Ceremony Summary and Analysis of Pages 105-157

As this portion of Ceremony opens, Robert and Tayo are walking along; their route takes them over a bridge that crosses a dry riverbed. The two men spot a destitute man and woman under the bridge, and when the poor man asks for money, Tayo throws him a few coins. Such poverty among Native Americans is nothing unusual in the area near Gallup, the very area where Tayo and Robert now find themselves. Eventually, the two men reach their destination: the abode of Betonie, a medicine man.

Betonie's living space or "hogan" overlooks the Gallup ceremonial grounds. Betonie, a tall and rather dignified old man, emerges and explains to Tayo and Robert that Navajos had once lived in the area; the hogan itself pre-dates the white settlement at Gallup. Robert departs soon after Betonie appears and Betonie shows Tayo into the hogan, which is stacked full of boxes of random items, stacks of old newspapers, various old calendars, and (interspersed with all these items) the pouches and gourds that Betonie needs for his practice as a medicine man.

Betonie, who discerns that he and Tayo both have mixed ancestry, shares a few of the facts of his life. He studied at the Sherman Institute in California, and traveled to see various attractions in his lifetime: he even saw Geronimo at the St. Louis World's Fair. Tayo responds to these disclosures by giving an account of his own emotional life after the war. During his time in the hospital, he had felt invisible; after his return, he had to confront the death of his uncle Josiah. Tayo wonders aloud if the runaway cattle had played a part in Josiah's demise, and begins (with Betonie's encouragement) to see that a grand ceremonial cure, one that may be outside modern medicine, is needed.

As the evening continues to settle over the landscape, Tayo talks to Betonie about the problems that white culture has brought about. Betonie is convinced that even ceremonial cures must change as the times change, and believes that the situation of white people is itself complex: some of their claims to ownership are questionable, but they cannot be blamed or criticized as a group any more than Native Americans can. Tayo and Betonie then eat. While they are doing so, Betonie's helper Shush emerges. Shush is an eerily quiet teenage boy; a poem and note that accompany his appearance link Shush to the "bear people," individuals who have lived among bears and absorbed some of their wild and reclusive ways.

Tayo then tells Betonie about Rocky (who wanted to escape the reservation but was destroyed by modern warfare) and Emo (who wants to claim the privileges of white civilization for himself). In response to these accounts, Betonie claims that Native American witchery brought the ravages of white society into the world. Silko then presents a long poem that depicts a council of witches, all engage in a contest to see who can reveal the most horrible conceptions and creations. After the contest rages for some time, an outcast witch (who has remained silent until then) unveils a destructive new creation: human begins who, driven by fear and insecurity, will unthinkingly span the globe, conquering or destroying whatever they find in their path. The other witches reluctantly declare this witch the winner. They ask for the outcast witch to stop the coming influence of the white people, but this witch explains that the new people's cycle of destruction has already been set in motion.

The next day, Tayo, Betonie, and Shush ride out before dawn in order to initiate Tayo's "ceremony." They ride horses over the hilly landscape that Betonie calls home, and Tayo feels free and peaceful. The prose narrative is then interrupted by a story about a man who is taken from his home and reduced to speaking in the howls of a coyote, and who must be saved through the power of rituals. For his own ritual, Tayo is placed at the core of a sand painting that Betonie and Shush create. As part of the ceremony, Betonie cuts Tayo across the forehead, prays over him, and then advises him to sleep. He does so, and dreams about Josiah's cattle.

When Tayo wakes up, he wanders outside and catches sight of Betonie. Betonie decides to tell Tayo about his family and upbringing. Among Betonie's ancestors was an old man named Descheeny; on one occasion, some young Navajos had ridden their horses into the area around a Mexican settlement and discovered a young Mexican woman, alone and concealed in a tree. They took her to Descheeny, who agreed to take her from the younger Navajos and return her to her community. Instead Descheeny takes her as a lover; she gives birth to a child, who is accepted into Descheeny's household, and eventually the clear signs of Mexican roots are passed down to Betonie. His eyes reveal that he is not fully Native American.

Before Tayo departs, Betonie exhorts him to resist the destruction that has been set in motion by modern society. Tayo hitches a ride to a filling station; he is regarded with suspicion by the employees there, so he walks off. While walking down the highway, he hears the noise of a slowing, approaching truck; the passengers turn out to be Harley, Leroy (the beaten-down truck's owner), and Helen Jean, a young Indian woman. Tayo gets in. For a time, he resists going along with them on the drunken escapade that they have planned, but in the end gives in and joins. The four of them soon find a bar; they settle in to drink, and Helen Jean begins to look flirtatiously at some of the Mexican customers.

The narrative of Ceremony then switches from Tayo's to Helen Jean's perspective, recounting her background. This young woman had left her home reservation, at Towac, about a year before the main events of the novel. For a time, Helen Jean had tried to save up money by living with roommates and working a menial job cleaning the Kimo theater. Eventually she gets accustomed to the society of the returned Native American veterans, who share stories about the war and their romances. Helen Jean initially hesitates to make money through prostitution, but eventually accepts that this is one of her few options; she sends her funds back to Towac, to support her younger sisters.

Back at the bar, Tayo is resting, but then hears sounds of commotion. He finds Harley and Leroy, who have been in a fight and are both wounded; Helen Jean and the Mexicans have disappeared. The three men get into Leroy's truck and Tayo, the only one who is not seriously incapacitated, drives the truck away from the bar. Soon Tayo detects that one of his companions has urinated all over the truck's interior. The smell sickens Tayo; he opens the door of the truck, vomits, and reflects on the dignity that his companions have lost to the ravages of modernity and the corrupting influences of white communities. Eventually, he makes his way back to Laguna by walking along a wagon road.


When he first appears in the narrative, Betonie exudes honesty, confidence, and self-control. He is not necessarily a role model for Tayo, but as a man who has taken charge of his life—who lives as he wants and is not bothered by the possibility that others gossip about him—he does possess certain qualities that Tayo lacks and that would do Tayo good. Just as importantly, Betonie realizes that Tayo cannot heal simply by following along or copying a pattern. The younger man can only follow Betonie's methods by choosing that path freely, on his own volition. As Betonie states early in his acquaintance with Tayo, noticing that Tayo might be uneasy, "If you don't trust me, you better get going before dark . . . Anyway, I couldn't help anyone who was afraid of me" (113). If Tayo feels coerced into Betonie's way of operating, Tayo will find it impossible to heal.

Betonie may be the subject of rumors, but he is not really a provincial or oblivious man, as both his high degree of self-awareness and his travels beyond the reservation indicate. But perhaps the strongest indication of the breadth of his perspective is his approach to ceremonies and lore. Instead of taking ceremonies as unalterable practices, Betonie adheres to the idea that "ceremonies have always been changing" (116). The sense of change over time is what makes ceremonies so potent: they can be adapted to address even unprecedented historical conditions (such as World War II and its aftermath), while simultaneously speaking to the unique circumstances of an individual such as Tayo.

With Betonie, the prose narrative of Ceremony also achieves one of its first clear demonstrations of the positive power of storytelling. The novel opens with a few short poems that invoke storytelling as a mystical act; in a somewhat different vein, the young Laguna veterans tend to waste their time by telling stories (often about affairs with women) while they drink. Only now, with the account of Descheeny, does Silko's novel present a story that is clearly designed to speak to Tayo in a productive way. Betonie's words give Tayo a new perspective on the interactions between Native Americans and Mexicans, and perhaps indicate that Tayo (much as Betonie has) must acknowledge his family past, without allowing it to haunt him.

Because these sections are so heavily invested in the depiction of Tayo's healing process, the shift from Tayo's perspective to Helen Jean's may seem like an unusual departure. Although the two of them move in similar segments of society, they face very different social pressures: making money and dealing with the unpleasant side of male sexuality are Helen Jean's main sources of conflict. Yet even though Helen Jean introduces a new perspective and a new set of themes, her presence in the narrative speaks to one of Betonie's ideas: the thoroughness of the "witchery" unleashed by the supposed progress of civilization. Different though their circumstances may be, both Helen Jean and Tayo have been robbed of their innocence, exposed to some of the most brutal (whether in terms of sexuality or violence) that civilization has to offer.

Helen Jean disappears from the narrative, never to re-emerge, after the encounter with the Mexicans. It is arguable that there is no possibility of righting her course: even her remembrances of her family and her clear disgust with the men she sleeps with do not seem to motivate any meaningful change in her life. For Tayo, the situation is quite different. His time with Betonie has alerted him to the drawbacks of modernity, the losses that Native Americans have incurred: "Every day they had to look at the land, from horizon to horizon, and every day the loss was with them" (157). Helen Jean, Harley, and Leroy may be distantly aware of this cultural "loss," but lack the personal strength to move beyond it. Tayo, in sharp contrast, may finally be equipped to understand his wounded culture and heal himself.