Challenges in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony

Synopsis: Silko's Ceremony is the story of Tayo, a Native American returning from World War II, who is seeking to resolve his war sickness and reunite with his past. The author uses a combination of flashbacks, narratives, and glances into the future, as well as rhymes and chants, to tell the story of an American Indian war veteran trying to recover his life after losing his cousin in WWII. The text is best suited to a mature audience who will not be sidetracked by sexual references, violence, and alcoholism. Readers must also be patient with Silko's unusual structure. In my opinion, the mature ideas and writing style of this novel are too difficult for most high school students even at the 12th grade level. Thus, this novel is best taught in a college course.

Challenge #1: The Sacred Nature of the Laguna Traditions

The greatest issue in teaching Ceremony, as well as other pieces which draw on the rituals and sacred beliefs of the Native American community, is the sacredness of the Native American cultures. In her article, “Special Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony,” which was published in 1990 by the American Indian Quarterly, Paula Gunn Allen discusses the dilemma she faces with sacred material in the classroom. As a Native American professor, she wants to provide her students with all the information necessary to ensure comprehension of the text. However, her pedagogical goal directly conflicts with the privacy of the Laguna people and their sacred traditions.

For those of us who are not a descendant of Native American people, the task is even more difficult. On one hand, we read because we wish to know and seek to understand; therefore, we also want our students to seek understanding. On the other hand, the sacred traditions of the Laguna Pueblo are not meant for everyone to know and understand. As a teacher who is completely unfamiliar with the Laguna people, I cannot begin to explain their traditions to my students.

One solution is to seek out sources that provide greater understanding of the Laguna people and their myths, beliefs, and traditions. However, one may find that very little has been written about these people. In her article entitled,"Leslie Marmon Silko: Classroom issues and strategies," Norma C. Wilson faces the difficulty of finding sources about the Laguna people. She is able to arrange a meeting with Leslie Marmon Silko, which leads her to more resources, including poetry, essays, and video, all recommended by the author. These resources are explained in some detail in Wilson’s article.

Ideally, I would love the chance to bring the author of every text read in my classroom to my students. In the absence of this ideal scenario, we provide the most comprehensive information possible to our students through research of the author, culture, setting, etc. This week, I had the opportunity to meet in a small group with Debra Muller, a Native American advocate and member of the Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes and the Grand Rapids Inter-tribal Organization of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Muller stressed the importance of spending time with the Native American people, which is much more valuable than any Internet resource. Muller also requested that, when teaching Native American cultures to our students, we please ask a member of the Native American community in to our classrooms. In fact, her direct quote is, “Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of trying to teach our culture. Ask us in. Let us teach.” Although it may take some research to find someone qualified to speak about the Native American community, it is of immense importance and there are many benefits. Primarily, students learn about culture from an authentic source. It also shows the students that we, as teachers, don’t know everything, and are open to learning more ourselves. The invitation for someone else to teach sends the message that we respect various cultures and traditions and seek greater knowledge and understanding. Finally, students will likely be more interested in the text they are studying if they can connect to a real person or group of people.

Challenge #2: The Irrelevance of Time and Chronology

Americans live in a fast world. Our efficient society is driven by time and schedules, dictated by wristwatches, palm pilots, alarm clocks. My world, and my students’ world, is organized into 50-minute segments between two bells. My students are accustomed to structure by chronological order in history and the study of literature. Although they understand the term flashback, the story of Tayo in Silko’s Ceremony is atypically structured in comparison with most of the novels my students have experienced. The prose and poetry combination and absence of chapter breaks to structure the novel will also catch most students off guard. The structure, however, is a part of the story, and it could be told in no other way. It’s important, then, for students to understand why.

“He [Tayo] cried the relief he felt at finally seeing the pattern, the way all the stories fit together-the old stories, the war stories, their stories-to become the story that was still being told. He was not crazy; he had never been crazy. He had only seen and heard the world as it always was: no boundaries, only transitions through all distances and time” (246).

Although Leslie Marmon Silko has placed this revelation by Tayo at the end of Ceremony, it may give students some insight before they begin reading. Primarily, students should be aware of the importance of story for the Laguna people. As readers, we are let inside the mind of Tayo, where all of the stories are connected in a way that is not chronological. At times, we are living with Tayo in the present, and at times his mind is lost in the past; in World War II, in his childhood with Rocky and Josiah, in the abandonment of his mother and his identity due to her mistakes. We also experience Tayo’s dreams, his hopes for the future, his despair.

In order to help students understand the structure of the story, ask them to write their own stream of consciousness. They may record the thoughts that flash through their minds in just 60 seconds. Or ask students to begin with a word and play with word associations. For example, each student begins with the word apple. Then, they write a word, phrase, or memory associated with apple, and continue on in this manner. (example: apple--red--anger--throwing everything on my dresser onto my pink carpet floor--dad--talks before I went to bed--headgear from the orthodontist--Mickey, the receptionist--pictures of hippos with braces). Of course, every student’s association will be completely unique to any other student. Although this probably won’t make the reading easier, it may prepare the student and thus avert some frustration with the arrangement of the stories. This activity may also help students see that everyone’s mind works in this way. Although our lives are based on time and chronological order, and we generally tell stories using specific time sequences and settings, our minds don’t necessarily function this way.

by Lindsay Steenbergen