Learning From Almanac of the Dead, a Hallmark of Indigenous Literature
Lou Cornum on Leslie Marmon Silko's Magnum Opus
The year 2020 was a rough one for Christopher Columbus. At least ten statues in honor of the millenarian navigator were toppled, beheaded, or otherwise vandalized in acts of protest across the United States. Other statues of Columbus have been permanently removed by order of local governments or in some cases taken to a secure location out of preemptive fear that the statues might face public attack. While he is an Italian American icon in the States and Europe, Columbus is also memorialized, and targeted, throughout Latin America for his act of so-called discovery on behalf of the Spanish crown.
In Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City, a Columbus statue that has stood in the middle of the major throughway since 1877 was removed in October 2020 purportedly for restoration, though the timing also coincided with an explicit call from local activists to remove it. In Colombia, whose national namesake is the explorer, protestors succeeded in bringing down a statue in the coastal city of Barranquilla in the midst of months-long anti-government protests. All over the interconnected continent and the archipelagos just offshore, people are reclaiming public space to uncover the foundation of a truly new world, not this model made by conquerors and slavers.
Thirty years ago, the Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko prophesized just this kind of trans-American reckoning with the twinned legacies of racial violence and Indigenous dispossession. Her magnum opus Almanac of the Dead was published in 1991 in the flurry of cultural production surrounding the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’s arrival. Silko’s 700-page story of stories adapts multiple Indigenous prophecies from Pueblo glyphs to the K’iche’ Mayan Popul Vuh to track the fracture lines extending from this event of contact that, like an atomic bomb, has torn apart the land and poisoned the atmosphere, making relations of conquest seemingly inescapable. From the perspective of 2021, on the precipice of yet another anniversary to the landfall of Columbus and renewed movements recognizing the afterlife of slavery in the role of policing in the United States, the figure of Columbus has fallen not only from many pedestals but also from his place of esteem in the historical record.
In its epic-scale narrative of a post-1492 planet, Almanac illuminates some of the reasons the bronze body of Columbus has repeatedly bitten the dust alongside Confederate monuments, almost 60 of which have also been removed, relocated, or renamed in the last year. While Silko has said her first novel Ceremony, written in 1997, explored the connective tissue between the United States and Asia, namely war and nuclear harm, Almanac turns to the entanglements of Africa and the Americas nowhere more obvious than in the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The book insists through the unofficial histories voiced by its characters, who exist in the peripheries of dominant society, that the continual violence of life across and in the borderlands has its origins in European conquest stretching back hundreds of years but surely not destined to continue forever.
One of the voices comes from the radio show of a Black Cherokee homeless man named Clinton. In his profuse and wandering historical musings, Clinton again and again draws back to sites of encounter between African and American Indian, not only to dwell on the shared experience of dispossession and violence but also a common horizon of vengeance. “Yes, the Americas were full of furious, bitter spirits; five hundred years of slaughter had left the continents swarming with millions of spirits that never rested and would never stop until justice had been done.” These spirits Clinton describes do not recognize political borders and in reading Almanac we are compelled ourselves to refuse their structuring.
Clinton lives in Tucson, Arizona, the cosmic center of the novel, described as “home to an assortment of speculators, confidence men, embezzlers, lawyers, judges, police and other criminals, as well as addicts and pushers.” It has also been Silko’s home while she was writing and still today, though she mostly avoids the public eye. The many plot lines of the novel do all make their way in some way to Tucson, but overall, the story is structured across distant geographies. The first part, The United States of America, is followed by Mexico, Africa, The Americas, and the Fifth World. The final section is called One World, Many Tribes, a heading that speaks one of the many prophetic utterances of the novel.
When the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented three years after the publication of Almanac, it would be met with resistance by the autonomous armed forces of the EZLN, or the Zapatista army formed in the jungles of Chiapas. Their vision? In part, “Un Mundo Donde Quepan Muchos Mundos” or a “world where many worlds fit.” Against the burgeoning narrative of multicultural liberalism in the United States of the 90s, Almanac amplified before it was even spoken by the Zapatistas the vision of a truly multitudinous world where people could make contact without conquest and exchange without coercion.
The book, both of its time and prescient, reflects an Indigenous conception of history as always simultaneously forming our present and future. Silko’s calling as a storyteller emerges from her grounding in the oral tradition of the Laguna Pueblo, though she also seeks common threads of thinking across tribal philosophies of the Americas, where in many cases time is understood as nonlinear. Silko references the spiral, a profound symbol for the Tohono O’odham, whose territory extends across the northern lands of Mexico into southern Arizona, the site of Almanac’s convergence of narratives. The spiral is also resonant with the spider web, a central image for the Diné, the southwestern tribal nation to which I belong.
In order to establish the space-time of spiral thinking, the book opens, and ends, with a “Five Hundred Year Map,” a representation of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands detailing characters by name and tracing their movements toward Tucson. In the top left corner, the map announces its own importance: “Through the decipherment of ancient tribal texts of the Americas the Almanac of the Dead foretells the future of all the Americas. The future is encoded in arcane symbols and old narratives.”
The future foretold in the Five Hundred Year Map begins by re-encoding the historical cartography of the Americas. Most of the continental United States is merely gestured to (an arrow indicates the general direction of New Jersey, for instance) while the bulk of the page is taken up by the loosely drawn shape of Mexico and not-to-scale drawings of Haiti and Cuba near the bottom right corner. Silko has written a curious inscription above Haiti: “The First Black Indians.” Harkening back to Columbus’s voyage to the “new world,” Silko is attuned to his arrival not in the continental US but in the Caribbean, specifically the Bahamas, with subsequent landings on the first voyage in those islands depicted on the map, Cuba and Haiti.
In labeling the island once known as Ayiti by the Taino who lived there long before Columbus’s discovery as the site of the “first black Indians” Silko riffs on Columbus’s original misnomer while also drawing together in somewhat startling nomenclature a shared identity of historical experience and potential revolt—Haiti being the site of the first Land Back movement in the Americas during the 18th-century slave rebellion that ousted European rule.
The map contains clues to its own deciphering. A box of text, headlined with the words “The Indian Connection,” reads: “Sixty million Native Americans died between 1500 and 1600. The defiance and resistance to things European continued unabated. The Indian Wars never ended in the Americas. Native Americans acknowledge no borders; they seek nothing less than the return of all tribal lands.” This is no typical map legend, but still, it conveys a sense of scale and terrain. It is a map not just of space, but of time. It holds a history of loss and a history of return. Prophecy itself is a form of historical thinking aimed at the future.
Today, 20 years later, the words of The Indian Connection, the return of all tribal lands, echo with the calls of Land Back. This demand most recently coalesced into a movement in 2020 with the land defense efforts of Wet’suwet’en First Nation against Canadian pipeline corporation Enbridge in British Columbia and the proliferation of solidarity blockades that shut down Canada’s rail system in the early winter months of 2020. Land back however, as Silko’s map intones, is a continuation of a struggle that has never ended and that will not end until the new world comes undone.I lean over the Almanac on its 20th anniversary, studying the map of 500 years, knowing the future is an open sky.
In 1991, a book like Almanac had never been produced in Native American literature, and nothing like it has been produced since. Many mainstream critics struggled with how to relate to it. Writing in The New Republic in 1991, Sven Birkets described Almanac as a failure but “not a simple failure.” Malcom Jones, writing the same year in Newsweek, ironically fixates on Silko as a “mighty angry” writer while also repeatedly describing how much the “infuriating” and “beguiling” book has the capacity to anger the reader, namely for its length and “unfairness” toward white people or America, the only place, he claims, that would allow such a book to be written in the first place. A more balanced account from Kirkus Reviews calls the novel “fantastic and colorful in the fine details” but “belabored and unwieldy as a whole.”
The novel’s mixed reviews from the mainstream press are matched by its ambiguous reception in Native American literary studies. There is a long-standing controversy in the field surrounding the vexed depictions of homosexual men in Almanac. While there are no heroes in the story, there are villains, and one of them is the wealthy gay man Beaufrey, a drug-addled eugenicist with a penchant for torture videos, kidnapping, and emotional warfare. To read the book in the genre of prophecy, Silko’s depiction of Beaufrey could speak to the dangers of homosexual ascension into the ruling class of the wealthy. To me, this section of the book speaks much more to the dangers of capital than a fear of gay sex.
Similarly, Menardo, a self-loathing Mexican with Mayan roots who starts an exploitative insurance business with a side hustle in arms dealing, is a character who stands in for the minoritarian elite who betray their people for the baubles of capitalist success. As a queer Indigenous writer and scholar, I don’t mean to excuse away the homophobic traces found in the text, and there are reasons for the visceral reactions some would have to her portrayal of gay life as abject and alienated. Yet, I also heed here the warning that sounds with potential in any prophecy.
Written during the onset of America’s obsession with multi-cultural optics, before the backlash to policies like affirmative action and the flattening of media to all-white narratives and/or feel-good POC fairytales and/or POC trauma reels, Silko insists that five hundred years of colonial relations between artificially created factions of the world has twisted everyone’s psyches. We have all been diminished in our capacity to relate to each other, the earth. Her insistence that one can be victim and perpetrator at once is one reason the offended white reviewers of the 90s seem all the more off the mark in their interpretations.
I was just barely two years old when Almanac came out. It took me many years to come to the book and even more years to read it. I have started it perhaps more times than any other but finished it in its entirety only once. I return to it these days as one might an actual almanac: reading a passage here and there, sometimes directed and sometimes at random, each time finding another fragment of the future refracted in the past.
Prophecies are not superstitions. They are a revolutionary Indigenous form of knowledge, derived from close attention to the currents of history as they constitute the shifting surface we live on. Silko noted with care the past that made her present, saw the lines of movement and force that yoked together racial violence, Indigenous dispossession, and the militarization of arbitrary political borders. I lean over the Almanac on its 20th anniversary, studying the map of 500 years, knowing the future is an open sky where at any moment the sacred macaw might fly over.