Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Familial Feminism: Changing Views on Female Stereotypes

In Storyteller, Leslie Marmon Silko uses images throughout her stories to give the reader a direct look into her family experiences on the Laguna Pueblo. The photograph on page 78 is a picture of the author and her two sisters in traditional Laguna female clothing. Each is carrying an old-fashioned pot used to transport water, a typical task of women in Native American society. Following the picture is a story told by Silko’s aunt describing a strong female hunter, beginning with the words, “Aunt Alice told my sisters and me this story one time.” The photograph primarily shows the traditional expectations and dress of the Indian culture, while the poem breaks almost all of the “subservient” stereotypes of the past. Silko shows that traditional roles for women are important, but so is the power and strength they possess. The significance of female power and family both in the image and story shows Silko’s unique portrayal of familial feminism, as she calls for a change of typical gender roles seen in Western society.
The poem which begins on page 78 in Storyteller takes on a feministic tone within the first few lines when Kochininako, the protagonist, is described as one “who hunted deer and rabbits/just like the boys and men did./You know there have been Laguna women/who were good hunters/who could hunt as well as any of the men” (Silko 78). The recurring theme of women’s power can be seen throughout many of Silko’s poems, as she often reflects on their strength against oppression. In placing it immediately following the picture, Silko implies that she and her sisters could be as strong as the hunter Kochininako. Another reference to female power is seen in the line, “she’d bring them home to her mother and her sisters,” clearly indicating the communal bond between women in the culture (Silko 78). As well as showing that women can accomplish something valuable for themselves and their family. Finally, many of the poem’s lines begin with the word “she,” emphasizing the power of women and all that “she,” representing any woman, can do.
In many stories including this one, Yellow Woman represents the possibilities of what a woman can be: anything she wants. She is everything and anything, representing that women do not need to confine themselves to one role (Allen 226). A woman can and should be both conservative and radical. The poem satisfies “both the ardent feminist and the traditional purist” (Danielson 339). The photograph shows similar feminist ideas in the powerful positioning of the girls. Their strong, confident facial expressions demonstrate why their aunt told them this particular story when the older men were out hunting, in order to encourage them in their pursuit of powerful womanhood.
Silko’s form of feminism, like her form of writing, is non-linear. It does deal with the power of women and their sufficiency, but it is not just narrowly applied to women, it also encompasses men. The Laguna society uniquely distinguishes between an evil, self-possessed man and the helpful men of the tribe, her brothers. Linda L. Danielson explains, “We need to understand, for a tribal woman, concern with the lives and dignity of the men of her tribe may well constitute a feminist stance” (328). The Twin Brothers, whom Kochininako calls on at the end of the story, represent the good men of the tribe who help women in their pursuit of power. The “enemy man,” who is represented by the giant, Estrucuyu, wants to take everything that is Kochininako’s, symbolizing the objectification of women in society. She gives him everything he asks, but he wants more: “and he just swallowed them like they were little crumbs” (Silko 80). Kochininako outsmarts the giant by going into the cave, knowing that his “great big head” will not be able to fit (Silko 80). Silko’s depiction of a ruthless giant juxtaposed with helpful men show that all men should not be regarded equally. Kristen Herzog explains, “Silko’s stylistic devices of blending mythical and rational, circular and linear elements correspond to the balance of male and female traits in her characters, and they challenge the reader to question Western ways of portraying gender” (qtd in Thorson 277). Silko’s familial feminism does not merely focus on gender but rather the abilities and the heart of the individual. She also makes it clear that one can be truly successful only with the help of others.
For many Laguna members, including Silko, family is the most important symbol of one’s self, in all meanings of the word. Silko’s family encouraged her sense of feminism as well: “The women of Laguna—Silko’s mother, grandmother, aunts, and others—were all influential in her life” (Thorson 274). Silko often refers to how close she and her family are, as well as the many stories she heard passed down through the generations. In the picture proceeding the story, she kneels in front of her sisters, and they stand above her in a supportive manner. The caption states that the clothing and jewelry is loaned from their cousins, placing an even greater emphasis on family. The relationship between the sisters in the picture and the “Twin Brothers” upon whom Kochinako calls for help further links them together. Silko’s familial feminism encompasses the multiple dimensions of women and their relationships with their family members.
When she calls on the brothers at the end of the story, it is not depicted as an act of weakness. An important part of communal feminism is being powerful, but it also knowing when to call on others, men or women, in a time of need. Kochininako is not depicted as weak for calling on her brothers, instead she is portrayed as smart for knowing her limits. Just because she needs help does not mean she is unsuccessful. Paula Gunn Allen, a Native American literary critic, analyzes a Kochininako story as such: “it is about the centrality of woman as agent and empowerer of that change. It is about how everyone is part of the background that shapes the meaning and value of each’s life. It is about propriety, mutuality, and the dynamics of socioenvironmental change” (244). Silko’s sense of feminism includes calling on one’s sisters or brothers for help, since everyone must do his or her part to help someone in need. The story ends with the slaying of the giant, and the subsequent naming of a locale called Yash’ka, meaning heart. It is as if to say that the bond of family will always be most important despite the struggles a community must face. In a universal sense, the girls are shown carrying traditional water pots purposely drawing on the well-known adage: blood is thicker than water, or the family triumphs over all.
The Laguna culture’s gender roles are different from the stereotypical, male-dominant Anglo-European culture. In Laguna culture, the lines between what a man should do and what a woman should do are not as defined as in the western world. Women are assigned tasks such as fetching water from streams, but they also do physical labor such as building homes. Girls are taught that they can do anything because in their culture women can and always have been in power. Many powerful, female gods are the protagonists in traditional stories and are worshipped simply due to their gender (Allen 13). Such gods include Yellow Woman (often referred to as Kochininako) and Spider Mother, two smart and strong women in Laguna legends. In an interview for Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out, Silko states, “I was really fortunate because I was surrounded by generation of women. I never thought women weren’t as strong as men, as able as men or as valid as men” (qtd in Thorson 274). In Silko’s personal life, the women of her family were resilient and all played a role in raising her (Thorson 274). The idea that the family gives a woman strength is important to a society deeply rooted in family. In the Laguna culture, like many other Native American tribes, the tribe is considered family. Not only is Silko close to her bloodline, but she is also connected with the sisters and brothers of her tribe. A woman’s family also includes men and women who help her to be successful. It is important that this form of feminism is not one in which men are useless, but rather are useful in helping women. The Laguna society is deeply rooted in traditions, but it is also one that is in some ways less traditional than our own. The power of a woman can be judged on a multitude of complex levels: her ability to perform traditional tasks, her strength, her intelligence, and last but not least, the people whom she calls family.
This juxtaposition of family and feminism, familial feminism is unique in the sense that one of the most valuable strength of a woman is the support of her family. In addition, a woman’s power further helps the family. The cycle that continues is one which the Laguna culture embraces. As Linda Danielson eloquently states, “Silko uses structural, thematic, imagistic, and metacommunicative tools to reclaim a whole and women-centered cosmos. In this nurturant and balanced community, both men and women can live and understand their relationship to relatives, storytelling, witchery, rain, deer, coyotes, and other inhabitants of the world” (332). Silko’s feminism allows everyone to be successful and to protect everyone else. The community thrives as a whole while its individuals do as well.   
Silko’s idea that women are not one-dimensional is unfortunately unique, one not typically seen in Anglo-European culture. Women can be traditional, strong, interdependent, and most importantly, should not be regarded as anything less than successful. Feminism is more than just individual strength. It is the idea that the tribe contributes to making each woman as strong as she can be. Silko’s idea of familial feminism allows for a woman to own all the strengths she possesses, and one of those strengths is the help of one’s family, whether it be from men or women. Silko shows a “revision of the world from her vantage point as a Laguna Indian woman” (Barnett and Thornson 278). This revision challenges the idea of traditional Anglo-European views that women are lesser than men and should see them as superior to themselves. On the contrary, men and women are equal in society. Silko shows the need for a change in the way people think about strength and gender as a whole. Women can and should do everything that men have always done: be confident in all that they are.

Works Cited
Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Beacon Press, 1986. Print.
Danielson, Linda L. “Storyteller: Grandmother Spider’s Web.” Journal of the Southwest. 30.3 (Autumn 1988). 325-355. Web.
Thorson, Connie Capers. “Leslie Marmon Silko and Her Work.” Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays. Eds. Louise K. Barnett and James L. Thorson. University of New Mexico Press Albuquerque, 1999. 273-283. Print.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Aunt Alice told my sisters and me this story one time.” Storyteller. 1981. Penguin Books, 2012. 79-83. Print. 

1 comment:

  1. I like the introduction. I could do with another 1-2 sentences on what familial feminism means, though. The 2nd paragraph is good, although I’d like to see something on how Aunt Susie in particular is the wellspring of this particular feminism (which I think she is, although there might be some room for argument there).

    I loved the paragraph about Yellow Woman’s contradictions as a model. Part of me wants to know at this point whether you buy into Silko’s vision.

    “Silko’s form of feminism, like her form of writing, is non-linear. “ -- this is a challenging and compelling paragraph. I’d like to have seen a little more, in your own words, on what this means to you. My interpretation is that you’re arguing that Silko is more concerned with proper vs. improper socialization rather than male vs. female. One complication, of course, is Yellow Woman herself - which side is she on?

    Some overall thoughts: I think you gave yourself a tough assignment, fought with it, and won many victories. Your reading of Silko is good (although I wonder what you think of the Cottonwood poems, or the one where Yellow Woman is a destroyer - any further revision, I think, would mean expanding your focus), and your research is effective, especially given that it wasn’t easy to find. While I like what we have here, and would be interested in a version which applied some of the same thinking to a broader set of works, part of me also wants to know more about how familial feminism applies to *us*. If Silko gives us another model, what do you think of it? One counterargument is that this “feminism” really just means the subordination of women to the greater good. In response, one might say that atomistic/competitive feminism is really just a perpetuation of the worst aspects of western patriarchy, just internalizing it. It’s interesting material and I’d like to see what it means to you a little more clearly.