The Man Made of Words

by N. Scott Momaday

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Man Made of Words by N. Scott Momaday is structured in three parts. Each part is a collection of essays, stories, and passages that have some special meaning for the author.

Part 1: The Man Made of Words

Part 1 compromises the largest part of Momaday’s text. It is made up of stories, essays, and reflections on various topics. However, they all share the theme of the interactions of language and identity, and the section offers multiple perspectives on the value of stories.

In several essays, Momaday reflects on the distinct differences between oral and written language traditions. In the Native American oral tradition, words are rare and precious—and thus powerful. Silence has equal power. In contrast, the Western tradition of written language actually cheapens words, overusing them to the extent that they lose their true meaning.

Other essays explore the unique connection between Native Americans and the natural world. They have a distinct appreciation of beauty in nature and a spiritual relationship to the land. Momaday argues that Native and white people perceive the world differently. He illustrates this in various ways, such as exploring the white attempt to generalize all Native Americans into one category. He also provides historical context, imagining the thoughts of white European settlers as they travel into the American West. American morality has evolved in relation to its views of Native Americans, Momaday points out, but still lacks true understanding. This cultural disparity is expressed through differences in views of language. Clarity of speech matters in the Native tradition, whereas the convoluted language of diplomacy is valued by white culture.

Finally, Momaday offers his thoughts on some significant historical characters. These include Custer, who appreciated the beauty of the land even as he massacred the Cheyenne people. In contrast, Momaday puts himself into the shoes of Plenty Horses, a young Lakota man whose language and culture were stripped from him and who was eventually condemned to live between worlds, welcome in neither. Momaday argues that it is language—and the differences of worldview between oral and written traditions—that leads to a distorted view of the West.

Part 2: Essays in Place

Part 2 is a collection of essays centered on Momaday’s personal travels. For him, words and places come together to create sacred space. He highlights this in the story of a journey to Medicine Wheel in the Bighorn Mountains, where the ancient Kiowa began their migration to the plains. There, he has a true experience of the sacred.

While visiting Europe, Momaday is impressed with the spirituality of the Russian people; the architectural wonders of medieval Regensburg, in Bavaria; and the haunting beauty of Spain’s Alhambra palace. In New Mexico, a land of legends, Momaday walks in the footsteps of the legendary Billy the Kid and reflects on the outlaw’s short and dramatic life. The reader gets the sense that Momaday admires the character of Billy the Kid and finds in him an example of a true Western man. In all the essays, Momaday considers the value of place and how physical place creates its own story.

Part 3: The Storyteller and His Art

Part 3 is a collection of stand-alone stories, each one unique. Most are only one or two pages long. The characters are diverse, and the stories range widely in subject matter. For example, one recounts the work of old man Pohd-lohk, who began a calendar of the Kiowa people beginning in 1833, the date of an impressive meteor shower, and continued to keep it throughout his lifetime. Another story, more personal to the author, reveals an event from Momaday’s childhood in which he bought a dog and loved it instantly, only to have it escape back to its old owner in the night. Other notable characters include an octopus in a tide pool, Tonto (of Lone Ranger fame), a romantic friend, Billy the Kid, and a nun.

Throughout this section, Momaday highlights his belief that story—and the act of storytelling—is of key importance to humanity. Stories reflect us and allow us to fully see ourselves.

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