Leslie Marmon Silko

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Ceremony Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Leslie Marmon Silko

Leslie Marmon Silko is often known as the first Native American woman author published in the United States. She is of Laguna, Mexican, and Anglo-American heritage, and in her work often explores multicultural themes exploring the intersection and tensions inherent in her background. Silko grew up on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico, then attended the University of New Mexico. She considered becoming a lawyer and briefly attended law school, but soon dropped out to pursue a literary career. She burst onto the writing scene with her first, widely acclaimed short story, “The Man to Send Rain Clouds,” and followed by publishing more stories, and poems as well as her Ceremony in 1977. Silko was awarded the MacArthur Grant in 1981 as well as the Native Writers’ Circle of Americas Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. Silko has since won numerous awards for her novels, short stories, and poetry, and is considered one of the most important living Native American writers. She now lives in Tucson, Arizona.
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Historical Context of Ceremony

In the aftermath of World War II, many veterans returned with no resources to address the mental health issues caused by the intense situations and trauma they faced in the war. Like Tayo, many struggled to go back to their previous daily lives. Some turned to alcohol as a comfort as Harley does, while others committed suicide, unable to cope with the changed worldview. Though after the war the United States was now cemented as a world superpower, the methods used to win the war wreaked havoc on many veterans’ psyches. In a world that had now seen the destruction that an atomic bomb could cause, hope for peace could appear futile. The country as a whole was also laboring to heal from wartime policies. Japanese American citizens had been forced into internment camps during World War II, ostensibly to limit the threat of Japanese-American spies on American soil while the United States fought Japan. Yet these camps served to do nothing other than discriminate against Japanese-American citizens, and in many cases hid corrupt policies designed to take Japanese American possessions and properties and reallocate them to Anglo-American citizens. Native American Reservations also suffered from corrupt practices in the post-WWII era. Some of the most pressing problems facing Native American Reservations were addictions to drugs and alcohol, the loss of history that resulted from education programs that were designed to discredit Native American culture, a widening gap between generations, and continued discrimination by the United States Government – issues that are still in play today. In the 1950s especially, reservations were under attack from the removal and termination policies designed to break up Native American Reservations, relocate residents to urban cities, and retrain Native Americans to give up their cultural identities and become “modern” American citizens. Issues such as these threw the Southwestern regions of the United States into ever-greater cultural clashes as the Native American, Mexican, Anglo-American and Asian-American populations all strived to make a new and better life for themselves.

Other Books Related to Ceremony

Ceremony was one of the first works of what has come to be called by some critics the Native American Renaissance, inspiring other classics of Native American Literature, including authors and work such as Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Reservation Blues, and the works of N. Scott Momaday, including The Way to Rainy Mountain. The themes of veterans returning home and modern man’s alienation from the natural world also run through Simon Ortiz’ From Sand Creek, a work of prose poetry that blends Native American legends with a fictional narrative much like Silko’s work.
Key Facts about Ceremony
  • Full Title: Ceremony
  • When Written: 1973-1975
  • Where Written: Ketchikan, Alaska
  • When Published: 1977
  • Literary Period: Modern
  • Genre: Fiction, Poetry, Native American Literature
  • Setting: American Southwest, New Mexico
  • Climax: Tayo chooses not to kill Emo, though Emo is sadistically killing Harley. Tayo therefore avoids adding more evil to the world and can leave to restore the ecosystem and return his uncle’s cows to their rightful lands.
  • Antagonist: Witchery, intolerance, human greed
  • Point of View: 3rd person omniscient.

Extra Credit for Ceremony

Unexpected hero. Harley was originally supposed to be the main character of the novel, as Silko set out to write comedic short stories about Harley’s family futilely trying to keep Harley away from alcohol. Yet Tayo soon took over the narrative, and Silko realized she had to write a much darker novel exploring the emotionally weighty experiences of Tayo’s return from the war.

The Wright stuff. The poem-stories in Ceremony are influenced by both the Laguna Pueblo oral traditions and the work of the poet James Wright. Wright and Silko met at a writer’s conference in 1974 and began a fruitful correspondence, which benefited both artist’s works. One of the poem-stories in particular, in which Silko describes the witchery that brought white men to Earth, was expanded in Silko’s collection Storyteller.