Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1025
N. Scott Momaday 1934–
(Full name Navarre Scott Momaday; also rendered as Navarro and Novarro) American novelist, poet, autobiographer, nonfiction writer, editor, and artist.
The following entry provides an overview of Momaday's career through 1993. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2 and 19.
(The entire section contains 48847 words.)
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- Critical Essays
N. Scott Momaday 1934–
(Full name Navarre Scott Momaday; also rendered as Navarro and Novarro) American novelist, poet, autobiographer, nonfiction writer, editor, and artist.
The following entry provides an overview of Momaday's career through 1993. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2 and 19.
Of Kiowa descent, Momaday is widely recognized as one of the most successful contemporary Native American literary figures. Considered a major influence by numerous Native writers, he has garnered critical acclaim for his focus on Kiowa traditions, customs, and beliefs, and the role of Amerindians in contemporary society. Although highly regarded for the novel House Made of Dawn (1968), winner of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Momaday considers himself primarily a poet and notes that his writings are greatly influenced by the oral tradition and typically concern the nature and origins of Native American myths.
Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression to Alfred Morris and Mayme Natachee Scott, Momaday is of Kiowa, white, and Cherokee ancestry. His father was a Kiowa artist and educator whose work has often been featured in Momaday's books. Although primarily of white descent, Momaday's mother, who was also an educator, strongly identified with her Cherokee roots—even dressing in Native clothes and adopting the name "Little Moon." Her advocacy of "self-imagining" as a means of achieving Native identity is considered a basic premise of Momaday's writings. During his early years, Momaday moved about the American Southwest with his parents, who eventually settled on the Jemez Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. He attended a military school in Virginia, the University of New Mexico, and Stanford University, where he worked under the guidance of American critic and poet Yvor Winters. He first gained critical attention after winning a Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn. A member of the Gourd Dance Society and an accomplished artist, Momaday has taught at numerous schools, including Stanford, the University of Arizona-Tucson, and the University of California-Berkeley, where he was instrumental in instituting a Native American literature program.
Momaday's first major publication, The Journey of Tai-me (1967), is a nonfiction account of Kiowa folktales and myths, particularly those concerning the tai-me, a medicine bundle or doll used in the Kiowa sun dance. Thematically, much of the volume is also included in the autobiography The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), which has occasionally been classified as both a novel and a nonfiction work detailing Kiowa history and legends. Divided into three main sections—"The Setting Out," "The Going On," and "The Closing In"—The Way to Rainy Mountain spans several hundred years of Kiowa history, relating and at times reimagining the tribe's customs, sacred myths, settlement on the Great Plains, and "Golden Age" prior to the encroachment of white settlers onto their lands in the 1800s. However, rather than merely focusing on the past as he did in The Journey of Tai-me, Momaday employs several voices and combines ethnography with personal reminiscences to depict his family's participation in Kiowa traditions and rituals; the book ends with Momaday visiting his grandmother's grave at Rainy Mountain, a place sacred to the Kiowa people. The 1976 autobiography, The Names, similarly incorporates family and tribal history. Focusing on Momaday's early years, the volume details the importance of naming and self-identity as well as Momaday's evolving understanding of language, imagination, and the creative process. Aspects of The Journey of Tai-me and The Way to Rainy Mountain are additionally present in House Made of Dawn. Momaday's best known work, House Made of Dawn concerns Abel, a young Jemez Pueblo searching for a sense of identity in white and tribal society. Following Abel's return to his reservation after serving in World War II, the novel relates the events leading up to his incarceration in prison for murder, his subsequent release and attempt to become integrated into white society in Los Angeles, and his relationships with various whites and Native Americans. Incorporating a circular structure, Native storytelling techniques, and biblical allusions, the novel emphasizes historical attempts to convert Native Americans to Christianity as well as the alienating effects of assimilation. House Made of Dawn is also known for its fragmented, stream-of-consciousness narrative style, its inclusion of multiple voices, and its use of flashbacks, all of which have earned Momaday favorable comparisons with American novelist William Faulkner. Momaday's second novel, The Ancient Child (1989), similarly concerns a Kiowa man alienated from his heritage. Occasionally classified as a post-Symbolist, Momaday is additionally known for the verse collections Angle of Geese, and Other Poems (1974) and The Gourd Dancer (1976). Oral traditions and Kiowa customs are central to these volumes, which feature prose poems, syllabic verse, and Native chants, and often focus on philosophical issues regarding nature, identity, death, knowledge, and current events. In the Presence of the Sun (1993) contains short stories and, among other poems, a sequence concerning the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid, a prominent figure in Momaday's artwork and his The Ancient Child. Acknowledging his focus on Kiowa history and culture in his writings, Momaday has asserted: "I think that my work proceeds from the American Indian oral tradition, and I think it sustains that tradition and carries it along. And vice versa. And my writing is also of a piece. I've written several books, but to me they are all part of the same story. And I like to repeat myself, if you will, from book to book, in the way that Faulkner did—in an even more obvious way, perhaps. My purpose is to carry on what was begun a long time ago; there's no end to it that I can see."
Consistently praised for his exploration of Kiowa concerns and traditions, Momaday is a seminal figure in both mainstream American and Native literature. His House Made of Dawn and The Way to Rainy Mountain are frequently taught in literature courses, and critics note that his works are of relevance and importance to Natives and non-Natives alike. In particular, his early poetry is frequently hailed as among the most significant of the century. Howard Meredith has observed: "His art … provides a glimpse of the depths of existence that extends cultural perspectives to understand better the living universe."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 640
SOURCE: "Anglos and Indians," in The New York Times Book Review, June 9, 1968, p. 5.
[Sprague is an American journalist, critic, and nonfiction writer who has written about the history of the American West. In the following review, he offers praise for House Made of Dawn.]
This first novel [House Made of Dawn], as subtly wrought as a piece of Navajo silverware, is the work of a young Kiowa Indian who teaches English and writes poetry at the University of California in Santa Barbara. That creates a difficulty for a reviewer right away. American Indians do not write novels and poetry as a rule, or teach English in top-ranking universities either. But we cannot be patronizing. N. Scott Momaday's book is superb in its own right.
It is the old story of the problem of mixing Indians and Anglos. But there is a quality of revelation here as the author presents the heart-breaking effort of his hero to live in two worlds. Have you ever been to the Rio Grande country of New Mexico and wandered through the adobe Pueblo village there? It is a frustrating experience. The long-haired Indians with their blankets and headbands are not hostile—just indifferent. One returns to the comfort of Santa Fe feeling vaguely discontented and wondering why everything Anglo seems callow and obvious compared with this ancient culture that doesn't even bother to pave the streets.
Young Abel comes back to San Ysidro to resume the ancient ways of his beloved long-haired grandfather, Francisco. Abel is full of fears that he has relaxed his hold on these ways, after living like an Anglo in the Army. He is our tortured guide as we see his Indian world of pollen and rain, of houses made of dawn, of feasts and rituals to placate the gods, of orchards and patches of melons and grapes and squash, of beautiful colors and marvelous foods such as piki, posole, loaves of sotobalau, roasted mutton and fried bread. It is a wantless "world of wonder and exhilarating vastness."
The task of seeing it is made easier for us by the grandfather, who symbolizes the long and static continuity of Pueblo tradition. He shows us the richness of the Indian mixture through New Mexico's ages. The Jemez of San Ysidro have Navajo and Sia and Domingo and Isleta relatives—even a strain of Bahkyush, who fled from the East long ago, bringing to San Ysidro the finest of rain makers and eagle hunters. The Mexican priest, Father Olguin, is also a symbol of tradition. He is devoting his life to understanding these poetic people, just as other Catholic priests did in 17th-century New Mexico. He can smile as they smiled when he notes how they rank his shrine of Our Lady of the Angels second in spiritual importance to the adjoining kiva.
Abel's troubles begin at once. He has a brief and lyrical love affair with a white woman from California seeking some sort of truth at San Ysidro. Then he runs afoul of Anglo jurisprudence, which has no laws covering Pueblo ethics. He is paroled to a Los Angeles relocation center and copes for a time with that society, neither Anglo nor Indian. He attends peyote sessions; he tries to emulate his Navajo roommate, who almost accepts the glaring lights and treadmill jobs, the ugliness of the city and the Anglo yearning to own a Cadillac. Abel cannot "almost" cope. Because of his contempt, a sadistic cop beats him nearly to death. But he gets home in time to carry on tradition for his dying grandfather.
There is plenty of haze in the telling of this tale—but that is one reason why it rings so true. The mysteries of cultures different from our own cannot be explained in a short novel, even by an artist as talented as Mr. Momaday.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 399
SOURCE: "Exhibition," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3508, May 22, 1969, p. 549.
[In the following, the critic provides a mixed review of House Made of Dawn, questioning the novel's merit as a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.]
House Made of Dawn is about an American Indian called Abel. It is written in self-conscious prose, which can be as regularly rhythmical as Hiawatha, and has some of the sentimental primitivism of that poem. Abel, however, has moved on, and moved down, from the great days of Crows, Comanches and the rest; no golden-world reformist statesman he, no well conducted pursuer of a modern Minnehaha. Instead he is hoicked out of his "reservation"—a sort of goldfish bowl in which his fellownationals drift dreamily round in artificial preservative—for combat duty in the Second World War. From this he returns to his people demoralized, not belonging in a full sense to any culture, either primitive or mid-twentieth-century Los Angelesque. He murders a disgusting albino (symbolism here?), serves a prison-sentence, is "relocated", but fails again to make satisfying contact with urbanized members of his race. He starts drinking himself into stupors, has strenuous yet unmeaningful love-affairs—one with Millie, a white social worker who is in every way most obliging but still somehow won't do—is beaten up by L.A. toughies, and at last returns to the reservation and his people, where he is caught up in a last ritual flight from life—towards the "House made of Dawn".
Scott Momaday, an American Indian himself, understands the plight of his people, robbed of their splendid pagan culture and condemned to live either artificial "exhibition" lives in the reservations, or to paddle feebly in the backwaters of modern American urbanism. He has considerable descriptive power—the majestic flight of hunting eagles, for example, is beautifully caught; and there is a section in which Tosamah, "orator, physician, Priest of the Sun, son of Hummingbird", rehearses the ancient, trampled history of the Kiowas in trance-like, visionary prose that has moments of splendour.
Yet the rhetoric is a bit too facile, smacks somewhat of campus creative-writing, and on occasion creates a nebulosity opaque enough to count as self-parody. One can understand the Pultizer prize jury's being bowled over by it now and then; one is none the less surprised to note that it stayed mesmerized long enough by Mr. Momaday's bittern-boomings to award his book the prize.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 816
SOURCE: A review of The Way to Rainy Mountain, in Western Humanities Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Summer, 1970, pp. 290-91.
[In the review below, Dickey favorably assesses The Way to Rainy Mountain.]
In a three-hundred-year migration, the Kiowa Indians emerged, as out of a hollow log, from the canyon confinement of the Montana Rockies, touched monolithic Devil's Tower which rose into the night sky to place seven of their kinsmen as the Big Dipper, and among the Comanches of the "intermountain plain" learned the Sun Dance and became horsemen—"a time of great adventure and nobility and fulfillment." "The Kiowas reckoned their stature by the distance they could see," and in the heart of the continent "acquired the sense of destiny, therefore courage and pride." Their golden age perished with the buffalo, "the animal representation of the sun," and these summerseeking people were at last quiescent near the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma. In a spiritual and intellectual pilgrimage [recorded in The Way to Rainy Mountain], N. Scott Momaday retraces the path of his Kiowa ancestors, "to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth … to give himself up to a particular landscape … to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it." His journey ends at Rainy Mountain and the grave of his grandmother, who had seen white men spoil the last great ceremony for Tai-me, the Sun Doll. "Without bitterness, and for as long as she lived, she bore a vision of deicide."
Rainy Mountain begins with a poem, a prologue, and an introduction; it closes with an epilogue and a poem. Between, with as much space as typography, is the odyssey of the Kiowas in short bursts of prose. The format, perceptively planned by Bruce Gentry, is like no other, and drawings by Al Momaday, the author's father, convey power. On the left of each pair of pages is "the verbal tradition … mythology, legend, lore, and hearsay." Facing this are two annotations: facts from history and anthropology, and Momaday's personal interlinear. The book hangs together like a constellation, its parts varying in distance and intensity. The spaces, the silences, invite the reader to reflect.
The title and essence of The Way to Rainy Mountain appear in Momaday's Pulitzer Prize novel, House Made of Dawn, among sermons of the Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah, Pastor and Sun Priest, who offers the slogan, "Be kind to a white man today." Tosamah seems to speak for Momaday, being at home in the worlds of white man and red. "In the Word was the beginning," preaches Tosamah, and in Rainy Mountain Momaday writes, "A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning." Tosamah thunders: "The Word did not come into being, but it was. It did not break upon the silence, but it was older than the silence and the silence was made of it." He warns us: "The white man takes such things as words and literatures for granted…. He has diluted and multiplied the Word, and words have begun to close in upon him. He is sated and insensitive; his regard for language—the Word itself—as an instrument of creation has diminished nearly to the point of no return. It may be that he will perish by the Word."
Momaday, as inheritor of "a very rich literature, which, because it was never written down, was always but one generation from extinction," and as a poet and scholar steeped in written tradition, has distilled for us the great moments of a boisterous people, the Kiowas, and more importantly, "man's idea of himself."
The dedication is "for Al and Natachee." Artists and teachers, Scott Momaday's parents have imparted to him "things that were truly remarkable." He has the storytelling perception of his grandmother, knowing that it is crucial for human society "to utter and to hear." Like the silence of the prairie dawn, The Way to Rainy Mountain "is cold and clear and deep like water. It takes hold of you and will not let you go."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2511
SOURCE: N. Scott Momaday, Boise State College, 1973, 46 p.
[Trimble is an American educator and critic. In the excerpt below, she briefly analyzes some major themes and symbols in House Made of Dawn.]
Invited to submit to Harper & Row some poetry for publication, Momaday instead submitted the prose manuscript of House Made of Dawn for the Harper Prize Novel Contest, even though he had missed the deadline. Harper & Row published the book in 1968; Signet followed with a paperback edition in 1969. "Three Sketches from House Made of Dawn" had appeared in the October 1966 issue of The Southern Review, with a footnote announcing the pending publication by Harper & Row, and with a statement by the author:
The novel is about an Indian who returns from World War II and finds that he cannot recover his tribal identity; nor can he escape the cultural context in which he grew up. He is torn, as they say, between two worlds, neither of which he can enter and be a whole man. The story is that of his struggle to survive on the horns of a real and tragic dilemma in contemporary society….
The three sketches were incorporated into House Made of Dawn: "The Sparrow and the Reed" principally as the first chapter; "Homecoming" as the first part of the second chapter; and "The Albino" as part of the fourth chapter. A comparison of these sketches in their journal form with the form they have in the novel shows that Momaday had carefully revised them to achieve greater clarity and precision.
The seminal forms of other chapters were also printed in a literary journal before the novel was published. "Two Sketches from House Made of Dawn" appeared in the New Mexico Quarterly (Summer 1967): "The Bear and the Colt" was incorporated into the next to the last chapter of the novel; and "The Eagles of the Valley Grande" was placed just after what had been "Homecoming" in the first chapter.
House Made of Dawn, a novel of only sixty-five to seventy thousand words, appeared on the editor's desk. It was not a book of poems as the editor had anticipated. Frances McCullough was the editor who saw the literary value of the book and backed it. House Made of Dawn was dismissed casually by some reviewers, and sadly misunderstood by others. Only a handful recognized its merit. Then to the surprise not only of the author but also of numbers of incredulous reviewers and others in the publishing world, the judges for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction named House Made of Dawn—a first novel by an unknown author—the 1969 winner….
House Made of Dawn opens with a brief prologue that describes Abel running in an early spring dawn on the reservation. Abel's running with the dawn at the end of the last chapter, however, emerges as a religious act leading to self-realization. The intervening chapters describe the events that help explain Abel's run. Momaday divides these chapters, each one headed by a specific date, into four parts of varying lengths. The first part, entitled "The Longhair," contains seven chapters having dates ranging from July 20 to August 2, 1945. It is set in a pueblo at "Walatowa, Cañon de San Diego." Parts two and three take place in Los Angeles in 1952—the former, "The Priest of the Sun," occurring on January 26 and 27, and the latter, "The Night Chanter," on February 20. The final part, "The Dawn Runner," returns the reader to Walatowa and contains two chapters dated February 27 and 28, 1952.
Momaday's combination of specific chronological ordering with the circular repetition of the scene showing Abel's run emerges as a key to understanding the novel's essential nature. The book contains oppositions arising from two points. One relates to the point of view Momaday expressed in his [January 31, 1971 lecture at Colorado State University entitled "The American Indian in the Conflict of Tribalism and Modern Society"]: the differences between the white's and the Indian's view of the world and the need to reveal to each culture the knowledge possessed by the other.
The haunting descriptions of the always acutely present landscape contained in the novel spring from Momaday's background. As he says in "What will happen to the land?": "Landscapes tend to stand out in my memory. When I think back to a particular time in my life, I tend to see it in terms of its setting, the background in which it achieves for me a certain relief. Or, to put it another way, I am inclined closely to associate events with the physical dimensions in which they take place … my existence is indivisible with the land."
The other opposition has something of the same nature, is, if one likes, a concretization of the first opposition. What the reader initially thinks he knows about what happens in the novel, and why, sometimes turns out later to contrast with what he actually does know. As a minor illustration, ask what theater Abel served in during the Second World War, and then ask what is the basis of that knowledge.
As the novel continues, the effect of these oppositions grows more profound. At least with reference to the book, if the contrasts between actual knowledge and apparent knowledge can be reconciled, it will be clear that the materials Momaday presents have not been merely organized into unity by the artistic conventions available for that purpose but rather have become fused into unity through the combined efforts of both author and reader. These efforts might eventually yield cultural results also.
Plotting the events of this novel has some conventional aspects. In House Made of Dawn specific dates stand at the head of the chapters. But the events Momaday depicts are forced into an apparently plotted order by those dates. In actuality, they explode out of their chronological patterns, and not only because Momaday depicts them more than once. Many have taken place at some period before the date on which we see them described. We are sometimes not clear about the specific time of their occurrence. We are not sure, for example, how old Abel was when he captured the eagle as a member of the Eagle Watchers Society, nor how old "old enough" was when Francisco took Abel and his older brother, Vidal, to explain to them the movements of the sun along the silhouetted rim of Black Mesa.
In one sense, it is important that we not be sure when such events occur; their having happened becomes more pervasively influential that way. Their mystery, part of their significance, increases.
The book, then, is a pool, circular in structure, not a rising-action-climax-falling-action-all-from-the-same-point-of-view piece of fiction. Momaday patently does not use a consistent point of view, for example. In Part Three, "The Night Chanter," Momaday presents Benally, Abel's Navaho friend in Los Angeles, as a conventional first person narrator. The other three parts are not so conventional. For example, Part Two, "The Priest of the Sun," utilizes an essentially omniscient point of view, but one noticeably modified by stream-of-consciousness when it portrays Abel's agonized return to a hazy awareness after his severe beating by Martinez, a Los Angeles policeman who took pleasure in tormenting the Indians he came into contact with.
A strong sense of the mystery of what goes on in the novel emerges most clearly from Momaday's characterizations. As there seems to be no likely cause-effect pattern in parts of the plot, so there is no fully graspable sense of motive behind the characters' behavior. In fact, the vivid descriptions of the land are balanced by a vagueness, a mysteriousness in the descriptions of the appearances and behavior of the characters, with only a few exceptions. Momaday describes Angela St. John thoroughly, and the Albino. The others, even the central figure, Abel, are not thoroughly described. However, even the detailed descriptions of Angela and the Albino add to the novel's sense of mystery. Especially bewildering are the motives behind their conduct—conduct having extremely important consequences in Abel's life. The scene during which Abel kills the Albino provides the most striking instance of Momaday's refusal to give an explicit explanation of motives, Abel's as well as the Albino's.
Generally speaking, those figures whom we meet at Walatowa, including Francisco (Abel's grandfather), and the Catholic priests, Father Olguin and his distant predecessor, Father Nicolàs, remain in deeper shadow than do people like Milly and the "relocated" Indians Tosamah and Benally, all of whom we see in Los Angeles.
If we as readers remained in shadow, the novel could not challenge us so deeply as it does. Before we can grow enlightened about the sometimes mysterious characters in the book and their sometimes bewildering conduct, we have to recognize that, as in his poetry, Momaday writes with symbolic intent. When we look for symbolic significance, we no longer need be discomfited by the lack of information about, for example, the disease that had "stiffened" one of Francisco's legs. Instead, we can hypothesize about the significance of the disease and its bearing on the novel's themes. Then if we wish to guess which disease had afflicted Francisco, we have a basis to use. We work backward from the significance of the crippled leg to what might have been its literal cause rather than the other way around.
The Indian subject matter of the novel contributes a source of symbolism external to but complementing the symbolism created within the context of the novel by such things as Abel's and Angela's names and the Albino's sickly whiteness. We may resolve many of the mysterious things unique to House Made of Dawn, but Momaday, in making his points about the range of relationships possible between cultures, wishes to leave at least the non-Indian reader with an abiding sense of what he does not know. The novel's many scenes depicting Indian religious activities are the primary means of presenting the mystery that must remain. The activities associated with the feast of Santiago, a Catholic saint who metamorphosed into the originator of the pre-Christian Pueblo culture, provide one example, for one has only a general idea of the dynamics of the "rooster pulling" ceremony, even after reading Father Olguin's tale exposing the possible origin of the ceremony; and the ancient ceremony enacted seven days later, on August first, remains as essentially mysterious to the reader as it is unsettling to Father Olguin. As Momaday says of the people of the town: "after four centuries of Christianity, they still pray in Tanoan to the old deities of the earth and sky."
Of course this sort of symbolism connects to the symbolism unique to the novel. The song Benally sings ("House Made of Dawn": hence the novel's title) to his battered friend the night before Abel leaves Los Angeles to return to Walatowa is one version of the last song of a formal nine-day purification ceremony in which the major participants are a priest and a patient. Within the context of the work, Benally would be serving as a symbolic priest preparing Abel for his return to the reservation and his subsequent ability to make the ritual run in the dawn after Francisco's death. Abel makes the run either despite or because of his great physical and psychological anguish.
In the recurring ritual running, the themes of the novel most intensely fuse with the traditional symbolism of the Indian religious beliefs. As Abel resumes consciousness after his beating at the hands of Martinez, a beating ultimately arising from his refusal to fear Martinez, he remembers what he saw after knifing the Albino. He was hiding and saw one group of runners, the "runners after evil," go by "with great dignity and calm, not in the hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect. Evil was."
The mystery still remains, for although Momaday explains that Abel "suddenly saw the crucial sense in their going," he does not say whether the insight came as Abel watched from hiding on the night of August 1, 1945, or as he remembered the event during his struggle back to life on the night of January 26, 1952.
Whichever the case, the insight implies a recognition of the need for forgiveness that a neutral or resigned response to the presence of something negative or evil involves. This process also includes the forgiveness of those who called him from his life to fight a war he did not grasp and who put him in prison for six years for killing a being he considered a snake, and therefore evil, i.e., the Albino. Perhaps he could run, finally, because he recognized that the snake, too, should continue to exist—a recognition that goes beyond the Christianity which for so many years in the Pueblo preached forgiveness.
In addition to Momaday's treatment of evil, other themes appear in the book. Perhaps the suffering of the urban Indians is the most noticeable of these, rendered more painful to watch because of their reluctance to admit to themselves that they suffer. Their strategies for avoiding such recognition make up much of the material in Parts Two and Three of the novel. Momaday does not assert that suffering is an Indian prerogative, of course, for all the non-Indian characters of any importance to the novel also suffer. What he does suggest is that Indians may have ways to overcome suffering which others might profit from knowing about. These others might risk the loss of some of their own culturally determined portions of their sense of self, but that risk would be no more than that which cultures subordinate to Western Civilization were forced to take. Growth to maturity requires some such risk for every individual anyway. Benally, however, sometimes yearns rather sentimentally for the tribal way of life. We see this longing in his description of the night before Abel returns.
In-depth scholarly evaluation of House Made of Dawn has been slow in appearing. The complexity of the novel and the layers of possible interpretation may delay what will be a growing body of evaluative work. Hopefully, if studied for sociological or anthropological reasons, the book will not be dismissed without adequate attention to its literary value. So, too, if studied as literature, it should not be accepted as art only but also as a re-creation of unique human experience….
[House Made of Dawn] is a complex, symbolic expression of how language and culture tend through their own territorial imperatives to encompass one, sometimes to a point of isolation. If one voluntarily or forcedly intermixes with another culture and its language, he may find that in the interim he has lost both cultures and must become reacculturated. House Made of Dawn transcends any Indian problem; that the novel is a universal statement does not make the effect of Momaday's portrayal of the deculturation of an Indian youth any the less lamentable. If man is the archetypal Adam, in the archetypal Eden, year by year, society by society, generation after generation—if he is the "house made of dawn," the regeneration comes about.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3990
SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday: Racial Memory and Individual Imagination," in Literature of the American Indians: Views and Interpretations; A Gathering of Indian Memories, Symbolic Contexts, and Literary Criticism, edited by Abraham Chapman, New American Library, 1975, pp. 348-57.
[Strelke is a photographer, poet, editor, and educator who frequently teaches courses on Native Americans. In the essay below, she examines Momaday's thematic focus on personal redemption and identity and discusses his blending of individual history, racial memory, Native art and culture, and Western aesthetics in House Made of Dawn and The Way to Rainy Mountain.]
On one level, the writings of N. Scott Momaday, notably the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, House Made of Dawn, and the multigenre books, The Way to Rainy Mountain, center on the responses that Native Americans make to their ethnic backgrounds, their racial memory, their "Indianness." Because of these concerns, and because Momaday is himself a Native American, these books are taught in Native American literature courses or are included as material in courses in ethnic studies: they picture the values, lifestyles, and problems of minority groups in "mainstream" American culture, presenting examples of racial conflict which are too often resolved with the Native American's rejection, alienation, or assimilation.
On another level—and for me a much more evocative plane altogether—Momaday is dealing with the individual subtleties which lend credence to group encounters. What is striking about Momaday's message and art is its reflection of Native American tradition in the context of the personal and the universal. In a lecture he gave on the University of New Mexico campus during the summer of 1972, Momaday asserted that humanness waits on the individual's ability to imagine himself into existence, to leap with racial memory, personal wit, and faith to the point of redemption and wholeness. Man's birth, then, is by his own power of imagination; his life is atemporal, neither time nor space bound; and the word—sacred and creative—is the vehicle of articulation.
In House Made of Dawn and The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday combines elements of western philosophy and literature with specific aspects of Indian culture and art. I should like to concentrate on the central insight of House Made of Dawn: Abel's redemption. This personal redemption is more clearly placed in the context of racial memory and community in The Way to Rainy Mountain, In this book, theme, voice, and structure subtly articulate the relationship between imagination, existence, and redemption.
What is "western" in House Made of Dawn? Very briefly, the Angst of the main character. He is isolated most of the time, unable to really connect with his grandfather or to communicate with his best friend or his lover. He is a rugged, ragged individual. The tension between the rural and the industrial/technological is typically a condition of modern western man. The fictional complexities—changing points of view, distortion of temporal and spatial realities—show Momaday's debt to western literature. The use of a great many words to analyze and explore a simple thing is a western, not Native American, propensity. And what is "Indian"? Much of the beauty of the work rests in the Indian tradition of art, song, and poetry. Concrete nature imagery is a characteristic of Native American poetry and Momaday's concise haiku-like passages are "Indian" in their care for detail and their economy in style. The four-part structure of the novel forms a circular unit. The image of the circle and, consequently, the sense of the cyclical is recurrent in Indian thought and art, as are references to the number four—the quadrants, the directions, with corresponding colors, symbols, animals, etc. This structural artifice is as carefully made as a Navaho rug or a finely pounded silver conch. In these arts, the whole as circular unit works toward one end: that the silver sing, that the rug come alive. My analogies between weaving and silver-making and Momaday's novel are not farfetched. Indian art voices the major beliefs of Indian culture, and Momaday's novel articulates through specific detail these traditional premises:
Life and power reside in the Circle.
All creatures / All forces / co-exist equally.
Man is powerful and is capable of affecting, and
being affected by, the forces of the universe.
He sees signs and through word and ritual
participates in the Sacred.
House Made of Dawn opens with the protagonist's return to his pueblo after a stint in the army. Abel is portrayed as an outsider even to his own people and a stranger to mainstream American culture. He is a hybrid in a society which to him appears mirage-like and foreboding. The pueblo is no longer home for him. He's been to war; he's been separated from the simple verities of his home. When Abel steps off the bus to greet his grandfather, he steps down drunk.
During the few weeks he spends in his mountain village, Abel recognizes and acts upon the form, but not the substance of things. He is not attuned to Francisco, his grandfather, nor to the people of the pueblo. While he walks the land, Abel recalls incidents from his past. These remembrances form fragments of Abel's identity, fragments which he can not piece together to make a whole. "This—everything in advance of his going—he could remember whole and in detail. It was the recent past, the intervention of days and years without meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused, that he could not put together in his mind." But two incidents are most revealing. He remembers the sight of two eagles—tumbling in the air—a rattlesnake gripped between the female's talons. "It was an awful, holy sight, full of magic and meaning." Another vision, also in a sense full of magic and meaning, is Abel's remembrance of a war experience:
There was one sharp fragment of recall, recurrent and distinct … for a moment it seemed apart from the land; its great iron hull lay out against the timber and the sky, and the center of its weight hung away from the ridge. Then it came crashing down to the grade, slow as a waterfall, thunderous, surpassing impact, nestling almost into the splash and boil of debris. He was shaking violently, and the machine bore down upon him, came close, and passed him by. A wind arose and ran along the slope, scattering the leaves.
As the golden eagles are a sign of elemental and spiritual power in Native American culture, the tank, the machine are symbols of the power of technology and of modern warfare. Throughout the novel, the machine is an alien force to Abel, the cold antithesis of his heritage and home.
The climactic action in this first section of the novel is the scene in which Abel kills the albino, the man of the pueblo who embodies evil. Abel does not commit murder, but rather performs ritual death on a figure of evil. But Abel doesn't really understand this at the time he acts. The realization of this action comes later in the novel when Abel is lying, bleeding and delirious, on the beach outside Los Angeles. At this point there is again the merging of time and space as Abel's mind and memory wander to a sight from the past—a vision of the owl (the bird of warning, the bird often used as the spirit animal of the brujo, the witch), and the runners after evil:
So far had his vision reached that the owl, when he saw it, seemed to fly in his face, and break apart, torrential, ghostly, silent as a dream. He was delirious now and gasping for breath; he hurried on in his mind, holding the owl away in the corner of his eye. The owl watched him without meaning, and something was going on.
And then Abel sees the runners after evil:
… old men running after evil, their white leggings holding in motion like smoke above the ground. They passed in the night, full of tranquillity, certitude … The runners after evil ran as water runs deep in the channel, in the way of least resistance, no resistance. His skin crawled with excitement; he was overcome with longing and loneliness, for suddenly he saw the crucial sense in their going, of old men in white leggings running after evil in the night. They were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe. Meaning because of them. They ran with great dignity and calm, not in the hope of anything but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect. Evil was. Evil was abroad in the night; they must venture out to the confrontation; they must reckon dues and divide the world.
Francisco realizes not only that the albino was evil but that evil, although confronted and chased, could never be killed. In the cornfields Francisco sees the albino spying upon him. Francisco was "too old to be afraid. His acknowledgment of the unknown was nothing more than a dull, intrinsic sadness, a vague desire to weep, for evil had long since found him out and knew who he was." Francisco understands that evil lives within the circle of life and that it can be only temporarily subverted. In this way the balance and equilibrium of life is assured.
At the beginning of the novel Abel is sick, is in disequilibrium. A western psychologist might cite Abel's symptoms—irresponsible behavior, character disintegration—and label his disease the ennui of modern man or the schizophrenia of bicultural man. But Indian culture would view Abel's sickness differently. If Abel had been a Plains Indian, he would have gone in quest of a vision or undergone a sweat bath to purify himself of the rigors of a foreign war. If Abel had been a Navaho with family and clan, he would have had a Night Chant sung for him. And thus, the sickness would have left on the last day. The point of Momaday's book, however, is that Abel's cure is not simply affected because Abel's identity is not clearly defined. He wanders and "runs" for a great deal of the time in a sort of spiritual limbo. He fights against what is strange and what is evil. At the end of the novel Abel cures himself by experiencing and learning from the two cultures in which he lives. Finally, he chooses to sing the song of the Night Chant. He makes a spiritual commitment and an imaginative leap—to life and death. By so doing, Abel finds the path of beauty, is restored, redeemed and made whole again. He sings the great curing song under his breath: "There was no sound, and he had no voice; he had only the words of a song. And he went running on the rise of the song. House made of pollen, house made of dawn. Qtsedaba."
The Way to Rainy Mountain is a multivoiced response to the question of personal and cultural creation through imagination and language. In this book Momaday retraces the migration route of the Kiowa from the headwaters of the Yellowstone to Rainy Mountain, a knoll on the Southern Plains. In his own fifteen-hundred-mile journey he recreates the Emergence, Golden Age, and waning of Kiowa culture. He had heard the legends from Aho, his grandmother. He says in the introduction that he wanted to see in reality what Aho "had seen more perfectly in the mind's eye."
The book, like House Made of Dawn, is carefully structured. He begins with a poem—"Headwaters," proceeds with prologue and introduction, and develops the body of the work in three main sections: "The Setting Out," "The Going On," "The Closing In." Each of these major sections is comprised of a number of three part units which reflect on the subjects—literal or metaphoric—through legend, history, and personal recollection. "The Closing In" is followed by an epilogue and a final poem—"Rainy Mountain Cemetery." Illustrations by Al Momaday, N. Scott's father, accent the images of the legends and sketches.
In the prologue Momaday clarifies his theme. The Kiowa, he says, "had conceived a good idea of themselves; they had dared to imagine and determine who they are. In one sense, then, the way to Rainy Mountain is preeminently the history of an idea, man's idea of himself, and it has old and essential being in language … the journey herein recalled continues to be made anew each time the miracle comes to mind, for that is peculiarly the right and responsibility of the imagination." Momaday continues in the prologue to elucidate his method, which parallels the workings of the mind and memory:
It is a whole journey, intricate with motion and meaning; and it is made with the whole memory, that experience of the mind which is legendary as well as historical, personal as well as cultural. And the journey is an evocation of three things in particular: a landscape that is incomparable, a time that is gone forever, and the human spirit, which endures. The imaginative experience and the historical express equally the tradition of man's reality. Finally, then, the journey recalled among other things the revelation of one way in which these traditions are conceived, developed, and interfused in the human mind.
Momaday's link with the legends of the Kiowa, with his racial memory, comes through Aho. In the introduction he recalls his grandmother, a woman who remembered in her life the last days of the Golden Age—the horse, the buffalo, and the Sun Dance, the expression of religious belief and cultural pride. His grandmother was present at the bend of the Washita in July 1890, when the soldiers rode out from Fort Sill to put an end to the Dance. "Forbidden without cause the essential act of their faith, having seen the wild herds slaughtered and left to rot upon the ground, the Kiowas backed away forever from the medicine tree." His grandmother, "without bitterness and for as long as she lived, bore a vision of deicide." This passage and others in the introduction establish the tone of nostalgia, regret, and sadness at the virtual destruction of Kiowa culture.
In "The Setting Out," the emphasis is on the sacred myths of the Kiowa—the origin of the tribe, of their name for themselves, of Tai-me, the Sun Dance figure, and of the medicine bundles. The legends in this section of the book are based on the verbal tradition from time immemorial and, because of this, much of "The Setting Out" is sacred, mythic, and profound. The individual legends in themselves show the power of the imagination translated through racial memory. The ability to make a story to explain changes in the physical environment is one thing. But the power to make a story change the physical environment is another. The legends of the twins, grandmother spider, of dogs and sea creatures who speak to man, are complimented by references to Mammedaty, the narrator's grandfather, a peyote man who had the holy man's power to see signs full of magic and meaning.
The eighth unit of this section specifically concerns language. The legend centers on the twins, the offspring of the sun. The twins, having gotten caught in the cave of the giant, recall the advice of their grandmother spider:
"If ever you get caught in the cave, say to yourselves the word thain-mom, 'above my eyes.'" When the giant began to set fires around, the twins repeated the word thain-mom over and over to themselves, and the smoke remained above their eyes. When the giant had made three great clouds of smoke, his wife saw that the twins sat without coughing or crying, and she became frightened. "Let them go," she said, "or something bad will happen to us."
The historical passage notes the custom of the people concerning names:
A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things. By means of words can a man deal with the world on equal terms. And the word is sacred. A man's name is his own; he can keep it or give it away as he likes. Until recent times, the Kiowas would not speak the name of a dead man. To do so would have been disrespectful and dishonest. The dead take their names with them out of the world.
And Momaday's recollection is of Aho and the word she pronounced to ward off evil:
When Aho saw or heard or thought of something bad, she said the word zei-dl-bei, "frightful." It was the one word with which she confronted evil and the incomprehensible. I liked her to say it, for she screwed up her face in a wonderful look of displeasure and clicked her tongue. It was not an exclamation so much, I think, as it was a warding off, an exertion of language upon ignorance and disorder.
In these passages Momaday illustrates how the power of language lives on the mythic, cultural, and personal levels.
In "The Going On" Momaday narrows his scope and concentrates on the picture of the Kiowa during their Golden Age. The individual segments disclose aspects of the customs of the people. One episode tells of the poor status of women; another relates the veneration paid to a horse and a dog. Another triplet, segment XVI, shows contrasting views of the buffalo. Because "The Going On" shows the customs of the people, it also shows the changes in Kiowa lifestyle after the coming of the white man. The three parts of this segment directly contrast each other, pointing out nobility, pathos, and nostalgia. The legend tells of a buffalo with horns of steel—a beautiful and sacred creature. The historical passage relates how in the early 1930s the townspeople of Carnegie, Oklahoma, gathered around two old Kiowa men who found and ran down a broken down buffalo; a crowd of men shouted and laughed at the scene. Then Momaday recalls how he and his father were chased by a buffalo cow who was protecting her newborn calf. Her "great dark head (was) low and fearful-looking … she gave up after a short run, and I think we had not been in any real danger. But the spring morning was deep and beautiful and our hearts were beating fast and we knew just then what it was to be alive."
In "The Closing In" the subjects and references become more and more particular. Mammedaty and Aho now figure in the legends. The narrator has literally closed-in on specific figures—his grandparents—who embody the creative qualities of myth and language. Mammedaty, we have been told, was a peyote man. In section XXI, the narrator recalls the four important things his grandfather had seen:
Mammedaty saw four things that were truly remarkable. This head of the child was one, and the tracks of the water beast another. Once, when he walked near the pecan grove, he saw three small alligators on a log. No one had ever seen them before and no one ever saw them again. Finally, there was this: something had always bothered Mammedaty, a small aggravation that was never quite out of mind, like a name on the tip of the tongue. He had always wondered how it is that the mound of earth which a mole makes around the opening of its burrow is so fine. It is nearly as fine as powder, and it seems almost to have been sifted. One day Mammedaty was sitting quietly when a mole came out of the earth. Its cheeks were puffed out as if it had been a squirrel packing nuts. It looked all around for a moment, then blew the fine dark earth our of its mouth. And this it did again and again, until there was a ring of black, powdery earth on the ground. That was a strange and meaningful thing to see. It meant that Mammedaty had got possession of a powerful medicine.
Aho remembered a strange, unexplainable thing also. It concerned the Tai-me bundle:
Once Aho went to see the Tai-me keeper's wife. The two of them were sitting together, passing the time of day, when they heard an awful noise, as if a tree or some other very heavy object had fallen down. It frightened them, and they went to see what on earth it was. It was Tai-me—Tai-me had fallen to the floor. No one knows how it was that Tai-me fell; nothing caused it, as far as anyone could see.
With the last entry in "The Closing In" Momaday restates his method and subject—to imagine from the many angles of vision the remembered earth:
Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.
Momaday has ended his pilgrimage, has recreated, by merging time and space, the journey of the Kiowa. And because of his pilgrimage he has added another dimension to his existence.
Two other writers, neither Native American, come to mind in connection with the above passage. One is Wendell Berry, the Kentucky writer and teacher, whose essays in The Long-Legged House speak prophetically about the power of the land. Similar to Momaday in conviction and poetic intensity, Berry believes that unless we understand the land, we are "at odds with everything we touch." He says that to understand we need "to leave the regions of our conquest—the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways—and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world's longevity …"
Another Southerner, Eudora Welty, in an essay entitled "Place in Fiction" characterizes writing which renders the actual and metaphoric force of a particular place. Although she uses the word "place" in a more limited sense than Momaday intends, Ms. Welty's words cast an added perspective on Momaday's experience with the particular landscape of which he speaks. She says:
I think the sense of place is as essential to good and honest writing as a logical mind; surely they are somewhere related. It is by knowing where you stand that you grow able to judge where you are. Place absorbs our earliest notice and attention, it bestows on us our original awareness; and our critical powers spring up from the study of it and the growth of experience inside it…. One place comprehended can make us understand other places better. Sense of place gives equilibrium; extended, it is sense of direction too … it is the sense of place going with us still that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and in every sense of the word to bring us home. ["Place in Fiction," South Atlantic Quarterly 55 (January 1956)]
I think Momaday's journey in The Way to Rainy Mountain, informed by personal and racial memory and evocative of real and imagined place, arrives at a remarkable destination. It is the same destination which Abel reached when he came "home" and learned to experience his own cure. It is a destination not often reached in western literature, for to get there a person must call upon the power of the spirit to speak, sing, and affirm existence.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1593
SOURCE: "Memories of an Indian Childhood," in Harper's, Vol. 254, No. 1521, February, 1977, pp. 94-5.
[Abbey was an American novelist and nonfiction writer. In the following, he offers a positive review of The Names.]
[In The Names: A Memoir, an elegiac] autobiography of his youth, Mr. Momaday gives us another version of a man's search for the roots of his life. Alex Haley's search took him to Africa; Scott Momaday's takes him back to the hills of Kentucky and north to the high plains of Wyoming, and from there, in memory and imagination, back to the Bering Straits. Mr. Momaday is a Kiowa Indian, a "native American" in current sociopolitical jargon. (But almost all of us are native Americans—what else could we be?) However, he is not entirely Kiowa; by blood and ancestry he is half a white man. His mother's name was Mayme Natachee Scott, and she and her family were descendants of early American pioneers—one of them a general in the Revolutionary War and the fourth governor of Kentucky.
Mayme Scott, a blue-eyed, dark-haired beauty, rebelled to some extent against her own heritage. She preferred, for various reasons, to think of herself as an Indian. There was some justification for this; her middle name, Natachee, was taken from that of the Cherokee wife of her great-grandfather I. J. Galyen. But more important, in Momaday's words, his mother chose to "imagine who she was." She called herself Little Moon, dressed in Indian costume, including headband and eagle feather, and in 1929 enrolled in Haskell Institute, the Indian school at Lawrence, Kansas. Her roommate was a Kiowa girl, who introduced her to other members of that tribe. In 1933 Mayme Scott married Alfred Morris Momaday, whose Kiowa name is Huan-toa, meaning "war lance." A year later the author of this book was born.
The baby was raised by his parents among the Kiowas, on the family farm in Oklahoma. Momaday's father, however, was no farmer; he was an artist, a painter, and, like his wife, a teacher. After several years of wandering during the depression and war years, the Momadays found steady work as schoolteachers at the Jemez Pueblo in northern New Mexico, and there they lived for the next twenty-six years. The most memorable scenes in Scott Momaday's book come from this boyhood spent among the Jemez Indians in the high canyon and mountain country of New Mexico.
Scott Momaday's heritage remained a mix. Though living among Indians for much of his childhood and boyhood, his first language, his "native" language, thanks to his mother, was English. At seventeen he was sent to a military school in Virginia and later took degrees at the University of New Mexico and at Stanford, where he is now a professor of English.
So much for the factual structure of The Names. Though a small book, in pages and number of words, there is far more to it than my bare outline suggests. Like his mother, Scott Momaday has chosen to imagine himself all Indian, and to "imagine himself" back into the life, the emotions, the spirit of his Kiowa forebears. He does not dismiss his white ancestry; the book contains some fine anecdotes about the Anglo-American side of the family—for example, his grandfather Theodore Ellis, who was for a time a Kentucky sheriff: "He shot at people, and people shot at him." There is a photograph of his great-great-grandfather I. J. Galyen, posing with a brace of pistols crossed on his chest, looking fierce, and of his great-grandfather George Scott, stern, moustached and scowling, holding a child in his arms, two other children and his wife—a young woman with the saddest eyes—at his side.
But most of the book is involved with American Indians—the Navajo, the Pueblo, and especially, of course, the Kiowas. Involved is the word; Scott Momaday takes us, through sympathy, empathy, and imaginative feeling, deep into the interior of places and a people. His prose is formal, symbolic, and precise, like so much of the pictorial art of American Indians; at the same time and by the same means his words achieve his purpose—an inner view, not merely an insider's view—of what it might have meant, or must have meant, to be a part of that high plains "horse culture" which flourished so briefly but gloriously in the American West. Among the many scenes of this life is one told from the point of view of Momaday's great-uncle Pohd-lohk ("Old Wolf" in Kiowa):
That summer the Nez Percés came. It was then five years since they had been released from imprisonment at Fort Leavenworth and two before they should be allowed to return to their northern homeland. They seemed a regal people, as tall as the Kiowas, as slow to reveal themselves. There was an excitement about them, something of legendary calm and courage. It was common knowledge that, under their great chief Joseph, they had fought brilliantly against the United States and had come very close to victory. It was the first time that Pohd-lohk had seen them, but he had known of them all of his life. The Kiowas remembered that, long ago, they had come upon these imposing people … in the high lands on the edge of the Northern Plains. This was a part of the larger story in which Pohd-lohk believed. It was a good thing to have the Nez Percés; they were worthy guests, worthy of him, he thought, of his youthful vigor and good looks. For their benefit he strutted about and set his mouth just so, in the attitude of a warrior.
It is this man Pohd-lohk ("They say he made fine arrows") who bestows on the child Scott Momaday his first Kiowa name, Tsoai-talee, meaning "Rock-tree Boy." Tsoai, the Rock-tree, is the 1,200-foot volcanic butte in Wyoming which the whites called Devil's Tower. For the Kiowas it was a place of high significance. "It loomed above the earth, the far crest roving upon eternity…. In the night it stood away and away and grew up among the stars." To be named after that mysterious and mystic rock was, for the boy, a high honor and a compelling one. For among the Indians a name was never merely an identifying tag but something much more important, a kind of emblem and ideal, the determining source of a man or woman's character and course of life.
Pohd-lohk spoke, as if telling a story, of the coming-out people, of their long journey. He spoke of how it was that everything began, of Tsoai, and of the stars falling or holding fast in strange patterns in the sky. And in this, at last, Pohd-lohk affirmed the whole life of the child in a name, saying: Now you are, Tsoai-talee.
Now you are.
And so, using his mother's language, our language, Scott Momaday tells his story in the manner of his father's people, moving freely back and forth in time and space, interweaving legend, myth, and history, exploring the minds of many remarkable personages, including some of the strong, gentle old women who were among his father's lineage. There is little nostalgia in this book, certainly no sentimentality, but the tone of the whole, intended or not, becomes, at least for this reader, as I have said, inescapably elegiac.
For the great horse and hunting culture of the Kiowas (and all other plainsmen) is gone. It may have been the freest, most adventurous, most beautiful way of life ever known on this or any other of the earth's five continents. But it could not withstand the violent advance of European-American industrialism, the rapacity of overwhelming numbers. The overt violence is now part of the past; the seductive violence of our greed-and-consumption culture continues its cancerlike expansion. The American Southwest, where I have found my home, remains the final holdout against that malaise. But it is yielding fast; and most of the oldest inhabitants of this region, the Indian tribes, have already succumbed to the manifold pressures and allurements of the ever-growing economy. "Give up your land, give up your freedom and dignity," say the many voices of this new power, "and in return we will give you safety, security, welfare, prefab housing, pickup trucks, color television, Holsum ice cream, Rainbo Bread, and on-the-job training."
Those voices lie, for even their cheapest promises turn out eventually to be false. Scott Momaday's book suggests the possibility, even the hope, that through some new alliance of the best in the Indians' culture and the best of the white man's civilization, we might yet find a way to answer that lie and repeal its apparent conquest.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8170
SOURCE: "Words and Place: A Reading of House Made of Dawn," in Western American Literature, Vol. XI, No. 4, February, 1977, pp. 297-320.
[An American critic and educator, Evers has authored several books on Native American songs and has served as president of the Association for Study of American Indian Literatures. In the essay below, he examines Momaday's focus on language, landscape, and Native American rituals and narratives in House Made of Dawn.]
Native American oral traditions are not monolithic, nor are the traditions with which Momaday works in House Made of Dawn—Kiowa, Navajo, and Towan Pueblo. Yet there are, he suggests [in "A Conversation with N. Scott Momaday," Sun Tracks: An American Indian Literary Magazine 2, No. 2 (1976)], "common denominators." Two of the most important of these are the native American's relation to the land and his regard for language.
By imagining who and what they are in relation to particular landscapes, cultures and individual members of cultures form a close relation with those landscapes. Following D. H. Lawrence and others, Momaday terms this a "sense of place" [in his "A Special Sense of Place," appearing in Viva, Santa Fe New Mexican, (7 May 1972)]. A sense of place derives from the perception of a culturally imposed symbolic order on a particular physical topography. A superb delineation of one such symbolic order is offered by Tewa anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz in his study The Tewa World from which the following prayer is taken:
Within and around the earth, within and around the hills, within and around the mountains, your authority returns to you.
The Tewa singer finds in the landscape which surrounds him validation for his own song, and that particular topography becomes a cultural landscape, at once physical and symbolic. Like Ko-sahn, Momaday's grandmother, the native American draws from it "strength enough to hold still against all the forces of chance and disorder" ["An American Land Ethic," Sierra Club Bulletin 55 (February 1970)].
The manner in which cultural landscapes are created interests Momaday, and the whole of his book The Way to Rainy Mountain may be seen as an account of that process. During their migration journey the Kiowa people "dared to imagine and determine who they were…. The journey recalled is among other things the revelation of one way in which these traditions are conceived, developed, and interfused in the human mind." The Kiowa journey, like that recounted in emergence narratives of other tribes, may be seen as a movement from chaos to order, from discord to harmony. In this emergence the landscape plays a crucial role, for cultural landscapes are created by the imaginative interaction of societies of men and particular geographies.
In the Navajo emergence narrative, for example, First Man and First Woman accompanied by Coyote and other actors from the animal world journey upward through four underworlds into the present Fifth World. The journey advances in a series of movements from chaos to order, and each movement takes the People toward greater social and symbolic definition. The cloud pillars of the First World defined only by color and direction become in the Fifth World the sacred mountains of the four directions, the most important coordinates in an intricate cultural geography. As with the Tewa and the Kiowa, that cultural landscape symbolizes the Navajo conception of order, the endpoint of their emergence journey. Through the emergence journey, a collective imaginative endeavor, the Navajos determined who and what they were in relation to the land.
The extraordinary interest in geography exhibited in Navajo oral literature then may be seen as an effort to evoke harmony in those narratives by reference to the symbolic landscape of the present world. Significantly, a major test theme in Navajo oral literature requires identification of culturally important geographic features. Consider the Sun's test of the Hero Twins in one of the final episodes in the emergence narrative [as recounted in Ethelou Yazzie's 1971 Navajo History]:
He asked them to identify various places all over the surface of the earth. He asked, "Where is your home?" The boys knew where their home was. They pointed out Huerfano Mountain and said that was where they lived. The Sun next asked, "What mountain is that in the East?"
"That's Sis Naajiní (Blanca Peak)," replied the boys.
"What mountain is down here below us?"
"That's Tsoodzi (Mount Taylor)," said the boys.
"What mountain is that in the West?"
"That's Dook 'o'oosííd (San Francisco Peak)."
"Now, what mountain is that over in the north?"
"Those are the Dibé Nitsaa (La Plata Mountains)."
Because all the boy's answers were correct, the Sun said goodby to them as they were lowered down to the earth at the place called Tó Sidoh (Hot Springs).
Through their knowledge of the Navajo cultural landscape the Twins proved who and what they were to the Sun.
The pattern of the emergence narrative—a journey toward order symbolized by a cultural landscape—is repeated in Navajo chantway rituals. A patient requires a chantway ritual when his life is in some way out of order or harmony. In order for that harmony to be restored he must be taken through a ritual re-emergence journey paralleling that of the People. It is important to note the role of the singer and his ritual song here, for without songs there can be no cure or restoration of order. Through the power of the chanter's words the patient's life is brought under ritual control, and he is cured.
We come round, then, to another of the "common denominators" Momaday finds in oral traditions: attitude toward language. Of Kiowa oral tradition Momaday writes [in The Way to Rainy Mountain]: "A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things." It is this concept, remarkably like one text version of the Navajo origin giving "One Word" as the name of the original state of the universe, which forms the center of Tosamah's sermon on St. John's gospel in the novel [House Made of Dawn]. But more germane to our discussion of oral tradition generally is the related notion that "by means of words can a man deal with the world on equal terms." It is only through words that a man is able to express his relation to place. Indeed, it is only through shared words or ritual that symbolic landscapes are able to exist. So it is that the Tewa singer, the Navajo chanter, and the Kiowa "man of words" preserve their communities through their story and song. Without them there would be no community. One contemporary Navajo medicine man [Curley Mustache] suggests that loss of ceremonial words will signal the end of the world: "The medicine men who have knowledge in the Blessing Way (Hozho ji) will all evidently be lost. The words to the song will vanish from their memory, and they will not know how to begin to sing."
In this context we can better appreciate Abel's dilemma in House Made of Dawn. As Momaday suggests [in "A Conversation with N. Scott Momaday"]: "One of the most tragic things about Abel, as I think of him, is his inability to express himself. He is in some ways a man without a voice…. So I think of him as having been removed from oral tradition."
House Made of Dawn opens and closes with the formulaic words which enclose all Jemez pueblo tales—dypaloh and qtsedaba, placing it consciously in that oral tradition. As many oral narratives, the novel is shaped around a movement from discord to harmony and is structurally and thematically cyclic. The prologue is dominated by the race, a central theme in the novel as Momaday has suggested [in an interview appearing in Puerto del Sol 12 (1973)]:
I see [House Made of Dawn] as a circle. It ends where it begins and it's informed with a kind of thread that runs through it and holds everything together. The book itself is a race. It focuses upon the race, that's the thing that does hold it all together. But it's a constant repetition of things too.
[Elsie Clews Parsons tells us in the 1925 The Pueblo of Jemez] that racing is a conspicuous feature of Jemez ceremonialism. The winter race Abel runs in the prologue and at the end of the novel is the first race in the Jemez ceremonial season, an appropriate ceremonial beginning. But the race itself may be seen as a journey, a re-emergence journey analogous to that mentioned in connection with Navajo and Kiowa oral tradition. Indeed, the language echoes a Navajo re-emergence song sung in the Night Chant, from which the title of the book is taken.
These journey and emergence themes begin to unfold in the following scene as Francisco goes in his wagon to meet the bus returning Abel to Walatowa after WWII. The wagon road on which he rides is parallel to the modern highway on which Abel rides. The two roads serve as familiar metaphors for the conflicting paths Abel follows in the novel, and Momaday reinforces the conflict by parallel auditory motifs as well. As the wagon road excites in Francisco memories of his own race "for good hunting and harvests," he sings good sounds of harmony and balance. At the same time the recurrent whine of tires on the highway is constantly in the background until "he heard the sharp wheeze of the brakes as the big bus rolled to a stop in front of the gas pump…." The re-emergence theme is suggested in the passage by the presence of the reed trap—recalling the reed of emergence, and the fact that Abel returns "ill." He is drunk, of course, but he is also ill, out of balance, in the manner of a patient in a Navajo chantway.
Abel's genealogy, the nature of his illness, and its relation to the auditory motifs mentioned above are further defined in the seven fragments of memory he experiences as he walks above the Cañon de San Diego in the first dawn following his return. At the same time these fragments establish a context for Abel's two prominent encounters in Part I with Angela Grace St. John and with the albino Juan Reyes Fragua.
Abel's genealogy is complicated. He did not know who his father was. "His father was a Navajo, they said, or a Sia, or an Isleta, an outsider anyway," which made Abel "somehow foreign and strange." The ties Abel does have to Walatowa are through his mother whose father, Francisco—both sacristan and kiva participant—is the illegitimate son of the consumptive priest Fray Nicolas V. Through Francisco, Abel is a direct descendant of the Bahkyush, a group of Towan-speaking pueblos who immigrated to Jemez in the mid-nineteenth century. He is a "direct [descendant] of those men and women who had made that journey along the edge of oblivion," an experience which gave them a "tragic sense." Abel, as his Bankyush ancestors, is on just such a "journey along the edge of oblivion" in the novel.
Abel's journey in Part I is a journey of return to Walatowa and his illness is most explicitly related to a WWII experience. At the end of his seven memory fragments in the first dawn of his return Abel recalls:
This—everything in advance of his going—he could remember whole and in detail. It was the recent past, the intervention of days and years without meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused, that he could not put together in his mind.
In the confusion of war among soldiers who recognized him only as a "chief" speaking in "Sioux or Algonquin or something," Abel lost both the sense of place which characterized his tribal culture and the very community which supports that sense of place. "He didn't know where he was, and he was alone." Incredibly, he doesn't even recognize the earth: "He reached for something, but he had no notion of what it was; his hand closed upon the earth and the cold, wet leaves."
Mechanical sounds are associated with Abel's disorientation. The "low and incessant" sound of the tank descending upon him reaches back in the novel to the "slow whine of tires" Francisco hears on the highway and looks ahead to the sound of Angela's car intruding on his vision in the first dawn above the valley as it creeps along the same highway toward the Jemez church. These are the same mechanical sounds Abel tried "desperately to take into account" as the bus took him away to the war—again on the same highway. They are the sounds that reminded him as he left the pueblo to go to war that "the town and the valley and the hills" could no longer center him, that he was now "centered upon himself."
That Angela Grace St. John, the pregnant wife of a Los Angeles physician who comes to Walatowa seeking a cure for her own ailments, will become an obstacle in Abel's re-emergence journey is first suggested by the extensive auditory motifs of Part I. Yet her perceptions of his problems and of the Indian world generally have earned the sympathy of some readers. Perhaps her most seductive perception is that of the significance of the corn dancers at Cochiti Pueblo:
Their eyes were held upon some vision out of range, something away in the end of distance, some reality that she did not know, or even suspect. What was it that they saw? Probably they saw nothing after all,… nothing at all. But then that was the trick, wasn't it? To see nothing at all,… nothing in the absolute. To see beyond the landscape, beyond every shape and shadow and color, that was to see nothing. That was to be free and finished, complete, spiritual…. To say "beyond the mountain," and to mean it, to mean, simply, beyond everything for which the mountain stands of which it signifies the being.
As persuasive as Angela's interpretation of the Cochiti dancers may seem, it is finally a denial of the value of the landscape which the novel celebrates. Angela's assumption that the Cochiti dancers possess a kind of Hindu metaphysics which rejects phenomena for noumena is a projection of her own desires to reject the flesh. Her attitude toward the land is of a piece with her attitude toward her own body: "she could think of nothing more vile and obscene than the raw flesh and blood of her body, the raveled veins and the gore upon her bones." We become almost immediately aware of the implications of that denial she craves in two following scenes: the corre de gaio and Abel's second reflection on the Cañon de San Diego.
We view the corre de gaio through Angela who again projects feelings about her own existence on the ceremony. For Angela the ceremony like herself is "so empty of meaning … and yet so full of appearance." Her final impression of the ceremony is sexual. She senses some "unnatural thing" in it and "an old fascination returned upon her." Later she remarks of the ceremony: "Like this, her body had been left to recover without her when once and for the first time, having wept, she had lain with a man." In the albino's triumph and Abel's failure at the corre de gaio she finds sexual pleasure.
The etiological legend of Santiago (St. James) and the rooster is told by Fr. Olguin appropriately enough for his "instinctive demand upon all histories to be fabulous." The legend explains the ceremonial game which follows in the novel. Just as the sacrifice of the rooster by Santiago produced cultivated plants and domesticated animals for the Pueblo people, so too does ritual re-enactment of the sacrifice promote fertility at Walatowa. While ethnographers suggest that the corre de gaio is of relatively minor ceremonial importance in Pueblo societies, in the context of the novel the rooster pull affords Abel his first opportunity to re-enter the ceremonial functions of the village. It is, we are told, the first occasion on which he has taken off his uniform. Though the ceremony itself seems efficacious, as rain follows in the novel, Abel is "too rigid" and "too careful" at the game and fails miserably.
Abel's failure at the rooster pull demonstrates his inability to reenter the ceremonial life of the village, as he realizes in his second reflection at dawn, July 28, 1945. The section opens with an explicit statement of the relation of the emergence journey and the landscape: "The canyon is a ladder to the plain," and is followed by a description of the ordered and harmonious existence of life in that landscape. Each form of life has its proper space and function in the landscape, and by nature of that relation is said to have "tenure in the land." Similarly, "man came down the ladder to the plain a long time ago. It was a slow migration…." Like the emergence journeys of the Kiowa and the Navajo mentioned earlier, the migration of the people of Walatowa led to an ordered relation to place which they express in their ceremonial life. As Abel walks in this landscape in the dawn he is estranged from the town and the land as well. "His return to the town had been a failure" he realizes because he is no longer attuned to its rhythms. He has no words to express his relation to the place. He is "not dumb," but "inarticulate."
Despite his inarticulateness, the rhythm and words are still there "like memory, in the reach of his hearing." We recall that on July 21, seven days before, "for a moment everything was all right with him." Here however;
He was alone, and he wanted to make a song out of the colored canyon, the way the women of Torreón made songs upon their looms out of colored yarn, but he had not got the right words together. It would have been a creation song; he would have sung lowly of the first world, of fire and flood, and of the emergence of dawn from the hills.
Abel is at this point vaguely conscious of what he needs to be cured. He needs a re-emergence. He needs words, ceremonial words, which express his relation to the cultural landscape in which he stands. He needs to feel with the Tewa singer quoted earlier his authority return to him. But here out of harmony with himself and his community he needs most of all the kind of re-emergence journey offered in a Navajo chantway.
Significantly, the passage closes, as did the dawn walk of July 21, with an emblem of Angela St. John intruding on Abel's vision: "the high white walls of the Benevides house." The house itself is another symbol of Angela's denial of the land or more particularly the landscape of the Cañon de San Diego. In contrast to Francisco and the other native residents of Walatowa who measure space and time by reference to the eastern rim of the canyon, Angela measures hers in relation to this "high, white house:"
She would know the arrangement of her days and hours in the upstairs and down, and they would be for her the proof of her being and having been.
His re-entry into the village spoiled, Abel turns not to the ceremonial structure of the pueblo for support but to Angela. And it is the Benevides house, not the land, which provides "the wings and the stage" for their affair. Abel's first sexual encounter with Angela is juxtaposed in the novel with Francisco's encounter with the albino witch in his cornfield. Indeed, Angela, who "keened" to the unnatural qualities of the albino during the corre de gaio, echoes the auditory symbols of evil mentioned earlier. Just as Nicolas teach-whau "screamed" at him, and the moan of the wind in the rocks frightened him earlier, as Angela and Abel make love "she wanted to scream" and is later "moaning softly."
Earlier in his life Abel found physical regeneration through a sexual experience with Fat Josie. His affair with Angela has just the opposite effect. Lying physically broken on the beach in Part II Abel reflects:
He had loved his body. It had been hard and quick and beautiful; it had been useful, quickly and surely responsive to his mind and will…. His body, like his mind, had turned on him; it was his enemy.
The following couplet in the text implicates Angela in this alienation:
Angela put her white hands to his body.
Abel put his hands to her white body.
Later Abel tells Benally that "she [Angela] was going to help him get a job and go away from the reservation, but then he got himself in trouble." That "trouble" derives in part from Abel's separation from his land.
Auditory symbols follow Abel directly from his affair with Angela to the climactic scene of Part I, the killing of the albino. Just before the murder the albino laughs "a strange, inhuman cry." Like the sound of Nicolas teahwhau it is "an old woman's laugh" that issues from a "great, evil mouth." At the very scene of the murder the only sound that breaks the silence is "the moan of the wind in the wires."
That Abel regards the albino as evil, as a witch (sawah), is clear enough even without the explicit statements of Father Olguin, Tosamah, and Benally later. Moreover, it is clear at the time of the murder that Abel regards the albino as a snake. He feels "the scales of the lips and the hot slippery point of the tongue, writhing." But that Abel is "acting entirely within the Indian tradition" when he kills the albino is wrong.
Abel's compulsion to eradicate the albino-snake reveals an attitude toward evil more akin to the Christian attitude of Nicolas V: "that Serpent which even is the One our most ancient enemy." The murder scene is rife with Christian overtones. The killing takes place beneath a telegraph pole which "leaned upon the black sky;" during the act "the white hands still lay upon him as if in benediction", and after the albino's death "Abel knelt" and noticed "the dark nails of the hand seemed a string of great black beads." Abel appears to kill the albino then as a frustrated response to the White Man and Christianity, but he does so more in accordance with Anglo tradition than Indian tradition. Indeed, he has been trained in the Army to be a killer.
We recall here that the murder takes place squarely in the middle of the fiesta of Porcingula, the patroness of Walatowa, and that a central part of the ceremony on that feast is a ritual confrontation between the Pecos bull and the "black-faced children, who were the invaders." Parsons describes the bull-baiting at Jemez during the fiesta of Porcingula, August 1, 1922, as follows:
An hour later, "the Pecos bull is out," I am told and hasten to the Middle. There the bull-mask is out playing, with a following of about a dozen males, four or five quite young boys. They are caricaturing Whites, their faces and hands painted white; one wears a false mustache, another a beard of blond hair. "U.S.A." is chalked on the back of their coat or a cross within a circle…. They shout and cry out, "What's the matter with you boy?" or more constantly "Muchacho! Muchacho!"
The bull antics are renewed, this time with attempts of his baiters to lasso. Finally they succeed in dragging him in front of their house, where he breaks away again, to be caught again and dragged into the house. From the house a bugler steps out and plays "Wedding Bells" and rag-time tunes for the bull-baiters to dance to in couples, "modern dances," ending up in a tumble. Two by two, in their brown habit and sandaled feet, four of the Franciscan Fathers pass by. It grows dark, the bugler plays "taps" and this burlesque, reaching from the Conquistadores to the Great War, is over for the night.
The very day then that Abel kills the albino the community from which he is estranged could have provided him with a way of ritually confronting the white man. Had his return not been a failure, he might have borne his agony, as Francisco had "twice or three times," by taking the part of the bull. "It was a hard thing," Francisco tells us, "to be the bull, for there was a primitive agony to it, and it was a kind of victim, an object of ridicule and hatred." Hard as that agony was, Abel as Francisco before him might have borne it with the support of his community. Separated from that community, he acts individually against evil and kills the white man.
Momaday forces us to see the murder as more complicated and subtle in motivation despite Benally's sympathetic reflections on the realities of witchery, Tosamah's reference to the murder as a legal conundrum, and Abel's own statement that the murder was "not a complicated thing." Death has not been a simple thing for Abel to cope with earlier in the novel, as shown by his emotional reactions to the deaths of the doe, the rabbit, the eagle, as well as the deaths of his brother Vidal and his mother. More to the point is the fact that the White Man Abel kills is, in fact, a white Indian, an albino. He is the White Man in the Indian; perhaps even the White Man in Abel himself. When Abel kills the albino, in a real sense he kills a part of himself and his culture which he can no longer recognize and control. That that part should take the shape of a snake in his confused mind is horribly appropriate given the long association of the Devil and the snake in Christian tradition and the subsequent Puritan identification of the American Indians as demonic snakes and witches in so much of early American literature. In orthodox Pueblo belief the snake and the powers with which it is associated are accepted as a necessary part of the cosmic order: "The Hebres view of the serpent as the embodiment of unmitigated evil is never elaborated among the Pueblos; he is too often an ally for some desired end" [Hamilton A. Tyler, Pueblo Gods and Myths, 1964].
Yet, the whiteness of the albino suggests something more terrible than evil to Abel. As the whiteness of the whale does to Ishmael, it suggests an emptiness in the universe, a total void of meaning. It is an emblem complementary to Angela's philosophizing over the Cochiti dancers. The albino confronts Abel with his own lack of meaning, his own lack of a sense of place.
This reading is reinforced by the poignant final scene in Part I. Francisco stands alone in his corn field demonstrating the very sense of place Abel has lacked on his return. We recall that in this very field Francisco too had confronted evil in the shape of the albino, but that he responded to the confrontation very differently:
His acknowledgement of the unknown was nothing more than a dull, intrinsic sadness, a vague desire to weep, for evil had long since found him out and knew who he was. He set a blessing upon the corn and took up his hoe.
Because of Abel's act, Francisco is for the first time separated from the Walatowa community. He stands muttering Abel's name as he did in the opening of the chapter, and near him the reed trap—again suggesting the reed of emergence—is empty.
Part II of the novel opens with Abel lying broken, physically and spiritually, on the beach in Los Angeles. Like the helpless grunion with whom he shares the beach, he is out of his world. Abel's problem continues to be one of relating to place. As in Part I at Walatowa he fails to establish a sense of place in Los Angeles because of a failure to find community. Not only is he separated from other workers at the factory, but even Tosamah and the Indian men at the Silver Dollar reject Abel. That rejection is a major cause of Abel's second futile and self-destructive confrontation with evil in the person of Martinez, a sadistic Mexican policeman. The pattern of the second confrontation is a repetition of the first. Just as Abel kills the albino at Walatowa after he has failed to find community there, so too he goes after Martinez, also perceived as a snake (culebra), after he has failed utterly to find community in Los Angeles. Implication of Anglo society in this failure is again explicit and powerful, as Abel has been sent to Los Angeles by the government on its Relocation Program after serving time in prison for killing the albino.
On the beach Abel "could not see." This poverty of vision, both physical and imaginative, is akin to the inability of one-eyed Father Olguin to "see" and is related to Abel's prison experience: "After a while he could not imagine anything beyond the walls except the yard outside, the lavatory and the dining hall—or even walls, really." Yet it is by the sea that Abel gains the insight required to begin his own re-emergence. For the first time he asks himself "where the trouble had begun, what the trouble was," and though he still cannot answer the question consciously, his mind turns again to the mechanical auditory images noted earlier:
The bus leaned and creaked; he felt the surge of motion and the violent shudder of the whole machine on the gravel road. The motion and the sound seized upon him. Then suddenly he was overcome with a desperate loneliness, and he wanted to cry out. He looked toward the fields, but a low rise of the land lay before them.
The bus takes Abel out of a context where he has worth and meaning and into a context where "there were enemies all around." From the cultural landscape of the Cañon de San Diego to the beach where "the world was open at his back," Able's journey has taken him, as his Bahkyush ancestors, to "the edge of oblivion": "He had been long ago at the center, had known where he was, had lost his way, had wandered to the end of the earth, was even now reeling on the edge of the void." On the beach, then, Abel finally realizes that "he had lost his place," a realization accompanied by the comprehension of the social harmony a sense of place requires. Out of his delirium, as if in a dream, his mind returns to the central thread of the novel, the race, and here at last. Abel is able to assign meaning to the race as a cultural activity:
The runners after evil ran as water runs, deep in the channel, in the way of least resistance, no resistance. His skin crawled with excitement; he was overcome with longing and loneliness, for suddenly he saw the crucial sense in their going, of old men in white leggings running after evil in the night. They were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe. Meaning because of them. They ran with great dignity and calm, not in, hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect, Evil was. Evil was abroad in the night; they must venture out to the confrontation; they must reckon dues and divide the world.
We recall that as Abel killed the albino "the terrible strength of the hands was brought to bear only in proportion as Abel resisted them" (emphasis added). The murder is an expression of Abel's disharmony and imbalance. As Abel here realizes "evil is that which is ritually not under control" [Gladys A. Reichard, Navajo Religion: A Study of Symbolism, 1974]. In the ceremonial race, not in individual resistance, the runners are able to deal with evil.
Tosamah's description of the emergence journey and the relations of words and place serve as a clue to Abel's cure, but the role he plays in Abel's journey appears as ambiguous and contradictory as his character. He is at once priest and "clown." He exhibits, often on the same page, remarkable insight, buffoonery, and cynicism. He has then all the characteristics of Coyote, the trickster figure in native American mythologies. Alternately wise and foolish, Coyote in native American oral tradition is at once a buffoon and companion of the People on their emergence journey. As Coyote, a member of "an old council of clowns," the Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah speaks with a voice "full of authority and rebuke." As Coyote, "he likes to get under your skin; he'll make a fool out of you if you let him." Note how Momaday describes Tosamah:
He was shaggy and awful-looking in the thin, naked light; big, lithe as a cat, narrow-eyed, suggesting in the whole of his look and manner both arrogance and agony. He wore black like a cleric; he had the voice of a great dog.
The perspective Tosamah offers Abel and the reader in the novel derives not so much from his peyote ceremonies, for which Momaday seems to have drawn heavily on La Barre's The Peyote Cult, but rather from the substance of the two sermons he gives. The second sermon, "The Way to Rainy Mountain," which Momaday has used in his book by the same title and several other contexts, addresses the relation of man, land, community, and the word. In it Tosamah describes the emergence of the Kiowa people as "a journey toward the dawn" that "led to a golden age." It was a journey which led the Kiowa to a culture which is inextricably bound to the land of the southern plains. There, much in the manner of Abel looking over the Cañon de San Diego in Part I, he looks out on the landscape at dawn and muses: "your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun." By making a re-emergence journey, Tosamah is able to feel a sense of place.
That coherent native relation to the land described so eloquently by Tosamah is counterpointed in the novel not only by Abel's experiences but also by the memories of Milly, the social worker who becomes Abel's lover in Los Angeles. Milly, like Tosamah, is from Oklahoma. There her family too had struggled with the land, but "at last Daddy began to hate the land, began to think of it as some kind of enemy, his own very personal and deadly enemy." Even viewed in the dawn her father's relation to the land was a despairing and hopeless one:
And every day before dawn he went to the fields without hope, and I watched him, sometimes saw him at sunrise, far away in the empty land, very small on the skyline turning to stone even as he moved up and down the rows.
The contrast with Francisco, who seems most at home in his fields, and with Tosamah, who finds in that very landscape the depth of his existence, is obvious. The passage also recalls Angela's denial of the meaning of the land and Abel's own reflections on "enemies."
In his first sermon in the novel, Tosamah addresses the crucial role of words and the imagination in the reemergence process. The sermon is a bizarre exegesis of St. John's gospel which compares Indian and Anglo attitudes toward language. As participants in oral traditions, Indians, Tosamah tells us, hold language as sacred. They have a childlike regard for the mysteries of speech. While St. John shared that sensibility, he was also a white man. And the white man obscures the truth by burdening it with words:
Now, brothers and sisters, old John was a white man, and the white man has his ways. Oh gracious me, he has his ways. He talks about the Word. He talks through it and around it. He builds upon it with syllables, with prefixes and suffixes, and hyphens and accents. He adds and divides and multiplies the Word. And in all of this he subtracts the Truth.
The white man may indeed, Tosamah tells us, in a theory of verbal overkill that is wholly his own, "perish by the Word."
Words are, of course, a problem for Abel. On the one hand, he lacks the ceremonial words—the words of a Creation song—which properly express his relation to community and place. He is inarticulate. On the other, he is plagued by a surfeit of words from white men. The bureaucratic words of the social worker's forms effectively obscure his real problems. At the murder trial, he thinks: "Word by word by word these men were disposing of him in language, their language, and they were making a bad job of it." Again when Benally takes him to the hospital after the beach scene bureaucratic words get in the way. Indeed, Benally perceives Abel's central problem as one of words, as he equates finding community with having appropriate words:
And they can't help you because you don't know how to talk to them. They have a lot of words, and you know they mean something, but you don't know what, and your own words are no good because they're not the same; they're different, and they're the only words you've got…. You think about getting out and going home. You want to think that you belong someplace, I guess.
Tosamah perceives a similar dislocating effect of words on Abel, though he relates it to religion. Scorning his inarticulateness and innocence, he sees Abel as caught in "the Jesus scheme." Beyond his sermons, there is a special irony in the fact that Tosamah doesn't understand Abel and his problems, for he is described several times in Part II as a "physician." Though they put Abel's problems in a broader and clearer perspective, Tosamah's words are of little use to Abel.
Part III is told from the point of view of Ben Benally, a relocated Navajo who befriends Abel in Los Angeles. Roommates in Los Angeles, Ben and Abel share many things in their backgrounds. On his one visit to Walatowa, Benally finds the landscape there similar to that in which he grew up. Like Abel he was raised in that landscape without parents by his grandfather. Benally even suggests that he is somehow related to Abel since the Navajos have a clan called Jemez, the name of Abel's pueblo. Moreover, we recall that Abel's father may have been a Navajo, and that Francisco regards the Navajo children who come to Walatowa during the Fiesta of Porcingula as "a harvest, in some intractable sense the regeneration of his own bone and blood." This kinship gives Benally special insight into Abel's problems and strengthens his role as Night Chanter.
Benally's childhood memories of life with his grandfather near Wide Ruins reveal a sense of place very like that Abel groped for on his return to Walatowa:
And you were little and right there in the center of everything, the sacred mountains, the snow-covered mountains and the hills, the gullies and the flats, the sundown and the night, everything—where you were little, where you were and had to be.
Moreover, this sense of place gives him words: "… you were out with the sheep and could talk and sing to yourself and the snow was new and deep and beautiful."
In Los Angeles, however, Benally's sense of place is lost in his idealism and naïveté. Return to the reservation seems a pale option to the glitter of Los Angeles. "There would be nothing there, just the empty land and a lot of old people, going no place and dying off." Like Milly, Benally believes in "Honor, Industry, the Second Chance, the Brotherhood of Man, the American Dream…." Theirs is a 50's American Dream of limitless urban possibilities. Benally believes you can have anything you want in Los Angeles and that "you never have to be alone." Yet in the very scene following his reflection on this urban cornucopia, we find Benally excluded even from the community of The Silver Dollar, counting his pennies, unable to buy a second bottle of wine. Idealism obscures Benally's vision, even as Tosamah's cynicism obscures his.
Nevertheless, Benally is the Night Chanter, the singer who helps restore voice and harmony to Abel's life. In the hospital having realized the significance of the runners after evil, Abel asks Benally to sing for him:
"House made of dawn." I used to tell him about those old ways, the stories and the songs, Beautyway and Night Chant. I sang some of those things, and I told him what they meant, what I thought they were about.
The songs from both the Beautyway and the Night Chant are designed to attract good and repel evil. They are both restorative and exorcising expression of the very balance and design in the universe Abel perceived in the runners after evil. Ben's words from the Night Chant for Abel are particularly appropriate, since the purpose of the Night Chant is to cure patients of insanity and mental imbalance. The structure and diction of the song demonstrate the very harmony it seeks to evoke. Dawn is balanced by evening light, dark cloud and male rain by dark mist and female rain. All things are in balance and control, for in Navajo and Pueblo religion good is control. Further note that a journey metaphor is prominent in the song ("may I walk….") and that the restorative sequence culminates with "restore my voice for me." Restoration of voice is an outward sign of inner harmony. Finally, note that the song begins with a culturally significant geographic reference: Tségihi. One of its central messages is that ceremonial words are bound efficaciously to place. No matter how dislocated is Benally or idiosyncratic his understandings of Navajo ceremonialism, the songs he sings over Abel clearly serve a restorative function.
Angela also visits Abel in the hospital and offers him words. She tells Abel the story her son likes "best of all." It is a story about "a young Indian brave," born of a bear and a maiden, who has many adventures and finally saves his people. Benally marvels at the story which reminds him of a similar story from the Mountain Chant told to him by his grandfather. Yet unlike the Navajo legend and the Kiowa bear legend told by Tosamah earlier, both etiological legends tied firmly to cultural landscapes, Angela's story is as rootless as a Disney cartoon. Abel seems to realize this, if Benally does not, for he does not respond to Angela. Benally "couldn't tell what he was thinking. He had turned his head away, like maybe the pain was coming back, you know." Abel refuses to play Angela's game a second time.
Part IV opens with a description of a grey, ominous winter landscape. Olguin is reflecting on his seven years' service at Walatowa. He claims to have grown "calm with duty and design," to have "come to terms with the town." Yet he remains estranged from the village; it is not his place. He measures his achievement in the language of commerce, noting with his predecessor Nicolas V. what good works "accrued to his account." Like Angela who was offended that Abel "would not buy and sell." Olguin seeks to at least make good the "investment" of his pride.
Whereas Abel looks to Benally's Night Chant for restoration Olguin seeks and claims to find restoration from the journal of Nicolas. In that same journal we recall Nicolas V. himself sought restoration of his Christian God:
When I cannot speak thy Name, I want Thee most to restore me. Restore me! Thy spirit comes upon me & I am too frail for Thee!
The passage leaves off in a fit of coughing and seems a singularly ineffectual request.
At the same time Abel sits with his dying grandfather. Though Francisco's voice had been strong in the dawn, it now grows weaker and fades as it has on each of the six days since Abel's return to Walatowa. The few words Francisco does speak, in Towa and Spanish, juxtapose in the manner of Parts I and II the memory fragments which Abel seeks to order in his own mind. Francisco is here, as Momaday suggests [in the 1973 Puerto del Sol interview], "a kind of reflection of Abel." The passage translates:
Little Abel … I'm a little bit of something … Mariano … cold … he gave up … very, very cold … conquered … aye [exclamation of pain], Porcingula … how white, little Abel … white devil … witch … witch … and the black man … yes … many black men … running, running … cold … rapidly … little Abel, little Vidal … What are you doing? What are you doing?
As the seventh dawn comes these words grow into coherent fragments in Francisco's memory and serve as a final statement of the realizations about the relation of place, words, and community Abel has had earlier in the novel.
Each of the fragments is a memory of initiation. In the first Francisco recalls taking Abel and Vidal to the ruins of the old church near the Middle to see "the house of the sun."
They must learn the whole contour of the black mesa. They must know it as they knew the shape of their hands, always and by heart…. They must know the long journey of the sun on the black mesa, how it rode in the seasons and the years, and they must live according to the sun appearing, for only then could they reckon where they were, where all things were in time.
This is the sense of place Abel lost in "the intervention of days and years without meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused." As he is instructed to know the shape of the eastern mesa like his own hands, it is appropriate that in the corre de gaio the albino should first attack his hands, that in the murder scene (and Abel's memory of it) hands should be so prominent, and finally that as he lies on the beach after Martinez's brutal beating of his hands, Abel should think of Angela's effect on him in terms of hands. The relation to place taught him by Francisco is broken by each, as are his hands. Now through Francisco's memory Abel is retaught his ordered relation to place and how it is expressed in "the race of the dead." Abel similarly participates in Francisco's memories of his initiation as a runner (in the race against Mariano), as a dancer (from which he gained the power to heal), as a man (with Porcingula, "the child of the witch"), and as a hunter (as he stalks the bear).
All signs then point to a new beginning for Abel as he rises February 28, the last day of the novel. His own memory healed by Francisco's, for the first time in the novel he correctly performs a ceremonial function as he prepares Francisco for burial and delivers him to Father Olguin. He then joins the ashmarked runners in the dawn. Momaday comments on that race in his essay "The Morality of Indian Hating" [in Ramparts 3 (1964)]:
The first race each year comes in February, and then the dawn is clear and cold, and the runners breathe steam. It is a long race, and it is neither won nor lost. It is an expression of the soul in the ancient terms of sheer physical exertion. To watch those runners is to know that they draw with every step some elementary power which resides at the core of the earth and which, for all our civilized ways, is lost upon us who have lost the art of going in the flow of things. In the tempo of that race there is time to ponder morality and demoralization, hungry wolves and falling stars. And there is time to puzzle over that curious and fortuitous question with which the people of Jemez greet each other.
That very question—"Where are you going?"—must ring in Abel's ears as he begins the race. The time and direction of his journey are once again defined by the relation of the sun to the eastern mesa, "the house made of dawn." Out of the pain and exhaustion of the race, Abel regains his vision: "he could see at last without having to think." That vision is not the nihilistic vision of Angela—"beyond everything for which the mountain stands." Rather, Abel's "last reality" in the race is expressed in the essential unity and harmony of man and the land. He feels the sense of place he was unable to articulate in Part I. Here at last he has a voice, words and a song. In beauty he has begun.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4460
SOURCE: "The Art and Importance of N. Scott Momaday," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. XIV, No. 1, January, 1978, pp. 30-45.
[In the excerpt below, Dickinson-Brown offers a stylistic examination of House Made of Dawn, The Way to Rainy Mountain and several of the poems in Angle of Geese.]
The Kiowa Indian N. Scott Momaday came to public attention in 1969, surprising everyone, including himself and his editors, by winning the Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn. He has before and since maintained a quiet reputation in American Indian affairs and among distinguished literati for his genius, his extraordinary range, his fusion of alien cultures, and his extraordinary experiments in different literary forms.
House Made of Dawn is a memorable failure. Some of its passages attain a prose surface brilliance and also a depth, not at all like the historic depth of Macaulay or the ancient, almost etymological depth of Hardy, but a kind of depth of physical perception simultaneous with a post-Romantic understanding of man's relationship to nature—an understanding and a sensory perception which are both great and unique:
He was a young man, and he rode out on the buckskin colt to the north and west, leading the hunting horse, across the river and beyond the white cliffs and the plain, beyond the hills and the mesas, the canyons and the caves. And once, where the horses could not go because the face of the rock was almost vertical and unbroken and the ancient handholds were worn away to shadows in the centuries of wind and rain, he climbed among the walls and pinnacles of rock, adhering like a vine to the face of the rock, pressing with no force at all his whole mind and weight upon the sheer ascent, running the roots of his weight into invisible hollows and cracks, and he heard the whistle and moan of the wind among the crags, like ancient voices, and saw the horses far below in the sunlit gorge. And there were the caves. He came suddenly upon a narrow ledge and stood before the mouth of a cave. It was sealed with silver webs, and he brushed them away. He bent to enter and knelt down on the floor. It was dark and cool and close inside, and smelled of damp earth and dead ancient fires, as if centuries ago the air had entered and stood still behind the web. The dead embers and ashes lay still in a mound upon the floor, and the floor was deep and packed with clay and glazed with the blood of animals. The chiseled dome was low and encrusted with smoke, and the one round wall was a perfect radius of rock and plaster. Here and there were earthen bowls, one very large, chipped and broken only at the mouth, deep and fired within. It was beautiful and thin-shelled and fragile-looking, but he struck the nails of his hand against it, and it rang like metal. There was a black metate by the door, the coarse, igneous grain of the shallow bowl forever bleached with meal, and in the ashes of the fire were several ears and cobs of corn, each no bigger than his thumb, charred and brittle, but whole and hard as wood. And there among the things of the dead he listened in the stillness all around and heard only the lowing of the wind … and then the plummet and rush of a great swooping bird—out of the corner of his eye he saw the awful shadow which hurtled across the light—and the clatter of wings on the cliff, and the small, thin cry of a rodent. And in the same instant the huge wings heaved with calm, gathering up the dead weight, and rose away.
The book glitters with similar passages, a shining tension between the cultural and the wild, between language and wind. But it is also filled with awkward dialogue and affected description ("There was no sound in the house, save the seldom crackling of the fire," etc.). And the novel falls apart rather than coming together: it remains a batch of often dazzling fragments, a kind of modern prose Sutton Hoo—perhaps because the young Momaday yielded to the deadly, fashionable temptation of imitative form in dealing with contemporary identity crisis, here specifically the fragmented personality of the misfit Abel. The book's own fragmentation is not quotable, since the problem is an incoherence of large parts, but any reader will readily grant that the sequence of items—say, the bear hunt and the murder that parallels it; the night scenes with Father Olguin; Abel's flashbacks; his encounter with the enemy tank; and his encounter with Angela—is without fixed order. The parts can be rearranged, no doubt with change of effect, but not always with recognizable difference. The fragments thus presented are the subject. The result is a successful depiction but not an understanding of what is depicted: a reflection, not a novel in the comprehensive sense of the word. (This is ironic, since Momaday's teacher Yvor Winters made such associational forms one of his major bêtes noires, but it is no more ironic than the pervasive associationism of that other great student of Winters, J. V. Cunningham, and of Winters himself.)
House Made of Dawn has other annoying peculiarities. In such an episodic narrative the reader tends to depend upon clues and keys, thematic links and the like. Momaday increases this tendency with historical parallels and contrasts which are essential to his meaning, such as those between Father Olguin and Fray Nicolàs, and Abel and his grandfather. But the reader is misled by a false parallel between the albino Abel kills and the albino stillbirth recorded in the psychologically superb journal of Fray Nicolàs. Albinism is not uncommon among Native American people, and the record of detail is a traditional and important function of narrative; but the details should not mislead. Momaday once indicated to me in conversation that he was unaware of the possibility of a connection between the albinos, and there is, after all, nothing in the novel to establish a connection. Yet most readers look for one. And there is at least one other important occurrence of the same problem: there seems to be, finally, no particular relationship between the old witch and the young one, in spite of misleading hereditary suggestions.
The book is therefore an intelligent miscellany of more and less well-written facets that together represent a historical and contemporary situation of great importance, but it is not a successful understanding of or coping with that situation, and so it fails as a novel—right through its evasive ending.
What remains is nonetheless sometimes rare photography with scraps of great prose. The prose is often rhythmically distinguished: long in its rhythms, with neither the complex clauses of James and Macaulay nor the streams of Joyce and Faulkner, yet very far indeed from the syntactical and artistic simplifications of Hemingway. And there are other successes. The long unified description of the bear hunt is remarkable for its psychological perception of the sexual relationship between hunter and hunted (the prose, the psychology, and the bear owe something to Faulkner). And the great description of the Eagle Watchers Society approaches the barren courage of Melville's The Encantadas.
But probably the most successful general feature of the novel is its landscape, which is both intensely sensory and symbolic in its implication of a human and historically specific relationship to that landscape:
There is a kind of life that is peculiar to the land in summer—a wariness, a seasonal equation of well-being and alertness. Road runners take on the shape of motion itself, urgent and angular, or else they are like the gnarled, uncovered roots of ancient, stunted trees, some ordinary ruse of the land itself, immovable and forever there.
This is extraordinary physical detail; no one has achieved anything quite like it before. But it is even more abstract than it is physical, with neither quality detracting from the other. Nor is the abstraction figurative; it is implicit in the detail, and the detail is implicit in it. This kind of symbolism was called post-symbolic by Winters and has come to be associated with him, although he did not invent it but only observed, named, and practiced it. In any case Momaday's use of it is peculiar to him and to his Indian culture. It is a landscape and a way of living nowhere else available, and gives us reason to remember the book, if only in the way in which Hume's History of England and the poems of Edmund Waller are remembered.
In The Way to Rainy Mountain (starkly illustrated by Momaday's father Al), Momaday adopts a more apparently associational structure, adapts it to his purposes more distinctively, controls it better, and therefore writes better. The book makes an almost Jamesian symmetry: the whole, brief history of the Kiowa people is recounted, from "The Setting Out" from unknown beginnings in the Northwest mountains, through "The Going On" of a fiery nineteenth-century horse culture in the desert Southwest, to "The Closing In," the murder of their culture by the white European settlers of the same century. Each of these primary sections is composed of "triplets":
Once there was a man who owned a fine hunting horse. It was black and fast and afraid of nothing. When it was turned upon an enemy it charged in a straight line and struck at full speed; the man need have no hand upon the rein. But, you know, that man knew fear. Once during a charge he turned that animal from its course. That was a bad thing. The hunting horse died of shame.
In 1861 a Sun Dance was held near the Arkansas River in Kansas. As an offering to Tai-me, a spotted horse was left tied to a pole in the medicine lodge, where it starved to death. Later in that year an epidemic of smallpox broke out in the tribe, and the old man Gaapiatan sacrificed one of his best horses, a fine black-eared animal, that he and his family might be spared.
I like to think of old man Gaapiatan and his horse. I think I know how much he loved that animal; I think I know what was going on in his mind: If you will give me my life and the lives of my family, I will give you the life of this black-eared horse.
The three primary sections are flanked on either side: at first by a Prologue and an Introduction, both vehicles for recounting the book's occasion, which was the author's personal journey retracing simultaneously both his ancestry and his tribe's migration; and at last by an Epilogue. These in turn are flanked by short beginning and closing poems.
These symmetries are simple and the story is simple, and dignified, and rich in coherent detail. Much critical comment upon it would be offensive and tedious. The prose resembles that of the better parts of House Made of Dawn, but the associationism succeeds here because no larger structure than a chronological anthology of details is attempted; the parts accrue rather than compose. Here and elsewhere Momaday's diction, rhythm, or syntax can be inflated and sentimental, but the fault is not usually ruinous and is often entirely avoided:
In the Kiowa calendars there is graphic proof that the lives of women were hard, whether they were "bad women" or not. Only the captives, who were slaves, held lower status. During the Sun Dance of 1843, a man stabbed his wife in the breast because she accepted Chief Dohasan's invitation to ride with him in the ceremonial procession. And in the winter of 1851–52, Big Bow stole the wife of a man who was away on a raiding expedition. He brought her to his father's camp and made her wait outside in the bitter cold while he went in to collect his things. But his father knew what was going on, and he held Big Bow and would not let him go. The woman was made to wait in the snow until her feet were frozen.
It is surprising that Momaday has published so few poems. Angle of Geese contains only eighteen—the considered work of a great poet around the age of forty. But the poems are there, astonishing in their depth and range. "Simile," "Four Notions of Love and Marriage," "The Fear of Bo-talee," "The Story of a Well-Made Shield," and "The Horse that Died of Shame" are variously free verse (the first two, which are slight and sentimental) or prose poems. They partake of the same discrete intensity that characterizes the storytelling in The Way to Rainy Mountain, and which makes them some of the few real prose poems in English.
The poems written in grammatical parallels are much better: "The Delight song of Tsoai-talee" and "Plainview: 2." In the latter, Momaday has used a form and created emotions without precedent in English:
I saw an old Indian
At Saddle Mountain.
He drank and dreamed of drinking
And a blue-black horse.
Remember my horse running.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse running.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse wheeling.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse wheeling.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse blowing.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse blowing.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse standing.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse standing.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse hurting.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse hurting.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse falling.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse falling.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse dying.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse dying.
Remember my horse.
A horse is one thing,
An Indian another;
An old horse is old;
An old Indian is sad.
I saw an old Indian
At Saddle Mountain.
He drank and dreamed of drinking
And a blue-black horse.
Remember my horse running.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse wheeling.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse blowing.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse standing.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse falling.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse dying.
Remember my horse.
Remember my blue-black horse.
Remember my blue-black horse.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse.
A chant or a parallel poem is necessarily bulky and especially oral. I have often recited this poem to individuals and groups, in part to test its effect upon an English-language audience. My own voice is consciously based upon the oral readings of Pound, Winters, and Native American chant, with a dash of childhood Latin Mass. I read the lines without musical intonation but with emphatic regularity and little rhetorical variation. The results are extreme: about half the listeners are bored, the other half moved, sometimes to tears. The poem is obviously derived from Momaday's experience of Indian chant, in which, as in most other cultures, small distinction is made between music and poetry. In this respect "Plainview: 2" is a part of the abandoned traditions of Homer, The Song of Roland, oral formulas, the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish chant, and even certain Renaissance poems. The various forms of repetition in these works are still common in the Islamic and black African and certain other worlds, but they survive in the West (where individual originality has destroyed community), only through such traditional popular genres as commercial song (which, unlike "modern intellectual" poetry and "classical" music, preserves the fusion), nursery rhymes, and among the non-white minorities. These are our surviving traditions of form, which is by nature repetitive.
In addition to the obvious repetitions in "Plainview: 2," the repetition of stanza 1 at stanza 10, and the two-line rehearsal of the four-line stanzas turn the poem. The whole poem is, in fact, simply a subtle variation, development, and restatement of the first stanza, with the extended, reiterated illustration of both the beauty of the horse's actions and its death. The ninth stanza occupies the poem like a kernel of gloss, but even its third and fourth lines are simply restatements of its first and second.
The form of this poem distinguishes with rare clarity what we call denotative and connotative. In a literate age of recorded language, where memory and repetition—sides of a coin—have each faded from our experience, we are inclined to regard such hammering as a waste of time—but it can, instead, be an intensification and a kind of experience we have lost. That is precisely the division of modern response to the poem.
The rest of Momaday's poetry is traditionally iambic or experimentally syllabic. Winters has called the iambic pentameter "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion" a great poem, and perhaps it is, in spite of a certain stiltedness and melodrama, reminiscent of the worst aspects of House Made of Dawn. Yet the iambic poems are certainly among the best of their kind in Momaday's generation, and it is only the exigency of space that limits me to a few lines from "Rainy Mountain Cemetery":
Most is your name the name of this dark stone.
Deranged in death, the mind to be inheres
Forever in the nominal unknown….
Momaday's theme here is an inheritance from Winters, though it is as old as our civilization: the tension, the gorgeous hostility between the human and the wild—a tension always finally relaxed in death. Winters did a great deal to restore and articulate that consciousness, after and in the light of Romanticism. And it was Winters too who taught Momaday one of his greatest virtues, the power and humanity of abstraction—heresy in the cant of our time: deranged is a pure and perfect abstraction.
And there is more Winters:
… silence is the long approach of noon
Upon the shadow that your name defines—
And death this cold, black density of stone.
We have already seen this in House Made of Dawn. Winters called it post-symbolist method. The physical images carry the full force, often through double sense, of abstraction: the shadow defines; and death is the impenetrability, the incomprehensibility, of black density. Yet the images are not metaphors, for they are not subservient to the abstractions they communicate, nor are they synecdochical.
They persist in the very mortal obstinacy which they mean. This style is everywhere in Momaday, but it is something which Winters could not have duplicated, for it is also profoundly Kiowa….
Momaday's syllabic poetry is his best and experimentally most exciting work. Even deprived of the rest of the poem, the middle stanza of "The Bear" seems to me among the perfect stanzas in English, rhythmically exquisite in its poise between iamb and an excess of syllabic looseness, utterly comprehensive in its presentation of the motionless wild bear and its relationship to time:
Seen, he does not come,
move, but seems forever there,
in the windless noon's hot glare.
"Comparatives" is a tour-de-force of alternating unrhymed three- and four-syllable lines, again with Momaday's abstract and physical fusion. Momaday succeeds in presenting such unrhymed, short lines rhythmically, in spite of a necessarily high incidence of enjambment; the faint lines convey a melancholy appropriate to the antiquity and death which are the consequence of his juxtaposition of the dead and the fossil fish:
… cold, bright body
of the fish
upon the planks,
the coil and
crescent of flesh
just into death.
in the distant,
a shadow runs,
rude in the rock:
fissure of bone
It is perhaps
the same thing,
Momaday's greatest poem is certainly "Angle of Geese," a masterpiece of syllabic rhythm, of modulated rhyme, of post-symbolic images, and of the meaning of language in human experience. Although perhaps none of its stanzas is equal to the best stanza of "The Bear," each functions in a similar way, shifting from perfect to imperfect to no rhyme with the same supple responsiveness Dryden mastered, but with more range. Nevertheless the largest importance of this poem, even beyond its extraordinary form is its theme, which is probably the greatest of our century: the extended understanding of the significance of language and its relation to identity—an understanding increased not only by the important work done by the linguists of our century but also by the increased mixture of languages which has continued to accelerate over the last hundred years or so: French or English among Asians and Africans, often as first or only languages among nonetheless profoundly non-European people; Spanish established on an Indian continent; and, of course, English in America. These are non-native native speakers of English, as it were, further distinguishing literature in English from English literature. Their potential has much to do with their relative freedom from the disaster and degeneracy which Romantic ideas have created among their European-American counterparts: many of these new English writers still have deep connections with their communities, instead of the individualistic elitism which characterizes contemporary European-American art, music, and poetry. They are more like Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Homer. And they often have fewer neuroses about the evils of form. Momaday, as a Kiowa, a university scholar, and a poet of major talent, is in an excellent position to take advantage of these multi-cultural possibilities. The result is "Angle of Geese":
How shall we adorn
Recognition with our speech?—
Now the dead firstborn
Will lag in the wake of words.
We are civil, something more:
More than language means,
The mute presence mulls and marks.
Almost of a mind,
We take measure of the loss;
I am slow to find
The mere margin of repose.
And one November
It was longer in the watch,
As if forever,
Of the huge ancestral goose.
So much symmetry!
Like the pale angle of time
The great shape labored and fell.
Quit of hope and hurt,
It held a motionless gaze,
Wide of time, alert,
On the dark distant flurry.
The poem is difficult and a little obscure, mostly because the subject is—but also because Momaday has indulged a little in the obscurantism that makes modern poetry what it is—and an explication of the poem is therefore necessary.
The first stanza presents the subject and observes that the Darwinian animal which we were, who is our ancestor, cannot be rediscovered in our language, which is what moved us away and distinguished us from the animal.
The second stanza explains the divorce: we have become civilized, but not wholly. "The mute presence" may, by syntax, seem to be the presence of language, but it is not. It is the presence of wilderness which is mute. We live in connotation, which is wild response. "Mulls" and "civil" are odd diction.
The third stanza contemplates this ambivalence, this incompleteness, and moves from the general to the particular. We are almost whole, or wholly civilized and conscious, and to precisely this extent we have lost our own wilderness. The speaker, introduced at this point, is slow to realize, outside language, what is wild in him. The language is typical of Momaday in its outright and exact abstraction: "mere" in the old sense of pure or unadulterated—here, by language and civilization; "margin" because this is where humans, with their names and mortality, overlap with wilderness, which has neither; "repose" because what is wild is forever and at every moment perfect and complete, without urgency, going nowhere, perpetuating itself beautifully for no sake at all. It is useful to remember wilderness here primarily in terms of immortal molecules and galaxies, without number or name—except those collective names imposed upon them by men who have to that extent simply perceived and thought about that which is unaltered by thought, which does not know the thinker, and which is, finally, a kind of god—not a god, as Stevens said, "but as a god might be." It is a kind of altered Romantic god, but one supported rather more by the pure sciences than by Deism and Benevolism: a nature pure and perfect, composed of sub-atomic particles and framed in an unimaginable universe with no edge. Language contradicts itself with this god, who is its enemy. It is the wilderness of our century, deprived of Romantic benevolence but retaining its old terrifying innocence and immense and nameless beauty, which ignores us and must destroy us, one by one. It is a god of mere repose. The goose, which the hunter waits for one November, is almost perfectly a part of the god (Momaday only implies the word), although a goose shares with men certain forms of individual consciousness of itself and others. Some animals have some language, and to this extent the goose knows the same clear and lonely condition we do, and is an imperfect symbol of the wilderness. The long watch, in any case, implies the eternity which is the whole of which the goose is an indiscriminate part: as if forever. The goose is huge because it is inseparable from the wild deity: what Emerson called the "not I," which neither names nor knows itself, which cannot die—whatever is, like the grasshopper of the ancient Greeks, immortal because the individuals have no name. That is our ancestor who does not know us, whom we hardly know.
So, in the fifth stanza, the symmetry of the angle or V of the flock of geese implies the perfection for which geometry and symmetry have always served as imaginary means. A goose is shot, and falls out of the angle, into the speaker's world.
The last stanza gives the goose a little of that hope and hurt which grants this sophisticated animal a part of what will kill the speaker: a conscious identity. But the goose is essentially wild, and it holds, like an immortal cockatrice, an inhuman gaze—motionless, outside the time in which we live and die, wildly, purely alert—fixed on the receding flurry of the flock out of which it fell, growing as dark and distant physically as it is in truth to the dying speaker who watches it too and for whom, alone, something has changed. The word "flurry" fuses with the flock all the huge vagueness which is our blind source.
"Angle of Geese" seems to me the best example both of Momaday's greatness and his importance to contemporary literature: it profoundly realizes its subject, both denotatively and connotatively, with greater art in an important new prosodic form than anyone except Bridges and Daryush. It also presents better than any other work I know—especially in the light of what has only recently been so developed and understood—perhaps the most important subject of our age: the tragic conflict between what we have felt in wilderness and what our language means.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1023
SOURCE: A review of The Names, in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 387-89.
[In the piece reprinted below, McAllister provides a mixed review of The Names, questioning, in particular, Momaday's advocacy of self-imagining as a means of establishing Native identity.]
Scott Momaday remains one of the premier writers of American Indian literature, his reputation established by two of his first achievements, the novel House Made of Dawn and his cultural memoir, The Way to Rainy Mountain. Since the latter appeared in 1969, he has continued to produce essays and poems and to demonstrate that he is one of our most polished writers; but his admirers have waited eagerly for his next full-length work. The Names is that work. Perhaps my eagerness inflated my expectations too much; in spite of its many good qualities, it is a disappointment.
One excellence of Momaday's writing is his perfection of control, that diamond-cutter's precision of style. It is a talent both admirable and dangerous. In neither his poetry nor his prose is there ever a sense that Momaday has let go, set things loose, there is always that infinite shyness costumed as sophistication, the unstated mystery not even acknowledged, a privacy of meaning and purpose. Privacy is a basic right. The razor balance of personal privacy versus public honesty in a writer is one of the great tensions of literature; but when the writer's method begins to seem obtrusively evasive, it is troubling for the reader.
The central issue of The Names is an act of the imagination, and its implications seem to me deftly evaded. The book takes Momaday from his ancestral roots to the day he left to finish high school in Virginia. It focuses on the development of his imagination and his interest in writing; it is a portrait of the artist as a young Indian. And yet there is a conscious, retrospective shaping of the story that makes the book seem less a memoir and more—perhaps I should say more honestly, since all autobiography partakes of this—an act, like Joyce's novel, of personal mythopoesis.
Momaday describes his mother, in her adolescence, "imagining" herself Indian. She is, by his reckoning, one-eighth Cherokee. As he describes her background, there is nothing to suggest she was Indian in any other sense—not by cultural contact, not through family pride in Indian blood. Yet somehow she was accepted at the Haskell Indian school, and Momaday's birth certificate, quoted in The Names, calls him seven-eights Indian, impossible unless his mother was legally three-fourths Cherokee. This seems a purposeless mystery, and would be a questionable inconsistency if The Names were a novel.
The important matter, however, is the question of imagination. What does it mean to say Natachee Scott "imagined who she was"? Given one-eighth degree of Indian blood, Natachee's act of imagination resembles that of James Gatz, who transformed himself into his Platonic idea. Natachee's act has added importance since her son calls his similar act of imagination one of the most important in his life. Is a person who imagined herself Indian, really Indian?
The issue is central to Momaday's work. Being Indian is a complex act of mind and will. On the one hand, Momaday is legally Indian because the government so defines his birth. Moreover, he is culturally Indian because, as The Names illustrates, he grew up within that political and cultural gestalt called American Indian life, partaking of his Kiowa heritage, deeply influenced by his Kiowa elders, moving through the lives of many reservations.
But another kind of being is essential, that moment of self-imagining for which all other beings are a necessary preparation and without which they are wasted. It is an act of the imagination, but it is also an essential act—not frivolous, not a deception, but an assumption of persona.
There are disappointing things about The Names. A reader familiar with House Made of Dawn will be at a loss to find the novel's emotional roots in Momaday's loving portrait of Jemez. Because the book ends as he is finishing high school, it tells us very little about the influences of his college years and adult life that have shaped his literary career.
The Names is focused on the ancestral foundation of Momaday's imaginative life. It begins with the land, and with language, the concrete and abstract poles that together define Momaday's sensibility. It offers a sharp and moving portrait of what it was—and is—to grow up Indian in America. It is a book to be read and savored for its excellences. For the student of American Indian literature, it will be a provoking book, provoking for the questions it raises and the gaps it leaves in our understanding, stimulating in its attempts to come to intellectual grips with the issue of what it means to be Indian.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7345
SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday: Towards an Indian Identity," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1979, pp. 39-56.
[Zachrau is an educator. In the essay below, he discusses Momaday's focus on the search for Native identity in House Made of Dawn, The Way to Rainy Mountain, and The Names.]
During the past twenty years ethnic literature and its impact have increased considerably. However, in comparison to Black or Jewish literature, Indian writing has played a relatively small role. While Black and Jewish writers defined themselves in terms of their ethnic identities and expressed their problems and concerns within this context, American Indians did not consider themselves primarily Indians, belonging to one common ethnic group, but emphasized their specific tribal origins as means for self-identification. In the 1970s, this attitude changed significantly with the advent of "Red Power"—a political and sociological movement indicative of the birth of a new sense of identity.
Since Indian history was originally transmitted through a strong, formalized oral tradition, there are virtually no written accounts of the original tribal histories, and as a consequence of the modern Indian experience, information on differing American Indian cultures is relatively poor. The destruction of numerous Indian tribes and their being forced to live together in reservations led to an erosion of varying traditions and life styles, but at the same time, it contributed to a growing awareness of being primarily Indian. A new prototype was created from characteristics which were supposed to be basically Indian: an undisturbed close relationship to the natural environment and a strong adherence to cultural values—values which actually had been distilled from different tribal traditions. As the prototype arose from an opposition to the white mass society, constantly denounced in the 1970's, it resulted in the image of a wholesome Indian existence with distinct ideological traits.
On a literary level, N. Scott Momaday's works reflect a sociological development which seems to indicate a reversal of roles: today it is the Indian way of life which is praised as an example to be followed by the white man. Momaday's first novel House Made of Dawn—awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1969—depicts the painful search for identity; The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) expands the idea and emphasizes the importance of Indian identity; and The Names (1976) evolves this concept in a more individual context.
Two of the relatively few commentaries on Momaday's writings illustrate particularly well the opposing views representative of white society's attitudes to contemporary American Indian problems. Apparently Marion W. Hylton completely accepts the idea of an intact Indian existence superior to modern mass society. [In "On Trail of Pollen: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," Critique 14 (1972), she] approaches House Made of Dawn with a purely emotional respect for Indian culture that comes close to awe, and, therefore, leads to numerous misinterpretations. Harold McAllister, however, gives a thoroughly Catholic interpretation [in "Incarnate Grace and the Paths of Salvation in House Made of Dawn," South Dakota Review 12 (1973)] by describing Angela as the Virgin Mary who offers the path of salvation to Abel. McAllister neglects the Indian dimension of this novel and overstates the importance of a cultural integration where white values predominate. While the interweaving of elements from Indian and non-Indian cultures is characteristic for House Made of Dawn and represents the basis for its structure and themes, it is, however, the strong emphasis on Indian qualities which determines this novel.
Momaday, himself a Kiowa Indian, combines and juxtaposes Christian and Indian motifs and images, and thereby attempts to give his novel a larger, more universal framework. Modern man's plight, his disturbed relationship to nature, is illustrated by an Indian with the biblical name "Abel" who wanders between the white man's world, represented by a hostile urban environment, and the Indian world of his forefathers which is closely linked to nature. The novel depicts different aspects of the concept of alienation, like the feeling of powerlessness, the sense of meaninglessness, cultural estrangement, social isolation and self-alienation. The protagonists who live in a white urban environment suffer from the impression that their destinies are controlled by external agents. As they are removed from the established values of their native communities, they feel culturally estranged and socially isolated. These sentiments and a vague notion of meaninglessness lead to self-estrangement, yet finally motivate the main protagonist, Abel, to search for means of identification, which he ultimately finds in his Indian background. The narrative technique supports the basic themes of alienation and search for identity which are varied and played upon in the manner of a musical composition.
A key to the structure and the plot of the novel is implicitly and explicitly provided by the figure of the old man Francisco, Abel's Indian grandfather, who still succeeds in living in harmony with his Indian background by assimilating the Christian culture. Francisco, who is at the same time a holy man of his Indian tribe and a sacristan of the Catholic church, remembers the upbringing of his grandsons:
… they must live according to the sun appearing, for only then could they reckon where they were, where all things were in time…. But his grandsons knew already;… the larger motion and meaning of the great organic calendar itself, the emergency of dawn and dusk, summer and winter, the very cycle of the sun and of all the suns that were and were to come.
According to the Indian "organic calendar," the novel is divided into four parts, preceded by a prologue which is not dated and has a legendary, timeless quality. The first part takes place in the countryside approximately four weeks after the summer solstice, the second in the city about four weeks after the winter solstice, the third in the city during the early spring rains, and the fourth again in the countryside at the time of the "long race of the black men at dawn."
The structure of the novel completes a circle: the last two chapters take up the themes of the prologue and the first; chapter, the sections called "July 20" and "Feb 27" begirt in a parallel way with a description of nature, as do the sections "July 21" and "Feb. 28." The first and the last word of the novel are conventional Indian formulas for beginning and ending a story; the prologue begins with the prayer words "There was a house made of dawn," and the book ends with Abel's song: "House made of pollen, House made of dawn." Furthermore, the last two sections thematically close the circle begun in the first two: Francisco, the representative of a threatened Indian culture, dies, and Abel, the representative of a "lost generation" alienated from its culture, finally comes home and takes over from his grandfather the traditional rite of the long race. The fact that Indian mythology provides the basic structure for the narrative and binds together the various subplots seems to reflect the author's belief in the supportive quality of Indian culture. Momaday uses Indian themes to link different episodes, diverging states of consciousness and levels of time.
At the beginning of the novel, on July 20, 1945, the anniversary of the Kiowas' historical defeat in 1890, the old man Francisco remembers his youth and importance within a still-intact Indian tradition symbolized by the race for good hunting and harvest; several years after the race, in 1889, when his leg is crippled by disease, he records the event by drawing a man running in the snow. At the end of the novel, Francisco remembers on his deathbed how he watched with his grandson Abel the "race of the dead," and his own death is described in the terms of the race. The motif of the runner not only connects the historical factual past outside the novel with the fictional past inside the novel, but also past and present within the narrative frame. Furthermore, the metaphor of the runner fuses the many subplots into the main plot of Abel's attempt to discover the right pace, to regain his lost identity. Abel is twice on the run—the first time before the novel begins, when he leaves his Indian society and fights the white man's war. His second race begins after an illusionary rest in his native community with the ritual killing of the albino, who stands for the frightening white man, and it lasts seven years until at the dawn of the seventh day of the ritual Abel becomes a traditional "Dawn Runner." Even small details from Indian mythology like the magic number "7" function as binding links between the remembered fictional past and the reported fictional present, both by a third-person narrative voice.
Form and content of this novel are built upon mythological themes. The image of the bear, for example, recurs in different contexts and Indian legends. Angela, the white woman to whom Abel makes love, compares him to a strong youthful bear, and later on tells her son a story of a boy born of a bear and a maiden; the story resembles a Navajo legend that Ben remembers. In one of his sermons, Tosamah, the self-appointed urban priest of the sun, tells a Kiowa legend about seven sisters and their brother who turn into a bear and the seven stars of the Big Dipper; and finally, the young man Francisco measures his strength against that of a bear in a traditional Indian hunting expedition. Thus the image of the bear connects legendary Indian fiction with Momaday's modern fiction, and at the same time, fictional past and present within the novel. The title of this novel is from a prayer song. "The House Made of Dawn," apparently symbolizing an Indian identity completely in harmony with the universe and the "organic calendar," as Francisco calls it. Ironically, and probably representative of the situation of the contemporary Indian, it is Ben, the "Night Chanter," an Indian who seems at least superficially to have adjusted to modern urban life, who sings those old chants as a consolation to the completely alienated Abel. Ben, however, only remembers the traditional words and legends after he gets drunk. Abel, who was unable to express himself in the white man's world and who could not pray when he first returned to his native society, silently sings the ritual song when he finally finds the right pace as a "dawn runner."
It is this magic quality of the oral word which Tosamah tries to convey in his sermons. By oral word history, traditions and instructions are transmitted which guarantee a continuation and survival of the tribe and enable man to come to terms with the universe. Momaday's decision to work in the novel form and his intentional use of Indian mythology could be interpreted as an attempt to translate the legendary and historical past of the Kiowas into a written account in order to preserve it, an intention which Momaday explicitly states in the epilogue to his second novel The Way to Rainy Mountain.
The importance of being in harmony with the motions of the universe is one of the author's main themes. Thus nature does not merely provide the scenery but influences or even determines the course of events. Although the landscape is far from idyllic, the description of its beauty and majesty is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. To achieve and keep this harmony man has to perform certain ceremonies and rites which are inexplicable and without power in the white man's world. The communication gap between the two worlds is thematically represented by Abel's trial and by his desperate attempt to fight in the traditional Indian way against a modern tank. As Abel is inarticulate, these incidents are commented upon by other figures. Their interpretations vary according to their distance from the Indian culture—from complete misunderstanding in the report of the white soldier, over rationalistic, half-truthful explanations by the Catholic priest and Tosamah, to Ben's instinctive, sensitive grasping of Abel's motivation. The gap between the rural Indian environment and the urban white environment is illustrated by the inversion of Indian values in the white man's world and vice versa.
While in Indian culture hunting is an honorable act, a one-to-one struggle in which both parties have a chance and respect each other, these rules are distorted in the white man's world. Abel has to fight against machines and is pitilessly hunted down and defeated in dark back alleys by a corrupted Mexican policeman. On the other hand, Christian mythology is inverted or assimilated in the Indian country. Francisco, named after the Catholic patron saint of the birds and animals, constantly remembers hunting scenes, and is first shown when he tries to trap a bird in order to get prayer plumes. Abel kills his Indian "brother," the "white man," and recovers from attempts on his life by Cain, his Mexican "brother." Playing upon the biblical story of St. John the Baptist, who experienced a divine revelation in the desert, the tormented Angela Grace St. John regains grace and comes to an epiphany in the Indian country through the close contact with its "heathen" culture; later she announces the arrival of an Indian saviour to her son, Peter. The sun priest's name is "John Big Bluff Tosamah," evoking allusions to St. John the Evangelist; Francisco's lover, the Indian witch, is called Porcingula like the fictional patron saint of Walatowa, Mary; Fray Nicolas could be interpreted as a distorted image of Nicholas of Cusa, a reformer who intended to reconcile the orthodox Church with Rome; and Father Olguin, whose name probably derives from the Spanish "ojos" (eyes) sees only in one eye. When Momaday presents a harmonious assimilation of Indian and non-Indian culture—which is best illustrated by the legend and the feast of Santiago—the Indian elements prevail in the same way as they do when Francisco dies and Abel, who has been alienated from both cultures, instinctively first performs the ancient Indian rites and then calls the Catholic priest.
The changes that have taken place in Indian life and the loss of identity as a consequence of the violating clash between the two cultures is revealed by a comparison between the important life stages of the old man Francisco, and the younger Indians Abel and Ben. After performing a traditional bear hunt, the young Francisco triumphantly returns on horseback to his village where he falls in love with an Indian woman who carries his child. As Francisco has already been infected by the Christian faith, he cannot fully accept his lover, the daughter of an Indian witch, and their child is stillborn. Abel's coming to manhood, however, is much less dignified: he unceremoniously shoots a doe and at a sun-dance makes drunken love to a girl who laughs about his sexual impotence. The fact that he sleeps with Angela, who is pregnant by another man, and Milly, who has lost a child by another man, suggests that he might be sterile. Finally there is Ben, a Navajo, who has been brought up in the white man's boarding school and returns from the city to a sun-dance. It is typical for the modern situation that he has acquired a horse, the traditional attribute of masculinity in the plains and southwest desert cultures, by offering in exchange an old Indian artifact which he actually no longer possesses. Furthermore, it is symptomatic that the girl whom he meets at the sundance wears dimes on her moccasins and asks him to give her something "that is worth a lot of money."
The decay of Indian society and culture in the city is symbolized by violence to Abel's face and hands and the resulting loss of vision. It is also illustrated by the ambiguity of the urban sun priest's attitude, by the shabbiness of the circumstances under which the city Indians live and by their excessive drinking in order to be "happy," as Ben expresses it. To cite only two small details which are indicative of the alienation of Indians in an urban environment: Abel proudly wears shiny shoes which are too big for him when he goes to the city, and the drum Tosamah uses at the urban prayer meeting is a "potbellied, cast-iron, three legged No. 6 trade kettle," a peyote drum.
The search for identity and the emphasis on the supportive quality of Indian tradition are not only thematically, expressed but also implied by the narrative technique. The first and the final chapter, both located in the Indian country, are clearly structured and told in a consistent narrative manner. Despite variations of the points of view and frequent shifts between fictional past and present, there is a clearcut distinction between the different time levels as well as between the narrative voice and the protagonists' states of consciousness, although they are all grammatically expressed in the third person. Reminiscences are either introduced as such by the narrative voice or they are printed in italics like the Francisco passages in the fourth chapter. Also different type faces are used to indicate legends, letters and sections from a diary which are inserted. Apparently Momaday tries to support even in the narrative technique the hypothesis that the magnificent landscape brings the imagination to life but that "there is no confusion of objects in the eye but one hill or one tree or one man." This clear vision is obstructed and finally lost in the city, a development that is again reflected in the structure of the narration.
Before the urban background of the second chapter, the different points of view are no longer separated from each other or from the narrative voice, and the narrative technique becomes even more complex through the additional insertion of sermons, dialogues, direct speech and first-person narrations. In a kind of stream-of-consciousness technique Abel's delirious state is illustrated. Considering the context and the diction of the following passage, one has to assume that it is meant to present Abel's point of view:
[Milly] had looked him squarely in the eye, had spoken up and laughed—she was always laughing—from the very first. Easy laughter was wrong in a woman, dangerous and wrong … she was talking to him and laughing, and her laughter was real and ringing. But he was sullen. He was not listening to her, but wanting her, thinking of how to have her. And she knew what he was thinking, and her voice and laughter grew sudden and a little too thin…. It was a long time since she had given herself to a man. She had nearly forgotten what to think about, worry about, dwell upon. And it was all right; she was big and plain and breathing hard, but she felt small and beautiful and dear among her things. The flat where she lived was dingy and cheaply done, but she said to herself that it was charming and quaint and tastefully arranged…. They were sitting on the side of her bed.
The stringency of this interior monologue is broken by the intrusion of Milly's thoughts and of an omniscient narrator's commentaries. A further difficulty arises with an abrupt switch from inner to outer perspective and even to an over-all perspective, here and in some other passages. The resulting confusion of voices cannot be entirely justified by an intention to demonstrate Abel's growing loss of orientation.
At some points the narrator apparently takes over Abel's part:
The runners after evil ran as water runs, deep in the channel, in the way of least resistance, no resistance. His skin crawled with excitement; he was overcome with longing and loneliness, for suddenly he saw the crucial sense in their going,…. They were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe. Meaning because of them…. Evil was abroad in the night; they must venture out to the confrontation; they must reckon dues and divide the world.
Although this taking over could be explained by the fact that Abel is inarticulate, and therefore has to have a spokesman, the discrepancy between the narrative voice and the character is replaces cannot be ignored. The Indian Abel, who has been depicted as a non-verbal, "limited" personality, would not seem capable of expressing himself or even thinking in those abstract, philosophical terms.
The use of different types of printing, which serves in the other chapters to separate different levels of time and consciousness, does not always function in this chapter. Italics, which mark personal memories throughout the novel, are used in the following passage for the lyrical musings of an unknown narrative voice which, to judge from the diction, cannot be Abel's:
And somewhere beyond the cold and the fog and the pain there was the black and infinite sea, bending to the moon, and there was the cold white track of the moon on the water. And far out in the night where nothing else was, the fishes lay out in the black waters, holding still against all the force and motion of the sea; or close to the surface, darting and rolling and spinning like lures, they played in the track of the moon. And far away inland there were great gray migrant geese riding under the moon.
One wonders whether in the second chapter Momaday has been caught in the protagonist's dilemma and lost the unobscured vision by an overconscious use of different techniques. He endangers the organic unity of his novel by forcing the reader to retrace the literary technique in order to stay clear-sighted.
Chapter 3, however, could be regarded as an example of the successful use of a complex narrative technique to underline the thesis and the plot of the novel. This part is told in the first person by a voice which identifies itself through the information it gives while addressing an imaginary listener, the reader. It is Ben, the urban Indian, whose isolation, social position and state of mind (while he talks he is slowly getting drunk) are all reflected in his diction. Sociolinguists would qualify his speech pattern as "restricted code," symptomatic of underprivileged classes in modern Western society. Ben's language is characterized by short, grammatically simply or incomplete sentences; longer phrases are paratactically structured. When he talks about his neighbour's loneliness and his personal problems, he tends to confuse cause and effect, and his explanations are more descriptive than analytical. His constant use of formulas like "you know" and "I guess" reveal insecurity and a need for reassurance. The characteristic reliance on non-verbal emotional communication is reflected in his instinctive grasp of the emotional problems which motivate the people who surround him: Abel, Milly, Mrs. Carlozini and Tosamah. Ben's helplessness and alienation from his own situation is emphasized by the predominance of the simple past tense in his makeshift dialogue. There is no grammatical distinction between events that have happened the same day and those that took place weeks before. The few occasions when Ben actually uses the present tense seem to indicate that he regards the things he talks about as irrevocable—the weather and the dreariness of the rain in the city, the habitual outfit of his poor neighbour, and his own depressing circumstances as an Indian in a hostile urban environment.
Italics mark the passages in which he dreams of his happy youth of long ago. When he recalls personal experiences as a young man in his Indian home, Ben changes from the first person "I" to "you." He thereby on the one hand reveals the distance between his former and his present life, and on the other hand transforms his personal experiences into more representative ones to be shared by others.
Compared to the passages intended to reflect Abel's delirious state of mind, the narrative technique is consistent in terms of point of view and perspective in this passage:
Let's see … let's see; Manygoats gave me three dollars, and I bought a bottle of wine. I wonder who that great big girl was. I have two dollars and eleven cents. I wish I had some more of that wine. I wish I had another bottle of wine … and a dollar bill … and two dimes … and two pennies.
Ei yei! with a name like that, and she had dimes … dimes on her shoes.
She's from Oklahoma, I think.
Henry, you keep that dollar bill and those two pennies. Give me twelve shiny dimes. For old time's sake, Henry, give me twelve shiny dimes. Time's dimes, shine wine.
Maybe the rain will let up for a while.
Here the confusion of different time levels functions to reveal Ben's drunkenness, paralleling his dislocation in time and space.
The discrepancy between the style of Ben's Indian prayers and his everyday language justifies his title as "Night Chanter," and it supports the alienation theme. Although the language of the chants is also simple, it is rhythmic and melodious and thereby creates a lyrical impression. Its repetitive pattern has a soothing effect which marks a strong contrast to the hectic tone of Ben's summary of the events that culminated in Abel's final defeat in the city. The third chapter finally ends in the hopeful mood of the Indian chant by joining Angela's tale about the arrival of an Indian saviour with Ben's remembering a similar Indian myth. Then it turns into a prayer in Ben's own words announcing Abel's coming home and the survival of Indian culture. To emphasize the trust in an Indian future, the refrain of "The House Made of Dawn" prayer, which Ben repeats, is changed from "May it be beautiful before me, May it be beautiful behind me …" into the more confident formulation: "With beauty before me, With beauty behind me …," and the last line. "In beauty it is finished" is rephrased in Ben's personal prayer, "And it was going to be right and beautiful."
Momaday varies the traditional literary image of the fatherless hero who sets out on a quest for identity in a way that is representative of the contemporary Indian situation. Being without roots, Abel, Ben and Tosamah, who stand for today's Indian generation, can neither find a new father in the modern world nor rely on any fathers in a destroyed old world; they have to return to their grandfathers. It is the Indian culture of their forefathers which offers them support, protection and the possibility of regaining a lost identity. Abel, who has lost his innocence by first leaving the garden of Eden and by then being driven out of it for having killed the "white man," attempts to regain it when he returns to the land of his forefathers and identifies with their culture. Admittedly, another solution is implied in the Angela plot. Contrary to Abel, Ben and Tosamah, who are unable to procreate and produce an heir, and to Milly whose daughter dies, Angela gives birth to a son named Peter. She conceives him by her white husband first, but does not accept him, then "re-conceives" him by the Indian Abel. The possibility that both cultures should be assimilated in order to survive, which is also hinted at in the Santiago legend, is, however, not fully developed. The final goal is apparently clear vision without rationalizing: "… [Abel] could see at last without having to think." On one level, the conclusion seems to approach Rousseau's ideology of the noble savage and the wholesome return to nature.
Less complex in terms of theme and narrative technique, Momaday's second novel, The Way to Rainy Mountain, could be interpreted as a variation on the identity theme. In the prologue the author calls it "the history of an idea, man's idea of himself," and there are numerous allusions to the belief that man must create a reality for himself in order to establish an identity. By consciously transforming the "fragmentary remains" of a verbal tradition, Momaday creates a document of the "endurance of the human spirit" and a written account of the tribal history of the Kiowas.
Thematically, the three parts of this narrative—"The Setting Out," "The Going On" and "The Closing In"—are built upon and linked by an introduction taken from one of Tosamah's sermons in House Made of Dawn. In the sermon Tosamah describes his pilgrimage to Rainy Mountain in order to retrace the birth, the coming of age and the death of the Kiowa people. In the novel it is an anonymous first-person narrator whose identity is established during his imaginary journey described in twenty-four untitled sections which form the main body of the book. In both cases the narrator's quest has been motivated by the death of his grandmother, who represented a last connection with the "golden age" of the Kiowa tribe. The pilgrim obviously belongs to a modern generation that has lost natural contact with the Indian tradition, and therefore he has to "see in reality" what his grandmother "had seen more perfectly in the mind's eye."
A comparison between Tosamah's sermon on "The Way to Rainy Mountain" and the introduction reveals only minor but possibly meaningful variations. Various bits of geographical information and personal impressions are left out in the introductory version, probably in order to put more emphasis on the Kiowas' legendary quest, and two longer passages dealing with man's quest in general and Tosamah's personal journey have been eliminated for the same reason. A small but significant modification seems to be the admission of the nameless narrator that he does not speak Kiowa, thereby revealing his distance from this Indian culture.
Implicit and explicit interpretations are given in two poems, the prologue and the epilogue. Together with an explanation of the author's intention these form the framework for the report of the imaginative journey. It is, therefore, more interesting to discuss how Momaday realizes his intentions in terms of an unusual narrative technique than to repeat the idea which stands behind this novel.
Similar to the rhetorical pattern of the prologue, a tripartite principle serves as a basic structure for the main body of the narration. This does not consist of a continuous text, but of a collection of twenty-four untitled but numbered sections which are gathered under three headings playing upon the introductory theme. Each of the numbered sections comprises three parts which are typographically arranged as three paragraphs. These paragraphs deal with different levels of reality: a legendary one, a historical or documentary one, and a personal one. The three levels are distinguished from each other through the insertion of mythological elements into the legendary passages, of facts, dates and quotations from an anthropological study into the historical passages, and personal remarks by the narrator into the biographical passages. At the same time they are linked to each other by the diction, which is simple in choice of words and syntax. The recurrence of traditional formulas like "once there was a man" or "long ago there was" recall the oral folk-tale tradition.
Throughout the chapters "The Setting Out" which describes the origin of the Kiowa tribe and their culture, and "The Going On" which depicts their ancient way of living, the different levels do not interfere with each other. In the first section of the chapter "The Closing In," however, which contrasts the Kiowas' final disgrace by the white man with their traditional war ethic, they are no longer separated from each other. From then on the distinct levels are thematically more and more intertwined, and the focus closes in on the narrator's dead grandparents, the last representatives of a generation that still lived in harmony with their Indian tradition.
Comparable to a stream-of-consciousness technique, the variation of a common theme joins the three vignette-like paragraphs with each other. Indian subjects and themes like the importance of religious rites, of food, the horse and the word, which are already familiar from House Made of Dawn, recur to form an "organic" weaving pattern. Metaphorically speaking, there seem, however, to be parts which are very loosely woven, and a loss of the geometric pattern in the third chapter, which might be intended to symbolize the "closing in" of the Kiowas and the resulting breakdown of the tribal order.
Momaday's novel could be interpreted as a modern version and continuation of the "calendar history of the Kiowa Indians." In the 1890s the anthropologist James Mooney "translated" paintings on skins which the Kiowas made in order to keep records of events, and it is certainly no accident that Momaday inserts excerpts from Mooney's reports into the so-called historical sections of his narrative.
By combining legend, history, individual accounts and his personal experiences, the nameless narrator not only establishes his own identity (a careful reading of the text permits the reconstruction of his family tree up to his great-great-grandparents) but also creates a sense of continuity.
Although The Way to Rainy Mountain is strictly an Indian tale in contrast to House Made of Dawn, which incorporates non-Indian elements, it appears to be less dogmatic and more universal. The return to nature and ancient tradition is not offered as the final salvation from man's alienation but as one way of establishing an identity and creating a reality by putting oneself into a proper relation with nature, family and tradition.
The Names designated as "A Memoir" is only an "autobiographical account" of N. Scott Momaday, alias Tsoai-Talee, but again the story of a quest for identity. Distinct features of the nameless traveller in The Way to Rainy Mountain can be recognized in the first-person narrator of The Names: the Indian branch of the family tree is identical; there is a photograph of Kosahn, the storyteller from the epilogue to The Way to Rainy Mountain; and several of the by now familiar Kiowa legends and themes are literally repeated in the first part of this novel, which could be described as a "personal calendar history." Similar to the Kiowas' manner of recording events by painting images, the narrator, who introduces himself by his Indian name, tells his story "in the way of his people" by evoking images instead of giving a chronological account of his life. In his narrative he fuses fragments from the historical and legendary past of his people with sketchy information about his family background and his childhood experiences. Thus the author Momaday defines himself through an "act of the imagination"—a term which he also applies to define this novel as a whole—and at the same time, he establishes himself as Tsoai-Talee, the perpetuator of the memory of Tsoai, the Kiowas' sacred mountain. Employing the technique of repetition, a characteristic device of the oral tradition, the narration of his imaginary journey to Tsoai, the Rock Tree mountain, reiterates and plays upon Indian themes which represent the basic framework of other works as well. The Names contains poems from Momaday's collection The Gourd Dancer ("The Stalker" and "Plainview 1"), Kiowa folk tales from The Way to Rainy Mountain ("The Coming-out"; "The Story of Tsoai" and several others) and Indian traditions observed during his childhood in Jemez. The latter obviously served as models for the Indian way of living described in House Made of Dawn. But apart from these thematic analogies, the autobiographical account is based on the same concept of self-realization through strong adherence to one's personal and cultural roots combined with a harmonious relationship to one's natural environment. The key sentences are "She [Momaday's mother] imagined who she was…. the same essential act [of the imagination] was to be among the most important of my own" and "… an idea of one's ancestry and posterity is really an idea of the self."
Developing a sense of identity is again substantiated by narrative devices which are even more complex than those employed in House Made of Dawn. This autobiographical account consists of four chapters which are framed by a prologue and an epilogue and headed by a short preface in which the narrator introduces himself as Tsoai-Talee. Each chapter is subdivided into several sections which vary in length and typography probably in order to illustrate visually the complex motions of the creative imagination and to induce the reader to participate in the creative act. A few examples of the narrative technique shall demonstrate how Momaday applies it to support the identity theme.
The first chapter deals with the different sources which contributed to the "coming into being" of Tsoai-Talee, Navarro Scott Momaday. This chapter encompasses eight numbered sections which again branch out into numerous small paragraphs. In addition to Indian tales, poems written by the artist Momaday, and family anecdotes, it contains fragments from popular American folk songs, prose poems about the landscape and family photos. Thus it reflects the different facets of his background and existence. The second chapter, which describes his growing awareness of language, and the evolution of his imagination born out of loneliness, is only divided into two parts. Whereas the first is similar in technique to the first chapter, the second part shifts the point of view: the narrator is looked upon from an outer perspective. His being talked about as "the boy" reveals his isolation in the Indian surrounding of his grandmother's house where he does not understand the Indian language. The narrative technique used in the third chapter to illustrate the various impressions which shape and spur his imagination resembles stream-of-consciousness technique, and it is turned into this specific manner of narration when the protagonist gropingly attempts to formulate an idea of himself.
Chapter "four" describes how the narrator finds his "whole self" in a well structured Indian society surrounded by a magnificent landscape. While the depictions of the Indian village of Jemez, its ritual calendar, and its people are semantically and syntactically transparent, the tight structure changes into a more intricate poetic language whenever the protagonist tries to convey his philosophy of intuitive understanding: "Sometimes you look at a thing and see only that it is opaque, that it cannot be looked into. And this opacity is its essence, the very truth of the matter."
The structure of The Names bears similarities to House Made of Dawn. Both novels complete a circular movement, they start from a traditional Indian background and return to it. Momaday states in the preface that he is Tsoai-Talee, and that this notion determines his existence. As according to Indian belief "a man's life proceeds from his name," he sets out on a journey but moves "against the grain of time." Thus he arrives where his own journey—and that of all Kiowas—began. In the epilogue Tsoai-Talee recalls the Indian names which contributed to the creation and acquiring of his name, hence his existence; on the back of a legendary Kiowa-horse, he passes in reverse order different stations described in the history of his people, sees "with his own eyes" the mythical Rock Tree mountain, and finally reaches the hollow log from which the Kiowas originated according to their myth.
Tsoai-Talee achieves his individual quest for identity in the same way as Abel and the traveller to Rainy Mountain, by reintegrating himself into the spiritual community of his people, and by establishing himself as the heir to a wholesome all-Indian tradition. Since—in a strict sense—there are fewer tribal societies left—in The Names Momaday mentions that even in the Jemez reservation the traditional rituals are no longer celebrated—the protagonists identify with a new Indian image based on a conglomerate of various cultures. Both House Made of Dawn and The Names encompass elements from Kiowa, Navajo, Pueblo and Peco traditions. The complexity inherent in such a mixture is, however, reduced. In all of his works Momaday propagates an Indian identity which is not based on an intellectual self-recognition but on an intense emotional state of awareness. Similar to Ben Benally who in a state of complete oblivion overcomes his alienation and turns into the "nightchanter" of Indian poetry, James Momaday in a moment of drunken epiphany attains clairvoyance about the meaning of his life when he is confronted with the beauty of nature. The Indian protagonists do not rationally analyze their situation with respect to the actual conditions of their existence, and thus fail to find their position in a society that has considerably changed. Instead they aim at a quasi-mystic transcendence of their finite being by striving for a spiritual communion with nature and the past.
The emerging Indian prototype carries the characteristic features of "the noble savage," particularly well-known in Romantic literature. Even minor details in Momaday's novels confirm this concept; the Indian characters are proud and courageous, physically beautiful, free of vice, hospitable and their natural intelligence is adversely affected by today's formal education. Momaday once explicitly stated that
the Indian is a man from whom a great deal can be learned, for the Indian has always known who and what he is; [and that] he has a great capacity for wonder, delight, belief and for communion with the natural world contradictory to the destruction rampant in "civilization."
In keeping with this belief, he turns to the reader and, in The Names, invites him to share the Indian experience of "the vibrant ecstasy of being." The Names appears to complete the cycle begun in House Made of Dawn. However, one wonders whether this cycle, offered by Momaday to his readers as the solution in the quest for identity, does not in reality represent a circular entrapment excluding the dimension of the future.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4233
SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday: Beyond Rainy Mountain," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1979, pp. 57-67.
[In the following essay, Berner analyzes the themes and organization of The Way to Rainy Mountain.]
Defying generic description, The Way to Rainy Mountain is an abbreviated history of the Kiowa people, a reworking of Kiowa folklore, a mixture of legend, historical fact, and autobiography. More precisely, it may be considered a kind of prose poem derived from traditional materials which are perceived personally, an exercise in self-definition made possible by a definition of the Kiowa experience. Ultimately the book's subject must be understood as language itself—its origins, its power, its inevitable collapse, and finally, its re-birth as art.
As Emerson says in Nature, every word was originally a poem, arising out of a need for some means of referring to a concrete phenomenon; for example, he says, supercilious means "the raising of the eyebrow" and spirit means "wind." But the word, which begins as a metaphor, becomes, through common usage, a cliché and finally sinks into the common earth of denotation. Yet words are the only means by which the poet can give meaning to reality, achieve self-definition, and in the process restore vitality to the words.
The structure which outlines the progress of language in The Way to Rainy Mountain is basically that of the relationship of the three main divisions of the book—"The Setting Out," "The Going On," and "The Closing In," a structure to be understood in the conventional terms of beginning, middle, and end, or perhaps, more precisely, of birth, life, and death—the origins, heyday, and final decline of the Kiowas as an independent people. Furthermore, the structure of each of the twenty-four sections which compose the three divisions must be understood as three visions of the Kiowas—that of Kiowa legend (the stories of Aho, the author's grandmother), of Kiowa history (usually facts found in the writings of James Mooney), and of the author's own perception of himself as an inheritor of the Kiowa experience. These three elements—Kiowa myth, Kiowa reality, and personal vision—may perhaps be understood as Kiowa soul, Kiowa body, and Kiowa (that is, the author's) mind.
But the primary consideration in the book's structure is that the three divisions reveal a movement from myth (the origins of the Kiowas and of their religious definition of themselves as a people) through legend (the stories of Kiowa freedom and prosperity as they told them to each other) to history, the factual account of the defeat of the Kiowas and of their fall into the reality of the work-a-day world. This process, in terms of myth, resembles the movement of language from poetry (metaphor) through cliché to death and, in the hands of the poet, back to poetry again. A myth arises out of a people's need for some means of defining their relationship to the world, seen and unseen. But through frequent re-telling it becomes a legend, begins to lose its original significance, and finally falls to earth under the weight of historical fact. Yet the myth—and its variants in legend and its parallels in history—is the material of The Way to Rainy Mountain and the means by which its author, in the process of restoring vitality to the material, achieves his discovery of his own relation to the Kiowa experience which produced the material in the first place.
Language and religious vision are related, for, as the author says, "the word is sacred."
When Aho saw or heard or thought of something bad, she said the word zei-dl-bei, "frightful."… It was … an exertion of language upon ignorance and disorder (VIII).
A word, therefore, possesses power. "It comes from nothing [and] gives origin to all things." Indeed it gives man his only real power to "deal with the world on equal terms" (VIII). The myths in "The Setting Out" all deal, for the most part, with the power of language to work magic.
I. The Kiowas emerge from a hollow log into the world and name themselves Kwuda, meaning "coming out."
II. Two chiefs quarrel over the udders of a slain antelope, and one of them leads his people away into oblivion, to be named the Azatanhop, "the udder-angry travellers off."
III. In a time when dogs can talk, a man surrounded by enemies is saved by reciprocity with a dog, which says, "If you will take care of my puppies, I will show you how to get away."
IV. A Kiowa girl climbs a miraculous tree in pursuit of a miraculous bird and encounters a young man, the sun, and tells her she is to be his wife.
V. The woman quarrels with the sun-husband, attempts to return to earth with her child, and is killed when the husband tells a magic ring to pursue her.
VI. The woman's son is captured by the spider grandmother, who quiets him with a song.
VII. The boy disobeys his grandmother's warning never to throw the ring toward the sky, and it falls on his head and divides him into twins.
VIII. Caught in the cave of a giant who builds fires to smoke them out, the twins are saved by the grandmother's formula, thain-mom, "above my eyes."
IX. When the twins kill a snake, the grandmother spider tells them they have killed their grandfather, and she dies, leaving them alone.
X. A man whose children are starving hears a voice and sees Tai-me, who says, "Take me with you, and I will give you whatever you want."
XI. Two hungry brothers find meat outside their tipi. One says they should eat it, but the other says it is "too strange a thing." The foolish brother eats the meat and turns into a water monster, and the wise brother visits him with news of the Kiowas.
The pattern in these stories is one of language producing power, the Kiowas name themselves in terms of their miraculous origins and name their lost friends, the first domestic dog intervenes through speech to save them, the sun speaks and a culture hero is born, the culture hero is captivated by the spider's song and is saved by a magic formula, the deity Tai-me gives himself to the Kiowas in a spoken promise, and so on.
But in addition to this, the stories in "The Setting Out" define the religious identity of the Kiowas, understood in terms of the Talyi-da-i, the "boy medicine," and Tai-me. The former, it should be noted, is the earlier form of the religion of the sun, and the Tai-me religion seems to have been imposed upon it, re-defining it and enhancing its meaning. The crucial event in the story of the twins and the spider grandmother was what occurred after her death, when one twin walked into the waters of a lake and disappeared forever, and "the other at last transformed himself into ten portions of 'medicine' thereby giving his body in eucharistic form to the Kiowas" (IX). The ten bundles of "boy medicine" are the Talyi-da-i. The story of the coming of Tai-me, who is both animal and bird—and yet neither—is a story of how the Kiowas acquired the being who represents the spiritual presence of the sun. The Tai-me figure, therefore, is kept under wraps and is exposed only at the sun dance, when the spirit of the sun is physically present to the people. At the same time, the sun dance requires the sacrifice of a buffalo, which, the author says in his "Prologue," is "the animal representation of the sun…." In other words, the sun, the source of all life, is present to the Kiowas both as flesh (the buffalo) and as spirit (Tai-me). At the same time, the twin sons of the sun separate, one returning to physical nature, disappearing into a lake, the other becoming a eucharist which is divided among the people.
The relation of the twins to each other can be understood when their story is compared to that of the two brothers who find the meat outside their tipi (XI). The brother who eats the "strange" meat becomes a monster and must go live in a lake. This story is separated from that of the Talyi-da-i (IX) by the story of the coming of Tai-me (X). Considering the importance of Tai-me to the sun dance and considering that the buffalo can only be killed for the life of the people when they have been made worthy of it by the ritual of the sun dance, the meaning of the food left for the two brothers and the consequences of eating it are clear enough. The meat is from nature, not from Tai-me, and the brother who eats it is absorbed back into nature while the other brother, in a sense, becomes a Kiowa. What we have here is a basic theme: the people originate in nature, from which they must separate to become a people. They come through a hollow log to name themselves, they acquire a eucharist and, in a sense, a Holy Ghost, and they discover themselves as a people by means of a myth of separation from the natural world, in which they continue to recognize their animal origins. This is presumably what is meant by the myth of the domestication of the dog. As in the myths of so many peoples, it is a story of a time when animals could talk; but we are not to assume that this was a time when dogs could speak Kiowa but a time when Kiowas could only speak the language of animals—that is before they were Kiowas.
In "The Going On" the stories are concerned with the prosperity of the Kiowas, a prosperity understood in terms of escape from enemies and from natural disaster, of reconciliation of tribal conflict and dismissal of those who do not adhere to tribal law; above all, they are concerned with freedom and with the horse, which makes freedom possible.
XII. A Kiowa family escapes from enemies when the wife sets fire to their tipi.
XIII. An arrow-maker saves himself and his wife by his skill and by his use of the Kiowa language.
XIV. The Kiowas make a horse of clay which turns into Man-ka-ih, the storm spirit, which understands the Kiowa language and always passes over them.
XV. The quarrel of Quoetotai and Many Bears over the wife of the latter is peacefully resolved.
XVI. A hunter whose life is endangered by a mysterious buffalo with steel horns is saved by a voice which tells him the buffalo's weak spot.
XVII. A blind man is deserted by his wife, a "bad woman," and she is "thrown away."
XVIII. Some adventurous Kiowas, curious as to where the sun goes in the winter, go far to the south, where they encounter "men [who] were small and had tails" (presumably monkeys).
All of these stories deal, in various ways, with the great success of the Kiowas after they have discovered themselves as a people with a tribal identity, and the historical and personal sketches balanced with them usually amplify the sense of freedom and power revealed in the legends: the references to Catlin's paintings of the Kiowas, particularly of the heroic Kotsatoah (XV); the author's memory of running from the buffalo in Medicine Park and feeling "just then what it was to be alive" (XVI); the story of Kauau-ointy, the author's great-great-grandmother, a Mexican girl who endured her captive status to become eventually a person of importance with great wealth in cattle (XVII); Mooney's statement about the freedom made possible by the horse (XVIII); and the author's memory of the freedom associated with his grandmother's arbor (XVIII). At the same time, some of these reflections are ominous in nature: the destruction of the ceremonial tipi (XII); the hard lot of Kiowa women, including the woman whose feet were frozen as she waited outside the tipi of the man who had stolen her from her husband (XVII); and the reference to the old Kiowas, years after the last wild buffalo are gone, pursuing an old bull for the entertainment of white people (XVI).
Finally, in "The Closing In," there is a steady decline from the freedom and power of the middle section to death and loss.
XIX. By a great act of skill and bravery, a Kiowa saves his brother from the Utes, who award him horses.
XX. A warrior turns his fine horse aside while charging his enemy, and the horse dies of "shame."
XXI. Mammedaty sees a miraculous thing, the head of a boy above the grass, but it disappears when he goes to look for it.
XXII. Mammedaty, angry at a rogue horse, shoots an arrow at it and accidentally hits another horse.
XXIII. The Tai-me bundle, for no apparent reason, falls to earth.
XXIV. A woman in a beautiful dress is buried on the plains, but no one remembers where her grave is.
The historical and personal passages reinforce these images of loss and defeat: the defeated Kiowas lose most of their horses and must eat others because buffalo are scarce (XIX), a horse is sacrificed to ward off the white man's smallpox (XX), a great horse is stolen from the Kiowas ("a hard thing to bear") (XXII), a medicine bundle becomes heavy when it is not shown proper respect (XXIII), and so on. In all of these stories the content is increasingly historical, and the defeat, humiliation, and loss which they detail is made inevitable by the inability of the people to work their magic by means of the old language formulas. A word saved the twins from the giant, and the storm spirit passed overhead because the Kiowa language controlled it, but now, for reasons which cannot find explanation in language, things seem to go wrong.
Accompanying this story of the origins, rise and fall of the Kiowa people is the story of the author's discovery of himself as a Kiowa. In each of the twenty-four sections, divided among the three divisions of the Kiowa journey, the legend and its historical definition receive a personal interpretation. The journey of the Kiowas from the mountains of their origins to the final place of rest in the Rainy Mountain cemetery parallels the author's journey, through memory, from his first sight of the Great Plains to the final vision of the Rainy Mountain toward which the Kiowas were inevitably, and tragically, destined to find their way. The author's first sight of the plains, a reflection of the Kiowa emergence from the confining mountains to the open plains where they would find definition as a people devoted to the sun, produces the discovery that "I will never see the same again" (I). The story of the girl who ascended into the sun's world by a tree reminds the author of seeing a bird in a tree seeming to ride across the sky (IV). The story of the division of the boys into twins is redefined by the author's story of seeing his reflection in the water of the Washita River broken by a frog's leap (VII). The death of the spider grandmother reminds him of seeing Keahdinekeah, his father's grandmother (IX).
The basic pattern of this parallelism emerges without need to detail it. What should be clear is that the author becomes a Kiowa by relating his memory and his experience to the Kiowas of myth, legend, and history. When he recalls looking up at a bird in a tree which seems to ride across the sky (IV), he, in effect, becomes in his imagination the woman who climbed the tree in pursuit of a mysterious bird and encountered the sun. The water of the Washita which reflects the author's image may be related to the water into which the other son of the sun disappeared. The author's relation to his grandmother Aho is a reflection of the twin's relation to the spider grandmother, and the progress of the author to his discovery of the Kiowas parallels the progress of the boy who became in time the Talyi-da-i. The magic word of the spider grandmother thain-mom, which saves the twins from the giant, is paralleled by Aho's word zei-dl-bei, for both words are "an exertion of language upon ignorance and disorder" and a means of confronting "evil and the incomprehensible" (VIII). This pattern of relationship continues through the book. As grandson of Aho the author says, "I know of spiders," having discovered them as the sun's son discovered the spider grandmother (VI). The origins of the talyi-da-i are in the death of the spider grandmother; the author's journey toward self-discovery begins in the death of Aho ("Introduction"). The man who became the water beast by eating bad meat is known by the author because his own grandfather, Mammedaty, once saw evidence of the water beast's existence (XI). The story of the arrowmaker is reinforced by the author's memory of the old arrow-maker Cheney (XIII). The escape of the hunter from the steel-horned buffalo is paralleled by the author's memory of running from a buffalo in Medicine Park when "our hearts were beating fast and we knew just then what it was to be alive" (XVI).In other words, "the way to Rainy Mountain" is the jour-ney of the Kiowas from the hollow log of their origin myth to their destiny on the Southern plains; but it is also the author's own journey from his first discovery of what it means to be a Kiowa descendant to the recognition of common mortality with the Kiowa dead in the Rainy Mountain cemetery, and of a final wisdom which makes possible the structuring of the common Kiowa experience in a work of art.
The book, therefore, which is built of small pieces of myth, legend, and history, achieves structural unity in spite of its apparently fragmentary nature. But this unity is reinforced by two motifs which sound again and again in the fragments. They are equally important because, taken together, they are the source of the tension in the Kiowa story. On the one hand, there is the preoccupation with what might be called human duality, division, as reflected in stories of divided brothers, of tribal division, of loss. On the other hand, there is the constant presence of the grandmother, the unifying force.
In the first story in "The Setting Forth," we see why the division of the Kiowas was both a danger and a necessity. Before the people went through the hollow log to emerge into the world there were more of them, but not all of them "got out" because a pregnant woman got stuck in the log. "After that, no one could get through, and that is why the Kiowas are a small tribe in number." This juxtaposition of fertility and tribal birth, on the one hand, and of threat to the life of the tribe, on the other, is crucial. It suggests both the positive and negative aspects of the duality which is one of the book's basic themes. If the people are to prosper, indeed even to survive in the hostile natural environment of the plains and in the inevitable military conflicts with other tribes, they must "increase and multiply," and in the case of the Kiowas they must enrich their population with captives. But the greater the number of Kiowas the greater the likelihood of conflict and disharmony.
Many of the stories, therefore, deal with the subject of how the Kiowas acquired power through numbers. One of the tribal names, Gaigwu, is "a name which can be taken to indicate something of which the two halves differ from each other in appearance," and this is related to the custom of Kiowa warriors of cutting the hair close on one side of the head and letting it grown on the other—thus, in effect, symbolically doubling each man (I). When the twin sons of the sun were magically divided, they "laughed and laughed" and the spider grandmother, though her problems were doubled, cared for both of them (VII). The wife of Many Bears is the source of the quarrel between her husband and Quoetotai, and her husband is nearly killed. But when the lovers return after fifteen years with the Comanches, Quoetotai calls him brother and presents him with a gift of horses (XV). The betrayal of Kiowa by Kiowa is always punished, as when the woman who abandoned her blind husband was "thrown away" (XVII). A man saves his brother from the Utes, who reward his courage with a gift of horses (XIX). Furthermore, danger to the tribe is warded off by the acquisition of supernatural power when the tribe is enriched by union with Tai-me (X). And not only supernatural power. The acquisition of dogs (III) and of horses, of which the Kiowas owned more than any other tribe (VII), is the acquisition of power and wealth, which compensates for the small population of the tribe.
Yet division, which creates power, also poses a constant threat to tribal survival. One of the earliest tribal memories is of the quarrel of the two chiefs over the antelope, which caused the eternal loss of the Azatanhop (II). (Note that this story is balanced in Section II with the story of the antelope drive which was successful because all of the people united in a common effort.) The killing of the snake grandfather causes the death of the spider grandmother and the final separation of the twins (IX), and the eating of the bad meat causes the separation of the two hungry brothers (XI). A man steals a woman from her husband and then leaves her outside his tipi until she freezes (XVII). And throughout "The Closing In," as we have seen, there is a chronicle of losses, of separation from the wealth and freedom which the horse represents, and of the fall of the Tai-me and sun dance religion.
This theme of separation is appropriate for a book which is designed to bring the divided past and present of the Kiowas together and to unite Kiowa myth and Kiowa reality in one unified vision. Furthermore, the author's real journey is his own—the story of the process by which his separation from his Kiowa identity was healed by his own journey to Rainy Mountain.
The other element which contributes to the tension in the Kiowa story, the element which may be said to be a source of unity, is the grandmother. It is the grandmother Aho whose death brings the author back to Rainy Mountain and who provides the stories which fill out the book's structure. The grandmother's dogs provide the physical evidence of the myth of the domestication of the dog (III). The spider grandmother assures the survival of the twins (VI) and gives them the magic formula for escaping the giant (VII). The talyi-da-i is associated not only with the spider grandmother but with Keahdinekeah, Momaday's father's grandmother (IX), and the Tai-me bundle is associated with Aho (X). The storm spirit, which passes over Kiowas because "it understands their language," is balanced by a place of shelter, Aho's storm cellar, which "will be there … when the house and arbor and barn have disappeared" (XIV). The Kiowa women whose "hard" lives are described in Section XVII are contrasted with Mammedaty's grandmother, Kau-au-ointy, the Mexican captive who became "a figure in the tribe." Finally in Section XXIV the beautiful beadwork of Aho relates the story of the woman in the beautiful dress buried in an unknown grave on the plains to the author's final observation in "The Closing In"—that "Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth…."
The life of the Kiowas, from their mysterious beginnings to their final decline as a society and culture, is therefore understood in terms of what might be called the grandmother principle, for it is the grandmothers who strive to maintain the unity which is constantly threatened and which ultimately dies. The death of Aho, the living presence of that principle in the memory of the author, requires that the unity of Kiowa past and present, of Kiowa myth and reality, and of the Kiowa experience and the experience of one modern Kiowa, Momaday, is to be achieved in the only way that remains once the old vitality of the culture has fallen into memory—by the ordering intelligence of the artist, which restores life to the myths of the Kiowas as it makes yet another contribution to the ever necessary process of restoring life to language itself. Language, in Momaday's vision, is the magical element in human experience, speaking to people in moments of need out of the need itself, as Tai-me spoke to the Kiowas, and this truth is common to the wisdom of the Kiowas and to the vision out of which Momaday has produced a profoundly civilized work of literature. Seen in this way, we must recognize that all peoples, whether consciously or not, are on the way to Rainy Mountain. We discover ourselves in the knowledge of our origins; standing in the cemetery we achieve wisdom in the presence of those who lived and died to give us life; and we put together the fragments of our lives only by means of language, in the realm of art—beyond Rainy Mountain.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 969
SOURCE: "Tribal Roots: Exploring the Fate of an American Indian Artist," in Chicago Tribune—Books, October 1, 1989, p. 3.
[An American critic, essayist, novelist, and editor, Larson is the author of American Indian Fiction (1978). In the following excerpt from a review of The Ancient Child, he praises Momaday's "poetic" depiction of a protagonist who recovers his Native heritage, but contends that the novel is disrupted by irrelevant subplots.]
For most American readers, N. Scott Momaday's first novel, House Made of Dawn (awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1969) presented a disturbing picture of American Indian life on the edge. Abel, the main character, had served valiantly in World War II but found no affinity with tribal life after his return to the reservation. His reassimilation was thwarted by alcohol and violence. His renewal with the land and his people was clouded in mystical ambiguity. That sense of returning to one's tribal roots is central to Momaday's second novel, The Ancient Child.
The dominant story follows Locke Setman, nicknamed Set, a successful artist who lives in California, distanced both physically and emotionally from his Kiowa heritage. When he is called back to his people for the funeral of an old woman, Kopemah, his sense of connectedness is temporarily jolted:
He was completely at a loss. He knew of no Grandmother Kopemah. Obviously this was word from his father's people, but he did not know them. They had nothing to do with him. They were related to him, he supposed, but that was only an accident; they were his relatives, but they were not his family…. All that he had of his forebears was a sediment in his memory, the memory of words his father had spoken long ago—the stories his father had told him.
After the funeral, he returns almost immediately to the security of his artistic life. Before his departure, however, a young Navaho woman named Grey presents him with a medicine bundle which once belonged to Set's father. What slowly evolves through Momaday's densely interwoven story is the force of tradition, embodied in that medicine bundle. Though confused and disoriented—because he realizes that he no longer knows what it is to be an Indian—Set grows immeasurably as an artist. Once he acknowledges the medicine bundle's presence and opens it up, he is unable to escape his destiny. That fate binds him to a Kiowa story, which Momaday uses as the prologue to his novel:
Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws; and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified; they ran, and the bear after them. They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were beyond its reach…. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper.
Man into bear—that is Set's transformation at its basic level, aided by Grey's loving tutelage and her own renewal with the Navaho world. In the process of describing this symbolic metamorphosis, Momaday's writing soars to heights of poetic beauty.
Less successful are the lengthy passages that relate the differing layers of Grey's visions, especially those linked to the past. There is an entire sub-story involving Grey's imaginary interludes with Billy the Kid, 100 years before her involvement with Locke Setman. The parallel between her two lovers is tenuous.
Certainly Billy the Kid, as a rebel operating against the Anglo law, must have been appealing to a number of Native Americans at the time. But Grey's comically erotic interludes with the Kid seem to be filler in an otherwise daringly conceived story.
Several other sexual escapades are equally gratuitous. Why is it necessary to detail Grey's violent circumcision of still another of her lovers, or to include a lengthy erotic episode involving Set and a Parisian woman? These scenes distract from the mythic qualities of Setman's acceptance of his role as the ancient child, the boy metamorphosed into a bear, the artist transformed by accepting his culture for what it is:
His paintings reflected, as art must strive to do, a great and true story of the world, he believed. But this clarity, this lucidity, this principal work, was his alone, and he did not want to trade it in…. Yes, he believed, there is only one story, after all, and it is about the pursuit of man by God, and it is about a man who ventures out to the edge of the world, and it is about his holy quest … and it is about the hunting of a great beast.
Left at that, The Ancient Child would have been a more rewarding tale.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1296
SOURCE: "Splendor in the Grasslands," in The New York Times Book Review, December 31, 1989, p. 14.
[In the following mixed review, Marston faults Momaday's romanticized view of Native history in The Ancient Child.]
Locke Setman, or Set, has achieved almost everything a person can in late 20th-century America and, of course, is suffering heavily for it. He is the central character in The Ancient Child, N. Scott Momaday's first novel since he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for House Made of Dawn.
Set is a San Francisco artist who has continued to paint large, colorful and pricey canvases, even though his inner vision has tried to pull him in less lucrative artistic directions. By conventional standards, Set has been well rewarded for this submersion of self. The fortysomething artist has a home and studio on San Francisco Bay, is moderately famous and has a relationship with a beautiful art collector—"the sort of affair that everyone ought to have once, as a birth-right."
He tries to keep this life going—who wouldn't?—but he can't. Dissonant elements begin to creep into his paintings, he takes up with a woman attracted by this dissonance, his beloved adoptive father dies and finally he cracks wide open. But this is not another story of a conventional midlife crisis. For although Set was raised by and as an Anglo in San Francisco, he was born an Indian, and part of his crisis is the growing assertion of his Kiowa self over his adopted culture.
Mr. Momaday, who is a painter and poet as well as a novelist, does not leave Set to struggle alone. He gives him, almost as God gave Eve to Adam, a beautiful, sensual, warriorlike Indian woman to act as midwife to his attempted rebirth. Her name is Grey, and she is a 19-year-old medicine woman who lives on the endless Oklahoma grasslands with her great stallion, Dog, and a few Kiowa relatives.
Although Set is the central character, this mythic and romantic novel is dominated by Grey. We are attracted by the ease and vitality that let her gracefully evolve from adventurous, sensual girlhood on the Kiowa plains to settled maturity on the arid, colorful Navajo reservation of Arizona-New Mexico.
For the first part of the novel, Set is in San Francisco struggling with his demons while Grey gallops across the open country of Oklahoma, interweaving her exciting enough real life—she trades sex for the stallion, she is raped but almost castrates her attacker and she learns to be a powerful medicine woman—with visions of her hero, Billy the Kid. Here is Grey imagining her way into the life and bed of Billy:
She had looked all morning at rather into—a thirty-carat turquoise stone, a Lander's stone, that its reflection might hold in her eyes and shimmer there like mountain rain. She had brushed her beaded moccasins with sprigs of cedar and sage: and she had patted her breasts with crushed juniper berries and rose hips and the pollen of sunflowers. She stood graceful and tall and comely.
This vision of loveliness has no trouble achieving her imagined purpose: a jailbreak. In her fantasy, she beguiles the guards and slips a revolver to the Kid, who kills his captors and gallops away to the cheers of the townspeople.
But true to history, Grey cannot save the Kid, even in her imagination. She can only watch him die and grieve over his death. Set is another matter. Using powers enhanced by contact with the century-old medicine woman Kope'mah, Grey yanks him out of San Francisco and sets him onto first the Kiowa grasslands and then the Navajo reservation; there he begins his search for his fierce, bear-like Kiowa self.
This book is several stories at once: traditional Indian tales of bears and lost and transformed children; the legend of Billy the Kid; the evolution of a Kiowa girl into Navajo womanhood, and the life and cultural crisis of Set. Described thus, The Ancient Child works well enough, although language meant to be mythic is often simply stilted and ponderous.
But the book turns puzzling, even frustrating, when one tries for a larger sense of it. Why, for example, has Grey made a hero of Billy the Kid? Although Mr. Momaday, who is a Westerner, a Native American and Regents Professor of English at the University of Arizona, doesn't mention it, the Kid began his career by helping to rob and murder three Indians.
The wider context is also missing. Myth transforms the face of reality and history. But this mythic treatment of Southwestern Native Americans appears to ignore history. Grey, for example, gives lip service only once, briefly, to the fencing, roading and development of the land. Otherwise she spends her time galloping—sometimes masked and naked—across an unpopulated, primeval, pristine landscape.
Yet the vast American inland West is a land that over the past century has been heavily grazed or plowed or roaded or drilled or dammed, or all those things together. Not far from Grey's galloping grounds lies the edge of the 1930's dust bowl. The Okies and the dust bowl they made have been mythified by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, but they are not unique. All of the inland West has been abused to at least as great a degree. And the abusers—the Okies, other homesteaders, loggers, gold-rush miners and construction boomers—have pulled up their shallow roots and left for yet unplundered landscapes.
Native Americans are more tied to place, and have found it hard, sometimes impossible, to escape the shattered, unproductive landscape created by the mobile "settlers." That is reflected today in life on many reservations. People whose collective memory reaches back to once intact and beautiful and productive land now live amid its ruins, and suffer from the knowledge of what the land had been.
Mr. Momaday knows this legacy, and it may be that his romantic treatment of the murderous Billy, the wild throwback Grey and the blocked and suffering Set is meant as a healing novel. Perhaps we are to see Grey as first forgiving Billy, and thereby the whole Anglo-cowboy culture, and then going on to rescue blocked and visionless Indian peoples, in the person of Set. If that was the intent, it has not worked. This novel cannot heal because nothing is shown as wounded. It is as if 150 years of human bloodshed and destruction of the land never happened.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2526
SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday: A Man of Words," in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 405-07.
[In the essay below, Meredith discusses Momaday's literary attempts to preserve Native American culture and examines his use of Kiowa traditions as a narrative form and "a measured angle of vision" through which to view the world.]
N. Scott Momaday marks a decisive line of demarcation in the cultural tradition of the Kiowa people. In doing so, he has struck a responsive chord among the other diverse peoples of North America. He is a collector of the ancient traditions that circulated orally among the Kiowa people and others of the American Southwest. With him begins a literary tradition of those prose narratives which previously had circulated almost exclusively within specific tribal contexts. This process is one in which a great literary work, House Made of Dawn, issued at a stroke.
Such a collecting and refashioning of old material cannot be ascribed to the initiative of Momaday alone. The time and place are ripe for it. Indeed, what is most important is that the presuppositions for this collecting and refashioning are present in the ancient tribal traditions themselves. The majority of these old narratives are etiologies. Their purpose is to explain some facts in tribal heritage, about a place or in the spiritual tradition. Previously the validity of these traditions and the interest in them have been regionally limited to the lands occupied by the Kiowa in Oklahoma and the Navajo-Pueblo country farther west. The ancient spiritual traditions in particular are previously unthinkable outside the sacred context. Only in the course of traditional acts could a person meet and experience them. These sacred narratives are not some kind of ornamental addition to the tribe. Rather, they are its inmost nerve. It is by this that the tribal community lives and from this that the content and form of the ceremonials and dances proceed.
What a profound change occurs as these materials from different Kiowa societies and diverse places along their line of migration became unified and even altered by a superimposed plan! In a word, they became available as literature in Momaday's House Made of Dawn, The Way to Rainy Mountain, The Names, and The Ancient Child. Above all an inner shift occurs in the meaning of these narratives. Momaday lives in a time of continuing crisis for the Kiowa tribe and all native peoples of the Americas. Connected with this crisis is the decline of the ancient Kiowa tribal unity. The translation of oral traditions into literary ones is fostered to a degree by this disintegration. Focus in the literary narrative is brought to bear on unifying elements. Some of these are explained in personal terms that have become intimately associated with traditions surrounding the Tai-me, a sacred figure of the Kiowa, and the tribal migration story ending at Rainy Mountain. In each of these Momaday uses words and formal variations to provide for emphasis in meaning and purpose which the material once possessed in its oral tribal context. He does not forget that the narrative has changed by virtue of the context in which he has placed it.
One conceptual problem about Momaday's work is that of making explicit the criteria by which a narrative is recognized as coherent or incoherent. He chooses Kiowa tradition in his fictional and personal narratives as a measured angle of vision. Consistent reference is made to the Tai-me and its central place in Kiowa understanding of the world in both narrative and conversational form. In House Made of Dawn we read of how the Tai-me came to the Kiowa.
Long ago there were bad times. The Kiowas were hungry and there was no food. There was a man who heard his children cry from hunger, and he began to search for food. He walked four days and became very weak. On the fourth day he came to a great canyon. Suddenly there was thunder and lightning. A Voice spoke to him and said, "Why are you following me? What do you want?" The man was afraid. The thing standing before him had the feet of a deer, and its body was covered with feathers. The man answered that the Kiowas were hungry. "Take me with you," the Voice said, "and I will give you whatever you want." From that day Tai-me has belonged to the Kiowas.
In The Way to Rainy Mountain the Tai-me is described and brought within a personal memory.
The great central figure of the kedo, or Sun Dance, ceremony is the taime. This is a small image, less than 2 feet in length, representing a human figure dressed in a robe of white feathers, with a headdress consisting of a single upright feather and pendants of ermine skin, with numerous strands of blue beads around its neck, and painted upon the face, breast, and back with designs symbolic of the sun and moon. The image itself is of dark-green stone, in form rudely resembling a human head and bust, probably shaped by art like the stone fetishes of the Pueblo tribes. It is preserved in a rawhide box in charge of the hereditary keeper, and is never under any circumstances exposed to view except at the annual Sun Dance, when it is fastened to a short upright stick planted within the medicine lodge, near the western side. It was last exposed in 1888.—Mooney
Once I went with my father and grandmother to see the Tai-me bundle. It was suspended by means of a strip of ticking from the fork of a small ceremonial tree. I made an offering of bright red cloth, and my grandmother prayed aloud. It seemed a long time that we were there. I had never come into the presence of Tai-me before—nor have I since. There was a great holiness all about it in the room, as if an old person had died there or a child had been born.
Finally the Tai-me is referred to in terms of the imagination in The Ancient Child.
And Tai-me was exposed there, Tai-me, the sacred Sun Dance doll and most powerful medicine in the tribe, more powerful even than the tal-yi-da-i, the ten bundles containing the "boy medicine," one of which was kept by her uncle T'ene-taide. She dared to look upon it, the stiff polished figure gleamed in a splinter of light, and the downy feathers of his headdress trembled on the warm, sluggish breeze. She placed a patch of blue wool among the other, richer offerings. The presence of Tai-me was palpable; it was as if she had walked into a warm, slow-moving stream; the presence lay against her like water.
Momaday places the Tai-me and its specific context in relation to the earth and sky. This place is in southwest Oklahoma on and around Rainy Mountain, which becomes [according to Momaday in The Ancient Child] "the center of the world, the sacred ground of sacred grounds."
In the same instance, structures and processes are determined in large part by what Momaday leaves out of his representations as much as by what he places in the literary versions. As with many American Indian traditions, family relationships are paramount. Although Momaday's Kiowa relations are discussed prominently, his Cherokee background is less well known. It is critical to remember that Momaday perceived how his mother's native heritage enabled her to assume an attitude of defiance. Natachee Scott Momaday's knowledge of her Cherokee ancestry allowed her to take an intellectual perspective that might have eluded her otherwise.
This decision by Momaday's mother, in turn, provided freedom of choice to her son. The defiance of the mother allowed added cultural perspectives through which to make critical choices. The tension between the requirements of the system in place and those of change, between order and adventure, were brought into bold relief through the native heritage. In his memoir [The Names], Momaday wrote of his mother's choice of the cultural and intellectual forces that would provide her with life's perspective.
It was about this time that she began to see herself as an Indian. That dim native heritage became her fascination and a cause for her, inasmuch, perhaps, as it enabled her to assume an attitude of defiance, an attitude which she assumed with particular style and satisfaction; it became her. She imagined who she was. This act of the imagination was, I believe, among the most important events of my mother's early life, as later the same essential act was to be among the most important of my own.
To both mother and son, the attitude existed in all kinds of narrative practice, including oral tradition, as well as literary fiction. This intellectual tension at certain moments became acute enough to become the principle of narrative works. In his graduate study Momaday examined the "literatures of resistance." He echoed this theme in his dissertation, an edition of the collected verse of the nineteenth-century poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. In his ["The Heretical Cricket," a study of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman's poem "The Cricket" appearing in Southern Review n. s. 3 (1967),] he wrote that this poem "must concern us with the matter of intellectual integrity in a context of intellectual dissolution." He returned to the theme of resistance in The Ancient Child, emphasizing the concept that all art was resistance.
Momaday challenges readers to accept the knowledge bound up in the themes of imagining the self and resisting the disintegrating intellectual climate. In a talk given in 1970, "The Man Made of Words," he stated: "We Americans need now more than ever before—indeed more than we know—to imagine who and what we are with respect to the earth and sky." As the West European roots of Anglo-American culture become less relevant, the need is for each person and family of people to know themselves. New means of communication and mass media allow the oral traditions of America to emerge to influence segments of society as never before possible. Americans need to know themselves for what they are and not as a fading colonial image.
Momaday describes the world in which he lives as derived from mental schemata rather than from observation. He can discern the essential features of an order that happens to suit him. He highlights the essence of traditional narratives by emphasizing that the various traditions construct their objects. The terms are objects of language, not entities of which words are in some way copies. On the nature of the relationship between language and experience, Momaday states: "It seems to me that in a certain sense we are all made of words; that our most essential being consists in language." The Way to Rainy Mountain exhibits this ideal. As such it is an integration of old Kiowa tales, historical commentary, and autobiographical commentary. In large part, living memory and the oral tradition that transcends it outline the terms of Momaday's resistance. he is careful to define these integrating elements [in "The Man Made of Words"].
The oral tradition is that process by which the myths, legends, tales, and lore of a people are formulated, communicated, and preserved in language by word of mouth, as opposed to writing. Or, it is a collection of such things….
In the context of the remarks, the matter of oral tradition suggests certain particularities of art and reality. Art, for example,… involves an oral dimension which is based markedly upon such considerations as memorization, intonation, inflection, precision of statement, brevity, rhythm, pace, and dramatic effect. Moreover, myth, legend, and lore, according to our definitions of these terms, imply a separate and distinct order of reality. We are concerned here not so much with an acute representation of actuality, but with the realization of the imaginative experience….
Generally speaking, man has consummate being in language, and there only. The state of human being is an idea, an idea which man has of himself. Only when he is embodied in an idea, and the idea is realized in language, can man take possession of himself.
Momaday's sense of native literature is unified, intelligible, based on proper subordination of the part to the ends of the whole, whereas academic ethnology and history of the same subject matter know only the paratactic organization of contiguity or succession. This is a distinct sense of reality in comparison with that of oral tradition. Both oral tradition and written literature are realized in and through narrative. The shape of narrative and the angle of vision that particular narrative forms convey are thereby common to both at any given time.
Tradition has come to be associated with the singular, the unexpected, the uncontrollable, the unsystematic, whereas literature, especially fiction, on the other hand, is associated with the ordered, the coherent, the general. Momaday undercuts the narrative coherence of his novels through appeals to traditions other than the Anglo-American. The important thing for him in this context is not "objective" truth, as distinct from subjective belief, but the fact that the material is part of an accepted tradition. He finds an angle of vision from which readers can allow their gaze to embrace the entire sequence of facts—a pregnant principle for which each particular fact would be only a development. Isolated facts that cannot be related to the principal action are treated in digressions, as they are important in themselves.
Momaday's appeal to tradition—in fact, to a number of traditions, including Kiowa, Navajo-Pueblo, and Anglo-Saxon—raises questions and creates conditions in which the individual subject, the critical reason, could exercise and assert its freedom. It is not presented as an objectively true and therefore compelling discovery of reality itself. On the contrary, its verity and validity are always problematic, provoking the readers' reflections and thus renewing their own freedom. Discontinuity, rather than continuity, is placed at the heart of Momaday's use of the various traditions, as it has been placed at the heart of his fiction. He reaches through to past-present-future reality by a process of symbolic interpretation of the evidence.
The older distinction between fiction and history or tradition, in which fiction is conceived as the representation of the imaginable and historical narrative as the representation of the actual, gives way to the recognition that this author knows the actual as the imaginable.
The cognitive function of Momaday's use of narrative form is not just to relate a succession of events but to bring forth an ensemble of interrelationships of many different elements as a single whole. In fictional narrative the coherence of such complex forms affords esthetic and emotional satisfaction. Momaday relates to the reader his figures' lives in language, "and of the awful risk involved." On one level he prepares his readers for the risk of experiencing another plane of existence, one that can be realized through acceptance of the oneness of past, present, and future in accord with spatial terms. Momaday provides for the defiance of renewal. He points the way to mental sanctuary. He brings American readers to a new sense of maturity through the use of the traditions of America. He asks readers to imagine themselves, but always in relationship to the American earth and sky.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3669
SOURCE: "Contemporary Innovations of Oral Traditions: N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko," in Sending My Heart Back across the Years: Tradition and Innovation in Native American Autobiography, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1992, pp. 153-99.
[In the following excerpt, Wong analyzes Momaday's emphasis on "orality" and its influence on the discussion of ancestral and racial heritage, communal self, and individual identity in The Way to Rainy Mountain.]
Momaday's belief in the transforming capabilities of the imagination, in the synthesizing potential of memory, in the identity-inducing possibilities of the land, and in the power, beauty, and grace of the word finds its way into The Way to Rainy Mountain. The first of his two autobiographies, The Way to Rainy Mountain is the more experimental. Many critics, including Momaday himself, have commented on its unique structure and purpose.
Claiming that it defies generic classification, Robert L. Berner refers to The Way to Rainy Mountain [in "N. Scott Momaday: Beyond Rainy Mountain," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 3, No. 1 (1979)] as "an abbreviated history of the Kiowa people, a re-working of Kiowa folklore, a mixture of legend, historical fact, and autobiography." Not content with these attempts at labeling, he calls it "a kind of prose poem," "an exercise in self-definition," and, most dubiously, "a profoundly civilized work of literature." Similarly, Kenneth Fields writes [in "More Than Language Means: A Review of N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain," Southern Review 6, No. 1 (1970)]: "… I know of no book like Rainy Mountain…." Due to its concentrated and evocative language, it approaches poetry; but also, due to its multiple voices, its form "resembles those ancient texts with subsequent commentaries." Its "real subject," however, "is the recognition of what it means to feel himself a Kiowa in the modern American culture that displaced his ancestors." Not sharing Berner's and Fields's quandary over the work's genre, Thekla Zachrau mistakenly calls it [in "N. Scott Momaday: Towards an Indian Identity," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 3, No. 1 (1979)] "Momaday's second novel," which can be read "as a variation on the identity theme." Charles A. Nicholas, on the contrary, interprets the work [in his "The Way to Rainy Mountain: N. Scott Momaday's Hard Journey Back," South Dakota Review 13, No. 4 (1975)] as expressing Momaday's belief in "the essential continuity of myth and poetry and their ability to induce vision and compel belief." For Mick McAllister [in "The Topography of Remembrance in The Way to Rainy Mountain," Denver Quarterly 12, No. 4 (1978)], "The Way to Rainy Mountain has the simplicity, and the complexity, of a piece of music," and "is at once a celebration and an exercise in form." [In "The Art and Importance of N. Scott Momaday," Southern Review 14, No. 1 (1978)] Roger Dickinson-Brown limits his comments to its "associational structure" and its "almost Jamesian symmetry," while Barbara Strelke calls it "a multivoiced response to the question of personal and cultural creation through imagination and language" ["N. Scott Momaday: Racial Memory and Individual Imagination," Literature of the American Indians: Views and Interpretations, edited by Abraham Chapman, 1975]. In his study of the Western literary sources of Momaday's works [entitled N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background] Matthias Schubnell states that Momaday's mentor Yvor Winters "urged Momaday to try a combination of expository writing and fictitious, historical, or legendary narrative…." The result was The Way to Rainy Mountain, which reflects "Momaday's own exploration of his racial heritage." Certainly, Arnold Krupat's recent denunciation of Momaday [in his 1989 The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon] as the "Native American writer most committed to hegemonic monologue" and his insistence that Momaday's "writing offers a single, invariant poetic voice that everywhere commits itself to subsuming and translating all other voices" is overstated. In fact as will be discussed in this section throughout this unique polyvocal autobiographical narrative, Momaday constructs a communal self. His individual identity comes into being only in relation to the ancient tribal past, the historical Kiowa experience, and the multicultural present.
Momaday himself has plenty to say about The Way to Rainy Mountain:
In one sense, then, the way to Rainy Mountain is preeminently the history of an idea, man's idea of himself, and it has old and essential being in language….
The journey herein recalled continues to be made anew each time the miracle comes to mind, for that is peculiarly the right and responsibility of the imagination.
This journey, "made with the whole memory, that experience of the mind which is legendary as well as historical, personal as well as cultural," evokes three particular things: "a landscape that is incomparable, a time that is gone forever, and the human spirit, which endures." Momaday links the legendary, historical, and personal literally in his journey and literarily in his imagination. After retracing the historical Kiowa migration, Momaday returned to Oklahoma. There, like a Kiowa Neihardt, he "interviewed a number of Kiowa elders and obtained from them a remarkable body of history and learning, fact and fiction—all of it in the oral tradition…." Since Momaday does not speak Kiowa, these oral accounts were translated and added to by Momaday's father, Al Momaday. This collaborative work was then published privately as The Journey of Tai-me (1967), which later formed the basis for The Way to Rainy Mountain.
The Way to Rainy Mountain is an autobiography in which Momaday constructs and narrates a Kiowa personal identity that can come into being only in relation to Kiowa myth and history. Like many transitional personal narratives, Momaday's autobiographical self is relational and his form predominantly a reconstruction of the spoken word in writing. The multilayered autobiographical narrative is composed of three basic divisions that are preceded by a prologue and an introduction, concluded by an epilogue, and framed by two poems. The two poems, "Headwaters" and "Rainy Mountain Cemetery," which begin and end the work, repeat in miniature the longer narrative of the Momaday-Kiowa journey. Al Momaday drew the eleven illustrations found throughout, and the running title along the bottom of the three main chapters beckons the book designer's reader-traveler like a typographical trail into the journey.
The autobiography's tripartite structure reflects three narrative voices: the mythical, the historical, and the personal, each accentuated by different typeface. The twenty four three-part narrative units are divided into three larger chapters: "The Setting Out" (sections I-XI), "The Going On" (sections XII-XVIII), and "The Closing In" (sections XIX-XXIV). These three main divisions reflect the historical movement of the Kiowa migration from "the mountains of what is now western Montana," traveling south and east to what is now southwestern Oklahoma, as well as Momaday's personal journey in their distant trail. The first chapter, "The Setting Out," tells the story of the beginning of the Kiowas—their emergence into the world through a hollow log, their tribal split, and their "struggle for existence in the bleak northern mountains." This chapter also describes the beginning of their migration south and east across the plains. The primary aspects of the Kiowa religion are introduced as well: the hero twins fathered by the Sun, who came to earth, helped overcome chaos, and metamorphosed into the ten sacred bundles; Tai-me, the sacred symbol of the Sun Dance Ceremony; the Sun Dance; and the peyote religion.
"The Going On," the second chapter, deals with the interim of Kiowa culture, "a time of great adventure and nobility and fulfillment," when, by obtaining the horse, the Kiowa male was transformed from "a half-starved skulker" into "the daring buffalo hunter." Momaday describes the highlight of the Kiowa Plains culture, and a people who "had dared to imagine and determine who they were." We hear stories of the magic of Kiowa language, the arrowmaker, the "buffalo with horns of steel," the hard lives of women, and the everyday life on the Plains.
"The Closing In" describes the end of the Kiowa Plains culture, which "withered and died like grass that is burned in the prairie wind." It is filled with images of constraint and destruction: capture by the U.S. Cavalry; lack of food; extermination of the buffalo, "the animal representation of the sun"; destruction of the Kiowa's horses; deicide; and, as a consequence of all these, the loss of personal bravery. Despite the dreariness of the subject, the chapter ends with a description of a woman buried in a beautiful elk-tooth buckskin dress—a vision of the timeless connection of the people to the land of the buried beauty of the Kiowa culture.
Although the overall narrative movement of these three main sections is chronological, Momaday blends the mythic, historical, and personal by an elaborate process of association. The intermixing of these distinct historical periods suggests a kind of timelessness or, at the very least, an intimate and irrevocable connection among the three. McAllister refers to such associations as "secondary patterns" that weave the various parts of the work together. A more subtle association, though, is the connection between personal and tribal experience, present and past lives united in story.
Momaday's experimentation with the structure of The Way to Rainy Mountain reflects his familiarity with Western literary conventions and his knowledge of Kiowa oral traditions. Like the Indian autobiographers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (such as Charles Alexander Eastman and Black Elk), Momaday modifies pre-contact oral and pictographic modes of personal narrative. Unlike those of earlier Native American autobiographers, Momaday's changes are highly self-conscious, not residual forms that innocuously find their way into written expression. Likewise, they are due to his creative imagination, rather than to a political or an ethnological expediency. He wishes to show the evolution from an oral tradition to a written tradition, to show the oral tradition "with the framework of a literary continuance…." In fact, according to Momaday, who applies an evolutionary model to traditional Kiowa notions of the cyclical nature of life and narrative, the Kiowa tales in The Way to Rainy Mountain "constitute a kind of literary chronicle." [According to Charles Nicholas, he] dramatizes this evolution in the text when, in the third chapter, he replaces ancient Kiowa myths with family stories now elevated to legendary status: "that is, Momaday is creating myth out of his memories of his ancestors rather than passing on already established and socially sanctioned tales." Similarly, the historical accounts become family memories, and the personal reminiscences become "prose poems containing symbols which link them thematically to the other two, suggesting that all three journeys are products of the imagination," and, I would add, suggesting that the mythical, historical, and personal are all facets of Momaday the autobiographer. Refashioning pre-contact personal narrative is one way he attempts to define his Kiowa identity and to suggest the continuity of Native American traditions, from orality to literacy.
The oral aspects of personal narrative are focused within, but not limited to, the mythical sections, which, of course, were all originally oral. Momaday emphasizes orality by including dialogues; multiple voices; songs; oral devices such as repetition of words, phrases, and images; and oral formulas, as well as a few variations on Plains Indian coup tales. Throughout the work, Momaday includes a type of one-sided dialogue that allows for many voices to be heard. An enemy appears to a family, demanding, "If you will feed us all, we will not harm you." Although this is a one-way conversation (we hear only the enemy), a response from the listener is implied. Other speakers provide little besides lively choral backgrounds—like the dog, the sun, the giant's wife, Tai-me, an invisible voice, and the blind hunter. Thus Momaday, with economical concentration, provides the feeling of conversation but allows only one person to speak.
More important than unidirectional dialogues (not to be confused with monologues, which require no listener) are the few voices that speak for themselves. Only two people—Aho and Ko-sahn—are allowed to speak for themselves at length. They, of course, are major figures in the entire work. Momaday's Kiowa grandmother, Aho, provides the occasion for the work and its best unifying image. It is her death that compels Momaday to begin his personal/tribal quest, to return to his people, and to write his book. In the introduction, Aho tells the legend of the creation of Devils Tower (a rock formation in northeastern Wyoming) and of the seven sisters who "were borne into the sky, and … became the stars of the Big Dipper." "From that moment," says Momaday, "and so long as the legend lives, the Kiowas have kinsmen in the night sky." This story links earth to sky and humans to both. Also, we discover elsewhere, the story and the place are significant as the source of one of Momaday's names—Tsoaitalee, Kiowa for Rock Boy, a name inspired by Devils Tower.
Balancing Aho's story in the introduction, Ko-sahn's recollections are found in the epilogue. Momaday refers to this "hundred-year-old woman" as the embodiment of the "living memory and verbal tradition which transcends it." For her, at least as she is re-created on the page by Momaday, there is no distinction between individual and tribal memory, between mythical and historical realms. Just as Aho is the deceased image of the Kiowa past, Ko-sahn is the living symbol of Kiowa antiquity. Through her memory, reenvisioned by Momaday, the mythical and historical unite in the present. Finally, both Aho and Ko-sahn, as Momaday imagines them, function as literary images of Kiowa heritage rather than as realistic depictions of flesh-and-blood women.
Five brief songs, a second oral component, are included in The Way to Rainy Mountain. These five songs parallel Momaday's ideas about the process of literary evolution. The first is sung by a mythical character, Spider Woman, while the song of the wife of Many Bears is clearly grounded in historical experience. Ko-sahn's songs unite the mythical and historical in the personal present. Of course, empowered by myth and history, Momaday is the creative intelligence behind each of these singers. With his belief in the liveliness of the past in the present moment, a tribal past that he tries to resurrect in himself and in his work, he presents The Way to Rainy Mountain as the polyphonous song of his Anglo-Kiowa identity, of his individual/tribal self.
As well as multiple voices and songs, Momaday uses the formulas and style of oral composition. His language is simple, and he frequently begins his stories with traditional openings such as "They were going along …," "A long time ago …," "Once there was a man and his wife …," "This is how it was: Long ago …," and "Once upon a time…." At times, he inserts the phrase "you know" to slow the pace of the sentence, accentuating the orality of the story and giving it a personal tone.
One aspect of oral style he masters is repetition, which creates an "irresistible accumulation of power." In this case he repeats words, phrases, images, themes, characters, and structural units. For instance, the poem "Headwaters" introduces the Kiowa creation myth in which the Kiowa emerge through a "log, hollow and weather-stained." This is echoed in the prologue: "You know, everything had to begin…. For the Kiowas the beginning was…." This phrase is repeated almost exactly in the first and last sentences of the mythical passage of section I. In the historical part of section I, the ethnological explanation, derived from nineteenth-century ethnographer James Mooney's reports, repeats the previously mentioned notion that Kwuda means "coming out." This idea of emerging is again repeated when, in the personal recollection, Momaday writes: "I remember coming out upon the northern Great Plains…." Similarly, the end of the prologue is repeated exactly in Ko-sahn's final words in the epilogue. Such resonant repetition is used with images of halves (e.g., the Kiowa haircuts, which are long on one side and short on the other; the tribal split; the twins; and the mirror image), animals (varying images of antelope, buffalos, dogs, horses, and spiders are echoed throughout), and people (e.g., Mammedaty, Ka-au-ointy, Ko-sahn, and Aho). In addition, in the songs particularly, Momaday uses the progressive repetition often associated with oral poetry. It is important to keep in mind, though, that such techniques owe as much to his study of Euro-American modernists as to his examination of Kiowa oral traditions.
Similarly, repeated themes occur often. The three parts of section VIII introduce Momaday's insistence on the importance of language. When the twin warriors are in danger of being killed by giants, they remember Grandmother Spider's advice to say to themselves "the word thain-mom, 'above my eyes.'" They "repeated the word thain-mom over and over to themselves," and the smoke from the giants' fire stayed above their eyes. In the historical section, Momaday elaborates: "A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things. By means of words can a man deal with the world on equal terms. And the word is sacred." Momaday completes his ethnographic discussion of Indian language with a discussion of the potency of a Kiowa's name. Then, in his personal account, he remembers that Aho, when she "saw or heard something bad,… said the word zei-dl-bei, 'frightful'"—"an exertion of language upon ignorance and disorder."
The theme of the potency of words is repeated in the often quoted story of the arrowmaker (section XIII), in the use of a phrase to pacify the storm spirit (section XIV), and in the anecdote about the "bad woman" who, abusing the power of language, lies to her blind husband and her people (section XVII). Of course, the entirety of The Way to Rainy Mountain is testimony to the power of language to create and shape reality, to recreate myth, to recollect history, to recall personal responses, and to unify these imaginatively.
As well as verbal and thematic repetitions, there are structural repetitions. Each of the three main sections ends at Rainy Mountain, as do the introduction, the epilogue, and the final poem, "Rainy Mountain Cemetery." These returns reveal several cyclical patterns within the larger framework of the journey. Rainy Mountain is where Momaday returned to seek his roots, where the Kiowa made their way, where Aho is buried, and where the reader arrives. It represents more than a specific geographic location; it is the localized source and end of our collective seeking.
A final oral aspect that Momaday uses sparingly is a modification of Plains Indian coup tales—accounts of brave deeds generally performed during a hunt or a fight. Basically, Momaday retains only the barest echoes of the "bragging biographies" of the Kiowa, whose contact with horses, according to Momaday, gave them "a taste for danger and an inclination to belligerance [sic]." According to legend, on one hunting trip the tribe split in two because of a quarrel over an antelope udder. The historical passage does not glorify a particular hunting exploit, but explains the technique for a great circle hunt. In the personal reflections, Momaday is a poet, an artist, a man of sensibility as he describes not the triumph of catching a fine deer, but the joy of attaining a lovely image—the white rump of a frightened pronghorn bounding across the plains "like a succession of sunbursts against the purple hills."
Most of the brave deeds recounted in The Way to Rainy Mountain are the mythical exploits of the twin heroes. In one reference to hunting, the hunter needs magical assistance to know how to kill the "buffalo with horns of steel." Ironically, immediately following this tale is a historical account of a degraded version of hunting buffalo. Rather than the magnificent beast of the previous tale, the hunters chase "a poor broken beast in which there was no trace left of the wild strain." Similarly, the personal passage reverses the traditional hunter's tale altogether as the buffalo mother chases Momaday and his father, instead of the other way around.
What we have here is not the nineteenth-century Plains Indian narrative of personal accomplishment, but a contemporary, lyrical narrative, based on pre-contact oral traditions of all sorts, that Momaday modified to educate and inspire contemporary readers. It is, in effect, a series of Momaday's tribal coup tales, but in place of arrows, Momaday uses words. The story of the arrowmaker makes this clear. The arrowmaker, sensing a person outside his tipi, tells his wife to continue their conversation as though everything were normal so as not to reveal to their potential enemy their awareness of him. As he should, the arrowmaker tests his newly made arrow, drawing it in the bow and aiming "first in this direction and then in that." The story continues:
And all the while he was talking, as if to his wife. But this is how he spoke: "I know that you are there on the outside, for I can feel your eyes upon me. If you are a Kiowa, you will understand what I am saying, and you will speak your name." But there was no answer, and the man went on in the same way, pointing the arrow all around. At last his aim fell upon the place where his enemy stood, and he let go of the string. The arrow went straight to the enemy's heart.
This story is about language, says Momaday, "the repository of [the arrowmaker's] whole knowledge and experience, and it represents the only chance he has for survival." For the arrowmaker-storyteller, language is not merely decorative, but a tool for self-creation, a weapon for survival. Momaday has shifted the thematic focus from the arrows of the nineteenth-century Kiowa to the language of the twentieth-century author. In the process, he fuses the two in the image of the arrowmaker. Both the toothmarked arrow and the well-crafted word go "straight to the enemy's heart." But arrows did not save the buffalo, or the horses, or Tai-me, or even the Kiowas themselves. When in 1879 they surrendered to the U.S. Cavalry, the hunting and warring ways of their life on the Plains were over. Now, over one hundred years later, Momaday uses language as a means to salvage his personal and tribal story.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 807
SOURCE: "Imagination Man," in The New York Times Book Review, March 14, 1993, p. 15.
[In the following review, Bode praises Momaday's descriptions of Kiowa culture and history as well as his use of voice and language in In the Presence of the Sun.]
According to their mythology, the Kiowas entered the world through a hollow log and called themselves the "coming out" people (Kwuda). They were nomadic hunters who migrated from the headwaters of the Yellowstone River down through the Black Hills into the shadow of the Rocky Mountains and onto the Great Plains. Along the way they acquired many of the elements of Plains Indian culture: horses, the Sun Dance religion and a love for the open sky.
The Cheyennes and Sioux drove the Kiowas south, where for a hundred years, in alliance with the Comanches, they ruled the southern plains from the Arkansas River to the Rockies. "Centaurs in their spirit," the bold Kiowas raided as far south as Durango State in Mexico, and, in confederation with the Cheyennes, Comanches and Apaches, fought the eastern Indians intruding into their territory. Guns, frontier traders and wars with the United States cavalry extinguished the buffalo herds and the Sun Dance and hastened the collapse of Plains Indian culture. By the close of the last century, the Kiowas were settled on a reservation in Oklahoma.
N. Scott Momaday—the teacher, poet, novelist, painter and storyteller—is a descendant of this proud people. In his autobiographical narrative The Names: A Memoir (1976), Mr. Momaday called memories "the real burden of the blood; this is immortality." Indeed, he seems the embodiment of all the oral tradition of the Kiowas. His latest book, In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991, is a distillation of 30 years of memory and imagination. A slim volume, it contains the essence of the ancestral voices that speak through him. It is a refined brew of origins, journeys, dreams and the landscape of the deep continental interior.
Mr. Momaday's book includes some 70 poems, 16 new stories about the great tribal shields of the Kiowas and a strange, arresting section on Billy the Kid. Sixty drawings by the author accompany the text. Evoking traditional Plains Indian art, as well as artists like Emil Nolde and Picasso, these drawings demonstrate Mr. Momaday's expressive power.
But it is words Mr. Momaday is in love with. He has been called "the man made of words." With them he paints rich and vivid images, word pictures that for all their specificity, their "Indianness," speak to us all. Thus, of an old man he says, "The leading edge of a dream was moving like a distant, migrant bird across his eyes." Of "The Horse That Died of Shame," he writes that "it seems to concentrate all color and light into the final moment of its life, until it … shines vaguely like the gathering of March light to a storm." And of the taciturn Billy the Kid, he draws a haunting portrait with these words: "This brief sojourn into language had been for him extraordinary, and he seemed spent, and indeed almost remorseful and contrite, as if he had squandered something of which he had too little in store."
Mr. Momaday wants to dominate the word, tame it, mold it, in all its manifestations: as image, song, poem, symbol. The prose poems that go with the drawings of war shields illustrate his romance with symbol. The Plains shield is "medicine," repelling stones and arrows. But it is more than that. Embodying charms, spells and prayers, the shield enters the realm of the sacred. Shield stories, told aloud—and always in the presence of the sun—were windows into the souls of the warriors. The shield is Plains society, with its warrior ideal. Mr. Momaday makes no effort to obscure the militancy of his Kiowa ancestors. In fact, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn (1968), he writes that "war was their sacred business."
Strong art—like strong medicine—makes no concessions. The reader will not find here the "political" Indian, the Indian as "victim" or the romanticized Indian. Rather, we hear the voices of named people like Otters Going On and the woman Roan Calf, of people who raided and killed, worshiped and wept. Yet the images, the voices, the people are shadowy, elusive, burning with invention, like flames against a dark sky.
For behind them is always the artist-author himself, Imagination Man, not unlike a man in one of his stories, who "when you looked at him, you had the sense that you were looking at … something of prehistoric character, like a shard of pottery or the remnant of an ancient wall…. He was nothing so much as the story of himself, the telling of a tale to which flesh was gathered incidentally"—a man with a sacred investiture. Strong medicine, strong art indeed.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1499
SOURCE: A review of In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, July-August, 1993, pp. 14, 22.
[Here, Anderson provides a thematic and stylistic review of In the Presence of the Sun.]
There have been a number of notable collected and selected volumes of poetry over the past few years, including award-winning books by Mary Oliver and Hayden Carruth, as well as important editions from Gary Snyder, Donald Hall, Derek Mahon, Cynthia Macdonald, Adrienne Rich, and others. The significance of this is not lost: As we approach the end of the millennium, many of our poets are at the top of their form. These collections allow us to assess their accomplishments as well as gauge the state of the art over the past several decades.
We are fortunate to add to the growing list of retrospective collections this new book from N. Scott Momaday. In the Presence of the Sun offers "stories," poems, and drawings from over 30 years. Many of us first became aware of Momaday through his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn, but it was as a poet that he first appeared on the literary scene.
Momaday's early work, still some of his best, bears the influence of his teacher at Stanford, Yvor Winters. These are, nonetheless, poems of grace and resonance. Winters encouraged the young Momaday to work in a variety of traditional forms, including syllabic verse, in which the number of syllables in a line determines the rhythmic structure. Momaday used this method to great effect in such early poems as "Buteo Regalis," and again in "The Bear":
What ruse of vision,
escarping on the wall of leaves,
into countless surfaces,
would cull and color
his somnolence, whose old age
has outworn valor,
all but the fact of courage?
In "Angle of Geese," from the same period, the poet examines the differences between the human concept of death and death in wild nature:
Almost of a mind,
We take measure of the loss;
I am slow to find
The mere margin of repose.
So much symmetry!—
Like the pale angle of time
The great shape labored and fell.
This is perhaps the first of Momaday's poems to reject, philosophically if not technically, Winters' influence. In the wake of this poem, Momaday turned increasingly to nature and to his Kiowa heritage, exploring native themes and the old ways and employing forms that more accurately present these concerns. This change is further exemplified by the incantatory style of his "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee":
I am a flame of four colors
I am a deer standing away in the dusk
I am a field of sumac and the pomme blanche
I am an angle of geese in the winter sky
I am the hunger of a young wolf
I am the whole dream of these things
You see, I am alive, I am alive
Momaday participates annually in the Gourd Dance Society, where he is the successor to his grandfather, Mammedaty. His poem "The Gourd Dancer" is at once an homage to his grandfather and an expression of respect for the tradition:
Someone spoke his name, Mammedaty, in which his essence was and is. It was a serious matter that his name should be spoken there in the circle, among the many people, and he was thoughtful, full of wonder, and aware of himself and of his name.
Here magic and tradition, reality and the dreamland come together for the poet and, through his storytelling, for the reader.
Myth, too, plays an important part in his work. Included in this volume is a long sequence of poems titled "The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid." The mythic figure of Billy the Kid represents a significant influence on the imagination of Scott Momaday. While Momaday's choice of the legendary outlaw as a subject for a sustained sequence might at first seem odd, it illustrates the unique bicultural nature of both his outlook and his work. "The Kid" died in Momaday's home territory of New Mexico; we can imagine the young poet heard of his legend alongside the stories of his native culture, and the sequence has all the earmarks of the oral tradition in its form and function. Composed of songs, epigraphs, and prose poems as well as narrative poems, this sustained imaginative meditation captures the essence of the myth and its effect on the psyche of the author. For Momaday, Billy is not only an outlaw hero (and hence, like the poet's own people, both outcast and venerated presence), he is also a sensitive individual, a youth with a sense of valor if not a conscience:
Billy fetched a plug of tobacco from his coat pocket, cut it in two with a jackknife, and gave the old man half. We said goodbye … Later, on the way to Santa Fe, I said to Billy: "Say, amigo, I have never seen you chew tobacco." "No, and it isn't likely that you ever will," he said. "I have no use for the weed…. I bought the tobacco at La Junta because I knew that we were coming this way … to see the old man … He has a taste for it. And I offered him half instead of the whole because he should prefer that I did not give him something outright; it pleased him that I should share something of my own with him…. I have thrown away my share … But that is an unimportant matter … this the old man understands and appreciates more even than the tobacco itself."
When Billy (né Henry McCarty) witnesses the marriage of his mother, we see another side of the outlaw, one the tall tales never revealed:
She is pale, lovely, and lithe.
Her sons are stiff and homely,
And they make hard witnesses.
Joe is careless, distant, dumb;
Henry imagines marriage,
The remorse and agonies
Of age. He looks upon her,
His mother, and his mind turns
Upon him; the beautiful
His example of despair.
Yet Billy can also instill terror in an individual: He is "the only man I have ever known in whose eyes there was no expression whatsoever."
In the "Gathering of Shields," which gives In the Presence of the Sun its title, Momaday turns to a further exploration of myth and legend. Each shield, carefully executed in ink, is rendered on the facing page in a brief prose translation. "The Sun Dance Shield," "The Shield That Died," "The Floating Feathers Shield," and "The Shield That Was Touched by Pretty Mouth" are all brought to life by the poetry. Take, for example, the tragic story of "The Shield of Which the Less Said the Better":
A man—his name is of no importance—owned a shield. The shield came down in the man's family. The man's grandson carried the shield into a fight at Stinking Creek, and he was killed. Soldiers took away the shield. Some years ago old man Red Horn bought the shield in a white man's store at Clinton, Oklahoma, for seventeen dollars. The shield was worth seventeen dollars, more or less.
The shield drawings are powerful, in part because the form is such an intriguing one: circles, objects of protection, ornament, and deep spiritual value. Each shield tells a story, but its decoration only provides the skeleton of a narrative—the trick, Momaday implies, is to listen to the shield.
In "The Shield of Two Dreams," a woman named Dark Water inherits her father's shield through the simple act of dreaming. This, we imagine, is a fairly radical event, for nothing else like it appears in this gathering of shields; no other woman receives this power. Momaday has, rather appropriately, placed this shield at the end of the section, as if to underscore its adaptation of the old ways to new times.
Of the "New Poems" in this collection, only a few seem to live up to the promise of Momaday's earlier work: "The Great Fillmore Street Buffalo Drive," "Carnegie, Oklahoma, 1919," "Mogollon Morning," and "Wreckage":
Had my bones, like the sun,
been splintered on this canyon wall
and burned among these buckled plates,
this bright debris; had it been so,
I should not have lingered so long
among my losses. I should have come
loudly, like a warrior, to my time.
The other poems in this section seem vague and affected, and their weakness stands out in the face of the strong earlier work of the collection.
The drawings throughout the volume are evocative, especially the various bears, which in many ways resemble the author. (Momaday's biography proclaims: "He is a bear.") They are robust creatures, well rounded yet full of energy. It is a contradiction that serves well this bear of an artist—poet, painter, and storyteller, and in all these things a "man made of words." In the Presence of the Sun gives us the unique opportunity to witness this bear as he articulates "the appropriate expression of his spirit."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689
SOURCE: A review of In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer, 1993, p. 680.
[In the following positive review, Meredith argues that In the Presence of the Sun fully achieves Momaday's purpose, which is to "express my spirit fairly."]
In the Presence of the Sun, a collection of poetry, stories, and visual-art pieces, presents a set of individual works that define Scott Momaday's style, from his early period and to more recent times, as well as his visual expression in still lifes and figure studies. Each of the works has individual traits, but there are elemental connections among them. Included are familiar early poems from volumes such as Gourd Dancer and Angle of Geese, a series of poems focusing on Billy the Kid; new poems; a reprint of In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields, originally published as a signed, limited letterpress edition by the Rydal Press earlier in 1992. Illustrations include acrylics, graphite sketches, monoprints, etchings, pen-and-ink drawings, and watercolors. Momaday writes: "The poems and stories, the drawings here, express my spirit fairly, I believe. If you look closely into these pages, it is possible to catch a glimpse of me in my original being."
Momaday brings a significant vision of his ethnic foundations and period style in American poetry and art and expresses the healing relations within the universe. He flowers in the fire of the spirit of an ancient culture. As a poet, he brings a sense of order in the form of a special case to the creative chaos of the present. In the works of art gathered here, connections are made within Anglo-American cultural imperatives, yet with a sense of reference that speaks of Native American concerns for all living beings.
The collection is excellent, although it does not pretend to possess any sense of symmetry. Dream images recur throughout but are ever more powerfully expressed in the selection of stories and drawings entitled "In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields." The expression of dreams, visions, and natural events finds unity in the power of the special medicine of these words. Momaday explains through allegory, to those who are prepared to listen, the nature of medicine power and the miracle of the Kiowa mind-set, which extends beyond the dualism and the adversarial nature of Western dialogue to provide for personal understanding and empathy within the unity of creation. He indicates a path through which the reader can move from the individual mind and spirit to become one with the universal mind and spirit.
Three contemporary poems form a fitting conclusion to the volume. "December 29, 1890: Wounded Knee Creek" is movement within images, including black-and-white photo reflections of the Ghost Dance bringing the spirits of all into communion. "Fort Sill: Set-angia" relates the continuing presence of no less a person than Sitting Bear. "At Risk" points to the power within images, memory, and words that require exacting performance.
In images and words the collection suggests the presence of a particular man. His art, in turn, provides a glimpse of the depths of existence that extends cultural perspectives to understand better the living universe.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1187
Trimble, Martha Scott. "N. Scott Momaday (1934–)." In Fifty Western Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Fred Erisman and Richard W. Etulain, pp. 313-24. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.
Provides an overview of Momaday's life, a discussion of the major themes of his works, critical reception of his writings, and a listing of primary and secondary sources.
Allen, Paula Gunn. "Bringing Home the Fact: Tradition and Continuity in the Imagination." In Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, pp. 563-79. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
Discusses the inclusion of Navajo and Pueblo beliefs in House Made of Dawn, arguing that Momaday's focus in the novel is on sickness, healing, and harmony.
Antell, Judith A. "Momaday, Welch, and Silko: Expressing the Feminine Principle through Male Alienation." The American Indian Quarterly XII, No. 3 (Summer 1988): 213-20.
Examines Momaday's House Made of Dawn, James Welch's The Death of Jim Loney, and Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, arguing that their treatment of the alienated Native American male underscores the role and power of Native American women in tribal communities.
Blaeser, Kimberly. "The Way to Rainy Mountain: Momaday's Work in Motion." In Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, edited by Gerald Vizenor, pp. 39-54. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.
Postmodern analysis of The Way to Rainy Mountain. Employing reader-response theories, Blaeser examines Momaday's attempts to actively engage the reader in the construction of text and meaning in his autobiography.
Brumble, H. David, III. "N. Scott Momaday: Oral to Wrìtten Tradition." In his American Indian Autobiography, pp. 165-80. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Argues that Momaday's autobiographical writings are informed by Native oral traditions, tribal history, and a desire to return to the "old ways."
Hogan, Linda. "Who Puts Together." In Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs, edited by Paula Gunn Allen, pp. 169-77. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1983.
Relates Momaday's focus on healing and incorporation of Navajo chants in House Made of Dawn.
Johnson, Diane. "Ghosts." The New York Review of Books XXIV, No. 1 (3 February 1977), 19-20, 29.
Comparative review of The Names, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, and Carolbeth Laird's Encounter with an Angry God. Discussing cultural and sexual differences between these autobiographies, Johnson argues that except "for his Indian background, Momaday's upbringing seems to have been a lot like that of other American kids especially ones brought up" during the 1930s and 1940s.
Lincoln, Kenneth. "Word Senders: Black Elk and N. Scott Momaday." In his Native American Renaissance, pp. 82-121. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Provides an overview of Momaday's literary career through the 1970s, placing him within the tradition of Black Elk, a Lakota Sioux autobiographer, who, the critic asserts, attempted to bring about spiritual and corporeal harmony by preserving Native traditions and history in writing.
――――――. "Tai-me to Rainy Mountain: The Makings of American Indian Literature." The American Indian Quarterly X, No. 1 (Winter 1986): 101-17.
Relates the composition and publication history of The Way to Rainy Mountain.
――――――. "Comic Accommodations: Momaday and Norman." In his Indi'n Humor: Bicultural Play in Native America, pp. 280-308. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Discusses Momaday's use of humor, irony, caricature, and the Trickster figure in House Made of Dawn. This chapter also includes an examination of these and similar elements in Howard Norman's novel The Northern Lights.
McAllister, Mick. "The Topology of Remembrance in The Way to Rainy Mountain." Denver Quarterly 12, No. 4 (Winter 1978): 19-31.
Analyzes the structure, thematic concerns, and stylistic features of The Way to Rainy Mountain. Examining the relationship between the text and its illustrations, the critic emphasizes Momaday's use of a three- and four-part structure that is similar to musical composition, in that both employ counterpoints, harmonies, and cross-references.
Miles, Elton. Review of The Names: A Memoir, by N. Scott Momaday. Western American Literature XII, No. 1 (May 1977): 86-7.
Favorable assessment of The Names.
Nicholas, Charles A. "The Way to Rainy Mountain: N. Scott Momaday's Hard Journey Back." South Dakota Review 13, No. 4 (Winter 1975–1976): 149-58.
Examines Momaday's use of memory, myth, and imagination in The Way to Rainy Mountain as a means of establishing personal identity and creating a bond with the past.
Oleson, Carole. "The Remembered Earth: Momaday's House Made of Dawn." South Dakota Review 11, No. 1 (Spring 1973): 59-78.
Explores the structure and symbolism of House Made of Dawn, emphasizing, in particular, the relationship between Momaday's central themes and his depiction of the land.
Papovich, J. Frank. "Landscape, Tradition, and Identity in The Way to Rainy Mountain." Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 12 (1986): 13-19.
Discusses the relationship between land, Kiowa history, and self in The Way to Rainy Mountain.
Reynolds, Susan Salter. Review of In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991, by N. Scott Momaday. Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 December 1992): 6.
Praises Momaday's focus on identity, nature, and Native chants, artifacts, and traditions in In the Presence of the Sun.
Roemer, Kenneth, ed. Approaches to Teaching Momaday's "The Way to Rainy Mountain." New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1988, 171 p.
Collects essays by such scholars as Matthias Schubnell, H. David Brumble III, Gretchen M. Bataille, and Agnes Grant, discussing critical aspects and pedagogical uses of The Way to Rainy Mountain.
Scarberry-García, Susan, Landmarks of Healing: A Study of "House Made of Dawn." Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990, 208 p.
Provides essays on the motif of the twin, animal imagery, Native myths, and the theme of healing as presented in House Made of Dawn. The critic notes: "This study attempts to interpret the dialectical relationship between the text and the cultural worlds that engendered the text by examining the ethnographic record as it pertains to Navajo, Pueblo, and Kiowa events in the novel."
Trimmer, Joseph F. "Native Americans and the American Mix: N, Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn." The Indiana Social Studies Quarterly XXVIII, No. 2 (Autumn 1975): 75-91.
Provides an overview of House Made of Dawn, discussing its merits as a Pulitzer Prize-winning work.
Velie, Alan R. Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982, 157 p.
Includes essays on Momaday's early works, including his poetry, autobiographical writings, and House Made of Dawn.
Waniek, Marilyn Nelson. "The Power of Language in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn." Minority Voices 4, No. 1 (1980): 23-8.
Analyzes Momaday's treatment of language in House Made of Dawn.
Wild, Peter. "N. Scott Momaday: Gentle Maverick." American West XXV, No. 1 (February 1988): 12-13.
Feature article providing a brief overview of Momaday's life and work.
Wilson, Norma. Review of The Names: A Memoir, by N. Scott Momaday. World Literature Today 51, No. 4 (Autumn 1977): 663.
Highly favorable assessment of The Names, lauding the work as a valuable tool providing insight into Kiowa tribal history, Momaday's family and writing, and the "autobiographical landscape of Momaday's mind."