What are white people whose grandfathers fought on behalf of the settler state to do? Silko would say begin by acknowledging one’s ancestry and one’s relationship to the land. The land upon which we stand is like the back of a turtle. Native people, along with their ancestors, including nonhuman relatives and kin, are the ones who made this world. I, meanwhile, am a child of people who called themselves “immigrants.” Before that, they were Europeans; upon settling, they became thinkable to themselves and others as “Italian-Americans,” “Irish-Americans,” or what have you. Assimilated into whiteness but for a hyphenated attachment — a sometimes-proudly, sometimes-guiltily-clung-to trace of ethnicity. These latter were everywhere present among members of my extended family. Dialect; manners of eating, speaking, and being together with others; a tendency to gesticulate; a regional accent. Some of what I myself possessed, I lost when I left home for school. Yet here I am now, with a home, and a family, and a bit of land. From this property mortgaged to me by a bank, the settler state exacts its fee.
Leslie Marmon Silko published a critique of Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island in a 1977 issue of the Yardbird Reader. 1977 is the year she published her first novel Ceremony. And Yardbird Reader was a literary journal founded in 1972 by Ishmael Reed — a yearly anthology featuring writing by contemporary authors of color. Several of the writers I’m teaching this semester, in other words, wrote in dialogue with one another over the course of the 1970s. Silko titled her critique of Snyder “An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts.”
What happens when Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is read alongside Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony? Both texts mingle mythoi and logoi. They tell tales and give accounts. Healers figure centrally in each novel. In Ceremony, we encounter medicine men like Betonie; in Mumbo Jumbo, we encounter PaPa LaBas, the novel’s “HooDoo psychiatrist” protagonist. Both characters rebel against Western teachings. Their cognitive maps are anti-colonial assemblages containing ancient wisdoms retained by their people — tools used to survive and resist in the age of Empire. Armed with these maps, protagonists interpret America as the work of evil magicians operating in secret across hundreds or even thousands of years. Healing requires use of sacred practice: a counter-magic of indigenous rites and ceremonies, story and dance.
Indigenous people possess a knowledge of the land that settler people lack. Land is part of their being — their idea-systems, their stories, their practices. Much has been taken from them, but they survive, they persist. The way they do so, individually and collectively, is through creation and performance of ceremony. Hoops, star maps, sand paintings: these are architectures used to shelter acts of healing. In Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, we encounter the hogan and the kiva (238). A “kiva” is a room used by Puebloans for rites and political meetings. The room is circular and underground. In Ceremony, a tribal council of old men use a kiva to counteract the influence of the world of the “destroyers” — evil magicians who try to bring on the end of the world through what Silko calls “the witchery.” Capitalism, colonialism, primitive accumulation — all are tools devised by the destroyers. History is understood as the handiwork of an occult, esoteric conspiracy of grand, cosmic, spiritual proportion. All of that may be no more than a “poor person’s cognitive map,” as the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson once said — but it’s one that works, one that allows Tayo and his people to survive. Silko’s ambitions are grand. She weaves into her narrative an awareness of its proximity to Los Alamos and Trinity. When reading, one finds oneself wondering about the meaning of the Manhattan Project as an event in Native American history and cosmology. Native Americans have seen their lands mined, bombed, cut down with US weaponry for centuries. The US tested weapons on native land in the deserts of New Mexico; they then used those weapons against Japanese civilians in 1945. Silko’s protagonist Tayo finds himself caught in that narrative; he and his brother fought the Japanese during their service in the US army during WWII. Tayo returns from the war sick about the loss of his brother Rocky — but sick as well with shame about having left the reservation to serve in the white man’s army.
Leslie Marmon Silko’s prose is rich with description of inner and outer landscapes. Her 1977 novel Ceremony couples an anguished, grieving, war-wounded protagonist with a loving, persevering attention to and care for the land and its people. In her telling of the story of Tayo’s ceremony, Silko conjures before us the space, the territory, the land in and around the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. A couple appears at a key moment in Tayo’s narrative. They go unnamed during this encounter, yet they provide Tayo with the assistance and safekeeping he needs to prevail in his quest to recover his dead uncle’s stolen cattle. Silko floats the idea that this couple might exist in “time immemorial.” They’re indigenous spirits, we might say, who descend and lend a hand. Whatever we make of the ontological status of these beings, they produce effects of a positive sort in the lifeworld of the protagonist. Later in the novel, however, Tayo reconnects with the woman. She tells him she’s a Montaño and that he can call her Ts’eh. Yet her knowledge, and the advice she offers, suggests that she’s not quite of the same substance as Tayo. One suspects that one is reading a kind of ghost story.
There are many concepts and themes I hope to discuss with students when reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s powerful, transformative first novel Ceremony. Tayo, the novel’s Laguna Pueblo protagonist, occupies being, relates himself to land and people, under the burden of a tragic history. But his story tells of healing and survival through belief and practice of indigenous ways of life. Tayo worries that he cursed the rain and caused a drought while watching his brother Rocky die beside him in combat in the Philippines. The book enacts a ceremony to heal him. We can think of the novel here as a form of medicine, prescribed by the medicine man Betonie. I wonder, though: Is a medicine man a shaman? Medicine people are sometimes referred to as “traditional healers.” They lead ceremonies. A review from a 1936 issue of Nature magazine warns against confusing medicine men with “shaman and priest-magicians.” The medicine person’s “theory and practice,” writes the reviewer, “are based on psychology and theology rather than on pathology and pharmacology.” Despite these possibly specious differences in method, though, the figure is like the shaman in that it acts as the tribe’s go-between with the spirit world. The only major difference, as I understand it, is that shaman perform this function among tribes of northeast Asia. The term has been imported injudiciously, in other words, into North American ethnographic writing from elsewhere — so in discussions of Ceremony, it’s important to maintain a distinction between these figures, while nevertheless noting their similarities.
A friend and I chat about Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents. It was a good conversation — so I think. A substantive, earnest thinking-through together. There is agreement that this could become a “reading group” of sorts. We’ve at least agreed to read another book together. But perhaps I should refocus my energies elsewhere. Grow vegetables. Tend the land. On my shelf sits Leaves of Grass. Beside it sit other books relevant to my work as a teacher: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead and Thoreau’s Walden and Resistance to Civil Government. Time to clean up and make good. At some point I also ought to read Ernst Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia. Sarah urges me to rethink. The book I need to read at present, she reminds me, is Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.
Each day we invent new terms of affection for her: Buddha nugget, snuggle bunny, astral glow worm. We march through the neighborhood en masse, forming spontaneously around ourselves a people’s patrol. I picture as our avatars the toughs from Double Dragon. Afterwards I stand outdoors reading Thoreau on wild fruits. I take breaks and dip into Sherry L. Smith’s Hippies, Indians & the Fight for Red Power, a book that references an angry 1978 review-essay by Leslie Marmon Silko accusing Gary Snyder of “cultural imperialism.” Snyder’s book Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1975. It’s a book I wish to teach alongside the Silko essay the next time I teach American Literature.