Review of World Literature in English, Vol. 2 No. I january, 2006


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The Indian Review of World Literature in English, Vol. 2 No.I – January, 2006

Traditional Sources and New Techniques of Narration: A Contrastive Study Of Mythic Rituals in Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony

Punyashree Panda

One aspect the Natives of Canada and The United States share in common is that they are not only unique and exceptional in their cultural make-up but also exhibit a great variety in terms of lifestyle. Native writers use the images and symbolic representation of their ancient practices in their narration to add to the authenticity of their texts and also to celebrate their pride in the ancient ways of life. Having been relegated to the background as the “Other” by the Eurocentric forces of colonization and intrusion, Native authors like Maria Campbell and Leslie Marmon Silko suffer from the discrimination of being “doubly other(ed)” by both their race and sex. And these aboriginal women writers work as the insurers of the next generation (Emphasis mine), as Jeanette Armstrong very aptly suggests. Rather than acting as “Biased Postcolonial Voices” they recreate the experience of time and reality by using the community myths and rituals as the tools for multilayered emotions and expressions.

In the aboriginal tradition, knowledge was acquired through experience and transmitted orally”, opines Diane P. Payment. And these Native women, growing up during a time of greater political and cultural awareness, acted as the custodian and transmitters of the traditional practices and rituals of their People. Cheechum’s wisdom about the various legends and rituals of the Halfbreed life as well as her practical application of magic and natural medicines in Campbell’s Halfbreed is an apt example in this context. The Native People respect the feminine powers as the creator of life. When Cheechum takes a stand against the eerily stupid Qua Chich saying,“Noone goes blind form seeing animals make babies .It is a beautiful thing (23)”, she is essentially rejecting the biblical condemnation of woman and procreation.

The mediation between the indigenous culture and the colonizer’s religion is further established by the Native American counterpart of Maria Campbell, namely, Leslie Marmon Silko in her novel Ceremony that makes ardent use of the ancient customs and traditions as a way of progressing the narration. A novel of ritual regeneration, Ceremony has been hailed as the Laguna Grail story. Silko’s sensual use of language, almost poetic at times, creates an effect of despoiled beauty of the community rituals and practices. Silko unlearns her modern education in order to establish a traditional Native story. The cosmosymbolic use of cyclic time reasserts Silko’s love for the ritualistic past of her ancestors. As Beth Brant opines, “the writing created by First Nations women is writing done with a community consciousness.” And in doing so these women of colour also represent a history of feminist activism independent from and exclusive of and at times even preceding the White feminism.

My paper will focus on these trepidations of the Native Women writers, precisely Maria Campbell in her autobiographical novel Halfbreed and Leslie Marmon Silko in her masterpiece Ceremony which reaffirms the role of mother earth, the fishing and hunting traditions, the peoples and the wars, the waters and fires as the source of their stories.

Two Nations, two writers, two books and yet so strikingly similar in their appreciation of the cultures and traditions of their People. Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony is out and out fiction written in a style so brilliant it almost reads like truth. Campbell, a Native activist, historian and anthropologist wrote Halfbreed, which, in spite of being her autobiography, extends itself to the horizons of great fiction. And in doing so, both the writers have a common purpose…. of letting the world know their stories, their traditions, and their rituals. Brought up in an atmosphere of “living communally” with the values of their own proud indigenous cultures, these two authors from the margin establish a new technique of narration in the form of their natural and flowing capacity of storytelling, thus bringing into the center the richness of “Orality” prevalent in their community and their Peoples. The continuity and vigour of “Orality” in postcolonial societies is perhaps best illustrated in the works of these Native authors.

Hereupon, I would like to stress on the fact that it is important for the reader to realize that Ceremony and Halfbreed, while functioning as the representative texts of a “Stolen Nation” and the “Road Allowance People”, to quote two terms from Ceremony and Halfbreed respectively, also go beyond the Western theories of Literary Canon and thus establish themselves as truly indispensable tools in the unmasking of the Colonizer and moreover, as bridges to perceive and grasp the finer nuances of a wronged civilization. In a systematic representation of their own Nativity, Silko and Campbell shape their stories, private and personal as much as they are socio-cultural between and betwixt the stories from the past thus creating new mythologies for their own people .To support my point I would like to quote some lines from Campbell’s Halfbreed here: Cheechum never accepted defeat at Batoche and she would always say, “Because they killed Riel they think they have killed us too, but some day, my girl, it will be different.”(15)

And this one is from Ceremony: White people selling Indians junk cars and trucks reminded Tayo of the Army Captain in the 1860s who made a gift of wool blankets to the Apaches: the entire sack was infected with smallpox. (158)

Apparently, on the surface, they are telling stories. But deep down the hurt shows and there lies the beauty of these books. Both the books are also connected in a sense that the protagonist in both of these is a Halfbreed (Maria has a Halfbreed father and an Indian Mother and likewise, Tayo has a White father and an Indian mother) and not a Full blood. Moreover, Silko’s Tayo also belongs to a lineage similar to that of the author’s in that Silko, too, was a mixed-breed. And being in this precarious position, the protagonists are “Doubly Colonized” by both the Whites as well as their own Peoples.Tayo’s auntie’s uninhibited Pride in Rocky the “chosen one” and her equally devastating Shame for Tayo, the disgrace exemplifies this point. In fact, it is equally amusing to note that old Betonie, Tayo’s medicine man and the visionary performer of the changing Ceremonies is himself a mixed-breed, thus, perhaps, more able to take the responsibility of ‘curing’ Tayo from his strange illness. Maria feels distanced whenever she visits Granny Dubuque’s place and longs for the fun and frolic of home. Peace in the truest sense is found only when she is with Cheechum, her beloved great grandmother.

Who is to determine the “civilization quotient” of a particular race at a given time and place is a very intriguing question to ask. “I work by intuition and instinct”, said Silko in her essay ‘Notes on the Almanac of the Dead’. “A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization”, suggests Aime' Ce'saire. Interestingly, ‘intuition’ and ‘instinct’ of the Native communities are undoubtedly more positive terms in comparison to ‘trickery’ and ‘deceit’, which were the tactics of the Euro centric colonizing forces. And working with these weapons of language, Campbell and Silko are essentially predisposed towards reestablishing the records of Native-White relationships over the bygone times.

The culture of the indigenous peoples and the oral tradition used was for a long time on the verge of being eradicated, thanks to the enforced language of the colonizer. Since colonization, the history of Canada and America has been conveyed from the point of view of the settlers, who ignored the vivacity of the Native languages, placing greater emphasis on cold fact and uniformity. Driven perhaps by a collective sense of guilt, this White reaction ultimately denied the Natives the privilege to tell their own stories. And hence, Silko as well as Campbell are conscious about the ideological objective of reappropriating their stories. As the insider outsider of their communities, these authors, like their protagonists, are also searching for a home, which they believe they will find in their own stories. Language thus becomes a central point of distinct expression relevant to the community life. While doing so, these authors through their narration also reflect upon the limitations set forth by the colonizer’s language. To quote: But now the feelings were twisted, tangled roots, and all the names for the source of this growth was buried under English words, out of reach. And there would be no peace and the people would have no rest until the entanglement had been unwound to the source. (69)
Discrimination on linguistic as much as on cultural grounds led to the erosion of Pride among the Natives. And the colonizer took all care to see that the process started really early in a Native’s life. Young Native children suffered from this malicious strategy of the colonizing powers as if it was a way of life for them. Here is an extract from Campbell’s Halfbreed to illustrate my point We were the first Halfbreeds she had taught and although she tried to hide her prejudices, she was often cruel…Peggie was in the first grade, a very small six year old, timid and shy. Because we used a mixture of Cree and English at home, her pronunciation was poor. The teacher would shake her and say to the class, “Look at her! She is so stupid she can’t even say ‘this’ instead of ‘dis’.”( 112):

As children of the Native Communities, Laguna and Halfbreed to be specific, both Silko and Campbell grew up in an atmosphere of a living tradition abundantly rich in its cultural folklore. The grandmothers and other elderly people of the Communities always told stories which not only fascinated the big-eyed young children but also subconsciously made then aware of the importance of “passing down an entire culture by word of mouth”. Silenced by the sterile, yet powerful voices of the colonizer, these authors, as representatives of their communities, attempt to resurrect their very own oral traditions in their works of art through the language of the colonizer. As already pointed out in the beginning of this paper, being Native authors and on the top of it being from the less privileged gender, these marginalized women are supremely conscious of a responsibility to revive their traditions as a proof of which they use storytelling as a technique to exhibit the essence of their Communities. To quote from Ceremony: Distances and days existed in themselves then; they all had a story. They were not barriers. If a person wanted to get to the moon, there was a way; it all depended on whether you knew the directions-exactly which way to go and what to do to get there; it depended on whether you knew the story of how others before you had gone.(19)

To quote some more: He turned. Everywhere he looked, he saw a world made of stories, the long ago, time immemorial stories, as Old Grandma called them. It was a world alive, always changing and moving; and if you knew where to look, you could see it, sometimes almost imperceptible, like the motion of the stars across the sky. (95)
In her autobiographical novel Halfbreed , Campbell, instead of restricting our experience to the understanding of the importance of the stories and their sources to the Communities, also tells us some amusingly beautiful stories. In fact, very unlike the hollow Christian names imposed upon them by the Church, even the names of people had special meanings and significance in these Communities. A very interesting extract is presented here to validate the point. While talking about her tribal ancestry, Campbell throws light on her Great Grandpa Campbell’s name and it’s meaning which also serves as an example of the imaginative abilities of these so called savage people. Here it goes: He was not well liked by his neighbors or the people who traded with him. Our old people called him “Chee-pie-hoos”, meaning “Evil-spirit-jumping-up-and-down”. They say he was very cruel and would beat his son, his wife, and his livestock with the same whip and with equal vengeance. (14)

Not merely as a technique of extending the narration, but also as a way to express the Community’s resistance to assimilation and acculturation, these authors skillfully adopt and weave the personal and socio-political contexts into their storytelling abilities. That they have been tricked not to believe in their own stories by the whites so as to rob them off their Community Pride and individual identity is a point of focus in both the books. To quote from Ceremony: He knew what white people thought about their stories. In school the science teacher had explained what superstition was, and then held the science textbook for the class to see the true source of explanations. (94)

Campbell, in her novel Halfbreed takes on the popular culture to show the misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the community in the hands of the colonizers and thus brings out the distorted games and the cunning stories the whites created to injure the minds of these peoples of the land. Here is an example: One show I remember was about the NorthWest Rebellion…Riel and Dumont were our heroes. The movie was a comedy and it was awful: the Halfbreeds were made to look like such fools that it left you wondering how they ever organized a rebellion…Louis Riel was portrayed as a real lunatic who believed he was god, and his followers were real “three stooges” types. Of course the NWMP and General Middleton did all the heroic things. (97)

To quote Jeannette Armstrong again in this context, “Our languages contained no words for he or she because of the high elevation of human dignity and personal recognition in our culture”.(Invocation: The Real Power of Aboriginal women by Jeannette Armstrong in Women of the First Nations :Power,Wisdom,Strength Ed by Christine Miller and Patricia Chuchryk,University of Manitoba Press,2001)

Along with their concern for the upkeep of their oral traditions and old ways of life the Native Women Writers were equally concerned with the impact of Christianity in their cultures. Silko as well as Campbell do not mind condemning Christianity for its mores in no uncertain terms. Be it Maria’s choice of the school as her marriage venue rather than the Church which denied her mother, a devout Christian, a grave and the last bells or Cheechum’s despise for all Churchgoing Native or for that matter, Tayo’s belief on the half-mexican, half-Navajo Old Betonie as the medicine man capable of curing him rather than the “White Walls’ of the Army Hospital, the Community’s faith in their so called savage and satanic rituals over the ‘superior’ revelations of Christianity are all ample proof of their religious inclinations. It is interesting to note here that instead of limiting themselves to the Christian vision of heaven and hell, the Native People interpreted God and religion on a much higher, albeit simpler, philosophical plane. Here is an extract from Campbell’s Halfbreed to validate my point: She taught me to see beauty in all things around me; that inside each thing a spirit lived, that it was vital too, regardless of whether it was only a leaf or blade of grass, and by recognizing its life and beauty I was accepting God. She said that each time I did something it was a prayer, regardless of whether it was good or bad; that heaven and hell were man-made and there on earth; that there was no death, only that the body becomes old from life on earth and that the soul must be reborn, because it is young; that when my body became old my spirit would leave and I’d come back and live again. She said God lives in you and looks like you, and not to worry about him floating around in a beard and white cloak; that the Devil lives inside you and all things, and that he looks like you and not like a cow…. Her explanation made much more sense than anything Christianity had ever taught me. (72,73)

Equally engrossing is Silko’s treatment of Christianity in her novel Ceremony. Putting things in perspective Silko analyses the confusion and the agony the Natives suffer from to earn the tag of a good Christian, the hypocrisy of which they become victims; As Tayo says about his aunt: Those who measured life by counting the crosses would not count her sacrifices for Rocky the way they counted for her dead sister’s half-breed child…. She needed a new struggle, another opportunity to show those who might gossip that she had still another unfortunate burden which proved that, above all else, she was a Christian woman. (30)

A close look at these lines form Ceremony seem to suggest that to remain Christian one needs to be consistently burdened with pain. And religion, as the communities knew it, should work as a healing power and not a source of pain. The Native mind fluttered with the confusion of which rituals to practice and which to leave under the imposition of the colonizer’s religion in their ways of life. To quote again from Ceremony: -all of creation suddenly had two names; an Indian name and a White name. Christianity separated the people from themselves; it tried to crush the single clan name, encouraging each person to stand alone, because Jesus Christ will save only the individual soul; Jesus Christ was not like the Mother who loved or cared for them as her children, as her family. (94)

On another level, the superiority of the Native religions is put in contrast to the practices of Christianity and as is evident the old ways win the charm over the newfound ways of the White religion. Here is how: All the people, even the Catholics who went to Mass every Sunday, followed the ritual of the deer. (52)

That the Native God was not essentially Christian is exemplified in the following lines from Halfbreed: Then at nine o’ clock we would kneel together and say our rosary. I resented the Church and God during this half hour, and hated every moment of it, but felt I could endure it if it made Dad feel better. He told me a long time afterwards that Mom had made him promise we would pray before bedtime, and after a while he found that those prayers comforted him and helped him to carry on; that it was not the Church he was praying to but to God. (72)

The themes that connect the progression of the plot in the central narrative of these novels thus perform beyond merely finding out the “Indianness” of these texts and help the authors find their own way of telling the stories. To quote Charles R. Larson from his essay The Emergence of American Indian Fiction, “Increasingly, as these novels are read in the order in which they were written, we see the writers themselves become aware of their own ethnic consciousness, moving from assimilation, through the equally frustrating period of cultural syncretsism… and finally towards a separate reality”.
I would like to suggest here that a lack of written language, a systemized religion or a recorded history does not qualify itself as a weapon to be used against a race. The Eurocentric Powers who intruded into the territories of the First Nation’s Peoples, both physically and culturally, should not have taken advantage of a docile civilization which welcomed the settlers before they were tricked into a life of everlasting misery and shame and hence should not have shown a lack of respect for the Communities and their spirits. The indigenous People deserved as much respect from the colonizing powers, if not more, as is deserving of any self-respecting community, white or otherwise.

What is more touching is the fact that in spite of being aware of the injustices meted out to them, as individuals and as Communities, these authors are not crying for help. There definitely is a sense of loss in both Ceremony and Halfbreed, but there is also an appreciation of that which remains. In Silko’s Ceremony, T’seh, Tayo’s imagined, half-human, half-spirit beloved functions much in the same way as the story-weaving Spider Woman of the ancient Laguna, healing Tayo and filling him with stories of what comes next and thus taking the theme forward. Maria’s great-grandmother Cheechum’s faith in the little people and her eager wait for a new revolution for the land on the lines of the Riel Rebellion serves as representative of the multifaceted mindscapes of the Native Communities, of their dreams and their hopes, their rituals and their beliefs of a better tomorrow. The bitterness for the Whites/Colonizing powers is still there in the community’s psyche; but as Halfbreeds, Maria and Tayo are also able to understand the plight of humanity as such, irrespective of the colour of their skins; And the books, both of these, end at a point where one can look forward to a more harmonious, even though imperfect, world.

After their spates of wondering around in search of an identity, almost losing themselves in the lanes of drugs and alcoholism, the Natives are now more able to understand the serious loopholes in the system as they come to a reconciliatory mode where they yearn to find their lost homes, the generation lost in foster homes on one hand and dance clubs and prostitution on the other and thus hope of finding at least small rays of hope. In fact, Silko’s Ceremony blames an age-old witchery by her own people for the white intrusion to the Native Land and lives. To quote: They want us to separate ourselves from white people, to be ignorant and helpless as we watch our own destruction; but white people are only tools that the witchery manipulates. (132)

Campbell, in contrast, talks about the problems of poor people, Natives as well as Whites and like her Cheechum, searches for that ‘brother’ who will set things right. She even finds one in Stan Daniels for a very brief period of time who, she believes, fell prey to the white system; but she too has not lost hope. She says that: But something has changed. The gentle mothers of my childhood were drunkards now, and neglect was evident everywhere, most of all on the faces of children. (148)
However in the same vein she also adds I believe that one day, very soon, people will set aside their differences and come together as one. May be not because we love one another, but because we will need each other to survive. Then together we will fight our common enemies. Change will come because this time we can’t give up. (156,157)

It seems to me that they will now be able to tell their stories and the stories of the communities, that they will not have to live with fear and loss anymore. It will take time…but the process has already begun…as Silko writes, “I can see the pattern emerging”, that the rituals will continue and history will be reappropriated. I would like to conclude this paper with one of Silko’s poems from Ceremony, which she uses to reaffirm the importance of traditional sources of storytelling for these new torchbearers of the Communities; to quote:

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. (2)

Works cited:

  1. Campbell, Maria. Halfbreed, The Canadian Publishers, Toronto, 1973.

  1. Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony, Penguin Books, New York, 1977.

  1. Velie, Alan R. Four American Literary Masters, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.

  1. Invocation: The Real Power of Aboriginal women by Jeannette Armstrong in Women of the First Nations: Power, Wisdom, Strength, Ed by Christine Miller and Patricia Chuchryk, University of Manitoba Press, 2001.

5) American Indian Fiction, Ed by Charles R. Larson, University of New Mexico Press,

Albuquerque, 1978.

6) The Good Red Road: Journeys of Homecoming in Native Women’s Writing by Beth

Brant in New Contexts of Canadian Criticism, Ed by Ajay Heble, Donna Palmateer

Pennee, and J.R. (Tim) Struthers, Broadway Press, 1996.

7) “La vie en rose”? Métis Women at Batoche, 1870 to 1920 by Diana P. Payment in

Women of the First Nations: Power, Wisdom, Strength, Ed by Christine Miller and

Patricia Chuchryk, University of Manitoba Press, 2001.

Punyashree Panda

Research scholar

Bhanja Bihar

Berhampur University

Berhampur-760007, Orissa


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