Ceremony Summary

Leslie Marmon Silko


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Ceremony Summary

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Esteemed Native-American (Laguna Pueblo) writer Leslie Marmon Silko is best known for her 1977 novel Ceremony. The novel follows Tayo, a wounded WW II veteran of white-Laguna heritage (the same heritage as Silko) returning to tribal lands. Ceremony won several literary awards, is frequently assigned as college level reading, and comforted thousands of veterans returning from the Vietnam War for its messages of recovery, hope, and peace across racial lines.

The novel opens to Tayo dealing with “battle fatigue” (nowadays called shell-shock or PTSD), according to white doctors. The Laguna reservation is very poor. Every night, he is haunted by nightmares of his cousin Rocky dying during the Bataan Death March, where thousands of POWs were forced by Japanese soldiers to march nearly seventy miles in the Philippines and were arbitrary abused or executed.

Tayo also feels strongly that he witnessed Josiah, his uncle, be murdered by a firing squad during the war. Since his return, Tayo has learned that his uncle was indeed killed—not during the war, but on the reservation. Tayo feels an unbearable guilt: he promised his uncle to protect Rocky and to help Josiah with the cattle upon his return from the war. He has seemingly failed on both accounts, and his guilt makes him incessantly nauseous.

After several years of being treated in a military-run hospital, the doctors have given up on curing Tayo and signed his release forms. But Tayo is nowhere close to better; he vomits at intense light, he cannot speak at length, and all of his muscles are weak. When he does return home, he stays with his Aunt and “Old Grandma.”Tayo cannot get out of bed or look at undimmed light without vomiting.

Tayo looks for various ways to escape the memories of war. Initially, he relies on alcohol. Later, he becomes addicted to narcotics.

Harley, a fellow vet, invites him to a meeting with other WWII vets. They ride a small donkey through the desert. Though this is the land of his birth, Tayo nearly vomits from the intense heat. They meet other veterans — Leroy, Pinkie, and Emo. Tayo has some bad history with Emo, but they forgive each other after exchanging war stories.

Later, Old Grandma and Betonie, a Navajo medicineman, tell him he canregain his strength through native ceremonies. Previously, Old Grandma took Tayo to Ku’oosh, a traditional medicine man who proved ineffective because he knows nothing of modern life outside the reservation; he has no clue what kind of horrors Tayo witnessed during his fighting. In contrast, Betonie integrates knowledge of the modern world into his ceremony practices.

While taking part in these ceremonies, Tayo learns that there are “destroyers” who are the opposite of the medicine men; these spirits work to break the ceremony. Betonie also tells Tayo about “the witchery.” These people are set on making the world unbalanced. Betonie must complete the ceremony to defeat the energy of the destroyers and the witchery. Doing so will protect his people in the future.

To complete the first task, Tayo must reclaim the valuable cows that were stolen from his uncle shortly after his tour in WWII. On the way, he meets Ts’eh, a woman who clothes him, feeds him, and eventually sleeps with him.She has a mystical aura about her.

Soon, he finds that the cattle are being kept by a rich, white rancher. Tayo cuts through the very tall, barbed gate and leads the cattle back to his home. But some of the white man’s hands find him. Tayo flees, but falls of his horse and loses consciousness. When he wakes up, he finds he is being detained by a group of white men.Luckily a cougar distracts them, and he is able to escape.

When Tayo returns to Ts’eh’s house, he finds that she has kept the cattle for Tayo. The next day, Tayo takes the cattle back to his home.

A year passes. Tayo knows he should keep taking care of his Uncle’s cattle, but he misses Ts’eh. He returns to her. They spend their days together happily picking flowers and talking about their lives.

One day, Ts’eh says there are people coming for him to endanger him. It is a feeling she has; she cannot tell him who it is exactly. The next day, Harley and Leroy happen to be in the area. They invite him to go drinking. Tayo agrees, but soon realizes that they have malevolent plans against him. He sneaks out of the bar, and destroys their truck’s wiring so that they cannot pursue him.

Later that night, Tayo hears Harley screaming. He sees that Emo has tied him up and is skinning him alive. This is part of Emo’s ploy to make Tayo reveal himself. Pinkie then skins Leroy alive. Tayo remains hidden because he knows this is part of the ceremony.

Tayo returns home, and informs all of the elders that he has seen and made love to Ts’eh. All the elders believe she is a goddess-like creature, possibly Reed Woman who will restore life to the quenched desert once more. Soon after, rain drenches the reservation. Plants grow, and Josiah’s cattle multiple.

Pinkie dies by an unsolved gunshot, and Emo, for his many crimes, is forbidden to return to the reservation.

The ceremony has enabled Tayo to gain a stronger sense of who he and the Laguna people are. The successful ceremony remedies his “battle fatigue” and the poverty-stricken reality on the reservation.