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Ceremony | Study Guide

Leslie Marmon Silko

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Ceremony | Symbols


Josiah's Cattle

Josiah's cattle are a symbol of the benefit of adaptation. Josiah was turned on to the idea of breeding a new type of cattle by Night Swan, a mixed-raced woman who helped both Josiah and Tayo learn to view the world differently. In this way, Night Swan herself symbolizes change and the necessity for society to adapt or die. The traditional Hereford cattle are wonderful meat and milk cows, but are relatively stupid, staying put in their pens despite drought, waiting stupidly for rain that will never come. Mexican cows, on the other hand, are wily, prone to knocking down fences in search of pasture, and quick to escape enemies. But they are thin and don't produce as much milk. By breeding them together, Josiah hopes to create a new strain of cow that produces good milk but is drought resistant. The cows further symbolize the benefit of blended cultures through their colors—brown (Native American, Mexican) and spotted with white—which also links to Tayo's family history. Just as the cows break down fences in search of water, Tayo breaks down emotional and cultural barriers in search of spiritual peace. By searching for the cattle—which, like so much of Native American culture, were stolen by a white man—and returning them to his family's ranch, Tayo reconnects with the land and his cultural heritage, leading to his emotional healing.

Atomic Bomb

During his ceremony at the end of the novel, Tayo crouches in a uranium mine while watching Emo torture Harley. Uranium was mined from Native American land to build America's first atomic bomb, which was tested at the Trinity test site in New Mexico, not far from Tayo's reservation. The test itself is mentioned in the novel when Grandma claims to have seen a flash so bright, even her cataract eyes could see the light. The atomic bomb is the ultimate weapon of destruction and, therefore, becomes a symbol of white obsession with dominance at any cost. Atomic bombs can wipe out entire cities, and during World War II they caused horrific loss of life in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The destruction from the bomb is so great, Ku'oosh can't even comprehend the devastation during his healing ceremony. Although the use of the atomic bomb helped white America win the war, it inflicted catastrophic damage to people and the land. It is fitting that Tayo should crouch in the mine while struggling with his own sense of evil and good. Despite having good reason to inflict pain on Emo, just as (arguably) the United States had reason to retaliate against Japan, Tayo chooses not to add to the world's destruction.

The Gallup Ceremony

The Native American ceremony in Gallup symbolizes the negative effects cultural appropriation has on Native American culture. Tourists from around the country travel to Gallup for the annual showcase of Native American culture. The ceremony grounds are directly below Betonie's home. When Tayo visits for the first time, Betonie notes, "This is where Gallup keeps Indians until Ceremonial time. Then they want to show us off to the tourists." When it isn't ceremony time, many Native Americans sleep on the streets, living as prostitutes and alcoholics because Gallup offers them little other opportunities. Institutionalized racism against Native Americans leads employers to discriminate against them while hiring, offer low wages for work completed, and often abuse the Native American workers on site, as seen in Helen Jean's terrible sexual harassment at the movie theater. Yet tourists flock to Gallup each year to marvel at them. They have little knowledge of the different tribes and their unique cultures, or the traditional meaning behind the ceremonial dances. They would much rather be entertained than educated about the native culture. Rather than look around Gallup to see the devastating poverty many Native Americans are forced to live in, white tourists would rather buy their "Indian" trinkets and return home.

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