J.G. Keely's Reviews > Ceremony

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
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's review
Oct 12, 2007

it was ok
bookshelves: contemporary-fiction, novel, reviewed, america, native-american
Read in March, 2005

Like the other Native pop novelists of the 60's and 70's, Silko's voice is competent when not distracted by over-reaching, and like the others, she spins a story which is vague enough to please. She also never really escapes the fact that her depiction of Native culture is thoroughly westernized.

Her monomyth is tied up with enough Native American spirituality to make it feel new and mystical (at least to outsiders); it was even criticized for giving away 'cultural secrets'. It is somewhat telling that many of these secrets have been so subjugated by colonialism that what she shares never really feels new. Though this doesn't mean that what she shared didn't still feel private to her and her tribe.

The spiritual philosophy of 'New Agism' aims to recapture a pre-Christian view. Unfortunately, the cultures held up as examples of this are already too colonized to provide much of a glimpse into that past. Often, the only references to their practices were recorded by Christian authors, and any currently living members have had to practice their traditions under that influence.

The Native Americans do have this unbroken lineage--though they are not free from the influence of the slavery, exile, and attempted conversions of the west. This sets them apart from all of the European Pagans, especially the Druids, for whom we have no good source of knowledge. Most of New Age beliefs are simply a rejection of Christianity and an embrace of something (often anything) else.

It does not help that such movements were started by egotistical self-promoters like Crowley who cobbled together whatever seemed risque without much history or philosophy to connect them. It is no less common for Native American beliefs to be overtaken in such a way and represented as more 'pure' and 'balanced' than entrenched Western traditions.

Like most of New Agism, this is bunk made up to sell people things. Native Americans were as expansive and destructive as any other peoples, and drove their share of animals to rarity and extinction. Indeed, archaeological evidence indicates that the current 'native' Americans came only as recently as several thousand years ago, and wiped out the older aborigine population that had called the Americas home for millennia.

Another archaeological excavation of some Southern Californian tribes showed that they were driving certain species of bird to extinction until the point when smallpox reached them and they themselves were wiped out.

This isn't to say the Europeans saved the animals or any such thing, merely that there is likely no people that is 'in touch with nature'. To imagine such a thing is to try to remove one of the great difficulties of philosophy and replace it with a silly romantic notion. Of course, this is the sort of thing people tend to be quite comfortable with, as philosophy is hard and pleasant ideas are easy.

I would not fall so hard upon Silko as to suggest that she is such a blind idealist; indeed, she often gives us moral ambiguity and difficulty. This pessimism should be no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the current position of Natives--poverty and hardship are understandably common themes in Native fiction.

Silko's is an early work in the movement, and like many such, it struggles with finding a voice. It is the mark of a strong author when they can conscientiously utilize and reject portions of a dominating culture in order to present a satire or redefinition of the relationship. However, Silko may still be too steeped not only in the dominant culture but in its own ideas of the 'Native American' to escape into something more profound.

It may be that this American culture is too insidious and pervasive to provide the underprivileged with sufficient space to escape it, which may be why some of the 'Magical Realism' coming out South America may work as a better cultural refutation (that is, if you can find the relics of differing belief stashed in amongst the endless Catholic fetishism overlaid on top of those traditions).

There are still important cultural differences to be found between the West and the First Nation peoples, but Silko is no anthropologist. Perhaps she has fallen to the fallacy that growing up around something makes you an expert in it. Unfortunately, our position in life often blinds us as much as it informs us. A man can drive a car without knowing how to build one.

Like Achebe, Silko's work arrives colonized and westernized, immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with Western tradition. And like Achebe, its concessions to native culture are mainly the savagery and unexplained mysticism that the West already projects onto it. Here, then, is another book to make suburban housewives feel worldly and 'tolerant' without really shaking up their assumptions, and which an award committee of high status Whites can condescend to give prizes to without actually forcing them to understand or confront cultural difference.
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Simon (last edited Jun 27, 2012 12:05PM) (new)

Simon I haven't read this book, but I have read her later "Almanac of the Dead." Do you know it? It's been a while, but insofar as I remember it, it almost sounds to me as if Silko herself may have had some of your own reservations and tried to respond to them in the later work.

Anyway, very interesting review.

J.G. Keely I don't know it, sorry. It is true that authors often put out works which they are unsure of--part of the process of exploration. Perhaps this is one of those. Glad you liked the review, thanks.

Jacqueline I do see it as way point to a destination. Hacking through the brush of the colonized experience. Something that each Native person must do and which her generation did a lot of the heavy lifting for us that followed. I worked out at Laguna Acoma as a community organizer when I first got out of college and what I noticed about those communities (and those of pueblos along the Rio Grande where I also worked) is how much more connected they are to the white world than my Navajo family was farther out and isolated. The way they hold those two things, their traditions and the outside world then is a balance that differs in many respects to more isolated reservation communities. I respect her work for that reason. And some of the imagery stays with me to this day. Her concepts around the Atomic legacy in the Southwest made their mark on me. My traditional Navajo grandparents had Uranium mines on their land and there were still open ponds when I was kid. If you ride on horseback on that land and sit with the dead and the overwhelming traditions that are everywhere in both the Dinetah and for the Pueblo people there is a lot of truth in what she writes. I think Native people from other places like the Great Lakes or the North Eastern Woodlands have a truth that is very different. Like comparing Norwegians to Italians, really.

Lindsey Beat Are you a white dude? When you mock silk for thinking she's an expert on her own culture, are you claiming to be more of an expert? Please position yourself.

Lindsey Beat *Silko not silk (derp, autocorrect)

J.G. Keely "Are you a white dude? When you mock Silko for thinking she's an expert on her own culture, are you claiming to be more of an expert? Please position yourself.

Hey, if there's any sociocultural identity you'd like to assign me that would help you to ignore my words, go right ahead. I find it difficult to believe that there is a particular blood quota (or gender identification, whatever that has to do with it) that would either validate or invalidate what I have written here.

I suppose I could say that my point of view here grew out of conversations I've had with various Native authors, journalists, and critics, as well as articles and books they've written--but that's kind of like saying 'I can't be racist, I have a Black friend!' I mean, my adoptive grandfather used to get cheques from the tribe, I don't know if that passes your threshold of correct racial identity.

I agree with Said that it's up to all people to come together and discuss racial and cultural differences. I'm not claiming to be an expert, I'm just another jerk on the internet writing a review. If my words don't convince you on their own, then that's fine--but I don't see how knowing the basic setup of my genitals would help with that.

message 7: by Taylor (new) - added it

Taylor Hall "The basic setup of your genitals", technically we are all the same species, 0.1% difference. It is not about that. It is about culture and the language you speak, think and, act in. You speak of Natives like they are something you want them to be, not something they are. There voice is unique not only because of culture but because they have experienced what others have not in the mindset of that underlining culture. I feel like you do not try to understand that voice, you attack it because it is not what you wanted it to be and tried to discount and ignore her words.

J.G. Keely Taylor said: "technically we are all the same species, 0.1% difference. It is not about that."

Yeah, that's what I said: "I find it difficult to believe that there is a particular blood quota (or gender identification, whatever that has to do with it) that would either validate or invalidate what I have written here."

"I feel like you do not try to understand that voice, you attack it because it is not what you wanted it to be and tried to discount and ignore her words."

Actually, what happened was I read Silko's account, and discussed that account with various other Native people, including authors and teachers, and I found their take to be more convincing than Silko's. They did not find her to be particularly representative of native life, and I found their explanations convincing. Of course, I don't mean that native experience has to be any one particular thing--after all, there are many tribes, and many experiences out there.

I read Silko's story as a very Westernized one--which isn't a problem, if a person of any racial or cultural background wants to adopt the Western tradition, that's cool--the problem was that it wasn't a very interesting novel either way.

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