This short story was written a few years after the beginning of the American Indian Movement in 1968. As more Native American artists and writers produced work that celebrated their cultural heritage, they also spoke out against the persecution of Native Americans, past and present. Silko’s work in particular highlights the discord between Native American and white cultures. She fought against the erasure of her culture by centering the subjects of Pueblo identity, tradition, and experience in her writing. Her short story, “Yellow Woman,” can be read as a story about a Pueblo woman’s journey as she reconnects with her roots, though it can just as easily be interpreted as the story of her abduction and rape. In this way, the story celebrates Native American traditions of oral storytelling as a powerful force capable of transforming lives, even as it poses urgent questions about the place of violence in Native American history and identity—violence committed not only by white people against Native Americans, but between Native American people.
While standing on the mountain together with the narrator, Silva points out the Pueblo, Navajo, Texan, and Mexican borders to the narrator, laying out a picture of how the land has been divided among the various groups to benefit of the white population. The borders are a vestige of the colonial concept of landownership; they function to establish a sense of control over an area and to keep outsiders from coming in. Perhaps more significantly, though, borders often function just as much to keep the inhabitants of an area in. Reservations may foster community, but they also delimit boundaries outside of which Native Americans are treated as outsiders in a land that was theirs to begin with. Silko is highlighting this dynamic when Silva and the narrator encounter a white rancher who only addresses Silva as “Indian” and immediately accuses him of theft. This kind of intolerance and hostility is portrayed as unexceptional in the narrator’s experience; Silko is reminding readers that tension and violence have always been the chief characteristics of the relationship between Native Americans and white people. Based on the gunshots the narrator hears as she rides away, she can only assume the confrontation between Silva and the rancher ended in violence. Seeking safety, she rides back to the Pueblo reservation. Thus, in this story, borders represent both safety and restriction.
In addition to physical and cultural violence, Native Americans are the most at-risk population for sexual violence in the United States. According to studies conducted by the Department of Justice, Native Americans are two and a half times more likely to experience sexual assault and rape than any other ethnic group, and the perpetrators are most often white or non-Native American men. In Silko’s story, Silva (who is Native American) at times shows aggression toward the narrator. Her fluctuating feelings of fear and affection for him make it unclear whether she feels their relationship was consensual. In this light, the mythical or fantastical aspects of the story could be interpreted as a strategy on the part of one or both characters for justifying an otherwise problematic relationship—that is, by re-interpreting it within the framework of a mythical romance. The narrator likely would rather be the protagonist of a legendary love affair than an unfaithful wife or victim of rape. Thus, embracing the Yellow Woman mythology as a fate against which she is powerless could provide her with a sense of agency—if not over the events themselves, then over the way they are understood. The sexual liberation and empowerment of the Yellow Women in Pueblo mythology suggests that characters associated with her would have similar experiences of sexual empowerment, but that narrator in this story initially resists Silva as he physically pulls her along with him. The narrator also expresses fear at moments, realizing that Silva could easily “destroy” her. Depending on one’s reading of the text, then, the narrator might be renewing her connection to old stories and traditions while exploring her spiritual identity and an uninhibited sexuality—but she also might be the survivor of an unfortunately common pattern of abuse against Native American women.
“Yellow Woman” tells the story of a Pueblo woman whose name Silko never reveals—perhaps so that she can more easily serve as Native American “everywoman.” The reservation borders in which Native American women live may provide a modest buffer against the pervasive onslaught of cultural violence, but they also cause many of those inside to feel trapped and seek an escape. Native American or not, myths and storytelling often provide such an escape for people who dream beyond the borders of their life. Silko’s story celebrates the power and influence of Native American mythology as a living vessel of Native American cultural heritage, simultaneously enabling people to feel rooted and transported. Silko, like many of her peers in the Native American Movement, offers stories like “Yellow Woman” as a means of enhancing the visibility of Native American experiences. She employs storytelling to preserve Native American cultural identity and to shine a light on some of the problems facing Native Americans today.
Native American Culture, Identity, and Experience ThemeTracker
Native American Culture, Identity, and Experience 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.
“I don’t believe it. Those stories couldn’t happen now,” I said.
He shook his head and said softly, “But someday they will talk about us and they will say, ‘Those two lived long ago when things like that happened.’”
He pulled me around and pinned me down with his arms and chest. “You don’t understand, do you, little Yellow Woman? You will do what I want.”
And again he was all around me with his skin slippery against mine, and I was afraid because I understood that his strength could hurt me. I lay underneath him and I knew that he could destroy me.
“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.