The Man Made of Words

by N. Scott Momaday

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In The Man Made of Words, Momaday provides readers with a collection of prose pieces on a broad range of topics. As he discusses politics, prejudice, art, and travel, several distinct themes emerge.

The Theft of the Sacred

Momaday emphasizes the way in which European settlement has constituted a "theft of the sacred" from Native Americans. While Momaday is more militant in some pieces and more somber in others, a common theme between the pieces gathered here is a recognition of the way in which European colonizers and practices functioned to disrupt Native American ways of being. This was accomplished in several ways, including directly exterminating Native Americans, forcibly uprooting them, and intentionally working to eliminate Native American culture. A notable example of these injustices was the European use of coercive boarding schools, where Native American children were raised away from their own people and indoctrinated with European mores—thus disrupting the passing down of culture and oral traditions across generations.

Words as Sacred

Throughout the collection, Momaday discusses the connection between "the sacred" and "the real," framing modernity as having lost touch with the sacred because it has abandoned "the real." Momaday connects this loss of "the real" to "print culture," the ideas linked to European knowledge systems based in books. Momaday contrasts this with Native American oral traditions, in which "Every word spoken, every word heard, is the utterance of prayer." This idea of the sacredness, reality, and importance of words spoken and heard gives the collection its title and makes clear one of Momaday's priorities as a writer.

Place as Sacred

Momaday emphasizes the importance of place, and many pieces in the collection are reflections on and accounts of the author's travels. He writes of pilgrimages to the homestead where he was born, the migration route of his Kiowa ancestors, the place where he grew up, and sacred sites across the world, including sites in Russia. Through these accounts, it is clear that Momaday places a high spiritual importance on place and sees the sacred as including places of personal significance in his life as well as places of importance to his ancestors and other Native Americans, and that he recognizes traditions of the sacred across the world. This attentiveness to place must be understood in relation to the displacement of Native Americans by European settlers. Further, it is clear that Momaday sees his relationship with the sacred as demanding a commitment to both cultural and ecological preservation, and he frames the ongoing industrial destruction of nature as an attack on the sacred.

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