The 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa Indian, spent much of his youth exploring southwest Native American traditions. Since his parents were teachers at several Native American reservations, the author had the opportunity to live on the Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico and Arizona, where he acquired firsthand a great deal of knowledge about Native American culture. It was the reservation experience that gave Momaday his appreciation for storytelling and the power of the written word, and he became a notable leader in what became known as the “Native American Renaissance.”
Momaday found his immersion into Navajo and other Indian cultures such as Apache and Comanche to be an experience of great influence on his writing career. It was, however, on the Navajo Reservation where his Native American education took place in his formative years. In an interview with Wild West Magazine from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the author stated:
I had the knowledge of several different cultures and a good slice of the Indian world, and I’m sure that influenced my writing. Many of my subjects, of course, are based on the Indian world. So that kind of experience was invaluable to me when I was growing up.
Momaday’s involvement with the Navajo people and their culture and traditions was infused into his writing:
I think every writer puts himself into his work ... when I look back into what I have written, I see my own ideas coming forth in the mouths of some of the characters. That sort of thing is inevitable.
The earliest examples of Native American literature invariably consist of oral traditions passed down for generations as cultural storytelling. However, when Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn was published, although the focus was not Navajo, the spotlight began to shine on Native American literature. Significant interest blossomed from the seeds the author planted. In his subsequent books and poems, much of what he learned from his exposure to Navajo culture and traditions found its way into mainstream literary circles. Much like the exposure of early Native American life in the northeast James Fenimore Cooper gave to Europeans, Momaday sparked greater interest in Native American literature of the southwest.
Momaday’s Navajo Reservation experiences helped to launch his writing career and enabled him to bring Native American Literature to the forefront.