Themes, Motifs & Symbols
The Importance of Storytelling
Storytelling in the context of Ceremony refers not only to the general process of telling a story but also to the particular Native American tradition of storytelling. Traditionally, Native American cultural is oral, and everything from biology to history to morality to medicine is passed on in the form of stories. While the elders in a community may be the official storytellers, storytelling is a profoundly communal event. Since stories are intended to pass on information that will be remembered, they are often rhythmic, almost sung, and contain a large amount of repetition. This mode of storytelling is presented in Ceremony in the form of poems, both framing the main narrative (at the beginning and end) and interspersed throughout. These stories are in fact traditional Pueblo stories, known outside of the context of the novel. Tayo’s tale reflects the traditional stories but is original. Along with the arrangement of the prose and poem passages, it can be seen as Silko’s personal intervention in the communal process of storytelling.
While the prose sections of Ceremony are primarily narrated in a third person limited voice, the poems vary between first and third person. They announce the elements of this theme that will recur throughout the novel. Stories have the power to heal: they contain the rituals and ceremonies that can cure individuals and communities. They do this primarily by reminding us of the interrelations between all people and all things. As a story is told communally or is shared by one person with another, it creates a sense of community between those people. The presence of both the first and third person in the poems reinforces this aspect. For Tayo, the stories represent the Native American understanding of the world that he grew up with but that the white schools, the army, and the doctors and the VA hospital tried to convince him were incorrect. As he remembers and reenacts the old stories, Tayo reconnects with his community, recovers from the trauma of the war, and returns the rain to his land. The stories teach Tayo that he is not alone, both because he shares stories with a whole community and also because content of the ancient stories remind him that others before him have had similar experiences—he is not alone, and there is always hope for renewal.
The Destructiveness of Contact Between Cultures
The contact between Native American and white cultures in Ceremony is largely destructive. While the novel presents its devastating effects in somber terms, it is not concerned with simply lamenting the fact that whites arrived on the American continent and established systems that prove fatal to the indigenous peoples. Rather, Ceremony presents an attempt to contend with the reality of a mixed cultural landscape in a way that allows Native American culture to persist, even as it changes. Tayo himself embodies the contact between Native American and white cultures, as he bears his mixed racial heritage in his green eyes. Tayo must learn to make use of the white parts of himself and of the world around him, without abandoning his primary allegiance to Native American traditions.
For many in the novel, the first contact between the cultures takes place in the white schools that the Native Americans attend. There, white teachers tell them that their stories are not true and that their understanding of the world is not valid. Most significant, the white teachers present a completely different view of science and nature, and, as a result, the younger generations of Native Americans want to abandon traditional farming practices. This creates an agricultural crisis that is exacerbated by the pollution of reservation lands by white mines and military industry. In addition, white towns attract Native Americans with the prospect of white-collar jobs and good pay, but racism denies Native Americans access to those positions, while the cash they are able to make allows them greater access to the bars and the alcoholism whites have also introduced. All of these serve as strong indictments of the effect of whites on Native American culture. However, the relationship between white and Native American cultures is completely shifted in Ceremony when Betonie reveals that whites are an invention of Native American witchcraft. In the revelation, although they are still a primarily destructive force, whites are shown to be a part of Native American culture and traditions.
The Necessity of Tradition
In Ceremony, preserving tradition is essential to saving the Native American community. Both for Tayo and in the ancient stories, forgetting tradition brings massive drought and disaster. A key role of the medicine men is to preserve tradition, as is symbolized by the crates of artifacts they store. However, in order for tradition to survive, it must change with the times. The reservation medicine man, Ku’oosh, is unable to cure Tayo because he knows only the traditional healing ceremonies, which are not applicable to contemporary illnesses. As Betonie explains, traditions must be constantly reinvented to reflect the ever-changing reality of the world. Similarly, the novel shows the dangers of blindly adhering to traditions rather than trying to follow their intent. Auntie represents those who simply follow the dictates of traditions, as she mistrusts any form of interracial relationship. Josiah, on the other hand, represents those who follow the spirit of traditions, such as when he finds a way to interbreed Mexican and Hereford cattle to create a herd that will be both hardy and productive.
The Constant Threat of Drought
Water is essential to the survival of crops and animals for the Laguna, whose primary occupation is agriculture. Without city-sponsored plumbing and irrigation systems, and not wanting to interrupt the natural flow of water with dams, the Laguna are completely dependent on natural rainfall. Living in the desert land that comprises much of the southwest of the United States, the Laguna are constantly threatened by drought. Many of the traditional stories and ceremonies revolve around ensuring adequate rainfall. The primary signal of the spirits’ displeasure with something the people has done is a drought, and one of the greatest feats of a destructive spirit is the creation of a drought. However, as Josiah tells Tayo when he is a child, everything has both its good and its bad sides. While too little rainfall can be disastrous, so can too much, as Tayo learns in the Philippine jungle. Tayo commits a grievous error when he forgets this lesson and, in the midst of a flood, curses the rain. Whether or not Tayo’s curse is actually responsible for the drought on the reservation, it is essential for his health as well as for that of his community that he learn through his ceremony to respect the patterns of nature. Once he does that, the rain returns.
Nonlinear Narrative Structure
The Native Americans of the Pueblo see time as cyclical rather than linear. Silko produces a text that emphasizes this notion by using a nonlinear narrative structure. In most of Western literature, narrative proceeds in a temporal succession from beginning to end and from earlier to later. Although features such as analepsis (shifting back in time) and prolepsis (shifting forward in time) are standard, they are generally clearly marked and take up much less of the time and space of the novel than does the primary narrative. In Ceremony, on the other hand, it is often difficult to distinguish between primary and secondary narratives, or between past and present. Silko switches back and forth from Tayo’s childhood to his time in the Philippines to various moments after his return, following no order except the order of thematic connections between the different events. The entire novel is narrated in the past tense, so whether an event actually occurred before Tayo’s birth or in the midst of the ceremony, it appears to happen at the same time. The effect of this is to recreate a Pueblo sense of time, where all things are cyclic and where their immediacy is related not to how long ago they happened but to how important they feel in the present.
The Combination of Poetry and Prose
Silko’s use of poetry invokes the rhythmic, communal storytelling patterns of the Native Americans, while her use of prose belongs to a Western narrative tradition. By combining the two in her novel, Silko asserts that the form as well as the content of the story is about the blending of the two cultures. Thematically, white and Native American cultures clash with each other more often than they complement each other, but the prose and poetry weave together easily. In many ways, they tell the same story; “only thing is,” as Grandma says at the end, “the names sound different.” The entire stories sound different as well, as versification (the division of the verses), rhyming, alliteration (the repetition of the first letter of a word), and repetition give the poems a distinctive rhythm. The poem at the end of the novel completes the line on the page before the first prose section, enclosing the entire novel within a poem. In other words, just as whites are said to be an invention of Native American witchcraft, so is a Western form of storytelling shown to be contained within a Native American form of storytelling.
The Gallup Ceremonial
Every year, the white mayor and council of Gallup organize a Ceremonial. The Gallup Ceremonial symbolizes the ways in which whites misunderstand Native American tradition and appropriate it for their own purposes. Dancers from a wide range of Native American groups are invited the Gallup Ceremonial and are paid for their performances. This demonstrates the whites’ lack of comprehension of the differences between Native American tribes, as well as their ignorance of the specific purpose of each individual ceremony. Whereas traditional ceremonies are performed around important events or times of year, with a specific ritual meaning, the Gallup Ceremonial is intended purely for the entertainment of whites. In addition, for the rest of the year, the town of Gallup at best ignores and at worst promotes the racist mistreatment of Native Americans, symbolizing the ways in which whites are eager to praise Native American artifacts but do not want to deal with the ongoing lives of real Native Americans.
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