Set after World War II in and around a Laguna Pueblo reservation in the American Southwest, Ceremony portrays the lives and situations of Native Americans in the modern world. This portrayal is largely bleak, and shows the ways that the modern world, and America in particular, destroy Native American lives and dishonor Native American spiritual practices. Silko focuses on a group of Pueblo men who have returned from fighting for America in WWII, only to come home to the same rampant racism, objectification, and commodification that Native Americans have suffered in North American since the arrival of Europeans. In response to that abuse, the veterans – and indeed many other Native American characters in the novel – turn to alcohol as a source of comfort in an otherwise empty future, though drinking alcohol is itself self-destructive. While drinking, the veterans show how they have internalized the idea that they are inferior by telling stories of their sexual conquests during the war, when in fact those conquests hinged on hiding their Native American identities so that white women will agree to sleep with them. Meanwhile, after the war, even other Native American women, like Helen Jean, refuse to sleep with Native American men because of the stereotype that they are all poor and lazy. By centering the men’s feelings of inferiority on sex, the novel hints at a possible lack of future for native populations. If Native American people cannot procreate without hiding or giving up their heritage, it seems likely that future generations of Americans will not include Native Americans.
The sense in the novel that Native Americans are fundamentally displaced in the modern world is also emphasized by the supposed failure of their spiritual beliefs founded on respect for life, the natural world, and balance. The medicine man Ku’oosh attempts to heal Tayo’s war trauma, but his traditional ceremonies only partially work, and he and Tayo both recognize that such ceremonies can no longer counterbalance the new machine warfare that focus on mass death and domination above all else – a type of war symbolized most potently by the atomic bomb that threatens all life on the planet.
Had the novel ended there, Ceremony would be a profoundly depressing book. However, the second half of Ceremony involves Tayo’s efforts – guided by a different medicine man, Betonie, who has more knowledge of the white world – to create a new ceremony that will work. Tayo is ultimately successful in this quest, and the journey to his success can be read as a kind of recipe for what is necessary more generally for Native Americans to adapt to the modern world. To complete his quest, Tayo comes to terms with his broken family history in the context of the white world by finding his Uncle Josiah’s long lost cattle that have been stolen by a white rancher. In the process, Tayo reconnects with nature and with his tribe’s spiritual life in his encounter with Ts’eh, who seems likely to be the goddess Reed Woman.
Beyond rekindling the roots of Tayo’s Native American identity, Tayo’s quest builds to a final confrontation with the murderous Emo in an abandoned uranium mine, where Tayo must choose between the good of his traditional values and the evils of modern culture. In an action movie, Tayo would of course kill Emo. But in Ceremony, he chooses not to. As the novel sees it, had Tayo killed Emo he would have given in to the forces of “witchery” and acted according to the white culture’s principles of domination. This choice would have been proof that “it takes a white man to survive in this world and … these Indians couldn’t seem to make it.” By not killing Emo, Tayo shows that the response to evil and death does not have to be more evil and more death. Instead, Tayo chooses to stand firm in his belief in the sanctity of life, creating a new space for Native traditions and spirituality in the modern world. And by setting this scene in an abandoned uranium mine – uranium being the element that powers the atomic bomb, and the atomic bomb itself symbolizing what Silko sees as the endless destruction that is at the heart of white-dominated modernity – Silko asserts that Native American culture and wisdom will not only endure, but that it is crucial for the survival of the world.
Native Americans in the Modern World ThemeTracker
Native Americans in the Modern World Quotes in Ceremony
So Tayo stood there, stiff with nausea, while they fired at the soldiers, and he watched his uncle fall, and he knew it was Josiah; and even after Rocky started shaking him by the shoulders and telling him to stop crying, it was still Josiah lying there.
“You know what people will say if we ask for a medicine man to help him. Someone will say it's not right. They'll say, 'Don't do it. He's not full blood anyway."'
"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.”
“I'm half-breed. I'll be the first to say it. I'll speak for both sides. First time you walked down the street in Gallup or Albuquerque, you knew. Don't lie. You knew right away. The war was over, the uniform was gone. All of a sudden that man at the store waits on you last, makes you wait until all the white people bought what they wanted. And the white lady at the bus depot, she's real careful now not to touch your hand when she counts out your change.”
They told him, "Nothing can stop you now except one thing: don't let the people at home hold you back.” Rocky understood what he had to do to win in the white outside world.
"They took our land, they took everything! So let's get our hands on white women!" They cheered… Maybe Emo was wrong: maybe white people didn't have everything. Only Indians had droughts.
She was careful that Rocky did not share these things with Tayo, that they kept a distance between themselves and him. But she would nor let Tayo go outside or play in another room alone. She wanted him close enough to feel excluded, to be aware of the distance between them.
Christianity separated the people from themselves; it tried to crush the single clan name, encouraging each person to stand alone, because Jesus Christ would save only the individual soul; Jesus Christ was not like the Mother who loved and cared for them as her children, as her family.
There was something about the way the old man said the word "comfortable." It had a different meaning-not the comfort of big houses or rich food or even clean streets, but the comfort of belonging with the land, and the peace of being with these hills.
Take it back.
Call that story back."
But the witch just shook its head
at the others in their stinking animal skins, fur and feathers.
It's already turned loose.
It's already coming.
It can't be called back.
He was thinking about Harley and Leroy; about Helen Jean and himself. How much longer would they last? How long before one of them got stabbed in a bar fight, not just knocked out? How long before this old truck swerved off the road or head-on into a bus?
It was a cure for that, and maybe for other things too. The spotted cattle wouldn't be lost any more, scattered through his dreams, driven by his hesitation to admit they had been stolen, that the land - all of it - had been stolen from them. The anticipation of what he might find was strung tight in his belly…
He lay there and hated them. Not for what they wanted to do with him, but for what they did to the earth with their machines, and to the animals with their packs of dogs and their guns. It happened again and again, and the people had to watch, unable to save or to protect any of the things that were so important to them.
"The end of the story. They want to change it. They want it to end here, the way all their stories end, encircling slowly to choke the life away. The violence of the struggle excites them, and the killing soothes them. They have their stories about us – Indian people who are only marking time and waiting for the end.”