Ceremony

Ceremony Section 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Returning to Tayo’s present, Tayo leaves Harley with yet another beer and walks out of the bar. Tayo looks toward the sacred mountain Tse-pi’na, and walks west until he reaches a small café. The Mexican man who owns the café brings Tayo a bowl of menudo (a Mexican stew) then goes back to swatting flies as the bugs buzz around the window. Tayo then walks back to Harley’s bar, thinking about the time Uncle Josiah had caught him killing flies in the house. Josiah reminded Tayo that the green bottle fly helped the people earn the rain back from the Corn Mother. Tayo is humiliated by his actions, but Josiah tells him that the flies will forgive his mistakes.
Tayo mentions the fly of the Corn Mother story, telling the ending of the story-poem that has run through the novel so far. This story clearly affects Tayo’s behavior, as he chooses not to bother the flies out of respect for fly’s actions in the story. Though the flies may be annoying, Tayo upholds the Pueblo religion by respecting their place in the environment. By including this scene, the novel shows how the stories affect and live on in Tayo, even as Tayo is beginning to create his own story.
Themes
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When Tayo gets back to the bar, Harley is gone. Tayo walks to Cubero and sits on Night Swan’s stoop. Tayo remembers sitting here with Rocky when Lalo’s bar was still profitable. Tayo is happy sitting under the cottonwood trees that have been there since his childhood. Tayo picks up a piece of old plaster and marks his hands the way ceremonial dancers paint their bodies with white clay. Tayo then goes up into Night Swan’s apartment, even though Night Swan moved away after Josiah’s funeral. Tayo can see no trace that Night Swan was ever there. He leaves and sleeps in an old barn that night.
When Tayo marks his hands with chalk, he adds white spots to his brown skin. This is another parallel to Josiah’s hybrid cattle, which have been described as brown with white spots. These white spots are one of the few places in the novel where the color white does not have a bad connotation. It mirrors the way that Tayo accepts his white parentage without giving in to the destructive practices that the novel sees in white culture.
Themes
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The novel returns to the poem of Corn Woman’s story. Fly wants to eat everything but Hummingbird makes sure they get to Corn Mother. Corn Mother accepts their offerings then tells them that she will return the rain clouds if the people get Old Buzzard to purify their town. The novel returns to Tayo in the present. He tells Robert that he is feeling better and can help Robert with the ranch work. Robert tells Tayo that Ku’oosh thinks he still needs more healing.
Fly has to learn how to respect the environment and harvest in a sustainable way. This is another lesson the Pueblo people can learn from the Corn Mother story. The development in the Corn Mother story parallels Tayo’s journey for healing – once fly and hummingbird reach Corn Mother, they still need to do more for the town. Tayo has healed somewhat, but there are more steps in his journey.
Themes
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Robert and Tayo take a trip to the city of Gallup and Tayo is reminded of the poverty and hopelessness of the city, especially for Native peoples. Many people of color live under the bridge in Gallup, waiting for the white welfare officials to chase them out each year before the tourists come for Gallup Ceremonial time. The children born under the bridge have mixed blood and learn to survive on the fringes of society.
The Gallup ceremonial should be a time in which Native peoples are celebrated in Gallup, but the white welfare officials actually care nothing for Native Americans beyond using them as a tool to attract tourism revenue. This is another way that white culture objectifies and oppresses Native Americans. The children in the city are of mixed blood, another reminder that the future is turning to hybridity.
Themes
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Tayo remembers when he was a little boy and lived under that same bridge with his mother. Tayo finds his own food and even sleeps on his own when his mother is busy with the men she meets at bars. Tayo observes the other people who live in the same miserable conditions, and is especially traumatized by a woman who miscarries a baby and then buries it in yellow sand. The white people of Gallup never notice the children who live under the bridge, only seeing the women who line up to offer their services for money or booze.
Yellow is another sacred color for the Pueblo people, underscoring the tragedy of this loss of life. Alcoholism and poverty are an even bigger problem for Native Americans in the city than they are for Native Americans on reservations, even though many Native Americans came to the city to find more economic opportunity. To the white people, these children are invisible, another privilege of belonging to the dominant white culture.
Themes
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One day, police come to clear out the settlements under the bridge while Tayo’s mother is out with a man. Tayo hides in a tamaric and willow grove and watches the police spray the area and burn the shelters people have built. Tayo prays for his mother to come back. Moving back to the Corn Woman story, Hummingbird and Fly find old Buzzard, but old Buzzard tells them to come back with an offering of tobacco.
Tamaric and willow are plants that the Pueblo people use for bandages and healing purposes. Tayo shows an affinity for the Pueblo culture even though he has not grown up in it. Rather than offering the Native Americans help, the police simply raze the entire area. White culture, as represented by these police, cares nothing for the welfare of Native Americans as fellow human beings. This is a low point for the Corn Woman story as well, as Fly and Hummingbird discover that they do not have all the things they need.
Themes
In Tayo’s present, Robert and Tayo stop on the bridge in Gallup, avoiding the women who ask them for money. Tayo thinks back to the day he came here with Rocky, throwing coins to the Navajo, Zuni, Laguna, and Hopi people who left their reservations for better lives only to find little opportunity to work in Gallup. Rocky wishes on his coin for a safe return from the army, but Tayo is unable to make a wish. Now on the bridge with Robert, Tayo finally wishes for a safe return.
The fact that before the war Tayo could not wish to return is a sign of his feeling of being cut off from the community around him. Now that Tayo does finally make his wish, he is ready to begin the journey that will return him to health. Yet note that Rocky’s wish was not in itself enough to actually return him safely from the war. Tayo will need more help to fully return to health.
Themes
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Ku’oosh has sent Tayo to Gallup to see a medicine man named Betonie. Gallup is known for the Gallup Ceremonial, an annual event organized by white men “celebrating” the Indian cultures of the Southwest, but the event actually panders to the tourists looking for Indian souvenirs. Robert and Tayo arrive at Old Betonie’s house, which looks down on the Ceremonial grounds. Before they can speak, Betonie explains that he keeps his hogan (the traditional dwelling of the Navajo people) off in the hills because he is comfortable living on the land. Tayo wonders how Betonie can live so close to the poverty of Gallup, but Betonie reminds Tayo that his family built this hogan here before the city was ever constructed.
Betonie seems at first like a false medicine man, with his proximity to the insulting Gallup Ceremonial that disrespects Native traditions by using them for the amusement of white culture. Yet Betonie does keep the traditional Navajo ways by living in a hogan, which uses part of the hillside as a wall, instead of a house that would be more comfortable by white culture standards. Betonie cannot control what white culture creates, he can only make sure that he continues to follow the legacy of his Navajo ancestors even as he lives in the changing world. Betonie is an example of the sort of adapting-in-order-to-stay-the-same that the novel suggests is imperative.
Themes
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Betonie can see that Tayo is unsure of his eccentric ways, and tells Tayo he can leave at any time. Tayo notices that Betonie has hazel eyes, like Tayo’s own, and decides he can trust Betonie. Tayo follows Betonie into his hogan, which is built partly into the hillside in the old way. The small house is filled with boxes full of old things and bundles of newspapers from all over the country. Tayo struggles to take it all in, and Betonie comments that “we’ve” been gathering things for hundreds of years.
Betonie’s hazel eyes are sign that Betonie is capable of accepting cultural hybridity. Betonie will not insist on a cultural purity that upholds Native or white culture to the detriment of everyone else. As such, Tayo does not have to be afraid or hide his own hybrid heritage. Betonie is very in touch with the historical legacy of his ancestors, but he does not preserve the hogan exactly how his family built it. Instead, Betonie honors the layers and changes of history by gathering things over time and adding to his collection.
Themes
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In the hogan, Tayo sees traditional medicine man paraphernalia as well as ceremonial objects and layers of old calendars. Betonie explains that he needs all of these things to continue doing the old ceremonies nowadays. Tayo sees some Santa Fe railroad calendars from 1939 and 1940 that he recognizes because Uncle Josiah used to bring calendars back from the Santa Fe depot. Betonie tells stories about traveling on the Santa Fe rail line, after he was sent to school at the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California. There at the institute, Betonie learned English because his mother told him that “it” is carried in all the languages now.
Betonie honors the old ceremonies, but he also introduces modern elements. Betonie is uniquely capable of adapting the ceremonies to modern times. Rather than abandoning his Native heritage while at a white boarding school, Betonie learned English but stayed true to his Navajo beliefs. “It” is left ambiguous, but most likely refers to the power to have a ceremony. Betonie is able to take the best of both native and white culture, using the white language in service of native purposes.
Themes
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Betonie notices that a hair has come loose from his mustache and he carefully locks the hair in a footlocker. Tayo pretends he doesn’t know why Betonie would do that, but he remembers the old stories about medicine men who could wreak horrible damage on people with a single nail cutting or hair for magic power. Tayo worries aloud that the tribe has sent him to Betonie to get rid of him, not cure him. Betonie laughs, and tells Tayo he is free to leave if he wishes, as Betonie can’t help anyone who is afraid of him. Tayo stays.
Betonie is careful about anything that carries his DNA, as medicine men can supposedly control other people using any small part of their body. This type of ritual points to an interconnected body, in which each small piece affects the entire body – just as small events in one region can affect the entire world. Similarly, the tribe would not simply get rid of Tayo because anything bad that happens to an individual member will negatively affect the whole tribe according to this interconnected worldview.
Themes
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Tayo tells Betonie about feeling like invisible white smoke when he was in the Veteran’s Hospital. Betonie says that Tayo could choose to return to the white smoke, but that living in the hospital is worse than dying. Betonie knows that the Navajo tell stories about him, and that the stories scare people away from Betonie’s hogan even when Betonie is not there.
Death is a natural part of the balance of life, verses the empty living that white people have introduced to the world through their medicine. Again, white is here presented as a bad thing, connoting an existence that is unhealthily isolated from the environment and the community of all mankind. Like Tayo, Betonie is not fully accepted in his Native community, but Betonie still has his connection to the earth to keep him grounded.
Themes
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Tayo tells Betonie about seeing Uncle Josiah die in the Philippines, wearing a Japanese uniform. Tayo admits that Uncle Josiah died because he had no one to help him care for his cattle with Rocky and Tayo gone at war. Betonie asks about Rocky but Tayo can only cry. Betonie tells Tayo that seeing Josiah in the jungle was an important part of the story, reminding Tayo that the whole world suffers from the same “witchery.”
Tayo puts together the interconnected nature of the world by acknowledging that his actions during the war had an affect on Uncle Josiah back home in New Mexico. Betonie’s introduction of the idea of witchery – the name that Betonie uses for human selfishness, greed, and disrespect for nature – connects Tayo’s own personal travails to those of the entire world.
Themes
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Tayo tells Betonie about Night Swan’s hazel eyes and Auntie’s suspicions that Night Swan was evil all along. Betonie does not respond to Tayo’s questions about Night Swan, instead telling Tayo that Tayo must complete a mysterious ceremony for the sake of the world. Tayo, frustrated at Betonie’s cryptic references to “the ceremony,” wants to yell at Betonie all the things the white doctors told him about Indian medicine, but in his heart Tayo knows that the only way to heal himself is to help heal the world.
Green eyes are generally a positive marker in the novel, as they are for Betonie and Tayo, meaning that we can safely assume that Night Swan is in fact a good person. Yet Betonie does not fully address Tayo’s question. Instead, Betonie folds the questions about Night Swan into a ceremony that will help the entire world. Tayo has to choose between believing what white culture teaches about the uselessness of Native American traditions, or staying true to his identity.
Themes
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Betonie describes the changes that he has had to make to the traditional ceremonies in order to adapt them to the current generation. Though it is important to respect the rituals and avoid tampering with them needlessly, he says that the rituals have to able to change or they will die and all mankind will die with them. Tayo wants to believe Betonie, but has trouble seeing the healing power in the junk cluttered around Betonie’s rooms.
The specific actions and the words of the ceremonies are important, as Betonie does not advocate for completely throwing out the old traditions. Betonie simply understands that traditions can change without becoming detached from their historical roots, and in fact that only by changing can they maintain that power in a changing world.
Themes
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Betonie and Tayo walk outside, and Tayo comments on all the land in Gallup that was stolen by white men. Betonie reminds Tayo that Indians need this constant reminder of everything they have lost in order to continue fighting to make things right once more. Furthermore, all the deeds and titles in the world do not truly mean that white men own this land. Betonie cautions Tayo to look for both good and bad within white people, the same as he would do for a fellow Indian.
The connection between Native Americans and the land cannot be broken, as Native Americans understand humans must care for the land in order for the land to continue to be able to support life. Though Native Americans may feel powerless, the novel suggests that they actually have an important role in fighting against the greedy over-use of natural resources and fighting for sustainable practices to be adopted by white culture. The novel here acknowledges that white culture and whites individually are not evil, but it makes clear that they are misguided and could learn from Native wisdom.
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Betonie introduces Tayo to his helper, Shush, whose name means “bear.” Betonie begins to tell a story, and the novel switches to a poem. The story tells of a young boy who wandered away from his family and went to live with bears. The medicine man knows that he has to call the child back quickly and rushes to the bears’ cave. The medicine man makes bear noises outside the cave until the young boy comes out, yet the young boy is already crawling like a bear. The medicine man knows they have to call him back carefully to avoid leaving the boy stranded between men and bears.
Shush’s name suggests that he may have been the boy in the story, or a boy very similar. The boundaries between human and animal worlds are thin here, as Betonie sees the connections between human kind and nature. Yet humans are supposed to live as humans, fulfilling their natural role within nature rather than giving up and disappearing into another role that was not meant for them. Tayo must also return home from the war, his version of living with the bears, and assume his role.
Themes
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Betonie stops the story to remind Tayo that witchery is only responsible for a small portion of life. Good or bad are less important than finding balance in the transitions of life. The novel includes a note on bear people and witches, explaining the difference between someone who goes to live with the bears, and a person who uses a bear’s skin for evil purposes.
Tayo is at an important transition, as he has now seen the worse evil of the white world in the war. He must choose whether he will continue to try to get home, or give up fighting against witchery (evil of human beings). The novel seems to make a distinction between people who just give up fighting and fade into nature (living with the bears) and people who actively use nature for evil purposes (witchery with the bear skin).
Themes
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Tayo starts to tell Betonie about Emo and Rocky, because he is reminded of them by the neon lights of Gallup spread out in the valley. Rocky was supposed to be the success story of the reservation, a man who made it out and survived in the white man’s world. Tayo cannot forgive himself for letting Rocky die. Tayo then tells Betonie about Emo’s bag of teeth and his vendetta against white men, then asks Betonie what ceremonies can be used against the white sickness of wars, bombs, and lies.
Emo and Rocky are associated with the mechanical neon lights because each chose the white world over Native traditions, in some sense. Rocky tried to be successful according to white standards, whereas Emo lives out the worst qualities of greed, hate, and destruction that the novel associates with white culture. If Native Americans can be persuaded to join evil white actions, Tayo’s question of whether the Native ceremonies will work becomes more urgent.
Themes
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Betonie reminds Tayo that white people are not purely evil, they are simply one tool that the larger witchery of the world manipulates. Indeed, Indian witchery created white people. Betonie starts a poem-story about a time before white people. All the Indian witches of every tribe have gathered together to out-do one another with their dark spells. The witches do all kinds of magic, using disgusting charms made from the skin and body parts of the dead.
Betonie separates witchery, a force that was previously associated only with white culture, from white people themselves. White people are still humans, and the witchery that uses them is an evil that can be found in a human of any race. In fact, Native American witches were doing evil acts long before white people existed, according to Betonie’s story.
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At the end of the contest, the last Indian witch, from an unknown tribe, does dark magic by telling a story. The other witches laugh, but the witch silences them by telling of a world completely destroyed by white skin people who have no respect for life or the earth. The fear inside these white skin people will make them do horrible things, killing anyone in their path and unleashing all sorts of diseases. In a final pattern, the white skin people will use rocks with veins of green, yellow, and black (that is, the uranium in an atomic bomb) to explode the entire world. The other witches ask the witch to take the story back, but the witch says this cannot be undone.
The story that created white people both showcases how powerful stories are – such that they can speak an entire race into being – and gives Native Americans control over the world that white people have ruined. If Native Americans created white people in the first place, they can also undo the damage that white people caused (though it may be very difficult). The “final pattern” of the atomic bomb makes it clear that this modern weapon is the most extreme version of white culture’s greed, arrogance, and destruction.
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Betonie, Shush, and Tayo ride on horseback into the foothills of the Chuska mountains outside Gallup. They set up camp at a small stone hogan and Tayo feels almost as peaceful as he did before the war. Betonie goes back to the story-poem about bearskins, this time describing how a woman found out her son-in-law had been transformed into a coyote and performed a pollen ritual to call the man out of the coyote skin. Betonie performs the same pollen ritual for Tayo.
Away from the modern sprawl of Gallup, Tayo begins to feel healthy once more. Tayo’s health improves as he remembers his connection to the natural world. Like the man in the poem-story, Tayo must be called back from living a role that he does not naturally fit in. But Tayo did not go to live with any animal, he went to live with white people – and it is that influence he must shed.
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Tayo falls asleep and dreams about speckled cattle that constantly outrun him, heading south. When he wakes up, Betonie and Shush are nowhere to be found. Tayo surveys the unbroken mesa of black sand. Betonie walks back up the western ridge, then sits down next to Tayo and rolls a cigarette.
Though the cows are not explicitly said to be Josiah’s cows, their spots are a distinctive marker of the hybrid cows that Josiah lost. Betonie’s cigarette is another subtle reminder of the way that Betonie blends old and new. Betonie smokes tobacco, an ancient Native American practice, in a modern form, the cigarette. But Betonie rolls this cigarette himself, proving that he controls the way that modern elements affect the traditional ways.
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Betonie starts to tell a story about his grandfather, Descheeny. Descheeny was with a Navajo hunting party returning from an escapade down into Mexico. They stop for the night when they realized that a girl is stuck in a nearby tree. The men are inexplicably scared of the girl, but get her down out of the tree so that they can sell her to another tribe. Only Descheeny is not afraid of the girl – who is Mexican – and decides to take her as his wife.
The girl, stuck in a tree like a bird, calls to mind Night Swan, another Mexican woman associated with birds through her name. Like Night Swan, this girl is not trusted by most of society and also begins a relationship with a Native American man the way that Josiah and Night Swan did. This repeated pattern of Native American men and Mexican women is another sign that cultural hybridity is inevitable in this region.
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Descheeny speaks a little Spanish and promises to return the girl to her family in Mexico, but the girl refuses, saying that the people back in Mexico will harm her. Descheeny’s other wives dislike the Mexican girl, but Descheeny knows that the girl is necessary for the ceremony that will save the world. The girl is willing to use any power she can, even power from white people, in order to set in motion rituals that future generations will have to complete. The other Navajo people become even more afraid of Descheeny.
Descheeny sees the ceremonial power that can come from using the strengths of many cultures, up to and including the white people who otherwise seem to be Native Americans’ enemies. The patience of setting up this ritual for future generations is another reminder of the interconnected worldview of the novel. The past and the future affect each other in profound ways, though the actions might be small.
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Betonie describes the day he was born and the other people tried to kill him for his hazel eyes. The Mexican woman saved Betonie and took him north to El Paso to raise him. The novel moves into the Corn Woman poem-story where Fly and Hummingbird visit Corn Mother to ask where to get tobacco. Corn Woman sends them to caterpillar.
Just as Caterpillar gives Fly and Hummingbird tobacco, a necessary ingredient for their ceremony, the Mexican woman gives Betonie the safety and confidence to accept his green eyes and his status as a hybrid, a necessary ingredient in the ceremony that Betonie plans with Tayo. Betonie also performs the role of “caterpillar” for Tayo, giving Tayo necessary information. Tayo’s story and the Corn Mother story continue to echo and play off each other.
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Betonie tells Tayo that the ceremony is not yet finished. Betonie draws a constellation in the dust, then tells Tayo to remember this certain formation of stars, a woman, a mountain, and the spotted cattle. A poem-story describes how the witchery and its effect gradually leaves the coyote-man’s body and lets him return to live with people.
Betonie tells Tayo to remember four things, calling back to the sacred number four in Pueblo stories. Note how Betonie specifically says “remember” when he is actually sending Tayo to look for these things. Invoking memory calls back the language of stories, making it clear that Tayo will need to remember the old stories and the old ways in order to complete this quest. According to the poem-story, this quest should allow Tayo to come home the way that the coyote-man came home.
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