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Ceremonies That Defeat Despair: “things which don’t shift and grow are dead things”
A Reading of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony
By: Nelljean M. Rice
Coastal Carolina University


“You see in many ways, the ceremonies have always been changing” (126) Old Betonie


     Although Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel of Laguna Pueblo life in the mid-20th century is itself almost twenty-five years old, it is an important novel in delineating the “songs of ourselves” that we Americans might sing in this 21st century.  Elaine Jahner, writing about Silko’s style in A Native American Renaissance: 1967 to the Present, the final chapter of Andrew Wiget’s Dictionary of Native American Literature,  recognizes that Silko’s work explores the bonds between the single, authorial voice and the collective one of cultural narrative.  “Silko's particular concentration on the relationship between listener and storyteller as a fundamental nexus of choice and imaginative growth, always endangered from without by lies and from within by psychic abjection, brings readers to an…awareness of origins and artistic foundations” (501).  Silko’s style has been called postmodern, but it really is pre-modern, translated into a modern idiom.  As Silko does, the rest of us must recognize that our times call for ceremonies in both life and literature that not only affirm, but also create, identity.  Ceremony is an eidolon, an image of an ideal, which writers and readers must carry into the new century.  Its structural and thematic balance mirror the “Walk in Beauty” motif central to Navaho belief.  And, although it is a Laguna Pueblo mixed-breed at the center of Ceremony, he learns to heal listening to a Navaho Night Chant.

      As Lori Arviso Alvord, the first Navaho woman surgeon, suggests in her autobiography, The Scalpel and the Bear, (1999) the Navaho concept of balance and harmony within the natural world, both for the individual and her community, is a macro approach to healing the disjunctions caused by contemporary life.  The ills—both specific ones of the individual and larger ones of the society as a whole—that ail our culture too often are “treated” with the micro approach of Western surgery.  This approach often tackles illness by excising the diseased organ.  Alvord hopes instead for a multi-layered, or webbed, view of illness and healing which directly acknowledges the spiritual.  If doctors can view their patients as partners in the healing process, and can envision a sacred component, “in which the patient’s mental-spiritual health required as much attention as their body,” then the Western trained physicians would be much more successful at entering “the sacred chambers of their [patients’] bodies” (188).  The central healing moment of Silko’s Ceremony occurs when a Navaho (in spite of the fact that the Navaho and Pueblo peoples have been traditional enemies) healer begins to work to bring the protagonist’s spirit back into harmony with his environment.  Still, the emotional and physical “cure” occurs only when Tayo, the protagonist, a World War II veteran, begins his own action in response to his condition.  Up to this point in the novel, he has been drifting like a ghost, or white smoke, accepting his victimization at the hands of Veteran’s Administration psychiatrists, and his fellow Pueblo veterans. He even faces rejection by his aunt who resents the fact that he, the son of her disgraced alcoholic sister and an unknown white man, rather than his cousin Rocky, survived the war.

     When violence destroys a person’s understanding of what it means to be human, he must journey to rediscover and remake the self, which has been shattered by that violence.  Tayo is broken by his realization that the Japanese enemy look like his Pueblo relatives, specifically his favorite uncle, Josiah.  His inability to kill them, and the death of Rocky at their hands, destroys his sense of self-worth.  Unlike the full-blood Rocky, Tayo doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace Western culture.  While Rocky understands what a young Indian man must do to succeed on the white man’s terms, saying, “…don’t let the people at home hold you back” and deliberately avoiding the old-time ways, Tayo is more comfortable living as “the people” do.   Ironically, Rocky, who believes in the white man’s “someday” and is sure of his success in the white man’s world, is the one who is killed on the Bataan death march.  But Tayo’s “survivor’s guilt” or “battle fatigue” is caused by emotions much more complex than the understandable anguish he feels for not having protected Rocky and brought him home. 

     Most critics who study Ceremony realize that Tayo’s disorientation and physical illness reflect his psychological disengagement, or as he calls it, his feeling that he is “white smoke” with no consciousness of itself.  However, they differ in their understanding and interpretation of the way Tayo is healed.  Some have focused on the mixed breed dilemma, some on the Pueblo mythology and mysteries, and some on comparing Tayo’s journey to the Grail story, calling him an archetypal questing hero.  These analyses of Ceremony are informative, but most neglect what I believe to be the central, startling fact of Silko’s narrative.  Tayo’s journey back to wholeness within his Pueblo is accomplished only after he has been cured by a Navaho.  Then, once he has received his peoples’ enemy’s blessing, he can begin to perform his own healing actions.  He invents a ceremony, working through a Pueblo framework, among others, but this fiercely individual approach to his problem is more “white” than Native American.  Both of his paths would be viewed by traditional Pueblo people as deviant. 

     The approved Pueblo personality type, as described by Edward P. Dozier, a native of Santa Clara Pueblo, in The Pueblo Indians of North America (1970), is a person who is initiated into a kiva group between the ages of six and nine.  The ideal personality of the Pueblo dweller is docile, non-gossiping, community oriented, and conforming to the rigid Pueblo pattern of both public and private behavior (179-80).  In contrast, Tayo is a loner, an outcast, a non-initiate mixed-breed who must find his own way among Western psychiatry, Christianity, Laguna Pueblo, Navaho, and his own spiritual paradigms.  That he, in the end, is able to do so, is, as Silko makes clear, an affirmation of the power of mixed-blood people to introduce a new vitality which will ensure the spiritual and physical survival of the Pueblo.  As Gregory Salyer in Leslie Marmon Silko notes, “Silko’s integrity as a writer is manifested in the fact that she lived the very ceremony she was describing in the novel.  She was cured by storytelling” (7).  So she, a mixed-blood Laguna, weaves a story whereby a person like her makes a religious “field” that he can use to cure himself and help his Pueblo community.  The power of the novel Ceremony is that it is itself a religious ceremony.  But at the beginning of the book, despite hints that stories are “all we have to fight off/illness and death” (2), the reader still is afraid that Tayo will not be able to understand his own place in the story. The first of Tayo’s stories that Silko reveals doesn’t fight off death.

     Because the jungle rain is making it impossible for their corporal and Tayo to carry the injured Rocky to safety, Tayo “made a story for all of them, a story to give them strength” (12).  This story becomes a “rocky” road that Tayo hopes will metaphorically hold them up on the right path. However, Tayo’s story fails and Rocky dies.  Tayo also prays against the rain, singing a traditional chant about Reed Woman and Corn Woman.  In contrast to the story he made up, this traditional chant causes a drought that lingers destructively, not in Southeast Asia, but in the lands back home.  Tayo understands he is the cause of this curse on his people, but he is at a loss as to how he might combat it.  He doesn’t understand that his story-making and chanting have been part of his life path, even when they didn’t work.  To become a shaman and healer, one must first slough off the old self.  At Ceremony’s beginning, Tayo is a person without a sacred realm because he feels “betwixt-and-between”—in a liminal state.  If Tayo is not able to understand his own powers as a healer, this precarious state will cause a total disintegration of his personality, and perhaps even death.  For much of the novel, the critic senses that part of Tayo (perhaps the white part) desires this end.  Because of his genetic mixed-blood, he will always be betwixt-and-between in the sacred chambers of his body, so his fear is that the traditional healing methods of neither his father’s nor his mother’s culture will work to bring him back into harmony. He looks to first one and then the other, instead of looking inward and trying to understand how who he is might be the clue to how he will be healed.

     The solution to Tayo’s disjunction is a re-patterning of the realm of the sacred.  The first step begins when a healer from the white side of his heritage finally listens and persists.  This VA psychiatrist believes in Tayo’s psychic invisibility and says that Tayo must cry, and then he will be able to go home.  When Tayo does cry, he also vomits and hears the doctor say, “It’s easy to remain invisible here, isn’t it, Tayo” (16).  This white healer acknowledges that Tayo’s problem has to be faced, and faced on his own home ground.  Western psychiatry and incarceration in the VA hospital hasn’t worked, and one person from this world points the way to a different type of treatment.  However, at the time, Tayo doesn’t understand.  He marvels at the ‘generosity” of the VA that has allowed him to go to the train depot alone, “finally allowing him to die” (17).  Yet tiny healing steps continue.  A Japanese American woman and her child show Tayo compassion when he collapses and a white train conductor also helps him.  Although Tayo doesn’t accept it for what the reader ultimately realizes it is, his transformation into a valued member of a medicine society kiva has begun.

     Silko accomplishes Tayo’s transformation by weaving strands of traditional Laguna myth with straightforward narrative about Tayo’s experience, poetry of her own making, and even a picture of the night sky.  As Louis Owens asserts in “The Very Essence of Our Lives: Leslie Silko’s Webs of Identity,” the many strands of Silko’s narrative are her attempt to find renewal and strength in what others more commonly treat as the ‘tragedy” of mixed-blood existence (167).  A mixed-blood herself, Silko understands inherent racial anxiety.  She illustrates this in Ceremony with the trope of the hazel eye.  If the eye is the window to the soul, then a hazel eye, mixing many colors, reveals a mixed soul.  Tayo hears this truth long before he goes to war with Rocky, when he has his first sexual experience with the Night Swan, a Mexican woman who is Uncle Josiah’s lover.  Although most Pueblo women despise her, she is identified with Ts’eh, called by Paula Gunn Allen in her essay, “The Feminine Landscape of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony” “the matrix, the creative and life-restoring power” (233).  Night Swan notices Tayo’s eyes, which are the same color as hers, and explains other people’s reaction to them.  “…it scares them. …-most people are afraid of change.  They think that if their children have the same color of skin, the same color of eyes, that nothing is changing. They are fools. They blame us, the ones who look different.  That way they don’t have to think about what has happened inside themselves” (100).  She cautions him that he is “part of it now” even though he doesn’t understand what it is.

     As Gunn Allen explains, the “story” of which Tayo is a part is the story of his Pueblo people, their mythology, their ceremony, and their very being.  When he is rejected or taunted by various full-blood Laguna, Tayo forgets his experience with Night Swan and the imagined rituals that he experiences with his heart on a journey to the sacred spring before he went to war.  Although he has what he needs to begin to pull himself back into harmony with the Laguna universe, Tayo must further realize that because of who he is and what he has done, he will need not only traditional Pueblo healing, but also something more. 

By virtue of his status as an outcast who, at the same time, is one of the Laguna people in his heart, he is able to suffer the ritual of war and dissolution.  Only total annihilation of the mundane self could produce a magic man of sufficient power to carry off the ceremony that Tayo is embroiled in. (Allen 237)

     Because of his childhood spent as a homeless waif towed along by his alcoholic prostitute mother, Laura, Tayo has never been properly led through the steps one must perform to grow into Pueblo manhood and respected status.  Then, his experience as a warrior, fighting a war against people he recognizes as his own ancestors, further displaces him. 

     In fact, the war is so destructive that several of his childhood friends, also veterans, are completely enveloped by witchery, boasting about bags of enemy teeth, and calling the sacred land this “god-damn dried-up country around here.  Blowing away, every day” (55) and laughing.  Some of these witchery-infected men might even have gone through the scalp-curing ceremony performed by old man Ku’oosh, but even he doubted the ceremony’s power to cure warriors who had killed in the white man’s nameless, faceless, irreligious fashion.  Ku’oosh’s powers don’t heal Tayo, either.  However, he does give Tayo an understanding of what it means to be fully human.  “But you know, grandson, this world is fragile” (35).  Those who lived a life of inattention to or destruction of the world could never get well because they do not understand the responsibility that goes with being human.  What Ku’oosh tells Tayo is that this responsibility has to be a continuing process which we can only explain by revealing the story behind every word.  Tayo will be cured only when he understands his part of the story.

     The beginning of Tayo’s recovery happens when he is encouraged by his grandmother, at old Ku’oosh’s urging, to see an entirely unconventional healer.  Old Betonie is a Navaho who lives above the Gallup, New Mexico ceremonial grounds.  His location is symbolic.  He’s off-reservation, yet above the nexus of white/Indian interaction.  Betonie explains that he lives here to keep track of the people, and this is the first time that Tayo can see his hybrid self in that term.  Further, Betonie mixes both white and Indian elements in his dress and living space.  Woolworth bags full of native herbs, phone books from New York, Seattle, and St. Louis, and old calendars from the Santa Fe Railroad nestled among gourd rattles, deer-hoof clackers, and medicine bundles.  As Betonie reveals: “All these things have stories alive in them” (121).  Unlike Ku’oosh, Betonie doesn’t believe that the white people’s depredations have caused the traditional medicines to lose their effect.  Instead, he shows Tayo that the way out of his illness is through an acceptance, and even the use, of change. 

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 the world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies.  I have made changes in the rituals.  The people mistrust me greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies going. (126)

With Betonie guiding him, Tayo is able to understand he must gather his power from within, acknowledging both bloods mingling. 

     At the same time, Betonie’s traditional methods include the Bear Cure and the White Corn sand painting.  The Bear People, represented in the ceremony by Betonie’s helper, Shush, which means “bear,” have the power to restore the mind.  Betonie recounts the myth of the Bear people and the history of the blending of Native Americans and Mexicans.  According to Valerie Harvey’s “Navaho Sandpainting in Ceremony,” the white corn symbolizes life and fertility, and the bear tracks in the painting are a restoring path that Tayo could follow toward happiness and long life (258).  At the end of the several day and night long ceremonies, Betonie cautions Tayo that the ceremony isn’t over yet.  Mentioning stars, spotted cattle, mountain, and a woman, Betonie says it is now up to Tayo to combat the witchery.  “Don’t let them stop you.  Don’t let them finish off this world” (152).

     Finally, Tayo begins to act to restore his own harmony.  As William Oandasan relates in “A Familiar Love Component of Love in Ceremony,” “…Tayo becomes a spiritual warrior,”…”a unit of the forces that strive to sustain a creative word” by fulfilling his story, his ceremonial vision of his future (242).

     During the rest of the novel, Tayo is able to relocate his Uncle Josiah’s lost cattle, and have a healing sexual relationship with a mysterious woman named Montano. She is another representation of Ts’eh, who (with the help of a mountain lion), leads him to the cattle and to a cliff painting of a huge she-elk, the carrier of all life.  She also urges him to “remember everything” (235).  The last two episodes of his healing story include his own vision of a sand painting (in reverse) at an abandoned uranium mine, the center of all witchery.  When he realizes that the materials for the atom bomb come from his own sacred mountains, he understands that “he had arrived at the point of convergence where the fate of all living things, and even the earth, had been laid” (246).  Here, his story comes together with the stories of the Japanese, the Laguna, and the voices of Rocky and Josiah.  He realizes that he had never been crazy, but had merely seen the world for what it was. 

     Next, he is able to defeat the forces of witchery when he watches three of his fellow veterans kill another of their number, who was supposed to have lured Tayo to the spot so that he could be murdered by all four of them.  All of these men had grown up together, yet Tayo had escaped the witchery forces that entrapped the others.  Watching his drunken former comrades, Tayo has a chance to get revenge by killing one of them.  As Oandasan says, “Nonetheless, Tayo denies himself this vengeance, and so he expands the love extended to him by Ts’eh” (243).  Instead, he chooses to fulfill his promise to Ts’eh to gather seeds and plant them so that “The plants would grow there like the story…” (254). Now, Tayo has concluded his own ceremony and can begin to be initiated into the kiva.  Revealing that he had help from both the mountain lion and the she-elk, Tayo delights the old men who respond, “You have seen her/We will be blessed again” (257).  Tayo has completed respectful acts for his family, the Pueblo community, and even for the world, healing himself.  No longer a ghost, he becomes Dozier’s ideal Pueblo personality type—the man with a “generous heart” (180).

     Creating the story of Tayo and embedding it within traditional Laguna stories is the only way that Leslie Marmon Silko could express the tension within herself.  Attempting to guide Tayo to a balanced and harmonious life—what the Navaho call “Walking in Beauty”—Silko writes to recover an identity and an authenticity found within the oral culture.  She does this by invoking the story-within-a story concept, telling her readers that she is merely the subordinate to Thought Woman/Spider Woman. “I’m telling you the story/she is thinking” Silko declares before the novel begins.  Perhaps Louis Owens, a mixed blood himself, best defines the central lessons of Tayo and Silko’s stories:

through the dynamism, adaptability, and syncretism inherent in Native American cultures, both individuals and the cultures within which individuals find significance and identity are able to survive, grow, and evade the deadly traps of stasis and sterility. (167)

In Tayo’s/Silko’s narrative we have a paradigm for the development of an inclusive self, created by an individual who can stand for many of us.  If students and their teachers study the ways in which Tayo is able to create ceremonies to defeat despair, then we might be able to fashion something similar for ourselves, taking responsibility for our actions, and placing community before self.  To do this, we must “feel” the stories of our communities.  As Jahner asserts, this requires our new interpretive community to embrace the traditional while, at the same time, incorporating global, multicultural ways of knowing and understanding (509).

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. "The Feminine Landscape of Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony." CriticalPerspectives on Native American Fiction. Ed. Richard F. Fleck. Pueblo, CO: Passeggiata Press, 1997. 233-239.

Alvord, Lori Arviso and Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt. The Scalpel and the Silver Bear: The First Navajo Woman Surgeon Combines Western Medicine and Traditional Healing. NY: Bantam, 2000.

Dozier, Edward P. The Pueblo Indians of North America. Prospect Heights, IL: Wave land Press, 1983.

Harvey, Valerie. "Navajo Sandpainting in Ceremony." Critical Perspectives on Native American Fiction. Ed. Richard F. Fleck. Pueblo, CO: Passeggiata Press, 1997. 256-262.

Jahner, Elaine A. "Leslie Marmon Silko." Dictionary of Native American Literature. Ed. Andrew Wiget. NY: Garland, 1994. 499-511.

Oandasan, William. "A Familiar Love Component of Love in Ceremony." Critical Perspectives on Native American Fiction. Pueblo, CO: Passeggiata Press, 1997. 240-245.

Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman, OK: U. of Oklahoma P., 1994.

Salyer, Gregory. Leslie Marmon Silko. TUSAS 692 Ed. Frank Day. NY: Twayne. 1997.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. NY: Penguin, 1977.

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