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Literature Study GuidesCeremonySection 6 Modern Medicine Summary

Ceremony | Study Guide

Leslie Marmon Silko

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Ceremony | Section 6 (Modern Medicine) | Summary



The new medicine man, Betonie, lives in a shack near the Gallup ceremony grounds. When he and Tayo first meet, they discuss the relationship Native Americans have to Gallup, which is why he has chosen to live there. The way Betonie speaks, Tayo feels slightly uncomfortable—he doesn't sound like a medicine man, yet there's something strangely familiar about him. Tayo considers running away but ultimately decides to stay. Betonie's shack is filled from floor to ceiling with piles of paper, boxes, Coke bottles, calendars, dried plants and roots, and tons of other "rubbish." Trying to take it all in, Tayo feels sick, but Betonie laughs and says, "Don't try to see everything all at once." Betonie explains how he came to collect things like old calendars and telephone books. His grandmother sent him to Indian school, but he still relies on the "old ways." Deciding to trust Betonie, Tayo begins telling him about his past. He describes the mental hospital where he was kept after the war, and the horrible things he saw that made the doctors call him crazy. Tayo weeps as he speaks, but Betonie is unfazed, asking him questions and encouraging him to understand the importance of his story. When Tayo begins telling him about Josiah's cattle, which Night Swan persuaded him to buy, Betonie's eyes light up. Together, they realize that Tayo will only get well when he completes a new "ceremony" that is "great and inclusive of everything." Just as the weather requires ceremonies to transition from one season to another, so does Tayo need a new ceremony to transition from sickness to health. When he's talking to Betonie, Tayo feels completely persuaded, but as soon as the old man leaves the shack and Tayo once again takes in the hoard of paper and seeming trash, Tayo begins to doubt the old man's wisdom: "All of it seemed suddenly so pitiful and small compared to the world he knew the white people had."

Later, Betonie and his helper, a young man who appears to be mentally disabled, build a fire overlooking Gallup. Betonie and Tayo discuss the white men who moved in and pushed the Native Americans into squalor, not realizing the land would never be theirs. Betonie warns Tayo not to "be so quick to call something good or bad." Sitting around the fire, Tayo and Betonie continue their talk, discussing Tayo's guilt over Rocky's death, and the belief that witchcraft created white people. Their conversation is written in short paragraphs of stories intermixed with Native American poetry and ancient tales. The next night, the three once again camp on the mountain range. They build a fire and the helper chants old prayers, and suddenly Betonie reaches over and slices off the top of Tayo's scalp. They continue to chant prayers and drink tea. When he falls asleep, Tayo dreams of the cattle. In the morning, Betonie tells him about his grandfather, Descheeny, and the seemingly magical Mexican woman he found hidden in a tree that would one day become Betonie's grandmother.


Betonie embodies the ability to adapt in order to survive. Betonie lives above the Gallup ceremonial grounds despite what they represent to Native American culture, because "it is that town down there which is out of place. Not this old medicine man." Betonie honors his cultural heritage by living on family land in a traditional home, but he has adapted the hogan to suit his needs. Similarly, he honors the old ceremonial ways but has adapted them to suit the modern world. He collects items from the white world, such as magazines, Coke bottles, and calendars, mixing them with traditional herbs, plants, and chants to modernize native ceremonies. Unlike Ku'oosh who clings religiously to old traditions, Betonie recognizes that "things which don't shift and grow are dead things." This sentiment mimics Night Swan's beliefs that communities themselves must change, drawing strength from new places in order to survive. Should the Laguna people, for example, seek tribal purity, as Auntie wishes, it will surely die out. By spreading their culture and stories to a wider audience, welcoming "half-breed" members like Tayo, their culture might survive. Betonie, who has the same light eyes as Night Swan and Tayo (suggesting he is also of mixed heritage), believes rigid cultural expectations like Auntie's make people more susceptible to evil spirits: "That's what the witchery is counting on: that we will cling to the ceremonies the way they were ... and the people will be no more." When Betonie was sent to the white-run Indian school as a child, just as Tayo was years later, he learned English and white cultural practices, but he refused to abandon his heritage as the teachers insisted he do. Instead, Betonie adapted, using English to enhance his ceremonial practices, and honoring changing history by collecting artifacts from the white world.

Despite all the harm white America has brought upon Native Americans, Betonie cautions Tayo against thinking of good and evil in polarized terms. Everyone is capable of both, he says, and each man must choose for himself which side he will give more power. While according to the legend the existence of the white man is a direct result of witchcraft and therefore based in evil, Native American witches carried out their own evil long before white man was created. Tayo has faced man's ultimate evil—war—and can give in to that witchcraft (death) or try to reconnect with the living (nature) to embrace good. Betonie and Tayo see the other veterans succumbing to the "neon" draw of white culture, letting their native side die in their pursuit of money, power, women, and material things. By valuing inanimate objects (death) over the living (nature), the veterans give power to evil. As the last of his group to choose a side, Tayo's ceremony with Betonie becomes urgent.

Finally, this section underscores the value of storytelling within Native American culture. Tayo claims Native American witches created white men on a dare, suggesting that stories are powerful enough to create an entirely new race. Whatever he thinks he learned about white culture during the war must be forgotten if he is to reconnect with his Native American past and be healed.

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