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Ceremony | Study Guide

Leslie Marmon Silko

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Ceremony | Plot Summary

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Ceremony tells the story of Tayo, a young man of mixed Laguna and white descent who overcomes his wartime post-traumatic stress disorder by reconnecting to his Native American heritage. When the novel opens, Tayo has just returned to the Laguna reservation after World War II. He lies in bed at his aunt's house, unable to look at light or talk about his experiences without vomiting. Auntie raised Tayo alongside her own son, Rocky, after Tayo's mother abandoned him, but it is clear that she never loved him. Tayo's mother was an alcoholic who never knew the identity of Tayo's white father, which causes Auntie great shame. As a mixed-race child, Tayo was taught that he didn't belong within Native American culture, and he was made to feel like an outcast. Auntie had hoped Rocky would become a great success off the reservation and that Tayo would stay behind to work the ranch. She only allowed Tayo to enlist after he promised to bring Rocky home safely from the war. Rocky died in Japan, however, and Tayo cannot forgive himself for being unable to protect him. He blames himself for Rocky's death and also for the long drought that has parched the reservation. During the war, Tayo fought in the jungle where constant rains left him sick, exhausted, and injured. He cursed the rain and now blames himself for the drought. Tayo's grandmother summons an old medicine man, Ku'oosh, to help cure Tayo of his "battle fatigue," but the old man's methods don't help. Tayo then visits a "modern" medicine man, Betonie, who suggests Tayo is connected to generations of Native Americans who have been exploited and abused by white culture. Tayo must break the cycle of destruction by completing a ceremony to shake himself free of the grasp of "the destroyers."

Tayo isn't alone in his postwar suffering. Many other young men from the reservation enlisted and have struggled since returning home. Fellow veterans Harley, Leroy, Pinkie, and Emo are all alcoholics. While Harley, Leroy, and Pinkie are relatively harmless in their addictions, the war has made Emo sadistic. He enjoyed killing the enemy and keeps a jar of human teeth as a wartime souvenir. He torments Tayo and provokes the other veterans. Once, Tayo snaps and stabs Emo in the stomach with a broken bottle at a bar. This only causes the community to fear Tayo more. They agree that he is "crazy" and needs to be sent back to the white hospitals for treatment.

During his time with Betonie, Tayo begins to reconnect to his Native American culture. He and Betonie discuss the ways white culture has exploited Native Americans, consuming the parts of native culture they can commercialize, while disparaging the rest. This destruction is to blame for many pains in Tayo's life, yet Tayo can only blame himself for the disconnect he has with his past. To help himself, Tayo sets out on a quest to retrieve his Uncle Josiah's stolen cattle. Before the war Josiah planned to breed a new strain of cattle resistant to drought. While Tayo was gone, however, the cattle were stolen, and Josiah died searching for them. Tayo hopes retrieving the cattle will complete his transition ceremony and give him peace. He mounts his horse and searches the mountains, for the first time appreciating the beauty of nature. He finds the cattle fenced in on a white man's land and works quickly to free them. He communes with a mountain lion and narrowly escapes capture by a patrol of white men before returning the cattle to his family's ranch. During the journey, he meets a young Native American woman named Ts'eh who feeds him, gives him advice, and helps pen the cattle after they're freed. After returning home, Tayo finds himself daydreaming about Ts'eh and realizes he is in love with her.

Despite returning the cattle, Tayo hasn't been healed, and he knows his ceremony isn't yet complete. He spends a summer with Ts'eh on his family's secluded ranch, learning about the plants and weeds Ts'eh collects. He has a new appreciation for the natural world and the cyclical nature of time, yet something still weighs on him. At the end of summer, Ts'eh reveals that Emo has been spreading rumors about Tayo in town, and that army doctors are coming to the ranch to forcibly remove Tayo to a state prison. Should they fail, Emo and his gang have their own plan to "remove" Tayo from town. Ts'eh's predictions were right. The white doctors give up their search relatively quickly, but Emo proves more persistent. Running from hiding place to hiding place, Tayo stumbles across Harley and Leroy. Trusting them as friends, Tayo jumps into their car and starts drinking with them. Shortly after, Tayo realizes his "friends" have turned against him and are planning to deliver him to Emo. He manages to escape and return to the woods, where he hides in a drainpipe, and later a uranium mine. In the middle of the night, Tayo is awakened by Emo, Leroy, and Pinkie, building a bonfire in the distance. They pull Harley from the trunk of the car, and Emo tortures him for letting Tayo escape. Tayo leaps from his hiding place and plans to kill Emo and save Harley, but the wind whips up the bonfire and the moment to pounce passes. Tayo realizes that had he attacked and killed Emo, he would have given in to his soul's destruction. He returns to the reservation and meets with the old medicine man. He tells Ku'oosh his story, the whole story. By reconnecting to his past and preserving his soul by sharing his story, Tayo's ceremony is complete and he is healed.

Ceremony Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Tayo returns home after World War II and faces his past.

Rising Action

2 Ku'oosh's ceremony fails to help any of the war veterans.

3 Betonie performs the scalping ceremony.

4 Ts'eh and Tayo spend the summer together.


5 Tayo witnesses Harley's torture and almost attacks Emo.

Falling Action

6 Tayo shares his story.


7 The elders deem Tayo healed.

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