Ceremony

Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony starts with lines of Laguna Pueblo oral history, explaining that stories are not just entertainment. “They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.” None of their evil can stand up to our stories, and so they try to make our stories become confused or forgotten so we are left defenseless. Silko does a beautiful job of illustrating the dark ironies of Native Americans’ military service and how native people struggle under the immanent destruction of their stories. She follows the veterans’ drive to alcoholism, “trying to bring back that old feeling, that feeling they belonged to America the way they felt during the war” (43), afraid to truly face the prejudice of the country they served. (“God bless you, God bless you,” said the old white woman from her car to Rocky after WWII. “But it was the uniform, not them, she blessed.” (41)) How ironic it is, when Tayo and his adoptive brother (cousin) Rocky met the recruiter: “Now I know you boys love America as much as we do, but this is your big chance to show it!” (64) And the sacrifice upon sacrifice of native people is followed by more lies, sickness, and estrangement.

The final part of the novel’s prefacing piece of oral history is written, “What she said: The only cure I know is a good ceremony.” Ceremony requires telling stories and replacing old stories with new ones. Later in the novel, Betonie the medicine man explains to Tayo the ceremonies have always been changing, that they must grow, shift, create new ceremonies to keep the ceremonies strong and living (126). And I understand this as true in my own experience. Even those who doubt the validity of spiritual practices and feel there is no inherent power in ceremony can at least admit that when a problem is placed within the context of ceremony, when a person or group of people work through a particular issue using ceremony, that the mind is substantially altered and conditioned in such a way that more holistic, responsible, healthy solutions are made possible. I have every strength of conviction that the tantric Buddhist monks and communities in Bhutan, for example, who do healing ceremony for the earth and water spirits before building hydropower dams, will be in that much better consciousness to not do unnecessary harm to the environment – will be that much more self-aware when evaluating how best to care for the earth and their people as one. Capoeira, too, is always a kind of ceremony that recalls history and also opens a space for transforming and reclaiming identity and experience.

In relation to language and stories for ceremony, Silko writes, “That was the responsibility that went with being human, old Ku’oosh [medicine man] said, the story behind each word must be told so there could be no mistake in the meaning of what had been said; and this demanded great patience and love” (36). Getting back to the previous entry on phenomenology, Sokoloswki argues that because of humans’ ability to articulate self-reference in language using “I”, this means humans have a particular kind of self-awareness and reason unlike those of other animals. I’m inclined to think, however, that because language evolved in humans in a particular way as part of a larger adaptive strategy, the reliance now on language as the primary means of communication compels us to take care in the words we choose and in conveying the stories that contextualize them – not because of a wholly unique type of reasoning or consciousness of self, but because we want our words to still embody the meaning that is communicated (that has been communicated for millennia) throughout the world in silence, through the body, through direct experience, through rhythm. Those modes of communication are still the most profound and most radical, and so we now we try to give similar dimension and true representation of those experiences through the all too often inadequate words we use to describe and relate to the world.

One metaphor stood out for me early on in the novel. Josiah, Tayo’s uncle, spoke to him after he returned from the war and they were trying to begin raising cattle: “Cattle are like any living thing. If you separate them from the land for too long, keep them in barns and corrals, they loose something. Their stomachs get to where they can only eat rolled oats and alfalfa. When you turn them loose again, they go running all over. They are scared because the land is unfamiliar, and they are lost. They don’t stop being scared either, even when they look quiet and they quit running. Scared animals die off easily” (74). This is what happens when indigenous people loose their stories and become vulnerable to the sickness the lies bring them. After Tayo spoke about his experience in the veterans’ hospital with Betonie, thinking maybe he belongs in that “white place” where he is invisible, Betonie replied if he goes back there, he may as well be down in Gallup with the rest of the drunk Indians, “sleeping in the mud, vomiting cheap wine, rolling over women. Die that way and get it over with….In that hospital they don’t bury their dead, they keep them in rooms and talk to them” (123) (note: quite similar to what I referenced from Kierkegaard).

I was also struck by what reminded me of Jean-Paul Sartre, when a handful of references were made throughout the book to Tayo’s nausea. In the bar, Tayo was listening to Emo instigate him and rattle around a bag that held the teeth of dead Japanese soldiers he had knocked out during the war. “He didn’t know that Tayo was clenching all his muscles against their voices; he didn’t now that Tayo was sweating, trying to fight off the nausea that surged at him whenever he heard the rattle in the little bag” (55). When he would escape into the numbing alcohol, driving with his friends Leroy and Harley, Tayo didn’t have to remember anything or feel at all. Toward the end of the novel, after being abandoned in the desert by his friends, Tayo finally understood the source of his nausea. “He knew why he had felt weak and sick; he knew why he had lost the feeling Ts’eh [the incarnated sacred woman] had given him, and why he had doubted the ceremony: this was their place, and he was vulnerable” (242-3). Though there are several references to Tayo’s physical nausea in the novel rather than existential nausea Sartre wrote of, the relation is the same here – just embodied for Tayo. There is a sense of estrangement and existential vulnerability – all essentially the result of the stories being at risk.

One of the most essential stories — the story explaining native people’s present experience and loss — is explained by the witchcraft. “They want us to believe all evil resides with white people….But white people are only tools that the witchery manipulates; and I will tell you, we can deal with white people, with heir machines and their beliefs. We can because we invented white people; it was the Indian witchery that made white people in the first place.” The oral history tells of a witches’ conference that was held among many different Indian witches to compete in showing off their powers. One witch, who had been watching quietly from the shadows, finally told the others that she had a story and that as she tells the story it will begin to happen.

White-skinned people who come from caves across the ocean “grow away from the earth” and see only lifeless objects when they look around them.

“They fear
They fear the world.
They destroy what they fear
They fear themselves.”

They arrive on boats in this land, kill all the animals, poison the water, and the people will starve.

“They will fear what they find
They will fear the people
They will kill what they fear.”

This destruction will spread, it is “set in motion by our witchery/ set in motion/ to work for us” (132-37). If whites never recognized that their nation was built on stolen land, they could never understand that they were still being manipulated by the witchery to stir up the hatred that will ultimately destroy the world. “But it was more than a body count; the lies devoured white hearts, and for more than two hundred years white people worked to fill their emptiness; they tried to glut the hollowness with patriotic wars and with great technology and the wealth it brought. And always they had been fooling themselves, and they knew it” (191). Betonie tells Tayo, “Indians wake up every morning of their lives to see the land which was stole, still there, within reach, its theft being flaunted…They only fool themselves when they think it is theirs. The deeds and paper don’t mean anything. It is the people who belong to the mountain” (127-28).

In another story Betonie tells, a young Mexican woman is taken by his grandfather Descheeny in the Chuska Mountains. As she lied with him one night, she spoke of them working for the end of the world, and of her fears that the ceremony will not be powerful enough to stop it. “We have to depend on people not even born yet. A hundred years from now….It cannot be done alone. We must have power from everywhere. Even the power we can get from whites” (149-50). It’s beautiful how the simplest of stories can reflect such a clear and sober understanding of our circumstances, can necessitate the greatest amount of strength and heart to resist reducing our struggles to “Us versus Them”. Perhaps ironically, when Tayo sees how Leroy, Emo, and Pinkie torture Harley for allowing Tayo to escape, he recognizes them as “the destroyers”, as those who are working to kill the earth and leave the people more vulnerable to the lies, to fear, and to losing themselves and their stories (249). They have made themselves tools in the destruction as well. They come for Tayo “in friendly voices” to take him away from the ceremony, by force if necessary, and likely to place him back in the veterans’ hospital. “Because this is the only ending they understand” (232).

Tayo’s story of transformation and personal liberation has the old Pueblo stories woven throughout it, rooting his experience in the context of the healing lessons and traditions found within them, traditions which themselves are rooted in relationship to the earth. Eventually, the terror of his earlier dreaming is finally “uprooted from his belly” and Ts’eh, the incarnation of the sacred woman A’moo’ooh, fills those spaces with new dreams (219). He comes to understand “there were transitions that had to be made in order to become whole again, in order to be the people our Mother would remember”. These transitions had to be made like a soft calling back, back to that which identifies and sustains us (170). During his time riding through the mountains in search of his uncle’s lost cattle, he touches this root in a way that reflects, again, on the question of communicating through language:

“The silence was inside, in his belly; there was no longer any hurry. The ride into the mountain had branched into all directions of time. He knew then why the oldtimers could only speak of yesterday and tomorrow in terms of the present moment: the only certainty; and this present sense of being was qualified with bare hints of yesterday or tomorrow, by saying, ‘I go up to the mountain yesterday or I go up to the mountain tomorrow’” (192).

“But lying above the center that pulled him down closer felt more familiar to him than any embrace he could remember; and he was sinking into the elemental arms of mountain silence….he would seep into the earth and rest with the center, where the voice of the silence was familiar and the density of the dark earth loved him” (201-02). [And then in a twisted irony, right after this mediation, the Texan who has taken Tayo for a trespasser says to his buddy as they watch him, “These goddamn Indians got to learn whose property this is!”]

And though he later finds himself abandoned by his friends, Tayo wanders a bit and looks across the landscape. In spite of his hurt, “at that moment, in the sunrise, it was all so beautiful, everything, from all direction, evenly, perfectly, balancing day with night, summer months with winter, the valley was enclosing this totality, like the mind holding all thoughts together in a single moment” (237). [Though I must admit, I sometimes wonder how beautiful the earth can really still be with such destruction wrought against it in innumerable ways. Perhaps more tragically beautiful…]

I was taken by what Silko describes early on in the novel: “Josiah said that only humans had to endure anything, because only humans resisted what they saw outside themselves. Animals did not resist. But they persisted, because they became part of the wind….they moved with the snow, became part of the snowstorm which drifted up against the trees and fences. And when they died, frozen solid against the fences, with the snow drifted around their heads? ‘Ah, Tayo,’ Josiah said, ‘the wind convinced them they were the ice’” (27). Especially in light of the ideas in my previous entry about the similarities between humans’ and other animals’ sense of self, reason, and possessiveness, I wonder how true Josiah’s statements must be. But perhaps the distinction between resistance and persistence is the proper one to make in order to still be able to maintain the idea that humans and other animals are quite similar in the respects mentioned there.

The more I read and reflect and work through things, the more I am coming to find that in large part Western philosophies — phenomenology and all the rest — have very little to offer me in terms of making healthy sense of the world. I can really appreciate the value of how indigenous peoples have, through the millennia, made distinctions between what is useful knowledge and what is not useful knowledge, and acted accordingly. I don’t need to imagine all the fancy, complicated ways in which I can theorize about why human beings resist the world and struggle instead of becoming part of the world and persisting, as Josiah spoke of. The most important thing is that one recognize one’s illusions and transform one’s experience, through stories and practice. The important thing is the practice. It’s about the practice in Buddhism, and it’s about the practice for indigenous peoples. I don’t need to philosophize about the existence or non-existence of god either, because what is important, what is relevant, is my relationship with that which sustains me and gave birth to me – and that is the earth, the universe I see above and below and within me.

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