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. 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 occurs 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.
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 FIoyd 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 AngloAmerican 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 Ceremony 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 II. 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 on-going debate of what it means to be an American.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998
Robert Bennett,in an essay forNovelsfor Students, Gale, 1998.