Ceremony (Silko novel)

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Leslie Marmon Silko - Ceremony.jpg
AuthorLeslie Marmon Silko
Cover artistLee Marmon (First Edition)
CountryUnited States
PublishedMarch 1977 Penguin Books
Media typePaperback
Followed byStoryteller (1981) 

Ceremony is a novel by Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko, first published by Penguin in March 1977. The title Ceremony is based upon the oral traditions and ceremonial practices of the Navajo and Pueblo people.


The main plot line of Ceremony follows the trials of a half-Pueblo, half-white Laguna Pueblo man named Tayo upon returning from World War II. His white doctors say he is suffering from "battle fatigue," or what would today be called post-traumatic stress disorder. However, the novel interweaves several different timelines around Tayo, from both before and after the war, as well as a spiritual timeline where the Thought Woman (also known as Spider Woman), Corn Woman and Reed Woman, the three main Pueblo spiritual entities, create the world and then Hummingbird and Green Bottle Fly must go down to the Fourth World to retrieve Reed Woman to stop a drought. Also in this spiritual timeline is the introduction of the "witchery" and the "destroyers," who are like anti-medicine men, sowing evil and destruction, which the medicine men work to fight against through Ceremony. By the end of the novel, all of these timelines converge in the ceremony of Tayo.

The Tayo we find at the beginning of the novel is struggling with the death of his cousin, Rocky, whom he saw die during the Bataan Death March of 1942, and the death of his uncle Josiah, whom he believes he saw in the face of a Japanese soldier killed by firing squad during the war. While Josiah did die during the war, his death occurred back on the Pueblo, not in the jungles of the Pacific. Rather, Tayo's hallucination and guilt come from two promises he made to Josiah—the first, before he signed up for the war, was to help him wrangle the spotted cattle that Josiah had purchased before the war. The second, made after signing up for the war, was that he would protect Rocky. He believes that he let down Josiah, and that's why he died. Tayo has spent several years at a mental health facility and has gotten no better, but is being released by his doctors. After vomiting from the light at the train station, he returns home to the pueblo to stay with his Auntie, Grandma, and Robert, where he can barely move or get out of bed, and any hint of light makes him vomit.[1]

As a result of his mental health struggles, Tayo turns to alcohol as a way of self-remedying. A fellow WWII veteran on the reservation, Harley, comes to find him, and they ride a burro and a blind mule for miles in the hot sun over the dry earth. The pueblo is in a deep drought that began when, just after Rocky's death all the way back in Japan, Tayo cursed the green bottle fly and the rain because they wouldn't leave him alone, and on the journey to the bar Tayo nearly passes out from heat stroke. But Harley keeps on dragging him to the bar and they eventually make it. They meet up with some other WWII veterans from the pueblo there—Leroy, Pinkie, and Emo. Tayo and Emo, it turns out, have a history. Once, when they were all drinking together at a bar, Tayo stabbed Emo with a broken bottle after Emo brought out his war trophy—the teeth of a Japanese officer that he'd killed. But despite the tension, they share stories about the times they slept with white women, and about how they got nothing for fighting in the white man's war.

Looking to help Tayo, his grandmother brings a medicine man named Ku'oosh. He takes Tayo through a ceremony, but is ineffective against Tayo's battle fatigue, likely because Ku'oosh can't understand modern warfare: "Even if he could have taken the old man to see the target areas, even if he could have led him through the fallen jungle trees and muddy craters of torn earth to show him the dead, the old man would not have believed anything so monstrous." [2]

Tayo is sent to another medicine man named Betonie, who is a slightly different type of medicine man, because he incorporates elements of the modern world into his ceremonies. He tells Tayo about the witchery, people who are bent on destabilizing the world, and the Destroyers, who will stop at nothing to destroy the world and its inhabitants. Betonie tells Tayo that he must complete the ceremony, and that the need to complete the ceremony is far bigger than he is. In fact, the fate of the Pueblo people themselves depends upon him. In order to complete the ceremony that Betonie has appointed him, Tayo sets out to get back Josiah's spotted cattle that were stolen when Tayo left.

Tayo remembers that the cattle were heading south, so he begins by riding that way. Along the way, he meets a woman named Ts'eh, whom he sleeps with and who gives him a warm place to sleep and a hot meal during a particularly trying time of his journey. He eventually finds where the cattle must be, caged in by a giant fence on the property of a wealthy white rancher. Tayo cuts the fence and is leading the cattle out when he is found by some of the man's employees. In the chase, he falls off his horse and is knocked unconscious. When Tayo awakens, he's been picked up by the white men, who ask him where he was "going so goddamn fast?" [3] However, the tracks of a huge cougar distract them, and Tayo is let go.

He soon meets a hunter carrying a large buck across his back, singing a Pueblo song. They leave the ranch together and return to the house of Ts'eh, who has trapped Tayo's cattle in the arroyo using a couple of branches and calmed his horse before they arrived. The next day, Tayo departs with the cattle, driving them back to the pueblo.

Early the next year, Tayo decides that he has to go back to the ranch to tend the cattle, but really he wants to go back to see Ts'eh. They spend lots of time together picking flowers and herbs, until she tells him that there will be people coming after him. And shortly thereafter, Harley and Leroy show up and ask him to go drink with them again. They go out drinking, but the next morning Tayo comes to his senses, abandoning them with the truck and tearing out the truck's wiring so they can't come after him.

Later that night, near the site of the Trinity nuclear test, Tayo hears screaming. Emo has Harley tied up, and is skinning him alive, trying to lure Tayo out to fight. Tayo strongly considers it, but in contrast to their past confrontation where Tayo stabbed Emo, he abstains and does nothing, letting Emo and Pinkie kill Harley and Leroy.

Tayo goes back home to the pueblo and inside a kiva he tells the elders, including Ku'oosh, that he has seen Ts'eh, whom they take as a spirit woman, possibly Reed Woman, and expect that the rain will return and the pueblo will thrive again. It turns out to be true. The spotted cattle thrive, the pueblo becomes green again, and after Pinkie dies of a mysterious gunshot, Emo is banned from the reservation. Tayo has completed the ceremony, and the pueblo is safe again.


According to Peter G. Beidler and Robert M. Nelson of Richmond University, the novel is composed of six timelines: The main timeline, Tayo and Rocky's boyhood, Tayo and Rocky's early manhood, Tayo and Rocky's enlistment and deployment in WWII, Tayo's return to the pueblo, and the mythic action of Spider Woman, Hummingbird, Green Bottle Fly, and Reed Woman, as well as the witchery and the Destroyers.

Main Timeline

May 1948: Tayo is lying in bed, sick at his Auntie's house. Harley arrives on a burro and convinces him to go and get a beer.

May 1948: Ceremony with Ku'oosh fails.

Late July 1948: Tayo says he is better, but the old men believe that he needs a stronger ceremony, so they refer him to Betonie. Tayo leaves for a while and meets Harley, Leroy and Helen Jean, who go as far away as San Fidel. He wakes up in the morning and vomits, and finally sees the horrible truth about his friends' drunkenness.

Late September 1948: Tayo goes to Mt. Taylor on his ceremony, trying to retrieve the spotted cattle. He meets Ts'eh, sleeps with her, cuts the fence and retrieves the cattle from the white rancher, meets the hunter, and brings the cattle home.

Winter 1948–1949 Tayo lives with Auntie, Grandma, and Robert before going back to the ranch to look after the cattle

Summer 1949: Tayo meets Ts'eh, they pick flowers and herbs, Tayo gets a yellow bull to breed with his cattle, and Ts'eh warns him that "they" will be coming for him at the end of the summer.

Late September 1949: During the fall equinox, Tayo gets drunk with Harley and Leroy before coming to his senses and disabling their truck. He and Emo have their final confrontation near Jackpile Uranium mine and Trinity Site, and opts not to stab Emo with the screwdriver, letting him kill Harley and Leroy. The next day, Tayo tells Ku'oosh and the elders in a kiva at old Laguna everything that he has seen.

Tayo and Rocky's Boyhood

C. 1922: Tayo is born.

-Drought— animals sold

-Tayo's childhood in the slums at Gallup

-Laura (Tayo's mother) takes Tayo to Aunt Thelma

-Tayo spills grandma's wicker basket

-Tayo, eight, tries to ride the pinto

-Tayo takes colts to the mountain with Josiah

-Tayo and Rocky learn they cannot control the black gelding

-Josiah brings fever medicine to Tayo

-Tayo helps Josiah siphon water from the spring

-Tayo and Rocky climb Bone Mesa

-Josiah tells Tayo the story of green bottle fly

-Laura dies

-Tayo learns to dissect frogs in school

-Tayo and Rocky drink Benny's wine

Tayo and Rocky's Early Manhood

-Tayo goes to Indian school

-White teachers make fun of "superstitions" of Indian children

-Tayo, Rocky, Josiah and Robert go hunting and kill a deer, place corn meal on its nose

-Josiah tells Tayo that only humans resist

-Auntie tells Tayo about his mother's naked escapades

-Rocky excels at football

-Josiah has affair with Night Swan

-Josiah buys spotted cattle, Tayo promises to stay and help with them

-Tayo has sex with Night Swan

Tayo and Rocky in the Army

-Tayo and Rocky enlist as "brothers" and Tayo promises to bring Rocky back

-Tayo and Rocky are blessed by old white woman in Oakland before they ship out

1941: Harley, Emo, and Leroy are at Wake Island

-Tayo sees Josiah in the faces of Japanese prisoners killed by firing squad

-Josiah dies on the pueblo, and the Night Swan leaves town

-Tayo and Rocky taken prisoner

April–May 1942: Rocky is wounded, and dies on Bataan Death March; Tayo curses the rain and the flies

-Drought begins in New Mexico

-Tayo in POW camp

1945: Iwo Jima

July 16, 1945: Trinity Site Test in New Mexico, first atomic bomb test ever

Tayo Returns From War

1945–1948: Tayo in veterans hospital mental ward

-Tayo is sent home; train station where Tayo vomits and people stare

-Tayo takes train home to pueblo

-Harley abandons sheep at Montano

-Emo tells Matucci story

-Tayo goes drinking in Dixie bar with Harley, Leroy, Pinkie and Emo, and attacks Emo with a beer bottle

-Grandma contacts Ku'oosh

-Ku'oosh's ceremony fails

-Grandma gets new kerosene heater

Mythic Action

Creation: Ts'its'tsi'nako (Thought Woman or Spider Woman) and her daughter/sisters Nau'ts'ity'i (Corn Woman) and I'cts'ity'i (Reed Woman) set life in motion

Recovery/Transformation: The Kurean prayer for sunrise

Departure: Corn Woman scolds Reed Woman for being lazy, and she departs; Drought begins

Departure and Recovery: Pa'caya'nyi introduces Ck'o'yo medicine, and the People forget their obligation to Nau'ts'ity'i

The People must send someone to ask for forgiveness. They see that Hummingbird does not look starved like the rest of them, and he tells them he has seen her in the Fourth World, the one below this one.
Hummingbird teaches the People to have Green Bottle Fly be their messenger
Hummingbird and Green Bottle Fly travel to the Fourth World to ask forgiveness
Nau'ts'ity'i tells Hummingbird and Green Bottle Fly that Buzzard needs to purify the town
Hummingbird and Green Bottle Fly take gifts to Buzzard, who asks for tobacco
Hummingbird and Green Bottle Fly return to Nau'ts'ity'i to ask her what tobacco is; She tells them to see Caterpillar
Caterpillar gives tobacco to Hummingbird and Green Bottle Fly, and they take it back to Buzzard
Buzzard purifies the town, Nau'ts'ity'i returns, and the storm clouds return


Silko began early work on Ceremony while living in Ketchikan, Alaska, in 1973 after moving there with her children, Robert and Kazimir, from Chinle, Arizona. The family relocated so her then-husband John Silko could assume a position in the Ketchikan legal services office. Ketchikan was John Silko's hometown.

Silko held a contract with Viking Press to produce a collection of short stories or a novel under editor Richard Seaver. Having no interest in creating a novel, Silko began work on a short story set in the American Southwest revolving around the character Harley and the comical exploits of his alcoholism. During this early work, the character Tayo appeared as a minor character suffering from "battle fatigue" upon his return from World War II. The character fascinated Silko enough to remake the story with Tayo as the narrative's protagonist. The papers from this early work are held at the Yale University library.

In February 1974, Silko took a break from writing Ceremony to assume the role of a visiting writer at a middle school in Bethel, Alaska. It was during this time Silko penned the early work on her witchery poetry featured in Ceremony, wherein she asserts that all things European were created by the words of an anonymous Tribal witch. This writing plays a formidable role in the novel's theme of healing. An expanded version of this work is featured in Storyteller.

The poetic works found in Ceremony were inspired by the Laguna oral tradition and the work of poet James Wright, with whom Silko developed a friendship after they met at a writer's conference at Grand Valley State University in June 1974, and years of written correspondence. These letters would be featured in the work The Delicacy and Strength of Lace edited by Ann Wright, wife of James Wright, and published in November 1985 after the poet's death.

Silko completed the manuscript to Ceremony in July 1975 shortly before returning to New Mexico.


  • Tayo, World War II veteran of Laguna Pueblo and Anglo descent
  • Betonie, mixed-blooded Navajo healer
  • Ku'oosh, Laguna kiva priest
  • Uncle Josiah, confidant to Tayo who died during World War II
  • Ts'eh, a Native American woman whom Tayo loves and lives within the forest
  • Rocky, Tayo's cousin. Died during the Bataan Death March
  • Harley, friend to Tayo and fellow World War II veteran
  • Old Grandma, family matriarch and believer in customary pueblo religion
  • Auntie, Rocky's mother and primary care-taker of Tayo during his childhood. Catholic convert who rejects the Pueblo religion
  • Laura, known primarily as "Little Sister." Tayo's mother and sister to Auntie. Known for causing controversy to her family for becoming impregnated by a Mexican man and for her rampant alcoholism
  • Uncle Robert, Auntie's husband
  • Emo, veteran and antagonist to Tayo
  • Pinkie, fellow Veteran and follower of Emo
  • The Night Swan, girlfriend of Uncle Josiah whom Tayo later sleeps with
  • Ulibarri, cousin of the Night Swan from whom Josiah purchases the cattle


The following are symbols that are embedded in Ceremony:

  • Storytelling: In Ceremony there are no conventional chapters and a part of the novel is written in prose, whereas other parts are written in a poetic form. The parts that are written in prose are the main plot and the poems are ancient stories of the Laguna culture. Through the prose, which stands for the present, and the poems, which stand for the past, the past and the present are connected in the novel (70) [4]. The past and present are connected through the plot of the prose. The novel starts and ends with “Sunrise”, therefore the novel ends by returning to the beginning of the novel, reaffirming a time and space that is cyclical and connected to the rhythms of the earth and the universe (93) [5]. Furthermore, ending the novel as it started emphasizes how through storytelling things become timeless and immortal (45) [6]. Tayo's grandmother says: “It seems like I already heard these stories before... only thing is, the names sound different” (242) [7]. She feels like everything happened before, because by writing down the stories they become immortal and you can tell them over again. One example for retaining objects and concepts throughout time through storytelling is the incorporation of landscape or traditions of Native Americans into their stories. Retaining landscape through storytelling prevents the Native American from losing their land, because the civilization destroys the landscape with nuclear bombs and waste (484) [8]. This is shown when Tayo was at “Trinity Site, where they exploded the first atomic bomb […].” (228) [9]. Moreover, the novel is structured in timelines, as for example Tayo's boyhood and manhood, his time in the army and his return from war and the mythic actions. Apart from the function of storytelling words are very important for the Laguna oral tradition. The responsibility of humans is to tell stories, because words do not exist alone, they need a story. (229) [10]. Betonie and Tayo's grandmother tell various stories and therefore fulfill this responsibility. The significance and the power of words are emphasized by Tayo cursing the rain with words and by the following appearance of the drought (230) [10].  Based on the Spiderwoman one can also see how powerful words and thoughts are. The Spiderwoman is a mystical creature who set the world and whatever she says or thinks appears (Preface) [11]. When she vocalizes her thoughts and by doing so names things, they become reality (230) [10].
  • Ceremony and Healing: Through storytelling myths are handed down and they teach the history of the Laguna people and how they live (71) [4]. They also connect the past with the present (71) [4], because myths are old and when they are being told, they become a part of the present. The purpose of ceremonies is the transformation of someone from one condition to another (71) [4] as in Tayo's case the transformation from diseased to healing. Ceremonies are ritual enactments of myths (71) [4] which incorporate the art of storytelling and the myths and rituals of the Native Americans (70) [4]. They are important for Tayo's identity construction as one can see through his mental development after his experience with Betonie and the ceremony (144) [4]. In the novel “healing” means the recovery of the self and the return to the roots (45)[6] and one important part of the process of healing is rejecting witchery (54)[6]. Tayo rejects witchery when he refuses to drink alcohol his friends offer him (144)[12]. He does not only refuse to drink alcohol, he also distances himself from his old friends and a life full of violence. The search for the Laguna culture and its rituals also helps him to deal with turning away from witchery (54)[13]. He respects the rituals of his culture by being open for the ceremonies which is another important aspect for his healing (54)[6]. Tayo is being taught spirituality by Betonie, this way he internalizes the Laguna culture (133)[14]. It is important that the Laguna community, e.g. his aunt, who tells Tayo to go to Betonie, helps Tayo with his healing, because that way Tayo can overcome the alienation he feels caused by him being half-breed. Betonie also helps Tayo to recover through ceremonies which relates Tayo's American identity to his Laguna identity and therefore combines his past with his present (150)[14]. The fact that Tayo learns more about and experiences ceremonies is another important aspect which leads him to healing, because he learns about his culture. The appreciation of the Laguna culture is essential for his healing. He still needs a spiritual ceremony after the white man's medicine, which indicates that he needs to experience his old and his new culture (53)[6]. When Tayo covers the deer's dead body at the deer-hunting, which is a gesture performed out of respect, he shows that he initiated Laguna myths, because Laguna mythology connects all living creatures (48)[6]. After the ceremony Tayo's dreams no longer haunt him, because he learns to deal with his past and he is able to link the American to the Laguna culture (151)[14]. The cattle function as spirit guides, which leads him to healing (374) [15], because through them he learns to forgive himself for the drought (376) [15]. Tayo wants to find the cattle to bring back the rain and heal his emotional wounds (373)[15].
  • Identity: The identity of the protagonist Tayo is mostly influenced by his ethnicity. Tayo is described as “half-breed” because, in contrast to his mother, who is a Native American woman, his father is white and does not belong to the Laguna community. His father left the family and Tayo and his mother were supported by his aunt and her husband. The Laguna community in which he has grown up segregates him and he experiences despair for not being fully Native American (71) [4]. That he is not trained or educated in the Laguna way of life supports this fact (71) [4]. Therefore, Tayo struggles between white and Native American culture and he feels like not belonging to any culture at all. The Laguna people believe that every place, object, landscape or animal relates to stories of their ancestors (2) [14]. To develop this cultural identity it is important to take care of the land and the animals. By taking care of the cattle Tayo begins to take a more active and creative role in relations to nature and to his people which supports development of his cultural identity (248) [16]. On top of that the cattle function as a symbol for being alienated and different, because they are a mix of different breeds, as well. This is described as positive because the “half-breed” cattle are, like Tayo, strong, robust, and can survive hard times. Therefore, they can be seen as a leitmotif for surviving (367) [15]. Serving in the war as an American soldier also enhances Tayo's identity struggle. When he was in the war, he represented the United States, but by returning to his hometown he feels invisible as an American and drifts in time and space (132) [14]. By laying down the uniform of an American soldier, Tayo, and also the other Native American veterans, are not recognized as Americans anymore. This is underlined by the funeral of Tayo's friends Harley and Leroy. Tayo and his friends struggle to shape their identity between two different sorts of signifying realms, one the "official" American identity (signified by the flag) and the other, that of the erased Native American (signified by the corpse) ( 490) [8]. Furthermore, he has a trauma from war and feels responsible for the death of his cousin Rocky. Moreover, the city of Gallup represents the struggle of American and Native identity. As being a former Native American city, which was built on Native American territory, Gallup changed into a city that relies on the “Indian” tourism industry. The white Americans suppress the real presence of Native Americans and push them to the borders of the city (491) [8]. The Native Americans who lived in the city of Gallup and felt related to the land were pushed back to a specific zoning place under the bridge to divide them from the white civilization (265) [8]. They use the former image of the city to attract tourists and make profit. Now only ethnically mixed outcasts live there (265) [8]. As Tayo states: “I saw Navajos in torn jackets, standing outside the bar. There were Zunis and Hopis there, too, even a few Lagunas.” (98) [17].
  • Land: The landscape in Ceremony has several functions. The rituals and ceremonies take place in the desert which functions as the catalyst for the protagonist's transformation (39) [6]. Furthermore, the physical space reflects Tayo's psychological state, which highlights the bond of the Native Americans and the land of their ancestors (40) [6]. During the war for example he felt like nature is punishing him with the rain (40) [6] and when his pain increases the rain increases, too. After months of drought, for which Tayo feels responsible, because in the war he wished that the rain would stop, the rain and greenery come back after he is healed again. Elements of nature are in harmony with the events in the story. In the Native American cultures, the landscape and the people are related to each other, land and people are one entity (53) [13]. When the officers recruit Tayo and his cousin Rocky, sand swirls and wind blows through the landscape (40) [13]. Furthermore, the rain comes back after Tayo's healing. To realize that physical space in form of the landscape is a part of Tayo's identity fuels his healing (41) [13]. The mountains and the desert for example represent physical space.

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Silko, Leslie Marmon (1977). Ceremony. New York: Penguin Books. p. 31. ISBN 978-01400-86836.
  2. ^ Silko, Leslie Marmon (1977). Ceremony. New York: Penguin Books. p. 36. ISBN 978-01400-86836.
  3. ^ Silko, Leslie Marmon (1977). Ceremony. New York: Penguin Books. p. 199. ISBN 978-01400-86836.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Gilderhus, Nancy (1994). "The Art of Storytelling in Leslie Marmon Silko's 'Ceremony'". The English Journal. 83 (2): 70.
  5. ^ Aldama, Arturo J. (2001). Disrupting Savagism: Intersecting Chicana/o, Mexican Immigrant, and Native American Struggles for Self-Representation. Duke University Press. pp. 71–94.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Farouk Fouad, Jehan, Alwakeel, Saeed (2013). "Representations of the Desert in Silko's "Ceremony" and Al-Koni's "The Bleeding of the Stone"". Journal of Comparative Poetics (33): 36–62.
  7. ^ Silko, Leslie Marmon (1977). Ceremony. New York: Pinguin. p. 242. ISBN 978-01400-86836.
  8. ^ a b c d e Piper, Karen (1997). "Police Zones: Territory and Identity in Leslie Marmon Silko's 'Ceremony'". American Indian Quarterly. 21 (3): 483–497.
  9. ^ Silko, Leslie Marmon (1977). Ceremony. New York: Pinguin. p. 228. ISBN 978-01400-86836.
  10. ^ a b c Swan, Edith (1988). "Laguna Symbolic Geography and Silko's "Ceremony"". American Indian Quarterly. 12 (3): 229–249.
  11. ^ Silko, Leslie Marmon (1977). Ceremony. New York: Pinguin. pp. Preface. ISBN 978-01400-86836.
  12. ^ Silko, Leslie Marmon (1977). Ceremony. New York: Pinguin. p. 144. ISBN 978-01400-86836.
  13. ^ a b c d Flores, Toni (1989). "Claiming and Making: Ethnicity, Gender, and the Common Sense in Leslie Marmon Silko's 'Ceremony' and Zora Neale Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God'". Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. 10 (3): 52–58.
  14. ^ a b c d e Teuton, Sean Kicummah (2008). Red Land, Red Power: Grounding Knowledge in the American Indian Novel. Duke University Press. pp. 121–155.
  15. ^ a b c d Blumenthal, Susan (1990). "Spotted Cattle and Deer: Spirit Guides and Symbols of Endurance and Healing in 'Ceremony'". American Indian Quarterly. 14 (4): 367–377.
  16. ^ Holm, Sharon (2008). "The Lie of the Land: Native Sovereignty, Indian Literary Nationalism and Early Indigenism in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony". The American Indian Quarterly. 32 (3): 243–274.
  17. ^ Silko, Leslie Marmon (1977). Ceremony. New York: Pinguin. p. 98. ISBN 978-01400-86836.