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 modem illnesses that he suffers from such as alcoholism and the psychological shocks caused by modem 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.
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 modem 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 modem forms of evil-modem 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 modem 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.
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 cowboys. 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 FIoyd 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.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998