An award-winning poet, novelist, autobiographer, and scriptwriter, Momaday has concentrated his literary attention on that which he holds closest to his heart: the southwestern landscape, his American Indian heritage, artistic endeavor, and a synthesis of cultures. The minute detail of his passages on human and nonhuman facets of nature is masterful. His reverence for nature and his insistence that all humankind must recognize its responsibility to heal the physical and spiritual earth drive his works. He argues in varied ways that humans must first balance themselves in relation to their universe. A pioneer in creating new means through which to share Native American oral tradition, Momaday reshapes conventional written forms to serve his ends.
Born in the Kiowa and Comanche Indian Hospital, Momaday was registered as having seven-eighths Indian blood (with the remaining one-eighth attributable to pioneer ancestry); his name was registered as Novarro Scotte Mammedaty, born to Mayme Scott (Natachee) and Alfred Morris (Huan-toa) Mammedaty. It was Momaday’s father who simplified the surname to its current spelling.
American Indians believe that the act of naming has the special significance of bringing the named one into existence and helping to chart his or her life course. Momaday has been granted the gifts of three separate namings. At six months of age, he was given his first Indian name by Pohd-lohk, stepfather of Mammedaty, Momaday’s grandfather, who died of Bright’s disease two years before Momaday was born. Devil’s Tower (Tsoai), Wyoming, according to Kiowa oral tradition a sacred site of mystical power, was the basis by which he was named Tsoai-talee (Rock Tree Boy) by the old man. Before Momaday was five, a Sioux elder gave him his second Indian name, Wanbli Wanjila (Eagle Alone). Later in his life he received yet a third name, Tso-Toh-Haw (Kiowa for Red Mountain).
Momaday’s mother was a teacher and a writer; his father, a teacher and an artist. Throughout Momaday’s early years, his mother shared her love of English literature with him. Although his parents raised him to view English as his first language, they also encouraged him to immerse himself in the tribal cultures of the reservations on which they lived. Consequently, Momaday sees his childhood as an enriching experience. He considers his early formal education, however, including attendance at several Catholic schools, as unremarkable and substandard. At twelve, Momaday moved with his parents to Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, which remained his home until his senior year in high school. For his graduation year, Momaday decided to seek a more rigorous education at Augusta Military School, Virginia, in preparation for college.
In 1958, Momaday was awarded his A.B. in English from the University of New Mexico. Although he thinks of himself primarily as a poet, he has stated that until his graduate studies at Stanford University he knew little about classical poetic perspectives; he received his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1963. There, Momaday credits Yvor Winters, a professor and a friend, with having a profound influence upon his writing and, in fact, suggesting that he draw on the storytelling traditions of his ancestry to find his artistic voice. In addition to his 1959 Stanford University creative writing fellowship,...