Ceremony Native Americans and World War II

A novel set in the aftermath of World War II, Ceremony calls attention to the issue of Native American involvement in this vast geopolitical conflict. It is possible to appreciate Ceremony simply as a work of fiction that covers the years after 1945 (when hostilities in both the Pacific and European theaters of World War II ceased). The novel does allude to the atomic bomb testing in the American Southwest, but other than that there are few references to the timeline of the Second World War that need to be deciphered or decoded. However, knowledge of the roles that Native American soldiers and specialists played, both in and out of combat, can enrich a reader's appreciation for the context of Tayo's trauma and recovery.

Perhaps the most famous contribution to the American war effort involved the Navajo Code Talkers. Because Japanese codebreakers (some of whom had lived in America and returned to Japan) had become adept at deciphering the U.S. Armed Forces' encrypted communications, the U.S. military needed to devise a new, considerably more enigmatic method of encryption. The approach that succeeded, arrived at by a civil engineer named Philip Johnston, was to use the intricate Navajo language as a mode of encryption—and to bring Navajos into the marines in order to do so. As deployed against the Japanese, the Navajos also proved to be model soldiers, notable for their "innate strength, ingenuity, scouting and tracking ability, habitual Spartan lifestyle, and utter disregard for hardships."

Altogether, roughly 50,000 Native Americans "left their reservations for the very first time and sought jobs in the defense industry," according to the web site of the Armed Forces History Museum. Even those who did not take part in actual military combat supported the war effort in terms of building and logistics; in fact, some of the important military infrastructure projects were based in Southwest, the very setting of Ceremony. As also noted on the Armed Forces History Museum site, "an estimated 2,500 Navajos participated in the construction of the Ft. Wingate Ordnance Depot in New Mexico. The Pueblo tribe assisted with the building of the Naval Supply Depot in Utah." The same tribes (roughly) appear in Silko's narrative: Tayo hails from New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo tribe, while references to the Navajo tribe are laced throughout the novel.

Unfortunately, the traumas of war that are referenced in Ceremony are also very real. One resource that addresses the psychological ills of American Indian veterans of World War II and of later conflicts is the site Native American Veterans: Storytelling for Healing. The content on this site offers frank discussion both of combat-related afflictions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and of problems that are somewhat more specific to Native Americans, such as crude cultural stereotypes. For example, "institutionalized racism may have influenced the extent to which certain groups are susceptible to PTSD. Native veterans, for example, commonly confronted stereotypes held within the military regarding natives. They were called names such as 'chief,' and were often treated as if they had instinctual or mystical powers on the battlefield." In yet a further parallel, Tayo himself must face the possibility of being judged an stereotyped by society outside his tribe. Yet Storytelling for Healing also shares with Ceremony a belief in the constructive, therapeutic power of stories.