Native American Cultural Traditions and Environmentalist Land Ethic

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The central conflict of Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony is Tayo's struggle to gain psychological wholeness in the face of various traumatic experiences, ranging from a troubled childhood to cultural marginalization and combat experiences during World War II. Throughout the novel, the key to Tayo's psychological recovery is his rediscovery of Native-American cultural practices.

Most of the crucial turning points in the novel occur when Tayo listens to, takes part in, or learns more about Native-American cultural traditions. He progresses towards recovery when he visits medicine men, returns to traditional customs and practices, or develops an intimate relationship with someone like Ts'eh who lives according to traditional ways. As he develops an increased understanding of native cultural practices and ritual ceremonies he finds psychological peace, which he quickly loses whenever he seeks other sources of healing—whether he seeks them in the glories of war, the pleasures of alcohol, or the medical practices of the army psychiatric hospital.

The novel's opening poem describes the incredible powers that language, stories, and rituals have in Native-American cultures: ceremonies are the only cure for human and cultural ailments, and stories and language have the power to create worlds. As the novel progresses, it demonstrates this power by showing how rituals are more effective than anything else in helping Tayo heal.

Moreover, Tayo's struggle to return to indigenous cultural traditions parallels Silko's own struggle as a writer who wants to integrate Native-American traditions into the structure of her novel. Instead of simply following the literary conventions used by other American and European writers, Silko develops new literary conventions that draw upon Native-American cultural traditions. For example, her narrative plot follows a cyclical sense of time, like that found in Native-American myths and legends, instead of a western linear sense of time. It is also open to non-rational spiritual experiences instead of limiting itself to scientific logic and reason. In addition, her general focus is more on the community as a whole and Tayo's relationship to that community than it is on Tayo's personal individuality.

Even more importantly, she structures the entire novel itself as a sacred ritual or ceremony. Throughout the novel, she repeatedly switches back and forth between the main plot and a series of interconnected poems based on various Native-American legends.

These interspersed poems create a second mythic narrative that runs parallel to the realistic narrative about Tayo. Even though these mythical poems take up less space than the realistic narrative, they are equally, if not more, important than the realistic narrative. They provide additional insight into Tayo's various struggles, they outline the pattern for his recovery, and they are placed at both the beginning and the end of the novel. In addition, Betonie's healing ceremony encapsulates the central themes and struggles developed throughout the novel, and it marks the central turning point in Tayo's recovery.

By making these mythic poems and ritual ceremonies such a significant part of the novel, Silko extends her authorial voice beyond first-person and third-person narration to include the ritualistic voice of a shaman or storyteller. Thus, Silko expresses the Native-American belief that ritual healing and art are intimately connected because stories and rituals have the power to heal.

Nevertheless, both Silko's description of Native-American healing ceremonies and her own artistic use of Native-American narrative forms are unorthodox. For example, Ku'oosh's traditional rituals partially cure Tayo, but Betonie's new complex, hybrid ceremonies are even more effective. By making Betonie's rituals more potent than Ku'oosh's, Silko suggests that recovering one's cultural roots does not always mean being stuck in the past and endlessly repeating only what has been done before....

(This entire section contains 1656 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Instead, Silko argues that even traditional cultures need to evolve and change, modifying to meet new circumstances and enlarging to create a broader dialogue with other cultural traditions. In this sense, Silko's sense of ritual is not narrowly Native American but broadly multicultural.

Native-American traditions make up an essential part of that multicultural mosaic, but they are not the whole of it. This multicultural sensibility is further demonstrated by Silko's frequent attempts to develop connections between different cultures within her novel. In particular, Silko develops several relationships between Native-American and Japanese cultures. Tayo believes that the Japanese soldier is his Native-American uncle because he has a spiritual sensitivity to the interconnectedness of all peoples and cultures. Tayo cannot stand Emo's hatred toward the Japanese because he realizes that violence toward any part of this multicultural mosaic inevitably hurts everyone. In fact, Tayo eventually realizes that even his own anger toward Emo must be overcome because violence cannot be prevented with more violence.

The novel's conclusion makes this connection between Native Americans and the Japanese even clearer because both Native Americans and the Japanese were victims of World War II. Native-American lands were destroyed through uranium mining in order to destroy the Japanese with bombs built from the mines on native reservations. Thus, Silko demonstrates that there are more connections between cultures than one might recognize at first glance. While this multicultural vision derives from traditional Native-American beliefs about the interconnectedness of all beings, it extends beyond Native-American cultures to include all of the world's many cultures.

In addition, Ceremony also links Native-American cultural traditions to the land and people's relationship to it. The novel is full of beautiful descriptions of the natural landscape, philosophical discussions about the essential nature of land, and ritual ceremonies connected to the landscape.

In particular, Silko's sense of the land functions in two ways. First, the ceremonies heal Tayo by reconnecting him to the land. They orient him according to sacred geographies, they teach him the importance and meaning of particular places, and they endow the earth with spiritual significance. Throughout the novel, Silko repeatedly reminds the reader that Native-American cultures see the land and ceremonial rituals as inseparably connected and mutually reinforcing sources of spiritual well-being. Drawing closer to the land helps Tayo better understand Native-American ritual ceremonies, just as participating in these ceremonies helps Tayo reconnect himself to the land. These are two sides of the same coin.

In addition, Silko also uses Native-American beliefs about the land to address a wide variety of contemporary political and cultural issues such as environmentalism, colonialism, and the sovereignty of Native-American peoples. In this sense, Silko's sense of the land involves not only a native spiritual worldview but also a comprehensive political critique. By drawing attention to the relationships between colonialism and economic inequality, between private property and racial divisions, and between mining and nuclear destruction, Silko calls into question western civilization's economic and legal interpretations of the land. America's claim to the land of America is revealed as a hypocritical mask for colonial conquest, just as raping the environment through mining is revealed as part of a larger industrial-military complex whose ultimate goal is to produce weapons of mass destruction.

An excellent example of these kinds of connections can be seen when Silko exposes that the real purpose behind Floyd Lee's wolf-proof fence is to keep Indians and Mexicans out. With this image of the wolf-Indian-Mexican fence, Silko shows the relationship between western civilization's hostility toward the natural environment (wolves), its economic ideology of private property (fences), and racial divisions between the dominant Anglo-American culture and other minority cultures (Native-American and Mexican).

The irony that Mr. Lee's fence enables him to steal Tayo's cattle in addition to protecting his own cattle only further emphasizes how Silko politicizes this image. Legal and political boundaries not only divide mine from yours, but they also enable me to steal what is yours, like they enabled the stealing of native lands.

Throughout the novel, Silko combines images like Mr. Lee's wolf-Indian-Mexican fence with images of international wars and mining and nuclear testing on Native-American lands. In the end, it is the Trinity test site that prompts Tayo's climactic epiphany of how the divisions between cultures are created by western civilization's war against nature in the name of private property. This war against nature ends up turning the creative powers of nature against themselves to produce weapons of mass destruction. This, in turn, escalates into a war against us, as neighbors turn against neighbors and nations turn against nations, justified by the boundaries legitimized by the ideology of land ownership.

Land ownership becomes the central issue, however, not only because it negates a sacred understanding of the land as a living being shared by all but also because the test site is specifically land taken from Native-American peoples. Like Mr. Lee's fence, the test site simultaneously represents both the destructiveness of western economic development and the hypocrisy of what whites have done to the American continent in the name of building and defending the nation. Ultimately, Tayo rejects white civilization for a deeper spiritual understanding of a world without boundaries, without divisions, and without private property.

In this sense, Silko's novel is not just a story about one Native-American veteran trying to piece his life back together after returning from World War II. In a much deeper sense, it is an allegory about America as a whole and about how Tayo and other Native-Americans fit into the broader mosaic of American history. In particular, Silko's novel rewrites American history so that Native Americans like Tayo are no longer pushed into the margins and ignored. She shows that they have contributed to and continue to contribute to American history by providing the land on which it happens, by fighting for America in international conflicts, and by contributing to America's economic development.

Even more importantly, however, she shows that Native-American cultural traditions also provide an alternative, and in Silko's opinion, superior view of what America's future could look like if it will chose to be more spiritually sensitive, multiculturally respectful, and environmentally responsible. In this sense, Ceremony adds an important and potentially healing voice to the ongoing debate of what it means to be an American.

Source: Robert Bennett, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony: Healing Ethnic Hatred by Mixed-Breed Laughter

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In Ceremony, Leslie Silko brilliantly crosses racial styles of humor in order to cure the foolish delusions readers may have, if we think we are superior to Indians or inferior to whites, or perhaps superior to whites or inferior to Indians. Silko plays off affectionate Pueblo humor against the black humor so prominent in 20th-century white culture. This comic strategy has the end-result of opening our eyes to our general foolishness, and also to the possibility of combining the merits of all races. Joseph Campbell wrote in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space of the change in mythologies away from the local and tribal toward a mythology that will arise from "this unified earth as of one harmonious being." Ceremony is a work that changes local mythologies in that more inclusive spirit.

Silko is the right person to have written this book. She herself is a mixed-blood, and her experience has evidently given her access not only to a variety of problems, but also to a variety of styles of clowning and joking.... Although Ceremony is serious, offering a number of valuable propositions for our consideration, the narrative also spins a web of jokes in the morning sun....

The ceremony Silko narrates is that of a Navajo sing, but one not sung exactly as it would have been done before whites arrived in New Mexico, nor sung by a pure-blood Indian, nor sung on behalf of a pure-blood Indian. As is traditional, the ceremony is to be completed after the sing by the sick man, a Laguna named Tayo. His efforts to finish the ceremony by correct action form the last half of the novel, just as the first half was composed of the events which made him sick. These two series of events, taken together, make it clear that what the Veterans' Administration doctors have labelled battle fatigue is, in Tayo's case at least, really a struggle to make a decision about death. He tries two ways of responding to its invasion of his life that do not work—self-erasure and killing an agent of death. Finally he is able to find a way of opposing destruction which will not lead to his erasure as a force on the reservation, not allow anyone to kill him, and most important, not change him too into an agent of death.

Tayo's difficulty is grave, yet Silko jokes about it frequently. The belief among whites that Indians never laugh is contradicted continually by the sounds of Indians responding to subtle in-jokes or to a corrective kind of teasing crystallized in the work of ritual clowns. Black Elk [in Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux] speaks of clowns appearing when people needed a good laugh. At that time, he says, the clowns based their performance on the minor frustrations of life or on our minor flaws as human beings, such as our tendency to exaggerate our plight... I believe that Leslie Marmon Silko is in effect a sacred clown, turning the light of laughter against evils which might otherwise weaken us all....

Human clowning of a farcical type, exposing our human flaws in a manifestly physical way, builds up Silko's philosophy. The drunk Indian veterans who had attempted to fight over Helen Jean "started pushing at each other, in a staggering circle on the dance floor. The other guys were cheering for a fight. They forgot about her." Their lack of real love for women goes with their general ineffectuality. The whole scene parodies the war, all its supposedly ardent love for motherland, all its proclaimed desire to protect wife and home forgotten in the blundering, futile rituals of fighting.

These clowning scenes become more elaborate as the novel continues. An example of this is the size and complexity of the expedition organized to capture Tayo at his most harmless. He is carefully surrounded at night by V.A. doctors in dark green government cars, Bureau of Indian Affairs police, and some of the old men of the pueblo, just as if he were insane, hostile, and armed, when we as readers know he has spent the summer outdoors looking after his skinny cattle and rediscovering the old religion, or if you like, dreaming of a beautiful Indian woman. The absurdity of this great stakeout does not cancel, but accompanies and points up the danger to Tayo. As readers, we both fear for him and half-expect the ambush will be 100% ineffectual....

[Silko] teases her readers in a gentle manner that can enlighten. When Tayo is ordered to shoot a Japanese soldier and suddenly sees him as his Uncle Josiah, everyone around him tells him that Josiah couldn't be in two places at the same time or that hallucinations are natural with malaria or battle fatigue ... Actually the vision, which I would call a projection of Tayo's or Josiah's mind, illustrates for Tayo the universality of human goodness and the evil of killing. When, reading along, we finally realize this, it's natural to smile at our earlier foolish Europeanized faith in our ideas of mental illness....

Silko turns her teasing also toward younger Indians like Helen Jean, who evaluates Tayo as the least friendly male at the Y Bar, when in fact he is the only one who cares, even briefly, what is going to happen to her. As for half-breeds like Tayo, Silko repeatedly exposes his gullibility toward erroneous white beliefs. His difficulty in believing that someone other than an Indian will steal, much less that a white man will steal, is typical of Indian jokes about oppression [as Joseph Bruchac said in Parabola, Winter, 1987.]

Silko does not exclude herself from being teased either. At the end of her innovative portrayal of evil, she allows Tayo's grandmother, the archetypal storyteller, to indicate her boredom at the story of Emo's downfall:

Old Grandma shook her head slowly, and closed her cloudy eyes again. 'I guess I must be getting old,' she said, 'because these goings-on around Laguna don't get me excited any more.' She sighed, and laid her head back on the chair 'It seems like I already heard these stories before only thing is, the names sound different'

This narrative irony is a little joke at all of us—Silko for feeling she had written an original work about evil, any Indians who might have been worrying about her modernization of the stories, any whites who might have believed the test of art is originality, or maybe entertainment, rather than spiritual power. The serious effectiveness of Silko's tale is indicated by the passage which follows: "Whirling darkness/has come back on itself... It is dead for now."

All the instances of Indian humor in Ceremony have been overlooked by some of the white readers I have talked with, possibly because of lack of contact with non-European communities or culture. Indian irony can be "either so subtle or so keyed to an understanding from within of what is funny to a people that an outsider would fail to recognize it [Parabola, Winter, 1987.]" Such outsiders tend to take many light passages in Ceremony as solemn or tense, and wear themselves out before the real crisis comes. Yet Silko has given non-Indian readers enough clues to enjoy her inside jokes....

Tayo at times carries irony as far as black humor. When other barflies buzz about their equality with whites, Tayo tells a more truthful, and by contrast, more ironic narrative about their status. When Emo repeatedly brings up how whites have taken everything the Indians had, Tayo wisecracks to himself, "Maybe Emo was wrong; maybe white people didn't have everything. Only Indians had droughts." This private shot of wry acknowledges both white injustice and Emo's dishonesty, thus mentally challenging blackness, not just learning to endure it.

Emo mocks traditional Indian values, despises everything living, and spends his time spreading contempt, resentment, idleness, pleasure in the humiliation and suffering of other people—in short, hatred. His first diatribe in Ceremony is against reservation ranchlands: "Look what is here for us. Look. Here's the Indians' mother earth! Old dried-up thing!" By breaking the law of reverence, his sarcasms raise loud laughter. By speaking only of white women, he gets his fellow veterans, except Tayo, to laugh and cheer at stories about bringing women down. By referring to Japanese soldiers always and only as Japs, as officers, as enemies, he tricks the others into rejoicing at the smashing of fellow people of color. They are fooled because Emo's jokes resemble jokes made "not to take our minds off our troubles, but to point out ways to survive and even laugh" [as Bruchac noted]. Unfortunately, Emo's references to troubles do not carry hints about survival or corrections of faults. Not noticing the difference, Emo's bar buddies, most of them, commit themselves by every laugh to discard a little more of Indian tradition, their only possible road to a satisfying life....

Silko sees through Emo's descriptions and can see where his black philosophy must end. To acknowledge evil and study it, has not made a convert of her, however. She plays a worse trick on Emo than he wanted to play on Tayo; as a true comic novelist always does, she thwarts evil and establishes the good in a new and more complete harmony. Hers is the laughter that rises in the spirit, when the preachers of inferiority and inevitable doom have been disproved and defeated. What is finest in her, I believe, is the wisdom of her method of bringing the good out of its trials safely. Her wisdom is that of choosing love....

Although the last scenes of Ceremony have a number of surprises, they have been prepared for. Tayo's refusal to be caught up in the dynamics of mutual destruction is comical because it seems cowardly, as whites judge bravery, even disloyal, by Army standards. In truth, his hiding behind the rock is his least white, least hateful action, even, perhaps, a sort of yellow humor, to go with his Asian connection.

Not only does Silko as novelist arrange for the defeat of Emo's plan either to sacrifice or to corrupt Tayo. She also plots a punishment for the villain which is more appropriate and funnier than the one he has planned for Tayo. In the outcome, Silko, and readers who side with her, laugh, perhaps silently, but also happily at Emo's final defeat, hearts lifting because "he got his." In this way, as a comic novelist, Silko has brought in a third type of black humorist, the one who steals the tricks of the blackest jokers and uses them against their owners. I have found that Anglo or anglicized readers easily miss Silko's punishment of Emo, thinking he has gotten away scotfree. That's because she outfoxes him as Tayo did, aikido style, without violence. He might have died, but the old men of the pueblo only exile him, and he chooses to go to California, the epitome of all that he admires. The joke of it is seen by the now gentle Tayo: "'California,' Tayo repeated softly, 'that's a good place for him'." This brief and quiet comment scores off evil more aptly than Emo ever scored off good. Emo will be in harmony with California; the apex of his desires is as bad as he is. This joke mocks the White Lie, the delusion that whites are superior, for in it Silko is using the most prosperous part of her region, a proud achievement of white culture in this country, as the most severe punishment she can assign, far worse than mutilation, an early death, or life in Gallup. Emo's exile is a joke, too, about the self-proclaimed superiority of white institutions. If the old men were to bring charges against Emo, government courts would probably either discredit Tayo's testimony or execute Emo. None of their methods would stop Emo's impact on the pueblo. The Laguna answer to capital punishment is more intelligent, avoids imitating murderers, and punishes them less mercifully.

Whites with some appreciation for Indian culture sometimes express a surprising certitude that "this once great culture is being lost or replaced by an Anglo culture that does not have the same respect for nature ... and is in some ways morally inferior to it" [according to Edith Blicksilver in Southwest Review, 1979]. The celestial laughter Silko calls forth by her Ceremony shows that Indian civilization is living and has the potential to transform anglo culture. As she said in a 1978 interview [in American Studies in Scandinavian, 1981], "These things will only die if we neglect to tell the stories. So I am telling the stories." Moreover she has turned the quietest laugh against the loudest. With the help of Indian humor, even if we do not entirely get her jokes, she purifies us of our illusions about white culture, and those about Indian culture as well. Ultimately she demonstrates that combining our cultures, as her narrative does, has the power to civilize both.

Source: Elizabeth N. Evasdaugher, "Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony: Healing Ethnic Hatred by Mixed-Breed Laughter" in MEWS, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 83-95.

Thinking Woman and Feeling Man: Gender in Silko's Ceremony

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Feminist literary criticism of the past decades has often pointed to powerful women figures in American literature. From Hawthorne's Hester Prynne to Alice Walker's Meridian one can find many images which counter the stereotype of the clinging, submissive, and self-sacrificing woman. By contrast, these powerful women are courageous, independent of judgment, and as intelligent as any man, without becoming egocentric or losing their sense of interpersonal relationships. Little attention has been paid, however, to male figures who are sensitive instead of ruthless, gentle instead of heroic, community-conscious instead of individualistic. It is especially important to find such images in Native-American literature because in the popular imagination the American-Indian male is still either a savage killer, a degenerate drunkard, or nature's stoic, noble man.

I would like to concentrate here on two aspects of gender portrayal in a Native-American novel: the holistic depiction of a male protagonist, a "feeling man," and the mythological background of such a character portrayal, a female divinity who is a "thinking woman." Both are transcending Western stereotypes of gender portrayal.

Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony centers on Tayo, a young man of the Southwestern Laguna tribe, who fought in the Pacific islands during World War II. His cousin, with whom he grew up like a brother, is killed by the Japanese. Tayo is driven insane by this loss as well as by seeing the image of his beloved uncle and stepfather, Josiah, in the face of one of the Japanese he is supposed to shoot.

When Tayo returns to the United States, he is placed in a mental hospital in Los Angeles and drugged into senselessness by doctors who are unable to understand his inner turmoil. On his release and return to the Laguna reservation he suffers from horrible nightmares, nausea, and a feeling of total failure. He accuses himself of having cursed the jungle rain which contributed to the death of his cousin and thereby having caused the drought which is ruining the Laguna people. Only after undergoing an ancient healing ritual (a bear cure involving sandpainting) is Tayo able to find sanity, to understand the complexities of individual, social, and "cosmic" sin—here called "witchery"—and to rediscover his strong ties to the land and his people.

The style of the novel superbly expresses the essence of the story. It is often as fragmentary as Tayo's mental condition and as disjointed as the tribe's position between cultural persistence and assimilation. Past and future are telescoped into the present. Flashbacks and dream visions contribute to the reader's feeling of disruption as well as of a continual challenge to do what Tayo instinctively tries to do, that is, weave together the fragments, struggle to find a pattern of meaning. What differentiates Silko's style from that of most Anglo-American novelists is her use of oral traditions which are intricately woven into the narrative in the form of poems, ritual prayers, stories, and tribal rumors....

The point of the novel is that Tayo finds his identity by rediscovering in himself and in all of creation what traditionally has been called the "feminine." His true manhood had been violated when he was supposed to kill people, especially since they looked like his kin. Being forced as a soldier to suppress his anima, he was driven insane. But the memory of childhood experiences and tribal stories reawakens his sensitivity and his nurturing instincts which, in the end, make him more, not less, of a man.

From earliest infancy, Tayo has learned to live by instinct and sensuous perception. His Laguna mother is driven from her tribe because Tayo is an illegitimate child, fathered by a Mexican. She survives for only a few years, living with other outcasts in a slum area. The neglected child orients himself by smells, sounds, and sights, whether sensing the arrival of his perfumed mother and her beer-smelling lovers or detecting morsels of food in refuse piles. When at the age of four he is taken by his aunt and uncle into their ranch home, he learns the smells of animals and the sights and sounds of mountains, winds, and rivers. It is the memory of these sensations which helps him to recover from his war trauma and to feel deep joy when he is alone with nature:

He breathed deeply, and each breath had a distinct smell of snow from the north, of ponderosa pine on the rimrock above; finally he smelled horses from the direction of the corral, and he smiled. Being alive was all right then.... He squatted down by the pool and watched the dawn spreading across the sky like yellow wings. The mare jingled the steel shanks of the bit with her grazing, and he remembered the sound of the bells in late November.

Tayo has been shown by his uncle Josiah—another male figure who is gentle and caring—that violence is senseless. When, as a young boy, he kills many flies because his white teacher has taught the children that flies carry disease, Josiah lovingly reprimands him and explains that in immemorial times when the people were starving because they had behaved badly, it was a fly which went to Mother Earth to ask forgiveness for the people. Since then the grateful people do not kill flies.

When Tayo shoots his first deer, he carefully observes the ritual of the conscientious hunter who would never kill for sport. After he has undergone the healing ceremony, he is responsive to nature in its smallest manifestations, imitating the gentleness of the bees in pollinating flowers with a small feather or saving a tree from an early winter storm by carefully shaking the snow from its branches.

Tayo lives out of dreams—whether nightmares or beautiful visions. Compared to the other war veterans who are noisy, bragging drunkards, he is shy and often silent. But he is no coward or weakling. When one of the young men, Emo, speaks insultingly of his own people as well as of Tayo's mixed ancestry, Tayo is so enraged that, like Billy Budd, he becomes violent in his inability to express his feelings. On this occasion he comes close to killing Emo.

An important part of Tayo's story is his encounter with Ts'eh, the mysterious woman who is also—on the mythological level—a goddess or mountain spirit.... He learns how to use herbs and to gather plant seeds with great care. "Ts'eh Montano, or 'Water Mountain,' seems a coded and composite reference to the spiritwoman who returns vitality to the arid desert for Indians, Mexicans, and whites alike, all embodied in Tayo, all sharing in the sickness and health of one another, many as one with the land" [Kenneth Lincoln, Native American Renaissance, 1983].

There are other male figures in the novel who are "feeling" men: old Ku'oosh, a wise Laguna medicine man; Robert, the kind uncle and stepfather; and especially Betonie, the Navaho-Mexican medicine man who patiently counsels Tayo and brings about his healing by guiding him through the ceremony....

Non-Indian readers are likely to find the role of Ts'eh in Tayo's recovery ambiguous. A superficial reader might simply consider the relationship between her and Tayo a sexual-romantic interlude to be expected in any contemporary novel. Moreover, feminist readers might see in Ts'eh the stereotype of a woman who offers her body to the hero. The basic problem involved here is the bicultural perspective. Images, concepts, and patterns of belief are difficult to merge in a novel on American-Indian life to be read by a predominantly white, Western audience.

Ts'eh reawakens Tayo's belief in a balanced world which he dimly remembers from tribal stories. She is representative of earth, rain, wind, and sky, but also of the thought power that controls the elements. Her "storm-pattern blanket" indicates her ordered strength. At times Tayo feels that Ts'eh is just an apparition or superstition, that she "meant nothing at all; it was all in his own head." Her lineage or family seem to be unknown. Her voice can be as unreal as an echo. On another level, however, she is very real: "He had not dreamed her; she was there as certainly as the sparrows had been there, leaving spindly scratches in the mud."

This double vision on a physical and a metaphysical level is alien to Western readers. They find it difficult to comprehend that a real crawling spider coming up after the rain is, seen from another aspect, Spider-Woman, the divine creatrix; that Tayo's mother, the long-dead prostitute, can mythologically and poetically merge into Mother Earth or Mother Corn; that Ts'eh, the woman that Tayo makes love to, is a manifestation of Thought-Woman, the balance of the universe. Silko may not have fully succeeded in portraying Ts'eh in terms of this double vision, but her intention is certainly to visualize Tayo's ability to overcome the split between body and mind, which Westerners had trained into him, by having him experience Spider-Woman's wholeness through Ts'eh. The Laguna people are "woman-dominant; they're a woman-centered people." Their images of gender can help us overcome Western stereotypes of excessively rational, power-wielding men as well as of women who are mindless child-bearers. Each gender attains wholeness and vitality only if it includes traits usually ascribed to its opposite....

Silko's novel is in keeping with recent anthropological findings about the social complexity of gender identification. Tayo's self-understanding as a male is not just biologically determined; it changes with the influence of his environment. His story and that of his comrades show that gender identity has to be nurtured. The assumption that in all "primary" cultures of the world males basically dominate while females are the submissive sex, that men always represent culture and women nature, is an untenable Western assumption.

For American Indians, spirit ties all human beings to each other and to the whole cosmos; therefore it also unifies the genders. Spirit does not dissolve gender distinctions, but it renders certain gender traits interchangeable. When Tayo and his comrades have to fight in the Pacific jungles, spirit is trained and drained out of them, making them fit to kill blindly. Being cut off from their physical and spiritual roots, some of them, like Emo, become perverted. But Tayo is able to keep Spider-Woman's love for all of creation alive in his manhood, because some gentle men, like Josiah, Robert, Ku'oosh, and Betonie, had nurtured him in this love. After the trauma of the war, he had to experience a reenactment of Spider-Woman's spirit to recover his wholeness. A dearth of spirit hardens gender roles.

Source. Kristin Herzog, "Thinking Woman and Feeling Man: Gender in Silko's Ceremony" in MELUS, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 25-36.


Critical Overview