Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530
Tayo, the protagonist, a half-breed whose mother was a disgrace to the community and whose father was a white man who worked on the highway. After he is orphaned, he is taken in by his aunt, uncles, and grandmother and is reared with his cousin Rocky. Tayo is reminded constantly of his separate status, of his not really belonging. Surviving the war in the Pacific, Tayo returns to the United States, first to a veterans’ hospital and finally to the reservation to embark on his journey of healing.
Rocky, Tayo’s all-American cousin. A high school football star, he has plans for college. His life will demonstrate to white people that Indians are not unambitious failures. First, though, he will prove himself—and his patriotism—by serving in the war. Alongside Tayo, he fights the Japanese in the Philippines, only to die in the jungle rain.
Auntie, a strict Catholic who has capitulated to the dominant Western culture. She passes those same values to her son, Rocky. Her sister, an alcoholic who slept with white men and preferred the bars of Gallup to the reservation, left Tayo to remind her of the family’s shame. Auntie never allows Tayo to forget his mother’s disgrace and seems even more unforgiving when Tayo returns from the war and her son does not.
Josiah, Auntie’s brother and Tayo’s uncle, an important presence in Tayo’s life. A rancher, Josiah searches for the perfect breed of cattle to raise in the hard, dry terrain of New Mexico. Rejecting Rocky’s confidence in the extension agent, with his books and scientific knowledge, Josiah chooses the Mexican spotted cattle that know how to survive.
Betonie, a spiritual healer, a half-breed medicine man to whose hogan Tayo is brought when Western doctors and the local medicine man can do nothing to heal him. Surrounded by telephone books from every city he has ever visited, by years of Santa Fe Railroad calendars, and by bags of herbs, bones, sticks, and whatever else may provide wisdom and magic, Betonie initiates the ceremony that Tayo must complete to find his spiritual health.
Night Swan, the aging mixed-breed Mexican dancer with whom Josiah has a relationship. The mysterious woman’s green eyes, dancing, and sexuality first provide Josiah with needed companionship and later propel Tayo in his journey of self-discovery.
Ts’eh, another mysterious woman Tayo meets in his journey/ceremony as he searches for the spotted cattle. She knows about plants, berries, sticks, rocks, and the skies. She helps Tayo find the cattle and find himself.
Robert, Auntie’s quiet husband, whose silence is supportive and reassuring to Tayo.
LeRoy, drunken veterans whose best days were in California, where they posed as Italians, hid their Indian identities, and slept with white women. Back on the reservation, they drink and tell war stories, relishing their victimization by white society while they plot yet another way to be compensated through lying, cheating, or stealing. Tayo’s “friends” turn out to be the enemies to his and all Indian people’s healing.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1703
Ceremony tells the story of Tayo, a mixed blood Native American from the Laguna Pueblo reservation who is severely traumatized by his unstable childhood and combat experiences during World War II. As the novel progresses, Tayo attempts to recover from these deep psychological wounds by drawing on various Native American cultural traditions. Suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (battle fatigue), Tayo knows that the army doctors cannot help him; white medicine—a medicine that looks at one symptom, not the entire system— will not be effective. His sickness is a result of carrying the sins of his mother physically and mentally. He is a half-breed, as Emo reminds him: "You drink like an Indian, and you're crazy like one too—but you aren't shit, white trash. You love Japs the way your mother loved to screw white men." As a youth, Tayo was psychologically abused by Auntie, who has converted to Christianity and represents the break from traditional values and norms. Further stress comes from being a member of an oppressed people. Tayo is very hard on himself; when Rocky, a star athlete who had aspired to leave the reservation and make a success of his life outside, dies on a death march in the Pacific, Tayo blames himself.
After a brief introductory poem that describes the power of Native American ritual ceremonies, the novel begins revealing Tayo's troubled psyche through a series of chaotic, fragmented scenes. He has nightmares, flashbacks to traumatic events, confusing dreams in multiple languages, and a wide assortment of psychological illnesses ranging from anxiety to depression. Initially, the novel presents these various psychological disorders as stemming primarily from Tayo's experiences during World War II. In particular, Tayo is deeply disturbed when he is ordered to kill a Japanese soldier; he refuses to do it because he thinks that the soldier is actually his uncle Josiah. Even after his cousin Rocky logically explains that this Japanese soldier cannot be Josiah, Tayo refuses to accept Rocky's explanation. Instead, Tayo feels that there are deeper spiritual relationships that intimately connect all beings within a single spiritual web. This sensitivity to spiritual connections also makes Tayo feel responsible for causing a prolonged drought among his people when he cursed the jungle rains in Japan during the war, and he feels additional guilt because he could not prevent his cousin Rocky from being killed in the war.
Like many veterans, Tayo continues to experience these psychological traumas even after returning home, and his problems are only compounded by his friends, Harley and Leroy, who encourage him to use alcohol as a way to escape from life. Unlike his friends, however, Tayo has a deeper spiritual side. He never feels completely comfortable just getting drunk, picking up women, and bragging about his war heroics. Instead, Tayo longs to reconnect with the natural landscape and the Native American traditions that used to provide the foundation for a more harmonious lifestyle for his people. Because of this deeper spirituality, Tayo is frustrated by his friends' self-destructive behavior. When Emo, another Native American veteran, begins bragging about how much he enjoyed killing people during the war, Tayo's uneasiness finally erupts into violent anger, and he attacks Emo. Luckily, Tayo's friends stop his violent outburst before he succeeds in killing Emo, but Tayo is arrested and sent away to an army psychiatric hospital in Los Angeles. This attempt to fight violence with violence further aggravates Tayo's psychological alienation.
Eventually, a sympathetic doctor lets Tayo return to the reservation where his aunt and grandmother try to heal what the psychiatric hospital was unable to cure. When Tayo's suffering continues, however, his grandmother suggests that he see Ku'oosh, a medicine man. But the medicine man is not as powerful as he once was. A new ceremony is needed to heal the community of the destruction brought by the whites, and it is determined that the ceremony must start with the war vets, with Tayo. The new ceremonial cure is to be found in the mixed blood of the old and the new—in Old Betonie's ceremony and in Tayo's completion of it. If the ceremony is successful, then the rain will return. Chosen from birth to learn the traditions of medicine, Betonie is revered for his success at curing people. He stays in his hogan—built long before the town of Gallup existed—so that he can keep an eye on the people. In particular, he looks for those of his people afflicted with alcoholism who might want to come back to the traditional ways. Betonie mixes old and new in his medicine:
"At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong . .. That's what the witchery is counting on; that we will cling to the ceremonies the way they were, and then their power will triumph, and the people will be no more."
Tayo confides to Betonie about his dreams, the war, and his concerns about the cattle. Betonie listens and tells him what signs to look for; he also insists that he must retrieve the cattle. He eventually ensures that Tayo is brought into the kiva and accepted once and for all.
Although Tayo never becomes fully comfortable with Betonie's unorthodox multicultural brand of shamanism, he stays and allows Betonie to work his magic. After performing an elaborate healing ceremony, Betonie explains to Tayo that he must complete his own healing because modern disorders are too complex for Betonie's magic. Before Tayo leaves, however, Betonie reveals to him several signs that will be part of his healing process: a constellation of stars, some spotted cattle, a mountain, and a woman. When Tayo returns home this time, he is even more determined to avoid his old friends and their self-destructive behavior. He gets tired of hanging out with them in bars, so he heads into the mountains to look for his uncle Josiah's lost cattle and a new way of life.
While looking for the cattle, he finds a woman named Ts'eh Montano who has sex with him and begins to teach him about the traditions that he has lost. She rejuvenates his spirit, helps him find the constellation of stars that Betonie had drawn for him at the conclusion of his healing ceremony, and leads him toward Josiah's lost cattle. Ts'eh is the personification of his ceremony. She is the Montano—the Mountain woman, the earth. Her function is to help Tayo remember traditions that have been forgotten as well as add a new one—the gathering of the purple root. As the embodiment of Corn Woman, she is pleased with Tayo's efforts. Accordingly, she helps him by corralling the cattle and showing him the site of the she-elk painting. These things, along with the purple root, are the elements that most interest the old men in the kiva.
The cattle are stolen by a rancher named Floyd Lee who guards them behind a wolf proof fence patrolled by his cowboys. Tayo cuts through the fence, only to be caught by two of Floyd's cowboys. They start to take him back to town to arrest him, but then they lose interest in this plan when they become preoccupied by an opportunity to hunt a mountain lion. With help from Ts'eh and her husband, who seem to appear out of nowhere and suddenly disappear again like mythical beings, Tayo is able to free the cattle from Floyd Lee's land and return them to the reservation.
However, just when it seems that Tayo has finally reestablished himself in his people's traditional way of life and reconnected himself to their cultural traditions, Emo begins spreading false rumors about Tayo having gone crazy again. Emo represents the witchery of the story world; he represents evil. He rejects the ways of the past, favoring manipulation and deception to have his way with the people. He denigrates the traditional ways. In doing so, he simulates the mythical Ck'o'yo gambler: "Look what is here for us. Look. Here's the Indians' mother earth! Old dried-up thing!" With such statements he aims to obscure the people's relationship to the earth. Instead, he encourages an easier way—a prescription of drink and violence: "What we need is what they got. I'll take San Diego... they've got everything ... They took our land, they took everything! So let's get our hands on white women!"
Tayo's efforts to cure himself and remember the traditions of the people are a threat to Emo's manipulative ways. Emo schemes to have Tayo sent back to the army psychiatric hospital, but his plans fail, and several of Emo's followers meet untimely ends. The novel concludes with a final ritual poem which announces the victory of good over evil but also reminds the reader that such victories are always tentative, that one must remain vigilant in avoiding the continual temptations of evil Ck'o'yo magic.
Tayo, with Betonie, has created a new ceremony and reestablished contact with certain elements in the Pueblo tradition: the ceremonial plants he was told to gather; the rock face painting that has not been renewed since the war; and the woman of the mountains who has chosen him as a messenger. As a result, Tayo has merged his identity with his people and become well. He has entered the story-reality where the people exist. He now has a place in the society's ceremony, and he has brought home the cattle to replenish his family's economy. Auntie can no longer begrudge him, Grandma is proud, and the elders recognize him as the one who helped bring back the rains.
Silko uses a complex, fragmented, nonlinear plot to represent Tayo's psychological struggles. While this initially makes the story somewhat confusing, the story becomes easier to understand once the reader recognizes how Tayo's psychological journey structures the novel's complex development. The novel frequently moves between poetry and prose and jumps across historical time and space, but its general trajectory follows Tayo's complex path toward psychological recovery.