American Paradoxes in
Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony
Jessica M. Vianes
Note to the reader: This paper is written in hyper-text, thus much like the Native American tradition of oral history it is not meant to be read or understood in a linear fashion. Rather, the external links highlighted in blue are meant to give additional information about topics discussed in the paper. The internal links that are also highlighed in blue move throughout the main themes and body of the paper. While some of the external links may appear to be a bit random or out of place at first, they serve to illustrate the interconnectedness present in today's society.
In Leslie Marmon Silko's novel, Ceremony, the main character Tayo must come to terms with himself and his surrounding environment upon his return from World War II. He is suffering from a sort of post traumatic stress disorder which has affected him physcially as well as emotionally due to the fact that he has survived as a prisoner of war in Japan. Consequently he must deal with all of the horrific memories when he returns to live with his family on the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. To compound his problems, Tayo is half Caucasian and half Native American, so he must also deal with the added pressures of bi-culturalism. He is torn between the Native American world and the white world, and is unable to feel a secure security or belonging. Tayo's friends and family believe that they know the nature of and antidote for Tayo's illness and depression, however it is only the Native American ceremonies which will truly help him. He needs to witness the convergence of life and truly understand the cyclical nature of his emotions and events that he has experienced. With the help and wisdom of Old Betonie, Tayo eventually finds peace in the Native American ceremonies even amongst all of the paradoxes present in America.
The novel itself is very illustrative of American literary traditions because of its fractured memories, story-like quality, and the cyclical nature of family legacies. In that sense, Ceremony is very similar to books such as Maus and Moby Dick.
In her novel, Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko illustrates the many paradoxes of American culture, values, and history. While Tayo grapples with his own internal struggles, the struggles of America are revealed through Silko's writing. America's perception of and relationship with Native Americans are detailed through Tayo's experiences of biculturalism. America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, blatantly discriminates and devalues its true native citizens. Furthermore, America's ideal of bravery is tested. Not only are Native American soldiers dying for the country that seized their land, but one is led to rethink the traditional American ideal of bravery. The paradoxical nature of the American tradition of recording history is also evident within Ceremony as Silko introduces the Native American values attached to the importance of oral tradition. While history sustains Native American culture, Americans often either discredit or manipulate history to justify its actions.
A web page appears to be the best suited medium in which to discuss Ceremony. Electronic capabilites are quite similar to those of the Thought Woman, "Ts'its'tsi'nako, Thought-Woman, is sitting in her room and whatever she thinks about appears" (Silko 1). Whatever one is thinking can appear with simply the click of a mouse button on a web page. The word "web" connotates an interconnectedness which is evident in both the novel and the Internet. Thus, this medium captures the unique experience of non-linear storytelling to the degree that Silko has in Ceremony.
Perhaps one of the most ironic themes in Ceremony is that of the United State's relationship with the Native Americans. The history of Native Americans and their struggles with the American government have been incredibly bleak. American settlers attempted to destroy the Native American peoples and use the land for their own purposes. Furthermore, the American government subjugated the Native Americans by forcing them onto Indian reservations, "They see no life when they look they see only objects. The world is a dead thing for them" (Silko 135). The American government did not see the land in the same manner as the Native Americans, and the government possessed the power to use the land for their own means. The Trail of Tears serves as a constant, historical reminder of the mistakes the American government has made.
Furthermore, the relationship becomes even more paradoxical during times of crisis. Native Americans become first class citizens when they are needed. Native Americans were drafted to fight for the country that stole their land, yet they were expected to be patriotic, loyal, and willing to die for America, "They were America the Beautiful too, this was the land of the free just like the teachers said in school. They had the unifrom and they didn't look different no more. They got respect" (Silko 42). The Native Americans were respected when they were required to maintain national security and when they conformed to American standards. Such discrimination may lead one to doubt just how fair and just the "land of the free" is in terms of their treatment of Native Americans. Discrimination of the rightful inhabitants of this nation is quite paradoxical indeed, "...an old white woman rolled down her window and said [to Rocky and Tayo] 'God bless you, God bless you,' but it was the uniform, not them she blessed" (Silko 41).
Another very tellling aspect of America's paradoxical perception of the Native-American culture. In a sense, Americans exploited Native Americans for their commerical value, such as in the Super Chief railroad lines and the Santa Fe calanders. Such commercialization was both popular and prevalent, "Josiah used to bring the calanders home every year from the Santa Fe depot, on the reservation these calanders were more common than Coca-Cola calenders" (Silko 121). Furthermore, the Native Americans were also commericialized for their culture and customs, "The Gallup Ceremonial had been an annual event for a long time. It was good for the tourist business coming through in the summertime on Highway 66" (Silko 116). Silko utilizes the cattle metaphor to illustrate how Americans view the Native Americans as marginalized, "Tayo thought about animals then, horses and mules, and the way they drifted with the wind" (Silko 27). In that respect, the Native Americans drift around the country with no land of their own. Americans assigned very little value to the Native Americans, which is illustrated in how easy it was for the Americans to commericialize the Native Americans and their culture.Thus, America only seems to utilize the talents of her native people when a dangerous situation arises, and Native Americans must then risk their lives for a country that has treated them as second class citizens.
Another of the paradoxes present in Ceremony is that of the American ideal of bravery. While bravery is associated with the many different aspects in Ceremony, the American ideal is closely linked with the United States military and heroism. Silko presents the patriotic and loyal citizen as one who is willing to fight for his country, and in that sense he is proving his masculinity, "White women never looked at me until I put on that uniform, and then by God I was a U.S. Marine and they came crowding around" (Silko,40). Considering this ideal of American bravery and masculinity, it is even more ironic that the United States drafted Native Americans to fight for them during World War II. Those who America had discriminated against came out and fought for a country that diminished their contributions, "The destroyers had sent them into this world, and day by day were doing it" (Silko 204). Tayo comes to understand this paradox:
He wanted to scream at Indians like Harley and Helen Jean and Emo that while things they admired and desired so much - the bright city lights and loud music, the soft sweet food and the cars-all these things had been stolen, torn of the of the Indian land; raw living materials for thei ck'o'yo manipulation (Silko, 204).
Another American paradox that Silko comments upon is the attempt to find peace through violent means. As Americans, we have violently intervened in global affairs attempting to restore global harmony:
"The destroyers had tricked the white people as completely as they had fooled the Indians, and now only a few people understood how the filthy deception worked; only a few knew that the lie was destroying the white people faster than it was destroying the Indian people" (Silko 204).
Silko raises the issue of how the violence of war is also very detrimental to those who experience it. Tayo experiences a post traumatic stress disorder which alters him physcially and emotionally, much like those who survived horrors such as Auschwitz, "They called it battle fatigue, and they said hallucinations were common with malarial fever" (Silko 8). Tayo was made both physically and emotionally ill because of his war experiences. Taking the theme of peace through destruction further, Silko writes of the creation of the first atomic bomb at Trinity Site in New Sands, "And the top-secret laboratories where the bomb had been created were deep in the Jemez Mountains, on the land the government took form Cochiti Pueblo: Los Alamos, only a hundred miles northeast of him [Tayo] now..." (Silko 246). Therefore, the American government perpetuated peace through violence by constructing the atomic bomb on the very land that it took away from their native peoples.
While the American ideal of bravery is clearly defined through masculinity and military means, Tayo discovers that there is a new sense of bravery which can be found within himself. Ceremony is about convergence and Tayo must find the courage to discover and embrace that convergence. Tayo challenges the American ideal of bravery to include an emotional awakening, "He cried the relief he felt at finally seeing the pattern, the way all the stories fit together-the old stories, the war stories, their stories-to become the story that was still being told" (Silko 246). With the aid of Old Betonie, Tayo struggles to gather the strength necessary to face his own personal demons. Old Betonie teaches Tayo that peace and courage are not found immediately, but rather it is a gradual process that must be found from within, "'Take it easy,' he said, 'don't try to see everything all at once'" (Silko 120).Thus, Tayo transcends the American ideal to add an emotional and mental strength to the concept of bravery.
Silko presents oral history and tradition as an integral part of the Native American culture. Often this history and wisdom are presented through storytelling, "What she said: The only cure I know is a good ceremony, that's what she said" (Silko 3). The importance and ritual of understanding ceremonies is passed through the history of Native Americans. Passing on wisdom from one generation to the next illustrates how Native American history is very cyclical, as Old Grandma shows by stating, "It seems like I already heard these stories before...only thing is, the names sound different" (Silko 260).
In contrast, American history is linear and not as rich in wisdom as the Native American culture. At times, America's history is tainted. American history may also be manipulated to justify questionable American actions, such as the intevention in global affairs. American legacies are passed down, but as Americans we concentrate on the best and tend to hide those shameful events. In America, Native American history is not valued as much as as other 'American' history. However, Native American history contains so much more wisdom and life lessons than the American history found in school books. American history can be readily found in classrooms across the country, but Native Americans must work hard to preserve their rich cultural tradition. It is paradoxical that the Native Americans must persevere to preserve their history which is full of culture and wisdom while editied American history is available for all to accept and embrace.
In Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko reveals the many paradoxes present in America today. Be it the government's policies regarding Native Americans, the American ideal of bravery, or the history school children read in their classrooms, America is full of ironies and paradoxes. These paradoxes do not in any way reduce the grandness of America as a nation, but rather serve to remind its citizens that we do not always remember those who helped us become what we are today. Silko's novel is a literary reminder for Americans to acknowledge our first true national heritage and remember that the Native American heritage is still alive and well today. Silko has proven that America has made mistakes in the past, but certainly has the power to rectify those mistakes today.
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