In the Prologue, Momaday says that “In one sense, then, the way to Rainy Mountain is preeminently the history of an idea, man’s idea of himself, and it has old and essential being in language.” What does the author mean?

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Momaday is suggesting that the story his book will tell is not, in any conventional sense, a “history” of the Kiowa, but instead a kind of spiritual history. The “idea” he is giving the history of is the idea of cultural identity. In the case of the Kiowa, this history...

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Momaday is suggesting that the story his book will tell is not, in any conventional sense, a “history” of the Kiowa, but instead a kind of spiritual history. The “idea” he is giving the history of is the idea of cultural identity. In the case of the Kiowa, this history involves certain real events, like their migration into the Plains and their eventual surrender, but it also involves their mythic and spiritual history (such as their entrance into the world through a hollow log, or the coming of their god/protector Tai-me).

The other part of his statement has to do with language and the oral tradition through which this history has been preserved. Momaday says the verbal tradition that has preserved this tradition has “deteriorated,” so part of the “history“ he is telling is necessarily the history of that deterioration. Part of the purpose of his book is to recreate, as best he can from this oral tradition, the essential truth of the Kiowa that “miraculously” has been preserved.

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Momaday is following the geographical path of his ancestors, the Kiowa people, from western Montana and northwestern Wyoming and to the east, to the Black Hills of South Dakota; then south to the area near Rainy Mountain in southwestern Oklahoma. As he traces their migration on land, he also traces their history and culture. He comes to understand how the Kiowa define themselves and place themselves on the American plains and in the realm of the greater universe. Since his grandmother was his own last living link to the native traditions of the past, Momaday has only the Kiowa legends and stories to guide him. Theirs is an oral tradition, as the tales were passed down through the generations by shamans and storytellers. So while the Kiowa journey is both historical and geographical, it is also oral and linguistic. Momaday does his best to capture all of it here.

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Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain traces the history of the Kiowa tribe, of which Momaday is a member. In the prologue of the book, Momaday spends the majority of the time explaining to the reader why he wanted to write this text and what he hopes to accomplish in doing so.

The above referenced quote comes in a passage in which Momaday discusses the purpose of telling the Kiowa migration story. The text will trace how the Kiowa tribe eventually settled in and around Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma, which is what the title of the text refers to and what this quote implies.

Momaday means that to explain how the Kiowa arrived at this location, he must explain what the Kiowa believed about themselves as a people. When he says it has essential “being in language,” he means that this idea—collective self-conception—is older than the written word but also that the Kiowa’a self-conception is present in the oral tradition that was passed down through the generations. As a result, the only way Momaday can accurately tell the Kiowa story is to examine the somewhat limited, fragmented oral traditions of his culture.

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In a very ethereal way, Momaday is trying to explain his book to you in one sentence. That is what Momaday is doing within this quotation. Note, however, that he does use the prepositional phrase "in one sense," so know that this is not the only way to look at it; however, this is the way Momaday suggests. Momaday says that this book (as well as the metaphor of "the way" to Rainy Mountain) is a history of man's own "idea of himself." In other words, Momaday's book explores the Kiowa tribe as a representation of humanity through its myth, its history, and its personal stories. The book's organization adds to this idea.  In this quotation you provide, Momaday is admitting that any tribe or people could be revealed in this way, but he chooses to reveal the myth and history and anecdotes of the Kiowa tribe. Further, we should also mention why Momaday mentions the "old and essential being in language." Any tribe (or people) has its "being in language" because it is a language that delineates one group of people from another. 

A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things.

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