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Literature Study GuidesCeremonySection 7 Helen Jean Summary

Ceremony | Study Guide

Leslie Marmon Silko

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Ceremony | Section 7 (Helen Jean) | Summary



Tayo hitchhikes away from Betonie's after the scalp ceremony is complete. He stops at a truck stop to buy some candy and immediately notices a calendar hanging behind the desk, eerily similar to the calendars he saw at Betonie's. The white man behind the counter regards Tayo suspiciously, which makes Tayo want to laugh because the man "did not even know that his existence and the existence of all white people had been conceived by witchery." Back outside, Tayo decides to walk rather than hitchhike back home. As he watches the grasshoppers in the dry grass, Leroy and Harley pull up in Leroy's truck. They had picked up a woman, Helen Jean, the night before and are still drunk from partying with her. Although he thinks twice about it, Tayo climbs into the truck and takes the beer Leroy offers. He continues searching for grasshoppers in the grass, but the others tease him, asking why he would want to look at grasshoppers when he should be looking at Helen Jean. Leroy drives recklessly, bouncing the passengers around the truck, making everyone laugh as they crash into each other. He doesn't mind beating up his truck because he took it out on a lease he never intends to pay back as revenge against white men for "the land they stole from us." Although Tayo had been laughing and having a good time with his friends, as soon as they reach the bar his mood changes. The Mexicans and Navajos inside immediately notice Helen Jean and eye her predatorily. Leroy and Harley are too drunk to notice, but Tayo feels tense. Helen Jean smiles and flirts with the men, which Tayo also notices angrily. After making eyes at one Mexican man, Helen Jean claims to have to go to the bathroom and sneaks away with him.

The narration switches to Helen Jean's point of view. She left her reservation a year ago to find a job and send money back to her little sister. She hitched rides with lots of different men, some of whom treated her violently, and some of whom simply gave her a ride. She found odd jobs and tried to make ends meet, but with rent and other expenses, she still hasn't sent any money back to her family. She is shy but educated, yet she is treated poorly at every job and always offered less than minimum wage. Lately, she resorts to flirting with men at bars, taking their free food and drink, sleeping with them, and then asking them to "help her out" with a little money after. The men like to tell her war stories, and stories about all the white women they slept with. One man insists the white woman he paid for sex was actually in love with him. Often, the men get angry and beat her, yet she keeps going back because it's easy money and she feels pity for the men: "They had been treated first class once ... as long as there had been a war and white people were afraid."

The narration switches back to Tayo as he's woken in the bar. He had passed out, and the angry bartender wants him to leave. Harley and Leroy have been kicked out after starting a fight and are bloody and bruised in the truck. Tayo wonders how long they'll survive like this—drinking, fighting, and hell-raising—before it kills them. He vomits and tries to vomit out "everything—all the past, all his life."


In Ceremony, most young Native Americans have been affected by dominant white culture and seek to emulate whiteness at the expense of their Native American culture. The character Helen Jean demonstrates this tendency from a female perspective. She wears heavy makeup and tight clothes, frequently reapplying her pink lipstick to look on-trend with white culture. Later in the novel, Tayo falls in love with Ts'eh, a beautiful Native American woman who embraces traditional native dress and styling—a sharp contrast to Helen Jean, whom the rest of the young men fawn over. Harley, Leroy, and the rest of the Native American men in the bar lust after Helen Jean, not for her natural beauty but for the white culture she represents, in much the same way the veterans brag about bedding white women. For the men in Helen Jean's flashback, her hidden cultural identity threatens the stories they tell themselves about race. The veterans love to talk about white women, with one man going so far as to claim a white woman was in love with him, but outside of the war, these men know they have no chance at romancing a white woman. The best they can do is an imitation of a white woman—Helen Jean—which causes them to hate her as much as they hate the institutionalized racism that put them in this position. Interestingly, when Helen Jean chooses a man to leave the bar with at the end of her scene, she chooses a Mexican man, assuming like the shopkeeper at the beginning of the chapter that Native American men are lazy criminals. She would rather take her chances with a Mexican man, who she assumes isn't an alcoholic and can keep a steady enough job to offer her financial help. Helen Jean's backstory also provides readers with further exploration of the exploitation of Native American workers. Even though Helen Jean is intelligent and can type, her boss never sees her as more than a janitor, or worse, as sexual entertainment. Her boss, like so many white men in power, dehumanizes Helen Jean, taking what he wants from her and then casting her aside.

Tayo also hides his true self in this section. After his ceremony with Betonie, Tayo feels refreshed and reconnected to the natural world. He chooses to walk home in the fresh air, and looks carefully to ensure he doesn't accidentally crush a grasshopper as he walks. Now, Tayo realizes the value of a lowly bug, whereas his veteran buddies still view the human lives of their enemies as insignificant. Although Tayo feels emboldened by his breakthrough, as soon as he is reunited with his friends, he must hide his new (true) self and appear disconnected, even damaged, to fit in. This suggests that Tayo still has growing to do. Although the scalping ceremony helped, he isn't yet healed.

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