Silko’s Ceremony: Notes, Links, Questions to Consider

A paper analyzing the embedded “poetic” texts which resemble oral narratives:

This next paper, by UCLA Professor Paula Gunn Allen, can be accessed by students using their “900” number or student ID number through their college library: “Special Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 379-386. Published by: University of Nebraska Press Stable URL:

Here are a few more sources of information in the form of an annotated bibliography. You should be able to access these journal articles through the college library also:

  • Allen, Paula Gunn, “The Feminine Landscape of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, in Studies in American Indian Literature, edited by Paula Gunn Allen, New York: Modern Language Association, 1983, pp. 127-33.

    Allen looks at the close relationship between Native American ideas of nature and Silko’s writing. She particularly focuses on how Silko uses feminine attributes of landscape.

  • Manley, Kathleen, “Leslie Marmon Silko’s Use of Color in Ceremony, in Southern Folklore, Vol. 46, No. 2, 1989, pp. 133-146.

    Manley looks at the symbolic value of various colors in Silko’s most famous novel. Her insights about the importance of colors in Laguna mythology, though, apply to Silko’s poetry, as well.

  • Nelson, Robert M., Place and Vision: The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction, New York: Peter Lang, 1993.

    Nelson examines the uses that Native American writers have for landscape and nature. Although Nelson’s subject is specifically fiction, the importance of nature and landscape is perhaps even greater in American Indian poetry.

  • Swan, Edith, “Laguna Symbolic Geography and Silko’s Ceremony,” in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1988, pp. 229-249.

    This discussion of the symbolic geography of Laguna mythology is crucial to any understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the symbols in Silko’s writing.

Some links on Leslie Marmon Silko (from here🙂 I really like the paper “Fences from Freedom.”

These background links (some repeated from above but organized differently and some of which unfortunately don’t work but might lead you in a valuable direction) come from Cal Poly Lit Prof Steven Marx:

  1. Background
    1. Laguna Indians
    2. Geography of the area
    3. Silko’s biography
    4. Essays by Silko

These discussion questions come from the website of the publisher. Choose one which was not discussed in class to be an “expert” in and prepare to lead the class discussion on it.

1. Readers sometimes find the reading of Ceremony a disorienting experience, in part because Silko frequently shifts scenes and time frames without warning. How does this technique help the reader to participate in Tayo’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences? Is its influence on the narrative consistently the same, and is it always effective?

2. How does Tayo’s status as a half-breed influence his choices, his thinking, and the way he is perceived by other characters in the novel? What tensions and conflicts does his mixed ancestry contribute to Silko’s story?

3. For what reasons do Tayo and his cousin Rocky join the Army? In what ways do they and the other young Native American men benefit from their armed service, and why do these benefits evaporate once the war is over?

4. Ceremony has been described as a story of struggle between two cosmic forces, one basically masculine and one essentially feminine. Assuming this to be true, what are the images of masculinity and femininity that Silko presents? Is this gendered analysis an adequate way of understanding the novel? Are there important ideas that it leaves out?

5. Ceremony offers the suggestion that the European settlers of America were created by the “witchery” of a nameless witch doctor. What is the effect of this assertion? Does it make white people demonic by intimating that they are agents of evil, incapable of doing good? Or, to the contrary, does it somehow absolve them from blame because they are merely tools of the “Destroyers” and are not really responsible for their actions?

6. How do the poems and legends that are interspersed in Silko’s text influence your reading of the novel? Why do you think Silko centers Emo’s tale of debauchery (pp. 57–59) on the page in the same way that she centers the older, sacred stories?

7. One aspect of white culture that Tayo especially resents is the way in which its educational practices, particularly instruction in the sciences, dismiss Native beliefs as “superstitions.” What are the similarities and differences between the way Tayo feels about the treatment of his ancestral beliefs and the way in which a believer in the creation stories of Genesis might respond to Darwinism? To what extent is the novel a story of the struggle between technology and belief?

8. Silko’s use of symbolic imagery often makes use of contrasting opposites: dryness and wetness; mountains and canyons; city and country; sunrise and darkness. Choose one of these contrasts (or another one that you have observed); what values does each of the two terms represent? Do their meanings remain constant?

9. Blindness and invisibility are recurring motifs in Ceremony. What does Silko suggest through her repeated uses of inabilities or refusals to see?

10. How do the cattle and other animal presences in the novel function to illustrate the traditional values of the Laguna tribe and their conflicts with the principles and desires of white Americans?

11. Tayo believes that Emo is “wrong, all wrong” in his attitudes toward Indian identity and other aspects of life. What is the nature and what are the causes of Emo’s wrongness?

12. Because Silko presents a number of Native American characters with drinking problems, her novel has been accused of playing into a negative stereotype. Do you think this charge has merit? Why or why not?

13. Silko, who has suffered from headaches, depression, and nausea similar to those that plague Tayo in her novel, has said, “I wrote this novel to save my life.” How is Ceremony a novel of salvation, for Tayo, for its author, and for its readers? What are the limits to the salvation that it appears to offer?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s