House Made of Dawn

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

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 sermon, on his grandmother’s life and the magnificent Kiowa culture. The third section of the novel, dated February 20, 1952, is narrated by Ben Benally, a relocated Navajo who has befriended Abel in Los Angeles. Benally’s reverie reflects Abel’s life in Los Angeles: his work in a cardboard carton factory, a problem with a sadistic police officer,...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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 Mesa Chamisa). The race winds along the wagon road for several miles to end in Wolatowa’s Middle. The novel’s prologue, a flash-forward, shows Abel running in the Winter Race, through snow that covers the dunes, through cold rain that turns the juniper...

(The entire section is 703 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Postwar Reservation

As with many other minority groups in America, Native American populations became more connected...

(The entire section is 796 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View

In this novel, Momaday often shifts from one point of view to another; as a result, it is not always clear...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Despite the novel's initial popular appeal as a "protest novel" against the discrimination and degradation of native Americans, and the...

(The entire section is 197 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

Late 1940s: After Europe is decimated as a result of World War II, America becomes an economic superpower, creating a thriving economy...

(The entire section is 259 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Investigate the tribal customs of Native Americans from different parts of the United States, such as the northern or southeastern regions of...

(The entire section is 170 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Readers familiar with Ira Hayes, the Indian hero of "Iwo Jima," will notice an immediate similarity to Abel. Both Abel and Ira were war...

(The entire section is 239 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Momaday sees his works as parts of one overall story, similar to Faulkner's portrayal of Yoknapatawpha County. In The Way to Rainy...

(The entire section is 743 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Kay Bonetti taped an interview with Momaday in 1983, recorded in his home in Tucson ("N. Scott Momaday"). A second recording ("N. Scott...

(The entire section is 77 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

House Made of Dawnwas adapted as a film by Richardson Morse in 1987. It starred Larry Littlebird, Judith Doty and John Saxon. The...

(The entire section is 64 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Bennett, John Z., review, in Western American Literature, Volume V, Number 1, Spring, 1970, p. 69.


(The entire section is 286 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 entire section is 291 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

One of Momaday's best-known works is The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), his history of the last days of the Kiowa people.


(The entire section is 214 words.)