Written by Leslie Marmon Silko
A thrilling tale of Native American connection and the returning to oneself, nature and the land to heal the wounds within.
Set in the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico, we are introduced to Tayo, a World War II veteran, who has been left in emotional and physical turmoil, following his participation in the war.
Experiencing extreme waves of sickness and nausea, Tayo is in the throes of post-trauma, grief and suffocating regret over the death of his cousin Rocky who had joined him in battle.
Returning home to his grandmother and aunt, who raised him in place of his absent mother, he continues to be haunted by the past, and whipped into flash backs of the atrocities he experienced.
When modern medicines and hospital halls fail him, Tayo realises he must partake in a traditional Native American ceremony, that interweaves and connects his past, the war, and the Laguna Pueblo culture in order to heal both himself and the land.
Interlaced within the plot, are old Laguna stories that have been shared by word of mouth for centuries. Tayo’s journey is mirrored in these stories as he draws closer to his Native roots, and sees beyond the Western infiltration within the country.
Whist at university, I studied Native American literature, and it was one of my favourite topics. A contemporary Native American perspective, writing back to the narrative that had been thrust upon them many years ago, I found it awe inspiring.
I have always had a deep ingrained love for the Native American Culture, which I must admit, began when I first watched Pocahontas 🙂 There is something so beautiful about the oneness of indigenous people with the landscape on which they reside. A mutually reciprocal relationship of respect with the natural world, in which they do not seek to disturb the environment, but to grow with it.
There are so many poignant themes within this novel, it really is so rich with metaphors and lessons, but I think the idea that resonates with me most is the concept of fragmentation of identity, and the encroaching of the Native American culture by the new and emerging Western way of life.
Within the novel, we meet many indigenous characters that have distanced from Native clothing, beliefs and traditions, and instead, opt to assimilate to more Westernised notions. Tayo’s cousin Rocky was a prime example of this, turning away from their traditions and believing them to be superstitions and stories. This signifies the stark disparity, between the old ways of the Indigenous culture and the usurpation of the Western expansion, that did its best to displace Native American history.
Tayo himself is a perfect metaphor of this clash of identity. Being half indigenous and half white, he struggles endlessly with the juxtaposition of his two halves and is at odds with other in the community and himself.
Even our first introduction to Tayo signifies his misalignment with the Western way. We meet him within the stark walls of a Los Angeles hospital, writhing with pain and anguish. There is special attention paid by Silko, to the whiteness of the sheets, the interiors and even the faces within the hospital. It’s so clinical, the epitome of white wash sterilisation of all other beliefs and ways of life, where nothing else may grow.
The Old Ways vs New
Tayo finds little solace within Western treatments and the waves of nausea, fever and grief only grow stronger with time. Eventually, his grandmother suggests calling a Medicine Man who may help purge him of this unknown sickness, what we now know as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
Through his meeting with Medicine Man, Old Betonie, it’s clear that the only way for Tayo to restore his health, is to reconnect with his heritage, history, the land and above all, himself.
Through his hybrid ceremony, which is a mix of old and modern methods, Betonie helps Tayo recount the colonization of their people and navigate the internalised racism that they have come across time and time again…In turn, helping him to see with the clarity of his ancestors.
“His sickness was only part of something larger, and his cure would be found only in something great and inclusive of everything.”
A factor that I find extremely symbolic, is Tayo’s participation in the World War, after being urged by his cousin Rocky to enlist. We’re all well acquainted with the rhetoric of Uncle Sam and how much he needs YOU. This call to action was enough to seduce the youths, who were always on the fringes of society, to want to be wanted.
For a short while, this act of selflessness for a country that refused to acknowledge them, bought them the respect they rightly deserved. However, once the war was over and uniforms were off, Tayo was confronted with the notion that Rocky gave his life for nothing, in a man-made war made only to appease the egos with destruction. It only caused him, and other Native American veterans like him to feel even move disconnected from themselves in the aftermath of war.
“The war was over; the uniform was gone. All of a sudden, the man at the store waits on you last, makes you wait until all the white people bought what they wanted. . .they blamed themselves for losing the new feeling; they never talked about it but they blamed themselves just like they blamed themselves for losing the land the white people took.”
Ceremony is a story of purging, of removing physical and mental illness, as well as social and environmental ills. It’s also a story of healing, returning from the precipice of death to reinvigorate the landscape of the heart, and emerging with renewed patience, gratitude and stillness.
Interwoven within the text, is the concept of oneness and interconnection. We are not separate from the world we live in, nor are we separate from one another. There is a lifecycle to all things and we are not superior to the birds, plants and even the bugs. We all have a part to play. This is why I love the Native American culture, it rings so strongly with my Islamic beliefs.
Ceremony is wonderfully written. Each word is so clearly intentional, Silko Truly has a way of plunging you right into the scene, with cataclysmic motion.
Finally reading this book for me is very cathartic, and I feel a strange sense of peace after completing it. I was first introduced to this book in University, by a very passionate and engaging lecturer. Due to deadlines and time constraints I didn’t actually have a chance to read it then, but I’m so glad, almost 10 years later I have had that opportunity…it takes me right back to that time in my life when I was happiest. 😊
“They see no life
When they look
they see only objects.
The world for them
the trees and rivers are not alive
the mountains and stones are not alive
The deer and bear are objects
They see no life.
They fear the world.
They destroy what they fear.
They fear themselves.“
I think from an academic perspective; this book is a goldmine full of fascinating ideas and portrayals! But… I would probably think twice before recommending it, simply because at times I found it very difficult to piece together and the narrative isn’t as linear as I would like. I think this is a very niche text, although, it really is a masterpiece in its own right.