Cultural Dissonance in the select short stories by Native Americans

Article Posted in: Research Articles

by – D. Jeba & Dr. Ruby Davaseeli
published in December 2017, Vol. III, Issue. XXXV



The first people to inhabit America are referred to as Native Americans. Because of the European colonization of North and south America since 1500, Native Americans have been greatly reduced in numbers and largely displaced. This paper proposes to examine two short stories of native American writers namely  American Horse by Louise Erdrich and The Man to Send Rain Clouds by Leslie Marmon Silko. The cultural conflict between the native and white Americans in these two stories can be compared and contrasted.


Native Americans or American Indians were the first settlers of America. After the colonization of European descents or white Americans, the native people were relocated to various places. Many natives lost their land and lives. In order to retain and protect their culture and tradition, they started writing their personal experience through fictional characters. This paper proposes to examine two short stories of native American writers namely American Horse by Louise Erdrich and The Man to Send Rain Clouds by Leslie Marmon Silko. These two stories can be compared and contrasted in its storyline.

Over the course of the last four decades or so, literature by indigenous writers has undergone series of dramatic changes. Great novelists, dramatists, critics, and poets such as Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, Louis Owens, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Simon Ortiz, and Thomas King and many have proven vital to the understanding of Native American culture as a whole.

Louise Erdrich is an American writer of novels, poetry, and children’s books featuring Native American characters and settings. Erdrich is widely acclaimed as one of the most significant writers of the second wave of the Native American Renaissance. Her stories unfold where aboriginal family and dominant farming crash yet rarely blend. The reader becomes the mediator, and commentator on the edges as two cultural codes collide.

Louise Erdrich’s short story, “American Horse”, draws upon a familiar topos in the body of her literary creations and in the canon of Native American literature in general, that of the conflict opposing Native American culture to Western authorities.

American Horse hinges on a cultural conflict of two groups of characters: the Western group with Vicki Koob, Officer Brackett and Officer Harmony (who is not white but does all the works for the white government) and the Native American group with Uncle Lawrence, Albertine and Buddy American Horse.

Erdrich details the removal of Buddy American Horse from the care and custody of his mother Albertine by agents of the state police, the state department of social services, and tribal police. In its central conflict the characters deploy the powers they bring to bear on the matter of child custody, powers that inhere historically and culturally in both sides and which place the matter of Buddy’s custody in the history of Indian/white conflict.

The Western group’s actions are driven by a set of values which can easily be outlined in the way they judge Albertine and her environment. That judgement is conveyed through the vision they have of the context in which Buddy lives. Vicki’s taking stock of what is to be found in Buddy’s home relies on the careful writing of a list of elements among which she sees no link, no connection. Buddy’s dreams and visions play an instrumental part. His two types of dreams have the same outcome even if not exactly the same characteristics. His nocturnal nightmare features his being hunted down by policemen who eventually catch him.

Buddy had been knocked awake out of hiding in a washing machine while herds of policemen with dogs searched through a large building with many tiny rooms. When the arm came down, Buddy screamed because it had a blue cuff and sharp silver buttons. (42)

            Through internal focalization, the one can introject themselves into the characters and experience their fear and their anguish. In order to have Buddy with her, Albertine struggled a lot with Vicki and the officer but all in vain. She could do nothing against the social power. At last, she gave her life for the sake of Buddy. “She was stretched flat on the ground, on her stomach, and her arms were curled around her head as if in sleep”. (52)

Vicki’s and Brackett’s conception of Uncle Lawrence and of his house are characterized by fragmentation, dissociation and meaninglessness and therefore to be dismissed as not reliable in the construction of meaning. They cannot understand Buddy’s world and culture because they cannot see that, beneath the shell of Little Shell, a coherent world lies.

Erdrich’s numerous intertextual references, which are disseminated throughout the text in its every nook and cranny, are but the tips of huge icebergs whose main bodies lie concealed in the depth of the text and of Native American culture. Visions are not simply visions but the resurgences and materialization of stories of the past; cars are not merely cars but current manifestations of mythical beings. Thus American Horse is a tale about the exercise of White power and the victimization of the Native Americans. Therefore one can see a open cultural clash between the dominant culture and native American culture.

Leslie Marmon Silko is one of the major authors to emerge from the Native American literary renaissance of the 1970s. Born in 1948 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she grew up on the nearby Laguna Pueblo Reservation, where she was raised within a family of mixed Indian, Mexican, and white descent. Silko has garnered much critical acclaim and numerous awards and grants for her fiction and poetry, including a Discovery grant for her short story “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” in 1969

The story “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” is set on an Indian reservation in the American Southwest, with its wide mesas (plateaus) and arroyos (ravines). As the story opens, Leon and his brother-in-law, Ken, find an old man, Teofilo, dead under a cottonwood tree. The Pueblo people paint the faces of the dead so that they will be recognized in the next world. They also scatter corn and sprinkle water to provide food and water for the spirit on its journey to the other world. To the Pueblo, death is not the end of existence, but part of a cycle in which the spirit of the deceased returns to its source and then helps the community of the living by returning with rain clouds for the nourishment of the earth. So they ritually paint Teofilo face and take his body, wrapped in a red blanket, to their home for a traditional Pueblo funeral ceremony and “Send us to rain clouds, Grandfather” which illustrates the completeness of this ritual.

On their way home, Leon and Ken encounter Father Paul, a young Catholic priest who expresses his sorrow that the old man had died alone. Teofilo’s funeral is performed in the traditional Native American way until Leon’s wife suggests to her husband that he should ask the priest to sprinkle holy water on the grave. At first, Father Paul refuses; he says “You know I can’t do that, Leon.  There should have been the Last Rites and a funeral Mass at the very least” to use the holy water as part of an Indian burial ceremony. After reconsideration the priest, still confused about his role the ceremony, changes his mind and sprinkles the grave with the holy water. Silko’s story explores the Indians’ blending of Catholic rituals with traditional Indian rituals during a funeral ceremony. The tension of maintaining traditional Pueblo practices and the co-opting of outside influences—in this case, the Catholic church—is a recurring interest of Silko’s and appears in several of her stories.

Leslie Marmon Silko‘s “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” centres on cultural conflicts.  Leon and Ken find very hard to mess up with the white culture. But the priest really does care for the Native Americans in his parish.  He wants to be a part of their lives. He chose to work with the people.  This may bridge the gap to bring more Indians into his church

Silko works with two different spheres of discourse, one of which is Native American and the other contemporary American. The Man to Send Rain Clouds portrays the continuing strength of Laguna traditions and the ability of her people to use alien traditions for their own purposes.” Through this instance of a cultural clash between the Pueblo villagers’ traditional beliefs and the religious beliefs of the Catholic priest, Silko shows how Native Americans can accommodate elements of the white culture surrounding them to suit their own purposes and beliefs and thereby ensure the fruitful continuation of the community. Thus through this transposition, the two worlds are brought together.

            Thus from the above discussed two stories, one could see how cultural dissonance makes a community suffer. As a whole, these two stories can be compared because of both deals with the cultural conflict between white and native culture. But at the same time, these stories can be contrasted because of their change in the end. In American Horse, till the end Native Americans struggle to overcome the white’s power but in The Man to Send Rain Clouds towards the end they ask the Christian priest to complete the funeral ritual by sprinkling holy water, that is  Native Americans try to accommodate with the white culture.



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