Teaching Silko’s Ceremony: a balance of cultural responsibility and literary wonder

Most of us have read “that book”: the book that changes the course of our life or changes our mind or our hearts. For me, one of these books is Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. I first read it in my sophomore year of college, and have been rereading it contemplatively ever since. For those who haven’t read it, it is difficult to explain exactly what gives this novel its incredible power… The language is gorgeous, but also gritty when it needs to be. The structure is non-traditional, interspersing oral poetry amidst a storyline that is cyclical, fragmented, and out of chronological order. The plot edges along the realm of the spiritual as well as the political, but really stays centered on the fate of one man, Tayo. The story is his ceremony of healing for an impossible wound, and in many ways he stands for much more than himself. In my eyes, every reading of this book is a ceremony of sorts, and it works on its readers in unique, spellbinding ways.

I could go on, but I think I’ve sufficiently conveyed my personal investment in this beautiful work of literature. So why do I bring it up now? Because I finally got to teach it for the first time this past semester! The decision to include Ceremony was an unexpected but strong compulsion—one that caused me to deviate from the original syllabus and made me require my students to buy the novel, since the school didn’t have copies. (This strategy is actually a good one in a pinch—used novels go for about one cent plus shipping on Amazon; since it was my last minute decision, I offered to cover costs for any students who legitimately couldn’t spare a few bucks.) That’s how bad I wanted to teach this book, and how convinced I was that this was the right time to teach it.

I did have some worries, though, as I contemplated how to present and teach the novel, which is so embedded in Pueblo culture, in a socially responsible way. Here’s a segment of an email I wrote to one of my former literature professors about my concerns:

I’m wondering about the sacred nature of so much that Silko weaves into her writing. I mean… “ceremony”, ritual, story… the whole thing is sacred. I guess I want to be able to help my students understand this culture that surrounds the narrative, this culture so foreign to their conservative, Christian, small town community. But I don’t feel qualified to do that in ways other than drawing from my own very basic knowledge or pointing them to (who knows what this even means:) internet resources. I fear presenting them with an oversimplifed charicature, which might actually be worse than leaving them completely in the dark. Especially since the Laguna are a very private cultural community, it seems intrusive as a non-member of their community to be spouting secondhand information about their religious beliefs in my classroom. At the same time, my students’ current knowledge of indigenous people is limited to Disney’s Pocahontas, superficial history textbooks, and (for some) local stereotypes about reservations. We’ve already been through Native Son, and other demanding texts dealing with cultural boundaries and the tension of power structures, so they’re used to me pushing on their worldviews. But Ceremony is new teaching territory for me. And I want to do it right.

My professor was kind enough to write me back, reassure me that my own respect for the story would likely translate, and recommend some resources, including “Special Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony” (Allen 1990) and a chapter from Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (Owens 1994). I also scouted out a fantastic, illuminating article by Silko herself, “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective” (1979). With these readings, I was able to figure out my teaching plan. Since I had a hard time locating any other high school teaching resources for Ceremony online, I figured I’d include some of the resources I created and approaches I used. Teaching this novel is a difficult but intensely rewarding process.

*My “Day One” presentation included information on the novel’s renown, the non-traditional structure of the book, connections to Laguna Pueblo culture, and some reminders about approaching indigenous writing. There is also an introductory discussion and writing activity at the end. [CEREMONYintro.]

*I had students freewrite about sacred spaces (this could be anything from grandpa’s garage to a secluded lake bluff to a church altar) to help them understand Tayo’s connection to his homeland. After sharing our writing, we talked about what makes a place “sacred” and how we would feel if anyone ever vandalized or violated our sacred spaces.

*As students read each section, I expected them to interact with the story in a blend of analysis and personal response. I created a response guide [ceremonyresponsequestions] to help them come prepared with writing for discussion. This helped immensely, as they came prepared to offer a variety of ideas in the discussions we had in class each day. I tried to stay as hands-off as possible, and my students generated many unique responses. [Click here for some samples of their response writing.]

*When it made sense, I shared segments of the scholarly articles mentioned above to help students understand why the book is written the way it is, and to enhance their understanding of the book’s cultural foundation.

*We did some drawing to help envision and talk about scenes. A very successful application of this was a sketch of Betonie’s cabin. This is a striking and important setting, and the things students included in their drawings helped them decode what could have been dismissed as a crazy man’s junk collection.

*We wrote an informal literary/comparative analysis of the lyrics to “The Humbling River” by Pucifer, interpreting and connecting the speaker’s struggles and realizations to those of Tayo. I provided the lyrics and played the song for my students while they wrote. Check out this gorgeous, haunting song. (However, fair warning: much of their other material is explicit. Tread carefully.)

While I have much to add and develop as far as this unit is concerned, many of my students came away with a love for the novel. This student’s writing shows one of the overall reactions that make me feel like I at least did partial justice to Ceremony, one of “those books:”

One of the most important or the most powerful messages that I got from Ceremony was about the interaction of the world. There are different levels, different worlds that all blend together, influencing the other worlds. These worlds involve the past, present, and future, the land, history, people, animals, witchery, love and so much more, but they are all circling and whirling around at the same time. When they are out of balance, there’s grief, almost like the nausea that Tayo experiences. Balance is achieved when these worlds align. The cycle continues in a circle, over and over, like the star picture in the book! This culture’s view of an individual as a part of the world rather than as a separate, detached being is striking.

Thank you, Leslie Marmon Silko, for your gift to us. If any other teachers out there have awesome ideas for teaching this novel, please leave us your ideas in the comments!

2 comments

  1. Greg Heisenfeldt

    Hello

    I am a high school teacher in Michigan. I too read Ceremony in college and loved it. I am in the process of putting together a Native American lit course for my school and I am leaning towards using Ceremony as the anchor text. Did you have success teaching this novel? Was it too much for the secondary level?

    I also am having problems finding Native American Lit ideas for the secondary level. Any advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated!

    Thanks
    Greg Heisenfeldt

    • Ms. H

      Greg: I re-read this post to refresh my memory of everything I included in there (make sure to click on the links!). After doing so, I can definitely say that the materials I’ve referred to and included in the post are a great starting point as you embark on the teaching of this amazing work. I have now taught Ceremony twice in my AP literature class, and had success both times. That being said, it is definitely a challenging text with high schoolers. However, that intro PowerPoint went a long way to introduce them to the non-traditional structure of the book. Really stressing that the story is not in chronological, cause -and-effect order was important for them–we talked about the fragmentation of memory and the blurred line between magic/reality/spirituality.

      Another thing we worked with quite a bit (which I don’t think I mentioned in the post) was the symbolism of colors, cardinal directions, and natural elements. Every time I re-read Silko I am blown away by the power and intentionality of nearly every tiny detail. So great!!

      You mentioned that Native American lit resources are hard to find–I agree. I do find the structure of Ceremony to be in some ways similar to Toni Morisson’s Beloved: perhaps some ideas can also be translated there. If you’re looking for additional texts, I can recommend Fools Crow (James Welch). American Indian Myths and Legends (Richard Erdoes, ed) is also a great volume. (That being said, look out for sexually explicit material before handing over to kids… haha). Anything written by Sherman Alexie would also be excellent for high schoolers. (His Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is getting wider and wider teaching exposure.)

      As far as your course structure, I think you’ll get further than you might expect merely through telling the truth about Native American history through a blend of literature, short stories, poetry, non-fiction, and video. Most students in America fall victim to this romanticized, oversimplified notion of the “Vanished Indian”… Many students don’t understand the complex nature of the real history, or the idea that “Native American culture” is really a network of many cultures, or think much about what occurred to Native Americans really anytime after the Trail of Tears. Literature is, here, a pathway to perspective taking, understanding, and empathy related to many stories that are not heard on a regular basis via U.S. history textbooks.

      Take the book slow, help your students accept a bit of confusion and allow them to relate their own ceremonies, struggles, and sacred spaces to Tayo’s, and they’ll likely impress you with their work.

      Let me know how it goes! P.s. “Like” the Universe as Text page on Facebook if you’d like to be updated about new posts. I write about a variety of English-teaching-related stuff on a monthly…ish basis.

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