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Ceremony | Quotes

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1.

You don't have anything/if you don't have the stories.


Narrator, Section 1 (Battle Wounds)

This line from the novel's opening poem suggests the importance of stories to a culture. For Native Americans in particular, stories and their connection to the past keep culture alive despite constant marginalization from white America. If the younger generation no longer engages with the traditions of their past, the culture will die out.

2.

Even after Rocky started shaking him by the shoulders ... [he knew] it was still Josiah lying there.


Narrator, Section 1 (Battle Wounds)

Tayo is deemed mentally ill by army doctors because he sees the faces of his loved ones superimposed over the faces of dead enemy soldiers. At the time, Tayo also believes he's not well. After his ceremony, however, it becomes clear that Tayo was always in touch with the connectivity of life and death. He hadn't fallen victim to white witchcraft that separated people into groups. In Native American culture, one death ties to another in the cycle of life, so it makes sense that Josiah's death could be related to the death of an unnamed Japanese soldier in the war.

3.

But you know, grandson, this world is fragile.


Ku'oosh, Section 2 (Family Stories)

Ku'oosh speaks not only of the fragility of the natural world, which requires constant caretaking and balance to survive, but also the Native American world. Ku'oosh speaks to Tayo using the "old language" that Tayo doesn't understand and rattles off a long list of place names and people Tayo is unfamiliar with. This divide of culture highlights how far younger generations have fallen from the traditional old world that will keep their culture alive.

4.

Liquor was medicine for the anger that made them hurt, for the pain of loss.


Narrator, Section 2 (Family Stories)

Most young Native American men in the novel, particularly the veterans, are alcoholics. These men sacrificed their old lives for the protection of a country that doesn't value them. After giving up so much, these young men return to marginalized communities rife with institutionalized and internalized forms of racism. To numb that realization, they give in to the pull of self-destruction and alcoholism.

5.

Maybe Emo was wrong, maybe white people didn't have everything.


Tayo, Section 3 (The Attack)

Internalized racism leaves many Native Americans to hate the culture they came from. Native Americans tell stories, for example, and believe in "superstition," while white America loves science. Alongside this internalized racism is jealousy for what the white world offers, things Native Americans don't have access to: big buildings, good jobs, and white women, for example. Emo is so jealous of the white world he has been excluded from that he hates white people, including mixed-race Tayo. While Tayo understands Emo's jealousy, he also sees the benefit of history and stories.

6.

Cattle are like any living thing. If you separate them from the land for too long ... they lose something.


Josiah, Section 4 (Josiah's Plan)

Josiah discusses the benefits of breeding Mexican cattle with Herefords (which rely on humans for all their food and water). Herefords have been raised in captivity and can't fend for themselves in the wild like Mexican cattle can. Josiah's breed of cattle is symbolic of mixed-raced Tayo, who, after being incarcerated in a white hospital, needs to return to the land in order to be healed.

7.

The story was all that counted. If she had a better one ... it didn't matter.


Narrator, Section 4 (Josiah's Plan)

Grandmother isn't bothered by gossip about her family on the reservation because she knows so much gossip about everyone else. The importance of storytelling also resonates with the theme of culture clash. In many ways, the pain inflicted on Native Americans doesn't matter as long as Native stories can be passed on throughout the generations, giving deeper meaning to that suffering and maintaining the connection between people and the natural world.

8.

Remember this day. You will recognize it later.


Night Swan, Section 5 (Night Swan)

After sleeping with Tayo, Night Swan urges him to remember this day. Tayo transitions from boy to man by losing his virginity, but he also learns that strength can be found in mixing cultures and transforming society.

9.

They don't understand. We know these hills, and we are comfortable here.


Betonie, Section 6 (Modern Medicine)

Betonie moves off the Navajo reservation to live in the mountains above the Gallup ceremony grounds. The white men in Gallup think they have claimed the best land, but Betonie recognizes that if someone is truly in tune with the natural world, they will always live in peace and harmony.

10.

Things which don't shift and grow are dead things.


Betonie, Section 6 (Modern Medicine)

Betonie notes the importance of transition within a community. Just as the old ceremonies can't heal a modern-day soldier like Tayo, Native American culture must shift and change with the times, or it threatens to be completely swallowed up by the dominant white culture.

11.

They had been treated first class once, with their uniforms.


Helen Jean, Section 7 (Helen Jean)

Helen Jean sees how poorly Native American men are treated after the war. The soldiers had given everything for a country that disrespects them. They experienced integration while they were part of the army (by sleeping with white women, for example), but after the war when they were no longer needed as soldiers, they were once again treated like second-class citizens.

12.

Why did he hesitate to accuse a white man of stealing, but not a Mexican or an Indian?


Narrator, Section 8 (Floyd Lee's Ranch)

When he realizes Floyd Lee has Josiah's cattle, Tayo hesitates to accuse the white man of stealing because his education taught him that only brown-skinned people are thieves. This is part of the internalized racism that threatens to erase Native American culture.

13.

The white men and their lion hounds could never track the mountain lion now.


Narrator, Section 8 (Floyd Lee's Ranch)

White men (such as the patrolmen at Floyd Lee's ranch) take what they can from nature for their personal gain, like hunting the mountain lion to receive praise from their boss. Tayo sees how the natural world takes care of itself—sending snow to cover the mountain lion's tracks—allowing nature to preserve itself against an enemy that has no desire to understand it.

14.

As far as he could see, in all directions, the world was alive.


Narrator, Section 9 (Summer With Ts'eh)

After completing the ceremony to return the cattle to his ranch, Tayo reconnects with the natural world, appreciating it as a living, breathing organism that requires balance and care. The white world, on the other hand, consists of inanimate "dead" objects that perpetuate destruction.

15.

Their deadly ritual for the autumn solstice would have been completed by him.


Narrator, Section 10 (Final Ceremony)

After almost killing Emo in Harley's defense, Tayo realizes that acting in violence only adds more evil to the world. There are other ways to respond to evil besides retaliation. Choosing another way brings balance to the universe.

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