House Made of Dawn (The Sixties in America)
House Made of Dawn is set in the pueblo of Walatowa, New Mexico, and in Los Angeles, California, between 1945 and 1952. The narration includes a brief prologue and four dated sections. After a prologue describing a man running in open country, the story opens on July 20, 1945, when a young Pueblo Indian named Abel returns to Walatowa after serving in World War II. Alienated and troubled, Abel works for Angela St. John, a stranger visiting the area, and has an affair with her. At a village festival, an ominous-looking albino man attacks Abel and humiliates him. Meanwhile, Father Olguin, the village priest, studies the diary of his predecessor, Fray Nicolás, and makes an awkward overture to Angela. On August 1, Abel stabs the albino to death in a cornfield. This section of the novel concludes the next day, as Francisco, Abel’s grandfather, hoes his cornfield alone. The second section, dated January 27 and 28, 1952, is set in Los Angeles and centers on John Big Bluff Tosamah, a Kiowa peyote priest. On January 27, Tosamah preaches a sermon asserting that white people have debased language; meanwhile, Abel lies on a beach, recovering consciousness after a severe beating. The narration moves back and forth in time, interspersing the sermon with fragments from Abel’s past: trial testimony, prison, his affair with a social worker named Milly, and a peyote ceremony. In the part dated January 28, Tosamah meditates, in his second...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Wolatowa. Main village in the Jemez Pueblo, a sovereign Native American nation in the Jemez Mountains, west of Santa Fe in New Mexico. Momaday, who moved with his Kiowa parents to Jemez at age twelve, has stated that life events “take place,” by which he means that “place,” or landscape, is indivisible from self. Momaday felt indivisible from Jemez Pueblo, and the central theme of his novel is that Abel, his Native American protagonist, is spiritually ill because he is emotionally separated from some aspects of the land after returning from military service during World War II. The land has its own terms, and to heal himself Abel must be possessed by the land under those terms. Throughout the book, physically harsh landscapes are shown to best nurture the Native American spirit. For Abel, only such a place, Wolatowa, can heal his personal agonies.
The central plaza at Wolatowa, called the Middle, is where ancient human dwellings have become indivisible from the earth. Here, Abel first encounters the albino, a man who comes to embody a snake-like evil for Abel. Later, outside Paco’s, a bar about four miles south of the pueblo, Abel kills the albino as he would kill a snake.
*Seytokwa. Location of an early Jemez settlement. The Winter Race, run by Pueblo men for bountiful harvests and good hunting, starts here, when the first sliver of the sun appears over Black Mesa (today’s...
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The Postwar Reservation
As with many other minority groups in America, Native American populations became more connected with the mainstream culture as a result of World War II. Prejudice and discriminatory policies did not disappear overnight, but the fact that people from ethnic subcultures were thrown together in barracks in the war led to some softening social boundaries. Many whites met real Indians for the first time, and many Indians met their first whites.
Like Abel in House Made of Dawn, many Native Americans came back to the reservations they had lived on with conflicted views, having been forced to align their own beliefs with American culture. Unfortunately, what little progress was made in human understanding was very quickly overruled by developers, who soon tried to exploit reservation land for their own profit.
Historically, the U.S. government dealt with the problem of taking land from indigenous peoples by providing land and services at limited locations: the reservations. From the start, the concept of reservations was divided between two general schools of thought. Some people considered them as sanctuaries, where the Indians could relax, free from persecution. Others, however, viewed them as prisons where Indians were left isolated, cut off from progress, and dependent on government charity.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration, and particularly his...
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Point of View
In this novel, Momaday often shifts from one point of view to another; as a result, it is not always clear whose thoughts are being related, or when, or what they have to do with the overall story. At first it seems that Abel will be the focus of the novel, but soon the point of view shifts to Francisco. Moreover, there is little consistency in the point of view: while it seldom shifts from one person's perspective to another within one scene, it does not follow a pattern of staying with any one point of view for a whole chapter, or even a section.
For example, Father Olguin gains perspective about what the reservation was like in the last century from the diary that he reads that was written by his predecessor. Momaday is able to relate his ideas about the relationship between Native American religion and Christian religion through the sermons of Tosamah. The incidents of Abel's life in Los Angeles are not related through his point of view, but from Benally's perspective.
By shifting point of view frequently and sporadically, it is possible for Momaday to have Abel be the central character in the book without delving deeply into his thoughts and to present the communal point of view that is more characteristic of Native American thought than of the European tradition.
More than most novels, the setting of House Made of Dawn is integral to its purpose. Because the...
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The novel begins and ends with the traditional Jemez Pueblo words that begin and end a ritual chant or a story. This mythic, timeless quality is not dispelled by Momaday's use of dates and places to mark Abel's linear, seven-year journey. The prologue is actually the end of the story (1952); the narrative then begins in 1945. This disjointed structure circles back on itself, framing the novel which seems to come from Abel's memories.
The novel itself divides into four parts, four being a sacred cultural number. Each part is dominated by a particular character and represents a segment of Abel's journey.
The first section, "The Longhair" (1945), establishes Abel's context and his conflicts. Through interspersed memories readers learn of Abel's childhood alienation from his tribe because of his illegitimacy. The letters which the Catholic priest, Father Olguin, reads and admires illustrate how detached the white world is from native-American cultural values. The conflict is intensified after Abel loses a ritual game, is humiliated by the winner — a "white man," or albino — and later kills Mm. Only his grandfather, the longhair, misses him.
The second section, "The Priest of the Sun" (1952), offers Abel alternatives to the reservation. Tosamah's ironic sermons and his numbered list of materials for the peyote ritual parody spiritual leaders but reject the power of land and language. Framing the two sermons, Momaday relates the...
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Despite the novel's initial popular appeal as a "protest novel" against the discrimination and degradation of native Americans, and the psychological ravages of war, the strength of House Made of Dawn lies in its depiction of Abel, a native American, who is being healed by cultural and spiritual means from the pain of these events. Within this framework, Momaday depicts the power of language upon Abel — the white culture's silencing and the Indian culture's healing. Momaday, like Alex Haley in Roots, depicts the ability of a strong cultural heritage to unite and connect an individual and a people.
His work also is specific to Southwestern Indian cultures. Momaday captures a patchwork of the dying traditions of the Navajo, Jemez Pueblo, and Kiowa. He records Abel's experiences with these fading cultures, not with a sense of loss, but with a sense of discovery. An important part of these cultures is their attitude toward the land. Building an affinity with these scattered roots of the self and the past involves developing a sense of belonging to the land. This is stressed by Momaday's impressive descriptive passages of mesas, canyons, and villages as well as depictions of battlefields and cities.
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Compare and Contrast
Late 1940s: After Europe is decimated as a result of World War II, America becomes an economic superpower, creating a thriving economy and a population boom.
1968: The generation of Americans born in the late 1940s and early 1950s is dubbed the Baby Boom generation. Many members of this generation reject the materialistic culture and emphasize spiritual values.
Today: America has experienced the longest economic expansion in its history.
Late 1940s: The Indian Relocation program uses government money to move Native Americans off of the reservations. The aim was to assimilate them into mainstream culture and provide economic and social opportunities.
1968: The American Indian Movement addresses the issue of police brutality against Indians in Minneapolis and soon becomes a nationwide organization advocating Indian rights.
Today: Government efforts strive to make Native American groups economically self-sufficient.
Late 1940s: Segregation laws across the country prohibit blacks from using the same public services as whites, and permits exclusion of different races from private establishments.
1968: After more than a decade of civil rights protests, the fight for equality turns violent on a national scale in the mid-1960s, with race riots in major cities across America.
Today: Federal laws against discrimination...
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Topics for Further Study
Investigate the tribal customs of Native Americans from different parts of the United States, such as the northern or southeastern regions of the country. Report on how their practices differ from those of the Pueblo peoples of the Southeast.
Explore one of the American Indian Movement protests of the late 1960s or 1970s, such as the armed siege at Wounded Knee in 1973 or the standoff at the Oglala Reservation in 1975. What were the demands of the protesters? Did the protesters get what they wanted?
Richard Nixon, a president often associated with corruption in government, is considered a hero by many Native Americans. Why? Prepare a report on Nixon's policies and how they benefited Native Americans.
Examine the statistics of Native American participation in World War II. Discuss the ways in which this participation significantly changed the structure and expectations of Native American life.
Talk to someone from a Native American group, either on the phone or through one of their websites. Identify the challenges facing Indians in the twenty-first century.
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Readers familiar with Ira Hayes, the Indian hero of "Iwo Jima," will notice an immediate similarity to Abel. Both Abel and Ira were war heroes who came back home and .became victims of white prejudice and the lack of opportunities for American Indians. While the plot is cast in familiar Anglo-American terms, much of the power of the images and concepts stems from early native-American writers, such as Black Elk, Lame Deer, and others who recorded visions and preserved sacred traditions of the culture. Contemporary literature, such as Cogewea, The Half Blood by Mourning Dove (1927), or The Man Who Kitted the Deer by Frank Waters (1942) recorded the struggle of halfbloods, illegitimate children, and other misplaced American Indians who must discover where they belong.
While much of the cultural material is clearly based in Native American texts, Momaday also owes much to traditional American writers, particularly William Faulkner. From Faulkner, Momaday learned to create a rich style, and to mold the passage of time by tale-telling and memory sharing. Also, like Faulkner, Momaday insists that all his works are part of a larger story. Repeating stories throughout his works establishes a sense of continuity and reveals their autobiographical source. Momaday has also established a strong example for many other Native American writers, identifying many themes accepted as common to native-American experience, and exhibiting the...
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Momaday sees his works as parts of one overall story, similar to Faulkner's portrayal of Yoknapatawpha County. In The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), he tells of a pilgrimage to his grandmother's grave and of his connection to the Kiowas and the myth of the bear-boy. In House Made of Dawn, Tosamah repeats this, with significant differences, as his second sermon which ends "The Priest of the Sun" chapter. The mixture of Tosamah's words with Momaday's make John Big Bluff seem ironic, in light of his attitude toward the traditional. Yet the end of the chapter points out to the reader where Abel will go — to his own Rainy Mountain.
Unlike House Made of Dawn (1969) with its obvious involvement with social concerns, The Way to Rainy Mountain's greatest appeal is its treatment of the personal and spiritual aspects of human life. The narrative began as The Journey of Tai-me, a collection of Kiowa oral myths and legends, woven into a relatively complex and thematically diverse work. Reworked and published as The Way to Rainy Mountain, the text retains the journey motif. This journey realistically depicts the landscape and landmarks, such as the Big Dipper, meadows, and pronghorn antelope encountered on the way to Devil's Mountain in Wyoming. The journey also reveals Momaday's growing awareness of relationships and connections to the world. Spiders, his grandfather Mammedaty, visions, and bay horses all become emblematic as...
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Kay Bonetti taped an interview with Momaday in 1983, recorded in his home in Tucson ("N. Scott Momaday"). A second recording ("N. Scott Momaday Reads") captures him reading excerpts from House Made of Dawn, The Names (1976), his poems "The Gourd Dancer," and "Tsoai," revealing his deep and lyrical voice. Both recordings are available through American Audio Prose Library. Also, House Made of Dawn was made into a motion picture which used an American Indian Him crew and cast.
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House Made of Dawnwas adapted as a film by Richardson Morse in 1987. It starred Larry Littlebird, Judith Doty and John Saxon. The screenplay was written by N. Scott Momaday and Morse. It was released straight to videocassette by New Line Cinema in 1996.
The unabridged audio book of the novel, read by Scott Forbes, is available from Books On Tape, Inc. It was recorded in 1976.
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What Do I Read Next?
One of Momaday's best-known works is The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), his history of the last days of the Kiowa people.
Momaday's childhood on the Jemez reservation and at Shiprock in the Navajo country is hauntingly recounted in The Names, published in 1976. More than a memoir, it blends genealogy and folklore with personal reminiscences.
Like Abel, the protagonist of the novel Ceremony (1977) is also a Native American returning home after service in World War II. It was written by Leslie Marmon Silko, one of the most respected contemporary Native American novelists.
James Welch is a Native American novelist who writes about the American West. His first book, Winter in the Blood (1974), is set in the early 1970s.
A summary of Indian perspectives can be gathered from Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present, 1492-1992 (1991), edited by Peter Nabokov and published by Penguin.
Published in 1970, Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was an international bestseller. Subtitled "An Indian History of the American West," it presents an interesting, readable story.
Among memoirs by Native Americans, Black Elk Speaks holds a place of high esteem. Written by poet and novelist John G. Neihardt in 1932, it was neglected until psychologist Carl Jung's interest sparked a revised edition in the 1950s.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bennett, John Z., review, in Western American Literature, Volume V, Number 1, Spring, 1970, p. 69.
Meredith, Howard, "N. Scott Momaday: A Man of Words," in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 405-07.
Schubnell, Matthias, "The Identity of Crisis: House Made of Dawn," in N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, University of Oklahoma Press, 1985, pp. 109-39
Smith, William James, review, in Commonweal, Vol LXXXVE, September 20, 1968.
Sprague, Marshall, "Anglos and Indians," in The New York Times Book Review, June 9, 1968.
Willard Hylton, Marion, "On a Trail of Pollen: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in Critique, Vol XIV, No. 2,1972.
Mayhill, Mildred, The Kiowas, University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.
Mayhill presents a well-documented sociological account of the Kiowa people.
Nelson, Robert M., The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction, Lang Publishers, 1993.
Examines works by Momaday, Silko, and Welch.
Nelson Waniek, Marilyn, "The Power of Language in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in Minority Voices, Vol. 4, No 1, 1980, pp 23-8.
Addresses the importance of language in the novel.
Scarberry-Garcia, Susan, Landmarks of Healing: A Study of House Made...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bevis, William. “American Indian Novels: Homing In.” In Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Discusses House Made of Dawn alongside other important American Indian texts.
Coltelli, Laura. Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. An interview with Momaday concerning his fiction and the issues informing it. Especially useful in understanding the ideas at work in House Made of Dawn.
Momaday, N. Scott. “The Man Made of Words.” In The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature, edited by Geary Hobson. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1980.
Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. Places House Made of Dawn in relation to other novels by American Indians. Provides an insightful reading of the novel and its characters.
Scarberry-Garcia, Susan. Landmarks of Healing: A Study of “House Made of Dawn.” Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990. A book-length study of the Navajo and Jemez Pueblo religious and cultural symbols that shape the novel. Important for...
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