N. Scott Momaday

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N. Scott Momaday American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4456

Momaday’s vital identification with the Southwest and with Native American nations (particularly the Kiowa) is consistently reflected in his choice of locations, subject matter, and protagonists. Momaday is unwilling to write about anything that he has not examined and does not know intimately, and his focus is restrained yet powerful. He does not speak Kiowa, but he has made his Kiowa heritage a stepping-stone to understanding broader multicultural experiences. He sees in the mixed blood of his people and their ability to adapt to new situations hope for their survival, not as the Plains warriors of the past but as modern artists, thinkers, and community members with a whole sense of themselves and their place, not only in the Native American world but in the world at large as well. Thus, he regularly draws parallels between world mythologies and gives his stories a texture and a depth that promise more than an ethnic vision.

Momaday has described himself as a “word walker,” a storyteller who uses language on his life’s journey in a way that transcends dimensions. If language is as powerful as Momaday believes, the spoken word can create a new reality, with precision, awareness, and harmony with the rhythms of nature essential to their appropriate expression. For him, words have an integrity that brings insight and vitality. Consequently, Momaday’s distinctive juxtaposition of what may initially appear to be fragmented scenes is actually designed to reveal essences rather than simple chronological sequences. In House Made of Dawn, for example, the shattering of Abel’s body after his beating by Martinez is dramatically reinforced by the abrupt intrusion of prison memories, childhood experiences, and a peyote ceremony.

Such is the Native American concept of “seeing”—to recognize the facet of creation existing on this plane and beyond to its essence as an integral part of the Great Mystery (God). Momaday’s central concern is humankind’s harmonious and awe-filled relationship with all existence. When humankind denies this relationship or responsibility for it, the inevitable results are isolation, alienation, and disintegration. The blindness motif in House Made of Dawn is only one example of the consequences of self-alienation or other forms of alienation.

To Momaday, any separation from nature deteriorates the human spirit. Lack of positive female relationships, disregard for ancestral heritage, and denial of tribal memory can hasten an individual’s, or a culture’s, demise. As a result, Momaday moves repeatedly from crises to vividly detailed descriptions of landscapes, because he believes that an intimate connection with “place” is vital to human awareness and understanding. In The Way to Rainy Mountain, the historical description of an important ceremonial teepee’s destruction by fire is followed by a slow, soothing description of silence and shadow at day’s end.

Light and shadow, sound and silence, circular imagery, water and animal symbolism, and the four directions of the Medicine Wheel recur, thematic and stylistic instruments with which the author heightens his reader’s awareness of the interconnectedness of life. According to American Indian philosophy, the Medicine Wheel reflects the process of life from birth to death. Each direction possesses its own integral characteristics. The healing of Abel’s dawn run at the conclusion of House Made of Dawn exemplifies Momaday’s use of Medicine Wheel symbolism. The color for the East is the red of dawn; its season spring; its spiritual quality understanding; its animal totem the eagle, a representation of a direct connection to the Great Mystery achieved as the result of successful passage through major life crises.

Momaday’s prose writing style is most often described as lyrical. This quality is evidenced in his stress upon the rhythm and sound of his word choices, designed to reflect both the content and the substance of his subject matter. The following brief passage from The Way to Rainy Mountain describes dawn’s stillness: “It is cold and clear and deep like water. It takes hold of you and will not let you go.” The mystical quality of this language deftly projects the author’s sense of wonder and reverence.

Although he has written in traditional iambic form, Momaday’s most compelling poetry is either chant or syllabic rather than metered. A chant, such as “Plain-view: 2,” involves what might appear in print as monotonous repetition; however, when it is read aloud as if to the beat of an Indian ceremonial drum, its impact increases dramatically. Despite the classification of his poetry as experimental, the chant is firmly rooted in Native American oral tradition. Use of parallelism and repetition increases the power of the words. Furthermore, these techniques serve as memory aids for the listeners so that other levels of awareness may be more easily attained.

Syllabic poetry, such as “The Bear,” depends upon a specific pattern of syllables per line, concrete imagery, and most often the use of rhyme. The advantages of this poetic form are that its rhythms are less artificial than a fully metered poem and that the phraseology is less cluttered and more direct. For Momaday, syllabic poetry appears to reflect more accurately his mystical awareness of, and attunement to, the elements of nature.

Even in the most dire of circumstances, such as the demise of the Kiowa tribal identity, Momaday’s Native American vision enables him to surge toward the hope of resurrection and rebirth. One foundation upon which he bases his perception of life is the historical failure of externally imposed restrictions to alter internal value systems. Recognizing the exigency of establishing a tribal/family memory, whether experienced or imagined, is another. The final step that he repeatedly presents in his writing is accepting the responsibility to feel wonder and joy in communion with the “giveaway” that is this universe.

“The Bear”

First published: 1961 (collected in In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991, 1992)

Type of work: Poem

Unrecognized by humans who are out of harmony with nature, the bear is a moral animal in balance with the physical and spiritual world.

“The Bear,” winner of the 1962 Academy of American Poets prize, is a five-stanza syllabic poem. Momaday devotes the first two stanzas to the question of the processes employed by humans to distort their visions of the natural world. The remaining three stanzas depict the bear without distortion, as an integral element in the cycle of life.

Humans consciously pervert their perception of the bear because of their unwillingness to face the potential of what they might have been had they opted for nature rather than civilization. One of the defenses that humans favor is the misuse of their imagination to create artificial barriers rather than accepting what already exists. A second technique is the fragmentation of their capacity to penetrate directly to the essence, so that they can deny it.

In stanza 2, Momaday expresses his incredulity regarding human insensitivity. That anyone could so delude himself as to misperceive the grandeur of the bear, one of nature’s most graced, appears to be beyond the parameters of Momaday’s belief system. To the author, the aged bear is a warrior, a moral animal with courage and dignity.

The absolute stillness of stanza 3 is a striking poetic device to reinforce the bear’s immense power. He dominates without action. Thoughtful and discerning, he does not react. He waits. Mythic healer and destroyer, he simultaneously exists in all times, all dimensions.

The bear’s power in the physical world is now limited by age and injury. The consequent imbalance of his spiritual and his bodily potency is symbolic of his imminent return to the Earth Mother. In the final stanza, the bear has magically disappeared, without apparent sound or movement. Nature, in the form of buzzards, shows her respect.

House Made of Dawn

First published: 1968

Type of work: Novel

An alienated young American Indian undergoes the initiation trials crucial to his reemergence as an actualized human being.

House Made of Dawn, Momaday’s first novel, is divided into four major sections with dated chapter subheadings. In keeping with the Native American sense of history, the narrative is episodic rather than chronological. Thus, Momaday evokes both a sense of timelessness and a concentration on the essence of each experiential piece, gradually forming a healing pattern for Abel, the protagonist, as he moves toward an internal congruence with the earth.

Part 1, “The Longhair,” opens and closes with Francisco, Abel’s grandfather. A drunken Abel arrives by bus and is taken home. The ensuing flashbacks from Abel’s childhood are both pleasant and fearful. His lack of attunement with nature is evidenced when, as a young child, he refuses to accept the moaning of the wind and responds instead with fear. The death of his brother Vidal is juxtaposed with Abel’s coming-of-age rites.

Memories of the Eagle Watchers Society, survivors whom disaster had molded into medicine men, are next to surface. Abel catches a great eagle during the hunt but cries when he thinks of the implications of its captivity. Recognizing that the bird is no longer able to retain its natural state of grace, he strangles it. Once again, death is paralleled to life.

As the novel continues, Father Olquin, a priest fascinated by the perverted journal of Fray Nicholas, whom he sees as a saint, and Mrs. Martin St. John are introduced. Despite her pregnancy, Angela St. John plots to seduce Abel. Neither of these antagonists has made appropriate life accommodations for his or her role. Abel himself is too spiritually fragmented to meld with the rhythms of his horse in the annual rooster-snatching contest. The evil albino, however, retrieves the rooster and beats Abel with it. Thus, Abel is directly confronted with his alienation from himself and others.

Following a description of the unique gifts of animals to the land, Abel begins to reexperience nature’s rhythms but discovers that he is not yet healed enough to have words for a creation song. Nevertheless, he does have the power to bed Angela, who sees in him the bear, thereby starting down her own path of healing, which is reinforced by her craving for the cleansing rain. Abel kills the albino, then kneels beside him to honor the dying process and to soak in the purifying rain.

Part 2, “The Priest of the Sun,” is set in Los Angeles. The Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah opens a serious sermon on the power of the word and how modern people have diluted that power, but midstream he begins to interject his own dilutions in the form of colloquialisms, irony, and blatant humor.

Readers receive their first indication of Abel’s critical physical condition as he lies near the water. He flashes back to his childhood healing by Josie, a medicine woman, and to his trial for the albino’s murder. Still, Abel has no words. Instead, he coughs blood, as an owl, the sharp-sighted night bird, watches.

Remembrance of the dawn runners against evil and death unblocks Abel’s awareness. He recognizes his isolation from self and from creation and, now open for healing, returns to the water. The peyote episode is also curative, as Ben Benally is revealed as healer through his vision of the horses and the “house made of dawn.”

Abel remembers Josie’s nurturance after his mother had died. He realizes that his generalized chronic fear is paralyzing his potential for integration. Flashing back to a time when he had wanted to share the extraordinary sight of twenty-four geese rising in formation from the river, Abel relives Millie’s story of abandonment, isolation, and grief. Then he rises to journey home. As Abel travels, Tosamah reveals the story of the Kiowa migration and the steps that led to their demise. Part 2 concludes with Tosamah’s tale of the sojourn to Rainy Mountain.

Ben Benally narrates part 3, in Los Angeles, after he has given Abel his own coat for Abel’s train ride home. The night before, Ben had created a future in words for the two men so similar in background that they could be brothers. He had privately sung the healing “House Made of Dawn” chant. Considering Abel’s history in Los Angeles, Ben concludes that Abel did not fit. He interacted little with others and appeared withdrawn, lost. After his failed drunken attack on Tosamah, during which the other poker players laughed, Abel had isolated himself totally.

The tension of the foregoing scenes is alleviated by the comic story of the venerable Indian who fell into the river. Moreover, this story bridges to the “Turquoise Woman’s Son” song, a chant to restore wholeness to the incomplete, the means by which Abel prepares for change. Angela’s brief street appearance introduces her to Ben, who will call her while Abel is recovering in the hospital. The symbolism of Abel’s reappearance after three days lends credibility to the theory that he is progressing toward wholeness. Similarly, Angela’s tale of the bear and the maiden represents her healing connection to the Earth Mother.

Part 4, “The Dawn Runner,” in Walatowa (which means Village of the Bear), opens as Abel returns to his dying grandfather. After spending two days in a drunken stupor, Abel acknowledges the chronic state of his own illness. Even though he wants to speak to his grandfather, once again he has no words. Francisco, however, does. Transmission of his own honorable experiences on the bear hunt empowers Abel.

After his grandfather dies, Abel prepares him for burial and notifies Father Olquin. Although the priest has almost deluded himself into believing that he has successfully adapted to the Indian culture surrounding him, his protestations of understanding ring false. In fact, Father Olquin’s capacity for self-deception has increased. Preparing for his own dawn run to wholeness, Abel rubs his upper body with ashes. Then, as dawn strikes the horizon, he runs beyond his own pain, beyond evil, beyond death. By repeating the words of Ben’s healing song, Abel indicates his acceptance of integration with nature.

The Way to Rainy Mountain

First published: 1969

Type of work: History and folklore

Momaday recounts Kiowa legend and history from tribal memory.

The Way to Rainy Mountain, illustrated by Al Momaday, is both a eulogy for the demise of an active tribal identity and a celebration of the potential for its perpetuity in individual tribal consciousness. Divided into three major parts, “The Setting Out,” “The Going On,” and the “Closing In,” the text has twenty-four numbered sections.

Each section is also separated into three passages, clearly delineated by three unique typescripts. Until section 20, the first passage is a translation of Kiowa myth, the second concerns Kiowa history, and the third is written from the author’s own experience. (Momaday’s sources for the first two excerpts originate in both familial and tribal heritage.) A gradual composite begins to form as the author claims the elements for his own mythic heritage.

The book both begins and ends with a poem. The introductory poem, “Headwater,” is a lyric description of the Kiowa emergence into the world. The Kiowa became what they dreamed. They were what they saw. Coming down from the mountains, never an agrarian people, the tribe adapted to its new environment as nomadic warriors and horsemen. Although they learned quickly from the Crow and were befriended by Tai-me, who became the focal point of their Sun Dance culture, the Kiowa did not long flourish. Tribal division and a series of disasters in the 1800’s decimated the tribe. A meteor shower was taken to symbolize the destruction of the old ways. Epidemics raged. The buffalo and the Kiowa horses were massacred. Their slow surrender to the soldiers at Fort Sill was spiritually devastating to tribal consciousness.

The myth of the arrowmaker in section 13 is a recurrent theme in Momaday’s writing. Artistry and precision are aesthetically essential to an appropriate balance with nature. They are also essential to survival. Because the arrowmaker is a craftsman, he knows that his arrow will fly true. His stalking awareness (as much a part of the Native American tradition as is dreaming) alerts him to an alien presence. Taking “right action” and moving cautiously, the arrowmaker allows the stranger the opportunity to declare his intentions. When the stranger does not, he becomes the enemy. Momaday uses ambiguity to heighten curiosity, and the anonymity of this fallen presence is intriguing.

The warrior society of section 3 illustrates Momaday’s emphasis upon mastery and right action. If an individual is attuned to both self and surroundings, self-aware but not self-preoccupied, then his or her behaviors will be effortless and true. The dog that leads the warriors is not as attuned to his own nature as is the dreamer who counsels him simply to be a dog.

The concluding poem, “Rainy Mountain Cemetery,” eulogizes the ancient ones who have traveled to dimensions beyond this earthly existence. That they had survived is not the issue; those left behind blend the ancestral memories with their personal identities in order to preserve the collective tribal consciousness.

The Names: A Memoir

First published: 1976

Type of work: Autobiography

A narrated account of the writer’s experiences, both actual and metaphysical.

The Names: A Memoir differs from the traditional autobiographical account in both its approach and its subject matter. Again, Momaday has structured his writing to reflect the essence rather than the chronology. Across a cultural continuum of his and own and his ancestors’ experiences, Momaday weaves imaginative re-creations.

Naming is a process by which one identifies and reinforces predominant characteristics of a situation or an individual. In this memoir, Momaday sustains a mythic familial and tribal consciousness by naming the significant events that shape their distinctive spirit. For Momaday, active participation in a life experience does not necessarily imply that he is the protagonist in that event. He adheres to the Native American beliefs in the timelessness of the universe and the vital union of the physical and the spiritual worlds.

Therefore, Momaday’s memoir serves two purposes. First, his assimilation of the collective memory through his contribution as a listener in the oral tradition perpetuates the heritage of his people. Second, his sharing of this heritage by creating an avenue to express oral traditions through the written word increases the tribe. His memories become the reader’s memories.

As Momaday studies a picture of Mammedaty, the grandfather who died two years before the author was born, Momaday experiences with full sensory impact the great Sun Dance giveaway in which a young boy joyfully led his black horse into the circle for Mammedaty. The author describes the feel of his own hands upon the horse. In the time-ridden physical universe, this event is an impossibility; in dimensions of the metaphysical universe, it is a reality.

Employing visual symbolism as a catalyst to shifting levels of awareness is a technique crucial to Momaday’s potency. Minute detail of landscapes, animal behaviors, and characteristics of the aged in a synesthetic presentation of his emotional response evoke like awarenesses in his readers. The genealogy of his family nurtures in others their own histories.

Directly and succinctly, Momaday reaffirms the timelessness of his universe with the statement, “Notions of the past and future are essentially notions of the present.” Similarly, family trees are mirrors rather than extensions of an individual. Momaday then names the idea that he is defining himself, thereby giving physical existence to the process. The subsequent flow of his stream-of-consciousness musings is uninterrupted by punctuation. His paragraphing confirms that the only boundaries he places upon his creation of self are those of ideas.

In the epilogue, Momaday closes the metaphysical circle of his Kiowa identity with his return to the hollow log from which the Kiowa entered this world.

The Ancient Child

First published: 1989

Type of work: Novel

A commercially successful Kiowa painter must discover his familial and tribal heritage in order to evolve as an artist and as a human being.

The title The Ancient Child refers to the Kiowa creation story of a boy who, while chasing his seven sisters, turns into a bear. Frightened, they climb a giant tree and become the constellation the Seven Sisters. The boy/bear pursues but cannot climb so high. His slide back down the tree leaves claw marks that, when the tree falls and its clawed trunk petrifies, appear as the slashes on the Devil’s Tower, Tsoai-talee. Tsoai-talee is also Momaday’s Kiowa name, so he is connected to both sacred land and bear power. Within the context of the story, his alter ego Locke “Loki” Setman, or Set, can find inner peace only if he, like the boy of the myth, finds his spirit identity and is transformed by wrestling with the bear within him, The creation story is connected with another ancient tale of a male child who mysteriously appears in a village; no one knows who he is, but in their memories he is transmuted into a bear cub so that villagers can comfort themselves with an identity that makes sense of their failure to otherwise identify him. Likewise Locke Setman, whose name means Walking Bear or Bear Above, is unknown to the Native Americans whom he encounters in Navajo areas and must become “Bear” in order to gain his place and his native identity. Thus, ancient and modern merge and the stories of the past recur in new forms.

Locke Setman’s parents died during his childhood, so he has been cut off from family and tribal land. He is a highly successful San Francisco painter whose agent is pushing his art in Europe and arranging showings in Paris, with the condition that Setman continue to paint as he had done in the past. However, as an artist, Setman is evolving into a better artist, one whose works may well be much less commercially successful but will enable Setman to experiment artistically, stretch his vision, and discover his artistic identity. When he goes to his Grandmother Kopemah’s funeral (she remembered the last Sun Dance), he meets a beautiful young relative, Grey, who has learned medicine woman ways from his grandmother. She appears to him in different, disturbing forms that puzzle and intrigue him, and before he leaves, she passes to him a medicine bundle containing powerful bear parts and crystals. They work on him mysteriously until he turns sick and violent, and his present mistress, who realizes that he cannot love her until he discovers his own inner self, brings him to Grey.

Grey takes him to Navajo territory, where contact with the land helps restore his inner peace, and, with the aid of powerful Navajo women, he recovers a sense of manhood and of self that he did not know he was missing. He marries Grey and impregnates her, and she gives up her youthful time projections of being Billy the Kid’s lover and inspiration; instead, she focuses on the reality of marriage to a modern man with ancient powers. Setman’s art evolves as he is gradually transformed into the Bear of Kiowa myth, “a mythic embodiment of the wilderness.”

There are clearly autobiographical elements at work here, as Momaday illustrates his own evolution into an expressionist artist through the growth of Setman, hence the artistic focus of the book headings: “Planes,” “Lines,” “Shapes,” and “Shadows.”

In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991

First published: 1992

Type of work: Poetry and short stories

The title, from related poems entitled “In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields,” recalls the spirit world, the Sun Dance, the warrior tradition, and the heart of Kiowa belief and culture.

This collection contains four main sections, the first twenty-nine previously published works (including the poems “The Bear,” “The Angle of Geese,” and “The Gourd Dancer”) and the last twenty-seven new poems. The middle sections are “The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid” (a set of verses written by the nineteen-year-old Navajo-Kiowa shaman named Grey in The Ancient Child) and the shield poems.

Momaday contrasts death in nature with mainstream ideas of death in “Angle of Geese,” pays homage to his grandfather and the traditions by which he lived in “The Gourd Dancer,” and explores the nature of myth in the Billy the Kid poems. A New Mexico legend, Billy the Kid embodies the violence of the Old West (his eyes are without expression) and the seductiveness of the outlaw hero, but he offers no future despite his occasional sensitivities (such as coming prepared with a plug of tobacco to share with an elderly friend when he himself does not chew tobacco). The poems trace Henry McCarty/Billy the Kid’s progress toward his destiny, the final meeting with Pat Garrett.

The imagistic prose collection entitled “A Gathering of Shields” begins with a tribute to the spiritual, cultural, and artistic value of the Plains Indian shield and includes ink drawings of the shields gathered for a ritual ceremony. The stories number sixteen, an intentional heightening of the power of the sacred number four. The shields are more than the tools of warriors: They embody the best and worst of those who created and carried them. Some, such as “The Shield That Was Touched by Pretty Mouth,” “The Shield That Was Looked After by Dogs,” and “The Shield That Was Brought Down from Tsoai,” carry great power because of the history of their bearers. Others, such as “The Shield of Which the Less Said the Better,” are of no value: This shield, taken by soldiers and sold in Clinton, Oklahoma, for seventeen dollars, lost its value despite its antiquity. That the final shield, “The Shield of Two Dreams,” reflects the dream of the father passed on to the daughter fits with Momaday’s idea of tradition passed on but modified to fit new contexts and new social values. These shields embody their individual creator, his contribution to the survival of the group, and the spirit that he leaves behind.

Of the newer poems, “The Great Fillmore Street Buffalo Drive” captures a historical moment of final slaughter as a buffalo herd is driven to a senseless death on Pacific Coast boulders, but one buffalo “dreams” back to a canyon wall and disappears into shadow, at one with nature. Poems such as “Wreckage” and “Mogollon Morning” that place the poet amid canyon walls and rock, learning from the light and shadows, are Momaday at his best. In “At Risk,” the poet discovers his connections with ancient cave painters and finds his own face mirrored in the masks of ancient animals dancing on cave walls. This poem is an apt close to a collection that, as a unit, suggests the author’s struggle to find a poetic voice, an identity that reflects his multicultural essence.

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N. Scott Momaday Poetry: American Poets Analysis