In the short story The Man to Send Rain Clouds by Leslie Marmon Silko, the traditional Laguna Native American burial ritual is questioned by the meddling Catholic Church when an older man in the village, Teofilo, passes away. As part of the traditional ritual, the deceased have a feather tied in their hair, have their face painted with four colors, are wrapped in a red blanket, and are buried with corn meal and water sprinkled around their grave. All of these parts of the traditional ritual, including the specific colors used to paint the face, are symbolic of certain beliefs in the Laguna culture1.
First of all, feathers are a very symbolic item in many Native American cultures and are particularly symbolic of the spirit world according to Ava Venefica. Ms. Venefica also states that they symbolize ascension and strength and are worn by chiefs to show their ability to communicate with the spirit and their celestial wisdom. In the story, old Teofilo has a feather tied in his hair so that he is able to have flight within the spirit world (“Native American Symbols”), and be able to travel to his destination- the clouds.
The placement of the feather is also important. The feather is tied into his hair, which is the most freely flowing part of the human body. The hair could very well be representing his spirit because of its ability to flow freely in the wind just like the human spirit.
The four colors that are painted on his face and where they are painted on are all symbolic in the Laguna culture as well. His face is painted so that he can be recognized once he reaches the spirit world. Each color represents an aspect in nature and shows the Laguna culture’s closeness to the natural world (dymatsuoka). The colors themselves also have meaning behind them and are symbolic of various traits. There is even symbolism behind the placement of the color on his face.
The first color that is painted on his face is white. White to the Laguna people symbolizes the snow on the tops of the mountains (dymatsuoka). In nature, white is also the color of clouds, which to the Laguna culture are very important. White is also a representative color of birth (Sutton). If birth is the true meaning behind the color, it would not necessarily refer to a literal birth, but rather a figurative rebirth into the spirit world2.
The color white symbolically is the color of light, goodness and purity (“Color Meaning”), three traits that would show the goodness of a person when they reach the spirit world. Having his color on their face may show the gods what traits they possess when they arrive in the spirit realm. Light, goodness and purity are three traits that can be associated with birth as well. When a child is born, they are not corrupted or tempted by sin right away and are “pure”. This association also supports the fact that white represents the rebirth into the spirit world.
The color white is placed on Teofilo’s forehead which may also be symbolic. The symbolism in this could be the fact that the forehead is the highest point on the head and the color is playing off that fact. With white representing either clouds or snow, it supports this argument because clouds are high in the sky and snow is on the tops of the mountains. This may also be why it is placed on the top of the head as well as why it is painted above the blue. Also, the white being on the highest point on the face is the closest color to the sky. It could also be representing the fact that rebirth is of higher value than all other attributes of the death ritual because the white paint is placed higher than any other color.
The next color, blue, represents the high blue mountains in the Lagunas’ natural world (dymatsuoka). According to Richard Sutton, blue can represent the color of the winter sky or the North, the direction from which the cold comes. With the comparison of blue to winter, it could also be representing death. Winter is considered to be the season of death (Louis), and could represent the physical death of Teofilo.
Symbolically, the color blue represents quailities such as loyalty, wisdom and confidence (“Color Meaning”). All of these traits are very respectable and important to Native American cultures and are mostly associated with the older and more respected members of the tribe. If the gods saw this color as representing these qualities, they may find great favor in the person who wore it.
The symbolism of putting the blue on his cheeks could mean a few different things. First of all, it could be representative of the mountains as mentioned before because it was placed on his “high cheekbones” (Silko). Cheekbones stand out and are very prominent features in many people and can often times look like small mountains. Also, it could represent the fact that rebirth is stronger than death. If the blue represents death, and the white represents rebirth, it may lead one to believe that the white has more precedence. This could represent that life is stronger than death, which is a common belief in many religions.
Yellow, the third color drawn on his face, may be representing the sun (dymatsuoka) or corn. Both of these natural objects are very important to the Laguna culture. The sun is important because it is a source of life and growth. Corn because it is the most important crop to the Laguna and many other tribes in the Southwest. Yellow could also represent summer in many cultures (Sutton) which is often symbolic of the season of maturity (Louis).
As for the symbolism of the color yellow, it can mean happiness, intellect and peace (“Color Meaning”). Once again, these are all respectable traits that would be favorable with the gods. The aspect of peace could mean that the person, even though they have passed on, is at peace with what has happened and their body will be at peace on earth while their soul is at peace in the spirit world.
The physical placement of the yellow under the nose could symbolize his happiness in his afterlife. Because yellow is the color of happiness, and is placed on the upper lip, it may be symbolizing a smile. It could be trying to say that his spirit is happy in the afterlife and that his body is happy on earth.
The final color on Teofilo’s face is green. Green is very common color of objects in nature that are healthy and full of life. Green in the Lagunas’ beliefs could be symbolizing the green of the earth. It is also referenced as the color of spring in some Laguna natives’ works (Silko) and as another symbol of the renewal of life.
Green is symbolic of many different qualities. It is symbolic of harmony, freshness and nature (“Color Meaning”), and according to dictionary.com is also a color that means full of life and vigor. It could be referring to Teofilo’s spirit and saying that it is full of life. It may also be making reference to the Laguna people’s close ties to nature and their oneness with the natural world, even in death. It could also be very similar to white, but be referencing the person’s physical birth.
The painting of green on the chin is symbolic as well. The green on the chin may be referencing the closeness and harmony to the earth, which is why it is painted the lowest on the face. It could also be because it is placed below the yellow and the two colors together represent the sun and the earth, just like the pair of blue and white refers to the snow-capped mountains or the clouds above the mountains.
The two pairs of colors also support many Native American tribes’ belief in pairs. They believe that much of life consists of pairs such as day and night, male and female, good and bad and Mother Sky and Father Earth (“Native American Indian Symbols”). In many Native American cultures such as the Iroquois, they honor both parts in a pair because they believe the world would not exist without both parts (“The World on the Turtle’s Back”).
The four colors going from top to bottom, along with the feather in his hair, all could represent the journey of a person’s complete life. Starting at the bottom, or the earth, is birth or the spring of someone’s life- represented by the color green. The next stage is the summer of the person’s life, or the period of growth- represented by the color yellow. Moving upward, the color blue on the cheeks represents winter or death. Finally, on the forehead is the color white representing rebirth into the spirit world. The feather in the hair represents the final stage in the rebirth process, when the person is a full spirit, and according to Native American traditions is a prayer and represents flight within the spirit world (“Native American Symbols”).
The number of colors used could also be symbolic. In the Navajo culture3, four is one of their sacred numbers because of the points on the cross, the four sacred elements, plants, rivers and mountains (“Walk in Beauty”). Also, the anthology Nothing but the Truth, divided three of Silko’s stories including The Man to Send Rain Clouds into four different sections. This could be just coincidence; however, it seems to lead to the fact that the number four is symbolic in the Laguna culture as well.
Next in the ritual is the sprinkling of corn meal mixed with corn pollen. This mixture in the story is sprinkled once at the place of death, once at the home of the deceased and once at the graveside. The corn meal is mixed with pollen and is intended to be a blessing for protection, understanding and forgiveness (“Native American Symbols”). Corn meal and corn pollen are also very sacred items in many southwestern Native American cultures and notably in the Pueblo culture (Raitt).
Corn meal and corn pollen are used in many sacred ways in the Pueblo culture. For example according to Raitt, the mixture is used to make lines on the ground either to lead the gods to the Pueblo people, or to keep undesired things out or desired things in. It is also used as an accompaniment to prayer or to consecrate ritual objects such as prayer sticks (Raitt). Corn, in the Navajo culture, is also used in many ritualistic ways. According to Luci Lonso, corn pollen is placed in the mouth of a child when their first tooth comes in, sprinkled on their head when they leave for kindergarten and placed in their hands when they receive their first lamb or colt. This proves that it is a very important and sacred item in the southwestern Native American culture.
The three times it is sprinkled may be trying to incorporate the Christian aspects into this ceremony and be representative of the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, it makes sense that it is sprinkled in the three main places associated with the person’s death. Even if this symbolic comparison is incorrect, it helps support the theme of incorporation of modern Christian ideals and practices into the traditional Laguna burial ritual that is present throughout the story. The true traditional and non-symbollic reason that it is sprinkled on the grave, along with the water, is so the person’s spirit will have enough food and drink on their journey into the spirit world (dymatsuoka).
As for the red blanket that Teofilo is wrapped in, according to Richard Sutton, the color red symbolizes the “true road, direction from East to West towards the sunset, and it is considered a blessing for the departed to help in their journey towards the land of the spirits which is to the West.” It may very well be symbolizing his path or be a type of good luck charm for him in finding the “true road” to the spirit world.
As for other symbolic attributes of the color red, it symbolizes strength, power and determination. Wrapping the body in a blanket with a color that displays these qualities could be a type of good luck charm for the body in the spirit world (as mentioned before). It may also be a source of encouragement for the spirit when they are on their journey.
In conclusion, all of the aspects of the traditional Laguna burial ritual have symbolic elements and meanings attached to them. Everything from the feather in Teofilo’s hair to the red blanket that he is wrapped in symbolize an aspect in the Laguna culture. However, as mentioned before, only the Laguna people know the exact symbolism involved in the elements of their rituals and traditions.
Applebee, Arthur N., et al. “Build Background.” The Language of Literature. Applebee, Arthur N., Bermúdez, Andrea B., et al. Evanston, Illinois: McDougal Littell Inc., 2006. 48. Print.
dymatsuoka, “Re: What is the meaning of the colors white, blue, yellow, and green, and cornmeal and pollen in the burial ritual of "Man to Send Rainclouds"?”. enotes.com. enotes.com. 27 March 2008. Web. 16 January 2010.
Eck, Pam. “Navajo Indians.” Inkido.indiana.edu. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. 15 April 1998. Web. 16 January 2010.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. “When the Sun Came to Riverwoman.” Reinventing the Enemy’s Language Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America. Harjo, Joy, Bird, Gloria. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1998. 487. Print.
1 As a note to the following analyses, only the true Laguna Native Americans can make completely accurate interpretations of their traditions. Outsiders such as anthropologists or reporters are not allowed to observe their sacred ceremonies, and even paintings of the ceremonies are sometimes inaccurate to protect the secrecy of their traditions (Sutton). The following interpretations are the compilation of various pages of research done on this ceremony and similar ceremonies other cultures as well.
2 In the case of the Laguna Native Americans, after death, the Natives reenter the spirit world in the form of “Shiwanna” or “Cloud People” to bring rain to their people (Language of Literature 48)- the reason that clouds are an important part of the Laguna culture.
3 The Navajo tribe is slightly different in location and beliefs from the Pueblo culture, but they are very similar tribes. The ancestors of the Navajo people actually settled and learned from the Pueblo Indians in the same area (Eck).