Rocky takes Tayo to an army recruitment meeting, where the recruiter seems disappointed to be talking to a small group of Indian men. Rocky animatedly asks the recruiter how to become a pilot while Tayo looks at the pamphlets. Rocky then asks the recruiter if he and “his brother” can sign up together. This is the first time that Rocky has ever called Tayo “brother.”
The recruiter seems to resent talking to Native Americans even though he should ostensibly be grateful that these men want to serve their country. Rocky wants to join the army, an American institution that will prove he belongs to mainstream American culture. Yet at this moment when Rocky might leave his Native identity behind, he also affirms his deep family bond with Tayo for the first time.
Tayo went to live with Auntie when he was 4 years old. He can remember small details about his mother, her smell, the way her hug felt. Tayo’s mother had told him that he would be happy living with a new brother, but Rocky was angry when Tayo showed up at their door. Josiah and Old Grandma treat Rocky and Tayo equally, but Auntie gives Rocky preferential treatment whenever no one is looking. Tayo thinks Auntie wants Tayo to be just close enough to the family to see how he is being excluded.
Josiah and Old Grandma are able to welcome Tayo as a normal member of the family, but Auntie cannot seem to see past Tayo’s half-white parentage to see that he is still a valued part of their Native community. Auntie’s treatment of Tayo echoes how Native Americans are treated in American society, as Native Americans are American but do not enjoy many of the privileges that white Americans have. Put another way: Auntie acts in a way that mirrors white society.
When Rocky and Tayo started school, Rocky pulls away from everyone in the family. Tayo understands Auntie much better than Rocky does, spending more time with her while Rocky plays sports at school. Auntie tries to be the perfect Christian, but the individual focus of the European religion keeps Auntie apart from her native community. In fact, the Laguna Elders think Auntie should have been able to bring Little Sister back to proper life in the Laguna community, and helped Little Sister give up alcohol and form a suitable relationship with a Native man instead of sleeping with white men. Auntie chose to focus on her own individual purity instead of helping her whole family.
Auntie is especially concerned with her own piety and reputation, such that she ignores the well-being of her whole community. Ironically, though Auntie resents Little Sister for “weakening” their family through her wild actions, it is actually Auntie who damages the family relationships by rejecting both Little Sister and later Tayo in favor of maintaining her own perfect image. Like her son Rocky, Auntie turns her back on some of the old ways in order to insure her own personal success.
Little Sister felt so much shame for the ways white people describe the savagery of Indians that she tries to act white by drinking and sleeping with white men. This humiliation reflects on the rest of the Laguna community, and no one can have any peace until Auntie brings Little Sister back into harmony with the tribe once more. Instead of doing so, Auntie tells Tayo stories of his mother’s wild days and refuses to let Tayo keep a photo of his mother. Josiah finds Tayo crying over the lost photo, but Tayo is too ashamed to admit to Josiah why he is so upset.
Ceremony now delves into why Auntie dislikes Tayo, showing the shame that Little Sister brought on their family by involving herself with men of other races. But in contrast with the individualism the novel sees in white culture, the Pueblo community is only strong and healthy if all of its members are well. Auntie instead chooses to forget her sister, perpetuating a cycle of unhealthy relationships that continues in Tayo. Tayo seems to feel some of the shame his mother felt, internalizing the poor opinions that others have of Native Americans (in Little Sister’s case) or people of mixed blood (in Tayo’s case).
The novel returns to the poem of the Corn Mother story. The people cannot follow Hummingbird into the world below, so Hummingbird tells them how to create a messenger. They must fill a jar with dirt, corn flour and water, then repeat the incantation “After four days you will be alive” four times.
Hummingbird relates a ceremony that brings people back to the foundation of their lives, reconnecting them with the land and corn instead of focusing on the magic. The number four is also sacred in the Pueblo culture, as it is seen in the four seasons, the four cardinal directions, and the four stages of human life. The people’s need for a “messenger” who can visit the fourth world suggests that, in Tayo’s story, he may be that messenger who can cross borders.
The army recruiter questions whether Rocky and Tayo are really brothers, due to Tayo’s green eyes, but Rocky insists. Rocky and Tayo enlist and then head back to the ranch. Tayo starts to have second thoughts, remembering that he is supposed to stay and help Josiah with the ranch after Rocky graduates. Auntie is angry at their enlistment, but tells Tayo he can go on the condition that he keeps Rocky safe.
The relationship between Rocky and Tayo now goes deeper than blood. Calling Tayo “brother” means more now that Ceremony has shown how Rocky was initially angry that Tayo came to live with him. Despite the fact that Auntie does not fully accept Tayo into the family, Tayo is actually more connected to family obligations. While Rocky has always planned to leave his Native heritage behind, Tayo was set to be faithful to the traditional way of life.
A month before Tayo and Rocky graduate high school, Josiah makes a $500 deal with Ulibarri, a Mexican rancher, to buy cattle. Tayo helps Josiah pick out 20 of the best cows and the two men start to herd the small group back to their ranch. Josiah is excited at the prospect of breeding these stronger, hybrid cattle instead of the weak Hereford breed. Josiah laughs at the scientific books about cattle breeding, trusting native wisdom more than white studies. Yet Rocky believes that white scientists are far more knowledgeable about the best care for these animals.
Uncle Josiah dreams of a herd of cattle that can better handle the difficult terrain of New Mexico and the constant possibility of drought, a toughness that can only be found in a hybrid breed rather than a pure-blood prestigious breed like the Herefords. Josiah knows better than the white scientists who prize pure blood over the health of the actual cow. Rocky, however, trusts white society more than his native heritage.
Auntie is also angry about the cattle deal, thinking that Josiah has somehow been tricked by Ulibarri and a Mexican woman who works with Ulibarri. Auntie gets ready to go to Church, muttering about how the entire town will be gossiping about Josiah and the Mexican woman. Tayo thinks that Auntie appreciates the chance to feel more righteous than her family.
Auntie trusts no one who is not Pueblo, believing that all Mexicans are only liars and cheats. While Josiah is able to see the goodness of someone of another race, and get a good deal on his cattle, Auntie cannot see any goodness in anything that is different from what she knows. Tayo sees Auntie’s complaining as a self-indulgent way to make herself feel better, but with the cost of putting down the very people she should be supporting.
Josiah and Tayo unload the cows at their pasture and the herd nervously clumps as far from the truck as possible. They leave the cows to settle in and come back to check on them a week later. The cows are no where to be found, having broken through the pasture fence to look for water. Josiah is proud of this wildness, taking it as a sign that these cattle are survivors. The cattle constantly move south, presumably trying to return to their first home.
The cows’ hybrid parentage is a huge asset. While other ranchers might resent that the cattle do not stay obediently in one place, Josiah sees that the intelligence and initiative of these cattle will keep them alive. In land as arid as New Mexico, the cows have to be able to adapt and follow the water wherever it goes. The cows’ constant desire to go south towards home echoes Tayo’s homecoming earlier in the novel. Silko subtly sets up parallels between the cows and Tayo.
That June, Josiah decides to brand the cattle, adding a small mark to the large butterfly brand that the Mexican ranch used. Some of the cows have had calves, and Tayo can see the strong Hereford shoulders mixed with the hybrid cattle’s lithe athletic build in the babies.
The butterfly is a symbol of freedom, making this brand less a mark of ownership and dominance than a mark of belonging to a specific family and ranch. Tayo can already see that these cows will combine the best of both their Hereford and Mexican parents. Hybridity is not a detriment, the novel asserts over and over, but a way of taking advantage of different strengths.
Josiah goes to see the Mexican woman to thank her again for letting him know that Ulibarri had cattle to sell. Josiah had fallen in love with her the past spring, enchanted by her hazel eyes. The Corn Mother story breaks in to explain how a fly was born in the jar. Hummingbird takes Fly with him down to the fourth world to talk to Corn Mother. The novel then moves back to Josiah and the Mexican woman, as Josiah met her at Lalo’s bar in Cubero and then could not get her face out of his head.
Night Swan’s green eyes mark her as another character that is open to cultural diversity and hybridity. Josiah and Night Swan help each other find a way to make a living in New Mexico just as Fly and Hummingbird help each other on their mission to return corn to the people.
The Mexican Woman, called Night Swan, tells Josiah all about her past as a dancer in cantinas across the Southwest. The first time she enchanted a man with her dancing, his wife found out and Night Swan was run out of the town of Las Cruces. This man was a parasite, feeding off of Night Swan’s energy to distract from his own empty life. Night Swan danced wherever she could, feeling how her dances could restore balance to the land. After Night Swan had a daughter, and then a granddaughter, she decided to retire in Cubero because she liked the view of the mountain Tse-pi’na.
White people are often portrayed as being parasitic in the novel, as the white man feeds off of Night Swan’s dancing here. Night Swan sees her dances as a kind of ceremony that keeps her in touch with the earth. Night Swan lives at the fringes of “proper” white society, but she is very in tune with the needs of the land. By choosing to live in Cubero, Night Swan decides for herself where her homeland is.
The people of Cubero do not entirely trust Night Swan, seeing her as a whore, but the men visit her often. The women of Cubero content themselves with gossiping about what the old Indian Josiah does the many times his truck is parked outside of Night Swan’s apartment. Auntie is livid about the rumors, claiming that Old Grandma is scandalized by what the town is saying about Josiah. Tayo knows that Old Grandma does not care what people say about their family because she already knows all the juicy gossip about everyone else in New Laguna.
People gossip about the interracial relationship between Night Swan and Josiah, as this kind of cultural mixing scares those who believe in the lie of cultural purity. Old Grandma doesn’t seem to care about the relationship, understanding that gossiping about people is one way to stay involved in other’s lives. Gossiping about people becomes one more thing that draws the people of New Laguna together, rather than setting them apart as Auntie does.
The cattle take so much of Josiah’s time that he can no longer sneak away to see Night Swan. Josiah hires another ranch hand to help with the sheep camp while he focuses on the cattle. The ranch hand, Mike, is an excellent worker, but Auntie does not trust him because he is an Apache. Mike leaves the ranch to become a mechanic in California and Josiah is forced to hire his alcoholic cousin Pinkie to watch the sheep.
Even more than not trusting anyone who is not Native American, Auntie dislikes any one who is not Pueblo. These strict judgments give Auntie a very limited view of the multicultural world of the Southwest. Mike was actually far better for the ranch and the sheep than the alcoholic Pinkie is, even though Pinkie is a full-blood Pueblo man. Just as it asserts the value of hybridity, the novel consistently highlights the weaknesses of any insistence on purity.
That summer, Tayo and Josiah spend their days in the fields while Rocky ostensibly prepares for his football scholarship at the university. Tayo knows that Rocky is really planning to go into the army, and spending his afternoons in Paguete with his new girlfriend. Auntie frets about the girlfriend, but can’t reprimand her favored son. Meanwhile, old Grandma starts to notice Josiah’s infatuation with “that Mexican woman” and tells him a cautionary story about their old dog that was run over on the highway because he was chasing a she-dog in heat.
Old Grandma uses the story to comment on Josiah’s situation, letting him (and the reader) decide if the story means that Josiah should stop seeing Night Swan or if he should simply be careful as he does so. While Old Grandma does object to Josiah’s relationship with Night Swan, her cautionary tale seems to have more to do with not letting a woman distract Josiah from his work, rather than objecting to Night Swan’s race in particular.
Tayo thinks back to the day they buried his mother, a dry day much like the drought they are currently having. As they left the graveyard, Josiah had given Tayo a candy cane and told him not to cry. Now, Tayo tries all the rituals he can find to help end the dry spell. He follows the stories of cloud priests for what helped in past droughts, and is rewarded with cooler air. Tayo watches a spider come out to drink from a small spring and thinks about the story where Spider Woman helps Sun Man win the storm clouds back from the Gambler. Tayo doesn’t know if he should believe the old stories after his white education, but he still feels the stories’ truth in his gut.
Tayo still believes in the old stories, going through with the actions of the traditional rain ceremonies. Still, Tayo has some doubts despite the feeling in his stomach – the home of all stories – that tells him this is right.
The next day, Tayo sees storm clouds gathering by the mountain Tse-pi’na. All the ranch hands gather to watch the rain start falling. Josiah gives Tayo a note to deliver to Night Swan, as he was going to see her today but the rain means he has too much work to do on the ranch.
The rain comes from the direction of the sacred mountain, showing how the land dictates all aspects of life and spirituality for the Pueblo people. Josiah has seemingly taken the lesson of Old Grandma’s story to heart, putting work in front of his relationship with Night Swan.
Tayo goes to Night Swan’s apartment in Cubero, hearing her Victrola play a Spanish record singing “y volveré” (I will return). Night Swan opens the door wearing a blue kimono and Tayo is overwhelmed by the blue of Night Swan’s room, the breeze from the window, and Night Swan’s perfume in the air. Tayo and Night Swan make love while the rain patters on the roof. Night Swan then tells Tayo that she has been watching him because of his hazel eyes. Tayo explains that the other kids teased him for his “Mexican eyes,” but Night Swan reminds Tayo that fools are always afraid of change. She says that Tayo is now “a part of it,” though Night Swan does not explain what “it” is.
The song that Night Swan plays reappears in many dreams Tayo has after he comes back from the war, as Tayo is still trying to return mentally even after he returns physically. Blue is a sacred color for the Pueblo people, and the intense blue-ness of Night Swan’s room marks her as a good omen in Tayo’s journey. Night Swan singles out Tayo’s eyes, the product of another interracial coupling like the sexual relationship that Tayo and Night Swan just took part in. Night Swan’s “it” seems to refer to hybridity, to bridging between cultures through love, rather than fearing the change that this might bring.