Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ceremony traces the journey of Tayo, an abandoned mixed-blood Laguna Indian, from mental fragmentation, alienation, and despair to spiritual wholeness, reconciliation, and peace. The novel not only describes a healing ceremony for the characters but also becomes a healing ceremony for the reader. His cousin Rocky’s death in World War II has destroyed Tayo’s life; the sense that Tayo, as a prisoner of war with Rocky, killed his cousin will not leave him. It began when he cursed the rain in the Philippine jungles that worsened Rocky’s leg injury, eventually prompting the Japanese guard to shoot Rocky because the other prisoners could no longer carry him. Tayo believes that he created an irreparable breach between the human and natural worlds resulting in the drought on the Laguna pueblo, his uncle Josiah’s death, and the loss of Josiah’s spotted cattle. Only the reconciliation of those worlds will bring peace.

The novel moves from spring through one whole cycle of seasons to fall, from Tayo’s frightened, indistinct “white smoke” self to psychic and spiritual completeness. Memories of the war combine with memories of the Laguna pueblo. Japanese faces and voices resemble the Laguna people whom Tayo has known all his life. Jungle and high desert become one. When Tayo cursed the rain—the jungle rain, the New Mexico rain—he believed that her precipitated the suffering. The story that Leslie Marmon Silko tells, however, is much more that a World War II veteran’s struggle to become reintegrated into reservation life. Tayo’s experience reflects a cosmic disruption that can be repaired only when powers in the universe are appeased, which demands a unification of the genders. Yet...

(The entire section is 700 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

With the publication of House Made of Dawn in 1968, N. Scott Momaday initiated what has been called the Native American Renaissance. Many American Indian writers have said that his work not only validated their lives but also seemed to give them permission to write their own stories. Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony had a similar effect on many American Indian women writers. Yet Silko has objected to her writing being categorized by its ethnicity: “I think what writers, storytellers, and poets have to say necessarily goes beyond such trivial boundaries as origin. There’s also the danger of demeaning literature when you label certain books by saying this is black, this is Native American, and then, this is just writing.” Nevertheless, she has inspired others to follow the path that she has forged for them. Louise Erdrich is the most prominent among them, but the list also includes such writers as Paula Gunn Allen, Diane Glancy, Rayna Green, Joy Harjo, and Anna Walters.

While Ceremony offers a male protagonist and ostensibly concerns a man’s experience, Silko actually demonstrates the centrality of the feminine in the universe and in human existence. From Thought Woman’s mind came all things—women, men, this world, the four other worlds, and all creatures. Only in the unity of the feminine and the masculine can wholeness be achieved.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Gallup. Northwestern New Mexico city on the Puerco River that is the seat of McKinley County. With Navajo communities to the north and west, Zuni to the south, and various Pueblo tribes to the east, Gallup is an important regional center for Indian arts and crafts, as well as an area headquarters for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The protagonist, Tayo, goes to Gallup to ask a medicine man named Betonie for a special ceremony. Betonie cures with elements from contemporary culture, such as old magazines and telephone books, as well as with native ceremonies. He explains Tayo’s sickness as due to witchery.


*Laguna. Tayo’s home, the center of Laguna Pueblo culture, located about fifty miles west of Albuquerque, to which he returns after the war. Historically, Laguna Pueblo became one of the most cosmopolitan pueblos because of its position on a major east-west route that later included a train line; the pueblo is also the birthplace of author Leslie Silko.


*Philippines. World War II combat zone in which Tayo served before returning to New Mexico. Recalling that he was unable to fire upon Japanese soldiers because they seemed to resemble his uncle, Tayo begins the novel thinking himself insane and begins his quest to find a ceremony that will cure him of his madness.

*Mount Taylor

*Mount Taylor. Snow-capped New Mexico mountain northwest of Laguna Pueblo that is usually visible from the town. Known to the Laguna people as “Tsepina” (woman who walks in the clouds), the mountain is considered a holy place. Tayo eventually actualizes much of his personal ceremony in the wilderness area by the mountain.


*Paguate. Small village about six miles north of Laguna Pueblo that is believed, in Laguna cosmology, to be the Place of Emergence—the place where human beings emerged into the present world from the worlds below. Flooded underground uranium mines near Paguate represent an evil re-rendering of the natural landscape that Tayo struggles to overcome throughout the novel.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Pueblo Indians
The people of the Anasazi tradition inhabit the area of what is now the Southwestern United States (from Taos,...

(The entire section is 1010 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

An apocryphal story has it that when an Indian was praised for his poetry, he said, "In my tribe we have no poets....

(The entire section is 381 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Silko once explained the Pueblo linguistic theory to an audience (found in Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit), and that theory...

(The entire section is 851 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Silko tells the memorable story of a young Native American war veteran who tries to heal his emotional scars by searching for and returning...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

After decades of conflict with the U.S. Government, Native Americans were encouraged to leave their reservations for big cities during the...

(The entire section is 1048 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Silko refers to some of the environmental problems facing the Laguna Reservation after World War II. How do these problems affect the...

(The entire section is 536 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

After ten years of work, Silko published her second novel, Almanac of the Dead. This novel is more overtly political and reflects the...

(The entire section is 115 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn was published in 1968 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969. It was published at the start of a...

(The entire section is 152 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

St. Andrew's "Healing The Witchery: Medicine in Silko's Ceremony," printed in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 44, No 1, discusses the...

(The entire section is 414 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Allen, Paula Gunn. “The Feminine Landscape of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.” In Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs, edited by Paula Gunn Allen. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1983. A foundational essay that articulates the importance of the feminine in Tayo’s healing, written by a Laguna Pueblo writer and critic.

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. A central work by one of the most important literary and cultural critics of American Indian writing and life. The seventeen...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Peter G. Beidler, review in Native American Quarterly, Vol. 3, No 4, Winter, 1977-1978, pp. 357-58.


(The entire section is 600 words.)