This is an essay I wrote for the Penguin Classics Essay Contest based on Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. Ceremony is about a young Native American man, Tayo, who is returning from World War 2. The question I was answering was:
Compare Tayo’s physical and psychological condition when he came home from the war to his condition at the end of the novel. Which experience or personal interaction most helped him to move toward healing?
During World War 2, thousands of Native Americans volunteered to serve in the US military. For many of them, this was the first time they had left their reservation and been exposed to the world of the white man. It came as a great shock to them. World War 2 “caused the greatest disruption of Indian life since the beginning of the reservation era” (https://www.fcpotawatomi.com/news/native-americans-in-the-military-world-war-ii/). One of those affected was Tayo, the protagonist of Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. The changes he faced were particularly great, because his brother Rocky and uncle Josiah died during the war. At the start of the novel, Tayo is unable to shake off the past, reflecting the way the Native American people are caught between the past and present. However, by the end of the novel, Old Betonie the medicine man has helped Tayo to find a balance his past and present, and the wider past and present.
Tayo is troubled by his life before the war. His mind is constantly moving from the past to the present and this shift causes a lot of his mental problems. Tayo “could get no rest as long as the memories were tangled with the present” (pg.6). Everything he sees reminds him of Rocky and Josiah, and he is constantly switching back and forth between the two time periods. When he returns to America, one of the first things he sees is “the face of the little boy, looking back at him, smiling… it was Rocky’s smiling face from a long time before when they were little kids together” (pg.16). He is unable to accept the present because he is caught in the past. He feels like there has been a mistake. Josiah and Rocky both had dreams for the future, and Tayo’s role was to support them. If anyone was going to die, it was supposed to be him. Rocky was going to go off to college, leave the reservation and Josiah was going to grow rich off his herd of cattle. Now, Tayo has to reckon with a future that is completely unexpected.
While Tayo is caught between his past and present, the wider Native American community struggles with their place in the white world. The Native American veterans suffer from post-war trauma, and the medicine man Ku’oosh attempts to cure them with the Scalp Ceremony, a traditional ceremony administered to Native American warriors. But, as he says, those “who have had the Scalp Ceremony, some of them are not better” (page 35). The methods of the past have become inadequate in this new world. To adapt to the world of white men, Auntie pushes and encourages Rocky to study hard and get better at football. But at the same time, she looks down on Tayo for his white father. Their culture is based on love of the land, and they remain on the same land they have always been on. But the land itself has changed. White men own farms, and have divided up the land with barbed wire. The US government set up a uranium mine, and used the land to test a nuclear bomb. To the Native Americans, “the fifth world had become entangled with European names… all of creation suddenly had two names: an Indian name and a white name” (page 62). The Native Americans feel lost, unsure of their place.
Old Betonie helps Tayo to find balance between the past and present and offers him an example of someone who has gone through a similar ordeal and survived. Tayo talks about his past for the first time with Old Betonie. He reveals his feelings of guilt in the deaths of Josiah and Rocky, something which he has not fully articulated at any other point in the book. Old Betonie helps Tayo realize it was not his fault, that it was “the witchery ranging as wide as this world” (pg. 114). Betonie also helps Tayo to grapple with the existence and influence of the white people. Even though the whites have stolen the ownership to the land, “it is the people who belong to the mountain” (pg.118). The white people cannot sever Tayo’s personal connection to the land. Old Betonie also shows Tayo someone who has gone through an experience like his. His helper Shush, who, as a child, had gone “to the place which belonged to the bears” (pg. 119). Shush went to a bear cave, just as Tayo went to fight in the white man’s world. Both were places unfamiliar to them, with different customs and beliefs, and full of dangerous, deceptive creatures. But Old Betonie was able to rescue him. He had to “call him [Shush] step by step” (pg. 119), and that is what he is doing with Tayo.
Throughout the novel, Tayo struggles to adjust to civilian life after going to war and losing two of his closest relatives. His struggle with reality reflects the wider Native American struggles and the issues in Ceremony are still present today. Native Americans still live on reservations, and still have to interact with the white world while trying to maintain their traditions as best as they can. Tayo’s personal journey is one that remains incredibly resonant, more than fifty years later.