73 pages 2 hours read

Leslie Marmon Silko


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1977

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Summary and Study Guide


Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko is a 1977 historical novel that won the American Book Award in 1980; it was Silko’s first novel. Ceremony follows Tayo, a young Laguna Pueblo veteran who is now struggling to cope with Alienation and Isolation in Post-WWII America. Traditional Laguna Pueblo legends parallel Tayo’s journey and explore themes of The Power of Stories and Adapting Tradition to the Present.

Ceremony is often cited as a major work in the Native American Renaissance, a term used to describe the explosion of Indigenous American literature beginning in the late 1960s. Prior to the 1960s, Indigenous American literature was not consumed widely, and Indigenous American authors were unable to find footholds in the publishing world. Ceremony has profoundly impacted both American literature and historical representations of Indigenous groups. This guide uses the 2016 Penguin Orange Collection edition of Ceremony.

Content Warning: Ceremony contains the following material that might be upsetting to some readers: alcohol addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, physical violence, sexual violence, torture, ableism, anti-Indigenous slurs, and anti-unhoused and anti-Indigenous biases.

Plot Summary

Tayo is a Laguna Pueblo veteran of WWII. He and his cousin, Rocky, enlisted in 1941 and served in the Pacific theater alongside Harley, Emo, and Leroy (other men from the reservation). Rocky died as a prisoner of war, and the loss hit Tayo hard. Tayo’s mother, Laura, struggled with life on the Laguna Pueblo reservation and spent much of her time as a sex worker in Gallup, New Mexico. She conceived Tayo with an unnamed white man whom Tayo never met, and Tayo was largely raised by his uncle Josiah, his aunt Thelma and her husband (Robert), and his grandmother. Tayo bonded with his aunt’s son—Rocky—and they treated one another like brothers.

As the novel opens, Tayo has been discharged from the veterans’ hospital where he spent several years in a heavily drugged state. Back with his family, he has post-traumatic stress disorder that prevents him from reintegrating back into his old life. His life spirals out of control, and he attempts to murder Emo, who hates Tayo for being part white, in a bar fight.

Tayo’s family contacts Ku’oosh, a medicine man who they hope can heal Tayo. However, Ku’oosh does not understand the abject terror of World War II and the brutality of Western warfare. Tayo’s family then sends him to Betonie, a medicine man who lives in Gallup and prides himself on adapting traditional ceremonies to the contemporary world. Tayo confides in Betonie, who decides to conduct a “Scalp Ceremony” with Tayo. The ceremony is meant for warriors who have touched or killed enemy warriors and is meant to relieve warriors of their trauma.

For Tayo, this means reclaiming Josiah’s stolen cattle and ending the drought. Years earlier, before Tayo enlisted, Josiah spent his life savings procuring cattle that he believed could adapt to the extreme drought the Laguna Pueblo reservation was facing. However, Josiah died during Tayo’s deployment, and a white rancher stole the cattle Josiah had purchased. To make matters worse, Tayo believes he worsened the reservation’s drought by cursing the humid jungles where Rocky died: The drought has persisted since the war’s end.

On his quest, Tayo meets Ts’eh, a mysterious woman who is likely an animal person in disguise. The two begin a romantic relationship, and with her help, Tayo recovers Josiah’s cattle. The drought ends after he does so, restoring life to the reservation. Tayo lives with Ts’eh on a cattle ranch at the edges of the reservation, finally fulfilling Josiah’s dream. However, Emo begins to spread rumors that Tayo’s perception has broken from reality, hoping Tayo will be taken back to the veteran’s hospital. Ts’eh warns Tayo that Betonie’s ceremony is not yet finished: Tayo must confront Emo and resolve the situation.

Tayo goes drinking with Harley and Leroy one last time as he tries to figure out what to do. Harley and Leroy betray Tayo, leaving him in the middle of an abandoned uranium mine for Emo to find. Tayo flees into the countryside and tries to find his way home. Emo, Leroy, and Pinkie (Emo’s lackey) attempt to lure Tayo out by torturing Harley, who was supposed to watch Tayo but let him slip away. Tayo contemplates murdering Emo, which would be easy given how drunk the three men are. Tayo decides not to because it would give Emo what he wants and would stop Tayo from completing his ceremony. Emo, Leroy, and Pinkie kill Harley and drive off unscathed.

Tayo returns home and tells the Laguna Pueblo elders his story. The elders believe Ts’eh is indeed an animal person and has blessed Tayo. By abstaining from the violence Emo wanted, Tayo completes his ceremony and integrates back into life on the reservation. Emo is permanently banned from the reservation after murdering both Leroy and Pinkie.