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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,233 words.)