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  • Witchery, Indigenous Resistance, and Urban Space in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony
  • David A. Rice (bio)

It is impossible to accurately imagine contemporary Native American identity without understanding the contribution of urban Indians. Groups such as the legendary Mohawk steelworkers on the East Coast and the American Indian Movement, which emerged from urban Indian neighborhoods in cities such as Minneapolis, Oakland, and Cleveland, give testament to a significant part of the "survivance," to use Gerald Vizenor's term, of contemporary Native American peoples and cultures. Over two-thirds of the approximately 2.1 million Native Americans in the United States live in urban areas (Fixico ix),1 and even if this fact has not significantly infiltrated the American popular imagination, Native American literature has nonetheless represented Indian urban experience in many contemporary works, such as the fiction of Sherman Alexie and Greg Sarris and the poetry of Esther Belin.2 However, the appearance of urban Indians on the literary scene is not an entirely new phenomenon. Even in D'Arcy McNickle's and John Joseph Mathews's novels of the 1930s, we begin to see protagonists trying to reconcile their time in cities with their lives on the reservation. These writers, according to Louis Owens, challenged romanticized notions of Indian culture and identity by portraying characters who slip "into the deracinated no-Indian's-land" between Native and Euramerican worlds (25). However, Owens continues, these characters are ultimately unable to establish stable identities for themselves, and therefore they "never [have] a chance within a civilization bent on turning Indians into Europeans" (25). [End Page 114]

This pessimistic forecast is reconsidered and expanded upon by some of the major works of the 1970s Native American Renaissance, especially N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn and Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony. Momaday's treatment of his protagonist Abel's cultural dislocation "takes the next crucial step for Indian writers: he brings Abel full circle, back home to his Southwestern pueblo and a secure knowledge of who he is" (Owens 25), while Silko makes her conflicted mixed-blood, Tayo, "a metaphor for the dynamic, syncretic, adaptive qualities of Indian cultures that will ensure survival" (Owens 27). What was for McNickle and Mathews a hopeless conundrum and for Momaday a crisis leading back to the healing of a traditional life becomes in Silko's novel a way to imagine the survival and growth of Native people and the cultures where they find significance and identity (Owens 167). The place of the city in Silko's cultural dynamic is crucial; urbanization represents an essential element of Euramerican destructiveness and a necessary aspect of Native American syncreticism and growth in her novel. She insists that, in order to progress, Indians, and indeed all people, must be transformative in their worldviews and approaches to the destructive forces of urbanization and industrialization. For Silko, Navajo tradition in particular must be adaptable to the new challenges represented by urban growth in order to encompass the contemporary experiences of Indians like Tayo. Though Tayo ultimately chooses to turn away from what he knows of the city for a more traditional and stable mode of life, he realizes that the knowledge acquired there is essential to his understanding of the forces at work in the world. His ability to incorporate this understanding into a framework that is both traditional and adaptable is crucial not just for his survival but for everyone's.

Of course, Tayo's return to tradition is preceded by his alienation from it. From the beginning, Tayo is distanced from his reservation family by a number of factors: his birth and early childhood in the encampments of homeless Indians in Gallup, New Mexico; his outcast mother and unknown father; his sense of inadequacy growing up in the shadow of his more promising full-blood cousin, Rocky; and the violence he witnessed and experienced on the World War II [End Page 115] Pacific front. From the start of the novel, Tayo's alienation is evident as he runs from bar to bar with his fellow reservation veterans, who have no real sense of hope, direction, or meaning to their lives. These men are haunted by the fact that...


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pp. 114-143
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