Identity is perhaps the most significant theme explored in this story. The title character and narrator is only known to the reader as “Yellow Woman,” a figure from Pueblo folklore, while the stranger she meets by the river, called Silva, claims to be “ka’tsina,” a mountain spirit known to seduce native women and take them from their communities. The narrator becomes fixated on uncovering Silva’s true identity, telling herself he couldn’t possibly be the mountain spirit of stories, but must be a Navajo. The characters’ identities are tied together because if Silva is indeed ka’tsina, that means that the narrator must be Yellow Woman. Thus, in her efforts to pin down Silva’s identity, the narrator is also searching for her own identity.
Faced with the unknown, identifying things can be a way of gaining a sense of security and control. The narrator seeks to gain control over her situation by identifying it and the stranger in a way that makes sense to her. The narrator reasons, “But I only said that you were him and that I was Yellow Woman—I’m not really her—I have my own name and I come from the pueblo on the other side of the mesa. Your name is Silva and you are a stranger I met by the river yesterday afternoon.” Here, she is attempting to rationalize the situation and her place in it by using familiar terms in order to pull herself out of the unknown and back into her familiar reality. Though she names Silva, she fails to explicitly name herself, saying only that she has “[her] own name.” By not replacing Yellow Woman with another name, she leaves her true identity a mystery for the reader.
When leaving for the mountains with Silva, the narrator wishes to herself that they would come across another person who could confirm that he is a man and not a mountain spirit, for then she would be certain that she is not Yellow Woman. She is seeking confirmation from someone else of his identity and, by extension, her own. When Silva and Yellow Woman encounter a white rancher, the rancher addresses Silva only as “Indian”—a vague, catch-all term for indigenous American people—and accuses him of thievery. Though Yellow Woman and the reader know that Silva does indeed steal cattle, the rancher has no other evidence for this accusation beyond Silva being a Native American in possession of fresh meat. The rancher then instructs Silva to ride on to Marquez, stating, “We’ll call the state police from there.” The rancher believes he can exercise power over Silva, first, by calling him Indian (a term the rancher’s white ancestors forced on Silva’s ancestors while colonizing North America), and second, by alluding to the colonial authority behind him: the state police. The rancher asserts his power by explicitly connecting himself to the state police and colonial authority, and he seems to identify with this power so confidently that he confronts an alleged thief unarmed. Interestingly, it is during this encounter with another person that the narrator glimpses something of “time immemorial” in Silva. As Silva confronts the rancher, the narrator sees “something ancient and dark” in Silva’s eyes, which suggests a mystical presence underneath his human exterior. She was hoping for another person to confirm his ordinariness, but instead, the rancher summoned evidence of the ka’tsina lurking beneath Silva’s human face.
The story also explores the human tendency to identify things based on their relationships to or differences from other predetermined groups. The narrator argues that she cannot be Yellow Woman because she doesn’t belong to “time immemorial,” the time when stories were made, and that she has a different name, as does Silva. She wants to believe that he is a Navajo because if he is (she reasons) he cannot be a ka’tsina. However, she begins to consider the notion that identities can be fluid and people can be many different things. She explains, “I was wondering if Yellow Woman knew who she was—if she knew that she would become part of the stories. Maybe she had another name that her husband and relatives called her so that only the ka’tsina from the north and the storytellers would know her as Yellow Woman.” Here, the narrator is thinking about Yellow Woman in the third person, but seems to be describing herself. She wonders whether Yellow Woman exists as one person separate from her family and community and as another person with another name when within those spaces. As the narrator moves farther away from her family, she seems to become increasingly enmeshed in the mysticism and Yellow Woman identity. The deeper into the mountains they go, the more the narrator seems to believe that Silva is a mountain spirit. Just as her proximity to her home influences her perception of her identity, their connection to the mountain space shapes her perception of Silva’s identity as a mountain spirit. Thus, the characters’ identities flow and change depending on their environments, suggesting that identity is perhaps much more fluid than either the reader or the characters may have thought.
By the end of the story, the narrator seems to embrace a more fluid identity. Standing outside of her house, she identifies her family members’ voices, and they draw her back into her relationship to and identification with each of them. Although she decides to tell her family that she was kidnapped by a Navajo, she thinks, “I was sorry that old Grandpa wasn’t alive to hear my story because it was the Yellow Woman stories he liked to tell best.” By associating her own story with the Yellow Woman stories, she’s suggesting to the reader that she has embraced her identity as Yellow Woman in addition to her “real” identity, which is defined by her relationships at home. The narrator has returned from her journey with a more fluid sense of self, no longer wondering whether she is Yellow Woman or the woman from the pueblo, but rather accepting that she may contain multiple identities which she first thought to be irreconcilable.
Identity Quotes in Yellow Woman
“You are coming with me, remember?” He sat up now with his bare dark chest and belly in the sun.
“To my place.”
“And will I come back?”
He pulled his pants on. I walked away from him, feeling him behind me and smelling the willows.
“Yellow Woman,” he said.
But I only said that you were him and that I was Yellow Woman—I’m not really her—I have my own name and I come from the pueblo on the other side of the mesa. Your name is Silva and you are a stranger I met by the river yesterday afternoon.
I was wondering if Yellow Woman had known who she was—if she knew that she would become part of the stories. Maybe she’d had another name that her husband and relatives called her so that only the ka’tsina from the north and the storytellers would know her as Yellow Woman.
I will see someone, eventually I will see someone, and then I will be certain that he is only a man—some man from nearby—and I will be sure that I am not Yellow Woman. Because she is from out of time past and I live now and I’ve been to school and there are highways and pickup trucks that Yellow Woman never saw.
“Where did you get the fresh meat?” the white man asked.
“I’ve been hunting,” Silva said, and when he shifted his weight in the saddle the leather creaked.
“The hell you have, Indian. You’ve been rustling cattle. We’ve been looking for the thief for a long time…Don’t try anything, Indian. Just keep riding to Marquez. We’ll call the state police from there.”
I decided to tell them that some Navajo had kidnapped me, but I was sorry that old Grandpa wasn’t alive to hear my story because it was the Yellow Woman stories he liked to tell best.