N. Scott Momaday Biography
N. Scott Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn was the first Native American book to break into mainstream American literature. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969. Momaday began his life on a Kiowa reservation and was additionally exposed to the cultures of the Navajo, Apache, and Pueblo Indians because his parents were teachers on various reservations. After writing his first novel, he began teaching at the University of California at Berkeley and designed a graduate program in American Indian studies. He went on to write several collections of stories and poems as well as a play. His later books feature his own illustrations. All of his work focuses on Native American literature and mythology.
Facts and Trivia
- For his doctoral dissertation, Momaday edited and annotated the complete works of American poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. Momaday had always been interested in poetry, and this was a continuation of that interest.
- In 1969, Momaday was asked to join the Gourd Dance Society, an ancient Kiowa organization.
- Momaday has been featured in several documentary films, including Ken Burns’s The West, Last Stand at Little Big Horn, and Remembered Earth: New Mexico’s High Desert.
- Momaday is the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma and was awarded the 2007 National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush.
- Momaday’s grandfather fought at the battle of Little Big Horn and said, “Custer looked whiter than ever!”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1352
An award-winning poet, novelist, autobiographer, and scriptwriter, Momaday has concentrated his literary attention on that which he holds closest to his heart: the southwestern landscape, his American Indian heritage, artistic endeavor, and a synthesis of cultures. The minute detail of his passages on human and nonhuman facets of nature is masterful. His reverence for nature and his insistence that all humankind must recognize its responsibility to heal the physical and spiritual earth drive his works. He argues in varied ways that humans must first balance themselves in relation to their universe. A pioneer in creating new means through which to share Native American oral tradition, Momaday reshapes conventional written forms to serve his ends.
Born in the Kiowa and Comanche Indian Hospital, Momaday was registered as having seven-eighths Indian blood (with the remaining one-eighth attributable to pioneer ancestry); his name was registered as Novarro Scotte Mammedaty, born to Mayme Scott (Natachee) and Alfred Morris (Huan-toa) Mammedaty. It was Momaday’s father who simplified the surname to its current spelling.
American Indians believe that the act of naming has the special significance of bringing the named one into existence and helping to chart his or her life course. Momaday has been granted the gifts of three separate namings. At six months of age, he was given his first Indian name by Pohd-lohk, stepfather of Mammedaty, Momaday’s grandfather, who died of Bright’s disease two years before Momaday was born. Devil’s Tower (Tsoai), Wyoming, according to Kiowa oral tradition a sacred site of mystical power, was the basis by which he was named Tsoai-talee (Rock Tree Boy) by the old man. Before Momaday was five, a Sioux elder gave him his second Indian name, Wanbli Wanjila (Eagle Alone). Later in his life he received yet a third name, Tso-Toh-Haw (Kiowa for Red Mountain).
Momaday’s mother was a teacher and a writer; his father, a teacher and an artist. Throughout Momaday’s early years, his mother shared her love of English literature with him. Although his parents raised him to view English as his first language, they also encouraged him to immerse himself in the tribal cultures of the reservations on which they lived. Consequently, Momaday sees his childhood as an enriching experience. He considers his early formal education, however, including attendance at several Catholic schools, as unremarkable and substandard. At twelve, Momaday moved with his parents to Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, which remained his home until his senior year in high school. For his graduation year, Momaday decided to seek a more rigorous education at Augusta Military School, Virginia, in preparation for college.
In 1958, Momaday was awarded his A.B. in English from the University of New Mexico. Although he thinks of himself primarily as a poet, he has stated that until his graduate studies at Stanford University he knew little about classical poetic perspectives; he received his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1963. There, Momaday credits Yvor Winters, a professor and a friend, with having a profound influence upon his writing and, in fact, suggesting that he draw on the storytelling traditions of his ancestry to find his artistic voice. In addition to his 1959 Stanford University creative writing fellowship, in 1962 Momaday won the Academy of American Poets prize for his syllabic poem “The Bear.” The images and associations of that poem (influenced by William Faulkner’s “The Bear”) recur throughout his canon.
Having written his doctoral dissertation on the poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, Momaday served as editor for the 1965 Oxford University Press edition of The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. Since that time, the bulk of Momaday’s prose and poetry has reflected both his Native American heritage and the Southwestern landscape.
After holding an assistant professorship for two years at the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California, Momaday was awarded a 1966-1967 Guggenheim Fellowship. During this time, he wrote and published a limited edition of Kiowa folklore, The Journey of Tai-me (1967). A revised edition, with illustrations by his artist father, appeared in 1969 under the title The Way to Rainy Mountain. Describing a personal quest inspired by the death of his grandmother, Aho, Momaday’s chronicle of Kiowa tribal history from emergence to demise coalesces racial memory, legend, and personal experience into a life-giving renewal of Kiowa spirituality.
Momaday has stated that for those few years he focused on prose writing, setting aside his poetry. One of the results was the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn (1968), his first published novel, written intermittently over a period of two years. House Made of Dawn is a nonchronological presentation of human growth through the main character’s isolation and alienation and his ultimate healing restoration.
Momaday regards teaching creative writing as an ideal profession for a writer because of the flexible college schedule that means time for writing, for example four or five hours in the early morning, followed by afternoon classes. Despite being a self-proclaimed unhurried writer, during his years at Stanford University (from 1973 to 1982) as a full professor, Momaday published three major works as well as articles for periodicals. He also traveled to Russia for a stint teaching at Moscow State University.
The early to mid-1970’s marked Momaday’s return to poetry and art as forms of expression. His first two publications following The Way to Rainy Mountain were collections of his poetry, Angle of Geese, and Other Poems (1974) and The Gourd Dancer (1976), which he illustrated himself. As an artist, Momaday has sketched in both graphite and pen-and-ink. He has also worked in acrylic and in watercolor. For Momaday, the spontaneous process of creating visual pieces is in direct counterpoint to the intense deliberation with which he writes.
Published in 1976 and labeled autobiography, The Names: A Memoir contains far more than is traditional for that genre. American Indian oral tradition functions in part to perpetuate tribal legend and memory through the telling of its stories. Once the stories have been truly heard, they become part of the listener’s experience. Supplementing his text with pictures from his mother’s family album, Momaday has transformed the tradition into a visual recounting.
Momaday’s profound attachment to the Southwest is clear. Since 1982, he has served as a full professor in the University of Arizona’s English department, a move he has described as coming home again. In 1989, Momaday published The Ancient Child, a novel based upon a Kiowa legend that had long fascinated him, the legend of Devil’s Tower and the boy who becomes a bear. At the same time, Momaday explores the role of art in modern and traditional societies, explores the way in which artistic vision grows, expands, matures, and transmutates. An allusion to Emil Nolde’s painting Sternenwandler, or Wanderer Among the Stars, suggests the novel’s concern with not just an ethnic view of the artist, but a cross-cultural view: those who must look deeply within themselves and dare to experiment with new forms in order to live up to their potential. Through allusions to Norse mythology (“Loki”), Latin etymology, the philosophy of John Locke, and Grace Moon’s 1926 children’s book about Navajo/Pueblo life, Momaday intentionally carries his vision beyond the limitations of ethnocentricity.
He has since written Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story (1994) and a play, The Indolent Boys (1994). The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, and Passages (1998) has spawned much critical discussion of his goals and methods. His In the Bear’s House (1999) combines artwork, verse, and prose in an artistic mix that Momaday has made his own; sets up a philosophical debate between Urset, the original bear, and Yahweh; includes poems about bears (even one on a Moscow subway); and retells the Kiowa story of the boy transformed into a bear while chasing his seven sisters.
Although he has declined to function in an official capacity as a spokesman on Native American issues, Momaday is an active reviewer of topics related to the American Indian. In his storytelling pieces for periodicals, he has also shared such unique personal experiences as his membership in the Gourd Dance Society, the Taimpe, which performs an annual celebration in Oklahoma.
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