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Leslie Marmon Silko: Ceremony

Silko’s first novel tells the story of Tayo, a mixed blood Laguna. At the beginning of the novel he is in hospital, having returned home from being a Japanese prisoner-in-war in World War II. He had been with Rocky, his cousin from back home whom he had promised his aunt to protect, on the forced march to the prisoner-of-war camp. (His aunt had brought him up as his mother, a prostitute, had died and his father had disappeared.) Rocky’s leg is badly injured and won’t heal in the incessant rain so Tayo tries to pray the rain away. Rocky dies anyway but when Tayo gets home, he finds his prayers have been answered back there, where there is an incessant drought. He feels responsible for this drought, because of his prayers. Even when he gets out of hospital, Tayo is not in good shape. He feel guilty about Rocky’s death and is haunted by the war. He is unable to adjust back to normal life. He tries both conventional, white medical help as well as traditional Navajo rituals but they do not help, till he meets Betonie, a medicine man, who lives on the edge of the reservation and who is not fully trusted by his fellow Navajos. Betonie stresses the importance of ceremony to Tayo.

Betonie, while using traditional Native American techniques, also accepts that the Native Americans now live with the whites and he uses their techniques but also makes sure that adapting to the white man’s world is part of the healing process. Silko brilliantly mixed in traditional stories and ceremonial chants, showing us how it works. To complete the ceremony he has to carry out a quest. Tayo had been concerned about the death of his Uncle Josiah. When he was in Japan we saw that he mistook a dead Japanese soldier for Uncle Josiah. When he learns that some white people had stolen some of Uncle Josiah’s cattle, he goes off looking for them. At the same time, he comes to realise, thanks to Betonie, that the problem is not white people or Indians but the evil in the world. He goes to Mount Taylor, a mountain sacred to Native American peoples, where he meets Ts’eh Montaño. He spends time with her and she helps him come to terms with his condition. He then finds the cattle and, with the help of Ts’eh and her husband, is able to free them. At the end, having escaped his former buddies who are after him, he is finally able to come to terms with his situation and with the stories and legends of his people. He will now become a storyteller.

Silko not only tells a wonderful story, mixing in the stories and legends of her people, she is able to go beyond and give us a portrait of a people who has to adapt to survive in a new world but adapt not to the white people but adapt in their own way, with their own culture and, most importantly, their own stories. This book is, rightly so, often recognised as one of the best Native American novels.

Publishing history

First published 1977 by Viking