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Ceremony Summary


Here you will find a Ceremony summary (Leslie Marmon Silko's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

Ceremony Summary Overview

Tayo, a World War II veteran, returns to his home in the Laguna Pueblo reservation, struggling with the trauma of war and haunted by the ghosts of his past. He carries the burden of believing he had mistakenly shot his Uncle Josiah, witnessing his cousin Rocky's death, and guilt over a prayer he said during the war, which he thinks caused a six-year drought in his homeland. Living with the family that raised him, he confronts their grief over Rocky's loss and his continuing mourning over Josiah's death. His childhood friends, also war veterans, cope with their trauma through alcohol, their tales of valor only emphasizing the discrimination they face. At the edge of despair, his grandmother introduces him to Ku'oosh, a medicine man who tries to heal him with a traditional ceremony intended for warriors who have killed in battle. Ku'oosh's ceremony triggers memories of Tayo's childhood, particularly the summer before he joined the army with Rocky. That season, Josiah fell for Night Swan, a Mexican woman who influenced him to buy a herd of Mexican cattle, which Tayo helped tend to. When a drought threatened the reservation, Tayo performed an impromptu rain ceremony at a spring, and the next day it rained. Despite this, Ku'oosh realizes his ceremony isn't effective enough for Tayo and sends him to another medicine man, Betonie, who is more familiar with the issues caused by the clash of Native American and white cultures. Betonie informs Tayo that they need to create and perform a new ceremony to counter the destruction caused by the white people. Betonie sends Tayo back home, warning him that the ceremony isn't complete yet. On his way, he briefly falls back into his old friends' lifestyle before continuing his search for Josiah's cattle. His journey leads him to a woman named Ts'eh. He locates the cattle in a white man's pasture and is briefly arrested before being let off to hunt a mountain lion that had caught their attention. Ts'eh corrals the cattle and Tayo feels healed on bringing them back home. However, the drought continues, indicating the ceremony isn't complete. Tayo spends the summer with Ts'eh, but has to evade the police and Emo, who had been spreading rumors about him. He ends up in an abandoned uranium mine where he watches Harley being tortured to death by Emo and Pinkie. Tayo survives the night and returns to Ku'oosh, who acknowledges that the ceremony is completed and the drought ends. Tayo then goes back home.

section 1

The book "Ceremony" opens with a triad of poems. The first poem revolves around Ts'its'tsi'nako, the thought-woman, who, with her sisters, created the world by thinking and naming things. It concludes with the lines: "I'm telling you the story she is thinking." The second poem, "Ceremony," talks about the power of narratives, particularly in rituals and ceremonies. The third poem, "What she said," reads: "The only cure I know is a good ceremony, that's what she said." After these, a blank page titled "sunrise" signals the start of the narrative. Tayo, the protagonist, is caught between dreams of his home where Laguna and Mexican Spanish are spoken, and memories of World War II in the Philippines. He daydreams about a deer to calm himself, but the visions of the war won't leave him. In one such vision, he imagines his uncle Josiah among the Japanese soldiers he was ordered to kill. He insists on this image, despite his cousin Rocky's attempts to convince him otherwise. Tayo wakes up and tends to his goats, missing his deceased uncle Josiah. During a severe drought similar to the one he experienced in his youth, Tayo recalls the tropical rains in Philippines as he and a corporal transported the wounded Rocky. When the rain turned into a flood, Tayo prayed for a drought, which he now blames for the current six-year-dry spell. After the war, Tayo was admitted to a Veterans' Hospital in Los Angeles. He felt like an invisible, incommunicable entity, often speaking in third person and crying to the point of vomiting. He gradually recovers and is released, but collapses at the train station in Los Angeles. Waking up to a Japanese family nearby, he mistakenly thinks he's back in the Philippines. A depot worker helps him, informing him that Japanese-Americans are no longer interned. Back on the reservation, Tayo recalls his childhood stories and beliefs, which were dismissed as nonsense by his teachers. His friend Harley, another war veteran, visits him. Tayo notes Harley's increased alcohol consumption and his indifferent recount of an incident involving abandoned animals. Tayo himself struggles with his inner demons, reflected in a bar fight with an old friend, Emo. Both Tayo and Harley are left to tend the deserted land while their families are away. As Harley convinces Tayo to join him for a ride to the reservation line and the bars, Tayo grapples with his feelings of guilt and grief over having survived the war while his cousin Rocky did not. He breaks down and falls unconscious from sunstroke, but Harley helps him into the shade to rest.

section 2

Upon his return to New Laguna from Los Angeles, Tayo is taken in by his Auntie, who had previously taken him in as a child to cover up the scandal of his mother's pregnancy by a white man. As Tayo recovers in her home, he notes her upkeep of the deceased Rocky and Josiah's beds, and becomes physically unwell when placed into Rocky's bed. Tayo's condition deteriorates, prompting him to contemplate going back to the hospital. However, before he can voice his intentions, his grandmother insists on the intervention of a medicine man. Despite Auntie's resistance, Old Ku'oosh, the medicine man, is summoned. Ku'oosh educates Tayo about the sacred places on the reservation and the delicate balance of the world. He insists that Tayo undergo ancient rituals for post-battle cleansing, despite Tayo's belief that he hasn't killed anyone. Ku'oosh warns Tayo of the varying effectiveness of the ritual among returning war veterans. He expresses concern for what might happen if the ritual doesn't work, especially given the changes brought by the arrival of white men. After Ku'oosh's departure, Tayo broods over a story of a man who suffered from horrific dreams after cursing the rain. When Tayo wakes from his contemplation, Auntie feeds him blue cornmeal mush, according to the ritual. Tayo consumes it without purging it and starts caring less about his own survival. This apathy towards life makes living easier as he is able to eat, go outdoors, and sleep through the night. Later, Tayo visits the Dixie Tavern with Harley, Emo, and Leroy, who were his comrades in the war. They share war stories while getting drunk, and Tayo observes the numbing effect of alcohol on their trauma.

section 3

In the military, Indian men were treated with equality due to their uniforms and regular pay. However, Tayo explains that once the war ended and they were no longer in uniform, the discrimination returned. His recount of this reality angers Emo, who blames Tayo and the other Indians for losing the whites' respect post-war. They continue to drink in an attempt to relive the unity they felt during the war. When Tayo cries, the other men mistakenly think he's mourning for Rocky's death at the hands of the Japanese, whereas he's actually grieving for their current predicament. Tayo doesn't harbor resentment towards the Japanese soldiers. He recalls how one of them treated Rocky's body with kindness after his death. Despite the corporal's assurance that Rocky was already dead before being shot in the head, Tayo remains uncertain. After recovering from sunstroke, Tayo and Harley visit a spring where Tayo had once collected water with Josiah during a drought. Josiah had shared wisdom about nature and the repercussions of people forgetting its importance. Tayo muses that their situation might not be as hopeless as it seems. A poem recounts the tale of Pa'caya'nyi, who manipulated the people into neglecting their mother corn altar with the promise of new magic. When the people forget their altar, mother corn leaves, taking along rain clouds, plants, and grass. At the bar, Tayo begins drinking to remember Rocky. He recalls a hunting trip where they killed a deer, and how Rocky disapproved of the ceremonial rituals meant to appease the spirit of the deer. Rocky and Auntie were both willing to abandon such traditions to fit into the white world. Harley tries to keep Tayo calm, fearing a repeat of a past incident when Tayo had attacked Emo with a bottle. Tayo assures him that he won't repeat his past actions. The poem about Pa'caya'nyi continues, with the people seeking forgiveness and finding Hummingbird, who promises them abundant nourishment three worlds down.

section 4

Harley continues reminiscing about the event that landed Tayo back in the hospital, his speech becoming more slurred and he starts speaking Laguna. Emo, in the bar, laments about the injustices of white men and suggests they claim white women as a form of revenge. Tayo retreats to the restroom, where he daydreams about his urine replenishing the earth, only to be haunted by war memories. Emo, upon Tayo's return accuses him of superiority due to his mixed heritage. Tayo's upbringing had forced him to grapple with racial tensions and interracial relationships. Emo's disturbing tales of his encounters with white women and his war trophies of human teeth unsettle Tayo considerably, prompting him to call Emo a killer. This leads to a confrontation and Tayo is arrested. Tayo had enlisted in the military, motivated by Rocky's enthusiasm and the promise of staying together. This marked the first instance where Rocky acknowledged Tayo as his brother, something Auntie carefully avoided. Tayo's mother, Laura, left him with his family when he was four, and it was clear this time she wouldn't return. Despite the harsh treatment from Auntie, Tayo and Rocky were treated equally by the rest of the family. However, Tayo remained sensitive to the subtle cues of Auntie's disdain. Laura's departure was a desperate attempt to escape the cultural clashes in her life. The traditional Native American ways were overlapping with white influences, and Laura was torn between her community and the teachings from school and missionaries. This created tension and regret within her family and community. The section concludes with the continued narrative of Pa'caya'nyi and the drought. The Hummingbird agrees to become the people's messenger in exchange for a unique jar blessed with a special song.

section 5

Upon enlisting in the army, Tayo reflects on the family's expectation that Rocky will leave while he stays to help. This sparks memories of his mother's death and the resultant loss. Despite initial reluctance, Auntie agrees to Josiah and Grandma's decision for Tayo to accompany Rocky. In the past, Josiah invested in Mexican cattle, believing they were better suited to the desert than Herefords. These cattle were purchased from Ulibarri, a cousin of Josiah's Mexican girlfriend, Night Swan. Tayo embraced this venture while Rocky, trusting in scientific literature, was skeptical. Auntie was apprehensive due to the involvement of Night Swan. A mishap occurs when the cattle are delivered to the Laguna reservation and break through a fence, moving south. Despite efforts to round them up, the cattle continue their southward journey. Josiah brands the cattle as they near Mexico, but they persist in their journey. He keeps this trouble from Auntie and Grandma. The narrative transitions to a story about Fly and Hummingbird journeying to a world full of growth and beauty. Meanwhile, Josiah meets a Mexican woman, Night Swan, at Lalo's store and falls for her. Despite Auntie's outrage over his relationship with Night Swan, Grandma remains unfazed by the gossip. Tayo spends the summer assisting Josiah with the cattle and sheep, while Rocky enjoys his football scholarship. Tayo recalls how Josiah comforted him at his mother’s funeral. Based on Josiah's stories, Tayo performs his own rituals and prayers for rain, maintaining faith in old tales despite his teachers' skepticism. His prayers are seemingly answered when it rains. Tayo delivers a message for Josiah to Night Swan, whom Tayo has sensed watching him all summer. Their encounter turns intimate and Night Swan reveals her attention was drawn to Tayo for his unique eye color. She advises Tayo not to blame those who look different for change, but to see change as a natural part of life. She urges him to remember this day.

section 6

Tayo exits the bar, leaving Harley, to get some menudo soup from a nearby joint. The shopkeeper is swatting flies which triggers Tayo's memories of killing flies as a child and his Uncle Josiah's teachings about the spiritual significance of flies to their tribe. Those teachings fell away when he saw flies on Rocky in the jungle and killed them. When he goes back to the bar, Harley isn’t there anymore. Tayo decides to visit Lalo's bar in Cubero, a place he hasn't seen since the night with Night Swan. Post Josiah's funeral, he heard Night Swan left. Exhausted, Tayo falls asleep in the barn behind Harley's grandfather's house in Casa Blanca, enjoying a dreamless sleep. Fly and Hummingbird pay a visit to their mother, requesting food and storm clouds. Their mother advises them to ask old Buzzard to cleanse the town. Tayo informs Robert that he is feeling well enough to shoulder some duties at the ranch. However, Robert relays the community's wish for Tayo to seek help. Understanding that the community wants him gone, Tayo's emotional state worsens. Gallup is a town frequented by white people for alcohol and by Indians for short stays. A boy who could be Tayo lives with his mother under a bridge. They live there until white men attack the women, leading to their arrest and the boy being left alone. Fly and Hummingbird approach old Buzzard with an offering, requesting him to purify the town. The old Buzzard asks for more. Robert and Tayo head to Gallup to meet Betonie, a medicine man known to Ku'oosh. Betonie's place, located above the ceremonial grounds, sickens Tayo. Robert leaves Tayo with Betonie, who has green eyes like Tayo and is a descendant of a Mexican grandmother. He owns a hogan filled with artifacts collected by generations of medicine men and women. Betonie explains that these items mix the Indian and white worlds, serving as reminders. Tayo is both fearful and intrigued by Betonie. He shares his war experiences with Betonie who listens, asks questions, and then informs Tayo he has to complete a ceremony. Betonie also explains that ceremonies have to evolve to match the ever-changing world. While they have dinner, Betonie's assistant, Shush, appears. Betonie explains that Shush once got lost and lived with bears, changing his behavior but not his look. He is different but not a witch, Betonie clarifies.

section 7

Tayo confides in Betonie about Emo, wondering if Emo's claims about whites stealing everything from the Indians could be true. However, Betonie counters this by stating that the whites only believe they possess the land, but in reality, no one can own it. He further asserts that whites are a product of Indian witchcraft, recounting a tale of how a coven of witches conceived and unleashed white people onto the world like a plague. Betonie, Tayo, and Shush venture to the Chuska Mountains' base, deciding to stay the night in a humble hogan. Tayo, observing his surroundings, realizes that he's in the most significant place globally, not in terms of distance but relevance. Betonie narrates a tale of a young man kidnapped by Coyote during a deer hunt. His family rescues him, albeit he is heavily influenced by Coyote. They enlist the aid of the Bear People to conduct a ceremony to redeem the young man. Betonie reenacts this ceremony for Tayo, depicting the event while centering Tayo within it. Amid chanting prayers for Tayo, Shush and Betonie conduct a scalp-cutting ritual, singing about Tayo's departure and their hopes for his return. They then lead him into the hogan to rest and serve him Indian tea. Tayo dreams of Josiah's mottled cattle. Upon waking, Tayo hears a story from Betonie about a time when Indians sensed a problem and set out to solve it. They found a fair-skinned Mexican girl tied to a tree and, despite knowing it was wrong, took her home. They soon realized she should be returned, but were unsure how to proceed, so they brought her to Betonie's grandfather Descheeny. Descheeny assured her of her safety and offered to return her home, but she protested that her family wouldn't accept her. He then chose to marry her, causing conflict with his other wives, who believed in not interacting with "alien things," forcing them to relocate to a winter shelter. Descheeny foresaw her arrival and believed they needed to join forces to devise a ceremony that could purge the world of the destructive whites. He understood they all had to collaborate, even incorporating elements from the whites. The girl, a descendant of a Spaniard and Root Woman, had been abandoned due to her eye color and intended to assist Descheeny. Fly and Hummingbird return in search of tobacco for old Buzzard but find none. They descend to the fourth world to ask their mother for assistance, who directs them to the caterpillar.

section 8

Descheeny's Mexican partner gave birth to a girl, who was then raised by Descheeny's daughters. In turn, this girl gave birth to Betonie, who was brought up by his Mexican grandmother. Tayo believes the ceremony is starting to heal him, but Betonie insists the process will be long. Betonie refuses Tayo's monetary gratitude and urges him, "This has been going on for a long time now. It's up to you. Don't let them stop you. Don't let them finish off this world." After departing from Betonie's, Tayo hitches a ride with a trucker. At a pit stop, he has his first clear sighting of white people. Opting to walk, he is soon picked up by Harley and Leroy, who are intoxicated and accompanied by Helen Jean, a woman from a different tribe. Initially resisting their alcohol, Tayo eventually gives in, trying to numb himself. At the Y bar, Helen Jean flirts with a Mexican man, and Tayo is the only one sober enough to notice her departure. Helen Jean, originally from Towac, moved to Gallup for work to support her family. Though a typist, she's only given janitorial work which is insufficient to cover her rent. She quits when her boss solicits her for sex. Seeking financial help, she visits bars known to be frequented by Indians and gets drawn into their community. She tries to maintain self-respect and not exchange sex for money, but eventually surrenders. She holds out hope that her encounter with the Mexican man will be different. A bar brawl between Harley and Leroy wakes Tayo. He takes them home, during which Harley vomits and Leroy urinates. Tayo himself throws up in an attempt to purge his past. The scalp ceremony helps him forget haunting memories of the Japanese, but not all of his past encounters. Inspired by ancient tales, Tayo seeks to follow Betonie's guidance to reconnect with his people. An epic poem recounts the story of Ck'o'yo Kaup'a'ta, a gambler who tricks others into losing their lives, including capturing the rain clouds. After three years, the Sun, their father, seeks them out. With advice from Spider Woman, the Sun outsmarts the gambler to free his children, the clouds. Tayo finds himself at a woman's house while searching for his uncle's cattle. She invites him in for supper and to stargaze. Having followed the stars Betonie pointed out to him, Tayo realizes they've led him to this place.

section 9

Tayo and a woman share an intimate moment, after which he embarks upon a journey, guided by the old narratives of his Laguna ancestors, to find his lost cattle. His journey takes him through the mountains, many of which are now owned by white settlers. He follows the course set by Betonie, his spiritual guide, using the stars for direction. On his journey, he encounters the white man Floyd Lee's fortified property where he finds his cattle. In the cover of darkness, he breaches the fence and begins to search for his cattle. Tayo's search stretches into the early hours of the morning, leading him to question Betonie's wisdom and his own faith. A visit from a mountain lion, considered a hunter's aide, reinstates his belief. Inspired, he follows the path the lion came from, leading him to his cattle. He manages to steer the cattle towards the breach in the fence. However, his joy is short-lived when he spots two men from the patrol approaching him. An untimely stumble from his mare leaves him vulnerable. Yet, when the patrolmen notice the mountain lion's track, they leave Tayo to follow the lion. Injured, Tayo rests for a day, pondering over the destructive tendencies of the white man. As snow begins to cover all tracks, Tayo heads home. On his way, he encounters a hunter who isn't a Laguna, yet sings a Laguna song. They return to the woman's house where they perform a ritual for a deer the hunter had killed. Tayo also learns that his cattle are safe with the woman, who captured them in an Indian corral. In the next season, Tayo's aunt and grandmother notice his improved mental health. Tayo spends his days helping on the ranch and caring for his cattle. He decides to move to the ranch to be closer to his cattle. Ku'oosh, an elder, visits Tayo's grandmother, hinting at an upcoming conversation with Tayo. In his solitude, Tayo reflects on his post-war nightmares, realizing it was a sense of loss that haunted him. Yet, he comes to understand that what you love can never be truly lost. His journey ends when he encounters the woman and learns her name is Ts'eh.

section 10

Tayo accompanies a woman who is collecting plants, learning about their uses. During the summer, they spend most of their time together. The woman guides him about a specific plant that hasn't matured yet, which he should gather in her absence. Robert, his friend, warns him about Emo's gossip suggesting Tayo's insanity, but Tayo chooses to stay. Tayo and the woman discuss the ongoing destruction and his efforts to halt it through a ceremony. They visit an ancient sacred site, and she warns him about Emo and the white police's plans to capture him. She assures him that if he manages to hide, the police will eventually retreat, but Emo will persist. Eventually, she departs, and Tayo aids her in packing. Subsequently, Tayo alternates between hiding spots to dodge his pursuers. The woman's prediction comes true as the white men abandon their chase. He hitches a ride with Leroy and Harley, initially believing they are aiding him, only to discover their intention to deliver him to Emo. Tayo escapes to an abandoned uranium mine, where he recognizes patterns from uranium extraction. He comprehends this as the final stage of his ceremony, which he needs to complete. Soon, Emo along with Pinkie and Leroy appears. They create a bonfire and torment a car—elements of their destructive ceremony. They then extract Harley from the car trunk, punishing him for aiding Tayo's escape. Torn between avenging his friend and laying low, Tayo is brought back to his senses by a sudden gust of wind. The men eventually depart, leaving Harley behind. Tayo makes his way home, gathering seeds needed by the woman. He then shares his ceremonial journey with Ku'oosh and the other elders in the kiva. They interrogate him about the woman and then chant blessings upon acknowledging his encounter with A'moo'ooh, a she-elk spirit. They carry out a ceremony on Tayo, freeing him from his entanglements. Harley and Leroy are found dead and are given military funerals. Auntie accepts Tayo into the family. Grandma comments on the repetitiveness of the tragedies after hearing about Pinkie's murder by Emo. The book concludes with a poem signifying the temporary end of witchery, followed by a final short poem: "Sunrise, accept this offering, Sunrise."

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