Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

6 March 2009

The importance of re-inventing ceremony, ritual and stories, from a work of great fiction.

See also: A story within a story, and Medicinal fiction


Ceremony, originally published in 1977, still holds truth within its words, and I strongly urge everyone to read it.

From the text:

I will tell you something about stories,
[he said]
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.

You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.

Their evil is mighty
but it can’t stand up to our stories.
So they try to destroy the stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten.
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then.

p12 [Tayo on the Bataan Death march]
He made a story for all of them, a story to give them strength. The words of the story peered oout of his mouth as if they had substance, pebbles and stone extending to hold the corporal up, to keep his knees from buckling, to keep his hands from letting go of the blanket.

“But you know, grandson, this world is fragile.”
The word he used to express “fragile” was filled with the intracacies of a continuing process, and with a strength inherent in spider webs woven across paths through sand hills where early in the morning the sun becomes entangled in each filiment of web. It took a long time to explain the fragility and intricacy because no word exists alone, adn the reason for choosing each word had to be explained with a stroy about why it must be said this certain way. That was the responsibility that went with being human, old Ku’oosh said, the story behind each word must be told so there could be no mistake in the meaning o fwhat had been said; and this demanded great patience and love.

p89 [Grandma outgossips the gossips]
The story was all that coutned. If she had a better one about them, then it didn’t matter what they said.

[Tayo] knew what white people thought about the stories. In school the science teacher had explained what superstition was, and then held the science textbook up for the class to see the true source of explanations. He had studied those books, and he had no reasons to believe the stories anymore. The science books explained the causes and effects.

p126 [Betonie the medicine man]
At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps ceremonies strong.
She taught me this above all else: things which don’t shift and grow are dead things. They are things the witchery people want. Withcery works to scare people, to make them fear growth. But it has always been necessary, adn more than ever now, it is. otherwise we won’t make it. We won’t survive. That’s what the witchery is counting on: that we will cling to the ceremonies the way they were, and then their power will triumph, and the people will be no more.


A story within a story

6 March 2009

On the origins of white people, from Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko.


excerpt from pages 132-138 of Ceremony

Long time ago
in the beginning
there were no white people in this world
there was nothing European.
And this world might have gone on like that except for one thing:
This world was already complete
even without white people.
There was everything
including witchery.
Then it happened.
These witch people got together.
Some came from far far away
across oceans
across mountains.
Some had slanty eyes
others had black skin.
They all got together for a contest
the way people have baseball tournaments nowadays
except this was a contest
in dark things.

So anyway
they all got together
witch people from all directions
witches from all the Pueblos
and all the tribes.
They had Navajo witches there,
some from hopi, and a few from Zuni.
They were having a witches’ conference,
that’s what it was
Way up in the lava rock hills
north of Canoncito
they got together
to fool around in caves
with their animal skins.
Fox, badger, bobcat, and wolf
they circled the fire
and on the fourth time
they jumped into that animal’s skin.

But this time it wasn’t enough
and one of them
maybe a Sioux or some Eskimos
started showing off.
“That wasn’t anything,
watch this.”

The contest started like that.
Then some of them lifted the lids
on their big cooking pots,
calling the rest of them over
to take a look:
dead babies simmering in blood
circles of skull cut away
all the brains sucked out.
Witch medicine
to dry and grind into powder
for new victims.

Others untied skin bundles of disgusting objects:
dark flints, cinders from burned hogans where the dead lay
Whorls of skin
cut from fingertips
sliced from the penis and clitoris tip.

Finally there was only one
who hadn’t shown off charms or powers.
The witch stood in the shadows beyond the fire
and no one every knew where this witch came from
which tribe
or if it was a woman or a man.
But the important thing was
this witch didn’t show any dark thunder charcoals
or red ant-hill beads.
this one just told them to listen:
“What I have is a story.”

At first they all laughed
but this witch said
go ahead
laugh if you want to
but as I tell the story
it will begin to happen.

Set in motion now
set in motion by our witchery
to work for us.

Caves across the ocean
in caves of dark hills
white skin people
like the belly of a fish
covered with hair.

Then they grow away from the earth
then they grow away from the sun
then they grow away from the plants and animals.
They see no life
When they look
they see only objects.
The world is a dead thing for them
the trees and rivers are not alive
the mountains and stones are not alive.
The deer adn bear are objects
They see no life.

They fear
They fear the world.
They destroy what they fear.
They fear themselves.

set into motion now
set into motion.

So the other witches said
“Okay you win; you take the prize,
but what you said just now-
it isn’t so funny
It doesn’t sound so good.
We are doing okay without it
we can get along without that kind of thing.
Take it back.
Call that story back.”

But the witch just shook its head
at the other sin the stinking animal skins, fur and feather.
It’s already turned loose.
It’s already coming.
It can’t be called back.


Medicinal Fiction

7 February 2009

Medicine Between the Lines

“To try to ease him a little, I start talking again. The story is not a happy one, but something in me has to tell it. There is truth in this story that Xavier needs to hear, and maybe it is best that the hears it in sleep so that the medicine in the tale can slip into him unnoticed.”cover-three-day-road

The notion expressed above by one of the narrator’s of Three Day Road, that of medicine in the tale, adds a layer of importance to the role of fiction in our lives. It has greater value than our often fact~heavy social dialogue gives it. And conceiving of it as medicine presents a most significant refutation of its detractors.

The most common argument against fiction denies it as not true to life, not factually accurate, not scientifically meaningful. The most common counter~argument upholds fiction as true of life. The disproportionate value given to facts, statistics and scientific discourse has dulled our imagination, the very stuff with which we create fiction, and absorb it.

Fiction has evolved into such diverse media from the spoken word to the written, to radio, film, televion, comics, blogs, and other works combining media. We immerse ourselves in fictions ranging from escapist pulp to intellectual experimentation, from “Battlefield Earth” to “Finnegan’s Wake.” Each has its audience, each its value.

Arguments against the value of fiction ignore its continuous and continued enjoyment by billions of people.

Reading makes your Brain work

A recent study has determined that the Brain Simulates Actions in Stories as a Person Reads.

“Reading a book triggers an active response in a person’s brain, replicating the activity described in the story, a study by Washington University researchers in St. Louis, Mo., indicates. A brain-imaging study at Washington University tracked brain activity as participants read sections of a story.”

Regardless of whether what we read contains fiction or non~fiction, it stimulates our brain (one physical portion of our emergent mind), reproducing mental activity synonymous with the subject matter.  Reading about an activity may help our performance. That in itself holds value. This may give us a greater means of coping with potential situations we have not yet encountered.

Fiction as Medicine

Back to our Three Day Road exerpt. Fiction works as medicine in two manners, one through its creation, another through its perception. This applies to all creative works of art, whether an illustration, a danse [sic], a song or written fiction. In the creation of fiction, one has to provide a narrative order to the tale, one that strings image and meaning together into a coherent series of story-arcs. The most powerful of these remains the circle, where we end the tale where we’ve begun. Three Day Road follows a non~chronological story structure to accomplis this circle. It has shrugged off the tyranny of chronological storytelling, to weave together traditional elements of First Nations storytelling within the form of written fiction. This, in itself, indicates a means of healing the identity of First Nations’ peoples, who have had their traditions assaulted, and buried under introduced culture. By redefining the written word in their own voice, First Nations’ authors have created a new art, one that combines the ancient with the modern, in a manner that sings with more truth than all compiled histories.

Most particularly, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, Green Grass Running Water by Thomas King, Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway and Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (the first in a Trilogy) all reflect this combination of the ancient with the modern, and the path to healing. These works and authors have encouraged the creation of this journal, in hopes that it too may find a medicinal path.


Ceremony , a work dense with meaning, demands that we create new Ceremonies, for those unchanged ones we have inherited no longer represent us. We must express the world as we experience and perceive it through our art, in order to find meaning, and to share our insights with those who would listen fully and openly. Although this story calls to the peoples of the First Nations, the American Indians and Indigenous peoples, it would do well to penetrate the stagnant churches of Christianity, who rely on stories written near 2000 years ago, which refuse to change, adapt or evolve, demanding instead that we do. This creation of a new ritual, in itself provides healing, as does the enactment of the ceremony itself.


Green Grass, Running Water, a complex story with Coyote as its muse, weaves a tricky tale of creation stories, modern perception of the First Nations, and surviving in the modern world, despite the harshness and hardships that it imposes with indifferent prejudice. This story deserves attention in all Canadian literature courses, as it expresses a very particular Canadian experience with a lightness of humour that provides an antidote to tragedy. Therein lies its healing powers. Laughter dispels emotional ill~feeling before it becomes illness.


Kiss of the Fur Queen, chronicles as it fictionalises the lives of Tomson Highway and his brother René. The course of writing this appears to have helped Tomson deal with the premature death of René from HIV/AIDS. The antidote to the residential school experience, life in modern Winnipeg, and the subsequent struggles to define themselves in the little explored wilderness between North American tradition, music and the dance, and those introduced by Europe, particularly through classical piano and ballet, seeps through the lines of the pages.

As with most art forms, popular fiction, written for the sole purpose of making money (different from literary or medicinal fiction which becomes popular and makes money), waters down the pool of stories from which we may draw significant meaning. If we put down a story, and never think about it again, never evoke its characters, scenarios, or narrative into our imagination, then what good has it done us? Does momentary distraction truly serve us at all? From what does it distract us?