The Man Made of Words

by N. Scott Momaday

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

For the European who came from a community of congestion and confinement, the West was beyond dreaming; it must have inspired him to formulate an idea of the infinite. There he could walk through geologic time; he could see into eternity. He was surely bewildered, wary, afraid. The landscape was anomalously beautiful and hostile. It was desolate and unforgiving, and yet it was a world of paradisal possibility. Above all, it was wild, definitively wild. And it was inhabited by people who were to him altogether alien and inscrutable, who were essentially dangerous and deceptive, often invisible, who were savage and unholy—and who were perfectly at home. (91)

Momaday, a native of the West, describes it as an outsider would see it. With extraordinary empathy, he captures the experience of a European immigrant setting foot for the first time on this land of terrifying, yet thrilling, possibilities. In addition, he places the Native people squarely where they belong: at the heart, and in the midst, of the land itself.

Now when I hear Kiowa spoken—mostly by the older people who are passing away—it is to me very good. The meaning most often escapes me, but the sound is like a warm wind that arises from my childhood. It is the music of memory. I have come to know that much of the power and magic and beauty of words consist not in meaning but in sound. Storytellers, actors, and children know this too. (7)

It is at once tragic and beautiful that Momaday cannot clearly understand the language of his people. On the other hand, perhaps it is all the more beautiful for that reason. Whether or not the words are clear, Momaday has a special connection to the Kiowa language. The sound of it alone is enough to inspire a story, or a memory. Indeed, this is the basis of all spoken language—sound.

Black Elk is a storyteller. I use that term advisedly. In the oral tradition the storyteller is he who takes it upon himself to speak formally, as Black Elk does in this case. He assumes responsibility for his words, for what is created at the level of his human voice. He runs the risk of language, and language is full of risk—it might miscarry, or it might be abused in one or more of a thousand ways. His function is essentially creative, inasmuch as language is essentially creative. He creates himself, and his listeners, through the power of his perception, his imagination, his expression. He realizes the power and beauty of language; he believes in the efficacy of words. He is a holy man; his function is sacred. (23)

Many times in this collection of essays and stories, Momaday returns to the idea of storytelling as a sacred act. Humans are born storytellers, and indeed, this is one of the ways we are able to speak truth to one another. This passage also illuminates the value of oral language. Once a word is spoken, it has power. Black Elk was unable to write, but he nevertheless wove his story expertly, having thought it through and chosen each word with care. He did this because the power and value of language was clear to him. A member of the oral tradition, words were never wasted, and every word itself had precisely the meaning he wanted. This clarity of language and purpose characterizes Native storytelling—and, in turn, Native American people.

Events take place . How many times have I used this expression, and how often have I stopped to think what it means? Events do indeed take place;...

(This entire section contains 735 words.)

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they bear meaning in relation to the things around them. And I, too, happen to take place, each day of my life, in my environment. I exist in a landscape, and my existence is indivisible with the land. (187)

Place and the land are of deep importance to Momaday. A whole section of his book is devoted to recollections of and reflections on various places he has been: Russia, Bavaria, Spain, New Mexico, and so on. Beyond that, he realizes that he cannot exist if not in a particular space. The land and he are one entity—so much so that the land is inseparable from him, and both create together a sacred space. Momaday forces us to confront the realities of our own existence. We only exist in the place where we are.




Critical Essays