Living in-between: The Search for Identity in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)



1. Introduction

2. The Development of the Characters Tayo and Rocky in Ceremony
2.1. Tayo
2.2. Rocky

3. The Parallels between Tayo and Rocky

4. Characteristics of Tayo versus Rocky

5. Tayo’s Search for Identity
5.1. The Pueblo World View
5.2. The Problem of Tayo’s Alienation

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Although Leslie Marmon Silko’s complete works have received exemplary reviews, Ceremony seems to be the most talked about and recognized for its literary achievement. One reason for this large attention is the strange narrative form due to the combination of the Indian “storytelling”, myth, poetry and a plot that takes place in a modern western[1] environment. Another reason for the remarkable success of this novel is Silko’s way to show the negative repercussions on Native Americans caused by racism, alcoholism, dislocation, poverty as well as the industrial exploitation of the land.

In this paper I will discuss one of the principal themes presented in Leslie Silko’s Ceremony: the issue of Native American identity. In the first part I will briefly introduce the characters of Tayo and Rocky, two Native Americans who grew up on a reservation for the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. After that I will examine the similarities between these two young men who both take part in the Second World War and make horrible experiences. In the main part of this paper I will try to find out the differences between Tayo and Rocky in order to explain their different ways of searching their own identity. Furthermore I will explore the sources of Tayo’s self-destructive behaviour and his problem of alienation. Therefore I will have to ponder on the following questions: How does the white culture influence these characters? Do both men suffer from the loss of Indian self-esteem? What are the effects of internalized racism and colonization on the health of Tayo? Why is Tayo able to return to the community to lead a stable and productive life?

In the final comment there will be a concluding assessment and a summary of the theme.

2. The Development of the Characters Tayo and Rocky in Ceremony

2.1. Tayo

Tayo, a young Native American, is not only the protagonist of Leslie Silko’s[2] novel Ceremony but also an intriguing and complex character. He grows up on a reservation for the Laguna Pueblo as a child of a Laguna mother and an anonymous white father. After his mother Laura left him with his aunt when he was four years old, the only people close to him were Josiah (his uncle), Rocky (his cousin), and his grandmother. Tayo still remembers the day when Laura “kissed him on the forehead with whiskey breath, and then pushed him gently into Josiah’s arms as she backed out the door” (p. 66).

Of course, Tayo’s life as a mixed blood is far from being easy on the reservation. Even Auntie, Rocky’s mother, feels ashamed of her nephew and her younger sister Laura, who earns her money as a prostitute. Auntie fiercely protects her own family from the gossip in the village. Therefore she always maintains “a distance between Rocky, who was her pride, and this other, unwanted child. (…) She wanted him close enough to feel excluded, to be aware of the distance between them.” (p. 66) Nevertheless the cousins understand each other well. They even the other as a brother with equal rights.

The Second World War completely changes Tayo’s life. Rocky tries to persuade him to join the American Army and fight for their country, but Tayo is not sure whether he can leave Josiah alone and thus break his promise to help him with the cattle. He finally accompanies Rocky in order “to bring him back safe” (p. 73). Moreover, “he had never planned to go any farther than Rocky went” (p. 44).

While stationed in the Philippines Rocky and Tayo are instructed to kill the Japanese people by shooting them, but Tayo cannot bring himself to do it because he thinks that one of them is his dear uncle Josiah. After the rest of the American soldiers had shot at the Japanese, Tayo suffers a nervous breakdown because he thinks that he “had watched him die, and he had nothing done to save him” (p. 19). Even when his friend Rocky shows him that it is a man in a Japanese uniform, Tayo goes into an emotional fit. After all he must watch Rocky being killed by a tall Jap soldier who “pulled the blanket over Rocky as if he was already dead, and then he jabbed the rifle butt into the muddy blanket” (p. 44).

After the Second World War and his arrest in a detention camp Tayo suffers from a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder that white medicine is unable to cure. At the hospital Tayo is told by white doctors to avoid Indian medicine and to remove himself as far as possible from his community and heritage. But Tayo is not even able to speak. He feels invisible and experiences himself as “white smoke” (p. 14). After his release from the hospital, his illness worsens. He feels lonely, sick, and even suicidal. “He did not brace himself against the nausea. He didn’t care any more if it came; he didn’t care any more if he died” (p. 39). All Tayo can remember is watching Rocky death throes in the war and cursing the rain, which is wrong for Indians to do.

In his search for healing, Tayo first turns to drinking with Emo and other Indian veterans. But becoming part of this world of drinking and violence only makes Tayo sicker. He still needs to find answers but he does not know where to find them. Finally his grandmother calls a traditional healer, Ku’oosh, who tries to heal the young man with the old ceremony[3]. It seems to be the only way to return to his tribal ways. He chants in the native language and explains to Tayo that his curing is important not only for his own sake, but for the entire world that is under the spell of witchery. But Tayo vomits before Ku’oosh gets very far in the ceremony, and Ku’oosh realizes that he cannot heal him because “there are some things we can’t cure like we used to (…) not since the white people came” (p. 38).

Since neither entering the white world like the other veterans nor returning to the old ways can heal Tayo, another kind of cure is needed. This is where Betonie, who is a Navajo and a new kind of medicine man, comes in. Although Betonie still wears the traditional clothes of a medicine man and uses old paraphernalia, such as prayer sticks, gourd rattles, and leather pouches, he also collects modern items like coke bottles, phone books, and calendars with pictures of Indians on them. Tayo questions the use of such non-traditional items and is suspicious of Betonie and the ceremonial changes[4] he represents. But Betonie explains him that in “many ways, the ceremonies have always been changing.” Indeed, change and growth are necessary for survival, for “only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong,” and “things which don’t shift and grow are dead things” (p. 126).

The ritual begins with a cut across the top of Tayo’s head accompanied by long prayers. After that Betonie foretells the elements guiding Tayo’s odyssey: “Remember these stars (…), I’ve seen them and I’ve seen the spotted cattle[5] ; I’ve seen a mountain and I’ve seen a woman” (p. 152). Tayo’s cure takes the form of a journey where all foretells of Betonie come true.


[1] In this case the term “western“ means the American way of thinking and living - the “American way of life”.

[2] Leslie Marmon Silko was born on March 5, 1948, to Mary Virginia Leslie and Lee Howard Marmon and grew up in Old Laguna, a pueblo near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Like the protagonist of Ceremony, she is of mixed ancestry. Her great grandmother, a Laguna, lived next door and taught her about Laguna culture. Silko began her education at Laguna Bureau of Indian Affairs School, then attended Catholic schools in Albuquerque, and later received a B.A. from the University of New Mexico. After attending law school at the University of New Mexico for three semesters, she became disenchanted with the possibility of attaining social justice through law and turned to writing. Ceremony became one of the best known works by an American Indian. Since its publication in 1977, more than half a million copies of the book have been sold, and nowadays it belongs to one of the most frequently taught contemporary novels in higher education.

Silko’s original intention was modest; she desired to write a light-hearted story about a mother’s constant struggle to thwart the attempts of her veteran-son to obtain alcohol. Silko had observed first-hand how some of these veterans were decorated war heroes, who in the post-war period could not become integrated anymore because of their alcoholism and associated problems. In brief, the story was supposed to be “funny” but finally metamorphoses into a sad and pathetic tale. (cf. Chavkin 2002: 4-5)

[3] Ceremonies are held for many reasons, including for changes in season, for crops and for “purification”, especially in case of war veterans. (cf. Goldstein 2003: 246) According to Allen, the purpose of a ceremony is to integrate the individual into the tribe and to create a sense of tribal community. The curing rituals or “ceremonies” are often based on the re-enactments of mythic stories through chant, song, and ritual. (cf. Allen 1992: 247)

An elder from the Tewa Pueblo of San Juan has explained, that the purpose of ceremonies in Native American cultures “is not entertainment but attainment. (…) Our dramas, our songs, our dances are not performed for fun as they might be in the white world: no, they are the very essence of our lives: they are sacred.” (Owens 2002: 95)

[4] As Silko pondered this disease of despair and the source of the veterans’ alcoholism, she recalled that after World War II ended, frequently the Pueblo and the Navajo frequentley performed traditional purification rituals for returning veterans. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of these rituals for some of the soldiers was inadequate, which some people interpreted as evidence of the inadequacy of American beliefs. Silko suggests, however, that because these rituals were not devised with modern warfare in mind, they must be modified if they are to be effective. That is why Tayo must seek healing from Betonie after the ceremony of Ku’oosh, a traditional Laguna medicine man, fails. (cf. Chavkin 2002: 6)

[5] The cattle represent Tayo’s last connection to his beloved uncle, who taught him about the ancient ways. The cattle ran away and could not be found by Josiah. Tayo feels guilty due to the fact that he has not helped him with the cattle-breeding.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Living in-between: The Search for Identity in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Institute for Anglistics/American Studies)
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
599 KB
Doppelter Zeilenabstand.
Living, Search, Identity, Leslie, Marmon, Silko, Ceremony
Quote paper
Ariane Peters (Author), 2003, Living in-between: The Search for Identity in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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