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Ceremony | Study Guide

Leslie Marmon Silko

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Ceremony | Context


Central Concerns of Silko's Writing

As a young writer, Leslie Marmon Silko based her early works on the Laguna stories from her childhood. By blending traditional tales and modern stories, Silko creates the same modernized traditions as the medicine man, Betonie, in Ceremony. Although Silko recognizes the need for young Native Americans to maintain cultural traditions, she also appreciates the desire to blend into white culture. The struggle to find balance between these opposing desires is often integral to her works.

Other common threads in her work include the strength of women, the desire for social change, and the cyclical quality of time, each of which can be found in Ceremony. As a "collector" of cultural debris, much like Betonie in the novel, Silko often blends stories, poems, and prose, and eschews the use of a traditional, chronological timeline. This reflects Silko's cultural belief that nature and humanity exist in a cycle of time in which everything is connected, lacking a clear beginning and end. Furthermore, many of her works, most notably her acclaimed third novel, Gardens in the Dunes (1999), explore the theme of European exploitation of the natural world.

Creation and Reception of Ceremony

Silko wrote Ceremony after moving to her now-ex-husband's hometown, Ketchikan, Alaska. Silko was under contract with Viking Press to produce a short story collection, and originally started out writing a comical piece about an alcoholic named Harley whose mother tries everything to keep her son away from booze. Homesick for the Southwest, lonely, and depressed, Silko channeled her emotions into the first draft, which was written, in part, on the back of legal letterhead that lay discarded in the office she rented: "I was so homesick, I basically tried to remake, from the ground up, the homeland that I missed so much ... Sometimes you have to leave home to write about it."

In early drafts Tayo was a secondary character, although his "battle fatigue" intrigued Silko so much that she rewrote the story, which evolved into a novel, to focus on him. She considered writing the novel with a female protagonist but felt an emotionally conflicted female would be too autobiographical. At the time of its original publication, Ceremony was received with great critical acclaim. However, some Native Americans criticized the novel—and Silko herself—for perpetuating stereotypes of "alcoholic Indians." Nevertheless, Ceremony remains one of the best-known Native American novels in literary history.

Native American Renaissance

Ceremony was published in 1977, in the midst of what would later become known as the Native American Renaissance. The term renaissance in this case refers to the emerging mainstream visibility of Native American writers. Notably, the Native American writers being published by mainstream publishing houses in the 1960s and 1970s were some of the first to graduate from Indian boarding schools and certainly the first to highlight the struggles of Native American tribes in the midst of the 1950s "Termination Policy," which broke up reservations and assimilated Native Americans into mainstream white culture. To fight against the erasure of Native American history, artists began rewriting history by telling the Native American perspective of colonization. These works praised the value of Native American traditions and history, while casting dominant white culture in a predatory light.

At the same time, the civil rights movement and backlash against the Vietnam War created sympathy for cultural underdogs in U.S. society. When Ceremony was published, the public was already well versed in the plight of the "vanishing Indian" whose culture was another victim of corporate greed. A romantic stereotype of Native Americans emerged, as disillusioned middle-class white Americans rejected consumerism and tried to honor nativism by reconnecting with their spirituality. "Hippies," or young people who rejected societal norms, appropriated elements of Native American culture to promote communal living, peace, spiritual well-being, and a connection to the natural world. As with the Gallup Ceremonies in Ceremony, this exploitation of native culture only benefited white Americans, as those appropriating the traditions did little to educate themselves about the struggles of the people to whom the traditions belonged. Native American writers such as Silko, Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich, and N. Scott Momaday, among others, published works that celebrated native cultures while criticizing their appropriation.

World War II

World War II (1939–45) was a global conflict between the Allies—Great Britain, the United States, China, and the Soviet Union—and the Axis powers—Germany, Japan, and Italy. Soldiers returning home from World War II often carried psychological wounds that were far deeper than physical scars. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and "shell shock" were two common diagnoses for soldiers suffering from the emotional trauma of war. This was particularly true for soldiers involved in hand-to-hand combat, as well as soldiers present in Japan when the first atomic bomb was dropped. Returning home, many veterans struggled to return to normal life. Psychological treatments weren't yet commonplace, so most veterans suffered in silence. Many turned to alcohol to numb their emotional pain, and others committed suicide. The war made America a world superpower, but the cost to the lives and emotional stability of former soldiers was catastrophic.

This devastation is represented in Native American veterans Harley and Leroy, who are barely functional alcoholics, as well as in Tayo's "battle fatigue." For many Native American soldiers, the army provided the first opportunity to experience the privileges of white culture firsthand. Many soldiers returned to the reservation jealous of the seeming opulence of white America, particularly when noting how white Americans simultaneously exploited and marginalized native culture.

Abuse and Exploitation of Native Americans

Ever since Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas (c. 1492), white America has been guilty of abusing, exploiting, and marginalizing the country's first inhabitants. From killing millions of Native Americans with infectious diseases, to forcing entire tribes off their lands, to teaching Native Americans to devalue their own cultures, the goal seems to have always been to destroy native culture.

Ceremony focuses primarily on the institutionalized racism against native people. Starting in the 1860s, Indian boarding schools were built on reservations to teach Native American children how to assimilate into white culture. While the goal may have seemed well intentioned, the lessons primarily taught Native American youth that white culture was civilized and native culture was ignorant. Indian schools taught children to value consumerism, individuality over community, and science over superstition. Children were taught the English language, the Christian religion, and traditional gender roles, all of which undermined tribal culture. The boarding school format destroyed the parent–child bond, particularly because Native American parents were powerless to refuse this re-education. While some characters in Ceremony were able to keep their native culture intact, such as Betonie, most (like Rocky) rejected their native culture. Once in the larger "white world," however, Native Americans were discriminated against, which led many to experience depression and poverty—two leading factors for alcoholism.

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