Author Background

Leslie Marmon Silko is America’s leading Native American writer. Though she was of a mixed White American and Native Indian ancestry, she identified herself with the Laguna heritage. She grew up in a house at the edge of the Laguna Pueblo reservation. As her parents had jobs in the city, she was cared for by her grandmother and great grandmother – both great story tellers. Growing up in their company helped to reinforce her Laguna ancestry. All Silko’s works draw heavily on her experience as a Native American living in the reservation. Thought Woman, Corn Woman and Sun Father are important figures on Pueblo mythology and all three figures in Ceremony. Tayo, the protagonist is also a traditional figure.

Relevance of the Title

In the novel, there are ceremonies and stories. Very often they amalgamate into the same. Tayo is searching for the ceremony that will complete his cure; it will also complete his story. The witch doctors Ku’oosh and Betonie tell stories that are part of the ceremonies that they conduct. Sometimes, there are stories within stories. The Pueblo Laguna had a strong oral tradition wherein the witch doctors and clan elders told stories which contained instructions for the young. As part of growing up, Silko herself would have listened to this; her grandmother was a great storyteller.

Main Themes

The Importance of Storytelling

The Native American tradition of storytelling is used in this novel. The Native Americans passed on their history and every else that they knew, from morality to biology to medicine through the medium of stories. While the official storytellers would be the community elders, stories could also be told by individuals. Stories which were passed on from generation to generation had to be remembered and for this they contained many repeated phrases. When the stories are passed around, there is a connection made between the teller and the listeners, a kind of bond.  This created a sense of community.

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The Destructive Contact between Cultures

Ceremony shows the destruction caused by opposing cultures; in this case, it is the Native American and white cultures. When the whites came to the US, Native Americans had already lived there for centuries and had their own highly evolved culture. But the dominating systems that they brought with them, with their belief in decimating opposition with firepower and their readiness to do so, proved fatal to the indigenous people. In school, the Native American children were told by their white teachers that most of their beliefs were illogical. Those who had mixed blood in them, as Tayo for instance, found it confusing to decide where he belonged. His primary identity was that of Native American but he could not reject the other bits.

Characters

Tayo

Tayo was born to a Native American woman and a white man and abandoned by both. This in itself caused confusion in his young mind about his place in the family. In school and later after the WW II, questions arose in his mind about whether he belonged to the Native Americans or the white community. In the VA Hospital where he was treated for post-traumatic disorder, he was told that his Native American beliefs were not relevant. He feels incomplete and the novel is his search for completeness. This search takes him to witch doctors who initiate ceremonies that effect part cures and to dangerous confrontations with his old mates like Emo and Pinkie.

Summary

Tayo is a Native American soldier who returns from the VA Hospital where he has been treated for post-traumatic disorder. Tayo is disturbed by identity crisis. He isn’t sure where he belongs – to the Native American community or the white one. His primary identity is of native American; his land is being ravaged by a long drought. Tayo hopes to bring rain back. To resolve both problems, he needs to go though curative ceremonies that will heal his psyche. Tayo’s mental anguish is caused by two deaths – that of his uncle Josiah and his cousin Rocky. Both don’t make sense to him yet they leave him devastated. He also thinks that he is responsible for the ongoing drought, as he had cursed the rain that tormented him in Philippines.

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When he is discharged from the hospital, he returns to the family that had raised him. There is his grandmother, his aunt and her husband. But as his mother had abandoned him when he was four, he is not sure of his place in the family. Once back home, Tayo finds that the war has left many of his friends affected in different ways. His friends like Harley, Emo and Pinkie have turned alcoholics. Tayo is also angry at the raw deal the Native Americans were dealt by the whites in the US army. Seeing Tayo’s plight, his grandmother calls in Ku’oosh, who can perform ceremonies that can cure disturbed minds. But Tayo is skeptical; his condition is not a typical one. However, he goes through it. For a while, he is better. Ku’oosh knowing his limitations, recommends Tayo to Betonie, a medicine man qualified to treat cases of culture conflict. Betonie initiates a ceremony in which he tells the stories of some clan elders.

On the way back from the ceremony, Tayo meets his old pals, Harley and Leroy. He gets drinking heavily like they do for a while. Later, however, he realizes that this kind of life is not for him and follows the signs that Betonie had told him about. He starts looking for his Uncle Josiah’s cattle. He arrives at the house of Ts’eh. He spends a night with her and at dawn, leaves to looks for the cattle. He runs into a mountain lion on the way. He honors the lion which does not attack. Two policemen arrive to question Tayo about trespassing into a white man’s farm. Tayo had found his uncle’s cattle there. Before the questioning is over, the cops notice the lion’s paw marks. They leave to track it down. Later, it turns out that Ts’eh has corralled the cattle and kept them safe for him. She also warns him that the police are still on his track as Emo has betrayed him. Tayo takes shelter in an old mine from where he watches Emo kill Harley. He cannot intervene. Later Ku’oosh reveals that Ts’eh was A’moo’oosh, a mythical figure come to help Tayo. Finally, Tayo is cured.