Running on the Edge of the Rainbow: Laguna Stories and Poems

with 
Leslie Marmon Silko

Video Credits

Watch the video

Larry Evers, Producer
Dennis Carr, Director 
Michael Orr, Post Production Supervisor 
In Cooperation with the University of Arizona Radio-TV-Film Bureau 
© Arizona Board of Regents 1978

 

Compiled by Dr. Larry Evers, Department of English, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721 email Dr. Evers

Prologue

You should understand the way it was 
back then,
because it is the same 
even now.

Long ago it happened 
that her husband left 
to hunt deer 
before dawn.
And then she got up 
and went to get water. Early in the morning 
she walked to the river when the sun came over 
the long red mesa.
He was waiting for her
that morning
in the tamarack and willow
beside the river.
Buffalo Man 
in buffalo leggings.
"Are you here already?"
"Yes," he said.
He was smiling.
"Because I came for you."
She looked into the
shallow clear water.
"But where shall I put my water jar?"
"Upside down, right here," he told her,
"on the river bank."

 

"You better have a damn good story," her husband said,
"about where you been for the past 
10 months and how you explain these 
twin baby boys."
"No! That gossip isn't true.
She didn't elope.
She was kidnapped by
that Mexican
at Seama Feast.
You know my daughter
isn't
that kind of girl."
It was
in the summer
of 1967.
T.V. news reported
a kidnapping.
Four Laguna women
and 3 Navajo men
headed north along
the Rio Puerco River
in a red '56 Ford.
And the F.B.I, and
state police were
hot on their trail
of wine bottles and
size 42 panties
hanging in bushes and trees
all along the road.
"We couldn't escape them," he told police later, 
"We tried, but there were four of them and 
only three of us."

Seems like it's always happening to me.
Outside the dance hall door
late Friday night
in the summertime,
and those brown-eyed men from Cubero
smiling.
They usually ask me
"Have you seen the way stars shine
up there in the sand hills?"
And I usually say "No. Will you show me?"

It was 
that Navajo 
from Alamo, 
you know, 
the tall 
good-looking 
one.

He told me 
he'd kill me 
if I didn't 
go with him 
And then it 
rained so much 
and the roads 
got muddy. 
That's why 
it took 
so long 
to get back home.

My husband
left
after he heard the story
and moved back in with his mother.
It was my fault and
I don't blame him either.
I could have told
the story
better than I did.

Porch Talk with Joy Harjo amd Sandy Johnson

When I talk about the oral tradition or about the way the people at Laguna take delight in relating stories of incidents that happened either recently or in the past, people say, "Well, that's gossip." And in an Anglo-Saxon tradition one of the things that religious leaders are always warning the people about is, "Don't gossip, gossip is bad." Even now I run into people professionally who feel that way. They don't like to talk about things and people. They like to talk about the weather and the stock market or something—something not having to do with people. But it's very important to understand the function that this kind of telling and retelling of incidents has. It's what holds the community together in a way that goes beyond clan relations and blood relations.

If you listen closely when someone is talking about something that happened two weekends ago at Paguate after a dance, very quickly, other stories that occurred in other places or incidents that occurred in that same place ... in other words, whenever a place or a family or a kind of activity, whenever some things like that are related, at the same time, all other kinds of stories are remembered and told. And it's very important. It's not just a matter of it being gossip or idle. There's nothing idle . . . oftentimes the two words are linked: idle gossip. There's nothing about this at all that's idle. It's a very intense sort of thing, this recalling.

By recalling these other stories which are somehow linked to this place or to this person or to this kind of activity, it begins to put everything into kind of ... not just into a context, but it puts things into proportion, and it begins to link the people, individuals. It begins to link the individual to the rest of the people in a kind of very essential way so that the same kind of thing that just happened to you last week, well, we'll tell you about the other people it happened to and other people and all of a sudden you're not alone in what happened.

You can begin to laugh at things that happened. I guess another function in all this is helping, enabling, the individual to begin to see things not just as me, alone kind of way, but to begin to see one's experiences, one's fate, one's tragedies in terms of something not just yourself but everyone else, so that it brings everyone closer, and it makes you seem much more like a part of the stories. And the next time something happens, your story's going to be right there with all the others, and so these things link and it helps the individual right now. It brings the individual in touch with things and people that happened a hundred years ago." There's sort of a continuity. In other words, this telling is a creating of a kind of identity for you so that whatever kind of situation you find yourself in, you know where you are and you know who you are. It's that whatever you do, you never feel that you're alone, or you never feel at a loss for. , . . You're never lost, you're never lost.

Laughing and Laughing About Something That Happened at Mesita 

But down at Mesita
they always remember
the night at Laguna
when a man was walking up the hill
to the toilet
and he heard
funny sounds
coming from
one of those
old barns
across from the parish hall.

He thought
he better check up on things
just in case
some animal was trapped in there
or something like that.

So he opened the door
shined his flashlight in there
and here was this man
really respected in the community
always working hard
and never even drunk.
Well there he was
with this big fat woman
she was married too
and had twelve kids.

And there they were in 
the middle of winter with 
no clothes on.

This poor man who found them 
he didn't know what to say 
so he closed the door again 
and he went back home.

He even forgot
he had to go to the toilet.

So
down at Mesita
they laugh too,
and they always have to say
that guy
sure was taking a chance
messing around
with a woman as big as her.
All she'd have to do
is roll over on him
And that
would be
the end.


I was always given to feel, and it was by people like anthros, to feel that , that to be a worthy human being, if you were coming from a pueblo, that you should have, you should know the stories just us they are in the BAE. I won't do that. I won't go to those things and do what they did. And the reason, now the more I think about it, that, you know, I don't have to is because, actually, I guess I really did in a funny kind of way through all those years, I guess from the time I was as little as Caz all the way up, hear quite a few stories. Somewhere along the line, I heard in what would be passed off now as rumor or gossip, I could hear through all of that, I could hear something too, that there was a kind of continuum or continuation, despite the fact that in 1930 Elsie Clews Parsons wrote off Laguna as being a lost cause, and said it had no kiva or something. And the same went, going for the "oral tradition." I guess somewhere along the line, I always loved those kinds of stories so much that the things in the BAE sort of looked dead and alien. And I figured, I don't know, I couldn't do anything with them anyway, even though theoretically they're supposed to have come from here.

Toe'osh; A Laguna Coyote Story for Simon Ortiz

1

In the wintertime
at night
we tell coyote stories
          and drink Spanada by the stove. 
How coyote got his 
ratty old fur coat
          bits of old fur
          the sparrows stuck on him
          with dabs of pitch.

That was after he lost his proud original one in a poker game, anyhow, things like that 
are always happening to him, 
that's what she said, anyway. 

And it happened to him at Laguna
and Chinle
and at Lukachukai too, because coyote got too smart for his own good.

2

But the Navajos say he won a contest once.
It was lo see who could sleep out in a
snow storm the longest
and coyote waited until chipmunk badger and skunk were all
curled up under the snow
and then he uncovered himself and slept all night
inside
and before morning he got up and went out again
and wailed until the others got up before he came
in to take the prize.

3

Some white men came to Acoma and Laguna a hundred years ago 
and they fought over Acoma land and Laguna women, and even now 
some of their descendants are howling in 
the hills southeast of Laguna

4

Charlie Coyote wanted to be governor 
and he said that when he got elected 
he would run the other men off 
the reservation 
and keep all the women for himself.

5

One year
the politicians got fancy
at Laguna.
They went door to door with hams and turkeys
and they gave them to anyone who promised
to vote for them.
On election day all the people
stayed home and ate turkey
and laughed.

6

The Trans-Western pipeline vice president came
to discuss right-of-way.
The Lagunas let him wait all day long
because he is a busy and important man.
And late in the afternoon they told him
to come back again tomorrow.

7

They were after the picnic food
that the special dancers left
down below the cliff.
And Toe'osh and his cousins hung themselves
down over the cliff
holding each other's tail in their mouth making a coyote chain
until someone in the middle farted
and the guy behind him opened his
mouth to say "What stinks?" and they
all went tumbling down, like that.

8

Howling and roaring 
Toe'osh scattered white people
out of bars all over Wisconsin. 
He bumped into them at the door until they said
          'Excuse me'
And the way Simon meant it 
was for 300 or maybe 400 years.


With the Coyote story ... I wrote it after I came back from Wisconsin. And I had some other things in there. At first it started out to be something just about Simon and about that Writers Conference back in Wisconsin, and then I started remembering all these other things.

There's one way you deal with a Coyote story, see, the way I deal with it in Toe'osh. You can strip it down to sort of the bare details. And the way that piece is structured, the rest of the episodes of Coyote give you the kind of background that you need to have for Coyote. All the different parts work together so that one piece can stand in its sort of bare bones state, all by itself. But the way I have to tell the Coyote story to the kids is very different and it takes a lot more time and it takes a lot more space and it's a lot more fun too.

Telling Coyote Story to Sons, Robert and Cazimir


Look where all the Marmon houses are, down below the village here. We're closer to the river than the rest of the village. I always thought there was something symbolic about that placement, sort of putting us on the fringe of things. So when I was a kid growing up, the river was really close by.

I was always fascinated with the river. I loved the river very much, but I knew it was a small river and I didn't make great demands upon it. There were always stories, I don't know, you just start hearing about things. The river's the one place where things can happen that can't or won't ordinarily happen in the middle of the village obviously. What gradually happens with the river is that you begin to know the river in many different ways sort of simultaneously. And it's not clear to me which comes first, the way the river is or the Yellow Woman stories about the river, which controls, which makes. I sometimes think that it's the Yellow Woman stories that make the river so seductive and sensual and not the way the river is that adds to the story. There was one point when I began to see, when all those things began to come together and I think it was in the writing. All of these stories and all of these things come together and the river takes on a kind of identity and becomes a very special place.

When I think now about how I've written in the stories or in that sort of poetry piece, "Storytelling," suddenly I realize my sense or my feeling of the river comes from all these places, that identity.

You know, a lot of people make a mistake when they hear me talk and they hear me laugh about the storytelling and I think they're confused, they don't understand. If people can't listen to you without being pompous about it, they don't deserve to hear what you have to say anyway. But it's very important, and it's not just gossip and those aren't just stories. It's the whole basis for what keeps the people together. Everything that they know, they know through all time about each other and about themselves.

Indian Song: Survival

We went north
               to escape winter
climbing cliffs
               we paused to sleep at the river.

Cold water river cold from the north 
I sink my body in the shallow
               sink into sand and cold river water.

You sleep in the branches of
               pale river willows above me.
I smell you in the silver leaves, mountainlion man
               green willows aren't sweet enough to hide you. 

               he is warmer than any man.
I have slept with the river and
               I heard ice on the cattails.
At sunrise


Mountain lion, with dark yellow eyes
               you nibble moon flowers
               while we wait.
I don't ask why do you come
               on this desperation journey north. 


I am hunted for my feathers 
I hide in spider's web
               hanging in a thin grey tree
          above the river. 
In the night I hear music
          song of branches, dry leaves scraping the moon. 
          and I know he is waiting.


Green spotted frogs sing to the river

Mountain lion shows me the way 
           path of mountain wind 
climbing higher 
        up
               up to Cloudy Mountain.

It is only a matter of time, Indian
               you can't sleep with the river forever. 
Smell winter und know.
I swallow black mountain dirt
               while you catch hummingbirds 
                trap them with wildflowers 
                  pollen and petals
                  fallen from the Milky Way

You lay beside me in the sunlight 
               warmth around us and 
               you ask me if I still smell winter. 
Mountain forest wind travels east and I answer: 
               taste me,
                  I am the wind 
               touch me,
                  I am the lean, grey deer 
               running on the edge of the rainbow.

Transcript Notes

— "Storytelling" is published in Leslie Marmon Silko, Storyteller (NY: Seaver Books, 1981), p. 94.

— The two women with Silko on the porch of her house are Joy Harjo, poet and author of Last Song (Las Cruces, N.M.: Puerto del Sol, 1977), and Sandy Johnson, a Laguna woman from Paguate village, Harjo's daughter Rainy Dawn also appears in some of the porch scenes.

— "Laughing and Laughing About Something that Happened at Mesita" has not been published in this form. See Storyteller, pp. 89-93 for another version.

— Elsie Clews Parsons' work at Laguna may be seen in a book edited by her mentor Franz Boas in Keresan Texts and in her collection "Laguna Tales." See Related Readings.

— BAE refers to the publications of the Bureau of American Ethnology, one of the major series in which Boas and his disciples published their work on American Indian story and song.

— Caz is Silko's youngest son Cazimir.

— "Toe'osh: A Laguna Coyote Story" is published in Storyteller, p. 236. It is dedicated to Acoma poet Simon J. Ortiz, author of Going for the Rain (Harper and Row, 1977), Howbah Indians (Blue Moon Press, 1977), and The Good Journey (Turtle Island, 1977)
.
— The conference Silko refers to was "the National Center for Audio Experimentation Writers' Workshop." It was held at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. Selections from poets at the conference were published in The Greenfield Review, 3 (1973).

— "Indian Song: Survival" is published in Storyteller, p. 35

For Comment and Discussion

Few viewers of this videotape could doubt that Laguna stories entertain and delight the people, but Silko tells us that stories have more important functions than entertainment. They "hold the people together," and they continue to be told at Laguna because they work in this important way. Stories mold the incidents of individuals' lives by relating them to the slow moving wisdom of the collective life. Stories make personal experiences less personal by traditionalizing them.

The first poem Silko reads on this videotape, "Storytelling," is a good illustration of this process. The poem turns on the relation between Kochinako, Yellow Woman, a major character in Laguna storytelling tradition, and a series of recent happenings at Laguna. Time and again in Laguna stories Yellow Woman leaves her family in the village to go to the river for water. There she encounters one katsina or another, leaves her water jar on the river bank, and runs off with the katsina to a world of supernatural adventures. In this poem and in her short story "Yellow Woman" Silko shows how many contemporary stories that we might write off as rumor or gossip are in fact more recent and immediate versions of the Yellow Woman's adventures. By connecting these recent happenings with the old-time stories of Yellow Woman, Silko traditionalizes them. Her poem "Toe'osh: A Laguna Coyote Story" works in much the same way. There she finds images of the Laguna trickster Coyote in a series of contemporary happenings on the Laguna reservation. She recognizes a continuum between the old stories about Coyote and more recent tellings of the adventures of contemporary Lagunas. In both "Storytelling" and "Toe'osh" Silko shows how Laguna stories hold the people together.

Material for this videotape was recorded March 26-31, 1976 at Laguna, New Mexico. All original film and videotape is archived at the Southwest Folklore Center, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson, 85721.

Related Readings

The best print complement to this videotape is Silko's book Storyteller (NY; Seaver Books, 1981). It should be required reading for all who view this videotape. Silko's novel Ceremony was published by Viking Press in 1977.

Silko talks about her life and work in "A Conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko," Sun Tracks, 3 (1976), pp. 28-33. Kenneth Roemer discusses some aspects of her poetry in "Bear and Elk: The Nature(s) of Contemporary Indian Poetry," The Journal of Ethnic Studies, 10 (1975), pp. 233-236. The American Indian Quarterlypublished a special issue in 1979 devoted entirely to essays on Ceremony. Per Seyerstad's Leslie Marmon Silko, Boise State Univ. Western Writers Series, 45 (Boise, ID: Boise State Univ., 1980) provides an excellent survey of Silko's work.

Edward P. Dozier’s The Pueblo Indians of North America (NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970) offers a readable overview of Pueblo Indian life. Elsie Clews Parsons' Pueblo Indian Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939) and Hamilton A. Tyler's Pueblo Animals and Myths (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964) are helpful discussions of Pueblo religion and myth. Schat-chen: History and Traditions and Narratives of the Queres Indians of Laguna and Acoma (Albuquerque: Albright and Anderson, 1917) by John Gunn contains very valuable material on Laguna storytelling. Selections of Laguna stories are also available in Parsons, "Laguna Tales," Journal of American Folklore, 4 (1931), pp. 137-42, and Franz Boas, Keresan Texts (New York: American Ethnological Society, 1928). Silko's great-grandmother Susie Reyes Marmon was one of Parsons' and Boas' principal sources in compiling these two collections. See Silko's discussion in Storyteller, pp. 254-56.

Part of which site