Form and Content
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 it is not simply a matter of bringing together women and men. It also means bringing together female and male within each person, as well as the female and male forces informing everything in the universe.
Ceremony begins with a poem reflecting Laguna cosmology. The creator of all that exists, according to the Laguna people, is Thought-Woman, also known as Grandmother Spider or Spider Woman. From her mind came all things (“whatever she thinks about/ appears”), and the world was a product of her words (“as she named them/ they appeared”). The novel itself is Thought-Woman’s story of Tayo’s journey to find himself, a journey requiring an androgynous joining of genders. In the Laguna matrilineal culture, a person’s social identity—the clan to which one belongs— derives from the mother; religious identity and knowledge come through the father. It requires, then, both female and male to form an integrated self. Both the ceremony Tayo undertakes and the verbal ceremony Silko creates in her novel result in personal and cosmic healing. The narrator in the opening poem insists, “You don’t have anything/ if you don’t have the stories.” Tayo has lost them and must reclaim them; readers must allow Silko to relate them for the first time.They are stories of the power of the feminine life force in conflict with the deadly and destructive forces of war, witchery, and evil. They are stories ultimately of reconciliation and peace, if only for a time.
The half-white, half-Laguna protagonist , Tayo, engages in a healing ceremony initiated by his grandmother. When the medicine of the pueblo’s shaman, old Ku’oosh, is not powerful enough to heal him, Tayo is taken to the Gallup hogan of another mixed-blood, Betonie, a Navajo holy man possessing great wisdom. Living in a place cluttered with old calendars and telephone books from all the cities he has ever visited, smelling of roots, plants, and berries that hang in burlap sacks from the ceiling, green-eyed Betonie does not appear able to cure Tayo. Yet the man’s knowledge of both humans and the universe allows the healing process to begin. From this place, Tayo begins his journey that will lead to wholeness, a journey that has Tayo following Josiah’s spotted cattle into the mountains...
(The entire section is 6,429 words.)