N. Scott Momaday Biography

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!”


(Masterpieces of American Literature)
ph_0111226274-Momaday.jpg N. Scott Momaday Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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,...

(The entire section is 1352 words.)

N. Scott Momaday Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Six months after his birth in February, 1934, Navarre Scott Momaday was solemnly given the Kiowa name Tsoai-talee (Rock-Tree Boy) by Pohd-lohk, his step-grandfather. A year later, the Momadays moved from Oklahoma to New Mexico, and from 1936 to 1943, they lived in various places on the Navajo reservation: Shiprock, New Mexico, and Tuba City and Chinle, Arizona. Although there were stays in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Louisiana, the reservation was home. After three years near the Army Air Base at Hobbs, New Mexico, the family moved in 1946 to the pueblo of Jemez, New Mexico, where Momaday’s parents taught in the day school. Momaday lived at Jemez until his last year of high school, when he attended Augusta Military School in Virginia, from which he graduated in 1952.

Studies occupied the next eleven years. After attending the University of New Mexico and Virginia Law School, Momaday graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1958. Following a year of teaching at Dulce, on the Apache reservation, he entered Stanford University as a creative writing fellow. He received his Ph.D. degree in 1963, and in the following years taught at the University of California in Santa Barbara and in Berkeley, at Stanford, at New Mexico State University, and at the University of Arizona. It was in 1965, after the death of his grandmother, that Momaday made the journey north from Oklahoma to South Dakota that was to inspire The Way to Rainy Mountain. Shortly afterward, a Guggenheim award enabled him to spend a year at Amherst, Massachusetts, where he studied the work of Emily Dickinson. In 1969, the Gourd Dance Society of the Kiowas, to which his father had belonged, initiated Momaday as a member. Interrupting his years of teaching at American universities, Momaday spent several months in Moscow in 1975 as the first Fulbright lecturer in American literature in the Soviet Union. Momaday became a teacher of literature and creative writing at the University of Arizona, living in Tucson with his wife and daughters.

N. Scott Momaday Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Among the most widely read and studied Native American authors, N. Scott Momaday manifests, in his writings, a keen awareness of the importance of self-definition in literature and life. From 1936 onward, his family moved from place to place in the Southwest, eventually settling in Albuquerque, where Momaday attended high school. He entered the University of New Mexico in 1954 and later studied poetry at Stanford University. In 1963, he received his doctorate in English and since then has held teaching jobs at various Southwestern universities.

In a semiautobiographical work, The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday writes that identity is “the history of an idea, man’s idea of himself, and it has old and essential being in language.” Momaday defines his characters in terms of their use or abuse of language; usually his characters find themselves relearning how to speak while they learn about themselves. Even the title of one of Momaday’s essays, “The Man Made of Words,” indicates his contention that identity is shaped by language. “Only when he is embodied in an idea,” Momaday writes, “and the idea is realized in language, can man take possession of himself.”

The forces that shape language—culture and landscape—are also crucial in Momaday’s works. To Russell Martin, Western writing is concerned with the harsh realities of the frontier that “could carve lives that were as lean and straight as whittled sticks.” This harsh landscape is present in Momaday’s work also, but he has a heartfelt attachment to it. Having a spiritual investment in a place, in Momaday’s writing, helps a person gain self-knowledge. To an extent, issues of identity were important to Momaday as well. Son of a Kiowa father and a Cherokee mother, Momaday belonged fully to neither culture. Furthermore, much of his early childhood was spent on a Navajo reservation, where his father worked, and he grew up consciously alienated from the surrounding culture.

To combat rootlessness, the imagination and its expression in language is essential. “What sustains” the artist, he writes in The Ancient Child “is the satisfaction . . . of having created a few incomparable things—landscapes, waters, birds, and beasts.” Writing about the efforts of various people to maintain traditional culture in the face of the modern world, Momaday occupies a central place in the American literary landscape.

N. Scott Momaday Biography

(Critical Survey of Native American Literature)

Author Profile

The child of a Kiowa father and a Cherokee mother, N. Scott Momaday (the N. is for Novarre) grew up in several different Indian communities. In the 1930’s, he moved with his family from rural Oklahoma to Navajo country in New Mexico and Arizona. Then, in 1946, when Momaday was twelve years old, his parents began teaching at Jemez Pueblo, where Momaday spent his adolescence. Thus, Momaday grew up an Indian child in Indian communities but was never fully integrated into those communities. Such a fragmented experience, common among contemporary Indians, has served as the focus of much of Momaday’s writing.

After attending the University of New Mexico, Momaday received a Ph.D. in American literature from Stanford University in 1963 and embarked on a distinguished career as a professor and writer. In 1969, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn (1968). His other publications include an autobiography, The Names: A Memoir (1976); a book of poetry, The Gourd Dancer (1976), illustrated with Momaday’s own sketches; and Ancient Child (1989).

Momaday’s works have often explored the power of names and the stories that accompany them. Many twentieth century Indian writers have struggled to reconcile written literature with oral storytelling, but Momaday was one of the first Indian authors to express a concern with oral tradition and storytelling by experimenting with the structure of his prose. Momaday’s disjointed narratives and his juxtaposition of prose, poetry, photographs, and sketches have exerted a powerful influence on many Indian authors.


Isernhagen, Hartwig. Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. The interviews that are the basis of this book were conducted in 1994. Isernhagen questions the authors about their roles as creators, critics, and mentors.


(The entire section is 827 words.)

N. Scott Momaday Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Navarre Scott Momaday (MAHM-uh-day) is perhaps the foremost writer of American Indian poetry, fiction, and historical autobiography. Of predominantly Kiowa ancestry, he was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, on February 27, 1934, to Alfred Morris and Mayme Natachee Scott Momaday. His father, an art teacher and painter, illustrated Momaday’s celebrated work The Way to Rainy Mountain. His mother was also a teacher, as well as a writer.

After living among the Kiowas on a family farm in Oklahoma, Momaday came of age in New Mexico, where his parents worked with the Jemez Indians in the state’s high mountain country. The influence of imaginative, talented parents led Momaday on the path to a fine formal education....

(The entire section is 902 words.)

N. Scott Momaday Biography

(Novels for Students)

Momaday was born on the Kiowa Reservation in Lawton, Oklahoma, on February 27, 1934. His father, Alfred Morris, was an artist and teacher; in...

(The entire section is 253 words.)

N. Scott Momaday Biography

(Poetry for Students)

N. Scott Momaday was born in 1934 in Lawton, Oklahoma, to Alfred Morris Momaday, a Kiowa Indian, and Mayme Natachee Scott, who was part...

(The entire section is 237 words.)