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CEREMONY is conventionally defined as a highly formalized observance or practice prescribed by custom and undertaken by a collective, or as customary observances and practices considered as a whole. In contrast to conventional usage, in which the term ceremony is interchanged indiscriminately with ritual, in theoretical discussion, the terms are increasingly distinguished; ceremony is identified as a genre or type of ritual that is distinguished from other genres by its object. A prevalent trend identifies ceremony with secular interests, that is, the symbolic representation of sociocultural arrangements as opposed to religious or sacred ones. In addition, ceremony is differentiated by its essentially conservative social role: the maintenance of existing sociocultural arrangements over against their transformation. Presidential inaugurations in the United States, for example, transfer power from one political party to another in order that the democratic political system remains intact. Key to transferal of power is legitimation of the new regime. This is achieved both by election and by securing God's blessing at the swearing in of the new president.

The question has been raised whether it is not more proper and useful to approach ceremony as a ritual attitude as opposed to a distinct ritual type. Ronald L. Grimes argues that standard analytic or classificatory distinctions among types of ritualdifferentiation between "sacred" and "profane" activity, and so onare insufficient in the analysis of ritual, since they fail to take into account a variety of "embodied attitudes" that emerge during the course of a ritual, such as ceremony, decorum, and ritualization. Ceremony is not so much an analytic type as it is a layer, attitude, sensibility, or "mode" of ritual, contends Grimes. He suggests that when one or another mode becomes dominant, it is proper to speak of a ritual of ceremony, and so forth (Grimes, 1982, pp. 223, 235, 241).

This entry gives an overview of the theoretical discussion, devoting special attention to the relationship between ceremony and political power, and that between ceremony and religion, both central concerns in the theories. In contrast to theorists who identify ceremony as a strictly secular ritual, this entry suggests that inasmuch as sociopolitical (or secular) and religious (or sacred) interests overlap and even converge, the relationship between ceremony and religion is problematic; they are not always distinct.

Theories of Ceremony

Theorists call attention to features of ceremony that are characteristic of such rituals. Formalization and stylization (i.e., specification of time and place, formulaic speech and gesture, etc.) are indicative of ceremony's scripted character as "intentional" (Grimes, 1982, p. 41) or self-conscious behavior. Ceremony is fundamentally self-reflective performance. As such, ceremony is essentially "self-symbolizing" (Goffman, 1974, p. 58); it has representational intent. Like all symbolic behavior, ceremony points to a larger framework of action. The public character of ceremony is an indication that its more general context is social and cultural life. According to Erving Goffman, ceremony provides a symbolic means whereby participants represent themselves in one of their central social roles (1974, p. 58). Through dramatization and other representational means ceremony presents those ideologies, values, and the social institutions to which they are bound, as well as other sociocultural constructs that constitute social and cultural life or group life, in the case of ceremonies undertaken on a smaller scale.

The underlying motivation in the ceremonial representation of the various social and cultural constructs is said to be the confirmation and reinforcement of those organizing frameworks that order sociocultural life in a normative way. Steven Lukes explains that:

the symbolism of political ritual represents particular models or political paradigms of society and how it functions. In this sense, such ritual plays, as Durkheim argued, a cognitive role, rendering intelligible society and social relationships. In other words, it helps to define as authoritative certain ways of seeing society: it serves to specify what in society is of special significance, it draws people's attention to certain forms of relationships and activityand at the same time, therefore, it deflects their attention from other forms, since every way of seeing [is] also a way of not seeing. (Lukes, 1975, p. 301)

"Ceremony," writes Victor Turner, "constitutes an impressive institutionalized performance of indicative, normatively structured social reality" (1982, p. 83). In his view, ceremony's indicative role gives it a conservative character that distinguishes it from ritual. "Ceremony indicates, ritual transforms," Turner emphasizes (1982, p. 80). Ritual is "a transformative self-immolation of order as presently constituted, even sometimes a voluntary sparagmos or self-dismemberment of order, in the subjunctive depths of liminality" (1982, p. 83). "Without taking liminality into account ritual becomes indistinguishable from 'ceremon'" (1982, p. 80). Ritual derives its liminal quality from separating participants from their everyday social-structural identity and, consequently, from creating an ambiguous social status as the ritual prepares participants to undergo a transition to a new social identity (1982, pp. 8085). Turner contends that ritual exists in dialectical relation to everyday social structure; ritual is fundamentally "anti-structure" (Turner, 1974). By relaxing social structural requirements, ritual liminality makes possible experimentation with social structure, and with it, structural and cultural innovation. Thus, ritual enables sociocultural systems to change and grow as new demands, particularly for egalitarian and direct (or "communitarian") social interchange, challenge existing social-structural arrangements. Turner's conceptualization of ritual liminality helps explain why spontaneity and disorder seldom emerge during the course of ceremony, and then only during prescribed times or in established places: the intent to conserve the social-structural status quo requires that ceremony's liminal aspects be narrowly circumscribed or kept in check.

Ceremony's confirmatory or conservative role makes it especially suited to exploitation in times of social conflict or potential crisis, when existing norms are challenged or under threat. Since formalization conveys legitimacy, ceremony lends itself to portraying as indisputable and fixed those ideologies and social institutions that are most in doubt during times of social crisis. Sally F. Moore and Barbara G. Myerhoff note that ceremony's authoritative presentation of its material as axiomatic is paradoxical, since it is the most obviously contrived and hence arbitrary social interaction. They note that preoccupation with order by implication points to the possibility of disorder, chaos, and most importantly, open choice of other cultural configurations. While ceremony may be intended to mask contradiction, on a more subtle, less conscious level, it may give it expression (Moore and Myerhoff, 1977, pp. 16, 18; cf. Lukes, 1975, pp. 296302).

A more fundamental motivation in the ceremonial representation of social and cultural constructs identified by Moore and Myerhoff is the cultural declaration of order over against indeterminacy. Ceremony is intended to proclaim "cultural order as against a cultural void," which exist in dialectical tension. It "banishes from consideration the basic questions raised by the made-upness of culture, its malleability and alterability." As formalized behavior, ceremony is essentially an attempt to assert order: "Through order, formality, and repetition it seeks to state that the cosmos and social world, or some particular small part of them are orderly and explicable and for the moment fixed" (Moore and Myerhoff, 1977, pp. 1617). Formality thus allows ceremony to authenticate its message, conferring permanence and legitimacy on what is in fact a social construction. "Its medium is part of its message" (1977, p. 8).

While ceremony symbolizes or reflects the socially and culturally normative, it is not a mere mirror image. Ceremonies, notes Moore, are not simply dramatizations of social and moral norms: they are "performative acts." Ceremonies do not simply communicate information, nor are they merely analogies; "they do something," putting into action what they symbolize (Moore, 1977). Clifford Geertz explains that by presenting an ontology, a demonstration of being or existence, ceremony serves "to make it happenmake it actual" (1980).

Ceremony models or shapes sociocultural life in a twofold sense, Geertz observes. It offers idealized representations of normative social arrangements that are to be emulated; it also encourages participants to conform their behavior to these arrangements by showing that the way of life that is presented is adapted to the world as it actually exists. Hence ceremony is paradigmatic in a dual sense: it is both a model of and a model for social and cultural life (Geertz, 1980 and 1973).

Inextricably linked to ceremony's corroborative and legitimating functions is the assertion and securing of power. As Grimes observes, "ceremony consists of power negotiations in ritual form. Ceremonial gestures are bids for authority, prestige, recognition, and control" (1982, p. 224). The underlying interest in asserting and securing power gives ceremony a serious tone, which remains dominant even when ceremony manifests festive aspects. Grimes observes that because ceremony implies a distinction between the group that is symbolically asserting its power and the "other side, it is manifestly competitive, sometimes conflict-laden" (1982, p. 42). The successful symbolization of power requires that the social contradiction inherent in the arbitrary assertion of power be masked and only righteous or legitimate properties be exposed. The potential for power to be a source of conflict and not solely a means of conflict resolution must also be concealed. Other theorists point out that ceremony is not simply a disguise for power; it is the assertion of power, or power in action. The fact that ceremony is imbued with the authority of groups that are already in a position of power or that are emerging as a dominant power explains in part why it is one of the predominant frames, or principles of organization, by which social arrangements are ordered (Goffman, 1974, pp. 1011, 48).

Ceremony and Political Power

Political rituals are the most obvious examples of ceremony as it relates to power. Catherine Bell defines "political rites" as "ceremonial practices that specifically construct, display and promote the power of political institutions (such as king, state, the village elders) or the political interests of distinct constituencies and subgroups" (1997, p. 128). Bell draws from Geertz in her observation that political rituals create power by establishing a ruler or political institution's "iconicity" with the order of the cosmos (Bell, 1997, pp. 128130; Geertz, 1980). Geertz observes that ceremony demonstrates that a political regime is an image of the cosmic order itself, and thus is congruent with the cosmic order. Showing the ruling political power to be part of the cosmic order, and hence part of the natural order of things, establishes its legitimacy.

Congruence between political power and cosmic order is demonstrated by way of an elaborate argument communicated in symbolic performance or display. Geertz offers the example of the display of vast wealth by the "theater state" of ancient Java or Bali, to which kings devoted most of their time. The continual display of the ruler's wealth through a variety of state rituals demonstrated that his rule was "a microcosm of the supernatural order and the material embodiment of the political order" (Bell, 1997, p. 129, citing Geertz, 1980, p. 13). In his classic essay on religion as a cultural symbol system, Geertz (1973) observes that ritual performance goes beyond giving ideational veracity, via argument, to a particular view of the world and ethos or style of life. Ritual provides further validation by evoking specific emotions that give firsthand, experiential evidence that the world is actually constituted as claimed by intellectual argument, and consequently that the lifestyle the argument shows to be ideally fitted to the world is in fact suited to it. Intellectual argument and emotional experience are mutually reinforcing.

Geertz argues that ceremony as practiced by the Balinese kingship is more than a symbolic disguise of "real" power residing in physical force or the threat of violence; it is more than artifice (Bell, 1992, pp. 192193; Geertz, 1980, pp. 122136 passim). Bell issues the caveat that some political rituals, as in the case of China, do disguise the source and exercise of power while also serving overt political purposes (Bell, 1992, p. 194). Geertz's insight runs counter to the once prevailing view of sacred kingship developed by James G. Frazer and A. M. Hocart, namely, that ritual legitimates real political power (Bell, 1992, p. 193). In Geertz's view, ritual legitimation is not distinct from political power, but is itself an expression of power that is used to achieve political ends. For Geertz, the ability to perceive that the ritual performances of the Balinese state are real political power depends upon not opposing the symbolic and the real or aesthetic performance to action. Power must be seen as not existing outside the mechanisms through which it works (i.e., ritual). Bell notes that Michel Foucault makes the same observation regarding the mechanisms and dynamics through which ritual works (Bell, 1997, p. 132; and 1992, chap. 9). David Cannadine's and Maurice Bloch's analyses of ritual develop Geertz's understanding of ritual as legitimation of power and, hence, as real and efficacious power (Bell, 1992, pp. 194195; Cannadine, 1987; Bloch, 1987).

"In other words," Bell writes, "political rituals do not refer to politics, as Geertz has strained to express, they are politics. Ritual is the thing itself. It is power; it acts and it actuates" (Bell, 1992, p. 195). "In sum, it is a major reversal of traditional theory [for Geertz and others] to hypothesize that ritual activity is not the 'instrument' of more basic purposes, such as power, politics, or social control, which are usually seen as existing before or outside the activities of the rite. It puts interpretive analysis on a new footing to suggest that ritual practices are themselves the very production and negotiation of power relations" (1992, p. 196). Viewing ritual legitimation as an expression of power that is more efficacious than "brute force," as Geertz, Cannadine, Bloch, and others have done, makes ritual an important tool in the analysis of politics (Bell, 1992, p. 195).

Drawing on Foucault, Bell argues more specifically that political rituals construct power by creating a "power relationship" of domination and submission (Bell, 1997, p. 132; 1992, chap. 9). Political rituals are not simply "secondary reflections" of relationships of domination and submission that guide exchanges between ruler and subject; "They create these relations [dominance and submission]; they create power in the very tangible exercise of it" (1997, p. 136). According to Bell, ritual's effectiveness as a form of power lies in its capacity to create nuanced relationships of power in which those who dominate and those who submit negotiate power (1992, pp. 196218). Nuanced relationships involve both acceptance of and opposition or resistance to those whom ritual empowers.

Bell notes that Foucault argues that power does not exist in a simplistic dominant-dominated relationship (Bell, 1992, chap. 9). Power, of necessity, requires choice. Distinct from force or coercion, power depends upon freedom or resistance, which provokes it and legitimates its use. Those who submit are free to act in contrary ways. Thus, those who dominate only indirectly shape the field of actions of others. Bell points out that Geertz's rejection of the distinction between ritual (or symbol) and real power dismisses the simplistic view of power as the assertion of the ruler's or political power's will upon the dominated (Bell, 1992, p. 194). Power depends upon the dominant and the dominated choosing various courses of action to maintain the relationship as one of power. Individuals submit to political domination while recognizing that they are still free to create their own personal path of freedom, especially in the form of dissenting private thoughts, as in the case of mental dissent from a totalitarian regime. Calling attention to the fact that Foucault has been criticized for eliminating coercion, Bell argues that his analysis of power discloses an important aspect of power that has been minimizedreciprocity (Bell, 1992, p. 204).

Elaborating on the process by which ritual allows society to create itself in the image of power relations, Bell adds that ritual participants project, and thereby objectify, relationships of power that are drawn from society (Bell, 1992, 204218). Participants do not view themselves as projecting these relationships; they view themselves as responding instinctively to the natural social order instead. Participants then re-embody these projected or objectified schemes. Through objectification and embodiment, ritual creates a society that actually consists of these relationships of power. The process of objectification, embodiment, and resistance empowers those who submit, even as it empowers those who dominate. Thus, negotiating and giving nuance to power relations actually empowers those who appear to be controlled by them.

Bell offers the example of the Japanese enthronement ceremony (1997, pp. 130133). Overseen by the imperial state and supported by state Shintō, the enthronement ceremony heightens the relationship between the emperor and the cosmic order by giving him semidivine status. Through a series of elaborate associated rituals, enthronement appeals to "a sense of cosmological fit" between the emperor and divine beings (Bell, 1997, p. 132). The rituals include food offerings to Amaterasu, the sun goddess, who is ancestor of the royal clan, according to tradition. The emperor is considered to be her "grandson." The offerings symbolize sexual relations between the emperor as "bridegroom" and Amaterasu that result in his ritual rebirth prior to the swearing in. Thus, the goddess's divine grandson is reborn in the form of a human emperor. Hirohito, who was emperor of Japan from 1926 to 1989, undertook symbolic sexual relations with the sun goddess during his formal enthronement in 1928, when Japan was ruled by the imperial government, which gained support from state Shintō, the national religion. (Hirohito was forced to renounce his divine status under the postWorld War II constitutional government.) According to Bell, the ritual decorum or etiquette governing the behavior of those granted a royal audience creates relationships that empower the emperor. Etiquette and ceremony are not merely symbolic or "empty"; rather they create relationships of power involving political dominance and submission. Political rituals "create political reality." Furthermore, the symbolic action that constitutes such rituals makes political forces visible, and makes it possible for participants to identify with and to understand these forces, which are otherwise too complex to comprehend (Bell, 1997, p. 133; Kertzer, 1988, pp. 12). Bell points out that although political leaders in modern societies are elected, ceremonial display nevertheless makes an appeal to the cosmic order. She notes that an important function of the inaugural address of a newly elected American president is establishing the president's moral leadership, whereby his election is transmuted into an event that is not an accident of history.

The link between the ceremonial confirmation and maintenance of social and cultural norms and the negotiation of power is clearly evident in national or civic ceremonies, as well as in mass political rallies. Illustrative examples are found in the parades, processions, pageants, theatrical performances, and other ceremonious events that are associated with independence day celebrations in the United States (Bellah, 1967), Mexico (Vogt and Abel, 1977), and Indonesia (Peacock, 1968). Other examples are May Day, the anniversary of the October Revolution, and Victory Day in the former Soviet Union (Lane, 1981). On a smaller scale, examples are found in "political ceremonials," such as ritualized town or public meetings among the Indians and mestizos of Mexico (Hunt, 1977) and the villagers of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (Moore, 1977). The Native American powwow has been interpreted as a public arena of power and politics in which participants negotiate conflicts regarding the participation of women and girls in the powwow, spiritual versus secular uses of powwow (e.g., turning the powwow into political protest), and relations with non-Indian participants (Mattern, 1996).

Other political rituals challenge the political status quo (Bell, 1997, p. 134). Bell points out that "rites of rebellion," as analyzed by Max Gluckman, and other rituals engage symbolic interaction in a different way; they must mobilize people as a political movement or force in opposition to the ruling regime. Bell gives as examples the cargo cults of New Guinea and Melanesia, which fused religious and political interests, and the Mau-Mau rebellion against British colonial power in Kenya. Another example is the reconstructed May Day demonstrations in Hungary under Soviet domination (Kurti, 1990). Originally observing the Soviet revolution, May Day in Hungary acquired new nationalist meaning in the hands of opponents of Soviet rule in the late 1980s, when opposition leaders incorporated images of leaders of the October 23, 1956, uprising against Soviet occupation.

On a much smaller scale, institutional ceremonies offer constituents an opportunity to resist official state ideology, as well as forms of authoritative ideology at the local level. An example was the awards ceremony at a girls' public primary school in Mombasa, Kenya (Porter, 1998). The ceremony had unintended consequences regarding the enactment of power and cultural identity as different participants used it simultaneously to produce cultural meanings that sustain the state as well as local authorities, and to produce alternative interpretations of national and local culture that challenged power at both levels. The postcolonial state has used the secular public schools, their curricula, and their ceremonies to develop a homogeneous national identity and national unity to advance its nation-building efforts. The awards ceremony offered the school's Muslim female students, who are Swahili, an opportunity to resist state efforts as representatives of an ethnic minority who lost political and economic power to the postcolonial state. At the ceremony, the girls performed Swahili poems and expressed their devotion to their religion. Public expressions of religion, performances of poetry, and pursuit of education are typically activities of Swahili men, and not women. By reciting poetry in this public and educational setting, the schoolgirls challenged the traditional gender expectations for adolescent Swahili girls. This in itself was a challenge to the normative relationship between adolescent Swahili females and their male elders. The girls presented an additional challenge to their traditional Muslim culture and the state when the headmistress declared the new school uniform to be the old cotton dress uniform refitted to wear more loosely, with the addition of the traditional Muslim ijāb, a large headscarf, and suruali, long pants. While the adolescent girls proclaimed their devotion to their religion by wearing the traditional dress, about which they sang in their performance, they reinterpreted the meaning of wearing it. In their performance, the girls declared wearing the dress to be a sign of their being modern girls. For these Swahili adolescents, the wearing of traditional dress and experimentation with colors and textured or beaded fabrics were efforts to be fashionable in their youth culture.

The novel Ceremony by the Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko (1977) has been viewed as a kind of rite of rebellion against the dominant white social and political order that reconstructs power relations between Native Americans and whites. James Ruppert characterizes Ceremony as "a protest novel" that calls attention to the oppression of Laguna peoples by "an indifferent and often hostile dominant culture" (Ruppert, 2002, p. 177). Silko's novel presents the healing of an interracial Native American war veteran who despairs over his treatment by white society and the loss of meaning that has resulted from his loss of connection to his Native American community and its traditional ways. Allan Chavkin notes that the novel's protagonist is restored by a traditional curing ritual, which is based on the Navajo Antway, a purification ritual performed for returning veterans; the ritual uses chant to reenact myth and through it impart meaning or a spiritual understanding of events (Chavkin, 2002). The novel concludes with the protagonist's vision quest. He undergoes a visionary experience that restores meaning by reaffirming the Native American view that the spiritual world that is disclosed in myth is reality.

Drawing on Elaine Jahner, Ruppert views the structure of Silko's novel as a ritual chant or prayer that engages Native American and white implied readers as ritual performers who become part of the telling of the mythic story at the center of the novel through the act of reading. Readers assume the position of priests who sing and pray. Reading the novel "becomes a new ceremony in itself" as readers undergo new experiences that alter their perspectives (Ruppert, 2002, p. 184). The novel engages Native American and white readers in learning about the other's worldview as the text translates each group's discourse. In the process, the text mediates each group's experiences of the other. Mediation validates each group's perspective while calling attention to its strengths and limitations. In addition, mediation encourages each group to fuse both perspectives, thus creating a new point of view. White readers learn the mythic view of Native Americans, and Native American readers learn the sociological view of white Americans. The mythic outlook of Native Americans encourages white readers to adopt a spiritual vision of reality in order to restore meaning and avoid self-destruction through unbridled power, particularly war and atomic weapons. In this view, all living things, including the earth, are connected and shown to be part of a larger, inclusive reality. White society's sociological analysis may give Native Americans insight into how they have internalized the view that Native Americans are inferior. In Ruppert's view, Silko attempts to join Native Americans and whites in fighting against common enemiesSilko's "Destroyers," or forces of evilwho threaten to annihilate both. Silko does so by creating a new ceremony that erases all boundaries between peoples by fusing the perspectives and experiences of Native Americans and whites.

As a group, scholars of Native American religions have traditionally used the term ceremony to refer to Native American ritual. They do not make the distinction between ceremony and ritual found in the theoretical literature; hence they use the terms ceremony and ritual interchangeably.

Ceremony and Religion

Two distinct tendencies in identifying the object of ceremony can be found in the theoretical literature. Ceremony is either identified with secular interests exclusively, or it is associated with both secular and religious concerns, which sometimes converge. Jack Goody and Max Gluckman represent the first trend. They contend that although conventionalized nonreligious and religious activities are the same analytic type of behavior (i.e., formalization that has nonrational ends or is of a nontechnical nature) and play similar roles, they entail disparate beliefs and therefore should be differentiated. Conventional action that is addressed to spiritual beings or concerned with the ultimate is designated "religious." Objecting to the tendency to identify formalized collective activity with religious ritual, established as a precedent by Durkheim, Goody distinguishes activity of an "exclusively secular significance." He identifies conventional activity of a nonreligious nature, such as the anniversary of the October Revolution, as "ceremonial." Goody treats ceremony, like formalized "religious" activity, as a subcategory of ritual, the term by which he designates the most general category of conventional behavior (1961, p. 159). Gluckman prefers ceremony as the inclusive term for conventional and stylized, or "ceremonial," behavior. He uses the term ceremonious to distinguish nonreligious formal activity, and reserves the term ritual for the subcategory of ceremonial activity referring to "mystical notions" (1962, pp. 2223).

Goody avoids the terms sacred and profane in his distinction between religious and ceremonial rituals. Because the dichotomy they represent is a foreign concept within many cultures, he believes these terms have limited application as rubrics for analytic categories. The fact that the sacred-profane polarity is not universally recognized suggests, as Goody notes, that these are external categories, imposed by an outside observer, rather than categories held by participants themselves.

As recognized by ceremony theorists who associate ceremony with both secular and religious interests, a strict distinction between secular and religious activity is problematic. Historical phenomena do not exhibit the discrete boundaries that are found in precise theoretical categories. Although they are not sponsored by institutionalized religion, many secular ceremonies make reference to and even depend upon religious belief or religious symbols. The appeal to religious belief and the use of religious symbols in such ceremonies is an indication and expression of the convergence of religious and political interests, even when religion and the state are legally separated. Their convergence is critical when the political order seeks to legitimate its authority through divine sanction, thus giving religion a central place within the public sphere, even where church and state are separate.

Ceremonies associated with civil religion are noteworthy examples. Civil religion is Robert Bellah's term designating a form of religion that is characteristic of highly secularized and technologically oriented modern nation states; civil religion is said to exist independently of institutionalized religion, although it is dependent on organized religion for many of its symbols (Bellah, 1967). Invoking God in presidential inaugurations in the United States, and swearing to uphold the Constitution on the Bible (Bellah, 1967; Wilson, 1979), and in Memorial Day observances (Warner, 1959), for example, is intended to secure the continuation of divine blessing on the social and political order (Bellah, 1967; Cherry, 1970; Warner, 1959; and Wilson, 1979). Appealing to God and scripture during coronations in Great Britain is intended to accomplish the same effect (Bocock, 1974).

The convergence of religious and political interests in ceremony is most evident in religio-political systems. There ceremony occupies a central public place by virtue of its legitimating role. State ceremonies that are associated with divine kingship, long established as a state cult in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, are illustrative. The "state ceremonials" of nineteenth-century Bali (royal dedications of palace temples, royal ordinations, royal cremations, and other "state ritual") appropriated Hindu cosmology in order to depict the king as a manifestation of divine power and thereby secure power by the state (Geertz, 1980). Ceremonies drawing attention to "divine election" and divinization in imperial Rome provide instructive premodern examples of securing state power by ritually cosmologizing a political office (MacCormack, 1981).

The blurring of boundaries between religious and political interests is found on a smaller scale in numerous civic ceremonies. Fiesta, a citywide celebration of the establishment of Santa Fe, New Mexico, as a Spanish city, is an illustrative example (Grimes, 1976). Religious symbols play a central role in the ceremonial negotiation of power among Native American, Hispanic-American, and other Euro-American members of the community not simply because they help to establish group identity, but because they help to legitimate sociopolitical interests. Links between Roman Catholicism and the historic domination of Native Americans by the Spanish are exploited in the Fiesta Mass, the procession of La Conquistadora (the Virgin), and other church-sponsored events, as Hispanic Americans assert their power over Native Americans.

It has been suggested that if societies do in fact tend to look to the cosmic order as their ideal for the social order, then secular ritual would always manifest sacred aspects. "If this is the case it may not be possible to speak of purely religious ritual or of purely secular ceremonial," argues Eva Hunt. Furthermore, if the secular and religious orders are interdependent, so that the secular models and shapes the religious, which in turn models secular behavior, then "secular and sacred may not be different behaviors but different analytic aspects of the same behaviors" (Hunt, 1977, p. 143).

Moore and Myerhoff define the sacred in broader terms by which they distinguish it from religion. By sacred they mean unquestionability or being inviolable and traditionalizing. According to their definition, secular rituals exhibit a sacred dimension when they present ideology, doctrine, and so on as authoritative and incontrovertible, and in so doing secular rituals serve as a tradition-making force. Moore and Myerhoff distinguish ceremony from religious ritual by the absence of otherworldly or ultimate explanations, which are said to be the distinct province and function of religious ritual. The scope of ceremony is restricted to specialized aspects of social and cultural life and to its immediate concerns. In their view, ceremony, unlike religious ritual, does not act on the other world in order to influence this world; it acts solely on this world. Ceremony is distinguished by its "meaning and effect," which are sacred but not religious (Moore and Myerhoff, 1977, p. 8).

Moore and Myerhoff propose and oppose the analytic categories religious and nonreligious, sacred and nonsacred in order to take account of secular rituals that manifest a sacred dimension and those that do not, rituals that make use of religious symbols, and other possible combinations, including the presence of secular concerns within religious life (Moore and Myerhoff, 1977, pp. 3, 1015, 2022). Insofar as religious and sociopolitical interests intersect and even converge, distinguishing ceremony from religion will remain problematic, however.

Returning to Grimes' argument, if ceremony is treated as a mode of ritual rather than a type of ritual, then distinguishing ceremony from religion becomes even more problematic. He argues that rituals that are explicitly religious can demonstrate ceremonious aspects and do so when they are placed in the service of social and political interests (Grimes, 1982, p. 42). Timely examples are found in the rituals associated with the convergence of theology and political ideology in contemporary fundamentalist Christianity in the United States and fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East and elsewhere. Use of the pulpit by fundamentalist Christians to promote rightist interests during national and state elections in the United States has received much attention in political and scholarly circles as well as in the media. Although the role of fundamentalist Islam in the revitalization of conservative and even extremist Muslim and Arab ideology has received equal attention, less attention has been given the role of religious ritual. An example is the use of ʿĀshūrāʾ, the ritual dramatization and commemoration of the martyrdom of Muammad's grandson, usayn ibn ʿAlī, to legitimate Shīʿī ideology and rule in Iran (Hegland, 1983). Reinterpreting usayn's death as the final outcome in the struggle of a righteous man against the corruption of true religion by political rulers, the Shīʿah found in ʿĀshūrāʾ a powerful symbol in the service of the revolution of 1979. By giving the ritual new ideological content, identifying the monarchy and allied power structures as forces hostile to Islam and themselves as preservers of true faith, the Shīʿah in Iran made use of ʿĀshūrāʾ in their ascendancy to power.

The 1993 state funeral of Turkey's President Turgut Ozal offered an example of three competing versions of the convergence of religious and political interests in ceremony. Gunter Seufert and Petra Weyland (1994) report that three rival groups symbolically expressed three divergent views of the sacred cosmic order and of the place and power of religion within the state. President Ozal's funeral was the first high-level state ceremony in which secular and official religious representatives of the secular state and representatives of nonstate-sponsored religion appeared together since the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 by President Mustafa Kemal. Representatives of the state, both secularists and those representing the official version of Islam, gave Islam an ambiguous place within the cosmos, a modified version of the Kemalist secular cosmos. They had appropriated Islamic symbolism increasingly in order to regain support of average Muslims and had tolerated the existence of the Islamic brotherhoods and their participation in state institutions. The state representatives allowed the brotherhoods, especially the Naksibendiyye, to take part in the state funeral and even to perform some of the rituals associated with it, in spite of an official ban against public appearances by members of the brotherhoods. The brotherhoods had been banned under President Kemal's regime, which reconstructed Turkey as a secular state in which the state government tightly regulated religion. President Ozal, a pious Muslim who had found Islam and the secular state compatible, restored Islam to public life. The Naksibendiyye gave Islam a central place within the cosmos but accommodated it to the state. Hostile political factions opposing the state, who were not permitted an official role in President Ozal's funeral but who demonstrated outside the mosque where his funeral was held, gave Islam a supreme place.

Seufert and Weyland interpret the inclusion of the Naksibendiyye by the state as an effort by the state to co-opt, within certain limits, this particular religious group and its traditional version of Islam in order to give the state legitimacy in the eyes of Muslims as part of the state's effort to maintain its version of the sacred cosmos and its power within it. Historically, the Naksibendiyye had alternately supported or opposed the state, and had won popular support for the ruling power. More important, Seufert and Weyland view the inclusion of the Naksibendiyye as an effort by the state to use this group's popularity among the masses to control popular Islam, especially fundamentalist male youths. Their sympathies lay with opponents of the state, especially Kurdish and fundamentalist parties, and their alternative versions of Islam. Seufert and Weyland also interpret the inclusion of the Naksibendiyye as an attempt by the state to gain greater acceptance within the wider Muslim world. The authors argue that the Naksibendiyye were willing to cooperate with the state in order to regain influence, to promote internationalism among Muslims, and to strengthen religious orthodoxy in response to alternative religious views. The authors conclude that while the political elite used President Ozal's funeral to retain their legitimacy and power by enacting the official version of the sacred cosmos, they could not control how the Naksibendiyye Muslims or Muslim opponents would promote their own versions, or how average Muslims would consume the various versions that were available to them. Thus Ozal's state funeral reflected the existence of multiple views of the cosmic order among members of the Turkish state.


Any attempt to define ceremony must take into account the interpenetration of traditional ritual categories: sacred and secular, religious and political, and the like. As demonstrated in the examples presented above, historical phenomena cannot be compartmentalized as neatly as a number of theoretical treatments of ceremony suggest. Any effort to analyze ceremony also must take note that formalization, corroborative tendencies, and other aspects of ceremoniousness are inherent to ritual. As suggested in the examples offered above, the ceremonious mode can be expected to dominate when ritual has been placed in the service of tradition or the legitimation of power. In this instance, as Turner observes, ritual's liminal features have been circumscribed in order to contain the threat to the established social order.

See Also



Bell, Catherine. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York, 1992.

Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York, 1997.

Bellah, Robert N. "Civil Religion in America." Daedalus 96 (1967): 121.

Bloch, Maurice. "The Ritual of the Royal Bath in Madagascar." In Rituals of Royalty: Power and Ceremonial in Traditional Societies, edited by David Cannadine and Simon Price, pp. 271297. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

Bocock, Robert. Ritual in Industrial Society: A Sociological Analysis of Ritualism in Modern England. London, 1974.

Cannadine, David. "Introduction: Divine Right of Kings." In Rituals of Royalty: Power and Ceremonial in Traditional Societies, edited by David Cannadine and Simon Price, pp. 119. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

Chavkin, Allan. "Introduction." In Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony: A Casebook, pp. 315. New York, 2002.

Cherry, Conrad. "American Sacred Ceremonies." In American Mosaic: Social Patterns of Religion in the United States, edited by Phillip E. Hammond and Benton Johnson, pp. 303316. New York, 1970.

Geertz, Clifford. "Religion as a Cultural System." In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, pp. 87125. New York, 1973.

Geertz, Clifford. Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali. Princeton, 1980.

Gluckman, Max. "Les Rites de Passage." In Essays on the Rituals of Social Relations, edited by Max Gluckman, pp. 152. Manchester, UK, 1962.

Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York, 1974. Discusses ceremony on pages 4344, 48, 58, and 126. Reprint, Boston, 1986.

Goody, Jack. "Religion and Ritual: The Definitional Problem." British Journal of Sociology 12 (1961): 142164.

Grimes, Ronald L. Symbol and Conquest: Public Ritual and Drama in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Ithaca, N.Y., 1976.

Grimes, Ronald L. "Modes of Ritual Sensibility" and "Two Public Celebrations." In Beginnings in Ritual Studies, pp. 3551 and pp. 221231. Lanham, Md., 1982; rev. ed., Columbia, S.C., 1995.

Hegland, Mary. "Ritual and Revolution in Iran." In Political Anthropology, edited by Myron J. Aronoff; Vol. 2: Culture and Political Change, pp. 75100. New Brunswick, N.J., 1983.

Hunt, Eva. "Ceremonies of Confrontation and Submission: The Symbolic Dimension of Indian-Mexican Political Interaction." In Secular Ritual, edited by Sally F. Moore and Barbara G. Myerhoff, pp. 124147. Assen, Netherlands, 1977.

Kertzer, David I. Ritual, Politics, and Power. New Haven, 1988.

Kurti, Laszlo. "People vs. the State: Political Rituals in Contemporary Hungary." Anthropology Today 6, no. 2 (1990): 58.

Lane, Christel. The Rites of Rulers: Ritual in Industrial Society, The Soviet Case. Cambridge, U.K., 1981.

Lukes, Steven. "Political Ritual and Social Integration." Sociology 9 (1975): 289308.

MacCormack, Sabine G. Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity. Berkeley, Calif., 1981.

Mattern, Mark. "The Powwow as a Public Arena for Negotiating Unity and Diversity in American Indian Life." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 20, no. 4 (1996): 183201.

Moore, Sally F. "Political Meetings and the Simulation of Unanimity: Kilimanjaro 1973." In Secular Ritual, edited by Sally F. Moore and Barbara G. Myerhoff, pp. 151172. Assen, Netherlands, 1977.

Moore, Sally F., and Barbara G. Myerhoff. "Secular Ritual: Forms and Meanings." In Secular Ritual, edited by Sally F. Moore and Barbara G. Myerhoff, pp. 324. Assen, Netherlands, 1977.

Peacock, James L. Rites of Modernization: Symbolic and Social Aspects of Indonesian Proletarian Drama. Chicago, 1968.

Porter, Mary A. "Resisting Uniformity at Mwana Kupona Girls' School: Cultural Productions in an Educational Setting." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 23, no. 3 (1998): 619643.

Ruppert, James. "No Boundaries, Only Transitions: Ceremony." In Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony: A Casebook, edited by Allan Chavkin, pp. 175191. New York, 2002.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York, 1977.

Seufert, Gunter, and Petra Weyland. "National Events and the Struggle for the Fixing of Meaning: A Comparison of the Symbolic Dimensions of the Funeral Services for Ataturk and Ozal." New Perspectives on Turkey 11 (1994): 7198.

Turner, Victor. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca, N.Y., 1974.

Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York, 1982. See pages 8084.

Vogt, Evon Z., and Suzanne Abel. "On Political Rituals in Contemporary Mexico." In Secular Ritual, edited by Sally F. Moore and Barbara G. Myerhoff, pp. 173188. Assen, Netherlands, 1977.

Warner, William Lloyd. The Living and the Dead: A Study of the Symbolic Life of Americans. New Haven, 1959.

Wilson, John F. Public Religion in American Culture. Philadelphia, 1979.

Bobby C. Alexander (1987 and 2005)


views updated May 23 2018


Leslie Marmon Silko

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

Leslie Marmon Silko


As if their near extinction, compulsory attendance at boarding schools, and constant violation of treaty rights by the U.S. Government were not enough, Native Americans were encouraged to leave the reservations for the big city during the 1950s and 1960s. Many did, but precious few were successful in large urban areas. In order to provide needed support and offer hope to these individuals, they formed political groups (Red Power, ARM, AIM, et al.). These organizations encouraged them to reject any sense of shame of their culture and assisted individuals as they waged battles in court, in federal parks, and in towns across America for their rights.

More importantly, these actions coincided with a return of the people to their traditions. Native American activists inspired young people to learn as many of the old ways as they could. A Laguna woman who was part of this cultural renaissance became its most celebrated author.

Already highly regarded for her poetry collection, Laguna Woman (1974), Leslie Marmon Silko became the first female Native American novelist with Ceremony (1977). The story illustrates the importance of recovering the old stories and merging them with modern reality to create a stronger culture. In the novel, a young man named Tayo, from the Laguna Reservation, returns from fighting in the Pacific. He is suffering from a battle fatigue that white medicine cannot cure. Through his struggle back to health, we learn that the way to heal the self, the land, and the people, is to rediscover the neglected traditional ceremonies and our relationship to the earth. Noted technically for her non-chronological narrative and ability to blend poetry with prose, Silko has been praised as a master novelist.

Author Biography

Silko grew up on the Laguna Reservation in New Mexico and is a Pueblo Indian of mixed ancestry—Cherokee, German, Northern Plains Indian, English, Mexican, and Pueblo. She reflects her diverse heritage in her writing (from the biographical notes for Laguna Woman):

"I suppose at the core of my writing is the attempt to identify what it is to be a half-breed, or mixed blooded person; what it is to grow up neither white nor fully traditional Indian. It is for this reason that I hesitate to say that I am representative of Indian poets or Indian people. I am only one human being, one Laguna woman."

She was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in March of 1948. Her father, Lee H. Marmon, helped at his parents' grocery store and was a photographer for the U.S. Army. Her mother, Virginia, also worked. Left with her two sisters in the care of the village, Silko chose to spend her time with her great-grandmother, Maria Anaya, who lived next door. Other influences included Grandma Lillie Stagner, a Ford Model A mechanic, and Aunt Susie, a scholar and storyteller. The older women taught her Pueblo traditions and stories.

When she was 6, her father was elected Tribal Treasurer and he brought home the tensions of the Laguna people: violated treaty rights; questions of identity and blood quantum; and the problems of poverty. But more importantly, Silko overheard discussions about a lawsuit the Laguna people had lodged against the state of New Mexico. They alleged that the state had stolen six million acres of land. The lawyers, witnesses, and archeologists involved in the case met at the Marmon house. She also was present as the elders told their stories of the land and the people.

The lawsuit convinced Silko to seek justice as a lawyer. In pursuit of this goal, she attended the University of New Mexico where she majored in English. There, her short stories won her a discovery grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The lawsuit, started when she was six, was settled by the time of her graduation. The U.S. Court of Indian Claims found in favor of the Laguna people. However, the Claims Court never gives land back; they order compensation in nineteenth-century prices. In this case, the court ordered payment of 25 cents an acre—and the legal fees of the case amounted to $2 million.

Silko dropped out of the American Indian Law School Fellowship Program after three semesters. She decided that American law was inherently unjust after studying a 1949 Supreme Court refusal to stop the execution of a retarded black man. She left believing that storytelling could change things. After teaching on the Navajo Reservation at Chinle, she moved with her husband, John Silko, and two boys (Robert and Cazimir) to Ketchikan, Alaska, where she wrote Ceremony.

In 1976, Silko returned to the Southwest as a single parent. Since 1978, she has occupied a teaching position at the University of Arizona, produced another novel, several essays, and one film. Currently she is working on a screenplay.

Plot Summary

Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony tells the story of Tayo, a mixed-blood Native American from the Laguna Pueblo reservation who is severely traumatized by his unstable childhood and combat experiences during World War II. As the novel progresses, Tayo attempts to recover from these deep psychological wounds by drawing on various Native American cultural traditions.

His journey toward psychological wellness is made long and difficult, however, because his people's traditional healing ceremonies must be adapted to cure the new modern illnesses that he suffers from such as alcoholism and the psychological shocks caused by modern warfare. In addition, Silko uses a complex, fragmented, non-linear plot to represent Tayo's psychological struggles. While this initially makes the story somewhat confusing, the story becomes easier to understand once the reader recognizes how Tayo's psychological journey structures the novel's complex development. The novel frequently moves between poetry and prose and jumps across historical time and space, but its general trajectory follows Tayo's complex path toward psychological recovery.

Tayo's Alienation

After a brief introductory poem which describes the power of Native American ritual ceremonies, the novel begins revealing Tayo's troubled psyche through a series of chaotic, fragmented scenes. He has nightmares, confusing dreams in multiple languages, flashbacks to traumatic events, and a wide assortment of psychological illnesses ranging from anxiety to depression.

Initially, the novel presents these various psychological disorders as stemming primarily from Tayo's experiences during World War II. In particular, Tayo is deeply disturbed when he is ordered to kill a Japanese soldier but refuses to do it because he thinks that the soldier is actually his Uncle Josiah. Even after his cousin, Rocky, logically explains that this Japanese soldier cannot be Josiah, Tayo refuses to accept Rocky's factual logic. Instead, Tayo feels that there are deeper spiritual relationships that intimately connect all beings within a single spiritual web. This sensitivity to spiritual connections also makes Tayo feel responsible for causing a prolonged drought among his people when he cursed the jungle rains in Japan during the war, and he feels additional guilt because he could not prevent his cousin Rocky from being killed in the war.

Like many veterans, Tayo continues to re-experience these psychological traumas even after returning home, and his problems are only compounded by his friends, Harley and Leroy, who encourage him to use alcohol as a way to escape from life. Unlike his friends, however, Tayo has a deeper spiritual side. He never feels completely comfortable just getting drunk, picking up women, and bragging about his war heroics. Instead, Tayo longs to reconnect with the natural landscape and the Native American traditions that used to provide the foundation for a more harmonious lifestyle for his people. Because of this deeper spirituality, Tayo is frustrated by his friends' self-destructive behavior.

When Emo, another Native American veteran, begins bragging about how much he enjoyed killing people during the war, Tayo's uneasiness finally erupts into violent anger, and he attacks Emo. Luckily, Tayo's friends stop his violent outburst before he succeeds in killing Emo, but Tayo is arrested and sent away to an army psychiatric hospital in Los Angeles. This attempt to fight violence with violence only aggravates instead of relieves Tayo's psychological alienation.

Tayo's Visits to the Medicine Men

Eventually, a sympathetic doctor lets Tayo return to the reservation where his aunt and grandmother try to heal what the psychiatric hospital was unable to cure. When Tayo's suffering continues, however, his grandmother suggests that he see Ku'oosh, a medicine man. Ku'oosh tries to cure him with traditional healing rituals, but these rituals are only partially effective because they were created centuries before the more complex disorders of the modern world came into existence. Consequently, the traditional healing ceremony performed by Ku'oosh eases Tayo's pain, but it does not end it altogether. A stronger magic is needed to combat the more powerful modern forms of evil—modern Ck'o'yo magic.

To make matters even worse, the novel also begins to reveal how Tayo's problems extend back further before his war experiences to his unstable childhood. Tayo's mother, Laura, got pregnant out of wedlock to a white man who did not stay with her to help raise him; she was herself a wildly irresponsible parent. She spent her nights sleeping around with various men either for money or fun, and generally drank away what little money she made. Consequently, Tayo spent much of his early childhood being neglected until his mother finally left him to be raised by her mother and sister. While this move gave Tayo a more stable home life, it created other psychological burdens because his new caretakers frequently shamed him for his mother's past.

When Ku'oosh begins to realize how deep-rooted and complex Tayo's psychological problems are, he suggests that Tayo visit another mixed-blood medicine man in Gallop named Betonie who specializes in healing war veterans. Tayo's uncle takes him to visit Betonie, but Tayo is initially suspicious and nervous when he sees Betonie's eclectic modes of operation. Betonie lives in a bad section of town, and his house is filled with all kinds of clutter. There are innumerable telephone books, empty coke bottles, and old calendars mixed among prayer sticks, bags of herbs, and medicine bags. Betonie uses all of these objects to create new rituals that combine symbols from multiple cultures.

Tayo never becomes fully comfortable with Betonie's unorthodox multicultural brand of shamanism, but he stays and allows Betonie to work his magic. After performing an elaborate healing ceremony, Betonie explains to Tayo that he must complete his own healing because modern disorders are too complex. Before Tayo leaves, however, Betonie reveals to him several signs that will be part of his healing process: a constellation of stars, some spotted cattle, a mountain, and a woman.

Tayo's Recovery

When Tayo returns home this time, he is even more determined to avoid his old friends and their self-destructive behavior. He gets sick of hanging out with them in bars, so he heads into the mountains to look for his uncle Josiah's lost cattle and a new way of life. While looking for the cattle, he finds a woman named Ts'eh Montano who has sex with him and begins to teach him about the traditions he has lost. She rejuvenates his spirit, helps him find the constellation of stars that Betonie had drawn for him at the conclusion of his healing ceremony, and leads him toward Josiah's lost cattle.

However, the cattle have been stolen by a rancher named Floyd Lee who is guarding them behind a wolf-proof fence patrolled by his cowboys. Tayo cuts through the fence and eventually finds the cattle only to be caught by two of Floyd's cow-boys. They start to take him back to town to arrest him, but then they lose interest in this plan when they become preoccupied by an opportunity to hunt a mountain lion. With a little more help from Ts'eh and her husband, who seem to appear out of nowhere and suddenly disappear again like mythical beings, Tayo is able to free the cattle from Floyd Lee's land and return them back to the reservation. Ts'eh teaches him more about cattle raising and other cultural traditions and then mysteriously leaves again.

Just when it seems that Tayo has finally reestablished himself in his people's traditional way of life and reconnected himself to their cultural traditions, Emo begins spreading false rumors about Tayo having gone crazy again. Emo gets several of Tayo's friends and the local authorities involved in a manhunt to capture Tayo and send him back to the army psychiatric hospital. After a couple close calls, Tayo finally escapes Emo's vigilante posse and returns home, while his pursuers end up meeting various disastrous conclusions instead. Harley and Leroy die in a terrible auto accident, and Emo kills Pinkie, another one of his vigilantes. The novel concludes with a final ritual poem which announces the victory of good over evil but reminds the reader that such victories are always tentative, so we must remain vigilant in avoiding the continual temptations of evil Ck'o'yo magic.



As a Christian, Auntie represents a break with the traditional ways and beliefs. In addition, she is a martyr in her own mind. As she says in the novel: "I've spent all my life defending this family … It doesn't bother me but this hurts Grandma so much." She reminds every member of the family how she has to deal with the gossip about them—especially the talk about Little Sister and Josiah. Due to this concern about what people think of her family, Tayo "knew she wouldn't send him away to a veteran's hospital" when she saw that he was sick.

When Tayo returns from war, "Auntie stares at him the way she always had, teaching inside him with her eyes, calling up the past as if it were his future too, as if things would always by the same for him." She considers him as just another burden in her life-and then reminds everyone about what she had done for him. At the end, Tayo's success frees him from Auntie but she still has "an edge of accusation about to surface between her words." It takes old man Ku'oosh's clear acknowledgement of Tayo's new place in society to quiet her.

Bear Boy

See Shush


Chosen from birth to learn the traditions of medicine, Betonie is revered for his success at curing people. He stays in his Hogan—built long before the town of Gallup existed—so that he can keep an eye on the people. In particular, he looks for those of his people afflicted with alcoholism who might want to come back to the traditional ways.

Betonie mixes old and new in his medicine: "At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong … That's what the witchery is counting on; that we will cling to the ceremonies the way they were, and then their power will triumph, and the people will be no more."

Tayo confides to Betonie about his dreams, the war, and his concerns about the cattle. Betonie listens, then tells him what signs to look for; he also insists that he must retrieve the cattle. After a vision ceremony, he sends Tayo on his way.


Emo, "always with a GI haircut," represents the witchery of the story world. He represents evil. He rejects the ways of the past, favoring manipulation and deception to have his way with the people.

Envious of white society, Emo wants his stories of scoring with white women and having white things to replace the traditional stories. He denigrates the traditional ways to keep those around him thinking Indians are no good. In doing so, he simulates the mythical Ck'o'yo gambler, "Look what is here for us. Look. Here's the Indians' mother earth! Old dried-up thing!" With such sayings he aims to obscure the people's relationship to the earth. Instead he encourages an easier way—a prescription of drink and violence: "What we need is what they got. I'll take San Diego … they've got everything … They took our land, they took everything! So let's get our hands on white women!"

Tayo's effort to cure himself and remember the traditions of the people is a threat to Emo's manipulative ways. Tayo disrupts Emo's ceremony at the bar by delivering a rendition of the national anthem. He then tells a story about some Indians going off to war and returning as just plain Indians. Emo wants them to forget this story and remember the killing they did. He rattles a bag of human teeth while bragging about his exploits in the Army. Eventually, Emo kills his followers (because Tayo did not try and kill him) by manipulation. He is banished from the Laguna Reservation but, as witchery, he still exists.


Grandma lets things happen around her until she must intervene. For instance, Tayo stays in bed for some time before she comes to comfort him in his nightmare. She cries with him saying, "Those white doctors haven't helped you at all." Ignoring Auntie, she sends for the traditional medicine man, old man Ku'oosh. This is the beginning of Tayo's journey back from being white smoke. By sending for the medicine man, Grandma has started her family on its path to healing and in a small way helped to heal the whole village. At the end, Grandma asks Tayo to replenish her heating oil. This is a sign that Tayo is an adult member of the family.


Harley is a clownish character who represents the bacchanal spirits. He prescribes alcohol for all occasions. When Rocky, Tayo, and Harley were childhood friends, they tracked an old drunk and stole his hidden alcohol for their first drink. Harley also served in the war and brags to Helen Jean about his heroism.

At the start of the novel, he arrives at the ranch to help Tayo. He also wants to revive the good days of the war when they were soldiers on leave. To this end, Harley proposes a quixotic journey—the longest donkey ride ever for a cold beer. At the bar, Harley's intentions are good—if Tayo drinks he will be happy. "Liquor was medicine for the anger that made them hurt, for the pain of the loss, medicine for tight bellies and choked-up throats."

But when the ceremony is winding down, it is Harley who finds Tayo for Emo. Tayo drinks in honor of his friend and in the process almost falls prey to witchery. He realizes Harley's betrayal and eludes them. In the end, it is Harley who suffers instead of Tayo. Manipulated to betray his friend, Harley pays with his life.

Helen Jean

Helen represents the women, like Tayo's mother, who have been taught to hate their own people and to flee the reservation. She winds up like too many other women—dependant on generous war veterans and drinking themselves to death. Like many others, she started out full of good intentions. She was going to move to the city, get a job, and assimilate into white society. Instead, she is headed for the slums of Gallup.


Josiah, the brother of Auntie and Little Sister, is the father figure for Tayo. He possesses knowledge about raising cattle and shares it with Tayo. His scheme places him among Tayo's teachers—like Old man Ku'oosh and Betonie—who are mixing new ways with the old. Along with practical life lessons like how to ride a horse, Josiah offers Tayo many insights. "Josiah said that only humans had to endure anything, because only humans resisted what they saw outside themselves."

Josiah has a mistress named Night Swan. Tayo sleeps with her and she tells him things that fit into his ceremony.


When Grandma decides that white medicine has done enough damage, she calls for the traditional medicine man, Ku'oosh. However, Ku'oosh knows that in the present day the traditional and unchanged methods no longer have the same power. He knows where to send Tayo—to Betonie. Ku'oosh, although he sticks to the old ways, is open to hearing the new stories. He ensures that Tayo is brought into the kiva and accepted once and for all.


Another war buddy, Leroy represents the veterans that return from the war with alcohol problems. Moreover, in his purchase of the truck he represents the "gypped" Indian. Leroy thinks he fooled the white man by signing for a truck he did not have to pay for. They joke that they have to catch him for the money.

Helen and Tayo want to laugh for other reasons. Helen says the truck is worth very little. Tayo believes that "the white people sold junk pickups to Indians so they could drive around until they asphyxiated themselves." Leroy is easy prey for Emo, and eventually helps him to find Tayo.

Little Sister

Little Sister is Tayo's mother. As a young woman, she ran around with white men, Mexican men, and anyone who was not from the Laguna Reservation. She sought an escape from her heritage but wound up in Gallup. The family took Tayo and she vanished into the slums.

Night Swan

Night Swan is suspected of being a prostitute because she is single, lives above a bar, and dances for the men. When Josiah's truck is parked night after night at the bar, the women of the town are relieved that he, not their husbands, is upstairs.

A half-breed like Tayo, she reassures Tayo about their mixed race. She tells him the others blame him so that they do not have to face themselves.


When the Apache boy who watches their sheep leaves for California, the family is forced to hire cousin Pinkie. During a dust storm, six sheep disappear. Suspiciously, Pinkie is wearing a new shirt and wielding a new harmonica. To his credit, he stays a week longer than he was supposed to but then heads up the line towards Gallup. He is Emo's assistant in the pursuit of Tayo and helps to dispose of Harley and Leroy. Emo accidentally shoots him in the back of the head.


Auntie's husband, Robert, takes over complete control of the family's business when Josiah dies. He welcomes Tayo's offer of help but knows that Tayo must get well first. He is a quiet man who works hard. He shows he cares for Tayo when he uncharacteristically speaks out about what Emo is doing and what people are saying. He warns Tayo that he needs to come back home and face Emo.


Rocky was a star athlete who had to win. He desired one thing, to leave the Reservation and be successful in the world. He believed what the teachers told him, "Nothing can stop you now except one thing: don't let the people at home hold you back." He is killed in the war but others like him, says Betonie, can be found in Gallup.


Shush is Betonie's helper and symbolizes the power of mixed elements. He is a mix of the human and the supernatural.


The main character in the novel is Tayo, a Laguna Pueblo and a veteran of World War II. At the opening, he feels like white smoke, like a ghost. He is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (battle fatigue) and the army doctors cannot help him.

Tayo knows that white medicine—a medicine that looks at one symptom, not the entire system— will not be effective. His sickness is a result of carrying the sins of his mother physically and mentally. He is a half-breed and as a youth was psychologically abused by Auntie. Further stress comes from being a member of an oppressed people. Tayo is very hard on himself; when Rocky dies on a death march in the Pacific, Tayo blames himself. While at war, Josiah dies and again Tayo blames himself.

The most harmful stress, however, is that while he was carrying Rocky he cursed the rain, and when the flies were everywhere he cursed the flies. Because of these two acts, he feels responsible for the drought and the neglect of the Corn alter.

All these stresses become his sickness; it keeps him in the hospital and then keeps him bedridden. Finally, Grandma sends for the traditional medicine man. But the medicine man is not as powerful as he once was. A new ceremony is needed to heal the community of the destruction brought by the whites, and it is determined that the ceremony must start with the war vets, with Tayo. The new ceremonial cure is to be found in the mixed blood of the old and the new—in Old Betonie's ceremony and in Tayo's completion of it. Then the rain will return.

Through Betonie, Tayo realizes that being a mixed blood enables him to facilitate an embracing cure for his people. But he must first destroy the manipulator, the witch Emo. Like the mythical Sun Father, he allows the witch to destroy himself. Tayo succeeds because he trusts in the greater community and draws strength from the stories. As a result, witchery eats itself and Tayo is able to bring the story to the elders. "The ear for the story and the eye for the pattern were theirs; the feeling was theirs: we came out of this land we are hers."

Tayo, with Betonie, has created a new ceremony and reestablished contact with certain elements in the Pueblo tradition: the ceremonial plants he was told to gather; the rock face painting that has not been renewed since the war; and the woman of the mountains who has chosen him as a messenger. As a result, Tayo has merged his identity with his people and become well. He has entered the story reality where the people exist. He now has a place in the society's ceremony and he has brought home the cattle to replenish his family's economy. Auntie can no longer begrudge him, Grandma is proud, and the elders recognize him as a fly who carried the message which lead to the return of the rain.


The personification of his ceremony is Ts'eh. She is the Montano—the Mountain woman, the earth. Her function is to help Tayo remember traditions that have been forgotten as well as add a new one—the gathering of the purple root. In a sense, as the embodiment of Corn Woman, she is pleased with Tayo's efforts. Accordingly she helps him by corralling the cattle and showing him the site of the she-elk painting. These things, along with the purple root, are the elements that most interest the old men in the Kiva.



The Pueblo concept of reciprocity did not allow for evil. They believed that because all things were interconnected, they simply had to keep up their end of the bargain. For example, when a hunter takes a deer, he sprinkles cornmeal to the spirits. If the dances and ceremonies are done, the crops will be plentiful.

However, the Pueblos gradually found they needed an explanation for those evils which violated this theory of reciprocity. They did not alter their cosmology by adding a devil. Instead, they attributed evil to witchery or the manipulation of life's elements to selfish and violent ends. Furthermore, Native American people out of touch with the stories of the people or wanting to replace those stories are the ones that use witchery and, therefore, only Native American medicine and story can undo witchery. One story about witches explains that Native Americans wear the skins of other animals in order to become that animal for a time.

In the novel, witchery is at work before the war when the young men were convinced they had to enlist in order to prove themselves patriotic Americans. Then, the uniforms-like skins-provided a taste of life as a white American. But the uniforms were taken back. Rather than return to their people and renew contact with the earth, they sit in the bar and tell stories about the witchery—about how much better it was chasing white women and killing "Japs." Thus their connection with the Corn Woman remains broken. Emo embodies witchery as he encourages them in their storytelling. He manipulates his friends to hate Reservation life, to remain angry and drown in alcohol.


The central theme of Silko's novel is the relationship of the individual to the story of the community. For Tayo to be cured of the war witchery, he must remember his people's story and renew his connection with the land and its governing deities. In one specific instance, he is shown a cliff face painting of A'moo'ooh. T'seh explains, "Nobody has come to paint it since the war. But as long as you remember what you have seen, then nothing is gone. As long as you remember, it is part of this story we have together."


The three central figures in the Pueblo cosmology are Thought-Woman, Corn Mother, and Sun Father. They are interrelated and interdependent. Thought-Woman opens the novel and is considered responsible for the story. Thought-Woman created the universe by speech. She made the fifth world (the earth) and the four worlds below where the spirits of the dead go. She appears throughout Pueblo mythology and throughout the story. Tayo must make contact with her, with the people's story, in order to bring a story to the elders inside the kiva. He tells them he has seen her. "They started crying/the old men started crying.…"

Corn Woman is perhaps the most important deity because corn is essential to the people's economy. Corn Woman is interchangeable with mother earth. She represents growth, life, and the feminine powers of reproduction. She is honored by prayer sticks and offerings of blue and yellow pollen (Tayo fills animal tracks with yellow pollen). Dances in her honor are done in a zigzag or lightning pattern. Large dances include everyone but only men perform small dances. The Corn dance is done to bring rain, to assure abundant crops, and to increase fertility. The female powers support and grant according to his performance. A male protagonist as a sacrificial intermediary performs the small dance in the novel—Tayo is the fly. Throughout the novel, from the entrance of Harley and the weaving journey astride a donkey, Tayo performs a series of ziz-zags. He also finds zig-zags on the supportive T'seh's blanket.

The story about Corn Woman involves an evil Ck'o'yo magician. The moral of this story is that if the Corn Alter is neglected and offerings are not given, the life processes supporting the people will not function. This story brings us to the last deity-Sun Father. He is a creative force unleashed by Thought-Woman to interact with Corn Woman. He represents masculine powers and light and it is his job to awaken the rain clouds. The offering to Sun Father is corn meal—a product of Corn Woman. Tayo's link with the Sun Father occurs when Old Ku'oosh brings him blue cornmeal. Auntie feeds him, and he is able to keep it in his stomach. Tayo's ceremony mimics the story of the Sun Father but rather than bring back the rain clouds he must bring back the cattle, thereby bringing prosperity back to the family.


One of the most divisive questions facing Native Americans today is: who is Native American? This question might seem odd, but because there is so much at stake—Native American Tribes are explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution as sovereign nations, and the U.S. Congress must negotiate treaties as they do with any sovereign nation—the United States government has kept the question confused.

By recognizing only those persons with a certain quantum of a specific Nation's blood as tribal members, the notion of ancestry became a significant issue in the Native American community. In the late 1960s ancestry almost replaced the notion of race as the determining factor for census purposes. This would have greatly diminished the racial wrangling that has perplexed America. Doing so would also have allowed Native Americans to realize they were not a handful but a group of some 30 million—an incredible electoral force.

Topics For Further Study

  • Silko refers to some of the environmental problems facing the Laguna Reservation after World War II. How do these problems affect the people's culture? How do they affect Tayo's ceremony? How does Silko illuminate these problems without documenting them and, then, how are they resolved, if at all?
  • Write an essay about the Pueblo theory of witchery. What types of behavior both in the story and in reality could be considered witchery? How does this theory help to spread responsibility while suggesting a solution to problems of greed, pollution, and hunger?
  • Silko suggests that the neglected Pueblo ceremonial traditions are not only useful but also essential to future survival. Think of some other religious traditions that are either out of use or corrupted. What value might they have, if any, once rejuvenated?
  • Without exception, the Native American people prophesied that the white man was coming. Those same prophecies also say that all things European will disappear. What do you think that means? Is it coming to pass?
  • Some cultures have definite patterns of recognition and 'rites of passage.' For example, the Plains Indians have a Vision Quest wherein a young person is 'put out' on a hilltop, or laid in a shallow grave, with 4 days of water. This allows the adolescent to have a vision or receive a message about his future role in the community. Jews, on the other hand, acknowledge their adolescents with a Bar Mitzvah celebration. Modern secular culture has no such thing. In Ceremony, the young men saw enlistment in the Army as a rite of passage into white society. Research the cultural function of 'rites of passage.' Are they needed? If so, what sort of ceremony could you envisage for celebrating the attainment of maturity in America?
  • While the rest of the nation has seen a drop in violent crime (by 22%), Native American reservations are experiencing a crime wave (up by 87%). The baby boom on the reservation of the 1980s has translated into a large number of youths, and these kids and young adults are just beginning to imitate urban gangs in terms of culture, violence, and drugs. The United States Congress and President Clinton are proposing to spend additional millions on new prisons and law enforcement on the Native American land. Thinking about Ceremony, argue for an alternative solution to the infant gang problem. Then, do some research into alternative programs for Native American offenders: why are they under funded and ignored?
  • Gather a number of brief accounts (cultural, historical, and archaeological) of the Pueblo Indians. Placing them next to each other, compare the ways in which the Native Americans of the Southwest are presented. Oftentimes these descriptions will include suggestions on when to visit reservations to see them dance. Given what you now know about Gallup, consider the ethics of this tourism. Is it ethical to encourage recreational gawking at Native Americans? What does this say about our culture in the 1990s?
  • The Mayans were one of three civilizations to invent the mathematical concept of zero. The Pueblo People developed several strains of corn. What other knowledge and resources did the Native Americans possess that were either stolen or buried (hint: research calendars, the material used for tires, and medical procedures)?

Be that as it may, because blood quantum notions are so strict, the U.S. govermnent counts very few Native Americans. So, a person who is one quarter Irish, one quarter Mohawk, one quarter Ibo, and one quarter Lakota—but raised as 100% Pueblo—is not a Native American. Furthermore, the U.S. government has only recently recognized some tribes. For example, though Tucson was built around the Yaqui village of Pasqua, it was only in 1973 that Congress recognized the Yaqui as Native Americans.

This tension is everywhere in the novel. Tayo is a half-breed (his biological father was white) who was given up by his mother to be raised by his Auntie. Emo constantly reminds him of this because Emo wanted to be white (so did Rocky). But Tayo reminds him of the truth, "Don't lie. You knew right away. The war was over, the uniform was gone. All of a sudden that man at the store waits on you last, makes you wait until all the white people bought what they wanted." But even though they all know it, even though Tayo is a Native American despite what the government might say, there is too much self-hatred. This is the result of the boarding schools that taught them that Native Americans were savage people. "They never thought to blame white people for any of it; they wanted white people for their friends. They never saw that it was the white people who gave them that feeling and it was white people who took it away again when the war was over."

Night Swan adds to this complexity when she tells Tayo that mixed breeds are scapegoats. People always blame the ones who look different. "That way they don't have to think about what has happened inside themselves." Emo and Auntie's dislike of miscegenation runs counter to the custom of the Pueblo who judge by actions not appearance. As the end of the novel suggests, the people's survival depends on these mixed breeds like Tayo and Betonie who are able, by force of circumstance, to blend the old and new to tell a more relevant story.



Silko once explained the Pueblo linguistic theory to an audience (found in Yello Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit) and that theory explains the narrative technique of her novel.

"For those of you accustomed to being taken from point A to point B to point C, this presentation may be somewhat difficult to follow. Pueblo expression resembles something like a spider's web—with many little threads radiating from the center, crisscrossing one another. As with the web, the structure emerges as it is made, and you must simply listen and trust, as the Pueblo people do, that meaning will be made."

Not knowing the above theory, critics have lauded Ceremony's non-chronological narrative. Silko's purpose in using this technique for her story is to mimic, once again, the zig-zag pattern of the corn dance as well as to stay true to Thought-Woman. That is, the whole of the novel is a ceremony that the reader performs with every new reading. It is intended to blur the distinction between real time and story time in such a way that the reader is better able to empathize with the perspective of a traditional Pueblo like Grandma: "It seems like I already heard these stories before … only thing is, the names sound different."

Additionally, the narrative is told in third person mixed with traditional narrative. The stories of Thought-Woman, the Gambler, and the witches provide context for the saga of Tayo within the larger context of the Pueblo story. The Pueblos see themselves as their language, as a story. "I will tell you something about stories/ … / They aren't just entertainment./ Don't be fooled./ They are all we have … / all we have to fight off/ illness and death. As such, there are no boundaries between the present ceremony Tayo performs and the whole ceremony the people perform to stay in balance with their belief system. "You don't have anything/if you don't have the stories."


Along with praise for her narrative technique, Silko is applauded for her close observation of human behavior. She remains true to life without idealizing her characters or setting. Her story is set in the depressed Laguna Reservation where, she says in passing, the orchards have been ruined by uranium runoff, drought is ruining crops, the Herefords are dying, and the young men are drunk. She pulls no punches in describing Gallup and she makes no effort to idealize her characters.

So a realistic picture is painted of society on the reservation after World War II. However, in doing so, she does not make the people out to be pathetic—Robert, Ku'oosh, Auntie, and Josiah are all respectable people. Nor does she make them into incredible heroes.

Silko's characters are struggling to negotiate the best route of survival in a world that they perceive as being dominated by destructive forces. Finally, as a result of their trials and tribulations, these people have a wisdom they would like to share with the white world if the white world would just pause to listen.


An apocryphal story has it that when an Indian was praised for his poetry, he said, "In my tribe we have no poets. Everyone talks in poetry." There is no clear distinction between prose and poetry among people who have an oral tradition and a pictographic literature called codices (none but a handful of the codices remain). Silko took advantage of this and of her English language education to invent a written Pueblo style. By using the page itself, she mimics a pictograph in her opening quatrains. The blend of prose and poetry throughout the novel enable her to weave new events with old stories.

Silko's style also allows her to save the old stories by spreading them. The affinity she creates between herself and Thought-Woman, as well as Tayo and various story figures, allows her to tell many stories in one novel. The result is that many readers who know nothing about the Laguna Reservation feel like an old friend to the characters in the novel.


Stereotypes are employed throughout the novel, such as the archetype of the drunken Indian. But the novel uses these stereotypes about Native Americans to tell a powerful and potentially subversive story. The figure of the drunken Indian is used to illustrate how negative images of Native American have become ingrained in the American consciousness. In another instance, by making use of the clownish vets, she can warn America that not only are the Native Americans not defeated but they are making a comeback. All of this is done within the Pueblo style because, in fact, clowns are a big part of Pueblo ceremonies.

Part of the Pueblo technique of storytelling is the belief that the story exists in the listeners. This cuts both ways; part of the reason the novel succeeds is that white society expects Native Americans to include myth and ceremony in their explanations for the world. So while Silko can offer a solution for veterans, for example, she can also speak to mainstream whites because she is telling a Native American story. Even her accusations of white America are done in a Native American way—by a story about witches. Lastly, in an almost harmless way, Silko is telling Americans beforehand that Native Americans will get justice— all in good time.

Historical Context

Pueblo Indians

The people of the Anasazi tradition inhabit the area of what is now the Southwestern United States (from Taos, New Mexico, to the Hopi mesas in Arizona). They are named Pueblo, meaning "village Indians" in Spanish. They live in concentrated villages of buildings constructed from adobe local clay, and stone. These buildings are entered from the top floor. The buildings, often reaching to five stories, surround a plaza with a central kiva—a ceremonial place dug into the ground.

Of these people, the western Keres Tribe inhabits Acoma and Laguna. Acoma, perched atop a 400-foot mesa, has been continuously inhabited since at least 1075 AD. Laguna was established more recently. The Pueblo economy centered on a sophisticated system of dry farming and seed cultivation. The matrilineal culture had its labor division: men farmed and performed the ceremonial dances; women made intricate basketry, exquisite pottery, and built the houses. Government was carried on by consensus; warfare was avoided; and trade took place with the Plains tribes to the north and the empires to the south.

Around the time the novel was written, two tragedies struck the Laguna-Acoma communities in the 1970s. First, a teenage suicide pact led to funerals for a number of boys and girls in 1973. Second, a man murdered and dismembered two friends. The murderer then bullied another friend to borrow a car from which he scattered the parts. He later said that he found the ax irresistible.


Spanish rule began with Don Francisco Vasquez de Cornado in 1540. Soon thereafter, the tribes and their lands were recognized as subject to the King of Spain. This recognition is important to this day as it supersedes, by international law, the claims of Mexico and then the United States. It was this charter that Silko heard discussed when Tribal officials charged New Mexico with land theft. The Spanish conquest brought Christianity, missionaries, and death to the Pueblos. To survive, they accepted baptism and Christianity as an extension to their religion.

The Mexican authorities came in the early 1800s. They demanded that the people speak Spanish, live in rectangular houses, adopt a representational government, enroll their children in Mexican schools, and, more drastically, accept individual land holdings owned by the male head of household. On the positive side, Catholicism was not as rigorously imposed and so indigenous religion regained some of its popularity.

The United States took over in 1848 when the Treaty of Guadeloupe-Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War. The Americans substituted English for Spanish and added the choice of Protestantism as a religion for the Pueblo people. The Americans also demanded that the people farm like Americans—who farmed like Europeans. This style of agriculture, however, depends on European or Eastern seaboard rainfall. The Pueblo crescent receives an annual rainfall of 13 inches (a proper amount for a desert). It was not long before the region was ruined economically. Since then, the Pueblo cities have been declared reservations and surrounded by white society.

World War II

By the start of World War II, every Native American group had been relegated to reservations for at least 40 years. That was enough time for the boarding schools and missionaries to have broken many spirits and fostered a sense, among some, of patriotism for the United States. When war broke out, many young men saw enlisting as an opportunity to gain entrance into mainstream white society. The United States also saw a need for Native Americans. They became invaluable, cheap, and immediate code talkers. From the Pacific Theater to the European Theater the Native American languages of the Lakota, Comanche, Navajo, Kiowa, and many others were heard over the airwaves. Strangely, it is difficult to know how many Native Americans fought in World War II because only the code talkers were 'racially' identified.

In addition to their language, the Native Americans possessed other resources. Vast amounts of plutonium, uranium, gold, oil, and other valuable deposits lie beneath the barren reservations of South Dakota, Oklahoma, and the Pueblo Crescent. On the Laguna reservation they dug up the materials needed for the research being done at Los Alamos, a mere 70 miles away. Trinity—test site for the A-bomb—was also close to the Pueblo reservation.

The Indigenous Revival

From N. Scott Momaday's Pulitzer Prize to the seizure of Alcatraz Island, Native Americans were on the move in 1969 and showed no signs of slowing. In 1970, the Cherokee nation formed a new constitution and took the first steps toward rejecting the American notion of race. Their constitution allowed membership in the tribal roles by virtue of ancestry. In 1970, they reclaimed the lands illegally stolen from them after they were removed to Oklahoma. Activists from the Cherokee nation were joined by hundreds of other Native Americans in their walk retracing the Trail of Tears. In 1975, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes filed a claim for nearly the entire state of Maine.

The most notorious, feared, and militant group came from Minneapolis in the 1960s. AIM (American Indian Movement) led a caravan to DC in 1972. When the Nixon administration refused to meet with them, they took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs building. Yielding to the threat of force, they absconded with tons of records. These records were given to their lawyers and used in law-suits against the FBI.

The tension that resulted led to the showdown at Wounded Knee. There the United States military surrounded AIM activists for 71 days. AIM won. The media presence kept fatalities to one. AIM also brought its one concern—the Laramie Treaty of 1858—to public awareness. The tie-ups in court, unfortunately, slowed down the Native American activists by the late 1970s. By then the whole world was aware of the civil rights violations committed against Native Americans. This awareness was all the greater because of a march on the UN Conference on Indigenous Peoples held in Geneva in 1977. Prominent leaders from Canada, the Iroquois nation, Mexico, South America, and the Hopi nation were joined by AIM and paraded in under drum and song. There they made their speeches and met with world leaders. The American press corps boycotted the event.

Critical Overview

Silko's reputation was established immediately when critical reception of Ceremony in 1977 was not only positive but appeared in big magazine—no small accomplishment for the first female Native American novelist in the late 1970s. Critical acclaim has been even more laudatory as the novel has become required reading across the nation. One facet of the novel particularly applauded was the success with which the novel challenges the reader to merge cultural frameworks.

However, the criticism also revealed cultural gaps. Critics tried to lump Silko's novel into pre-fabricated genres of American literature. There seemed to be great discomfort with viewing the novel as challenging and good on its own merits. Instead, the story is often patronizingly viewed as an effort to preserve Native American legend. Surprisingly, not one reviewer commented on the fact that the novel was set in the period of World War II when the problem of 1977 was the phenomenon of the Native American Vietnam Vets (there were more than 43,000 nationwide).

In his review for The Washington Post, Charles Larson makes an unqualified statement that "the war becomes an incredibly enlightening experience for Tayo—as it did for so many American Indians." He later comments that Tayo's story might fit in with fiction about World War II except that the novel is "strongly rooted within the author's own tribal background." That rootedness, for Larson, is the novel's value.

Hayden Carruth is not any more helpful in Harper's Magazine. She attempts to link Tayo with Taoist philosophy because Tayo is seeking his "way." Unfortunately, Carruth continues her review to say that the narrative repeats the old tale of the man returning rain and bounty to the people. This is done, she says, with the novelty of "native [sic] American songs, legends, parables, a religiocultural mythology in the fullest sense.…"

Carruth also has two negative criticisms of the novel. First, the story might bother some whites because they might feel blamed, and some Native Americans because it does "not soften either the disagreements in the Indian community." Second, the novel "is flawed," she says, "by narrative devices that seem too contrived and by occasional stylistic inconsistencies."

Writing a review called, "Ghost Stories," Ruth Mathewson was less forgiving and more confused—but she liked the story. She described Silko as a "saver" whose "determination to preserve so much … makes great demands on the reader, who must exercise a selectivity the author has not provided." That is, Silko has not succeeded in blending the roles of curator and scribe.

Mathewson also brings her understanding of ceremony to bear on the novel when she says that the hero's effort to heal the people "calls for a slow, meditative response." However, Silko also "exploits popular fictional elements, raising expectations of speed and suspense that she does not satisfy." Mathewson admits many of the "interrupting" poems "fell flat for me." Finally, she says Silko's prose style is "reminiscent of long-forgotten novels of the '20s" and achieves a "gratuitous realism."

Frank MacShane, in The New York Times Book Review, asserts: 'the literature of the American Indian is ritualistic." Furthermore, he views the purpose of this literary tradition as the establishment of "a sense of unity between the individual and his surroundings … [and] … Silko's first novel, aptly titled 'Ceremony,' fits into this tradition." Although offering a favorable assessment of the novel, his comments often sound like he is talking about a work of nonfiction instead of the first novel by a Native American woman who is trying to bind her oral traditions with the demands of print culture.

Peter G. Beidler, in American Indian Quarterly, places Silko with other distinguished Native American authors such as N. Scott Momaday and James Welch. Here the developing similarities of Native American literature are explored—the male Native American begins confused but reorients himself to his tribal identity. He also discusses the historical consciousness evident in the stories. He does offer some negative criticism, however, when he faults Silko for not developing her women characters.

Elaine Jahner offered considerate insight into the novel in the Prairie Schooner by acknowledging Silko as a novelist. She said,

"it is … Silko's profound and efficient understanding of the relationship between the tribal sense of order that is perpetuated through oral storytelling and those other models of narrative order—the novel and the short story that makes her a writer whose works enable Indian and non-Indian alike to understand that the traditional written genres can perpetuates some of the creative impulses that were formerly limited to the oral mode of transmission."

More recent criticism has followed Jahner. James Ruppert, for example, wrote in 1988 that Silko fuses "contemporary American Fiction with Native American storytelling." By the time of Ruppert's review, however, Ceremony had almost reached the status of canonical work in college syllabi across the nation. It remains a favorite book for people of all backgrounds who are slightly disillusioned with America and who want to understand how to construct a new identity. With that motivation, there are many people actively identifying with Tayo as a new American hero.

Unfortunately, as Silko recently told Thomas Irmer during an Alt-X interview, her critical reputation as a writer has been influenced by her more political and very anticapitalist 1991 novel, Almanac of the Dead.


Robert Bennett

Bennett is a graduate student in English at the University of Califomia at Santa Barbara. In the following essay, he analyzes how Leslie Marmon Silko's novel, Ceremony, uses Native American cultural traditions and an environmentalist land ethic to create a revisionist critique of American politics and history.

The central conflict of Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony is Tayo's struggle to gain psychological wholeness in the face of various traumatic experiences, ranging from a troubled childhood to cultural marginalization and combat experiences during World War II. Throughout the novel, the key to Tayo's psychological recovery is his rediscovery of Native American cultural practices.

Most of the crucial turning points in the novel occur when Tayo listens to, takes part in, or learns more about Native American cultural traditions. He progresses towards recovery when he visits medicine men, returns to traditional customs and practices, or develops an intimate relationship with someone like Ts'eh who lives according to traditional ways. As he develops an increased understanding of native cultural practices and ritual ceremonies he finds psychological peace, which he quickly loses whenever he seeks other sources of healing—whether he seeks them in the glories of war, the pleasures of alcohol, or the medical practices of the army psychiatric hospital.

The novel's opening poem describes the incredible powers that language, stories, and rituals have in Native American cultures: ceremonies are the only cure for human and cultural ailments, and stories and language have the power to create worlds. As the novel progresses, it demonstrates this power by showing how rituals are more effective than anything else in helping Tayo heal.

What Do I Read Next?

  • St. Andrew's "Healing The Witchery: Medicine in Silko's Ceremony," printed in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 44, No 1, discusses the Pueblo cosmology in greater detail. This is a good article for further investigating the underlying religious and cultural themes of the novel.
  • After ten years of work, Silko published her second novel, Almanac of the Dead. This novel is more overtly political and reflects the hysteria surrounding illegal immigration, drug running, the CIA, and other phenomena of the 1980s. Like Ceremony, legends are interwoven with the present day as an ancient book is pieced back together after being smuggled out of the clutches of the book burning Spanish.
  • Silko corrects some mistakes about her own biography and gives insights into her work in a book of essays, Yello Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit (1996). In this collection, she tells of her fascination with photography, the ancient codices, and some of the historical events which influenced her novels.
  • N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn was published in 1968 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969. It was published at the start of a Native American cultural renaissance and in the midst of a new assertion of political rights, the novel tells the story of a man returning to his Kiowa Pueblo from World War II.
  • A decade before Dee Brown and the general reconsideration of Native Americans that occurred in the early 1970s, William Brandon presented a general survey of Native American history for The American Heritage Library. The book was appropriately titled, Indians, and was published in 1961. The work, though brief, is quite remarkable for its scope and objectivity.
  • Ward Churchill's A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present published in 1998, is his latest work documenting the history of his people. A Cherokee himself, Churchill has been an avid chronicler of the attempt to eradicate the Native Americans from the planet. In this work, he focuses on the attempt to cover up the story of genocide.
  • A record of Native American political activism in the 1970s has been compiled by Troy Johnson, Joane Nagel, and Duane Champagne, entitled, American Indian Activism: Alcatraz to the Longest Walk.
  • A Lumbee Indian named David E. Wilkins charted the way in which the US Supreme Court has curtailed the rights of Native Americans. The result was his 1977 work, American Indian Sovereignty and the U.S. Supreme Court: The Masking of Justice, where he examines fifteen landmark cases for their implications on Indians as well as all minority groups.

Moreover, Tayo's struggle to return to indigenous cultural traditions parallels Silko's own struggle as a writer who wants to integrate Native American traditions into the structure of her novel. Instead of simply following the literary conventions used by other American and European writers, Silko develops new literary conventions that draw upon Native American cultural traditions. For example, her narrative plot follows a cyclical sense of time, like that found in Native American myths and legends, instead of a western linear sense of time. It is also open to non-rational spiritual experiences instead of limiting itself to scientific logic and reason. In addition, her general focus is more on the community as a whole and Tayo's relationship to that community than it is on Tayo's personal individuality.

Even more importantly, she structures the entire novel itself as a sacred ritual or ceremony. Throughout the novel, she repeatedly switches back and forth between the main plot and a series of interconnected poems based on various Native American legends.

These interspersed poems create a second mythic narrative that runs parallel to the realistic narrative about Tayo. Even though these mythical poems take up less space than the realistic narrative, they are equally, if not more, important than the realistic narrative. They provide additional insight into Tayo's various struggles, they outline the pattern for his recovery, and they are placed at both the beginning and the end of the novel. In addition, Betonie's healing ceremony encapsulates the central themes and struggles developed throughout the novel, and it marks the central turning point in Tayo's recovery.

By making these mythic poems and ritual ceremonies such a significant part of the novel, Silko extends her authorial voice beyond first-person and third-person narration to include the ritualistic voice of a shaman or storyteller. Thus, Silko expresses the Native American belief that ritual healing and art are intimately connected because stories and rituals have the power to heal.

Nevertheless, both Silko's description of Native American healing ceremonies and her own artistic use of Native American narrative forms are unorthodox. For example, Ku'oosh's traditional rituals partially cure Tayo, but Betonie's new complex, hybrid ceremonies are even more effective. By making Betonie's rituals more potent than Ku'oosh's, Silko suggests that recovering one's cultural roots does not always mean being stuck in the past and endlessly repeating only what has been done before. Instead, Silko argues that even traditional cultures need to evolve and change, modifying to meet new circumstances and enlarging to create a broader dialogue with other cultural traditions. In this sense, Silko's sense of ritual is not narrowly Native American but broadly multicultural.

Native American traditions make up an essential part of that multicultural mosaic, but they are not the whole of it. This multicultural sensibility is further demonstrated by Silko's frequent attempts to develop connections between different cultures within her novel. In particular, Silko develops several relationships between Native American and Japanese cultures. Tayo believes that the Japanese soldier is his Native American uncle because he has a spiritual sensitivity to the interconnectedness of all peoples and cultures. Tayo cannot stand Emo's hatred toward the Japanese because he realizes that violence toward any part of this multicultural mosaic inevitably hurts everyone. In fact, Tayo eventually realizes that even his own anger toward Emo must be overcome because violence cannot be prevented with more violence.

The novel's conclusion makes this connection between Native Americans and the Japanese even clearer because both Native Americans and the Japanese were victims of World War II. Native American lands were destroyed through uranium mining in order to destroy the Japanese with bombs built from the mines on native reservations. Thus, Silko demonstrates that there are more connections between cultures than one might recognize at first glance. While this multicultural vision derives from traditional Native American beliefs about the interconnectedness of all beings, it extends beyond Native American cultures to include all of the world's many cultures.

In addition, Ceremony also links Native American cultural traditions to the land and people's relationship to it. The novel is full of beautiful descriptions of the natural landscape, philosophical discussions about the essential nature of land, and ritual ceremonies connected to the landscape.

In particular, Silko's sense of the land functions in two ways. First, the ceremonies heal Tayo by reconnecting him to the land. They orient him according to sacred geographies, they teach him the importance and meaning of particular places, and they endow the earth with spiritual significance. Throughout the novel, Silko repeatedly reminds the reader that Native American cultures see the land and ceremonial rituals as inseparably connected and mutually reinforcing sources of spiritual well being. Drawing closer to the land helps Tayo better understand Native American ritual ceremonies, just as participating in these ceremonies helps Tayo reconnect himself to the land. These are two sides of the same coin.

In addition, Silko also uses Native American beliefs about the land to address a wide variety of contemporary political and cultural issues such as environmentalism, colonialism, and the sovereignty of Native American peoples. In this sense, Silko's sense of the land involves not only a native spiritual worldview but also a comprehensive political critique.

By drawing attention to the relationships between colonialism and economic inequality, between private property and racial divisions, and between mining and nuclear destruction, Silko calls into question western civilization's economic and legal interpretations of the land. America's claim to the land of America is revealed as a hypocritical mask for colonial conquest, just as raping the environment through mining is revealed as part of a larger industrial-military complex whose ultimate goal is to produce weapons of mass destruction.

An excellent example of these kinds of connections can be seen when Silko exposes that the real purpose behind Floyd Lee's wolf-proof fence is to keep Indians and Mexicans out. With this image of the wolf-Indian-Mexican fence, Silko shows the relationship between western civilization's hostility toward the natural environment (wolves), its economic ideology of private property (fences), and racial divisions between the dominant Anglo-American culture and other minority cultures (Native American and Mexican).

The irony that Mr. Lee's fence enables him to steal Tayo's cattle in addition to protecting his own cattle only further emphasizes how Silko politicizes this image. Legal and political boundaries not only divide mine from yours, but they also enable me to steal what is yours, like they enabled the stealing of native lands.

Throughout the novel, Silko combines images like Mr. Lee's wolf-Indian-Mexican fence with images of international wars and mining and nuclear testing on Native American lands. In the end, it is the Trinity test site that prompts Tayo's climactic epiphany of how the divisions between cultures are created by western civilization's war against nature in the name of private property. This war against nature ends up turning the creative powers of nature against themselves to produce weapons of mass destruction. This, in turn, escalates into a war against us as neighbors turn against neighbors and nations turn against nations justified by the boundaries legitimized by the ideology of land ownership.

Land ownership becomes the central issue, however, not only because it negates a sacred understanding of the land as a living being shared by all but also because the test site is specifically land taken from Native American peoples. Like Mr. Lee's fence, the test site simultaneously represents both the destructiveness of western economic development and the hypocrisy of what whites have done to the American continent in the name of building and defending the nation. Ultimately, Tayo rejects white civilization for a deeper spiritual understanding of a world without boundaries, without divisions, and without private property.

In this sense, Silko's novel is not just a story about one Native American veteran trying to piece his life back together after returning from World War H. In a much deeper sense, it is an allegory about America as a whole and about how Tayo and other Native Americans fit into the broader mosaic of American history. In particular, Silko's novel rewrites American history so that Native Americans like Tayo are no longer pushed into the margins and ignored. She shows that they have contributed to and continue to contribute to American history by providing the land on which it happens, by fighting for America in international conflicts, and by contributing to America's economic development.

Even more importantly, however, she shows that Native American cultural traditions also provide an alternative, and in Silko's opinion, superior view of what America's future could look like if it will chose to be more spiritually sensitive, multiculturally respectful, and environmentally responsible. In this sense, Ceremony adds an important and potentially healing voice to the ongoing debate of what it means to be an American.

Source: Robert Bennett, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

Elizabeth N. Evasdaugher

In Evasdaughter's analysis of Silko's use of humor in Ceremony, the critic points out the jokes, gentle teasing, and irony that lighten the tale and confirm Silko as a "true comic novelist."

In Ceremony, Leslie Silko brilliantly crosses racial styles of humor in order to cure the foolish delusions readers may have, if we think we are superior to Indians or inferior to whites, or perhaps superior to whites or inferior to Indians. Silko plays off affectionate Pueblo humor against the black humor so prominent in 20th-century white culture. This comic strategy has the end-result of opening our eyes to our general foolishness, and also to the possibility of combining the merits of all races. Joseph Campbell wrote in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space of the change in mythologies away from the local and tribal toward a mythology that will arise from "this unified earth as of one harmonious being." Ceremony is a work that changes local mythologies in that more inclusive spirit.

Silko is the right person to have written this book. She herself is a mixed-blood, and her experience has evidently given her access not only to a variety of problems, but also to a variety of styles of clowning and joking.… Although Ceremony is serious, offering a number of valuable propositions for our consideration, the narrative also spins a web of jokes in the morning sun.…

The ceremony Silko narrates is that of a Navajo sing, but one not sung exactly as it would have been done before whites arrived in New Mexico, nor sung by a pure-blood Indian, nor sung on behalf of a pure-blood Indian. As is traditional, the ceremony is to be completed after the sing by the sick man, a Laguna named Tayo. His efforts to finish the ceremony by correct action form the last half of the novel, just as the first half was composed of the events which made him sick. These two series of events, taken together, make it clear that what the Veterans' Administration doctors have labelled battle fatigue is, in Tayo's case at least, really a struggle to make a decision about death. He tries two ways of responding to its invasion of his life that do not work—self-erasure and killing an agent of death. Finally he is able to find a way of opposing destruction which will not lead to his erasure as a force on the reservation, not allow anyone to kill him, and most important, not change him too into an agent of death.

Tayo's difficulty is grave, yet Silko jokes about it frequently. The belief among whites that Indians never laugh is contradicted continually by the sounds of Indians responding to subtle in-jokes or to a corrective kind of teasing crystallized in the work of ritual clowns. Black Elk [in Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux] speaks of clowns appearing when people needed a good laugh. At that time, he says, the clowns based their performance on the minor frustrations of life or on our minor flaws as human beings, such as our tendency to exaggerate our plight.… I believe that Leslie Marmon Silko is in effect a sacred clown, turning the light of laughter against evils which might otherwise weaken us all.…

Human clowning of a farcical type, exposing our human flaws in a manifestly physical way, builds up Silko's philosophy. The drunk Indian veterans who had attempted to fight over Helen Jean "started pushing at each other, in a staggering circle on the dance floor. The other guys were cheering for a fight. They forgot about her." Their lack of real love for women goes with their general ineffectuality. The whole scene parodies the war, all its supposedly ardent love for motherland, all its proclaimed desire to protect wife and home forgotten in the blundering, futile rituals of fighting.

These clowning scenes become more elaborate as the novel continues. An example of this is the size and complexity of the expedition organized to capture Tayo at his most harmless. He is carefully surrounded at night by V.A. doctors in dark green government cars, Bureau of Indian Affairs police, and some of the old men of the pueblo, just as if he were insane, hostile, and arned, when we as readers know he has spent the summer outdoors looking after his skinny cattle and rediscovering the old religion, or if you like, dreaming of a beautiful Indian woman. The absurdity of this great stakeout does not cancel, but accompanies and points up the danger to Tayo. As readers, we both fear for him and half-expect the ambush will be 100% ineffectual.…

[Silko] teases her readers in a gentle manner that can enlighten. When Tayo is ordered to shoot a Japanese soldier and suddenly sees him as his Uncle Josiah, everyone around him tells him that Josiah couldn't be in two places at the same time or that hallucinations are natural with malaria or battle fatigue.… Actually the vision, which I would call a projection of Tayo's or Josiah's mind, illustrates for Tayo the universality of human goodness and the evil of killing. When, reading along, we finally realize this, it's natural to smile at our earlier foolish Europeanized faith in our ideas of mental illness.…

Silko turns her teasing also toward younger Indians like Helen Jean, who evaluates Tayo as the least friendly male at the Y Bar, when in fact he is the only one who cares, even briefly, what is going to happen to her. As for half-breeds like Tayo, Silko repeatedly exposes his gullibility toward erroneous white beliefs. His difficulty in believing that someone other than an Indian will steal, much less that a white man will steal, is typical of Indian jokes about oppression [as Joseph Bruchac said in Parabola, Winter, 1987.]

Silko does not exclude herself from being teased either. At the end of her innovative portrayal of evil, she allows Tayo's grandmother, the archetypal storyteller, to indicate her boredom at the story of Emo's downfall:

Old Grandma shook her head slowly, and closed her cloudy eyes again. 'I guess I must be getting old,' she said, 'because these goings-on around Laguna don't get me excited any more.' She sighed, and laid her head back on the chair. 'It seems like I already heard these stories before … only thing is, the names sound different.'

This narrative irony is a little joke at all of us —Silko for feeling she had written an original work about evil, any Indians who might have been worrying about her modernization of the stories, any whites who might have believed the test of art is originality, or maybe entertainment, rather than spiritual power. The serious effectiveness of Silko's tale is indicated by the passage which follows: "Whirling darkness/has come back on itself.… It is dead for now."

All the instances of Indian humor in Ceremony have been overlooked by some of the white readers I have talked with, possibly because of lack of contact with non-European communities or culture. Indian irony can be "either so subtle or so keyed to an understanding from within of what is funny to a people that an outsider would fail to recognize it [Parabola, Winter, 1987.]" Such outsiders tend to take many light passages in Ceremony as solemn or tense, and wear themselves out before the real crisis comes. Yet Silko has given non-Indian readers enough clues to enjoy her inside jokes.…

Tayo at times carries irony as far as black humor. When other barflies buzz about their equality with whites, Tayo tells a more truthful, and by contrast, more ironic narrative about their status. When Emo repeatedly brings up how whites have taken everything the Indians had, Tayo wisecracks to himself, "Maybe Emo was wrong; maybe white people didn't have everything. Only Indians had droughts." This private shot of wry acknowledges both white injustice and Emo's dishonesty, thus mentally challenging blackness, not just learning to endure it.…

Emo mocks traditional Indian values, despises everything living, and spends his time spreading contempt, resentment, idleness, pleasure in the humiliation and suffering of other people—in short, hatred. His first diatribe in Ceremony is against reservation ranchlands: "Look what is here for us. Look. Here's the Indians' mother earth! Old driedup thing!" By breaking the law of reverence, his sarcasms raise loud laughter. By speaking only of white women, he gets his fellow veterans, except Tayo, to laugh and cheer at stories about bringing women down. By referring to Japanese soldiers always and only as Japs, as officers, as enemies, he tricks the others into rejoicing at the smashing of fellow people of color. They are fooled because Emo's jokes resemble jokes made "not to take our minds off our troubles, but to point out ways to survive and even laugh" [as Bruchac noted]. Unfortunately, Emo's references to troubles do not carry hints about survival or corrections of faults. Not noticing the difference, Emo's bar buddies, most of them, commit themselves by every laugh to discard a little more of Indian tradition, their only possible road to a satisfying life.…

Silko sees through Emo's descriptions and can see where his black philosophy must end. To acknowledge evil and study it, has not made a convert of her, however. She plays a worse trick on Emo than he wanted to play on Tayo; as a true comic novelist always does, she thwarts evil and establishes the good in a new and more complete harmony. Hers is the laughter that rises in the spirit, when the preachers of inferiority and inevitable doom have been disproved and defeated. What is finest in her, I believe, is the wisdom of her method of bringing the good out of its trials safely. Her wisdom is that of choosing love.…

Although the last scenes of Ceremony have a number of surprises, they have been prepared for. Tayo's refusal to be caught up in the dynamics of mutual destruction is comical because it seems cowardly, as whites judge bravery, even disloyal, by Army standards. In truth, his hiding behind the rock is his least white, least hateful action, even, perhaps, a sort of yellow humor, to go with his Asian connection.

Not only does Silko as novelist arrange for the defeat of Emo's plan either to sacrifice or to corrupt Tayo. She also plots a punishment for the villain which is more appropriate and funnier than the one he has planned for Tayo. In the outcome, Silko, and readers who side with her, laugh, perhaps silently, but also happily at Emo's final defeat, hearts lifting because "he got his." In this way, as a comic novelist, Silko has brought in a third type of black humorist, the one who steals the tricks of the blackest jokers and uses them against their owners. I have found that Anglo or anglicized readers easily miss Silko's punishment of Emo, thinking he has gotten away scot-free. That's because she outfoxes him as Tayo did, aikido style, without violence. He might have died, but the old men of the pueblo only exile him, and he chooses to go to California, the epitome of all that he admires. The joke of it is seen by the now gentle Tayo: "'California,' Tayo repeated softly, 'that's a good place for him'." This brief and quiet comment scores off evil more aptly than Emo ever scored off good. Emo will be in harmony with California; the apex of his desires is as bad as he is. This joke mocks the White Lie, the delusion that whites are superior, for in it Silko is using the most prosperous part of her region, a proud achievement of white culture in this country, as the most severe punishment she can assign, far worse than mutilation, an early death, or life in Gallup. Emo's exile is a joke, too, about the self-proclaimed superiority of white institutions. If the old men were to bring charges against Emo, government courts would probably either discredit Tayo's testimony or execute Emo. None of their methods would stop Emo's impact on the pueblo. The Laguna answer to capital punishment is more intelligent, avoids imitating murderers, and punishes them less mercifully.

Whites with some appreciation for Indian culture sometimes express a surprising certitude that "this once great culture is being lost or replaced by an Anglo culture that does not have the same respect for nature … and is in some ways morally inferior to it" [according to Edith Blicksilver in Southwest Review, 1979]. The celestial laughter Silko calls forth by her Ceremony shows that Indian civilization is living and has the potential to transform anglo culture. As she said in a 1978 interview [in American Studies in Scandinavian, 1981], "These things will only die if we neglect to tell the stories. So I am telling the stories." Moreover she has turned the quietest laugh against the loudest. With the help of Indian humor, even if we do not entirely get her jokes, she purifies us of our illusions about white culture, and those about Indian culture as well. Ultimately she demonstrates that combining our cultures, as her narrative does, has the power to civilize both.

Source: Elizabeth N. Evasdaugher, "Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony: Healing Ethnic Hatred by Mixed-Breed Laughter" in MELUS, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 83–95.

Kristin Herzog

Herzog focuses on Silko's depiction of two aspects of gender portrayal in a Native American novel that transcends Western stereotypes—that of a male protagonist as a 'feeling man " and that of a female divinity as a "thinking woman."

Feminist literary criticism of the past decades has often pointed to powerful women figures in American literature. From Hawthorne's Hester Prynne to Alice Walker's Meridian one can find many images which counter the stereotype of the clinging, submissive, and self-sacrificing woman. By contrast, these powerful women are courageous, independent of judgment, and as intelligent as any man, without becoming egocentric or losing their sense of interpersonal relationships. Little attention has been paid, however, to male figures who are sensitive instead of ruthless, gentle instead of heroic, community-conscious instead of individualistic. It is especially important to find such images in Native American literature because in the popular imagination the American Indian male is still either a savage killer, a degenerate drunkard, or nature's stoic, noble man.

I would like to concentrate here on two aspects of gender portrayal in a Native American novel: the holistic depiction of a male protagonist, a "feeling man," and the mythological background of such a character portrayal, a female divinity who is a "thinking woman." Both are transcending Western stereotypes of gender portrayal.

Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony centers on Tayo, a young man of the Southwestern Laguna tribe, who fought in the Pacific islands during World War II. His cousin, with whom he grew up like a brother, is killed by the Japanese. Tayo is driven insane by this loss as well as by seeing the image of his beloved uncle and stepfather, Josiah, in the face of one of the Japanese he is supposed to shoot.

When Tayo returns to the United States, he is placed in a mental hospital in Los Angeles and drugged into senselessness by doctors who are unable to understand his inner turmoil. On his release and return to the Laguna reservation he suffers from horrible nightmares, nausea, and a feeling of total failure. He accuses himself of having cursed the jungle rain which contributed to the death of his cousin and thereby having caused the drought which is ruining the Laguna people. Only after undergoing an ancient healing ritual (a bear cure involving sand-painting) is Tayo able to find sanity, to understand the complexities of individual, social, and "cosmic" sin—here called "witchery"— and to rediscover his strong ties to the land and his people.

The style of the novel superbly expresses the essence of the story. It is often as fragmentary as Tayo's mental condition and as disjointed as the tribe's position between cultural persistence and assimilation. Past and future are telescoped into the present. Flashbacks and dream visions contribute to the reader's feeling of disruption as well as of a continual challenge to do what Tayo instinctively tries to do, that is, weave together the fragments, struggle to find a pattern of meaning. What differentiates Silko's style from that of most Anglo-American novelists is her use of oral traditions which are intricately woven into the narrative in the form of poems, ritual prayers, stories, and tribal rumors.…

The point of the novel is that Tayo finds his identity by rediscovering in himself and in all of creation what traditionally has been called the "feminine." His true manhood had been violated when he was supposed to kill people, especially since they looked like his kin. Being forced as a soldier to suppress his anima, he was driven insane. But the memory of childhood experiences and tribal stories reawakens his sensitivity and his nurturing instincts which, in the end, make him more, not less, of a man.

From earliest infancy, Tayo has learned to live by instinct and sensuous perception. His Laguna mother is driven from her tribe because Tayo is an illegitimate child, fathered by a Mexican. She survives for only a few years, living with other outcasts in a slum area. The neglected child orients himself by smells, sounds, and sights, whether sensing the arrival of his perfumed mother and her beer-smelling lovers or detecting morsels of food in refuse piles. When at the age of four he is taken by his aunt and uncle into their ranch home, he learns the smells of animals and the sights and sounds of mountains, winds, and rivers. It is the memory of these sensations which helps him to recover from his war trauma and to feel deep joy when he is alone with nature:

He breathed deeply, and each breath had a distinct smell of snow from the north, of ponderosa pine on the rimrock above; finally he smelled horses from the direction of the corral, and he smiled. Being alive was all right then.… He squatted down by the pool and watched the dawn spreading across the sky like yellow wings. The mare jingled the steel shanks of the bit with her grazing, and he remembered the sound of the bells in late November.

Tayo has been shown by his uncle Josiah—another male figure who is gentle and caring—that violence is senseless. When, as a young boy, he kills many flies because his white teacher has taught the children that flies carry disease, Josiah lovingly reprimands him and explains that in immemorial times when the people were starving because they had behaved badly, it was a fly which went to Mother Earth to ask forgiveness for the people. Since then the grateful people do not kill flies.

When Tayo shoots his first deer, he carefully observes the ritual of the conscientious hunter who would never kill for sport. After he has undergone the healing ceremony, he is responsive to nature in its smallest manifestations, imitating the gentleness of the bees in pollinating flowers with a small feather or saving a tree from an early winter storm by carefully shaking the snow from its branches.

Tayo lives out of dreams—whether nightmares or beautiful visions. Compared to the other war veterans who are noisy, bragging drunkards, he is shy and often silent. But he is no coward or weakling. When one of the young men, Emo, speaks insultingly of his own people as well as of Tayo's mixed ancestry, Tayo is so enraged that, like Billy Budd, he becomes violent in his inability to express his feelings. On this occasion he comes close to killing Emo.

An important part of Tayo's story is his encounter with Ts'eh, the mysterious woman who is also—on the mythological level—a goddess or mountain spirit.… He learns how to use herbs and to gather plant seeds with great care. "Ts'eh Montano, or 'Water Mountain,' seems a coded and composite reference to the spirit-woman who returns vitality to the arid desert for Indians, Mexicans, and whites alike, all embodied in Tayo, all sharing in the sickness and health of one another, many as one with the land" [Kenneth Lincoln, Native American Renaissance, 1983].

There are other male figures in the novel who are "feeling" men: old Ku'oosh, a wise Laguna medicine man; Robert, the kind uncle and stepfather; and especially Betonie, the Navaho-Mexican medicine man who patiently counsels Tayo and brings about his healing by guiding him through the ceremony.…

Non-Indian readers are likely to find the role of Ts'eh in Tayo's recovery ambiguous. A superficial reader might simply consider the relationship between her and Tayo a sexual-romantic interlude to be expected in any contemporary novel. Moreover, feminist readers might see in Ts'eh the stereo-type of a woman who offers her body to the hero. The basic problem involved here is the bi-cultural perspective. Images, concepts, and patterns of belief are difficult to merge in a novel on American Indian life to be read by a predominantly white, Western audience.…

Ts'eh reawakens Tayo's belief in a balanced world which he dimly remembers from tribal stories. She is representative of earth, rain, wind, and sky, but also of the thought power that controls the elements. Her "storm-pattern blanket" indicates her ordered strength. At times Tayo feels that Ts'eh is just an apparition or superstition, that she "meant nothing at all; it was all in his own head." Her lineage or family seem to be unknown. Her voice can be as unreal as an echo. On another level, however, she is very real: "He had not dreamed her; she was there as certainly as the sparrows had been there, leaving spindly scratches in the mud."

This double vision on a physical and a metaphysical level is alien to Western readers. They find it difficult to comprehend that a real crawling spider coming up after the rain is, seen from another aspect, Spider-Woman, the divine creatrix; that Tayo's mother, the long-dead prostitute, can mythologically and poetically merge into Mother Earth or Mother Corn; that Ts'eh, the woman that Tayo makes love to, is a manifestation of Thought-Woman, the balance of the universe. Silko may not have fully succeeded in portraying Ts'eh in terms of this double vision, but her intention is certainly to visualize Tayo's ability to overcome the split between body and mind, which Westerners had trained into him, by having him experience SpiderWoman's wholeness through Ts'eh. The Laguna people are "woman-dominant; they're a woman-centered people." Their images of gender can help us overcome Western stereotypes of excessively rational, power-wielding men as well as of women who are mindless childbearers. Each gender attains wholeness and vitality only if it includes traits usually ascribed to its opposite.…

Silko's novel is in keeping with recent anthropological findings about the social complexity of gender identification. Tayo's self-understanding as a male is not just biologically determined; it changes with the influence of his environment. His story and that of his comrades show that gender identity has to be nurtured. The assumption that in all "primary" cultures of the world males basically dominate while females are the submissive sex, that men always represent culture and women nature, is an untenable Western assumption.…

For American Indians, spirit ties all human beings to each other and to the whole cosmos; therefore it also unifies the genders. Spirit does not dissolve gender distinctions, but it renders certain gender traits interchangeable. When Tayo and his comrades have to fight in the Pacific jungles, spirit is trained and drained out of them, making them fit to kill blindly. Being cut off from their physical and spiritual roots, some of them, like Emo, become perverted. But Tayo is able to keep SpiderWoman's love for all of creation alive in his manhood, because some gentle men, like Josiah, Robert, Ku'oosh, and Betonie, had nurtured him in this love. After the trauma of the war, he had to experience a reenactment of Spider-Woman's spirit to recover his wholeness. A dearth of spirit hardens gender roles.

Source: Kristin Herzog, "Thinking Woman and Feeling Man: Gender in Silko's Ceremony" in MELUS, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 25–36.


Peter G. Beidler, in a review in Native American Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 4, Winter, 1977-1978, pp. 357-58.

Hayden Carruth, "Harmonies in Time and Space," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 254, No. 1525, June, 1977, pp. 80-2.

Elaine Jahner, "All the World's a Story" in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 51, No. 4, Winter, 1977-1978, pp. 415-16.

Charles R. Larson, "The Jungles of the Mind," in Book World-The Washington Post, April 24, 1977, p. E4.

Frank MacShane, "American Indians, Peruvian Jews: 'Ceremony'," in The New York Times Book Review, June 12, 1977, pp. 15, 33.

Ruth Mathewson, "Ghost Stories," in The New Leader, Vol. LX, No. 12, June 6, 1977, pp. 14-15.

James Ruppert, "The Reader's Lessons in 'Ceremony'," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 78-85.

Leslie Marmon Silko, "Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective" in Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit, Simon & Schuster, 1996, pp. 48-59.

For Further Study

Thomas Berger, Little Big Man, Fawcett, 1964.

Written by a man known for his probing satire about America, the novel is the life story of Jack Crab—the only living survivor of Custer's Last Stand. The novel and the film (with Dustin Hoffman, 1970), were part of a general redress of the image of the Indian. Custer, in this version, is not the Hollywood hero but the more historically accurate eccentric who lost all his men and himself in a battle with the Lakota lead by Crazy Horse.

Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: an Indian History of the American West, Holt, 1970.

History books were being rewritten both as a reaction to the rise in minority consciousness caused by the era of Civil Rights and as a further catalyst to political activism. This volume tells a story very different from the more patriotic story 'how the West was won.' For example, such battles as the 1890 Wounded Knee event, is revealed to be the massacre of Big Foot's band of 300 old men, women, and children.

Arthur S. Flemming, Indian Tribes: A Continuing Quest for Survival, a Report by the US Commission on Civil Rights, 1981.

Eight years after the siege at Wounded Knee, a long overdue report was issued by the US Commission on Civil Rights. It found that most violations of Native American rights are the direct result of public ignorance and misinformation (e.g. though "an entire volume of the US Code is devoted to Indian Law" it is a rare Law School that notices even the oversight). Furthermore, the report found that greed—not racism—accounts for the backlash which erupts whenever treaty rights are asserted or upheld in court.

Tom Hohm, Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native American Veterans of the Vietnam War, University of Texas Press, 1996.

Some 43,000 Native Americans served in the Vietnam War but their contributions went undocumented until Tom Holm began his interviews. He reflects on those interviews to explore the role of war and warrior, how their tribal customs sustained them in war, and what happened to them when they returned. Fortunately, many Native American Vietnam Vets had different experiences from their white counterparts because many Tribes were ready with ceremonies to heal the trauma of the "white path of peace."

Gertrude Simmons Bonin, "Impressions of an Indian Childhood," in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. II, 1989.

The woman who could arguably have been the first Native American novelist, had not circumstances prevented her, was Gertrude Simmons Bonin (a.k.a. Zitkala-Sa, 1876-1938). Those circumstances were, quite simply, the needs of her people. She was a violinist, short story writer, progressive reformer, labor rights advocate, and secretary of the Society of American Indians (the first all-Indian run organization agitating for Indian rights). Her autobiographical pieces are a fascinating read.


views updated Jun 11 2018




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 surroundings 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,
     [he said]
     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 on 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."



Leslie Marmon Silko was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on March 5, 1948, to Virginia and Lee Howard Marmon. Her father managed the Marmon Trading Post in Laguna Pueblo, about fifty miles west of Albuquerque. Silko is of mixed ancestry: Mexican, Laguna Pueblo Indian, and white. She attended Indian school in the pueblo (permanent settlement of the Pueblo people) and later went to school in Albuquerque. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of New Mexico in 1969.

Her first published work was the short story "Tony's Story" (1969), and her first book was a collection of poems called Laguna Women Poems (1974). Ceremony, her first novel, was published in 1977. The novels Storyteller (1981), Almanac of the Dead (1991), and Gardens in the Dunes (1999) followed. She has published collections of essays, letters, and two histories, in addition to her poetry and fiction. In 1981, she was named a MacArthur Fellow for her continued creative work—an honor bestowed upon other literary luminaries such as Thomas Pynchon and Sandra Cisneros.

Silko has lived in New Mexico and Alaska, and as of 2006, resides in Arizona with her husband and two children.

As Tayo sways on the donkey behind Harley, his mind goes back to that moment 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, saying, "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 it 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 money 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 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.

Culture Clash

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.

Social Class

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.


Pueblo Indians

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 Spanish 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 mines 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 on 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.


An unabridged audio version of Ceremony was released on audiocassette by Audio Editions in 2000. It is narrated by Adam Henderson.

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 incorporated 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.

Dennis Cutchins

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.

Karen Piper

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 between 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.


views updated Jun 11 2018


by Leslie Marmon Silko


A novel set in New Mexico in the late 1940s; published in 1977.


The experiences of nuclear war, Japanese prison camps, and the changing life on the Laguna Pueblo reservation merge in a novel about the healing power of stories.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Leslie Marmon Silko was born in 1948 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and grew up fifty miles to the west in the Laguna Pueblo, a seven-hundred-year-old settlement of American Indians. Partly Laguna Pueblo herself, Silko draws on this heritage for background to her novel Ceremony. The novel, written during the mid-1970s, a period of unrest and protest among many American Indian peoples, examines the clash of Indian and white cultures. Reaching back in time, it examines this clash in the context of mid-twentieth century events as they affect the life of a mixed-blood Laguna veteran of the Second World War.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Laguna Pueblo in the 1940s

By 1944 there were an estimated 2,400 people living on the Laguna Pueblo reservation in the desert of New Mexico. Unlike most other groups of Pueblo Indians—there were close to twenty altogether—the Laguna lived away from the Rio Grande River in New Mexico’s desert on more than 400,000 acres of land. They nonetheless shared the midtwentieth century Pueblo Indian lifestyle—a heavily agricultural economy, adobe-village living, and a communal religion. Their religion featured kivas (ceremonial centers) and supernaturals who had the potential to be harmful or helpful. While the religion was centered on the yearly agricultural cycle, it also involved curing or healing by medicine men who worked to counteract witchcraft.

By the 1940s the Laguna Pueblo had become distinct from the other pueblos in its agricultural lifestyle. The society was far more pastoral than that of any other pueblo, although the numbers of sheep and cattle that could be kept by the Laguna were limited by environmental concerns. Erosion of the grass-covered lands prompted the U.S. government to impose a ceiling of only 15,000 sheep and about 1,400 head of cattle on the reservation in the 1940s.

Laguna tribal members lived in small villages, with the main settlement being Old Laguna and a number of outlying villages absorbing the rest of the population. A bird’s-eye view showed a breathtaking sight—the pueblo was set on a hill topped by a small church. Its peaceful appearance belied the friction that marked its past; there had been a major break in the community back in 1879. Several years earlier some Protestant whites had arrived, including Silko’s own greatgrandfather, Robert G. Marmon. They joined the community, introducing new customs and then prohibiting some of the old ones. Tensions mounted until the conservative Indians, those who embraced traditional ways, packed their sacred objects and left. In the early 1900s other conservatives, still living at Laguna, managed to restore some of the old religious system, though by then Protestantism as well as Catholicism had won firm adherents.

American Indians in World War II

Thanks to the contribution of 10,000 American Indian men who volunteered to serve in the U.S. military during World War I, new legislation was passed in 1924 granting American citizenship and the right to vote to all Indians; only Arizona and New Mexico (where the Laguna Pueblo is located) did not pass legislation that would give local Indians the vote. As part of their treaty specifications, Indians on or off the reservation were not technically classified as Americans, but rather members of their own nations. By the time World War II had erupted and the draft was reinstituted in September 1940, the position of the Indian citizen had become a complex one. Understandably not all Indians were eager to join the fight against the Axis powers, especially on behalf of a country that not all of them respected and that denied full citizenship rights to some. An irony arose due to the fact that in states such as New Mexico, Indians were not allowed to vote but were expected to register for the draft just the same. Many tribes protested, pointing to the U.S. government treaties that described them as distinct nations. The Nationality Act of 1940 officially cleared up the confusion about their status—the law stated that Indians were Americans, all of them, and as such were required by law to register for the draft.


About 24,500 American Indians served in the U.S. armed forces in World War II. Some 10 percent came home with postcombat syndrome, an affliction that left them unable to readjust to life after the war. Drinking became a common escape for victims of this condition. A real-life example is Ira Hamilton Hayes, a Pima Indian war hero, one of six U.S. Marines who captured the first Japanese territory to be seized by the United States in World War II. After returning home, Hayes sold government war bonds for a time, then died frozen and drunk, never managing to readapt, unable to socialize with his own people on the reservation or to assimilate into the American mainstream.

On the other hand, there were many Indians who willingly enlisted in the armed forces. The Southwestern tribes responded particularly well to the first registration of March 1941 (before America officially entered World War II), in which—out of a total of 7,500 registering Indians—6,000 were either Navajo or, like the character Tayo in Ceremony, Pueblo Indian. By the end of World War II, there were more than 25,000 American Indians serving in the U.S. armed forces, and this group earned 205 medals for distinguished service (71 Air Medals, 51 Silver Stars, 47 Bronze Stars, 34 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 2 Congressional Medals of Honor). While they served most prominently in the Pacific, American Indian soldiers fought in Europe and elsewhere as well.

American Indians also contributed to the war effort in other areas—leaving their reservations, for example, to take support jobs in the armaments and supply factories across the nation. Perhaps more significantly, because reservation lands were sparsely populated and free of major developments like hospitals and roads, they were attractive to military researchers who were seeking land on which to test bombs and other weapons. The government would buy the acreage from the Indians, but at a low price and with little regard for the residents’ sense of attachment to their homes and lands. The Laguna Pueblo Indians were approached with an offer to buy or lease their land for use as a bombing range, but they declined. As Ceremony suggests, research took place in the region anyway—if not on Indian land, then at least dangerously close to it.

Pacific theater

Tayo, the hero of Ceremony, enlists and is stationed as a soldier in the Pacific theater, where the war with Japan commenced on December 7, 1941. On that day, the Asian nation launched a surprise attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor naval base. The wartime tragedy that comes to dominate Tayo’s life takes place on an unnamed island; there his cousin Rocky dies after being wounded on a march to a Japanese prison camp, and Tayo himself becomes a prisoner of war.

Among the World War II battles and incidents that are chronicled in the novel—Wake Island, Iwo Jima, and the Bataan Death March—Tayo’s situation is closest to that of the Allied prisoners of the Japanese in April of 1942 on the Bataan peninsula. In January 1942, General Douglas MacArthur, badly defeated in the Philippines, withdrew all his men to the Bataan peninsula on the Philippine island of Luzon. He was called away to make war plans for Australia in February, and, on March 31, the Japanese seized the peninsula. On April 9, 76,000 American and Filipino troops surrendered to the Japanese and were forced to march sixty-five miles through the jungle to internment camps. On this march, which became known as the infamous Bataan Death March, 600 Americans and 5,000 Filipinos died—clubbed or bayoneted to death when they stumbled or fell. Others were beaten, tortured, and killed. Another 16,000 Filipinos, and at least 1,000 Americans, died of starvation, disease, and brutality during the first few weeks in the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps (Gilbert, p. 1942).

The Manhattan Project

On July 16, 1945, the United States government set off an atomic bomb at the Trinity Site, 150 miles from the Laguna Pueblo. The test was in preparation for the bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that would take place a few weeks later. Western authorities had been apprehensive about reports coming from scientists who had escaped Nazi Germany that Hitler was close to possessing nuclear capability. Even before America entered the war, American scientists began working with their British counterparts; after Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, American interest in developing nuclear technology deepened considerably. The British and American governments worked closely together to launch an Allied nuclear research program that would become known as the Manhattan Project, taking its name from the New York City borough in which part of the program was located. U.S. authorities started looking for an appropriate research site, understanding that any nuclear research facility would have to be fairly isolated and impossible to reach by enemy attack. In the autumn of 1942, they chose Los Alamos, New Mexico, ninety miles from Albuquerque, and the most famous physicists in the Western world gathered there.

Ceremony refers to the Trinity Site explosion, which actually took place at Alamagordo on July 16, 1945. Scientists responsible for the test were not at all certain what would happen when they detonated the bomb. They ventured out into the desert to watch and photograph the explosion from a distance of about twenty miles. The detonation created a hole with a diameter of 1,200 feet on the desert floor.

The whole country was lighted by a searching light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun.... Thirty seconds after the explosion came, first, the air blast, pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned us of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to the Almighty.

(Hilgartner, p. 31)

Nearby on Laguna Pueblo land, where uranium for the explosion had been mined, “earlyrising Lagunas thought the sun had suddenly risen when they saw what they later learned was the atomic blast at Trinity Site 150 miles away” (Seyersted, pp. 11-12).


Tayo does not reject the wisdom of his grandmother when she recommends that he undergo treatment from a medicine man. Another powerful female in the novel is his Auntie—the mother of Rocky—whose cold relationship with her nephew determines to an enormous extent how he sees himself socially and culturally. To understand the reasons behind this, it is necessary to realize that Laguna culture is matrilineal, and women traditionally control marriages, the household, and day-to-day affairs. Upon marriage, the husband moves into the wife’s parents’ home, and it is the mother’s brother who administers discipline to the children of the marriage.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

After a period of recuperation in a Los Angeles hospital, Tayo, a mixed-blood Laguna Indian (whose dead mother disgraced the family by falling into prostitution and alcohol), returns home mentally and physically ill from his experiences as a soldier and prisoner during World War II. He and his cousin Rocky had been captured by Japanese forces, and Rocky, whom Tayo promised his Auntie to protect, died in a jungle rainstorm while on a forced march. As the wetness seeped into his cousin’s wounds, Tayo had prayed for the rain to end so that Rocky might live. In desperation, Tayo had finally cursed the rain. He finds, upon his return to Laguna Pueblo, that a drought has set in, and he feels responsible for this drought, for Tayo believes that the actions of the individual have force and meaning upon the entire world.

In his traumatized state, Tayo’s life in New Mexico and in Japan become hopelessly intertwined; he hears Japanese voices in the sounds of his native Indian tongue, he dreams of Japanese faces on those of his relatives. Tayo remains gravely ill for so long that his grandmother suggests he put his faith in the hands of a medicine man, who will perform a ceremony of healing.

Tayo tries a traditional Laguna medicine man, but his herbal remedies and chants do little to alleviate the shell-shocked nightmare of Tayo’s daily life. In desperation, Tayo seeks out Betonie, a half-blood Navajo medicine man, who alters traditional ceremonies in such a way as to represent the world Indians now share with white people. What he offers Tayo is less a remedy than a self-help program; he must remember everything, block nothing out, and realize that everything is connected and in a state of change.

For example, in one nightmarish episode from his experience in the jungle, Tayo confused the face of his now-dead uncle, Josiah, with that of a dead Japanese soldier. Tayo takes this as a sign of his madness, but Betonie points out that he was merely perceptive: 30,000 years ago, the Asian and American Indian peoples were most likely part of a single ethnic group. Nothing is black and white, counsels Betonie—the white men aren’t all evil, and Indians aren’t all good. Later in the novel, this is sadly proven true: Tayo’s Laguna army buddies return from the war bitter and violent, prone to alcoholism and brawling. They feel rejected by mainstream America, whose people praised them when they were soldiers but have no use for them now that the war is over. Betonie performs the Bear Ceremony, prescribed to cure mental illness. Part of it entails having Tayo walk in bear footprints while Betonie and a helper chant:

Following my footprints
walk home
following my footprints
Come home, happily
return belonging to your home
return to long life and happiness again
return to long life and happiness.
          (Silko, Ceremony, p. 143)

To complete the ceremony and feel that he has truly returned home, Tayo must set out on a quest. Part of what has been tormenting him since his return to Laguna Pueblo is the death of his uncle Josiah, which occurred while he was away at war. Tayo had long promised to help Josiah look after the land, and now some speckled cattle that Josiah was hoping would bring the family a measure of prosperity have gone astray, stolen by nearby ranchers. In the wilderness, Tayo meets a beautiful woman, Ts’eh Montano (“Water Mountain”), a mysterious and almost mythical figure of regeneration and love; Tayo’s love for her helps cure him of his feelings of shock, resentment, and abandonment. He locates the cattle on Mt. Taylor, a mountain holy to the Laguna; the sacred ground has been fenced off by white ranchers. Newly strengthened by the ceremony and his experience with Ts’eh, Tayo realizes that the fences and the stolen land hurt the white people more than they hurt the Indians:

The [Indian] people had been taught to despise themselves because they were left with barren land and dry rivers. But they were wrong. It was the white people who had nothing; it was the white people who were suffering as thieves do, never able to forget that their pride was wrapped in something stolen, something that had never been, and could never be, theirs.

(Ceremony, p. 204)

Victimizing both whites and Indians are the “destroyers,” evil spirits whose witchery tries to kill the world. To accept the old notions that Indians have been defeated by white people is to perpetuate the hateful pattern that will bring about the end of the world. The only remedy to the threat is to survive and keep one’s story alive—and Tayo does just that. Some time after his experience on Mt. Taylor, his army buddies—angered by his refusal to join their drunken, bitter, and hopeless state—take him on a drive and try to do him harm. When the group approaches a uranium mine shaft, Tayo senses danger and bolts, watching from behind a rock as his former friends eventually turn upon each other in a bloody ceremony of death. Tayo is able to watch what happens without taking part. He has come to realize, as a result of his previous sojourn on Mt. Taylor, that here, not far from Laguna land, the destroyers made a powerful bid to silence all stories, once and for all, with the nuclear explosion at the Trinity Site. The detonation of the first atomic bomb there had turned the mass of humanity into victims of fear and violence. Tayo’s ceremony has led him to the uranium mine shaft on this night to complete the healing ceremony of the world—Tayo feels that if he can stay alive one more night, he will keep his own story going and defeat the destroyers. At the novel’s close, Tayo returns to his home and becomes a storyteller himself. Ceremony tells the story of one man, but expresses the vision that it is simultaneously the story of the entire world; every person is intimately responsible for what happens on this earth.


Among the most disturbing scenes in Ceremony are those that take place in the New Mexican town of Gallup, located about 150 miles west of Albuquerque. It is here that Tayo spent a grim portion of his childhood, living with his mother in a makeshift shack, scrambling for food while she engaged in prostitution and drank. Although the events take place before World War II, Silko’s work reveals her concern about a problem that has endured in Gallup and elsewhere in American Indian communities. In 1975 she wrote a foreword to Border Towns of the Navajo Nation, a book of drawings by Aaron Yava that features many scenes of Indian people drinking on the streets of Gallup.

Aaron says with his drawings what I attempt to say with my stories—that Indian life today is full of terror and death and great suffering, but despite these tremendous odds against us for two hundred of [sic] years—the racism, the poverty, the alcoholism—we go on living. We live to celebrate the beauty of the Earth and Sky because the beauty and vitality of life... has never been lost. [Our] vision comes down to [us] from the old ones who knew no boundaries between man and the Earth, between the beautiful and the ugly. They knew only the truth.

(Silko in Seyersted, pp. 24-5)


On the book’s original dust jacket, Silko links Tayo’s despairing sense of dislocation with that suffered by many Indian people today: “The chanting or telling of ancient stories to effect certain cures or protect from illness and harm have always been part of the Pueblo’s curing ceremonies.... My book tells the story of an Indian family, but it is also involved with the search for a ceremony to deal with despair, the most virulent of diseases” (Silko in Seyersted, p. 26).

Truth—whether it be in Ceremony’s early scenes in Gallup or in the later scenes of triumph for Tayo—is what the novel strives to convey. One facet of this truth is that the modern lives of many Indians are difficult in the extreme. Around the time the novel was written, reservation dwellers lived well below the poverty level, had unemployment rates of more than 50 percent, and suffered chronic alcohol and drug abuse problems as well as high suicide and infant mortality rates. They were also economically exploited by companies mining their lands for natural resources. At times, a sense of despair plagued some of the Indians, a feeling that Tayo struggles to overcome in the novel.

Sources and composition

“I grew up at Laguna Pueblo. I am of mixed-breed ancestry, but what I know is Laguna. This place I am from is everything I am as a writer and human being” (Silko in Rosen, p. 176). Drawing on contemporary events and her own experiences, Silko weaves together a tale of a modern hero among the traditional stories of the Laguna Indians. The influence of the storytelling tradition itself is of greater significance than any specific ancient story. In Laguna culture, as Silko explains, storytelling is the most important indicator of community and one’s place within it:

That’s how you know you belong; if the stories incorporate you into them. There have to be stories. It’s stories that make this a community. People tell those stories about you and your family or about others and they begin to create your identity. In a sense, you are told who you are, or you know who you are by the stories that are told about you.

(Silko in Graulich, p. 5)

Silko heard many of the traditional Laguna stories from Indian relatives, particularly her aunt Susie, who not only relayed the tales but also helped her niece learn from them. Later, while spending two years in Ketchikan, Alaska, Silko composed Ceremony, a process that helped her reconnect with her native Southwest. She set out to write a short story, but the tale grew into a novel in which Silko made liberal use of her knowledge of Pueblo lore.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Laguna Pueblo in the 1970s

By the late 1970s Laguna Pueblo reservation land was spread out over three locations—Laguna Pueblo itself and two smaller satellite areas to the southwest and northeast. The end of the decade counted a population of 3,793, the vast majority of whom (94 percent) were indigenous. Aside from traditional activities—animal husbandry and agriculture as well as the manufacture of pottery and silverwork—reservation dwellers engaged in modern occupations. Some were employed by Ominetec, a firm manufacturing electronics products on the reservation. Others worked for the nearby Los Alamos research center, or for the Jackpile uranium mine. The reservation dwellers were relatively well off; Laguna in the 1970s distinguished itself as the most wealthy of all the Pueblo Indian communities.

Laguna children received schooling primarily in English in the 1970s, and fewer and fewer spoke Spanish; even the native Keresan tongue was threatened. This trend was lessened to a certain extent by the emergence of Laguna teachers in the reservation schools, and by the dependence of customary religious ceremonies on the traditional Indian language. However, more and more intertribal and interracial marriages were taking place as the end of the decade approached, contributing to further dilution of the traditional culture. Aside from being the wealthiest, the Laguna have been described as probably the most acculturated of all the Pueblo Indian groups.

Nuclear fallout at Laguna Pueblo

When the scientists of Los Alamos set off the world’s first atomic device and ushered in the nuclear age, there remained numerous unanswered questions about the weaponry. Among these was the effects of radioactivity on the human body. Unfortunately, the Laguna Pueblo population would later provide proof of the harmful nature of materials related to nuclear weapons. In 1980 the uranium mine that sat on Laguna land was the largest open-pit uranium mine in the United States, and it employed roughly 25 percent of the Laguna work force. The uranium at the mill that processes the ore retained possibly as much as 85 percent of its radioactivity, and cancer and birth defects were rampant in the community. The Environmental Protection Agency found radiation levels 200 times higher than regulations permit in the Laguna water supply (Seyersted, p. 12).


Ceremony was hailed upon its publication as the work of “the most accomplished Indian writer of [Silko’s] generation” (New York Times Book Review, June 12, 1977, p. 15). M. Scott Momaday, an author whose own writing has been seen as sparking a modern era in American Indian letters, says of the book: “Ceremony is an extraordinary novel, if indeed ‘novel’ is the right word. It is more precisely a telling, the celebration of a tradition and form that are older and more nearly universal than the novel as such” (Momaday in Velie, p. 107).

For More Information

Bernstein, Alison R. American Indians and World War II: Toward a New Era in Indian Affairs. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Gilbert, Martin. Second World War. Toronto: Stoddart, 1989.

Graulich, Melody, ed. “Yellow Woman”: Leslie Marmon Silko. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Hilgartner, Stephen. Nukespeak: Nuclear Language, Visions, and Mindset. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1982.

Rosen, Kenneth, ed. The Man to Send Rain Clouds: Contemporary Stories by American Indians. New York: Viking, 1974.

Sando, Joe S. Pueblo Nations: Eight Centuries of Pueblo Indian History. Santa Fe: Clear Light, 1992.

Seyersted, Per. Leslie Marmon Silko. Western Writers Series, no. 45. Boise: Boise State University, 1980.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Velie, Alan R. Four American Indian Literary Masters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.


views updated Jun 27 2018

cer·e·mo·ny / ˈserəˌmōnē/ • n. (pl. -nies) 1. a formal religious or public occasion, typically one celebrating a particular event or anniversary. ∎  an act or series of acts performed according to a traditional or prescribed form.2. the ritual observances and procedures performed at grand and formal occasions: the new Queen was proclaimed with due ceremony. ∎  formal polite behavior: he showed them to their table with great ceremony.PHRASES: stand on ceremony insist on the observance of formalities: we don't stand on ceremony in this house.without ceremony without preamble or politeness: he was pushed without ceremony into the bathroom.ORIGIN: late Middle English: from Old French ceremonie or Latin caerimonia ‘religious worship,’ (plural) ‘ritual observances.’


views updated May 11 2018

cer·e·mo·ni·al / ˌserəˈmōnēəl/ • adj. 1. relating to or used for formal events of a religious or public nature: a ceremonial Buddhist headpiece.2. (of a position or role) involving only nominal authority or power.• n. the system of rules and procedures to be observed at a formal or religious occasion: the procedure was conducted with all due ceremonial. ∎  a rite or ceremony.DERIVATIVES: cer·e·mo·ni·al·ism n.cer·e·mo·ni·al·ist n.cer·e·mo·ni·al·ly adv.


views updated May 21 2018

ceremony XIV. — (perh. through (O)F. cérémonie) L. cærimōnia religious worship, (pl.) ritual observances; see -MONY.
So ceremonial XIV. — late L. ceremonious XVI. — F. or late L.