Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773
Ceremony is a novel about wholeness and what happens to a person, a community, and a universe when any one part or person is not integrated into that whole. Separation, alienation, and disease, Silko and the Laguna people claim, result from failing to remember the stories and one’s role in them, to recognize the integral connection of all things and all people, and to acknowledge the need to maintain the balance of the world through the creation of new ceremonies. Tayo’s discovery that “it took a great deal of energy to be a human being,” that human beings are inextricably connected to everything around them, is the focus of this novel.
The world to which Tayo awakens from his catatonic “white smoke” consciousness following his imprisonment by the Japanese in the Philippines is first a veterans’ hospital and then his aunt and uncle’s ranch on the Laguna reservation. It is all he can do to get up from his bed without being overwhelmed by nausea. The six-year drought has transformed the landscape to desolation. Drunken veterans recount their uniformed heroics—sleeping with white women who thought they were Italians, killing Japanese soldiers, and returning to an Indian world where their military and macho exploits mean little. They fill the time with war stories; they have become agents of fragmentation and destruction. Participating in war has defiled them. They embody the witchery described in the poem: Just as the gambler stole the rain, the veterans have driven it away with their killing.
The Laguna abhor warfare, and they have developed cleansing rituals for those who have killed. While Pinkie, LeRoy, Emo, and Harley are lost, Tayo must be purified. The process begins at Betonie’s hogan, where the old man tells him that “the ceremonies have always been changing” and that he, like others before him, must create new ceremonies to ward off the deadness. The stories say that witchery created white people as a cosmic joke, as the most grotesque expression of evil and death. When the real people, the Indian people, adopt their principles, values, and ways of being, they too will die. As a child of mixed blood, Tayo must find a way for all the forces in the universe to work together—whites, Mexicans, American Indians, from the past, present, and future. Following the spotted cattle will allow Tayo to accomplish that goal
Tayo’s journey takes him in the sacred directions central to American Indian belief—first following the cattle as they disappear out over the horizon, following them through barbed wire, south toward Mexico, west to Gallup, east toward Albuquerque, and north to Mount Taylor, where he encounters Ts’eh. This mountain holds special significance to the Laguna people. Shipap, the spot from which Spider Woman emerged and the most sacred of all places to the Laguna people, is located there. There Ts’eh has corralled the spotted cattle.
Ts’eh is a troubling figure in many ways, as her reality is not even certain. Her shawl reflects the colors of the earth. She smells of apricots and juniper, of clay and sage. She carries willow branches—symbolic of water, river, and rain. On a shield that she possesses is the pattern of stars that Betonie had drawn for him, a sign of his having arrived at his destination. Ts’eh may be, as Edith Sean suggests, representative of Yellow Woman, a mountain spirit (“genetrix of the Antelope Clan”) of the Acoma pueblo. Connections with Mexico are also apparent in her: She claims a Spanish surname, Montano, and is able to capture the spotted Mexican cattle, which Josiah thought of as “desert antelope.” Her light coloring and ochre eyes are reminiscent of the other Mexican women in the novel, Betonie’s grandmother and Night Swan. Tayo is drawn to this woman-spirit and loses his sense of a separate self in her. In making love to her, he cannot tell where his body ends and hers begins. Physical-spiritual, male-female dichotomies are lost.
The world controlled by witchery and death rejects Tayo’s transformation. Auntie and Tayo’s veteran friends insist he is still ill. When he remains in the mountain, collecting berries, herbs, and willow twigs for Ts’eh, the westernized Lagunas cannot understand. They do not see the story of which Tayo is a pivotal part. Ku’oosh, Betonie, and Ts’eh had all warned him that the deadly forces in the world, the destroyers, want to change the story. When Tayo witnesses his old friends murder Harley, he knows that they have succumbed to the witchery. He must finish the ceremony and the story.