The setting, an Indian reservation in the Southwest, is an integral part of Silko's story. The dryness and the cold serve to create the feeling of isolation which brings both problems and peace for its Native American inhabitants.
The vivid imagery immediately makes the reader "see" what the characters see and feel what they feel. For example, Leon and Ken find the dead elder beneath "(t)he big cottonwood tree stood apart from a small grove of winterbare cottonwoods which grew in the wide, sandy, arroyo" and "the wind pushed gray dust down the narrow pueblo road. The sun was approaching the long mesa where it disappeared during the winter."
As for continuity, for the Native Americans, the reservation is their last "home" in the U.S. It is important to pay proper respect for the elder and to assure the success the future generations (his proper burial to the next world will ensure the rain).
The priest might be said to represent change. The Franciscans (as well as other relgious sects) tried to change Native American religious practices. Many acquiesced, as shown here in the fact that the characters see that the elder has a "proper" Catholic burial as well as a Native American funeral. The change is not complete, and for most, it never will be.