In Storyteller, Leslie Marmon Silko references many of the well-known characters seen again and again in Pueblo stories. One of the most used is Yellow Woman, also known as Kochininako or Kochinnenako. Silko uses the concept of Yellow Woman throughout her stories, including the short story Yellow Woman, but also in several other poems. The yellow woman is supposed to represent any and all women. They are not supposed to be perfect, women are supposed to live and be happy, and more than anything Yellow Woman represents what a woman can be: anything she wants. As a writer who often utilizes feminism, Silko includes the character of Yellow Woman to invoke a sense of empowerment and courage in her readers.
Laguna culture has always been a society based on the passing down of stories through generations. The stories of yellow woman have been included for as long as oral traditions have been documented (Allen 226). While they vary greatly in content, there are some elements that remain consistent in all of the stories. Yellow Woman is not a specific persona, but in a sense she embodies all women in one character. Paula Gunn Allen, a literary critic specializing in Native American feminism, describes how yellow is a color closely related to women, such as pink would be in modern European culture (226). The obvious repetition in her name highlights the importance of Kochininako’s gender. Yellow Woman’s significance begins with her gender identity; she is unarguably a strong woman. While there are several different kinds of stories involving Yellow Woman, some are more common than others. Many include meeting with native spirits in human bodies, in others she acts as a typical house wife who does jobs around the home, while others have her embracing qualities stereotypically seen in men. No matter what the situation, Yellow Woman always stands out to the reader as a resilient female character.
An essential constant in Yellow Woman stories is that the point of view is typically from Kochininako’s perspective (226). This emphasizes the importance of her ideas and experiences. These experiences mirror the lives of individual women all over the world, particularly because her identity changes in almost every version of the stories recorded. Yellow Woman varies not only in Silko’s poems, but in others from Laguna culture. Kochininako often embodies one or more qualities that make her an outsider in her own culture (Allen 227). However, rather than this uniqueness setting her apart from the typical conformists ideas in Laguna culture, she is often able to help not only herself, but also her society (Allen 227). In Silko’s poem, Cottonwood Part Two: Buffalo Story, Kochininako is taken by the buffalo people and does not want to leave. Her disappearance results in Arrowboy finding her and killing the buffalo people, including Yellow Woman. In turn, she provides the whole clan with buffalo meat: “Nobody would be hungry then./ It was all because/one time long ago/our daughter, our sister Kochininako/went away with them.” Her escape from typical behavior results in an overall success for her people.
Silko often displays feminism in unique ways throughout her poems. She was raised in the Laguna Pueblo culture and was told many of the Yellow Woman stories during her childhood. While she has foundations with the traditional Indian ways, she also has several white ancestors, isolating her from her peers. Due to her upbringing, she did not learn the traditional Laguna Pueblo language creating a gap between herself and “typical” Native American women. Silko uses Yellow Woman stories as inspiration for herself and her readers. The fact that Yellow Woman is unique and that uniqueness is highlighted in a positive tone is motivating to any woman struggling with herself and society. Does any woman truly know who they are? In the story, Yellow Woman, the woman states: “I was wondering if Yellow Woman had known who she was—if she knew that she would become part of the stories.” Do any of the great female minds know that one day people will respect them, worship them, or even aspire to be them? Silko uses Yellow Woman to give women across the world hope. The reader can escape with her and do things they usually would not do. She is anyone we want her to be, or more importantly anyone we want to be. She escapes her dull marriage to be with the exciting man. She shoots as well as the men in her tribe. She helps save the Earth and bring back the sun. These ideas, while seated in traditional values are just as important today as when they were originally told. They inspire women to be anything they hope to be. In addition, these stories are constantly changing and are hardly ever the same each time they are orally told (Allen 228). Silko uses this idea to show that women in society are changing as well; she shows us that we are all Yellow Woman. Kochininako teaches the reader to be confident in his/herself, despite being different than the customary norm.
Allen, Paula Gunn. “The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions.” Beacon Press, 1986.