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Ceremony | Study Guide

Leslie Marmon Silko

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Ceremony | Themes



Tayo's "battle fatigue" comes both from the trauma of what he has seen and his inability to express the losses he has suffered. During Ku'oosh's initial healing visit, Tayo can barely string together a sentence, yet by the end of the novel, Tayo eloquently relates his experiences and is deemed healed. Storytelling is particularly important in Tayo's Native American culture, in which all information is passed down from the older generations through storytelling. Throughout the novel, the reader sees many instances in which storytelling offers characters power, from Grandmother dismissing anyone who judges her family if she knows gossip about them, to Auntie withholding information about Tayo's past to control him, to Betonie healing Tayo by passing down traditional stories to him. The main threat to the Native Americans in the novel is extinction. White culture threatens the existence of Native Americans by encroaching on their land, muddling their unique cultures, and educating young Native Americans to reject their cultural histories. The opening poems in the novel suggest the importance of storytelling by warning, "You don't have anything if you don't have the stories." This suggests that if a culture forgets its history and its stories, it no longer exists. As a "half-breed" held at arm's length from his tribe, Tayo never learned these stories until Betonie taught them to him.

The importance of Native American storytelling is also reflected in the novel's format. Written in nonchronological order, filled with flashbacks and shifts in perspective, Ceremony's format reflects the Laguna belief that everyone's stories are interconnected. Time has no beginning or end, and the natural world ties individuals together. For Tayo, learning the old stories gives him a deeper understanding of the new stories—his personal experiences in the war, for example—and he learns that despite his isolated childhood, he is not alone. Others before him have suffered similar struggles, and his pain becomes part of humanity's larger story. For the reader, the theme of storytelling has deeper significance because it gives voice to a cultural history threatened by white cultural dominance—in Ceremony, readers are given access to a new style of American history undocumented in textbooks.


In order to survive, one must change—whether it's one's outlook, beliefs, or traditions. Tayo symbolizes adaptation through his appearance (he is of mixed race with hazel eyes) and his ceremonies. When he doesn't know the cultural practice for requesting rain, Tayo performs a personal ceremony based on what "feels right" at the time. In order to be healed, Tayo enlists the help of a modern medicine man, Betonie, who adapts traditional Native American traditions to make them relevant in the modern world, and succeeds in ways the traditional medicine man, Ku'oosh, could not. While some Native Americans such as Auntie believe in cultural purity and steadfast adherence to tradition, such rigidity of belief causes polarization that threatens the culture's very existence. For example, Auntie's strict beliefs create a clear good-versus-bad mentality for Rocky and Tayo. Rocky chooses to embrace white culture over Native American culture because he believes it will offer him a brighter future. To embrace white culture, Rocky must completely reject Native American culture. He dies physically in the war, but by giving up his culture, he had already died spiritually. Tayo, on the other hand, represents adaptation. From birth, he never fit into Auntie's strict cultural code, but like many other "half-breed" Lagunas, such as Night Swan and Betonie, Tayo learns there is strength in change. As Night Swan says, "They think that if their children have the same color of skin, the same color of eyes, that nothing is changing ... They are fools." The theme of adaptation as strength is also evident in Josiah's cattle, which take the best assets of Hertfordshire cows and Mexican cows to create a new, drought-resistant breed.

Culture Clash

Before the war, Tayo's greatest grievance is his mixed heritage. His mother's dalliance with a white man, which led to Tayo's birth, causes great shame for her family—particularly for Auntie, who never lets Tayo forget that he doesn't quite belong. During his childhood, Auntie keeps Tayo and Rocky separate, leaving Tayo in cultural isolation. He doesn't learn the old stories, language, or traditions until Betonie, a medicine man also of mixed heritage, teaches him after the war. Tayo is pushed further into white-dominated culture during the war when he fights for an America that doesn't respect him. Emotionally wounded, Tayo receives treatment in a white hospital and is pumped full of drugs, never exploring how his experiences relate to a wider story. Despite being told that native medicine is hokum, it isn't until Tayo reconnects to his native stories and understands the pain of humanity, not just himself as an individual, that he is healed.

Culture clash doesn't just affect individuals like Tayo, it affects the entire Native American community. Since European settlers first stepped foot on Native American land, their cultures have clashed. Ceremony shows how little cultural awareness has changed white America, as Native Americans continue to be exploited. Forced to live on reservations because they have lost the rest of their land to white men who build ranches, pen animals, and mine for uranium, tribes such as the Lagunas are forced into poverty. Enticed to bigger cities such as Gallup with the promise of good jobs, Native Americans are discriminated against during hiring, given paltry wages, and treated poorly by their employers. At the same time, Native American children are forced to attend Indian schools where they are taught that their cultural practices, stories, beliefs, and traditions are "superstition" and that if they want to excel in the world, they must trust science. This clash is best exemplified by Rocky's response to Josiah's plan to breed a drought-resistant strain of cattle, scoffing that Native Americans "never knew what they were doing." The continued exploitation of Native American people is seen in the use and abuse of Native American soldiers in the war, and most notably in the Gallup ceremony dances, which entice tourists from around the country to view Native American "traditions" as entertainment, while ignoring the hardship and suffering of actual Native American people in the city.

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