The color yellow comes up quite a bit in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, a novel about a Laguna Pueblo World War II veteran, Tayo, who suffers PTSD not only from fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific but also from his squalid upbringing as an indigenous person growing up in early-1900s America.
The color’s meaning and symbolism evolve as the plot unfolds. When Tayo’s uncle-in-law, Robert, leaves him alone in Gallup, New Mexico, with Betonie the medicine man, “he stared at the dry yellow grass by the old man’s feet. The sun’s heat was draining his strength away…” (Silko 109).
The diction in this passage evokes, at once, a sense of dying, caution, and sickness.
Take the “dry yellow grass” (109), for example. My mind immediately goes to unwatered and withered dying front lawns that are a common sight around here in Western Washington during the summertime. And that’s here in the rainy Pacific Northwest. Imagine if we were in the middle of a six-year drought.
Furthermore, the “sun’s heat… draining [Tayo’s] strength” (109), though not a visual image like the yellow grass, indirectly hints at extreme brightness, which can cause some people to feel sick and nauseous (think heat exhaustion).
I also think it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that the heat and brightness gave Tayo flashbacks to his childhood, when police raided their shelters in “The summer heat” (103) and forced him to hide “in the tamarics, breathing hard… smelling shit on his bare feet” (103).
The stench in the “grove of tamaric and willow” (103), where the natives relieved themselves, also evokes the yellow color of urine and shit without directly painting the picture (think a nasty gas station restroom, only outdoors).
Finally, just as a yellow traffic light serves to warn drivers of an impending red light, Tayo’s noticing of the yellow grass “by the old man’s feet” (109), combined with the blinding hot sun, seems to do the same in the passage. Tayo feels an urge to run away, but at the same time feels betrayed and hopeless that his own family would leave him with this weird old man.
Later on in the novel, the color yellow begins to take on a more neutral (possibly even positive) connotation, when Tayo begins to warm up to Betonie.
The medicine man reassures Tayo of the ever-changing nature of the ceremonies, telling him “when the people were given these ceremonies, the changing began, if only in the aging of the yellow gourd rattle or the shrinking of the skin around the eagle claw, if only the different voices from generation to generation, singing the chants. You see, in many ways, the ceremonies have always been changing” (116).
In this passage Betonie not only attempts to alleviate Tayo’s doubts about his unorthodox method of performing ceremonies—which scares the natives—but also serves to help Tayo accept his otherness, being a “half-breed” in the eyes of his people.
The ceremonies, as well as the people themselves, must change and evolve in order to survive in this new world. As Betonie explains to Tayo: “things which don’t shift and grow are dead things” (116).
Later, as they sit by a fire, Tayo finishes his mutton ribs and throws “the bones to a skinny yellow dog that came out from behind the hogan” (118).
Silko uses the yellow dog to symbolize what Tayo used to be—an abandoned, homeless boy wandering down alleys, looking for scraps of food and finding and chewing on the “soft bone cartilage of pork ribs” (104), after the police raids.
The passage also calls back to and pays off the foreshadowing of the abandoned “bundle of bloody rags” (102) brought by the mother into the “pale yellow hills” (102) and buried “in the yellow sand” (102).
The “bundle of bloody rags” (102) most likely contained an aborted “half-breed,” and Tayo, being a “half-breed” himself, recognized it could have easily been him buried in the yellow sand, thus his negative psychological association with the color yellow.
If this were truly the case, I can’t help but feel some admiration towards his mother, despite her horrible life choices and negligence as a mother. Which mother would you side with in this particular case—the mother who chooses abortion, or Tayo’s, who gives him life, albeit a terrible one?
If you haven’t read the novel and enjoy Native American literature (or are just looking for a good read), I highly recommend this book.