Leslie Silko is often considered the best novelist coming out of the so-called "Native American Renaissance," the movement of American Indian artists that became popular during the 1970's. In Silko's novels, the characters are Indians, trapped between the twin traumas of their history and present, that nonetheless push on towards a new identity. They are often staged in the Southwest United States, and consequently in or around uranium mines.
For Silko, nuclear development in the US is a symbol of Western Civilization, and human civilization generally, at its most monstrous. She sees the abandoned uranium mines (a staple of Southwestern Tribal Nations) as persisting material evidence of the violent exploitation of Native peoples and their environment that the US initiated. As such, when a character in any of her novels comes upon an abandoned mine, it usually precedes a decisive event—a reckoning with the darkest forces in human nature. In Ceremony, the protagonist Tayo is confronted with his rage-consumed drinking-buddy Emo, who tries to kill him. The injustice of racism in America (which keeps him from enjoying the benefits of White WWII veterans and strands him on a land that he no longer feels a connection to) drives Emo to harm one of his friends. Tayo must decide whether to retaliate and thereby further the cycle of violence began, or to try to stop the cycle and heal his identity. This scene is colored historically by the abandoned Anaconda Uranium Mine on which it occurs.
The uranium mine as a symbol also suggests the movement between worlds in Navajo mythology. The Navajo creation myth follows animals, natural forces, and people as they ascend from world to world. An open mine constitutes a descent below the Earth, and thus recalls the mythological ancestors who came to this world from a world below. The evil of the world is concentrated symbolically in the mines, but as a physical symbol it becomes an opportunity for Tayo to overcome it, and, so to speak, to ascend to the next world or the next stage in historical development of indigenous identity. That being said, the mine as a symbol does not fully supplant its reality. Even if Tayo fashions a unified identity out of the historical trauma the mine represents, the abandoned mine persists in posing a real problem to the Laguna community. So, within the rebirth of identity is a constant reminder of an actual political necessity—this mine must be cleaned up, indigenous land must not be exploited like this again, etc. The two aspects of the uranium mine (the symbol and the real thing symbolized) come into being together in Ceremony as they could not have outside of a story.
For further reading, nuclear topics figure heavily into Silko's Ceremony, Almanac of the Dead, and The Turqouise Ledge.
- Lockhart, Isabel. "Intimacies of the Atom: On Rocks and Decolonization in the Work of Leslie Marmon Silko." American Quarterly, vol. 72 no. 3, 2020, p. 675-696. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/aq.2020.0040.
- Matsunaga, Kyoko. "Leslie Marmon Silko and Nuclear Dissent in the American Southwest." The Japanese Journal of American Studies, No. 25, 2014.
- Matsunaga, Kyoko. Post-Apocalyptic Vision and Survivance: Nuclear Writings in Native America and Japan, The University of Nebraska - Lincoln, Ann Arbor, 2006. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/docview/305293898?accountid=13314.
- Silko, Leslie. Ceremony. Viking Press, 1977.