there is room to use others.
    What I can't help but wonder is why the story that precedes the picture changes your first glance of the picture. I mean, You will have already read the story by the time you get to the image, so your first glance of the image already has that background fresh in your mind. If the photo was first I could understand how a first glance, and then looking back at it would be different. That part of your argument seems to just not work. Perhaps phrasing at the beginning, "taking the image out of context," and then with the argument of the story before it, "but with the background of the story before you look at the image," etc.

  2. Your introduction might be my favorite of this young semester so far - you manage to describe, analyze and focus in one paragraph. Good start!

    I have mixed feelings about your interpretation of the bows & arrows. It *is* clever and interesting, but it's also extremely specific. It's not clear to me that the arrows are best understood as signifying something about nature. I'm not saying that you're wrong - just that this important point could have used a little more elaboration.

    Similarly with the goat - while the wildness of the goat is important, and its ultimate escape is important, it's odd, at least on the surface, that you want to use a domestic animal (a prized an expensive one at that!) as a symbol of nature. Again, I'm not saying that you're actually *wrong* - and maybe in some ways it's actually *right* to use a rebellious domesticated animal as a figure for our failure to hold complete control. But this difficult and interesting step needs to be actually taken rather than assumed.

    Your intrepretation of the deer seems ok when you relate it to "Deer Dance." But as you point out in the beginning, the actual juxtaposition in the text is with "Uncle Tony's Goat" - which involves the succesful escape of a domestic animal rather than the succesful killing of a wild animal. Your argument reads well, and you touch on some good details, but your argument only works if you totally ignore the contrasts between wild and domestic, nature and culture, that Silko is working with. If you can deal successfully with the agriculural & domestic dimension of the story and link that with the image, that would be a great success - but in this draft you simplify things too much.

    Rebecca brings up some great points, especially in her second paragraph.