The Significance of The Spotted Cattle as Used in Ceremony by Silko

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Words: 1037 |

Pages: 2.5|

6 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 1037|Pages: 2.5|6 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony is a multidimensional novel full of Laguna symbols and themes that are easily overlooked in a superficial reading. Like many of the elements in this work, Josiah's spotted cattle can be interpreted in multiple ways: as cultural metaphors, water spirits, and animal guides. Tayo's pursuit of the lost cattle is a type of quest -- in recovering the cattle, he seeks to end the drought afflicting his people and also to heal himself by restoring his cultural identity. The two elements of his quest are deeply intertwined: healing brings water just as water brings healing.

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Silko's depiction of the spotted cattle creates a strong metaphor that links them closely to the Lagunas. Josiah buys the cattle because they resemble wild animals more than the slow-witted Herefords favored by white ranchers. Whereas the Herefords die of thirst if someone doesn't bring them water, the spotted cattle find water on their own -- in other words, they are self-sufficient and close to the land like the Native Americans. They are also natives of the desert, "descendants of generations of desert cattle" (74). Unlike the white man's cows (and the white man himself), these animals are able to live off of the land without altering it or requiring outside assistance. They are "everything that the ideal [white man's] cow was not" (75). The parallels between the white man and his helpless cattle are clearly drawn in one of Josiah's early reflections:

Cattle are like any living thing. If you separate them from the land too long, keep them in barns and corrals, they lose something. The stomachs get to where they can only eat rolled oats and dry alfalfa. When you turn them loose again, they go running all over. They are scared because the land is unfamiliar and they are lost. (74)

The Herefords are a metaphor for white culture that is disconnected from the land and unable to exist without artificial means, while the spotted cattle represent the connection to the earth associated with Native American tradition. It is this connection that Tayo has lost and seeks to restore.

Silko uses frequent descriptions of the spotted cattle's deer-like qualities to link them to Tayo's relationship with the drought. According to Hamilton Tyler, author of "Pueblo Animals and Myths," in Pueblo mythology, deer spirits are rainmakers. Therefore, it seems significant that Silko so often mentions their resemblance to deer: "They were tall and had long thin legs like deer" (75) and "they moved like deer" (188), "running more like deer than cattle" (197). Tayo believes that his damning of the rain in the jungle caused the drought, that he has "prayed the rain away" (14). Only through repentance and healing can he restore the rain, and only by completing Betonie's ceremony can he find that healing. Retrieving the cattle is a vital part of the process. Cattle and deer, rain and healing are all intricately woven together.

The spotted cattle also act as animal guides, indirectly leading Tayo to the spirit deity Ts'eh. It's not clear which spirit Ts'eh represents, but her blue and yellow colors might indicate that she is an incarnation of Corn Woman, who is synonymous with Mother Earth. In two of the traditional stories told in the book, Corn Woman withholds the rain -- first when Reed Woman angers her and again when the people neglect the corn altar in favor of a C'ko'yo magician. When Tayo encounters Ts'eh early in his hunt, the first thing he asks for is water for his horse. Ts'eh replies, "Help yourself" (177). That could be read to mean that Tayo must heal himself before the water will be given back to him. When Tayo first sees Ts'eh, she is holding a willow staff, a tool traditionally used for finding water. That is just one of her many associations with rain, however: as Tayo follows her inside, he notices the pattern of storm clouds woven into her blanket, and rain birds are carved into the buttons on her moccasins. Images of water and dampness color their subsequent lovemaking: the analogy to "cloudy warm water," the "riverbank crumbling under the downpour," the "damp wide leaf pattern that had soaked into the blanket" (181). As he falls in love with her and feels her love in return, Tayo’s healing begins and the water returns. His love for Ts'eh is his love for the earth. He needed the cattle to lead him to her.

In addition to their significance as water spirits, animal guides, and cultural metaphors, the spotted cattle also require Tayo to retrieve them from a white rancher. That parallels the idea that Tayo's own sickness and loss of identity has been caused by white society. The cattle bear the scars of "Texas roping," another example of the white man's abuse, but Tayo rescues them as he rescues himself. He comes very close to being jailed by white patrolmen, but significantly, he doesn't try to fight them. Instead, he is saved by Mountain Lion, whose footprints lead the patrolmen away. Tayo has finally realized that fighting violence with violence doesn't work. The Laguna believed that the rain came only to peaceful people.

When Tayo strengthens his connection to the land, the cattle stop running away. In the last scene with them, Tayo shares their experience: "he stood feeling the sun on his face the way the cattle did" (233). That action evokes his bond with them and with all living things -- which, from the Laguna perspective, is right and necessary. Having rebuilt his faith in the old way of thinking through the cattle and the influence of Ts'eh, Tayo is finally strong enough to finish the ceremony. He resists attacking Emo as he watches him torture Harley; in doing so, he completes Betonie's ritual and is healed. His reconnection to the land and to Laguna tradition brings him a sense of belonging, of being loved. "She had always loved him, she had never left him; she had always been there" (255). The "she" in this reflection is Mother Earth.

Works Cited

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Tyler, Hamilton A. Pueblo Animals and Myths. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press (1975).

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The Significance of the Spotted Cattle as Used in Ceremony by Silko. (2018, May 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 14, 2024, from
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