Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

I first read Ceremony when I was about 15 years old. I hated it. I hated that I had to read it. My class was each supposed to choose a New Mexican author (I grew up in New Mexico) and I felt that I didn’t get to choose mine, but that she had been thrust upon me. In retrospect, especially having read this novel again now, I believe this is true. I was meant to find this author, even if she wouldn’t be ‘of use’ to me until 20 years later. 

I was very resentful then. My parents had both been in the military and I hated how much power the military had over my life. I hated that the military controlled where I lived. I hated the rules and regulations, the lack of freedom. Also, I was still hiding from my own darkness… no, I don’t think that’s quite true. I was a child, and so I didn’t yet know the gifts my darkness had to offer me. At that point in my life, my trauma was pure pain that I did not understand. 

And so, when I picked up Ceremony, all I saw was yet another book about WWII that I had to read in English class, another story with a male protagonist, and I was over it before I even began. 

Leslie Marmon Silko sets up the novel by telling us the importance of story before the story even begins. It’s like she is telling the reader, yes, this is a book, but it is also so much more than a book. This is a book about a ceremony, but this book is also a ceremony in itself. Ceremonies help explain the unexplainable. Ritual helps honor and translate the untranslatable. All stories are important. The stories of our lives, and the stories passed down through generations all have power whether they are ‘logical’ and ‘linear’ or not; stories are healing. 

The main character, Tayo, has PTSD. Silko shows the effects he suffers–time collapses, everything he looks at is overcoupled with past events; memories lead to memories lead to memories. Everything leads back to the war. Everything leads back to self hatred and blame. 

Pertinent to my own studies, Silko vividly paints the separation of mind/matter/spirit that happens after an intense trauma. Tayo feels like he has no body. He is smoke. He is invisible. When he thinks he is dying, he forces himself back into his body. Intuitively knowing it is not meant to be split from the rest of him, he forces integration in what he believes are his last moments. He is not dying, and the hollow feeling returns to him time and again throughout the novel. He feels he is a soul in the wrong body. He no longer feels hunger. He cannot sleep, nor can he allow himself to rest. Repeatedly, he vomits, as if he could empty himself of his Self. His struggle throughout the book is to make embodiment permanent.  

This being a novel about a war veteran set on a reservation, Tayo is not the only character suffering. His friend, Harley, shows that there is not just one way to handle trauma, but beneath the outer action, or expression of trauma, there is a similar hollow pain. 

Silko shows how colonization hit the reservations and taught the children that their old ways were nonsense and superstition, which left them, like most of the Western world, unable to cope with grief, leaving the survivors to try to ‘heal’ through self-destructive behaviors like drinking. The new ways, the colonial ways, won’t heal Tayo even though it was new warfare that hurt his spirit. We see that patriarchy has lied to us our whole lives. It’s given us false hope that keeps us trapped in hopeless situations. The biggest lie that patriarchy tells is that it is the only framework that exists, that we must make our way within its rules and regulations which benefit few. We think our hope is pure, but really, it is self-denial. When the veterans drink in the bar, they believe they are drinking to access a world they once saw and that they will see again, but they are slowly destroying themselves. 

The tribe’s medicine man approaches Tayo at the behest of his grandmother slowly, carefully, and circuitously. He does not look for symptoms to treat and make better the way the western doctors do. He searches for Tayo’s soul and gently tries to lead him back. But the western world has left its mark on the medicine man, too, and his knowledge of the old ways is not enough. 

The medicine man acknowledges that his medicine is not enough anymore. He doesn’t know how to search deeper into the old ways, how to find older ways and make them new again. Instead, Tayo (and thus all of us) is stuck with the best the medicine man can offer. The white world also offers up dregs of support when their medicine doesn’t work: money. Though these two things are not enough to heal him, they are enough to help him continue existing, disembodied as he is, and the money gives him the resources to alcohol to fill the hole inside of him. (I just made a typo when writing that felt very serendipitous… I wrote whole instead of hole. He is trying to become whole by filling the hold inside of him, but going about in the wrong way because he has been taught to mistrust his intuition). 

When the novel begins, it seems like Tayo must overcome his battle trauma, but it quickly becomes apparent that the war brought up traumas older than death, older than battle fatigue. The people are traumatized due to racism and colonization and learned self-hatred. They can admit they have PTSD from the war, but the other traumas are more insidious and harder to accept. The war is an excuse, an acceptable breaking point when the ‘medicine’ (alcohol, money, white treatments, inadequate ceremonies) stop working and someone snaps. 

The war first seemed like a way to get past the old traumas–the men thought they were finally being accepted in the new world. The army recruiters, like the missionaries before them, brought lies disguised as love and pride meant only to serve the colonial narrative. The more Native Americans the whites get on their side, the harder it is to practice the old ways. They lie, divide, and conquer through fear and shame, and then the people use these against each other like weapons. Tayo’s aunt is a perfect example of this. It is through her insistence on viewing the world through a white, Christian lens that she emotionally abuses Tayo–both as a boy and man.

There’s an interesting sub-conversation happening in the novel about race and purity, especially in the relationship between Tayo, who is mixed, and his full blood cousin, Rocky. Rocky wants to abandon the old ways and claim the ‘gifts’ of the white world. Tayo isn’t sure he wants to abandon everything, but since he is half white, some people (like his aunt) consider it inappropriate that he be initiated. His aunt is even against the medicine man coming to heal him. But for the old ways to survive, they need people like Tayo who want to keep them alive. I, of course, found this conversation very interesting and it gives me some food for thought when considering my own ancestry and whether or not I have the right to claim pieces of my past since I am only ‘part’ of them. 

Eventually, Tayo meets a new medicine man who is like him–bi-racial–who has access to what he’s been only grudgingly allowed in the past… ancestral knowledge. At first, he opens up to this, but he quickly shuts down and discounts what the medicine man has to say. Tayo’s spiritual container has shrunk through repeated traumas. He’s had as much as he can handle. He must learn to stretch again to his full potential. 

The new medicine man acknowledges that the old ways are getting lost, even when they’re made new again. Rediscovering other ways of knowing doesn’t mean we forget the world in which we live or the habits that have become ingrained. Tayo has a magical experience and holds onto it for as long as he can, but too quickly habit and old friends come to lead him back to the comfort of the known instead of the discomfort of healing and becoming something new. This oscillation isn’t wrong. It’s part of the process of becoming, and as long as Tayo doesn’t abandon the process, as long as he keeps returning to his discomfort, he is on the right path. The medicine man begins the ceremony that is the heart of the story, but it is Tayo who must decide if he is strong enough to complete, to decide how far into discomfort he is willing to go. 

Despite the lure of his old life, Tayo is changed by the ceremony. He no longer relies solely on the white man’s logic; he begins to trust his dreams and the medicine man’s visions. Because he has lost his false hope, he is able to open himself up to other ways of knowing. 

Tayo’s journey is one of doubt and trust, doubt and trust. When things get hard, he doubts, but signs show up  along the way and he chooses to trust once again. Spirit saves him and he is able to see some of the truths he’s been avoiding… his pain goes deeper than the war, deeper than the sad circumstances of his birth and childhood. He realized that his whole world (his people, his land) is traumatized, and this leads to further challenges. When Tayo begins to trust in other ways of knowing (older ways of knowing), he finds others who are living differently, and they are not as crazy or strange as he feared. They live beautiful lives. The truly unexpected thing is how this shift in Tayo riles up others who are not comfortable with the old ways, who want to pretend they don’t exist, who want to fully integrate into the new, dead world. Which way will be stronger? We, the reader, hope we know the answer, but does Tayo?

He returns to his drinking buddies time and again throughout the novel, and so it’s not surprising that hey are his final test. They all lie to each other that they are friend, but really, they are people to drink with, to suffer with, to pretend they don’t feel lonely. They don’t have each other’s backs because they don’t have their own. This is the hardest lie for Tayo to give up, his last connection with the known (white) world–and the most dangerous. 

Silko shows the modern struggle of many things–being mixed race and thus belonging to neither world; viewing the world through an animist lens while also being taught that matter is dead and humans are supreme. Tayo juggles it all as his memories spiral and mix, one into the other. Through Tayo, she shows that we are resilient creatures, but we have our breaking point. Habit and/or circumstance can lead to repeated traumatic events. Each time it gets harder to recover, but healing is always possible–the trouble is, we don’t always have the knowledge or resources to access that healing, or even know it exists. 

The one part of the novel that I did not understand was the role of Tayo’s sexual partners. He has two, and though the novel is written by a woman, these women seem to be written through the male gaze if only because they only complete their role through sex, though both should be powerful women in their own right. Perhaps I am missing something here, a perspective I don’t yet have, but this was one of my only critiques of the book.  

The story ends with questions that cannot be answered by logic. It ends by asking us to trust ourselves, to trust our other ways of knowing that do not involve our thinking minds. Was that one woman a curandera? Was the other a goddess? Was that man really a man? Were the destroyers killed by chance or by karma? The story doesn’t answer these questions, but if we read with our whole Selves then we know we have the answers. 

This story has stayed with me all these years, somewhere in the back of my mind. I’m not sure when I understood that this book had a gift for me. This copy has been on my bookshelf since February, unread. Waiting for me.

This time, I read it with perspective gained from 20 years of living, hurting, and healing. I see deeper into the story: it is about grief and trauma; honoring other ways and old ways of being. This is a story about pain, grieving, and finding wholeness in a fragmented world.

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