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."