LESLIE MARMON SILKO
Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony (1977) is a literary landmark. One of the first contemporary female Native American novelists, Silko was at the forefront of the explosion of Native American literature that took place in the 1970s and 1980s. Ceremony deals with the struggles of Indian men returning from World War II, where for a time they were considered "Americans" rather than "Indians." Back in the peacetime United States, however, they once again face prejudice and exclusion from white society. Tayo, the main character, is a Laguna Pueblo Indian of mixed ancestry. He returns home from the Pacific battlefields, but the cousin he vowed to protect during the war does not. Tayo had cursed the endless rain, which he blamed for his cousin's death during their forced march to the Japanese prisoner of war camp. He returns home a broken man, only to find that his curse was all too effective: rain not only disappeared from the island of his captivity, but a severe drought has come to the land of the Laguna Pueblo people. Awash in grief and guilt, Tayo must grapple with questions of identity and ethnicity, both in and out of the Pueblo tribe.
Tayo's quest for healing and identity through various ceremonies is the thrust of the novel. Discussing her reasons for writing Ceremony with Thomas Irmer of the online literary magazine Alt-X, Silko says that the novel is the story about how human beings can "get out of balance and out of harmony with our natural Page 157 | Top of Articlesurroundings and … with one another." When this happens, she says, "it is quite difficult and painful but necessary to make a kind of ceremony to find our way back." Tayo's participation in such a ceremony not only helps him restore the rain to his homeland, but it also helps him restore his place in his family and his identity as a Laguna Indian.
As the son of a Laguna mother and white father, Tayo faces many kinds of prejudices. Fellow Indians shun him for being the product of his mother's liaison with a white man, calling him a "half-breed." His closest family members treat him differently because of his lighter eyes and skin. Out in the white world, unless he wears the uniform of the U.S. Marines, he is rejected because he is an Indian. Because of his mixed heritage, he is not fully at home in the Indian world or the white one. He embraces the power he gets from the military, but he can not bring himself to kill any Japanese soldiers because he sees his family in their faces.
The novel also explores the issue of Indian land seized by whites for profit. Throughout the story, characters discuss the disposition of Indian land. Areas around Gallup and Albuquerque, New Mexico, that had formerly belonged to Native Americans have been taken by white people and urbanized, changing the landscape almost beyond recognition. The open-pit uranium mines poison the water and air all over Pueblo lands. White ranchers and farmers put up miles of fencing to cordon off land that used to belong to the Lagunas. White people have changed even the names of places. The novel details the ongoing effect of white domination over Indians and how the interplay between whites and Indians has made both the land and people spiritually sick.
Because stories are important to the survival and well-being of Indian culture, the book itself becomes representative of the healing ceremony. By breaking the novel into irregular chunks of poetry and prose, Silko challenges the reader to accept a new kind of hybrid narrative, one that bridges the traditional storytelling form of the poem with the more western prose form. Moreover, by linking the poem that begins the novel to the poem at the end, the entire text can be seen as having a circular structure, which Silko says mirrors Native American concepts of time. The opening poem tells of the importance of storytelling to Native Americans and its ability to heal and empower:
I will tell you something about stories,
They aren't just for entertainment.
Don't be fooled…. You don't have anything
if you don't have the stories.
Ceremony opens with a poem about importance of stories to the Indians. The male speaker in the poem says that stories "are all we have, you see, / all we have to fight off / illness and death." A female speaker responds that the only way she knows to cure an illness is through a ceremony.
Tayo is tossing and turning in bed, watching the morning light come in through a small window. He is haunted by his war experience and thinks about the Japanese soldiers he saw in combat that reminded him of his uncle, his mother's brother Josiah. Traumatized and shaken by his time in the Philippines as a prisoner of war, he was treated for "battle fatigue" at a veterans' hospital in Los Angeles. He has returned home to the Laguna Pueblo but is far from feeling whole. The Japanese in the Philippines had captured him and his cousin Rocky. Rocky was badly hurt and was carried Page 158 | Top of Articleon the difficult, muddy march to the prison camp during the monsoon. A Japanese soldier noticed the hindrance to their progress and killed the wounded man. Tayo cursed the rain for contributing to Rocky's death. At home, he discovers the land has been transformed by a drought. He immediately feels responsible, as if he "prayed the rain away." Where there once had been fertile grazing land, there is now desert. Likewise, where there once had been an intact family, Rocky is gone, Josiah is dead, and Tayo is a broken man.
Tayo thinks about his time in the hospital after the war, when he felt "invisible" and broke into tears at the mere thought of Rocky. At the train station in Los Angeles on his way back to the Laguna Pueblo, Tayo fainted. A Japanese family called for help, and Tayo wondered why they were not in internment camps as they were during the war. The man who helped him explained that times have changed. When Tayo looked at the little Japanese boy, he saw Rocky's face and wondered if people have the ability to move backward and forward in time.
Harley, one of Tayo's friends who also fought in the war, comes to visit. Tayo is amazed to find that "it [doesn't] seem as if the war [has] changed Harley" at all, as he is still fun loving and full of laughter. Harley convinces Tayo to saddle up one of his uncle's old burros and come with him to a bar in the nearby town. Harley makes a reference to the time that Tayo almost killed their friend Emo when they had just returned from the war. The two set off on their donkeys, and Tayo thinks about how his family wishes he had died instead of Rocky. When he had first returned, his grandmother suggested taking him to an Indian doctor because the "white doctors haven't helped [him] at all." Auntie protested, worried what the others would think about taking someone who is "not a full blood" to see an Indian doctor. Grandmother won, and brought Ku'oosh to treat Tayo. The Indian doctor told him that some things are no longer curable since the white man came, and he was "afraid of what will happen to all of us if you and the others don't get well." Tayo drank the tea that Ku'oosh left for him, which stemmed his frequent vomiting and helped him sleep.
Several weeks before Harley's current visit, they had gone to a nearby bar with fellow Laguna veterans Emo, Leroy, and Pinkie. As they drank, they exchanged war stories about how white women did not ignore them while they were in uniform and about the freedoms they experienced as soldiers. Tayo pointed out that they were back to being discriminated against now that their uniforms were gone. He saw that his friends were only interested in reliving the good times and bringing back "that feeling they belonged to America the way they felt during the war."
As Tayo sways on the donkey behind Harley, his mind goes back to that moment Page 159
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when a Japanese soldier crushed Rocky's head with the butt of his rifle. The guilt and pain from seeing Rocky die haunted Tayo's return from the war. Rocky was the talented athlete and favored one in the family, the one who was likely to succeed in the white man's world. He believed in book learning and in his own individual potential. Tayo, on the other hand, was always more connected to Indian ways, with little desire to succeed outside of his family and home.
Harley and Tayo stop to rest shaded from the hot sun. Tayo ventures over to a spring that he used to visit with Josiah, where Josiah told Tayo that the "earth keeps us going." Tayo immerses himself in the cool water, thinking about his connection to the earth. After their rest, Harley and Tayo tie the burros to a windmill near the road and hitchhike to the bar. As he drinks, Tayo thinks back to the time when Rocky killed a deer on a hunt. While Tayo followed traditional practices of covering the animal's head while it was skinned, Rocky laughed at him. Tayo knew that Rocky "deliberately avoided the old-time ways" in preparation for a life off the reservation.
Harley brings Tayo out of his memories by giving him another beer. Tayo jokingly tells him that he will not stab him with a broken bottle like he did to Emo on the night when all of the veterans were out drinking. Harley tells him they were worried about him that night and asserts that Tayo was not crazy, just drunk. Tayo thinks, "They all had explanations; the police, the doctors at the psychiatric ward, even Auntie and old Grandma; they blamed liquor and they blamed the war."
On the night of the fight when the veterans were all drinking together, Emo was talking about how the white men had taken everything from the Indians and left them with nothing. Tayo was sitting silently, and Emo baited him, Page 160 | Top of Articlesaying, "He thinks he's something all right. Because he's part white. Don't you, half-breed?" Tayo knew that Emo hated him because he was part white and tried to ignore him. Emo continued to tell stories about his experiences with white women as a soldier. As he talked, he tossed a tobacco pouch up and down, which rattled. It was full of teeth he had taken from Japanese soldiers as souvenirs. Tayo reached the boiling point, screaming "Killer!" at Emo and lunging at him with a broken beer bottle. He stabbed Emo in the stomach.
Before the war, Rocky and Tayo had talked with an Army recruiter, who told them, "Anyone can fight for America … even you boys." Rocky had been interested in signing up and asked the recruiter if he and his "brother" could fight together. Tayo was touched because it was the first time Rocky had ever referred to him as his brother, even though they had been raised together since they were four years old. Auntie, his mother's sister, had always treated Tayo differently and made sure he knew that she did not love him as much as her own son. Rocky's decision to enlist was not well received by his family, especially his mother, so Tayo told Auntie that he would bring Rocky back from the war safe.
After the boys' decision to enlist, Josiah decided to invest in cattle, despite the difficulty of keeping animals in near-desert conditions. They did not buy any of the more popular breeds of cattle, opting instead for a tougher Mexican breed, one they hoped would be able to survive in a land where there is very little grass and almost no water. When Tayo, Rocky, Josiah, and Auntie's husband Robert released the cattle to graze, the animals fled, heading south and disappeared into the hills. The men caught them and branded them but realized that fences would not hold them. Josiah had been convinced to buy the cows by his lover who lived above Lalo's bar. The woman, called the Night Swan, was Mexican and therefore an outcast in the Indian community. Auntie was embarrassed that Josiah was seeing her, so he tried to keep it a secret. When rains kept Josiah away, he asked Tayo to tell her he would not be coming. While there, Tayo and the Night Swan made love, drawn to each other because of their outsider status and light-colored eyes. She told him that people always blame those who look different so "they don't have to think about what has happened inside themselves."
After his night out with Harley, Tayo tells Robert that he is feeling better and would like to help out around the farm. He acknowledges to himself, however, that "Maybe there would always be those shadows over his shoulder and out of the corner of each eye…. Maybe there was nothing anyone could do for him." Robert tells him that everyone thinks he better get help soon, and Tayo agrees to do whatever is called for. He and Robert travel to Gallup, where Tayo recalls his early childhood living in a gully with his mother in a cardboard shelter. The gully was where all of the Indians in Gallup who had no money lived: "Reservation people were the first ones to get laid off because white people in Gallup already knew they wouldn't ask any questions or get angry; they just walked away." Tayo lived among them until his mother dropped him off to stay with her family. He never saw her alive again.
Robert takes Tayo to Old Betonie's place (called a hogan) located near the gully shanty-town. Betonie is another healer, and he tells Tayo that he chooses to live where he does because "this hogan was here first. Built long before the white people ever came. It is that town down there which is out of place. Not this old medicine man." Tayo notices that Betonie has light eyes like him, and Betonie reveals that his grandmother was Mexican. Betonie, whose hogan is full of artifacts and evidence of Indian rituals, asks Tayo if anyone has taught him about these things. Tayo decides to trust the old man.
Old Betonie begins the healing process. He tells Tayo stories, some of which Tayo believes and some of which he does not. Tayo, in turn, tells Betonie his story: about the war, about Rocky, and about his guilt over Josiah's death because he was not there to help him retrieve the cattle. When he confesses that he could not kill the Japanese because they looked like him, Betonie tells him, "You saw who they were. Thirty thousand years ago they were not strangers. You saw what the evil had done: you saw the witchery ranging as wide as this world." Tayo begins to see that his "sickness [is] only a part of something larger, and his cure [will] be found in something great and inclusive of everything."
Betonie surprises Tayo by telling him that ceremonies evolve: "[A]fter the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and Page 161 | Top of Articleit became necessary to create new ceremonies." Betonie explains that the source of Tayo's pain, and the suffering of all Indians, is the witchery that caused Indians to "invent" white people. But blaming white people for problems in the world, Betonie says, is missing the point: "white people are only tools that the witchery manipulates." A long creation myth, in verse, follows Tayo's visit to Betonie. Early the next morning, Tayo, Betonie, and Betonie's helper head into the mountains to perform a ceremony. They paint a traditional scene in the sand, and as Betonie is chanting, he cuts Tayo across the top of the head as part of the beginning of the Scalp Ceremony. As the ceremony proceeds and Tayo moves through each of the five hoops that have been set up, blood runs down his head and neck. He is given tea and told to sleep. In his dreams, he sees the cattle that Josiah had bought and which had run away. Betonie has a vision about stars, a woman, a mountain, and cattle. Tayo realizes his mission: the recovery of his family's cattle. He tries to pay Betonie for the ceremony, but Betonie refuses, telling him that the ceremony is far from over: "This has been going on for a long long time now. It's up to you. Don't let them stop you. Don't let them finish off this world."
Tayo hitchhikes a ride with a trucker, and in San Fidel he stops to buy a candy bar. The redheaded man at the counter refuses to serve Tayo, but Tayo feels as if he is the one who is in control: "He want[s] to laugh at the station man who [does] not even know that his existence and the existence of all white people [has] been conceived by witchery." He decides to walk and makes his way down the road. A truck stops behind him, and he sees Harley hanging out of the window with a bottle of liquor. Harley talks him into getting into the truck with him, their veteran friend Leroy, and a girl named Helen Jean. As they speed down the road, Tayo wishes he were still walking. Leroy tells Tayo that he has bought this new truck with no money down and payments on the first of the month—if they can find him. Harley laughs and adds, "They owed it to us—we traded it for some of the land they stole from us!" Tayo tells him to pull over once they are near Laguna, but they do not let him out. Leroy guns the car down a bumpy road, and Tayo takes a swig from the liquor bottle. He loses himself in the sensation of the bumpy ride and warm liquor and wishes that the truck ride will never stop.
The group stops at the Y bar for more drinks. Tayo notices Helen Jean getting looks from a group of Mexicans, and knows that she will not stick around with Leroy and Harley. When she leaves with one of the Mexicans, Leroy and Harley are too busy drinking to notice. After Helen Jean leaves, a white man kicks Tayo out of the bar after Leroy and Harley have gotten into a fight. Tayo puts them in the truck and drives them away. He thinks about how Indian veterans get drunk and try to "silence their grief with war stories about their courage, defending the land they had already lost."
Several weeks later, Tayo rides his horse up an old path into the mountains. The narrative is interrupted with a lengthy poem about Kaup'a'ta, the Gambler, who stole everything from the Indians, including the rain clouds. He offers Indians a gamble to win fancy things from him, but he killed them when they lose. Kaup'a'ta torments the Indians for three years until the Sun Man learns how to beat him at his own game, and is able to release the rain clouds: "Then he opened the doors of the four rooms / and he called to the storm clouds: / 'My children,' he said / 'I have found you!"'
Tayo comes across a woman at a small farm at the foot of the mountain. She offers to feed him, and as Tayo follows her into the house, he notices the design woven into the blanket she is wearing over her shoulders: "patterns of storm clouds in white and gray; black lightning scattered through brown wind." He looks out the window at the stars and sees the constellation that Betonie had drawn in the sand during his ceremony, which led him to begin his search for the cattle. He and the woman make love, and he leaves to go up the mountain in the morning. As he goes higher up the mountain, he notes that almost all of it has been taken over and fenced by white ranchers or the government. Floyd Lee, a white rancher who employs rangers to patrol the fence, has built a particularly long and sturdy fence at the crest of the mountain. It is on Lee's side of the fence that Tayo spies the cattle in the distance. He thinks about how he hesitates to call the cattle stolen, filled instead with a "crazy desire" to assume that Lee perhaps bought them from the real thief. Tayo catches himself believing the lie that "they had wanted him to learn: only brown-skinned people were thieves; white people didn't steal, because they always had the Page 162 | Top of Articlemoney to buy whatever they wanted." He realizes that as long as people believed that lie—both white and Indian—there would never be a resolution to the problem.
Under the cover of darkness, Tayo cuts a hole in the fence to go after the cattle, large enough to run them through when he returns. He is afraid of being caught because he thinks "they'd send him back to the crazy house for sure." He sees that he is following many of the Indian traditions that Rocky and his teachers and his doctors had dismissed as useless superstitions and that doing so is crazy. He falls asleep under a tree and wakes to the sound of a mountain lion prowling nearby. Tayo kneels in honor and whispers to the cat, which pauses before moving on. Tayo takes it as a sign and follows the animal's path toward him, which leads him to the cattle. As the sky lightens, he is able to wrangle the cattle through the open hole in the fence, but his horse stumbles and he is injured. When he comes to, two of Lee's patrolmen are watching him. They disagree on what to do with him but abandon him when they find mountain lion tracks and decide to hunt the big cat. Exhausted and hurt, Tayo falls asleep. When he wakes, he stumbles down the mountain as snow falls.
Tayo meets a hunter coming down the mountain. He accompanies the man back to the woman's farm at the foot of the mountain, where the hunter and the woman live together. There, he finds his horse and his cattle in a corral, waiting for him. Tayo tells her he will come back soon with a truck for the cattle.
When Tayo returns with Robert and a truck, he finds the hut abandoned. Looking around the room, Tayo sees an old warrior shield on the wall. When he examines it closer, he sees the constellation that Betonie had told him to watch for. Robert notes that someone has fed and taken good care of the cattle. After a few months, Grandma remarks that Tayo has recovered. Over the winter months, Tayo is haunted by dreams of the woman. During a dream of her, Tayo is awakened by the sound of rain. He believes he will see her again.
In May, Tayo goes to care for the cattle on the family's ranch. Feeling closer to nature, Tayo is reassured that mountains will always be mountains, no matter who thinks they own them. Therefore, the mountain could not be lost to them, even to Rocky and Josiah, as it was a part of them: "As far as he could see, in all directions, the world was alive." When Tayo looks up, he sees the woman. She is camping at the nearby springs. She tells him to call her Ts'eh and teaches him about the roots and plants she collects, and how she uses them in small ceremonies. They fall in love as they spend the entire summer together.
When Robert comes at the end of the summer, he finds it odd that Tayo is choosing to sleep outside and is acting strangely. He says that some of the people at Laguna think Tayo is ill again. Emo is spreading rumors that Tayo has gone crazy living alone in the desert and is a danger to society. Robert suggests that Tayo come back to Laguna for a while and set everyone straight. Talking with Ts'eh, Tayo starts to realize just how lost he had been in the veteran's hospital in Los Angeles, where "the thick white skin … had enclosed him, silencing the sensations of living, the love as well as the grief." He now feels freer and healthier than he ever has. Ts'eh asks him how far he is willing to go to stop the destroyers like Emo and the others. They see a faded and neglected painting of A'moo'ooh, the she-elk, on the side of a cliff and stay all day to honor her. Upset and afraid for him, Ts'eh warns Tayo that Emo has caused white police officers to look for him, thinking he has gone crazy. If Tayo hides himself, they will soon tire of the search, but Emo will not. Ts'eh warns Tayo that Emo will be a difficult and dangerous foe to overcome. She tells him she must go and reminds him to "remember everything."
Tayo travels off the road to avoid being discovered, until he flags down Leroy and Harley, who are driving by. They are drunk, celebrating the anniversary of the day they enlisted in the military. Tayo begins to feel estranged and suspicious, as Leroy and Harley's story of what they have been doing does not match with the direction they have just come. It is more like they have been following him. He decides to hang out with Leroy and Harley for a while so that people will think that he is just "another drunk Indian, that's all." Later, he wakes up sweating, alone in the truck, which is parked somewhere in the desert. As he looks for Leroy and Harley, it is suddenly clear to him that they are no longer his friends and have turned against him. He tries to hotwire the truck but does not know how, so he grabs a screwdriver and starts running.
The final elements of Tayo's ceremony come together as he finds himself in an abandoned uranium mine on the outskirts of town. He realizes that he is only three hundred miles from Trinity Site, where the U.S. government tested the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert in 1945. As he wanders into the mine, he feels that the pattern of the ceremony is finally complete: the old stories, war stories, and the white man's stories are merging into "the story that [is] still being told." Tayo realizes that he had never been crazy but had been merely seeing the world without boundaries, distance, or time.
Hearing a car coming near the mine, Tayo takes cover behind some boulders. He recognizes that the car is Emo's. Leroy, Emo, and Pinkie get out of the car and make a fire. Tayo watches them and thinks of them as "destroyers" whose destruction would eventually leave "the people more vulnerable to the lies; the young people would leave, to go towns like Albuquerque and Gallup where bitterness would overwhelm them, and they would lose their hope and finally themselves in drinking." He sees evidence of witchery in their behavior. They pull Harley from the trunk of the car and begin to slowly torture him for his failure to bring Tayo to Emo. Clutching the screwdriver, Tayo prepares to kill Emo. A gust of wind makes the fire flare up and distracts the tormentors from their victim long enough for Tayo to reconsider. He stays behind the boulder, realizing that he too would have been a pawn of the witchery if he killed Emo. He would have been taken away to hospital, just one more Indian that could not cope: "The white people would shake their heads, more proud than sad that it took a white man to survive in their world and that these Indians couldn't seem to make it." Emo and the others put Harley's body into the trunk and drive away.
Exhausted, Tayo makes his way home to Laguna and tells Ku'oosh and the other elders about his ceremony. Overjoyed that he has seen A'moo'ooh, they are sure that their misfortune is over. He learns that Leroy and Pinkie have been killed as well, and Emo has been exiled from Laguna and has gone to California. When Grandma hears of their fate, she says, "It seems like I already heard these stories before … only thing is, the names sound different." The novel ends with a poem about how the darkness is dead for now: "Sunrise, / accept this offering, / Sunrise."
Race and Identity
Ceremony presents a tale from within a marginalized culture. For centuries, interactions between whites and Native Americans often lead to destruction. Indians have been subject to racism, exile, and even genocide at the hands of white men since they arrived in North America. Ancestral homelands were essentially stolen from the Indians, whom the government removed to specially designated areas known as reservations. Relegated to largely inhospitable land where farming and ranching are difficult, today's Native Americans continue to feel the effects of racism. Many felt treated as equals for the first time when they joined the military to fight in World War II and had a difficult time relinquishing that status after coming home. Like the young Laguna men in Ceremony, once the war was over and the uniforms were taken off, they were no longer soldiers and once again invisible to the white culture.
For Tayo, however, with his hazel eyes and lighter skin, things are more complicated. He straddles the line between white and Indian cultures, neither of which fully accepts him. Indians refer to him as a "half-breed," while to white men he is merely an Indian. He has always identified with the traditional Indian way of life, and while most of the young men on the reservation made their plans to leave, Tayo wanted to stay and learn Indian traditions. This racial conflict goes back to his mother. As a student at an Indian school taught by whites, Tayo's mother had learned to be ashamed of the "deplorable ways of the Indian people." She left the reservation, became a prostitute, and gave birth to Tayo, whose father was a white man. This situation was not unusual, and Silko makes the point that "what happened to the girl did not happen to her alone, it happened to all of them." A mixture of racism, oppression, and shame have combined to create an identity crisis among the Laguna Pueblo Indians. Rather than live in an oppressed environment, many of the young Lagunas begin to seek out elements of the white world that are unavailable to Indians on the reservation.
As Tayo begins to search for a way to cure his illness, he discovers it is tied to the land, which had been stolen from the Indians and subsequently abused by the whites. The crux of Page 164
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the problem between Indians and white men, as Tayo sees it, is that Indians seem to have forgotten what has been taken from them. After spending an afternoon with Leroy, Harley, and Helen Jean, Tayo is furious at them because "the white things they admired and desired so much—the bright city lights and loud music, the soft sweet food and the cars—all these things had been stolen, torn out of Indian land."
Old Betonie, the medicine man, does not allow Tayo to take the easy way out. He does not let Tayo blame white people exclusively for Indian troubles: "They want us to believe that all evil resides with white people. Then we will look no further to see what is really happening…. But white people are only tools that the witchery manipulates." Tayo learns that this same witchery causes Indians to harm themselves: they begin to believe the lie what whites are always in the right and Indians are always in the wrong. Betonie makes the important point that harmony in the world does not fall cleanly down racial lines, and he tells Tayo, "you don't write off all the white people, just like you don't trust all the Indians."
As his identity and understanding of the world come full circle, Tayo is determined to avoid actions that would lead others to misidentify him. He resists killing Emo because he believes white people will see him as just "a drunk Indian war veteran settling an old feud," and the Indians on the reservation will blame the war, liquor, and the military. No one would understand his proactive decision as a part of a ceremony. His knowledge about the world and himself leads him to find a new identity and a new path in life.
There are two distinct cultures at work in the Laguna Pueblo, and their clash becomes part of the witchery that is destroying the world. The older generation of Lagunas abide by traditional customs. For example, when Tayo's illness does not lift, old Grandma suggests that they take him to see a medicine man. When the first visit does not appear to work, Robert and Tayo go to see Betonie, who initiates Tayo into a ceremony that he says has been ongoing for many years.
At odds with the traditional aspects of the Laguna Pueblo is the younger generation of men and women who are seeking escape from the restrictions of reservation life. Rocky, Tayo's cousin, looks forward to leaving the reservation, whether to go to college or into the military. As Tayo notes when he and Rocky hunt, kill, and dress a deer, "Rocky deliberately avoid[s] the old-time ways." He stops caring what the elders and other villagers think about him, especially after he enlists: "He was already planning where he would go after high school; he was already talking about the places he would live, and the reservation wasn't one of them." Rocky is like Tayo's fellow veterans in his desire to be away from traditional reservation life and embrace the white world. Harley, Leroy, and Emo spend most of their time after the war at bars and in towns like Gallup and Albuquerque. When they discover that Tayo does not share their desire to get away, they become suspicious. After Tayo has been living on the ranch, sleeping outside, and embracing traditional ways, Emo begins to spread rumors that Tayo thinks he is a Japanese soldier living in a cave. Emo cannot understand why Tayo has chosen to embrace the traditional Laguna culture and its attendant ceremonies and therefore dismisses him as crazy. Emo has no way to know that his life is spared at the mine by Tayo's reverence for these same traditions.
The character of Betonie offers a middle ground between the conflicting cultures at the Laguna Pueblo. He engages in traditional rituals and ceremonies, but acknowledges the need for these ceremonies to change in order to accommodate present realities. With the novel Ceremony, Silko herself appears to be searching for a way forward for humanity and for a way to alter the traditional so that it can continue to be relevant in a much-changed world. The book argues for the importance of traditional rituals and identity, but also the importance of changing to move with the times.
Serving in the U.S. military during World War II leads Tayo and his friends to expect that they can somehow climb to respectability within white culture. However, when the war ends and they return to civilian life, they lose their status as American soldiers and return to their former status as suspicious and impoverished Indians. This degradation is at the heart of Emo's troubles. He looks back on his time in the Army with pride and cannot bring himself to accept his return to his lower status.
Indians that leave the reservation are treated as second-class citizens by employers and residents of larger towns like Gallup. Surveying the shantytown of Indians north of the city, Tayo notes that Indians are "educated only enough to know they [want] to leave the reservation." Their lack of education and the prevailing racial prejudice toward Indians lock them into a lower-class status. They are given only menial jobs with low salaries and are the first ones to be fired when cuts are needed. With no housing options in town, they are forced to live in cardboard homes in a dry creek bed, where they are rounded up periodically before tourist festivals because they are an eyesore. Poverty and prejudice combine to create a cycle of dependence and despair.
A central part of Tayo's healing ceremony is to seek and return his family's cattle, which have been stolen by a white rancher. At least part of Tayo's recovery is his assertion of economic self-reliance. But this assertion comes with some difficulty. He encounters two white patrolmen, whose job it is to "shoot a coyote or catch a Mexican," who accuse him of stealing their cattle and trespassing on their land. They decide Tayo is too much trouble, however, and let him go, saying: "Yeah, we taught him a lesson…. These godd—Indians got to learn whose property this is!" Eventually, Tayo returns home with the cattle and is able to equalize, at least temporarily, the class balance between his family, who are small-time ranchers in the desert, and the powerful and wealthy white ranchers.
Archaeological evidence indicates that people have been in and around the Pueblo area, which spans large portions of New Mexico and Arizona, since about 3000 B.C. and perhaps much longer than that. The indigenous people in this area of North America lived in agrarian communities clustered around adobe dwellings. Each community, called pueblo, or town, by the Spanish settlers who arrived in the area in the late 1500s, governed itself and had its own distinct language and culture. The Pueblo peoples had frequently violent encounters with the first Page 166 | Top of ArticleSpanish settlers, most notably in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which succeeded in expelling the Spanish from Pueblo land for over a decade. In general, the Pueblo peoples have successfully asserted their national sovereignty within the boundaries of what was first Spanish territory and later the United States.
Modern Pueblo Indians have had a somewhat different relationship with the U.S. government than other tribes, as they are the only American Indians who have continued to occupy much of the same land that their ancestors held when white settlers first arrived. The various Pueblo tribes maintain self-government and tribal sovereignty, as do other American Indian tribes, but their land is not a reservation in the traditional sense because the government did not "reserve" it for them in lieu of their original land. Some historians believe the Pueblos would not have been so lucky if it had not been for the fact that the Spanish controlled the area first and had explicitly granted them land rights. When the United States later acquired the land, it maintained this special designation, though portions of the land were lost in intervening years.
Today, there are more than twenty federally recognized pueblos in existence, including Leslie Marmon Silko's Laguna Pueblo home, fifty miles west of Albuquerque. With a population of just under eight thousand, Laguna is the largest of the pueblos. It contains six major villages: Laguna, Paguate, Encinal, Mesita, Seama, and Paraje. Other prominent pueblos include Taos, Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi.
Native American Soldiers in World War II
Thousands of Native Americans enlisted or were drafted into every branch in the military during World War II. Nearly fifty thousand American Indians saw combat, and many were honored with medals for their performance. According to the U.S. Department of Defense's "Native Americans in World War II," a full 10 percent of the Native American population in America participated in the war. Another forty thousand left the reservations to work in military, industrial, or agricultural positions for the war effort. Many saw the war as an opportunity to prove their loyalty to the United States, just as another marginalized group, the Japanese Americans, did by fighting for their country. Several Indian nations, including the Apache, Chippewa, and Sioux, declared war directly on Germany.
Native American soldiers fought mainly in the Pacific Theater, but they also saw action in Europe and the Aleutian Islands. On Guadalcanal in 1942, the U.S. Marines began using Navajo as a code language. The Japanese were never able to decipher it, just as the Germans had been unable to break the Choctaw code used during World War I. One of the most decorated units in World War II was the 45th Infantry Division, also known as the "Thunderbirds." Made up of Indians from Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Colorado, the Thunderbirds fought for over five hundred days in Europe and were among the units that liberated the concentration camp Dachau. The Thunderbirds received a total of eight Congressional Medals of Honor.
As Silko writes in Ceremony, military service provided Indians opportunities and equality that they had not experienced before. Native American soldiers fought alongside and on equal footing with white soldiers. Because of the freedom and acceptance they experienced as soldiers, many chose to remain in white communities after the war. Those who did not, as is evident in Ceremony, often struggled with their reduced post-war status.
Though the inclusion of Native Americans in the war effort appeared to be a step toward acceptance, they remained disadvantaged in dealings with the government. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, "The federal government designated some Indian lands and even tribes themselves as essential natural resources, appropriating tribal minerals, lumber, and lands for the war effort."
Uranium and the Pueblo People
The climax of Ceremony takes place in an abandoned uranium mine near the Laguna Pueblo. One of the main sources of income for Pueblo Indians during Silko's youth was working in such mines. Various corporations set up uranium mines to fuel atomic weapons that the United States developed during World War II and afterward. This work was not without consequences. In addition to the mineworkers and people who transported uranium, those that breathed the air or drank the water nearby experienced severe health problems due to radiation contamination. Over one thousand uranium Page 167 | Top of Articlemines were dug on Navajo lands, mostly by underpaid Indian labor. One of the largest open-pit mines was at Mount Taylor, a landmark that figures prominently in Ceremony: the Jackpile mine, opened by a small corporation named Anaconda (later to be acquired by Atlantic Richfield). Acoma and Laguna Pueblos sit in the shadow of Mount Taylor, and the Pueblo people consider it sacred. Although never proven, locals blamed their many deaths from cancer and other illnesses on these mines. While Silko wrote Ceremony, the uranium mine was still operating and people were still becoming sick. The community rose up in protest by 1977, the year of the novel's publication, and by 1982, the mine had closed and become the subject of a joint federal-tribal land restoration project.
In their introduction to Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays, Louise Barnett and James Thorson write that the publication of Ceremony in 1977 "established Leslie Marmon Silko as a notable new talent in contemporary American literature." Indeed, the critical reception for Silko's novel Ceremony has been broadly positive since the book was published. Janet Wiehe writes in Library Journal that Silko "writes with insight and great sympathy for her characters." Writing in American Indian Quarterly, Peter G. Beidler calls Ceremony "a magnificent novel…. It conveys a loving respect for the problems faced by American Indians and a mature and sensitive feeling for some solutions to those problems."
By 1990, critics had accepted Ceremony as one of the few central texts in Native American literature, and it was beginning to be taught in American literature courses around the country. Paula Gunn Allen recognized the problems facing teachers of Silko's difficult text and published a kind of how-to guide titled "Special Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony" in American Indian Quarterly. By the mid-1990s, study of Ceremony had entered the mainstream American literary establishment. Articles on the novel appeared in a variety of scholarly publications including World Literature Today, Critique, and Melus, where critics used the novel to explore ideas of gender,
property, nation, healing, mental illness, environmentalism, class, authorship, and the craft of writing, among other subjects.
The height of critical attention to Ceremony has come since 1999. In that year, a collection titled Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays was published by The University of New Mexico Press. In his preface, Robert Franklin Gish, a long-time advocate for Native American Literature, states,
Ceremony was everything that a book could be, everything that literature was supposed to be, the realization of all the adages and quips, all the epigrams and sayings that I had heard and had quoted to students.
This volume, while indispensable for anyone who wishes to study Silko's career, does not devote much space to Ceremony. Instead, it focuses on her later works, which have received less critical attention.
A new critical edition of the novel appeared in 2002. Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony: A Casebook was published as part of the Casebooks in Criticism series by Oxford University Press. The collection includes essays by noted scholars such as Beidler, Allen, and Catherine Rainwater Page 168 | Top of Articleon topics ranging from the novel's structural issues to the significance of animals. Scholarly attention regarding Ceremony remains intense and consistent. In 2004, another book useful for students investigating Silko's novel was published: Understanding Ceremony: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents, by Lynn Domina. The book contains essays that discuss themes and contexts of the novel.
Thomas E. Benediktsson
In the following excerpt, Benediktsson discusses Silko's Ceremony as a work that violates, or "ruptures," expectations of realism that a reader might have. Silko tells Tayo's story with a circular, non-linear structure that transcends the bounds of straight realism.
In this essay I would like to examine some "ruptures" in the realism of two postcolonial novels, each of which attempts to find alternatives to the Western rationalism, pragmatism, and linearity that support realism's codes. In the first, Leslie Silko's Ceremony, Tayo, half white and half Pueblo Indian, is a young World War II veteran who, as a prisoner of war, cursed the jungle monsoon that he felt was causing his stepbrother's death. Having returned to the reservation after a time in a veteran's hospital, Tayo is convinced that his curse caused the drought that is now afflicting his reservation. Suffering from this guilt and from other forms of distress, Tayo learns that his illness is part of a larger pattern of evil—the "witchery" brought about by those who seek the world's destruction. Tayo is healed by a series of Pueblo and Navaho purification ceremonies and by a personal ceremony he performs for himself. During his quest he has an encounter with a mysterious young woman named Ts'eh, later identified as Spider Woman, a supernatural figure from Pueblo legend.
From the beginning of Ceremony, Silko introduces textual elements that disrupt the linearity of her narrative. By far the greater part of the novel is told from the point of view of Tayo. At first, the narrative moves freely and confusingly, juxtaposing incidents in Tayo's life which are separated widely in time:
… he got no rest as long as the memories were tangled with the present, tangled up like colored threads from old Grandma's wicker sewing basket when he was a child … He could feel it inside his skull—the tension of little threads being pulled and how it was with tangled things, things tied together, and as he tried to pull them apart and rewind them into their places, they snagged and tangled even more.
The reader's task to "untangle" these threads of experience is rather difficult in the opening fifty page of the novel. Before long, however, through iteration a temporal pattern emerges, and the reader can reconstruct the linear narrative of Tayo's life. What seems at first to be ruptures in realism are actually representations of the flow of consciousness of a disturbed man. As Tayo begins to heal, the narrative attains more linearity until the last eighty pages are told in straightforward chronological order. Thus realism, understood as the mimetic representation of linear experience, is not threatened.
A second disruptive element, however, is not so easily reconciled. From the beginning the "realistic" prose narrative—the novel—is interrupted by free-verse texts of Pueblo myths and stories. Thematically and tropologically, the stories bear complex intertextual relations to the novel, which by the end is understood as a part of a much greater web of meaning, encompassing all Pueblo cultural experience. Edith Swan has discussed the intricate structural relationships between Silko's novel and Pueblo and Navaho ceremonies.
The text of the novel enfolds and incorporates the texts of the stories. By the end, however, in a kind of chiasmus, the stories have Page 169 | Top of Articleincorporated the novel. The stories inscribe and circumscribe Tayo's own story, until the ceremonies by which he is healed serve a kind of hermeneutic: he can read his own life as a Pueblo story. Just as the limited claims of realism have become subsumed into the much greater claims of Pueblo storytelling tradition, Silko's role as novelist has been subsumed into the role of the Pueblo story teller—naming the world, defending the people, helping fight off illness and death. In the process, the linear flow of meaning that dominates mimetic representation has been supplanted by a kind of "spider web" of meaning in which the interrelationships among the stories revise time and space, just as Thought Woman tells her stories in a timeless realm.
The key moment in Ceremony that proclaims the storyteller's victory the moment when the world of Pueblo myth enters the text of the novel itself, not as an intertextual referent but as a third and irrevocable disruption of realism. In his relationship with Ts'eh, Tayo has an encounter with divinity. Ts'eh's love restores him to health, and she warns him of the plot against his life by the veteran Emo, agent of the witchery that now no longer seems merely figurative. The last stage of Tayo's ceremony occurs when, the site of the uranium mine that supplied the ore for the Manhattan Protect, he successfully resists the urge to kill Emo. In his victory over the witchery, Tayo has been healed with the help of incarnate divinity. In the process the realist novel, itself a manifestation of the hegemony of the white world over the Pueblo and therefore a symptom of the malaise from which Tayo has suffered, has been transformed.
Source: Thomas E. Benediktsson, "The Reawakening of the Gods: Realism and the Supernatural in Silko and Humle," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 2, Winter 1992, pp. 121-126.
In the following excerpt, Cutchins reads Silko's Ceremony as a "nativist restructuring" of Indian history. As such, it offers Tayo, Laguna Pueblos, and all readers of the novel the chance to reinterpret history in a way that could lead to the revitalization of Native American culture.
Leslie Marmon Silko's (mixed-blood Laguna Pueblo) Ceremony is a powerful novel that tells the story of Tayo, a mixed-blood Pueblo war veteran who returns to Laguna mentally crippled by his wartime experiences. As Tayo struggles to overcome the alienation his military service has created, he must also face the shame of his own mixed heritage. His suffering eventually leads him off the pueblo to a Navajo healer, Betonie, who helps Tayo create a new historical paradigm based on Navajo and Laguna mythology. Betonie's fictional re-vision of history is, perhaps, the novel's most important accomplishment. Through Betonie, Silko creates an alternative understanding of history that empowers both the Native American characters in the novel and Native American readers of the novel. Ceremony becomes, at least potentially, a powerful tool for the revitalization of culture.
What I will term Silko's nativistic restructuring of history offers Tayo the chance to enter and revitalize Laguna culture, and simultaneously to interpret and reject mainstream white culture. It also provides Silko and her readers the means to do the same thing outside the novel. Scholarship that ignores Ceremony's historical impact, or that limits interpretation to an intracultural reading of the novel, strictly as a Laguna Pueblo artifact, is unlikely to recognize the powerful cultural and political tool Silko has offered to all Native Americans. The nativistic reading of Ceremony proposed here, though problematic in some ways, does situate the novel historically and politically and highlights aspects of the work that are obscured when it is read as an intracultural or ahistorical document.
Ceremony, popular in college classrooms, has received extensive critical treatment. Much of the criticism has focused on its mythic, ahistorical qualities. Paula Gunn Allen's (Laguna Pueblo/Sioux) comments on the novel in A Literary History of the American West are somewhat typical in suggesting that Ceremony, along with other Native American novels, is "achronistic," in that it functions "without regard to chronology." This is true, in the strict sense that Silko's narrative is not chronologically ordered. Allen, however, suggests a broader meaning for this term when she argues that Ceremony is ritually structured, and that its "internal rules of order have more to do with the interaction of thoughts, spirits, arcane forces and tradition than with external elements such as personality, politics or history." Certainly Silko is concerned with spirits, arcane forces, and tradition, but she is also deeply concerned with politics and history, and these aspects of the novel should not be neglected by scholars.
James Ruppert's analysis of Ceremony, and particularly his understanding of the role Betonie plays in the novel, illustrate the problems inherent in an ahistorical or achronistic reading of this text. In his 1995 Mediation in Contemporary Native American Fiction he approaches Ceremony as a novel of "mediation," and argues, in short, that it serves as a kind of space between cultures where both white and Native American readers can begin to understand and cope with cultural differences. He suggests, further, that it represents a kind of "Bakhtinian dialogism" since it includes aspects of mainstream Western, Laguna, and Navajo cultures. Ruppert's use of dialogism, however, indicates a real weakness in his approach to this particular novel. In "Discourse in the Novel," only a few pages from passages Ruppert quotes in support of his theory, Bakhtin explains how novels are radically different from other, earlier, literary forms. They establish "the fundamental liberation of cultural-semantic and emotional intentions from the hegemony of a single and unitary language, and consequently the simultaneous loss of a feeling for language as myth, that is, as an absolute form of thought." Novels, at least as far as Bakhtin is concerned, should include a multiplicity of voices or "languages," as Ceremony does, but they should also avoid the tendency to totalize or mythologize. For Bakhtin, mythological language is antithetical to the idea of a novel since it tends to destroy dialog. Simply put, how can one argue with a myth?
In Ceremony, on the other hand, Silko is openly mythic in both her approach and her intention. The novel incorporates mythic elements as part of the storyline, but it also begins to serve as a new myth illustrating the way mixed-blood Native Americans may harmonize their lives. Ruppert candidly acknowledges the "mythic" nature of much Native American literature:
Much of the work of contemporary Native writers incorporates an overriding metanarrative and often mythic structure through which the narrative, the characters, and the readers find meaning. It seems that much of the work is characterized by a historical vision, a sense of social responsibility and a belief in the efficacy of the word—qualities not to be found in postmodern literature. From Silko to Vizenor, this is literature with a purpose.
Source: Dennis Cutchins, " 'So That the Nations May Become Genuine Indian': Nativism and Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 22, No. 4, Winter 1999, pp. 79-83.
In the following excerpt, Piper discusses Betonie's statement, "Things which don't shift and grow are dead things. They are the things the witchery people want," arguing that Silko guarantees that the reader does not become a complacent, or dead, receiver of narrative by telling Tayo's story in a challenging, non-chronological way.
Silko writes in Ceremony, "Witches crawl into skins of dead animals, but they can do nothing but play around with object and bodies." Witches are able to enclose themselves in static formations, magically separating themselves from life. Betonie says to Tayo, "Things which don't shift and grow are dead things. They are the things the witchery people want." Translating this into white culture, the witchery could be called the reified image, or that which is separated from its referent. It thus precludes growth or knowledge and, culturally, involves the erasure of a process-oriented people and the establishment of reified structures of meaning.
Betonie claims in Ceremony that the witchery does not come from the white people, but rather they themselves are manifestations of this witchcraft. Therefore the cure must be "inclusive of everything"—or, as Silko explains, "A great deal of the story is believed to be inside the listener, and the storyteller's role is to draw the story out of the listeners." Ceremony does not allow the reader to sit back passively and absorb the narrative; indeed, the narrative offers itself as a cure for which the reader is in need. Just as the traditional author is the active but separate individual, so the traditional reader is the passive but separate individual—and the means to separation is that third term, narrative. This is why Silko claimed in an oral presentation that Laguna people are generally suspect of writing, because it separates the speaker from the listener. The reader, in this sense, could be called the "dead object" that absorbs narration—he or she is the private subject that sits in a room and reads about something other than real life. The cure, then, is affected by the reincorporation of the private subject into the narrative.
Ceremony further requires that the reader take an active role through its non-chronological narration; it presents itself as a spatial and chronological enigma in need of understanding or ordering. The landscape of Ceremony is a teeming space of tangles, flows, and webs. It is non-linear and fragmented and fluctuates Page 171 | Top of Articlebetween native legend and modern novel. For this reason it is difficult even to summarize the plot of Ceremony. Ostensibly, a Laguna Indian has returned from World War II with "shell shock" problems, an illness that he attempts to cure throughout the narrative. Tayo is sent to white doctors, a medicine man, a woman healer, and so on. On his journeys he crosses many territorial boundaries that signify shifts in Indian identity. At the same time he struggles with friends also returned from the war (Emo, Leroy, and Pinkie) who are suffering under their own illness: alcoholism. In the dramatic conclusion these friends torture Emo, and Tayo refuses to participate. This refusal has been called a "hopeful" ending for a peaceful Indian future. However, I would suggest that Indian nonviolence is far from the moral of Ceremony. Instead, the narrative uses the ultimate signifier of violence—nuclear holocaust—to invoke a new global community, thus weaving even this destructive element back in the narrative. Violence is not something that can be avoided or put in the past, but rather something for which one must find a name to include in the narrative. Ceremony thus describes two narratives that spread throughout the world: the story and the bomb. The question, then, is which one will win.
Source: Karen Piper, "Police Zones: Territory and Identity in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony," in The American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3, Summer 1998, pp. 483-89.
Barnett, Louise K., and James L. Thorson, eds., Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays, University of New Mexico Press, 2001, p. xx.
Beidler, Peter G., Review of Ceremony, in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 4, Fall 1978, pp. 357-58.
Irmer, Thomas, An Interview with Leslie Marmon Silko, Altx Online Magazine, www.altx.com/interviews/silko.html (December 7, 2005).
"Native Americans in World War II," The United States Department of Defense, www.defenselink.mil/specials/nativeamerican01/wwii.html (January 17, 2006).
Silko, Leslie Marmon, Ceremony, Penguin, 1986, originally published in 1977.
Wiehe, Janet, Review of Ceremony, in Library Journal, Vol. 102, No. 2, 1977, p. 220.