When Tayo returns to New Laguna from the Veteran’s Hospital, Auntie takes care of him. Tayo knows that Auntie does this out of duty, not love, the way that she took care of him as a child to cover up the shame of Little Sister (her sister and Tayo’s mother) sleeping with a white man. Tayo knows that Auntie never loved him as much as she loved Rocky, her biological son. Auntie resents Tayo for surviving the war while Rocky did not, even as she relishes the sympathy and respect that Rocky’s death gains for her from her fellow Christians.
Though the Pueblo people are supposed to honor family above all things, Auntie does not accept Tayo because he is of mixed blood. Auntie insists on cultural purity among the Pueblo people, ironically making her own family weaker in the process. Especially once Rocky is gone, Auntie focuses only on her own purity rather than welcoming the chance to strengthen her family in its time of mourning.
Auntie still makes Rocky and Josiah’s beds when she comes into the room to check on Tayo. Tayo gets off his own bed so that Auntie can clean his sheets. Tayo tries to sit in a chair, but Auntie forces him into Rocky’s bed. Laying in Rocky’s bed makes Tayo vomit. Old Grandma comes in and Tayo blames his upset stomach on the light coming in from the window. Old Grandma shuts the blinds, and Tayo lays in the darkness thinking of Rocky and Josiah.
Auntie forcing Tayo in Rocky’s bed suggests that Auntie wants to have Rocky back instead of Tayo. Tayo is, of course, unable to be Rocky, and does not want to dishonor Rocky’s memory by trying. His upset stomach shows how Tayo is not in tune with his Native heritage or the world because he is so focused on the loss of Rocky and Josiah. In closing the blinds, Grandma shows that she understands Tayo’s lack of harmony with the outside world. The implication is that her connection to her own native history and senses gives her that understanding.
Old Grandma and Robert, Auntie’s husband, mostly leave Tayo alone as he recovers. Now that Josiah is dead, Robert must take care of all the ranch work. Tayo offers to help Robert when he gets better, realizing that he never would have spoken to Robert if Josiah was still alive. Robert gratefully accepts, but Tayo does not recover quickly. Finally, after many days, old Grandma suggests they call a medicine man to help Tayo. Auntie refuses, saying that a medicine man will be unable to help Tayo because of Tayo’s white blood.
The silence and distance between Tayo and the other members of his family seems unnatural. The novel suggests that Tayo should be closer to his grandmother and to Robert. One way to recover from the tragedy of Josiah’s death would be to get closer to his remaining family, but Tayo is not yet able to do so. Grandmother stays faithful to traditional Pueblo ways by suggesting a medicine man, but Auntie shows both her distaste for the old rituals and her resentment over Tayo’s mixed blood by refusing.
Old Grandma sends for Ku’oosh despite Auntie’s protests that a medicine man will reignite gossip about Tayo’s mother and her wild ways. When he comes, Ku’oosh sits at Tayo’s bedside and speaks to Tayo in the Laguna language. Ku’oosh describes a cave that Tayo remembers exploring as a child with Rocky. Ku’oosh then tells Tayo that the world is fragile, choosing a specific Laguna word for fragile that connotes an intricate web of entangled processes.
Ku’oosh’s care with language reinforces the power of stories, as one wrong word can have undesired consequences. Ku’oosh explicitly mentions how the world is interconnected. The danger in these connections is that one misstep can be enough to knock the entire world out of balance. According to Auntie, Tayo has disrupted the world’s balance since his birth because of his mixed blood. She continues to believe in purity as the answer to imbalance.
Ku’oosh asks Tayo about his experience in the white people’s war, and tells Tayo that Tayo has to do something to help heal the world now that he is home. Tayo frets over his part in the war, as the mechanical weapons he had to use in the war mean that Tayo doesn’t even know for sure if he personally killed someone. The novel provides the lyrics to a song that describes the old ritual Scalp Ceremony meant to honor and purify warriors who had touched dead enemies. Ku’oosh explains that the Scalp Ceremony no longer cures warriors, however, after the interference of white people in the Native American world.
Ku’oosh (and the novel) explicitly ties the war to white people, making “white culture” the cause of death and destruction. Modern, mechanical methods of war, in which death happens not face to face but from a distance, are far different from the old Pueblo ways of warfare. These changes mean that the ceremony meant to help warriors will no longer be enough to cure the sickness that comes from causing the loss of life. Life is sacred in the Pueblo philosophy – and even life taken in battle must be given respect – but the mass war of “white culture” that was on display in WWII seems to take life for granted.
Tayo is dejected after Ku’oosh leaves, convinced that his actions in the war cannot be cured. Auntie comes in with Indian tea and a bowl of sweet cornmeal mush. Though Tayo no longer cares if he lives at all, he is finally able to eat the cornmeal and keep it in his stomach. Gradually, Tayo begins to gain strength and eat again.
Though Ku’oosh’s Scalp Ceremony may not have cured Tayo completely, Tayo’s conversation with the medicine man seems to have brought Tayo closer to peace with the old Native ways – indicated by the fact that Tayo’s stomach is better able to take in food and nourish Tayo’s body.
Tayo goes out with Emo and Harley to a bar with some other war veterans. The war vets all spend their disability checks on beer and whiskey, and the alcohol helps Tayo numb his anger and loss. The veterans tell stories of nights they went out on leave in Los Angeles. Their uniforms earned attention from women, even white women. Tayo knows that these women were attracted only to the uniform, not the Native American men inside them.
The call of alcohol is tempting because it allows the veterans to ignore or hide from the emptiness of their lives. When they are drunk, the veterans can pretend they are still a valued part of American society, the way they were as soldiers during the war. Acceptance in American society is shown through sexual desirability. Modern American culture, as seen in the actions of white women, was apparently happy to use Native Americans as soldiers (thus respecting the uniform), but does not accept them as people.
The other veterans push Tayo to tell a story from the glory days as a Marine. Tayo stands and begins to tell a story about Indians who went to war and earned the respect of their country, only to return to discrimination and second-class treatment once the war was over. Tayo invokes his half-breed status to “speak for both sides,” and call out white people for their prejudice. Harley and Leroy force Tayo to sit back down, noticing that the rest of the bar is getting nervous. Tayo calms himself, knowing that the other veterans just want to have a good time.
Tayo doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere due to his white blood, as white Americans treat him poorly for his Native American looks and other Native Americans distrust Tayo’s white heritage. Tayo, by speaking for both sides, has the potential to be a bridge between these two conflicting cultures. Yet the other veterans do not want to grapple with the difficult, though possibly valuable work of bringing cultures together.
Tayo knows that the other veterans use liquor and the attention of white women to feel like they belong in America, not caring that it is white people’s cultural dominance that makes them feel like outsiders in the first place. Tayo begins to cry for his friends, knowing the other veterans will think that he is crying over what the Japanese soldiers did to Rocky. Yet Tayo cannot bring himself to hate the Japanese.
White culture is portrayed as destructive within the novel because it does not accept any other cultures – it seeks only dominance. The other Native Americans have unfortunately internalized the lie that white culture should be dominant, as shown by their desire for white women more than any other sexual partners. Tayo’s inability to hate the Japanese who were supposedly his enemies shows that Tayo is willing to embrace different cultures, that he sees not other cultures as the enemy but hate itself as the enemy.
Tayo flashes back to carrying Rocky on a blanket in the Philippine jungle. Two Japanese soldiers, one short, one tall, stop Tayo and the corporal. The tall soldier reminds Tayo of a classmate he once knew at Indian school in Fort Defiance. Tayo tries to talk to the Japanese soldier about school, but the soldier is simply confused. The Japanese soldiers put Rocky on the ground, cover Rocky with the blanket, and then point their rifle at Rocky’s face. Tayo turns away, later resenting himself for not listening for the gun shot. The corporal comforts Tayo that Rocky was already dead as the Japanese soldiers take them to a prison camp.
Tayo again brings the Philippine jungle and the Southwestern region together by conflating a Japanese soldier with an old Native American classmate. Tayo did not hear the gunshot that killed Rocky, mirroring the way he did not know if he had personally killed someone. Part of respecting the sanctity of life means bearing witness to death instead of ignoring it or allowing it to go unhonored.
Back in Tayo’s present, Harley checks to see if Tayo is feeling better yet after his “sunstroke” attack. Harley tries to give Tayo some grapes to eat, but Tayo can’t handle the sound of Harley’s teeth crunching the grape seeds. Tayo walks a bit away from Harley, coming to a stream that is still flowing despite the drought.
The destructive force of crunching the grape seeds reminds Tayo of the battle field. The still flowing stream in the drought indicates that despite the fact that nature is out of balance, it still survives, has the potential to heal.
Tayo remembers Uncle Josiah telling him about this particular stream, when they were rinsing off with ice cold water after a hard day’s work on the ranch. Josiah said that this spring is where the Laguna people first came from and they have to remember to respect that land as their birthplace. Even in drought years, people must keep in mind that wind and dust are as much a part of life as sun and sky. Josiah explains that people bring the drought when they forget how to act properly. Tayo kneels down and drinks from the stream.
At the stream, Tayo literally comes back to the source of his Native heritage, starting a journey that will bring him back in harmony with the Pueblo traditions and the land that they live on. Yet this harmony means balance in the purest sense of the word. Even the wind and dust – ostensibly harmful aspects of the drought – are necessary for life. According to Josiah’s advice, Tayo can help end the drought by acting in the proper Pueblo traditions. Tayo drinking from the stream, bringing nature directly into himself, is a signal that he is starting to reconnect.
The novel shares a story about a town that was visited by a Ck’o’yo magician. All the townspeople were interested in his magic, even those that were supposed to be caring for the Corn Mother altar. The magician makes water flow out of rock and animals appear out of air. The people are so entranced that they stop caring about anything but magic. The Corn Mother, Nau’ts’ity’i, becomes angry at the people’s neglect and takes away all plants, baby animals, and rain clouds from the town.
The Ck’o’yo magic can stand in for many things that distract the Pueblo people from caring for the land – that is, the Corn Mother – the way they should. The magic seems to represent all of the wonders of modern life that distance people from the work it takes to create things by promising instant gratification. Silko points out the ways that modern American culture focuses on the material things, harming people and the environment.
Harley and Tayo continue toward the bar on their burro and mule. They finally flag down a truck and catch a ride, leaving the animals by the side of the road. The bar is dark and dingy, but Tayo doesn’t mind because he can focus on his memories of Rocky.
While darkness usually represents a space of fear or uncertainty, for Tayo the darkness offers space for reflection and peace. Again, Silko flips the literary device of using white for good and black for evil by making darkness a healing opportunity.
Tayo thinks about a time when he and Rocky went deer hunting. After they fell a deer, Tayo had hesitantly stroked the deer’s head while Rocky sharpened his knife. Tayo covers the deer’s head with his jacket when Rocky starts gutting the deer. Rocky asks why Tayo did that, though Tayo knows that Rocky remembers the old ritual of respectfully covering a deer’s eyes before cutting its flesh.
Tayo follows the old tradition (covering the deer’s head) by using a modern element (his jacket), showing how the ceremonies can be adapted to modern life. Rocky’s question of why Tayo covered the deer’s head is not a question about the action itself. It is a question about the sentiment behind the ritual, asking why it is even necessary to give respect to the deer when humans have weapons that Rocky believes makes them more powerful than nature.
Rocky is a straight A, star football and track player at the boarding school in Albuquerque. To continue looking successful in the eyes of his teachers and coaches, Rocky ignores all the old, native ways. Old Grandma scolds Rocky for rejecting his family, but Auntie is proud that her son will redeem their family in the white world.
Rocky shows how Native Americans can completely reject the old traditions in favor of “white culture.” At first, this seems to be a good thing for Rocky, as he is successful in all the ways that matter for modern America. Yet Rocky has to leave his native heritage behind to do so, suggesting that modern America has no place for Native peoples.
Rocky finishes gutting the deer, then he and Tayo each take a pinch of cornmeal to feed the deer’s spirit so that the deer herds will not be offended and refuse to come back the next hunting season. Rocky is embarrassed to think of all the rituals he knows that old Grandma and Josiah will do with the deer’s head and carcass, but Tayo appreciates the ceremonies that honor the deer.
Rocky may be doubtful of the ceremonies, but he continues to do some of the most important actions. The cornmeal “nourishes” the deer’s spirit, just as the deer will give food to the Pueblo people. The ceremony forms a relationship of mutual care between the humans and the deer, rather than humans dominating nature as is typical in the white culture portrayed in the novel.
Back in the bar, Harley jokes with Tayo about how quiet Tayo is, though Tayo knows that Harley is really worried about the last time Tayo went to a bar and almost killed a fellow veteran named Emo. Tayo reassures Harley that he won’t be using any broken beer bottles as weapons tonight. Everyone blames the attack on either an old grudge between Emo and Tayo since grade school, or the fact that Tayo was drunk and is a mentally unstable war veteran.
Rather than seeing silence as peace and meditation, Harley views silence as scary and dangerous – a sign that he has become addicted to white culture’s constant noise. Though Tayo’s true reasons for attacking Emo are left ambiguous here, the reasons other people ascribe to the violence show the damaging conception of Native Americans as savages who cannot handle modern life.
The novel returns to the Corn Mother story, explaining how the people were starving after the Corn Mother took the rain. The people notice that hummingbird is still fat and healthy. Hummingbird explains that three worlds below this world, the plants and flowers are still blooming. Hummingbird flies down there and has plenty to eat.
By intertwining Tayo’s story with the Corn Mother story, Silko asserts that Tayo’s “modern” story is just as vital to Pueblo culture as the Corn Mother story is. The parallels between the stories further suggests Silko’s ideas about how things both stay the same and must change, how adaptation of a story or ritual can in fact allow it to continue to access ancient truths and knowledge in a changing world. Put another way: the structure of Silko’s book reflects her ideas about the necessity of adaptation. At the same time, the Corn Mother story offers a kind of “interpretive key” for Tayo’s story: in this part, Hummingbird has to go down to the fourth world – a more spiritual world in the Pueblo cosmology – to find sustenance. People are not able to reach this fourth world because they have lost touch with their spiritual roots, just as Tayo and the Pueblo around him have.
In the bar, Harley laughs that Tayo was lucky not to go to jail for what he did to Emo. Tayo thinks back to the night he attacked Emo. Emo was sitting in a bar, drinking and ranting about how Indians are mistreated in America. Emo thinks tribes should take back everything that white people stole from them, starting with stealing white women. Tayo feels sick, thinking that white people don’t have everything because only Indians have droughts.
Though the novel is sympathetic to the fact that Native Americans face oppression in modern America, Emo’s violent reaction is clearly the wrong response. Again, white women are used as the symbol for acceptance in America. Tayo thinks that white people do not “have droughts,” meaning that white people are privileged enough not to notice when the environment is not in proper balance to sustain farming. White people ignore the problem, or use overwhelming force to allow themselves to ignore it, thereby stripping the land further.
The other veterans laugh at Tayo as he silently drinks while they all talk. Tayo goes to the bathroom, thinking about how humans have the power to “create” water. When Tayo returns to his friends, Emo insults Tayo for being a half-breed with white blood. Tayo refuses to respond, thinking about what the war taught him about Indian women who sleep with white men and Indian men who sleep with white women.
Humans may cause destruction to the land, but they also have the power to replenish it if they are careful. While it is a bit unorthodox for Tayo to realize this in the bathroom, it is another sign that the novel accepts natural processes without embarrassment, unlike modern “white” culture. Modern culture also surrounds sexual relationships in shame, choosing to prioritize cultural purity and keep Native Americans and white people separate. Though Emo wants to sleep with white women as a status symbol, he hypocritically hates any sign that Native American blood has been diluted with white blood.
The novel shares one of the stories the veterans tell, about an Indian man who pretends to be Italian in order to sleep with a blonde woman. Pinkie and Leroy laugh at Emo’s story then tease Emo about the time a redhead found out he was really an Indian (because another soldier called him Geronimo) and fainted in Emo’s bed. Emo laughs, but Tayo can tell Emo is angry.
Native Americans may be able to sleep with white women, but they have to lie about their heritage to do so. This is another sign that Native Americans are not free to openly express their identities in modern American culture. Furthermore, it points to a future in which Native Americans will be unable to procreate or pass their Native heritage to another generation. Emo wants to believe that he is accepted, but he cannot hide his true identity forever, causing him to lash out in shame and anger.
Emo turns on Tayo and jeers at him for never telling any war stories. Emo then takes out a little bag and spills teeth onto the table. Emo explains that these teeth come from Japanese soldiers he took prisoner. Tayo fells incredibly sick and tense, drinking more to try and relax himself. Emo continues to talk about how they should have blown up all the Japanese people with the atomic bomb when they had the chance. Tayo flashes back to a childhood memory of smashing melons in the garden, violently describing the way the melon rinds exploded and killed ants and flies.
Emo shows no respect for the lives he took, reducing entire people to the teeth he took from them. The white teeth call to mind a view of white culture that reduces people to tools. This dishonor is pushed even further when Emo praises the atomic bomb, a symbol of the worst selfish and destructive tendencies that the novel sees in white culture. Tayo’s memory compares the atomic bomb to a small child doing incredible damage to a garden. The people who died in the atomic bomb attacks were as powerless as the ants that Tayo killed by stomping on the melons.
Tayo feels as if the alcohol is loosening his anger, rather than numbing it. As Emo continues to play with his bag of teeth, Tayo snaps a beer bottle under the table. Tayo leaps on the table, calling Emo, “Killer!” and then rams the broken beer bottle into Emo’s stomach. The cops come and drag Tayo off Emo. Tayo’s hand is cut badly from the glass, but Tayo cannot feel anything. As Tayo rides in the back of the cop car, he is no longer sure who to hate: the Japanese soldiers, Emo, or himself.
Tayo’s reasons for attacking Emo are made clear her. Rather than Tayo being the crazed, drunken savage that people think he is because of the attack, he actually attacks Emo for dishonoring life and Pueblo philosophy. Slashing at Emo’s stomach shows that Emo is completely unconnected from the Pueblo stories and proper behavior. Yet the novel underscores the fundamental connections between all living things: though Tayo had righteous reasons for attacking Emo, it is impossible to hurt Emo without also hurting himself. The violence Tayo has done will come back to haunt him in more than just an injury to his hand, and the novel is clear here that even if Emo is monstrous, Tayo’s violent response is not one that will bring healing of any sort.