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.
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 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 teacherslike 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 fmd Tayo.
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 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 IT. 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 re-established 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.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998