Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Review by Richard Carroll

In Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko writes from the perspective of an Indigenous American and explores the theme of change as a necessity for continuity and survival. Indigenous people acknowledge that humans are different from other forms of life. However, Silko says: “Yet we are all from the same source: the awareness never deteriorated into Cartesian duality, cutting off the human from the natural world.”

Ceremony is a story of a man and his people seeking a place in the turbulent world. Silko weaves a powerful tale of survival, her words colour the pages, you can sense her love for everything she describes with such exquisite beauty. Throughout Ceremony, Silko imbues the pages with constant descriptions of the country and the elements, which are at the heart of what the Indians are:

The wind was practicing with small gusts of hot air that fluttered the leaves on the elm tree in the yard. The wind was warming up for the afternoon, and within a few hours the sky over the valley would be dense with red dust, and along the ground the wind would catch waves of reddish sand and make them race across the dry red clay flats.

According to the character Josiah, a native American: “This is where we come from, see. This sand, this stone, these trees, the vines, all the wildflowers. This earth keeps us going.” With simple words, Silko succeeds in putting the reader in the landscape, while also awakening us to a sense of its spiritual content. The Western definition of “landscape” underlines the separateness of humans and nature; the land is seen as a view or vista of scenery, which humans can improve through adornment and contouring. Silko manages to suffuse tragedy with hope – as long as the land is there and we respect it, there is hope, because the land belongs to no-one, we belong to it. Through Betonie, Silko contrasts the way white people and the Indians see the land: “They only fool themselves when they think it is theirs. The deeds and papers don’t mean anything. It is the people who belong to the mountain”.

Tayo’s journey allows Silko to show the role stories and ritual play in traditional Indian life. The book highlights the Indian/white-man polarity, depicting Westerners as victims as much as the Indians – the witchery has embroiled them all; the whites are on a path towards oblivion because they do not respect the land nor the animals and plants they take or destroy without thanks. But they suffer the pain of knowing that their wealth is based on theft of a land that belonged to others:

It was the white people who had nothing; it was the white people who were suffering as thieves do, never able to forget that their pride was wrapped in something stolen, something that had never been, and could never be, theirs.

Yet, humans continue to consume the earth in a process of mindless self-destruction. The white god is money and possessions, we always want more. We are into having instead of being within the world, we stand apart from it, at a distance from its centre and consequently from our inner self. The Australian Aborigines believe that “those who destroy their country destroy themselves.”

Right from the start of Ceremony, Tayo senses his connection to the land and disagrees strongly with Emo when he says “’Look what is here for us. Look. Here’s the Indians’ mother earth! Old dried-up thing!”  This outburst from Emo made Tayo angry and highlights the way many Indians no longer relate to their traditions – they have lost touch with an essential part of their nature in their pursuit of the white way of life. Tayo’s healing process through immersion in the natural world symbolises the healing needed in the greater Indian community, which has to embrace their traditional culture to survive.

The cultural conflict between whites and Indians is etched in the story of the spotted cattle. Josiah wanted Ulibarri’s cattle because they “were descendants of generations of desert cattle” and were thus better adapted to the harsh local conditions. Josiah goes on to say: “See, I’m not going to make the mistake other guys made, buying those Hereford, white-face cattle. If it’s going to be a drought these next few years, then we need some special breed of cattle”. Josiah rejects the scientific books on cattle breeding which were “written by white people who did not think about drought or winter blizzards or dry thistles, which the cattle had to live with.”

Silko has Betonie explain to Tayo the necessity of adapting ceremonies (which have been changing anyway) if the Indians are to survive:

But long ago when the people were given these ceremonies, the changing began, if only in the aging of the yellow gourd rattle or the shrinking of the skin around the eagle’s claw, if only in the different voices from generation to generation, singing the chants… I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong.

If the Indians succumb to the witchery which would have them keep the ceremonies unchanged, Betonie says that “the people will be no more.”  

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