Leslie Marmon Silko

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Ceremony, Tradition and Adaptation Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Interconnected World Theme Icon
Native Americans in the Modern World Theme Icon
Storytelling Theme Icon
Ceremony, Tradition and Adaptation Theme Icon
Cultural Dominance, Purity, and Hybridity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Ceremony, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Ceremony, Tradition and Adaptation Theme Icon

The title of Ceremony refers to the ceremonies and rituals that, according to the novel, all humans must perform in order to keep themselves and the world happy and healthy. These ceremonies can be formal or informal, but all, the novel asserts, are intensely important for both the well-being of individual people and the larger world that they live in. Ceremonies are performed through physical actions, such as a hunter giving salt to a deer he has killed. But these physical actions connect to a deeper metaphysical understanding, viewpoint, or way of being in the world. For instance, in giving salt to the fallen deer, the hunter enacts his respect for the deer’s spirit, and more broadly acknowledges the earth and the taking of life. The ceremony physically connects the hunter to both the deer he hunts and the world in which he hunts. A ceremony doesn’t just represent the connectedness of things; performing the ceremony maintains and strengthens that connection.

The novel, however, depicts a world in which these ceremonies are in crisis, whether from abandonment or loss of power. Some Native Americans, such as Rocky, believe they need to forget the old ceremonies in order to succeed in the white world. Rocky dismisses ceremonies like the deer ritual as superstition in the face of modern science, but in so doing loses connection to the earth and his own history. That Rocky dies in World War II while Tayo does not, the novel implies that without the ceremonies and the connection they provide, Rocky could not survive.

But the crisis also results from the fact that the ceremonies have lost their power: the traditional ceremony for warriors who have killed in battle that the medicine man Ku’oosh performs in order to try to heal Tayo doesn’t work. The solution to this crisis arises through the character of Betonie, a different medicine man who lives in the city of Gallup and is therefore more knowledgeable of the modern world. While some Native Americans in the novel believe that the ceremonies must stay exactly the same in order to retain their power, Betonie believes that ceremonies must change along with the world in order to be able to connect to that new world. And so Betonie sets Tayo out to find and build a new ceremony, one with the power to heal both Tayo and the world. The novel affirms Betonie’s beliefs through Tayo’s success. Only through the adaptation and evolution of the specific content and form of ceremonies can those ceremonies continue to offer connection to the deeper metaphysical truths and needs. Respect for the old traditions coupled with an awareness of the new world brings true healing and keeps humanity in harmony with the world.

Finally, it is worthwhile to consider how the idea of ceremonies functions in a novel that connects its main character Tayo’s imbalance and need for healing with the world’s own imbalance and need for healing. While Tayo’s story is brought to conclusion by the novel and he finds the healing he seeks, the post-WWII world receives no such clear resolution. Tayo’s healing, after all, doesn’t mean that the atomic bomb has ceased to exist in the real world, or that world war has been forever put behind us. But the novel’s insistence that ceremonies can both heal the individual and the world creates a vague feeling that Tayo’s healing should correspond to a healing of the world. What resolves this tension is the recognition that Silko means for Ceremony novel itself to be a new kind of ceremony – that reading the novel can offer the healing and connection to address the destructive imbalance that Silko sees in the world.

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Ceremony, Tradition and Adaptation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Ceremony, Tradition and Adaptation appears in each section of Ceremony. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Ceremony, Tradition and Adaptation Quotes in Ceremony

Below you will find the important quotes in Ceremony related to the theme of Ceremony, Tradition and Adaptation.
Section 2 Quotes

"There are some things we can’t cure like we used to,” he said, "not since the white people came. The others who had the Scalp Ceremony, some of them are not better either.”

Related Characters: Ku’oosh (speaker), Tayo
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:
Section 4 Quotes

The people nowadays have an idea about the ceremonies. They think the ceremonies must be performed exactly as they have always been done, maybe because one slip-up or mistake and the whole ceremony must be stopped and the sand painting destroyed. That much is true. They think that if a singer tampers with any part of the ritual, great harm can be done, great power unleashed…That much can be true also. But long ago when the people were given these ceremonies, the changing began, if only in the aging of the yellow gourd rattle or the shrinking of the skin around the eagle's claw, if only in the different voices from generation to generation, singing the chants. You see, in many ways, the ceremonies have always been changing."

Related Characters: Betonie (speaker), Tayo
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

'it never has been easy. It will take a long long time and many more stories like this one before they are laid low. …
"He reasoned that because it was set loose by witchery of all the world, and brought to them by the whites, the ceremony against it must be the same. …
This is the only way,' she told him. 'It cannot be done alone.
'We must have power from everywhere. Even the power we can get from the whites.'

Related Characters: Betonie (speaker), Tayo, Descheeny
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

The power of each day spilled over the hills in great silence. Sunrise. He ended the prayer with "sunrise" because he knew the Dawn people began and ended all their words with "sunrise."

Related Characters: Tayo
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:
Section 5 Quotes

So he had gone, not expecting to find anything more than the winter constellation in the north sky overhead; but suddenly Betonie's vision was a story he could feel happening - from the stars and the woman, the mountain and the cattle would come.

Related Characters: Tayo, Betonie
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:
Section 7 Quotes

It had been a close call. The witchery had almost ended the story according to its plan; Tayo had almost jammed the screwdriver into Emo's skull the way the witchery had wanted, savoring the yielding bone and membrane as the steel ruptured the brain. Their deadly ritual for the autumn solstice would have been completed by him.

Related Characters: Tayo, Emo
Page Number: 235
Explanation and Analysis:
Section 8 Quotes

"I guess I must be getting old," she said, "because these goings-on around Laguna don't get me excited any more." She sighed, and laid her head back on the chair. "It seems like I already heard these stories before . . . only thing is, the names sound different."

Related Characters: Grandmother (speaker)
Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis: