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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
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 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
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Ceremony!