THERE IS something safely remote about myths and folk tales. We collect them, illustrate them lavishly, print them in elegant books and give them to children for Christmas. They are curiosities, entertainment for the young, and of serious interest only to anthropologists and psychologists.
Generally, folk literature is recorded second-hand by strangers to its origins. Removed from the contexts of their language, history and environment, stories become stylized and atrophy like animals in a zoo. By contrast, the poems, tales, stories and reminiscences in Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller ring true with the warm, personal authority of their Native American speaker.
Culture -- the transmission of ideas and learned behaviors from one generation to the next -- is as much a part of human evolution as genetics. Folk tales, with their mythical fools, heroes and villains, epic mistakes and triumphs in survival. The storyteller -- parent, priest, or talented local celebrity -- was traditionally a vital link between generations, weaving into the present the lessons and perspectives of the past with enough humor and drama to command attention. Story and storyteller both defined and perpetuated a culture.
Technology has largely replaced the storyteller in our time. Modern "folklore" flickers past on a screen, inseparable from politics, war, weather maps and Excedrin ads, linking its audience not so much with a common past as with an interminable present. The storyteller and tales that linked centuries of generations have little place in a fragmented society preoccupied with immediacy.
The Native American cultures our society supplanted were rich with traditions refined over thousands of years of adaptation to the varied environments of an entire continent. Within a century, these ancient traditions vanished along with most of the tribes that held them. The few survivors -- scattered, impoverished and demoralized in their bleak reservations -- have watched the last remnants of their heritage extinguished as thier children succumb to the commercial values and social pressures of their conquerors.
Happily, some of the lore survived, preserved by grandmothers, uncles, great-aunts and the children they entertained with their tales. Changing political attitudes, growing affluence, education and a belated national awareness of social justice have revived Native American self-respect, rekindling tribal identities and appreciation for a heritage nearly lost.
Leslie Marmon Silko brings that heritage alive in the true tradition of the storyteller, weaving ancestral legends and ways into the context of today. "I grew up at Laguna listening, and I hear the ancient stories, I hear them very clearly in the stories we are telling right now," she says.
As with any generation the oral tradition depends upon each person listening and remembering a portion and it is together -- all of us remembering what we have heard together -- that creates the whole story the long story of the people."
Tribal dispersal and assimilation of "the people" by an impersonal, technological world have tended to sever the continuity of the oral tradition. Silko draws a vivid and touching portrait of her nearly blind, elderly great-aunt writing with agonizing slowness at her kitchen table, painstakingly recording her share of stories lest they die with her. In the same spirit, Kilko records her own "rememberings".
The remembering encompassed today and yesterday as well as long ago. Buffalo Man, Kochininako, Spider Woman, Sun Man, the Gambler and Corn Woman play their tricks and spin their magic against the same hills, yucca, cottonwood, pinon trees, sandrock and sky where the author's father took her and her sisters exploring, waiting "for the cumulus clouds to come give him the sky / he needed for his photographs." The deer spirits still sing for Grandpa Hank, who subscribed to Motor Trend and Popular Mechanics and drove a 1957 Thunderbird hardtop convertible. Yellow Woman returns for her season of love with a Ka'tsina god to find her mother instructing her grandmother in the method of making Jello.
Old ways live still in hunt and harvest, in preparation for meal and feast, in the welcome of friends, the ritual competition between tribes. Old wisdom and old anger haunt tales of a hunt for Geronimo, the murder of a vindictive highway patrolman, the prophecy of an ancient witch. Timeless irony and humor surface unexpectedly in a poem about outhouses, a story of consecrated burial, Coyote politicians, Uncle Tony's runaway goat. In Silko's reminiscences of her own family speak the strengths, griefs and loves of a thousand-year-old memory.
The 26 photographs that illustrate Storyteller were selected from a tall Hopi basket containing hundreds of photographs, most of them taken by the author's father and grandfather since the 1890's. "The photographs are here because they are part of many of the stories," Silko says, "and because many of the stories can be traced in the photographs." Her notes to the photographs are further stories in themselves. Poems, stories, photographs and notes together make Storyteller a lively, tender family album of a landscape, its people and a tradition of harmony between them that was little understood or appreciated by European invaders.
Freed of Old World restraints and limitations, European colonists and pioneers burst like children escaped from reform school upon the North American continent, a virtual Never-Never Land of adventure and opportunity. As their fantasy-land deteriorates with neglect and greed, the bold adventurers have become slovenly and quarrelsome. Like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, we lack "the storeis" to tell us who and where we are and what the world requires of us.
"All this was happening long time ago, see?" says Yellow Woman, walking between past and present:
"Before that time, there were no stories about drastic things which must be done for the world to continue out of love for this earth . . ."
The tales in Storyteller are more than museum pieces or relics of a dead past. They are voices from the land itself and the people the land had molded to its ways. We are still colonists, intruders in a world we nether respect nor understand. The stories survive, the storytellers are still among us. It is time we listened to them.