Native American Heritage
Tayo is a half-breed with one foot in Indian culture and one foot in white culture, though in his heart he identifies with Indian ways. Like the other young Indian men returning to Laguna Pueblo reservation after World War II, Tayo has confused values and identity, suffering from what would be called post-traumatic stress syndrome. He is mentally and emotionally disturbed, like his friends in the bar, flipping from being Indians angry at white oppressors, to pride in being heroic American soldiers who could efficiently kill the enemy.
As the book moves deeper into Tayo's and the tribal past, there is more emphasis on Native American lore as providing the more valuable culture and point of view for living in the universe. Tayo understands by the time he gets to Betonie, the Navajo medicine man, that his only hope for recovery is to take up native ways again. The contrast of values is plain from the start: native culture derives from contact and communication with the land and the history of the ancestors as told in their myths and stories and ceremonies, while whites are mainly living social values that are divorced from and destructive to the natural world. The native heritage is a holistic worldview that includes humans, animals, nature spirits and deities, and the land in one common life. If something is upset in one place it is upset for all. This is illustrated when the boy Tayo kills flies and is reproached by Josiah who repeats the myth in which the greenbottle fly was the one who went to mother earth asking forgiveness for the people. The greenbottle fly helps those who make mistakes. Every being has its place and value. Similarly, when a member of the tribe suffers misfortune, they all suffer, as Auntie understood about her sister Laura's loss to the people when she became a prostitute.
The ceremonies are designed to acknowledge every kind and to address the needs of all creatures in an ongoing act of balance. Tayo believes the drought is his fault for praying for the rain to stop when he was in the Philippines. This sounds ludicrous from a white scientific viewpoint, but Tayo has been raised to feel responsibility for the natural world in all his behavior. Indians like Emo and Rocky who leave their native values behind, looking for power with white ways, end in violent deaths devoid of meaning.
The characters are burdened with two cultures, one not their own. Auntie, for instance, is a devout Catholic and has to worry about Laura's loss as sin as well as a breach to tribal unity. Indians are taught to act for the good of all instead of their individual good. White culture places individual greed and initiative in the center. Rocky is ashamed of Laguna ways as ignorant, such as decorating a dead deer to pacify its spirit, but the book tries to show the deeper truth of such practices, for it is understood that the deer give themselves to the Indians as food, and if the spirit is not pacified, they will not be reborn to give again. It is not that one species can exploit the others; all must create harmony together.
The main action concerns a native healing ceremony that brings the mentally disturbed Tayo back into harmony with himself and the world. “Ceremony” is the name of the novel because native ceremonies are the key to the power of Indian culture. By showing that a native ceremony and mythic point of view can cure a war veteran in modern times the book not only honors Native American history but demonstrates the relevance of their culture to modern problems. White culture tries to convince the Indians their world is dead and backward, so they might as well try to live like whites. Betonie shows Tayo how modernity itself is the sickness from which he suffers. It divorces humans from themselves and from nature. The Indians are fortunate to have preserved ancient knowledge of what to do for relief from the afflictions of the spirit, and to understand, as even modern religion does not, that the spirits of all creatures are tied together.
In the white world, Tayo does not know his identity, his place in the universe. He has no place in the white social hierarchy. Their world does not honor his knowledge of place and nature. He is seen as ignorant and irrelevant. Psychiatric medicine can hardly begin to address who Tayo is or what ails him. Tayo is also partly white and as such symbolizes the angst of modern living in big cities where people are disconnected and nameless. The reservation parameters seem smaller, but in reality, the ceremony opens Tayo to wider horizons where he interacts directly with the gods and forces of nature. He can be known in that more powerful world by his right acts and sympathetic oneness with other sentient beings. The Indians who leave the safety of the spiritual world where medicine men know herbs, spells, and how to keep the balance of forces, end up trapped in white towns like Gallup in the gutter. Tayo may never have a place in white culture, but he can speak to the stars, plants, animals, and deities, his human awareness a fulcrum for healing in the universe. In this way, Tayo is given healing and in his turn becomes a healer for all other creatures by understanding ceremony.
The novel also explores the position of the half-breed as healer, for Tayo and Betonie are special souls, born to help end the curse of white witchery by understanding white ways. They use ceremony but must add their own touches, such as Betonie's use of phone books and calendars as magical objects.
White Civilization and Witchery
White civilization is not only seen as the political power that destroys Indian culture, but also in a more far-reaching significance, as the destroyer of life on earth in general. This is symbolized at the end of the novel when the healing goes beyond Tayo's personal situation to the fate of humanity. It takes place in the abandoned uranium mine that helped build the atomic bombs. This evil of wiping out or poisoning millions of people and the earth in one act goes beyond belief or culture or politics. It is seen as pure and simple evil. Betonie calls it the witchery, or evil sorcery designed simply to destroy. This sorcery came with the whites, but they themselves are victims of it as much as the Indians. Tayo's despair is partly because he sees no way to cure such monstrous evil, for it seems all-powerful. T’seh tells him, “Their highest ambition is to gut human beings while they are still breathing . . . The violence of the struggle excites them, and the killing soothes them” (p. 229, p. 232). She describes not only the war, the police, the white government and culture, but also those trapped by the witchery, like Emo, a tribal man caught up in hate.
The Indians live with their cultural defeat and decimation of their people by white settlers who forced the ones they did not kill outright onto reservations, polluting lands that were sacred to the Indians. Mount Taylor, for instance, is a prominent part of the landscape. It is where Tayo must go to get the stolen cattle from the white rancher. He mentions the evil done to the mountain by logging, killing the animals, building fences, and ownership without respect. Tayo learns, however, that “The mountain outdistanced their destruction, just as love outdistanced death” (p. 219). The arrogant behavior of the white cowboys symbolizes the lawless egotism of white ranchers. This contrasts to Tayo's power gained in humility by allying himself to the mountain lion, the true ruler of the mountain. The whites do not know this, but they are fooled when they are lured into hunting the lion and thus leaving Tayo free.
The Indians are almost invisible on the land, not because they are really powerless, but because they know the true power of the spiritual world. For the whites, political and personal domination are the main values the book demonstrates. Old Betonie tells Tayo the story of the whites as witches who came to destroy them and the land. However, he treats the whites as another element that has to be included in the whole picture. The white settlers were also victims of the white witchery, he says. They have to learn from Indians how to make peace with the land and its powers. The whites are seen as evil because they have no idea of the sacredness of the land and pollute it and other creatures.