Analysis of Major Characters
Tayo embodies the confluence of Native American and white cultures, both present in his ancestry, and in his experience, which brings him from the reservation, to the US army, to the Philippines, to a Veteran's Hospital, and back to the reservation. Carrying the signs of the cultural mixing in his green eyes often makes Tayo bear the brunt of a whole society's confusion at the ways in which the world is changing. Especially since he never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother at the age of four, Tayo encounters great difficulty in negotiating his mixed identity and experience. This is exacerbated by his Auntie who raises him with the constant reminder of his difference. Like most of his peers, Tayo is educated in white-run schools. Unlike his friends, however, he often finds the white ways of life faulty and continues to respect and to believe in the Native American traditions he learns from his family as well. Tayo is prepared to serve as a bridge between the older and younger generations of Native Americans.
World War II interrupts Tayo's life, as it does to most Americans of his generation. He comes of age on the battlefield, amidst tremendous death and destruction. His awareness of the connections among of all people and all things makes it incredibly difficult for Tayo to kill in a war he does not understand, in a place far from his home. The majority of the Native American men who return from World War II drown their trauma in alcohol, full of confused anger. Tayo, however, is more sad than angry. Painfully aware of the ways in which Native Americans were and are mistreated by whites, Tayo is not interested in glorifying his time in the army. These characteristics allow him to respond to the help the medicine men Ku'oosh and Betonie offer.
His lifelong desperation to belong in his family and his community, along with his deep-seated belief in the power of the old traditions, allow Tayo to take up the challenge offered by Betonie and to undertake the completion of the ceremony, which can cure both himself and his people. Although he often falters along the path, Tayo's acceptance of the Native American mythical world allows him to benefit from the aid of accidents, animals, spirits, and the elements.
As a medicine man, Betonie bridges the real and the mythical worlds. As would be expected, he spends much of his time in communication with spirits and stories to which others do not have access. The story of his own childhood appears magical, as he is descended from a woman who one day appears hanging in a treetop and turned out to be in search of her husband. In these ways, Betonie is like the other medicine man in the story, Ku'oosh. However, Betonie is also shockingly connected with the mundane details not only of Native American society but also that of whites.
Betonie attended a white-run boarding school and keeps old gas station calendars among his sacred herbs and stones. He lives not at the sacred center of the reservation, but on a cliff overlooking a run-down white town. He is descended from generations of Laguna medicine men and women only on one side; the other part of his ancestry is Mexican. He is a kindred spirit to Tayo, standing at the brink of a culture clash. But while Tayo tries desperately to make sense of the world, Betonie was raised with a deep understanding of it, and a profound tolerance for it. Where Tayo cries, Betonie laughs.
While Betonie is wise, he is not omnipotent (all-powerful). Medicine men are vehicles rather than agents; they observe, remember, and advise, but they need patients through whom to perform their ceremonies. Betonie provides Tayo with the tools and the faith Tayo needs in order to complete the ceremony. Betonie's role is that of the teacher, rather than of the hero.
Although Ceremony is clearly a Native American novel about the adverse effects white people have on Native American culture and on the world in general, the Native Americans in the story are not idealized, nor are they wholly positive characters. Along with Emo, Auntie is one of the most negative characters in the book. In addition to embracing some of the more destructive elements of white society, Auntie also adheres to Native American tradition in a destructive manner.
The eldest daughter of Grandma, Auntie, whose given name is Thelma, will be the next matriarch of her family. As such, she feels responsible to the community for her family and especially her younger siblings. However, Auntie is more concerned about how Laura and Josiah's actions will affect the respect the community gives to her family and what gossip they may cause to be spread, than she is with their welfare. Similarly, she follows the letter rather than the spirit of Native American traditions, leading her to condemn completely any relationship outside of the community. In addition to this blind adherence to Native American social mores, Auntie is a devout Christian who thrives on a narrow interpretation of the concept of martyrdom. In Auntie's understanding of martyrdom, she will gain the respect of her peers if she is seen to suffer for the sins of others. It is in this spirit that she raises Tayo, rather than out of any love for him or any sense of the Native American concept of family, which is not limited to nuclear (mother, father, and child) units.
Although Auntie is a highly problematic character who causes all sorts of unnecessary problems in Tayo's life, she is not demonized. Although she does not do it out of love, she does raise Tayo. She causes difficulty, but not ruin. Her mistreatment of Tayo is attenuated by the rest of her family. Auntie's misunderstanding of both Native American and Christian traditions is the result of the same clashing of cultures that affects everyone in the novel.
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