The character of Betonie in Leslie Marmon Silk’s Ceremony is a healer who represents the intersections of identity that characterize the experiences of many Native American people. His role in the novel is largely connected with his involvement in Tayo’s healing. Betonie has a multi-faceted perspective on Native American life that stems in part from his racial and national heritage, but is also based in the many contradictory elements of his upbringing.
Although Betonie traces his ancestry to the hogan where he lives outside Gallup, he has arrived in this space—which he understands as sacred—through a circuitous journey. Betonie’s background includes many generations of Navajo antecedents as well as a Mexican ancestor. According to family lore, his grandfather—also a traditional healer—welcomed a Mexican stranger and prisoner into their community. This woman, who became Betonie’s grandmother, had hazel eyes, an indication of their white racial status as well as the complex political and cultural heritage of the US Southwest.
Betonie’s childhood began with his Navajo family, living in the mountains north of Gallup. Along with millions of other Native American children, Betonie was sent away to an “Indian boarding school”—in his case, in California. Largely stripped of his cultural traditions, the acculturated Betonie continued to live as an adult in California, but later relocated to just outside Gallup, where Tayo meets him.