“Tighter to the Bone” — Nature, Trauma and Healing in Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony”

©September 2014 Mary Crockford

Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony is a visionary novel in numerous ways, both figurative and literal. By way of its intentionally disruptive, multitemporal narrative, and global incorporation of elements of nature and Native American wisdom tradition, readers participate in the journey of its protagonist, Tayo, through individual and cultural trauma following his return from the Pacific theater of World War II. By embracing the text’s discordant format, rather than reading in an effort to make linear sense of events and relationships, the purpose of the novel is revealed: Tayo’s journey is less one of time and event sequence than an examination of his interconnection with the ancient figures and ways of the Laguna Pueblo culture, and how his trauma has interrupted and even prevented that interconnection. Reading Tayo’s story through the lens of Jungian psychoanalytic theory allows for an understanding of Tayo’s journey as not simply one from mental illness to recovery, but toward wholeness through the integration of his tormented past and present, fractured biracial identity, and lost connection to the cosmos and natural world due to antagonistic forces of white industry and government. Ultimately, it is a story of place…from a place of brokenness to wholeness, through the internal landscape of story and memory, and spiritual and physical re-immersion in the ceremonies and natural surroundings of his wider, Pueblo Indian culture.

Tayo’s story begins with a sense of in media res and retrospective at the same time, producing a jarring entry, via his flashbacks and nightmares, into the involuntary workings of his mind. Violent memories of the war and the death of his cousin Rocky at the hands of Japanese soldiers, compounded by the rejection and loss he has experienced since childhood, all comprise the condition only in recent years identified by mental health professionals as post-traumatic stress disorder. Once called “battle fatigue” or “shell shock,” it is a condition common to war veterans and victims of violence or abuse (Wortmann et al. 4), all of which are a part of the “constellation” of Tayo’s experience (Nelson par. 2). Because Tayo is born of “mixed blood,” he has not been taught the totality of Laguna stories designed to validate and find meaning in all experience, so that he lacks the cognitive framework to address his own “perceived fragmentariness, of…experience and identity” and “bring order out of chaos” (Nelson par. 4). Because he does not have the Laguna stories, the knowledge of “the world preceding vision” that should have been passed down from his ancestors, the multiple layers of trauma making up his life experience are inseparable from his present and his “images of experience need to be ordered” (Nelson 3).

When Tayo recognizes that he has ceased to “care any more if he died” (Silko 39), he turns to unorthodox sources to locate ceremonies as “hybrid” as he is, that will assist him in altering the narrative his life has become. Through the wisdom of native healers Ku’oosh, Betonie and Descheeny, Tayo discovers the need and value of adapting – hybridizing – stories and rituals in order to address and redefine changing circumstances so they may continue to “fight off illness and death” (2). Ku’oosh’s unraveling ceremony can not release Tayo from the evil and suffering of “the white people’s war” (36) but he affirms for Tayo that “the world is fragile” and “filled with the intricacies of a continuing promise” (35). Betonie, the Navajo medicine man who purposely lives and practices at the boundary between the Navajo and Laguna reservations, performs a blessing ceremony over four days, and helps Tayo recognize for himself that his half-white status, and the shame attributed to him as the son of a prostitute, have made him a scapegoat, the archetypal “other” denied the connectedness to the natural world that is his Laguna birthright. Betonie identifies Tayo’s problem as twofold: that of having imbibed the white man’s disregard for the land, and his own people’s failure to offer him or themselves the healing power of an adapted “new” story:

“…they grow away from the earth

then they grow away from the sun

then they grow away from the plants and animals.

They see no life…” (135)

“At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were

enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people

came…it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made

changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly.” (126)

Betonie also shares the wisdom of his grandfather, Descheeny, a “fearless” medicine man who had long ago seen “the planets and constellations wheeling and shifting the patterns of the old stories.” Descheeny could heal those others could not and was powerful against “the witchery of all the world,” so in invoking the old shaman’s “chants and the stories they grew from” and his refusal to “be bothered with isolated cures,” Betonie assures Tayo that he needn’t share his people’s mistrust of ceremonial change (150).

By adapting the Laguna stories for himself and actively seeking his place in Thought Woman’s creative “web or wheel of life,” Tayo is free to access the “omnipresent power” that is “intangible and unknowable through the five senses,” thereby discovering his “co-creative purpose in the universe” and saving his own life (Heillig Morris par. 10). This acknowledgment of the unknowable and intangible, what Jung called “the numinous,” (Stein 4) is intrinsic to traditional Native American “recognition of change as a fundamental sacred process,” but exists outside of the “familiar modes of mind-mediated knowledge” emphasized in conventional Western approaches to mental health (Heillig Morris par. 6). Here Tayo’s hybrid nature is a valuable tool in his recovery. In part because of their racism and rejection, he does not feel wholly connected to the Pueblo Laguna, nor does he feel connected to the white world to which his psychological and spiritual suffering has been “invisible,” so he is free to access stories using the innovative, mystical approach Betonie and Descheeny suggest.

Just as his white military psychiatrist had recognized Tayo’s psychic wounds as “invisible” and unreachable by Western medicine, and that they could only be healed if he returned home (16), Josiah knew that the cure for Tayo’s fractured identity lay in reconnection with the land. Josiah’s decision to purchase spotted cattle, adapted for survival in the desert, symbolize Tayo’s own “spotted” nature of brown and white, and his perception of himself as “useless, weak, and skinny” to white people (Remp 2). Josiah’s first words to Tayo after the acquisition of the cattle are the reader’s first hint that they were chosen, at least in part, for the role they would play in Tayo’s journey to self-identification and healing:

“I’m thinking about those cattle, Tayo. See, things work out funny sometimes…

this gives us the chance…”

“Cattle are like any living thing. If you separate them from the land for too

long, keep them in barns and corrals, they lose something….They are scared

because the land is unfamiliar, and they are lost.” (74)

Tayo’s reacquaintance with nature has its beginnings early in the novel with his identification with Harley’s grey mule. His own dearth of love and sense of belonging caused him to sympathize with the animal whose hide was shrunk “tighter to the bone” from the long drought (25). His journey through the desert landscape is shared with numerous animal “spirit guides,” many of whom correlate to key figures of Laguna ancestral tales. During his search for the cattle that he felt “had taken so much from Josiah” (220), he meets a mountain lion, a creature possessed of the transcendence and sure-footedness he seeks, being hunted by two ranchers. The lion’s movements are “like mountain clouds in the wind” and its “changing substance and color in rhythm” provide “a chance for the moonlight to catch up” with Tayo (195-195). The almost noncorporeal “yellow smoke” of the lion’s body and its yellow eyes are an illuminating contrast to the ghostly “white smoke” he felt he had become (196). As Descheeny had applied medicine to Yellow Woman/Ts’eh’s body in order to set her bones straight, Tayo dusts the lion’s pawprints with golden pollen from Josiah’s sack, ceremonially accepting and incorporating the spirit guide’s gift of direction into his path up Mount Tse’pina (196).

When Tayo locates Josiah’s missing cattle, they, like him and his people, have suffered injury by contact with the white man. They skittishly “backed away into the far left corner of the barrier,” their eyes “wide and frightened.” Much as he had seen Josiah’s face in the nightmare figures of Japanese soldiers, the cattle did not recognize Tayo and “snorted, like they were fending off coyotes” (212). Rope burns had “left dark scabby welts in half circles,” on their hides, and the thick growth necessitated by their exposure to the harsh, wet winter had also hidden Auntie’s butterfly brand, the dual symbol of their link to the desert, and to the Laguna through his uncle Josiah (212). When he and Robert return with a truck to bring the cattle home again, Robert notes that “somebody fed them good,” but Tayo is preoccupied with a star map painted on leather – the same one Betonie had drawn with sand during the days of the blessing ceremony. Tayo recognizes the message from Betonie, and the truth in Robert’s words, “Somebody’s been looking after you” (215). For the reader and for Tayo, the moment anticipates the approaching convergence of Betonie’s promise to guide Tayo’s steps, the mutability of the Laguna stories, and Tayo’s reconnection with ancestral figures and the web of all things through his ethereal romance with the Montano girl, Ts’eh.

Tayo sees the “pattern of the ceremony” again in the mine shaft, and discovers even in its “monstrous design” an opportunity to adapt the Laguna stories. In the veins of yellow uranium powder, “bright and alive as pollen” against the “sooty black” walls, he envisions “mountain ranges and rivers across the stone.” This precipitates a revelation for Tayo that the ancient ceremonial patterns existed within and in spite of the destruction of “white” industry, including the war in which he had just participated:

“…human beings were one clan again…united by a circle of death that

devoured people in cities twelve thousand miles away, victims who had

never known these mesas, who had never seen the delicate colors of the

rocks which boiled up their slaughter.”

“He cried the relief he felt at finally seeing the pattern, the way all stories

fit together – the old stories, the war stories, their stories – to become the

story that was still being told. He was not crazy; he had never been

crazy.” (246)

Tayo emerges from the mine into the starlit night, aware that the world had always been a world with “no boundaries, only transitions through distance and time,” a place governed by opposing forces – the “relentless motion” and “loose countermotions” of light and darkness, day and night, life and death. He is comforted knowing his “transition was about to be completed,” under the fixed constellation of the sun, moon and stars above him, and that his “protection was there in the sky,” away from “the reach of the destroyers” who had almost fooled him into “blaming only the whites and not the witchery” (247). This same witchery behind Harley’s murder as a solstice sacrifice would continue to be kept by too many of the Laguna, nurtured “in their own bellies” out of their own “great swollen grief” for those among themselves, like Harley, that “they could not save” (253). Only Tayo’s restored connection to the land, and to his people through the Laguna stories that “had always been with them, existing beyond memory,” keep him from attacking Emo and fueling the witchery’s appetite with his own death (254).

Following his observation of Harley’s torture and murder, and his rationalization of his noninterference in order to survive, Tayo experiences a moment of transcendence, as his present melts once again into his past and he slips into the realm of dreams. In his dream, he is riding in the back of Josiah’s wagon, wrapped in a blanket and held, as he had been in childhood, in his grandmother’s arms. He hears Rocky whisper, “my brother,” as they had always identified each other even as they joined the war (254). The reader does not know if Tayo is daydreaming or asleep, only that he is at last able to experience comfort in his visions. This transcendent function, what Jungian theorist Betsy Perluss calls “a bridge between rational thinking and archetypal sensibility,” is a function that “arises out of intense and concentrated conflicts” that are still a part of Tayo’s wounded psyche (Perluss par. 1). Tayo has achieved the “renewed connection between the human psyche and the natural world” that will continue to heal him both mentally and physically (Perluss par. 2), and he is able to re-enter the present and make sense of what is occurring in his mind without perceiving it as an ongoing, traumatic event.

As he sees Harley and Leroy’s dismembered bodies lowered into the ground in “the shiny metal coffin the Veterans Office bought for each of them,” he adapts part of their story and likens their deaths to those who “had died at Wake Island or Iwo Jima.” But as the honor guard fire salute over the flag-draped coffins, Tayo is uncertain if the “people from the village had gathered only to bury the flags” (259). Like the Laguna, Tayo still grieves for the traditions and community that seem to be buried with the former soldiers, and he hears Betonie’s words in the voice of Auntie: “It isn’t easy. It never has been easy,’ I say” (259). When news of Pinkie’s murder reaches Tayo’s home soon after, Grandma thinks aloud that she has “already heard these stories before” and that only “the names sound different.” Tayo realizes that her acknowledgment of the ever-creating story of the world has caused the witchery to turn inward, content to devour only itself, at least for a time (261). With its turning away from him, Tayo has found his place in the story commencing long before the nightmares of his post-war bedroom in Grandma’s house, and the journey to rescue Josiah’s spotted cattle from the harsh winter atop Mount Tse’pina. He has found home.

Works Cited

Heillig Morris, Roma. “The Whole Story: Nature, Healing, and Narrative in the Native American Wisdom Tradition.” Literature and Medicine 15.1 (1996): 94-111. Ohio.edu. Johns Hopkins University Press. Web.

Nelson, Robert M.“THE FUNCTION OF THE LANDSCAPE OF CEREMONY ” from Allan Chavkin, Ed., (2002): n. pag. University of Ohio. Web.

Perluss, Besty, Ph.D. “The Transcendent Function.” Psyche and Nature. N.p., 2008. Web.

Remp, Katelyn. “Using the Land to Heal: A Warrior’s Journey in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Novel Ceremony.” Ecospirit 6.4 (2012): n. pag. Moravian College. Web.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Viking Press, 1977.

Stein, Murray, Ph.D. “Importance of Numinous Experience in the Alchemy of Individuation.” MurrayStein.com. N.p., n.d. Web.

Wortmann, Jennifer H., Crystal L. Park, and Donald Edmondson. “Trauma and PTSD Symptoms: Does Spiritual Struggle Mediate the Link?” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 18 Nov. 2011. Web.

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