Book Review

Ceremony and the Recognition of Native American Culture, History, and Veterans

In Ceremony, written by Leslie Marmon Silko, we follow the tattered spiritual journey of Tayo, (a half Native-American, half White, World War II veteran), who has returned from the war having lost both his cousin Rocky and a sense of himself and where he belongs in the world. Ceremony follows Tayo’s process of ceremonial, traditional healing, as he struggles to both overcome his guilt, a result of the self-blame inflicted over the death of his cousin, and his belief that he has cursed his pueblo, and stopped the rains from coming, resulting in the drought.

Leslie Marmon Silko is herself a Laguna Pueblo writer; though she is only a quarter Laguna herself, meaning that she was often excluded from the traditional Laguna practices that occurred on the reservation which she lived on the border of, Silko was raised by her Laguna grandparents, who instilled in her a strong sense of the Laguna tradition of myth and storytelling. Silko’s own mixed heritage is also what informed her creation of the main character of Tayo, who himself struggles with the reconciliation of his absent white father and skin colour, and the exclusionary attitudes of the Laguna community. Silko has long been hailed as one of the key figures of the first wave of the Native American Literary Renaissance, and she was one of the debut recipients of the MacArthur Foundation Grant.

Ceremony is difficult, as with much of Silko’s work to categorize into any particular genre: the prose is interspersed with short, traditional Native American poetry, which follows a linear thematic sequence throughout the entirety of the work; this speaks more broadly, perhaps, to Silko’s own attempts to find reconciliation between Native American traditional practice, and Anglo American custom. Beyond this intersectional genre, Ceremony is stylistically loose and fluid: told through the lens of an omniscient third party, each chapter is easily digestible, and a true pleasure to read. I personally genuinely enjoyed the mingling of traditional Laguna customs and traditions that have been embedded into the work: I found that they were both informative, and refreshing against the stark reality that is Tayo’s veteran existence.

Praise aside, Ceremony is not necessarily a light-hearted read. Empathy for Tayo, as well as the other veterans of the Laguna community, runs consistently below the surface as you work through the novel, and I even found myself becoming actively angry reading the book at the injustices, lack of support, and outright racism and suffering that the community faced. If you are looking for a light read, then, Ceremony is not the right choice. But, if you are looking to learn more about the much-ignored history of the Native American community, specifically in the changes and injustices that they faced in the twentieth century than Ceremony is both informative and entertaining.

Following from that, what I especially was struck by in Ceremony was the way that that Native American peoples experienced pre, during, and post WWII America. While the fact that Native American communities have generally been treated entirely inhumanely and unacceptably by the United States government isn’t any revelatory information, I had nonetheless never thought specifically about the social injustices that veterans in particular faced in the period of the Second World War.

Thinking particularly of the scenes in which Tayo recalls enlisting with his cousin Rocky, as well as scenes in which veterans recount their experiences in the United States before and after the war, I was astounded by the differences in treatment that soldiers and veterans experienced: while they were in uniforms, enlisted to serve in the army, but before they are shipped out, they are treated like heroes: they speak (in rather misogynistic tones) of all the white women who have suddenly paid them attention, but further, of the new forms of respect they dictate on the streets, in public places, from strangers. Veterans (or most of them) yearn for the days in which they were treated as equal to their white brothers in arms and treated with the same respect and admiration that white men are afforded normally. This vision, however, is sharply contrasted with the American that the veterans return to after their WWII tours: they have suddenly, it seems, been forgotten once again, and beyond no longer commanding the same respect that they once did in with women, strangers, and the general national sentiment, they are treated with the same disdain that they were treated with before their service was ever completed; they are denied, it seems, of basic health or mental care that a country should afford its citizens who have returned from a life-shattering war.

While the issues of adequate veteran care are some that exist for all veterans, regardless of race or skin colour, the one thing that is and has been universal amongst white veterans of the United States, it seems, is a certain respect that is carried through from enlistment until death. With the Native American veterans (and here, I am sure this applies not only to Native American veterans but indeed to all veterans of colour), however, this basic human respect seems to be dependent on active enlistment of the solider, dissipating once service has been completed. To me, this was one of the most shocking revelations in all of Ceremony: in fact, the notion that I had never once heard of Native American World War II veterans in itself deeply disturbed me.

This inherent lack of recognition, I would argue, is potentially not an exponential problem in itself; however, what is a problem is that lack of recognition seems to be a thread that has run through, and continues to run through, almost all of Native American history, as it has been dictated for the past four hundred years. What is most troubling in my opinion, is that even in this age of supposed social enlightenment and civil activism the works of writers such as Silko remain buried beneath the popular mainstream of American histories, and the history of the Native American people and struggles continues to be cursory, if secondary, thought to the mainstream activists of the United States of today.

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1 comment on “Ceremony and the Recognition of Native American Culture, History, and Veterans

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