N. Scott Momaday

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Scott Momaday


1934: Navarro Scott Momaday is born on 27 February to Alfred Morris Momaday and Mayme Natachee Scott Momaday at the Kiowa and Comanche Indian Hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma. In the summer the family travels to Devils Tower, a rock formation in northeastern Wyoming; from this journey Momaday receives the Kiowa name Tsoai-talee (Rock-Tree Boy).

1936: The Momaday family leaves Oklahoma, moving to the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico.

1943: After moving to several different towns in Arizona, the Momadays move to Hobbs, New Mexico, where Momaday’s father works for an oil company and his mother works for the civilian personnel office at Hobbs Army Air Base.

1946: The Momaday family moves to Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, where both parents take teaching jobs at Jemez Day School.

1951: After attending various schools in New Mexico, Momaday completes his secondary education at the Augustus Military Academy in Fort Defiance, Virginia.

1952: Momaday begins studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

1956: Momaday enters the prelaw program at the University of Virginia.

1957: Momaday returns to the University of New Mexico.

1958: Momaday graduates from the University of New Mexico with a major in English and a minor in speech. He takes a teaching job at the Dulce Independent School on the Jicarilla Apache reservation in Duke, New Mexico.

1959: In Dulce, Momaday meets and marries Gaye Mangold, with whom he has three daughters: Cael, Jill, and Britt. His first published poem, “Los Alamos,” appears in the New Mexico Quarterly. He wins a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship to attend Stanford University.

1962: Momaday wins the Academy of American Poets Prize for “The Bear.”

1963: Momaday earns a doctorate in English at Stanford. He begins teaching at the University of California at Santa Barbara and publishes a short story, “The Well,” in Ramparts.

1965: Momaday’s dissertation is published as The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman.

1966: Momaday receives a Guggenheim Fellowship for study of the intellectual background of Tuckerman’s poetry, and he moves to Amherst, Massachusetts to do his research.

1967: Momaday’s The Journey of Tai-me is published.

1968: Momaday’s first novel, House Made of Dawn, is published.

1969: Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain is published. He receives the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for House Made of Dawn and is named Outstanding Indian of the Year by the American Indian community. Momaday begins teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, and is initiated into the Gourd Dance Society of the Kiowa tribe.

1972: Momaday joins the faculty at Stanford but immediately takes a leave of absence to serve as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. He begins writing a weekly column for Viva: Northern New Mexico’s Sunday Magazine.

1973: Colorado: Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring, a book of photographs with text by Momaday, is published.

1974: Momaday returns to Stanford and then takes a position as a visiting professor at the University of Moscow in the Soviet Union. His Angle of Geese and Other Poems is published. He begins sketching and drawing seriously.

1976: Momaday’s The Names: A Memoir and a poetry collection, The Gourd Dancer, art published. A series of prose poems, The Colors of Night, is published in an illustrated, limited edition.

1978: Momaday marries Regina Heitzer, whom he met while serving as a visiting professor at the University of Regensburg in Germany and with whom he has one daughter.

1979: Momaday has his first one-man show of artwork at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

1980: Momaday receives an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Morningside College...

(This entire section contains 665 words.)

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in Sioux City, Iowa.

1981: Momaday moves to Tucson, Arizona, to begin teaching at the University of Arizona. His father dies.

1989: Momaday’s second novel, The Ancient Child, is published.

1992: Momaday’s In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 is published.

1994: A play by Momaday, The Indolent Boys, premieres at Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, New York.

1997: Momaday’s The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages is published.

1999: Momaday’s In the Bear’s House is published.

About N. Scott Momaday

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N. Scott Momaday was born on 27 February 1934 at the Kiowa and Comanche Indian Hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma. He is the only child of Mayme Natachee Scott Momaday and Alfred Morris “Al” Momaday, whose Kiowa name was Huan-toa, or War Lance. The newborn’s name on the birth certificate appeared as Navarro Scotte Mammedaty, even though his father had changed his last name from Mammedaty to Momaday two years earlier. On the certificate Momaday had first been written in but was then crossed out. When the infant was only six months old, his parents took him to Devils Tower, a rock formation in northeastern Wyoming for which he received his Kiowa name, Tsoai-talee,’or Rock-Tree Boy. In his memoir, The Names (1976), Momaday writes that his great-grandfather Pohd-lohk (Old Wolf) gave him this name to commemorate the Kiowa story of Tsoai (Rock Tree, the Kiowa name for Devils Tower). Momaday stresses the significance of the name in the memoir: “My name is Tsoai-talee. I am, therefore, Tsoai-talee; therefore I am.” In a conversation with Charles L. Woodard, he described the importance of his naming: “It [Devils Tower] is the sacred place in Kiowa tradition, and it is the place where the boy turned into a bear. I identify with that boy. I have for many years.”1

After the trip to Devils Tower, Momaday and his parents lived for two years near his father’s Kiowa relatives in Mountain View, Oklahoma; they then moved to the Navajo reservation at Shiprock, New Mexico. In the next few years, the Momadays lived in Tuba City, Chinle, and the San Carlos reservation, all in Arizona. In 1943 the family moved to Hobbs, New Mexico, where Momaday’s father worked for an oil company and his mother worked for the U.S. Army at Hobbs Air Force Base. About his moving around as a child, Momaday has said, “I’m convinced that it was good for me to experience so many different places when I was growing up. It was an important part of my education.”2 One aspect of that education was his experience of the racism and paranoia that resulted from the fighting in the Pacific during World War II. His schoolmates associated him with the Japanese; in response to this taunt, Momaday recalls, he was in several playground fights.3 By his own account, he also had time for more peaceful reflection. In Hobbs, he remembers, “I grew tall, and I entered into the seventh grade. I sat looking into books; there were birds on the lawn, chirping. Girls ambled in the dark corridors in white socks and saddle oxfords, and there were round, sweet syllables on their tongues.”4

The most important move for Momaday came in 1946, when his parents both accepted teaching jobs at Jemez Pueblo, situated in a mountain valley in north-central New Mexico. Here Momaday grew up: “My parents lived and taught at the Jemez Day School for more than a quarter of a century. It was my home from the time I was twelve until I ventured out to seek my fortune in the world.” In describing the beauty of the landscape around Jemez Pueblo, Momaday comments on his daily walk to school: “I loved to walk there in the morning, for on the way there were interesting and beautiful things to see. The old man Francisco Tosa kept a flock of sheep, and as I passed by his corrals I often saw him there, tending them. He always greeted me heartily in Spanish, and there was much good humor in him. There are certain people whom you are simply glad to see at any moment, anywhere, for they hold themselves to their lives very peacefully and know who they are.”5 With this movement between Navajo and Pueblo communities, as well as frequent trips to visit his father’s Kiowa family in Oklahoma, Momaday became acquainted with many of the landscapes, cultures, and languages that later served him as a writer.

As a boy Momaday attended the Franciscan mission school in Jemez and then went to Leah Harvey Junior High School in Santa Fe. He also attended Our Lady of Sorrows School in Bernalillo, New Mexico, and Saint Mary’s School in Albuquerque. About these Catholic schools Momaday says that there were no lasting ill effects. He admits, however, that “the Catholic Church would not approve of the Indian religion,” and that disapproval resulted in religious tension in the pueblos. Momaday also recalls that “among the worst teachers I’ve ever had were some nuns with very poor preparation in teaching their subjects.” After replying correctly to a teacher’s question about whether or not the Soviet Union was larger than the United States, for example, he was told that America was the larger country. “And to prove her point she held up two maps, one of each country, which bore no relation to each other in terms of scale.” Despite such shortcomings in his schooling, Momaday observes that it was a time of great learning for him: “As I think of it, it was the most common and essential kind of learning, purely natural and irresistible.” One of the things he learned was horseback riding. When he was thirteen his parents gave him a horse, and the boy named him Pecos: “On the back of my horse I had a different view of the world.”6

Momaday ends his memoir with the point at which he was ready to leave his parents’ home: “At Jemez I came to the end of my childhood.”7 At this time he entered another phase of his life that began with his crossing the continent to attend another school. He knew that he wanted to get a college education and, as he says, he had been attending “second-rate schools because I lived in remote areas,” so he decided, in consultation with his parents, to transfer for his senior year to Augustus Military Academy in Fort Defiance, Virginia. In recalling his year at this school, Momaday says that it was difficult for him because he had not developed good study habits: “I was pressed and under stress there because the challenge was great. I had to compete in a way that I had not had to before.”8


After graduating from Augustus Military Academy, Momaday returned to his home state, where he matriculated at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He began working toward a major in political science and a minor in English and speech. With plans to study law, Momaday returned to Virginia in 1956 to enroll at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. After deciding that law was not a field he wanted to pursue, he returned to the University of New Mexico and finished his bachelor’s degree, graduating in 1958 with a major in English. Before he left Charlottesville, he met William Faulkner, who was then a writer in residence at the university. Momaday later noted, “I like Faulkner, and I’ve read a lot of Faulkner, and I want to write like Faulkner; . . . I’m sure that I have tried to, but to what extent Faulkner is an influence on me, I really don’t know.”9 Momaday also remembers that after a public lecture in which Faulkner read from his novel The Hamlet (1940), he approached the famous writer: “I drew myself up and asked him, ’Mr. Faulkner, what do you read?’ He replied, contemptuously, I thought, ’Young man, I don’t read.”’10

Upon graduation from college, Momaday taught for a year on the Jicarilla Apache reservation in Dulce, in northern New Mexico. In 1959 he received a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship and began graduate work at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Momaday recalls that he heard about the Stegner Fellowship through a friend and decided to apply: “I had an outline of a collection of poems with maybe four or five samples. And I applied, and I won it.” At Stanford he met and worked closely with the poet Yvor Winters, beginning a close and important relationship: “I didn’t know Yvor Winters at the time—I’d never heard of him—but he’s the one who wrote to me and said, ‘There is only one fellowship in poetry this year—You’re it.’”11 As Momaday notes, “We came close together in a short time.”12 He received a master’s degree in 1960 and finished his doctorate in 1963. Although he began his studies as a poet, Momaday ultimately studied literature and wrote a dissertation on the nineteenth-century American poet Frederick Goddard Tucker-man. The dissertation, which collected and introduced Tuckerman’s poetry, was published by the Oxford University Press as The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman (1965).

After finishing his doctorate at Stanford, Momaday moved a few hundred miles south to begin teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In the fall of 1966 he traveled to Amherst, Massachusetts, on a Guggenheim Fellowship in order to continue his study of Tucker-man in the context of the works of Emily Dickinson and William Cullen Bryant. As Matthias Schubnell reports, “The main objective of his research was to show the way in which Tuckerman and other writers remained outside the mainstream of nineteenth-century transcendental literature.”13 By 1969 Momaday’s proposed book, “The Furrow and the Glow: Science and the Landscape in American Poetry, 1836-66,” was advertised, but it was never published.

In the meantime Momaday returned to Santa Barbara. All the while he had been working on the book that was to become his first novel, House Made of Dawn. It was published in 1968 and won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction the following year. In 1969 Momaday published The Way to Rainy Mountain, a collection of what could be called prose poems in which he chronicles Kiowa history and legend, offers anthropological responses to Kiowa culture, and describes his own quest for his tribal heritage as he retraces the tribe’s migration route.

In the fall of that year he left his position at Santa Barbara to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1972 Momaday accepted a teaching position at Stanford but spent the academic year as the first Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. While back in New Mexico, Momaday wrote a weekly column for Viva: Northern New Mexico’s Sunday Magazine. During this time he also provided the text for a collection of photographs by David Muench, Colorado: Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring (1973). In the introduction Momaday writes of his feelings of closeness to the Colorado landscape: “My mind has been involved in the landscape of Colorado for a long time—from the moment I was old enough to conceive an idea of my homeland (I have lived most of my life in view of the Rocky Mountains); my blood even longer.”14

After this productive year in New Mexico, Momaday returned to teach at Stanford in the fall of 1973. In the spring of 1974 he left Stanford again, this time for a six-month teaching sojourn at the University of Moscow in what was then the Soviet Union. This visiting professorship was especially important for the young author because it was in Moscow that he wrote most of the poems comprising the collection The Gourd Dancer (1976). As Momaday recalls, “I lived in Moscow, in what was then the U.S.S.R., for six months. It was an experience, a high point in my life. I had much more time to myself than I thought I would, and I spent many, many hours riding the trains and walking the streets with the Muscovites. . . . Something about that time and place made for a surge in me, a kind of creative explosion. I wrote numerous poems, some on the landscapes of my native Southwest, urged, I believe, by an acute homesickness.” It was also in Moscow that Momaday began to draw seriously: “Drawing became suddenly very important to me, and I haunted museums and galleries. . . . When I came out of the Soviet Union I brought with me a new way of seeing and a commitment to record it.”15

Although Momaday dates his serious interest in his own artwork from this period in Moscow, he began learning about drawing and painting much earlier. In an interview with Camille Adkins in 1993, he recalled that his father, Al, was not only an accomplished artist himself, but he was also a good teacher of the young. Momaday grew up watching his father paint, and other artists came to the house and painted with him: “I learned a lot, I think, watching him and his friends paint. Something that became realized in me much later, but that I learned very early.”16 Writing about this early learning experience, Momaday comments about how he observed his father at work: “I learned to see the wonderful things in his mind’s eye, how they were translated into images on the picture plane.”17

Perhaps another sort of homesickness during the next several years, which he spent teaching at Stanford, inspired Momaday to write his 1976 memoir, The Names. His next significant book-length publication did not come until his second novel, The Ancient Child, appeared in 1989, more than twenty years after House Made of Dawn. In 1985 Schubnell suggested that Momaday’s concentration “on his development as a painter may be one reason why his literary output has been scarce in recent years.”18 By Momaday’s own account, he has worked steadily on his writing, keeping an even pace for more than thirty years.

During the 1990s several books by Momaday were published, often using old material in new contexts or in new ways. A collection of stories and poems, In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991 (1992), includes poems from earlier publications as well as several new ones. It also includes “The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid,” most of which had already appeared in The Ancient Child, where it is presented as having been written by the character Grey. A collection of pieces describing Momaday’s drawings of shields, “In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields,” is also part of the volume. In addition to writing, the book features reproductions of Momaday’s shield drawings and other paintings and drawings. In 1994 a children’s story by Momaday, Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story, was published; it had appeared earlier as part of The Names. The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (1997) is a collection of previously published essays spanning thirty years. In the Bear’s House, a collection of Momaday’s dialogues, poems, and drawings, was published in 1999. All of these publications demonstrate that Momaday is still hard at work, both writing and painting.

After living in Tucson, Berkeley, Santa Barbara, and Albuquerque and after traveling across much of Europe and Asia, Momaday moved to Jemez Springs, just a few miles north of Jemez Pueblo, which he has described as “the last, best home of my childhood.”19 He lives in the house to which his parents retired. From Jemez Springs, Momaday commutes once a week to Tucson, where he teaches courses in literature and Native American oral tradition at the University of Arizona. About living

in Jemez Springs, he says, “It seems so natural for me to come here. If I could choose one place in the world to live, it would be here. It’s on the street, so it’s like a brownstone in New York. But it’s in a canyon, so it is wild. I consider it my permanent residence now.”20

In this house, which served as the model for Benevides, where the character Angela St. John stays in House Made of Dawn, Momaday has a remodeled kitchen (he likes to cook) and has added a Jacuzzi. In his study he has replaced the typewriter of previous years with a computer, at which he works for about three hours each morning, writing about three hundred words on a good day. From the house Momaday can hike into the mountains or visit the seventeenth-century Franciscan mission church, now a state monument. From the bell tower, he can look across the valley and into the mountains. Perhaps, like Angela, he acknowledges the specialness of his home: “In fact it was secret like herself, the Benevides house. That was its peculiar character.”21


In the preface to In the Presence of the Sun Momaday writes, “I have been called ’the man made of words,’ a phrase that I myself coined some years ago in connection with a Kiowa folktale. It is an identity that pleases me. In a sense, a real sense, my life has been composed of words. Reading and writing, talking, telling stories, listening, remembering, and thinking (someone has said that thinking is talking to oneself) have been the cornerstones of my existence. Words inform the element in which I live my daily life.”22

As words are of fundamental importance to Momaday’s sense of identity, it follows that names also form an important part of his character. His Kiowa name, Tsoai-talee, refers to a Kiowa story concerning Devils Tower; thus, the name connects him both literally and symbolically to the landscape. The story is about a boy becoming a bear at Devils Tower, establishing Momaday’s close association with bears. When asked about his bear identity, Momaday once remarked, “There is much to be said about that... . I identify with that boy. I have for many years. And I have struggled with my bear power through those years. I think I have come to terms with it. I feel good about it.” Momaday has discussed the bear’s role in The Ancient Child, which “is about the boy who turns into a bear, and in a sense I am writing about myself. I’m not writing an autobiography, but I am imagining a story that proceeds out of my own experience of the bear power. It is full of magic. But sometimes the bear is very difficult.” Despite the difficulties, Momaday recognizes his close association: “I am a bear. I do have this capacity to become a bear.”23

Momaday’s bear identity grows out of his naming, out of language itself, and out of his sense of a specific landscape. Momaday’s childhood was shaped by the landscape of the Southwest. As he has said, “You have to spend time in a place and come to know it as it changes in the hours of the day and in the seasons of the year. And if you put yourself into it, it absorbs you and you come to know it and depend upon it in numerous ways. In spiritual as well as physical ways.” Momaday also explains the importance of place for him: “I identify very strongly with places where I have lived, where I have been, where I have invested some part of my being. That equation between man and nature or between writer and place—I don’t think there is a relationship that is more important than that.”24 In the essay “An American Land Ethic” (1970) Momaday notes the importance of the landscape, insisting that one must know where one is in relation to the stars and the solstices: “I believe that it is possible to formulate an ethical idea of the land . . . and I believe moreover that it is absolutely necessary to do so.”25

In addition to language and landscape, another important element in analyzing Momaday is his commitment to his Kiowa background and identity. In a 1970 lecture he asked his audience, “What is an American Indian?” He then answered his own question: “an Indian is an idea which a given man has of himself. And it is a moral idea, for it accounts for the way in which he reacts to other men and to the world in general. And that idea, in order to be realized completely, has to be expressed.”26 Momaday suggests that language and identity are inseparable. In another essay he makes a similar point, arguing that an “American Indian—or indeed any man—is someone who thinks of himself in a certain way; he is precisely equal to his own idea of himself.”27 As Momaday acknowledges, he has thought of himself as, or has imagined himself to be, Kiowa. He makes a similar point about his mother’s Indian identity. She made a conscious decision to identify herself with her Cherokee heritage, rather than with her Anglo-American background: “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.”28 In a conversation with Woodard, Momaday elaborated on his notion of who he is: “The Kiowa identity in me is very strong now and secure. I think that there was a time while I was growing up when I might have lost my sense of Kiowa heritage, but that’s no longer so. It’s so deeply entrenched in me now, or I so deeply entrenched in it, that I don’t worry about that. I’m Kiowa, and I’m going to die Kiowa.”29

Momaday’s ability to imagine himself suggests another important characteristic of his identity as a writer. The importance he attributes to imagining the self implies the importance of imagination in general. According to Momaday, an idea must be expressed in order to be realized, and, as he insists, the expression of any idea requires the use of the imagination. Through language, through words, one names oneself and creates an identity, Momaday insists; in turn, that created identity, that clear sense of self, enables one to formulate and use those words. Thus, the man made of words is a man grounded in place, in a specific landscape; he is Kiowa and a man of his own imagining.


Momaday is one of the most recognized of contemporary American writers. He began winning awards while in college and continues to receive them. Some of his many awards are noted here.

1959 Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship.

1962 Academy of American Poets Prize for the poem “The Bear.”

1966 Guggenheim Fellowship.

1969 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for House Made of Dawn.

1970 National Institute of Arts and Letters grant.

1972 Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities, New Mexico State University.

1974 Western Heritage Award.

1975 Premio Litterario Internazionale Mondelo, Italy.

1983 Western Literature Association Distinguished Service Award.

1989 Native American Literature Prize (the University of California at Santa Cruz).

1992 Returning the Gift Lifetime Achievement Award, received from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas.

1996 New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.


1. Charles L. Woodard, Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 13.

2. Ibid., p. 7.

3. N. Scott Momaday, The Names: A Memoir (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 86.

4. Ibid., p. 114.

5. Ibid., pp. 117, 127.

6. Ibid., pp. 127, 128, 155.

7. Ibid., p. 160.

8. Woodard, Ancestral Voice, p. 10.

9. Lee Abbott, “An Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, edited by Matthias Schubnell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), p. 30.

10. Camille Adkins, “Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, p. 219.

11. Ibid., p. 225.

12. Woodard, Ancestral Voice, p. 12.

13. Matthias Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), p. 31.

14. Momaday, introduction to Colorado: Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring (New York: Rand McNally, 1973), p. 6.

15. Momaday, preface to In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), pp. xix, xx.

16. Adkins, “Introduction with N. Scott Momaday,” p. 217.

17. Momaday, preface to In the Presence of the Sun, p. xix.

18. Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday, p. 37.

19. Momaday, The Names, p. 117.

20. Momaday, quoted in Ollie Reed Jr., “Return to Jemez,” Albuquerque Tribune, 27 November 1997, sec. B, p. 1.

21. Momaday, House Made of Dawn (New York: Perennial Library, 1989), p. 54.

22. Momaday, preface to In the Presence of the Sun, p. xviii.

23. Woodard, Ancestral Voice, pp. 13, 15.

24. Ibid., pp. 50, 67.

25. Momaday, “An American Land Ethic,” in his The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p. 48.

26. Momaday, “The Man Made of Words,” in Indian Voices, edited by Robert Costo (San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1970), p. 49.

27. Momaday, “I Am Alive,” in The World of the American Indian, edited by Jules B. Billard (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1974), p. 14.

28. Momaday, The Names, p. 25.

29. Woodard, Ancestral Voice, p. 4.

Momaday at Work

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By the time House Made of Dawn was published in the spring of 1968, a revised version of Momaday’s doctoral dissertation had already been published as The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman; several of his poems, stories, and sketches had appeared in various literary journals; and he had had privately printed The Journey of Tai-me (1967), a collection of Kiowa tales that he later worked into The Way to Rainy Mountain. But House Made of Dawn was Momaday’s first major literary publication, and it constituted a major breakthrough for him. As he said in one interview, “it was a little hard to follow that act, you know, because here a first novel, and a first novel by an Indian, was given a major prize.”1

Momaday first conceived of House Made of Dawn as a book-length poem, and he had been working on it for several years in verse before it took final shape as a novel. By the time he submitted a draft to an editor for consideration, he had already published several prose pieces that eventually became part of the final manuscript. In an interview with Joelle Rostkowski, Momaday recalled that he began the novel during “a happy and creative period” in his life. He had been writing poetry, but he noted that he wanted to work in another genre: “I felt the need to expand myself, to extend the scope of my literary work.”2

In February 1966, Frances McCullough, an editor at Harper and Row who had been a student with Momaday at Stanford University, invited him to submit a collection of poetry. McCullough had been editor of the Stanford student literary magazine, Sequoia, and, remembering Momaday’s poetry from their graduate-school days, she speculated that he might have a collection ready for publication. He said that he did not, that he had neglected poetry for prose, but that he did have a novel in progress. He asked if she would be interested in that, and she said that she was. McCullough asked Momaday to submit his manuscript for the Harper Prize Novel contest, but, after seeing this early version of the novel, she advised him not to rush the unrevised manuscript to meet the prize deadline; rather, she suggested that he rewrite it. According to Matthias Schubnell, the editor “was particularly critical of the fragmentary structure and lack of cohesion of the early drafts.” In her correspondence, in fact, McCullough expressed her concern that readers might have trouble with several of the pueblo scenes in the novel. Schubnell notes that she specifically cited the descriptions of the pueblo ceremonials, the characterization of an albino Indian who seems to embody evil, and the “witchcraft theme” in general.3

Despite such concerns, however, the novel was published in the spring of 1968. To the surprise of many, according to Schubnell, this previously unknown Kiowa writer won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in May of 1969. His winning the prize—especially considering the comparative obscurity of the novel—set Momaday up as an important American author, but his success (if not popularity) was perhaps assured with or without the Pulitzer. In 1969 both the University of New Mexico Press and the University of Oklahoma Press were seriously interested in his work in progress; the University of New Mexico Press published it that year as The Way to Rainy Mountain. Despite the prestige of the prizewinning novel, excerpts from this latter book appear in literary anthologies much more frequently than anything else Momaday has written. Together, these two texts—a groundbreaking novel and an innovative tribal and personal history—clearly established Momaday as a meticulous and sophisticated writer of national importance.


According to Momaday, technique is of fundamental importance, and he is highly aware of it: “Technique is crucial. I find it almost impossible to write without an idea of the shape of the finished thing. And I’m very conscious of such things as symmetry in writing and balance. I try very hard to incorporate design in my writing.”4 In several of his interviews, conversations, and prefaces, Momaday has spoken of his techniques, his writing habits, and his philosophy of writing. He provides the details for an interesting picture from which one can acquire a relatively full and interesting sense of “the man made of words” at work. In an interview with Joelle Rostkowski, Momaday described his mental outline of House Made of Dawn: “I knew that behind the rather clearly defined, rational structure of linear time, I had to express myself through numerous flashbacks, shifting and contrasting voices, metaphorical language and go beyond the limitations of the chronological novel.”5

If the use of flashbacks is a fundamental technique in some sections of House Made of Dawn, other sections rely heavily on the techniques of contrasting voices and stream of consciousness. Like James Joyce in Ulysses (1922) and William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury (1929), Momaday incorporates contrasting voices (different narrators) in the novel. Most notable is the switch to the perspective of Ben Benally, the best friend of the protagonist, Abel, in the third section of House Made of Dawn. Momaday thrusts the reader into the mind of Ben as he recounts his and Abel’s shared experiences in Los Angeles. Ben’s account is a first-person narration employing the stream-of-consciousness technique: the reader enters the mental and emotional consciousness of the narrator as he disjointedly remembers his friendship with Abel. Another innovative use of contrasting voices is seen in The Way to Rainy Mountain, in which Momaday moves between personal reminiscence and the voices of a tribal storyteller and a public historian.

The pictorial is a crucial element in almost all of Momaday’s published work. In The Ancient Child the four books take their names from pictorial art: planes, lines, shapes, and shadows. The fact that the character Set is an artist gives Momaday the chance to evoke the principles behind the creative acts of painting and writing. One of Set’s art instructors, for example, gives his student this advice: “you have to be always aware of the boundaries of the plane, and you have to make use of them. . . . You can affirm what is there. Art is affirmation.”6

Momaday’s philosophy of writing has shaped both his technique and his actual writing habits. As early as the mid 1980s he admitted to Charles L. Woodard that, although the bulk of his published work was prose, he still thought of himself as a poet.7 Momaday gave this advice on writing poetry in a 1972 interview with Lee Abbott: “write about what you know. Do write out of your experience, whatever the experience may be. . . . Write out of something that you have definite ideas and feelings about and be true to those feelings.” When asked in the same interview what he saw as an “indispensable ingredient in a work,” Momaday replied, “I would say honesty. You have to be true to yourself as a writer. You can’t write something that is untrue to your experience and get away with it.”8

In addition to being conscious of different techniques, Moma-day has always been eager to try out different genres: “I like to work in different forms. When I knew what it was to write a poem, I wanted to know what it was to write a novel, then a travel piece, then a film script, then a play.”9 This attitude helps to explain why he has written two novels, two autobiographical works (The Way to Rainy Mountain and The Names), several books of poetry, a collection of dialogues, a play (produced but not published), an illustrated children’s story, and several nonfiction pieces. From the beginning of his career, Momaday has experimented with form, technique, and genre. This experimentation with various genres accounts in part for his constant reuse of material from work to work. In a sense, Momaday reinvents the scene or episode not only in contextual and emotional ways but also formally. That is, a story told first as a poem may become a prose narrative, a drawing, or a paragraph in a novel.

In one of his conversations with Momaday, Woodard suggested that the author “tells and retells his ongoing story.”10 Thus, a piece of writing that seems to be the same episode or account from one work to the next actually appears in a new and different context, and that new context changes the impact and even the meaning of a particular piece. In this sense, Momaday’s art employs a technique similar to the method of telling in an oral tradition. One obvious example of this method is Momaday’s use of the introduction to The Way to Rainy Mountain as Tosamah’s Sunday sermon in House Made of Dawn. The same account of the Kiowa migration serves strikingly different purposes in the two works. Another important example of Momaday’s reuse of material is his playful employment of the Billy the Kid poems, which first appeared in The Ancient Child, presented as if written by Grey, a young Kiowa/Navajo cowgirl in the novel. Momaday republished the poems as a freestanding unit titled “The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid” in In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991. In the novel, aspects of the plot and Grey’s own reflections on her writing are interspersed with the poems and prose passages that make up the history of Billy the Kid. For the republication of the history in In the Presence of the Sun, Momaday added a short introduction; all twenty-one poems and prose pieces that originally appeared in the novel are included. Naturally, references to Grey and situations from the novel are omitted.

Readers can turn to some of Momaday’s work to gain a sense of his technique and his philosophy of composition. In the poem “At Risk” (1992), for example, the speaker of the poem describes a method of com-position and then notes the significance of that method:

I played at words. It was a long season.

Soft syllables, Images that shimmered, Intricate etymologies.

They cohered in wonder. I was enchanted.

My soul was at risk. I struggled Towards hurt, Towards healing, Towards passion, Towards peace.11

Although the poem appears to concern a literal, physical transformation, it is also suggestive of creating a poem, of the creative act itself. The suggestion is that in the act of artistic creation the artist must take important risks and that the act of creation is itself a form of transformation. Ideally, it is a transforming experience for both reader and writer.

For Momaday this creative process comes about through the imagination. Even when talking about being honest and writing from personal experience, he insists that the imagination plays a crucial role. He advises that one write out of one’s experience, “whatever the experience may be, whether imaginary or not.”12 Momaday makes the point explicitly and forcefully in his 1970 essay “The Man Made of Words.” As he tells the story, he had just finished (or thought he had finished) The Way to Rainy Mountain, when the one-hundred-year-old woman Ko-sahn—a long-dead Kiowa storyteller, a contemporary of his great-grandparents, whom he had once heard—appeared before him: “Then it was that that ancient, one-eyed woman Ko-sahn stepped out of the language and stood before me.” When the author-imaginer tells her she does not exist, she contradicts him, insisting that she does: “You see, I have existence, whole being, in your imagination. It is but one kind of being, to be sure, but it is perhaps the best of all kinds.” Indeed, Momaday’s ability to imagine gives meaning to his words. Looking over his writing in this instance, he remembers, “I could scarcely believe that they made sense, that they had anything whatsoever to do with meaning.” The words scarcely made sense, that is, until Ko-sahn emerged from the page, an emergence that “seemed to humanize the whole complexity of language.”13

In the 1972 interview with Abbott, Momaday talked about the schedule he kept at one time in his life: “at about seven o’clock, I would get to work and would work non-stop until one or two. That was a great schedule. I was very productive when I was doing that.” Although he has not always worked according to such a rigid schedule, he does believe that “a certain amount of routine is necessary to writing.” At another time he preferred getting up early and having coffee and reading the newspaper at a coffee shop before returning to his room to write. In the same interview he described his typical method of composing: “I write at the typewriter, which I do most of the time. I can also scribble things out in longhand. When I work at the typewriter, I always have a scratchpad with me and I do a lot of feeling out with a pencil, but I can compose pretty well on a typewriter.”14 Momaday switched from a typewriter to a computer, but otherwise his method remains the same. In a 1997 interview in The Albuquerque Tribune he said that he writes about three hours a day.15 In the interview with Abbott, Momaday also described the editing he does while working: “When you asked me how I evaluate my writing, I should have said before, I have to hear it, and so I babble a great deal at the typewriter. I read things to myself, and even when I don’t articulate them, I hear them in my mind, and this is one of the ways in which I can tell whether or not something I’ve written really satisfies me or not. It has to sound right to me.”16 In a 1993 interview Momaday noted that he still babbles constantly while writing: “And I try it that way. If I write something and I’m not quite sure what it is, I read it aloud to myself, and I get a better idea of what it is. That’s one of the ways in which I evaluate my work.”17

In the preface to In the Presence of the Sun, Momaday summarizes his method over several decades of writing: “I have been, from the time I was in my twenties, a productive artist, not a prolific one as I think of it, but neither a straggler.”18 He made a similar point earlier in a conversation with Woodard: “I’m slow. Just very slow as a writer and a reader. If you count everything, including my dissertation, which was published, and the books that I’ve done, there’s something like seven over a course of twenty to thirty years. That’s about my rate.”19


Momaday stresses the importance of rewriting: “I do so much of the really important work in the rewriting that it’s very hard for me to get very far with the first draft. . . . When I rewrite, I delete very little. Because that’s all been done in the first process, but I rework a great deal, and I almost inevitably add a great deal when I rewrite.”20 In 1972, discussing his work on his memoir, The Names, Momaday confessed that he rewrote the first chapter several times before moving on, but then decided to write his “way through the book”: “I’m trying to convince myself that it will be better in the long run if I get all of the material down . . . then go back and polish.”21

In response to a question about his reviewers, Momaday commented in 1972 that he felt he had “been treated very well by the critics.” When asked whether or not critics were helpful, he responded in the affirmative but then vacillated: “They should be, but very few of them are.” Most of the reviews and critical responses to his works, he said, were not perceptive. But he corrected himself: “I’ve been fortunate in being reviewed by a few people who really were perceptive, and I learned something from their reviews. They gave me insights into my own writing that were valuable to me.” When pressed for specifics, however, he said that he could not give a “precise example.”22 If Momaday vacillated in these early opinions about critics, in a later interview he seemed to have reached a decision concerning their role. He said that in many instances critics simply did not understood what Indian literature was, “and so they have created false impressions of it and they have set down arbitrary rules for defining it.” He concluded that critics “don’t play much of a role in my work.”23 Momaday’s reaction to critics in general seems to be to ignore them, or at least to ignore their suggestions for revision. He certainly has never been prone to change his style according to critical commentary. Indeed, he maintains that the readers of his manuscripts usually miss the point altogether and certainly often miss the subtleties. Therefore, Momaday has not been prone to change either his style or his content according to their critical commentary.

Momaday’s confidence in his own style and method and his resistance to changing his style in response to criticism are perhaps most evident in the 1968 correspondence between him and his editor, Gus Blaisdell, during the preparation of The Way to Rainy Mountain. In reaction to one manuscript reader’s report, Momaday responded, “Most important, I want you to set the book up according to my judgment. Most of the suggestions in your editorial report disturb me a great deal; they seem designed in some instances to change my style. Ninety percent of X’s stuff is not only worthless; it’s silly. Silliness may be the most grievous sin of all. You must change only the things that I want changed” (Momaday’s emphasis).24 The author stood firm in his refusal to change the description of a cricket in the introduction to The Way to Rainy Mountain. In this particular passage he describes sitting outside on the stone steps of his grandmother’s house: “Once I looked at the moon and caught sight of a strange thing. A cricket had perched upon the handrail, only a few inches away from me. My line of vision was such that the creature filled the moon like a fossil. It had gone there, I thought, to live and die, for there, of all places, was its small definition made whole and eternal. A warm wind rose up and purled like the longing within me.”25 When an anonymous reader offered a revision of this passage, Momaday responded vehemently: “Leave it alone. You don’t seem to realize (as of course X doesn’t) that this is one of the great images in our literature. If you lay a hand on it, I will cut your heart out... . I give some thought to what I write; I consider the alternatives. In every detail, this image is exactly what I want.”26 Momaday convinced his editor, and the passage was published as he intended.

Even though Momaday resists revising according to critical response, he does revise his work according to his own criteria. Given the way he uses and reuses material, some of his strategies for revision can be determined, and they reveal how he puts his art together. A short story titled “The Well” (1963), for example, includes many elements that Momaday later worked into House Made of Dawn. As Schubnell has pointed out, this early story “contains a number of the themes and prototypes of some of the characters which were to reappear in the novel.”27 The protagonist of the story, Hobson, returns home to his reservation after a twelve-year absence and attempts to find a meaningful place for himself. He searches both the cultural and physical landscapes for some sign of recognition, but they have changed on him. Like Abel in House Made of Dawn, Hobson lacks the ability to express himself, and perhaps for this reason he is unable to enter into the tribal ceremonials. As in the subsequent novel, the protagonist of “The Well” is prone to drunkenness and violence. Indeed, the only person that he can relate to, finally, is an old witch-woman, Muñoz, a character who anticipates Nicol´s teah-whau in House Made of Dawn.

In a scene that, as Schubnell suggests, “anticipates Abel’s slaying of the albino in House Made of Dawn,”28 Munoz is stabbed by one of three drunk Indians who have been tormenting her: “Hobson saw the low gray arc as the blade flashed across the old woman’s middle.”29 Although the murder itself has little in common with the killing of Juan Reyes, the albino, the concluding paragraph of “The Well” does perhaps have a parallel in House Made of Dawn. Both the story and the novel end with a description of a black mesa. In the conclusion of the story Hobson walks away from the woman who has just been stabbed and looks at the sky: “The bright jagged line between the hills and the dark clouds was almost gone, but he could see one patch of pure color where there was a saddle on the skyline. There, like a small pool of water, was eternity.”30 In the novel Abel has informed Father Olguin of the death of Francisco (Abel’s maternal grandfather); like Hobson, he walks south: “A single cloud lay over the world, heavy and still. It lay out upon the black mesa, smudging out the margin and spilling over the lee. But at the saddle there was nothing. There was only the clear pool of eternity.”31

Like Hobson, Abel recalls herding sheep as a boy near the shack of an old woman (Muñoz in the story, Nicolás teah-whau in the novel) who was said to be a witch. Momaday took a passage from Hobson’s memories of herding near the old woman’s place and used it for Abel’s recollections in the novel: “He knew even then that it was only the wind, but it was a stranger sound than any he had ever known. And at the same time he saw the hole in the ground [rock in House Made of Dawn] where the wind dipped, struck, and rose. It was larger than a rabbit hole and partly concealed by the choke cherry which grew beside it. The moan of the wind grew loud. It filled him with dread. For the rest of his life it would be for him the particular sound of anguish.”32 With the exception of the change of the word ground to rock, Momaday reused this passage from “The Well” verbatim in the novel. Thus, even early in his career he used material that was never separate from or free of its past contexts but that was at the same time always new, ever richer.

In a short monograph on Momaday, Martha Scott Trimble mentions a few of Momaday’s short prose narratives or sketches that were first published in journals and then incorporated into House Made of Dawn. Although she does not make explicit comparisons between the sketches and sections of the novel, she does suggest that such comparisons show “that Momaday had carefully revised them to achieve greater clarity and precision.”33 Perhaps the fact that several parts of the novel had been previously published as short, self-contained narratives accounts for the fragmentary structure of House Made of Dawn. Three sketches published in The Southern Review in 1966, for example, became parts of the first major section of the novel, “The Longhair.” “The Sparrow and the Reed” became the first chapter (“July 20”), telling the story of Francisco’s ride along the river and his snaring of a sparrow in a trap he set for a male mountain bluebird. “Homecoming” made up some of the second chapter (“July 21”). “The Albino,” which became part of the fourth chapter (“July 25”), describes the albino as a “large and thickset, powerful and deliberate” man. This sketch describes one of the pueblo rituals, a ceremony in which a series of men on horseback attempt to pull a partially buried live chicken from the ground. Yvor Winters wrote, “The chicken-pull section is one of the most brilliant things I have ever read.”34

Two more sketches later included verbatim in House Made of Dawn first appeared in the New Mexico Quarterly in 1967. The first of these, “The Bear and the Colt,” became one of the stories Francisco tells shortly before he dies.35 The other, “The Eagles of the Valle Grande,” is an account of Abel’s experience with the Eagle Watcher’s Society, narrated early in the novel.36


Even though Momaday was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for House Made of Dawn, the novel did not receive the critical attention such an award would suggest it might. As Trimble notes, “there were relatively few reviews and critical materials published on House Made of Dawn.”37 The book came out in the spring of 1968; that spring and summer it received nine reviews in national publications. The next year, after the news of the Pulitzer, there were about six more reviews, and four more in 1970.

The first scholarly responses to House Made of Dawn began to appear in the early 1970s. For that decade the annual MLA International Bibliography of Books and Articles on the Modern Languages and Literatures listed twelve scholarly works on the novel, including one dissertation, which compares Jean Toomer’s novel Cane (1923) with House Made of Dawn. During the 1980s the bibliography listed twenty-three entries devoted to Momaday’s novel, including two dissertations. In the 1990s there were about two dozen articles on the novel. This ongoing critical attention to House Made of Dawn clearly indicates that Momaday is an important figure in American literature.

Several book-length studies and dissertations have been devoted to Momaday’s work exclusively. This trend began with Trimble’s brief study in the Boise State College Western Writers Series, N. Scott Momaday (1973). In 1985 Schubnell’s dissertation on Momaday was published as N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. In 1988 Kenneth M. Roemer published a collection of essays, Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain. Woodard, the author of a 1975 dissertation on Momaday, published Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday in 1989. In 1990 Susan Scar-berry-Garcia’s 1986 dissertation, “Sources of Healing in House Made of Dawn” was published as Landmarks of Healing: A Study of House Made of Dawn. In 1997 Schubnell published a collection of interviews, Conversations with N. Scott Momaday.

Another indicator of the critical reception of Momaday is found in the many encyclopedias and literary histories of American literature that include chapters or entries on him. The Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988) makes passing reference to House Made of Dawn, crediting Momaday with offering “nonstereotyped approaches” to literature by “marginalized members of our society.”38A Literary History of the American West (1987) places Momaday in an American Indian context, citing him as a forerunner of “a generation of Indian writers who seek in their own work to represent the content and style of the oral tradition.”39 In a chapter titled “American Indian Fiction, 1968-1983” in The Columbia Literary History of the United States, Paula Gunn Allen notes that since the 1960s fiction by American Indian writers has been booming, and “Momaday set off this boom.”40 An entry on Momaday in Encyclopedia of American Literature (1999) similarly states that many believe Momaday’s first novel “actually initiated the Native American literary renaissance.”41

In an overview of writings by Native Americans, A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff writes, “Momaday became the most influential American Indian writer in the late 1960s and early 1970s.” She explains that “Through his emphasis on the problems of Indians in contemporary society, on the importance of oral tradition and ritual, and on the use of memory to structure plot, Momaday provided an example that several later Indian novelists followed.”42 In a similar survey Andrew Wiget discusses Momaday’s fiction and poetry, although he makes no effort to place him in a tradition of either Indian or non-Indian literature.43

Charles R. Larson argues in American Indian Fiction (1978) that Momaday has not moved beyond his first novel. Larson claims that since House Made of Dawn, the author’s publications “have been marred by a kind of repetitive preciousness and pretentiousness, indicating that Momaday has become trapped in a literary holding pattern.”44 Clearly, Larson’s is the minority view. According to Arnold Krupat in The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon (1989), an overview of American Indian literature in the context of the canon, Momaday is “the presumptive ground-breaker or forefather” to whom subsequent American Indian authors are greatly indebted.45

Although scholarship on Momaday has for the most part been restricted to considering the author and his works in a Native American context, there has been some effort to study him in a wider context. As early as 1977, for example, Floyd C. Watkins included a chapter on House Made of Dawn in a study titled In Time and Place: Some Origins of American Fiction. Watkins ranks Momaday with important modernists, com-paring him with writers such as Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Margaret Mitchell, William Styron, Willa Cather, and Sinclair Lewis.46 In his investigation of Momaday’s cultural and literary background, Schubnell is careful to investigate the non-Indian influences on his work and to place him in a wider context, one that is not exclusively Native American. Similarly, Hartwig Isernhagen argues that Momaday takes a strong modernist position like that of Winters, Joyce, and Marcel Proust.47

Despite these efforts, however, Momaday has by and large remained—as far as critics and the literary canon have been concerned—the subject of study primarily as an American Indian writer. The subject matter of his works generally centers on Native Americans and the issues concerning them, but at the same time he has been fully integrated into mainstream American culture, having taught, for example, in English departments at such universities as Stanford and Berkeley. Still, it is not inappropriate that Momaday be considered preeminent among American Indian authors. He is Kiowa; he has also imagined himself to be Kiowa; he peoples his southwestern landscapes with Indian characters; and he argues vehemently for the importance of his actual and spiritual tribal relations and histories.


1. Hartwig Isernhagen, Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), p. 35.

2. Joëlle Rostkowski, “Looking Back: House Made of Dawn as the Portrait of a Lost Generation,” QWERTY 7 (1997): 147.

3. Matthias Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), p. 96.

4. Lee Abbott, “An Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, edited by Schubnell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), p. 31.

5. Rostkowski, “Looking Back,” p. 147.

6. N. Scott Momaday, The Ancient Child (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 55.

7. Charles L. Woodard, Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 128.

8. Abbott, “An Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” pp. 35, 33.

9. Momaday, preface to In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), p. xvii.

10. Woodard, Ancestral Voice, p. 76.

11. Momaday, In the Presence of the Sun, p. 143.

12. Abbott, “An Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” p. 35.

13. Momaday, “The Man Made of Words,” in Indian Voices, edited by Robert Costo (San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1970), p. 51.

14. Abbott, “An Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” pp. 25, 24.

15. Ollie Reed Jr., “Return to Jemez,” Albuquerque Tribune, 27 November 1997, sec. B, p. 1.

16. Abbott, “An Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” p. 34.

17. Camille Adkins, “Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, p. 227.

18. Momaday, preface to In the Presence of the Sun, p. xvii.

19. Woodard, Ancestral Voice, p. 128.

20. Abbott, “An Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” pp. 25, 26.

21. Ibid., p. 25.

22. Ibid, pp. 29-30.

23. Isernhagen, Momaday, Vizeno, Armstrong, p. 56.

24. Momaday, quoted in Kenneth Lincoln, “Tai-me to Rainy Mountain: The Makings of American Indian Literature,” American Indian Quarterly, 10 (Summer 1986): 104.

25. Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969), p. 12.

26. Momaday, quoted in Lincoln, “Tai-me to Rainy Mountain,” p. 104.

27. Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday, p. 94.

28. Ibid, p. 95.

29. Momaday, “The Well,” Ramparts, 2, no. 1 (1963): 52.

30. Ibid.

31. Momaday, House Made of Dawn (New York: Perennial Library, 1989), p. 211.

32. Momaday, “The Well,” p. 50.

33. Martha Scott Trimble, N. Scott Momaday, Boise State College Western Writers Series, no. 9 (Boise, Idaho: Boise State College, 1973), p. 19.

34. Yvor Winters, quoted in Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday, p. 29.

35. See Momaday, House Made of Dawn, pp. 198-204.

36. See Momaday, House Made of Dawn, pp. 14-22.

37. Trimble, N. Scott Momaday, p. 19.

38. The Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott and others (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 1172.

39. A Literary History of the American West, edited by Golden Taylor and others (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987), pp. 23-24.

40. Paula Gunn Allen, “American Indian Fiction, 1968-1983,” in The Columbia Literary History of the United States, p. 1058.

41. Encyclopedia of American Literature, edited by Steven Serafin and others (New York: Continuum Press, 1999), p. 780.

42. A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography (New York: Modern Language Association, 1990), p. 76.

43. Andrew Wiget, Native American Literature (Boston: Twayne, 1985), p. 76.

44. Charles R. Larson, American Indian Fiction (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978), pp. 167-168.

45. Arnold Krupat, The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 177.

46. Floyd C. Watkins, In Time and Place: Some Origins of American Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1977), pp. 3-15.

47. Isernhagen, “N. Scott Momaday and the Use(s) of Modernism: Some Remarks on the Example of Yvor Winters,” in Aspects of Modernism: Studies in Honor of Max Nanny, edited by Andreas Fischer, Martin Heusser, and Thomas Hermann (Tubingen, Ger-many: Narr, 1997), p. 313.

Momaday’s Era

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Momaday was born during the Great Depression in Oklahoma, the land of dust bowls, bankruptcies, and farm repossessions. The year of his birth, 1934, was also the year of the Indian Reorganization Act, a piece of legislation that embodied the federal govern-ment’s effort to alleviate some of the hardships caused by the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887 and other detrimental policies initiated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in previous decades. (The allotment act had provided for the distribution of reservation land among individual Indians, but it actually led to a worsening of conditions on the reservations.) It had been only ten years earlier, in 1924, that Congress had finally awarded citizenship to American Indians.

During World War II, Momaday lived in New Mexico, where scientists were developing the atomic bomb. Although he was too young to serve in the military, other reservation Indians were signing up for the armed services, fighting in both the Pacific and Europe. In the Cold War years of the 1950s Momaday was receiving his education in places across the country: New Mexico, Virginia, and California. During the Indian rights, Civil Rights, and Vietnam War protest movements of the 1960s, he taught at the politically active University of California, Santa Barbara, and then at the University of California, Berkeley. In short, Momaday’s early life straddled several important and politically varied decades in twentieth-century American history. In terms of literary history, he was born into and came of age during the modern period, which began around 1915 and lasted into the late 1950s or early 1960s. He became a mature writer during the postmodern period, which arguably began sometime in the 1960s.

Although modernism survived into the 1960s, it flourished between the two world wars in the works of writers such as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, and Eugene O’Neill. The movement was taken up by an international group of writers, mainly from Western Europe and the United States, who knew and interacted with one another. Catalysts for a break from earlier literary traditions—and what could have been perceived as an easy, naive past—were manifold. Of course, World War I inspired a break from the past as trench warfare and other horrors ravaged the European and American consciousness. The Great Depression, which began in 1929 with the American stock-market crash, caused many writers to lose faith in capitalism. These authors tended to be socially conscious and politically active, and their writings reflected the sociopolitical atmosphere of their era.

In the United States the women’s movement and the extension to women of the right to vote in 1920 introduced a new feminism into the social consciousness of many writers. Gains in civil rights (despite enduring Jim Crow laws and continued segregation and racism all across America) coincided with the modernism of the black writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Richard Wright’s novel Native Son (1940) and his autobiography, Black Boy (1945), as well as Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), articulate the consequences of racism, and these books set a precedent for later important literature by minority writers. Benefactors of Wright’s and Hurston’s successes include such authors as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Alice Walker.

The extent to which American Indian writers before Momaday participated in and contributed to literary modernism is not so easy to assess. Two important Native American writers of the modernist era are D’Arcy McNickle, who wrote the novels The Surrounded (1936) and the posthumously published Wind from an Enemy Sky (1978), and John Joseph Mathews, who wrote several books, including the novel Sundown (1934). Recent scholarship has found a central place for these two writers, but it is not clear that they had much of an impact on the modernist era during their lifetimes. Charles R. Larson suggests that in “the early assimilationist novels by Native authors, one finds none of the overt protest that dominates the fiction of their Afro-American counterparts. . . . the more vocal criticism against white America in the works of the post-Momaday writers is simply absent from the earlier novels.”1 Other critics have disagreed with Larson’s assessment, however. A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, for example, argues that both McNickle and Mathews “emphasized the importance of tribalism and the devastating impact on tribes of the government’s assimilationist policies.”2 Despite the obvious merit of their work and importance of their voices, readers had to wait until the 1960s and 1970s for reprints of the novels of McNickle and Mathews and the long-overdue critical attention they began to receive in the 1970s and 1980s.

An immediately popular text that was reprinted throughout the twentieth century was the autobiography Black Elk Speaks (1932). The book is in many ways considered a modernist text, but, as recent scholarship has shown, its modernism is due not to Black Elk, a Sioux elder, but to the immediate audience for his spoken narrative. The modernist poet and ethnographer John G. Neihardt transcribed Black Elk’s account and shaped it into the popular text. According to Raymond J. DeMallie in The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt (1984), readers must remember that Black Elk Speaks was “written by Neihardt, not by Black Elk, and that [it bears] the stamp of Neihardt’s genius and his sense of organization and detail.”3 At the same time, however, the book has influenced generations of readers, Indian and non-Indian. According to Vine Deloria Jr., Black Elk Speaks achieved the status of a Native American bible: the two Black Elk books, Black Elk Speaks and The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux (1953), transcribed by Joseph Epes Brown, “formed a kind of sacred national Indian religious canon by themselves.” Readers, Deloria continues, “believed them to be an accurate statement about Indian religions.”4

Literary modernism was to a large extent a response to the social, historical, and political climate of the early to mid twentieth century, often offering an account of some of the major political events and social concerns of the day. The 1950s and 1960s were a time of significant social change and ushered in a new era of politics. Indeed, after World War II it became increasingly difficult to separate international politics and the global economy of postindustrial society from the social and cultural movements of the era. The literature of the time reflected a growing awareness of how the political and the social had an important impact on culture. Momaday has said, “Almost all writing is political. . . . But my writing is not motivated by political considerations.”5 Despite these protestations, political concerns are evident throughout his writings. The subject of World War II veterans, as represented by Abel in House Made of Dawn, is by its nature political. Momaday depicts the veteran Abel as alcoholic and mentally distraught after his return from the war, thereby implying that his involvement in the conflict is at least partly the cause of his problems. Momaday has declared that he did not set out to make a political statement with that characterization: “I never envisioned becoming a spokesman for those veterans—I am not political enough and I knew that writing was what I should be doing—but I just felt the urge to tell their story.”6 Telling their story, describing the difficulties they had with readjustment, however, is itself unavoidably political. Like other modernists, then, Momaday recognizes connections between social concerns and art in his writing.

Following World War II, the Cold War came about as a consequence of the world powers entering the nuclear age—an age that altered political relationships among nations, especially the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Concurrent with the beginnings of the Cold War was the national paranoia surrounding communism. This paranoia resulted in loyalty programs, lists of subversive organizations, and the highly suspect and controversial criminal indictments of Americans because of their political views. Many artists, intellectuals, and political activists were arrested or were denied passports. Although Momaday himself, of course, did not suffer as a result of anticommunist paranoia, he was acutely aware of what he calls the era’s “morality of intolerance.” In the essay “The Morality of Indian Hating” (1964), for example, he identifies Eisenhower’s attempts to force Native Americans to assimilate as cruel and ridiculous: “It is dangerous to assume that cultural assimilation can occur under ideal conditions over a period of many years; it is patently absurd to suppose that it might occur immediately in downtown Chicago or Los Angeles.” In an afterword written for the 1997 republication of the essay in The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages, Momaday acknowledges that his essay is “political in character.”7 Writing of his ethnic origins and appearance in his 1976 memoir, The Names, he remembers that in Hobbs, New Mexico, “in 1943 I was suspected of that then dreadful association. Nearly every day on the playground someone would greet me with, ‘Hi’ya, Jap,’ and the fight was on. Now and then two or more patriots would gang up on me.”8

If some of the furor over communism had subsided by the early 1960s, the Civil Rights movement was just gearing up. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that separate educational facilities for white and black students were inherently unequal. In 1955 Rosa Parks momentously refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, and in 1960 four African American students in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. In August 1963 some 250,000 people marched on Washington, D.C., and in 1964 Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and on the job and gave the U.S. attorney general the power to enforce school desegregation. The following year Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which reformed voter-registration practices and suspended the use of literacy tests as a means of determining voter eligibility. Congress did not pass the Indian Civil Rights Act, which includes a bill of rights for 1968, the year that Momaday’s House Made of Dawn was published.

While civil rights were at the fore of domestic policy, the United States was becoming ever more deeply involved in the conflict in Vietnam. In 1965 troop strength was increased by 125,000, and America engaged in its first offensive. As the conflict escalated there were massive antiwar demonstrations across the United States, beginning especially in 1967. By 1968 there were more than five hundred thousand American soldiers in Vietnam. Student riots occurred across the United States. In 1969 the United States carried out secret bombings of Cambodia, an act that inspired more student protest and rioting. That same year President Richard Nixon began troop reductions. Although Momaday never wrote overtly political works in response to the war, he was teaching during this period at the Berkeley and Santa Barbara campuses of the University of California, both of which were active with student protests and demonstrations. The protagonist of House Made of Dawn, Abel (who was transformed into a Vietnam veteran in the 1987 movie adaptation of the novel), constitutes a statement about the devastating effects of the war on a personal level.

Another important concern of the 1960s, one noted by Momaday, was environmental degradation. René Dubos, who received a Pulitzer Prize in the same year as Momaday for the nonfiction work So Human an Animal (1968), lamented the way Americans mistreated the environment. Dubos was concerned with more than just air pollution, oil spills, and urban waste. Indeed, in So Human an Animal he articulates what many writers and intellectuals were concerned about throughout the 1960s: “All thoughtful persons worry about the future of the children who will have to spend their lives under the absurd social and environmental conditions we are thoughtlessly creating; even more disturbing is the fact that the physical and mental characteristics of mankind are being shaped now by dirty skies and cluttered streets, anonymous high rises and amorphous urban sprawl, social attitudes which are more concerned with things than with people.”9 Momaday articulates a similar concern when he describes what he calls a Native American attitude toward the land: “the Native American ethic with respect to the physical world is a matter of reciprocal appropriation: appropriations in which man invests himself in the landscape, and at the same time incorporates the landscape into his own most fundamental experience.”10 He argues that the technological revolution has uprooted the people from the soil: “We have become disoriented, I believe; we have suffered a kind of psychic dislocation of ourselves in time and space.” Because of this dislocation, Momaday argues that people must “formulate an ethical idea of the land ... I believe, moreover, that it is absolutely necessary to do so.”11

Momaday himself has summarized his era by noting that he was born between the two world wars and has seen

the civil rights movement, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, the footprints of man on the moon, the assault of AIDS upon the human race, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a growing awareness, as yet vague, that human beings, for all their assumed superiority over the plants and animals of the earth, have inflicted wounds upon the environment that are surely much more serious than we have realized, that may indeed be mortal. As a poet, a painter, and a man I care about these things. My life is involved in them.12


Momaday’s era includes important developments in the United States government and mainstream American society concerning Native Americans. Although in conversation with Charles L. Woodard in 1986 and 1987 Momaday said that he had “to some extent lost touch with the contemporary Indian world,” the political and social concerns of Native Americans have surely affected both his life and his writing.13 His birth coincided with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act. Inspired by the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, John Collier, the act was approved by Congress in 1934. It aimed to correct some of the mistakes of earlier policies concerning Native Americans, allowing for self-government and enabling Native Americans to take greater responsibility for their own affairs. It promised to provide funds for training and education. The Indian Reorganization Act also aimed to address the consequences of the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887. Based on arguments for assimilating Native Americans into mainstream America, this law had established the policy of allotting reservation land to private individuals (whereas formerly it had been communally or tribally owned). As these lands were subdivided, non-Indians were allowed to buy and settle on unclaimed or unassigned tracts. The effect of this policy was to destroy reservations as land held in common by particular tribes.

Acknowledging that the Dawes Act had been a mistake, Congress used the Indian Reorganization Act to call for an end to allotment and to provide $2 million annually for repossessing former reservation lands. Not all groups responded favorably to Collier’s Indian “New Deal.” The Navajos, for example, who had been burned by previous deals with the federal government, voted against it. Collier had advocated stock reduction on Navajo land, and many shepherds and cattlemen watched the slaughter of their livestock. The Navajos also watched as the government took their land for the building of the Boulder Dam (renamed Hoover Dam in 1947) at the border of Arizona and Nevada. Though the Indian Reorganization Act was far from perfect and suffered from modifications by Congress, and although members of many Indian tribes resented and resisted it, the act did represent an important change in governmental attitude and policy toward America’s first peoples. It was a measure toward acknowledging their inalienable rights. In Collier’s words, the act was aimed “at both the economic and the spiritual rehabilitation of the Indian race.”14

In the midst of the reform efforts of Collier and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the United States entered World War II. Like the general population, Native Americans were directly affected by and involved in the war effort. During the course of the war some 25,000 American Indians served in the armed forces. Besides the famed Navajo code talkers, who transmitted coded messages in their native language for the Marine Corps, and Ira H. Hayes, the Indian Marine who participated in the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima, the vast majority served in the army. More than 500 American Indians were killed in action. Another 40,000, including Momaday’s parents, worked in war-related industries, many moving to cities to do so.

By the end of the war the mood of the United States regarding Native Americans had changed. Where formerly there had been support for Indian rights and for restoring reservations (though assimilation was certainly at the heart of Collier’s reorganization plan), now American Indians faced a population and a Congress that privileged conformity and feared and resisted notions of difference or tribal sovereignty. Out of this chauvinistic, nationalist mood came a push to terminate American involvement in Indian affairs by ending federal services and dissolving reservations altogether. At the same time there was a disregard for Native American veterans. Momaday recalls seeing the returning American Indian soldiers: “They were terribly confused, uprooted from their traditional life, estranged from their friends and families. Most of them found it very difficult to resume their former lives. They had lost their values. They had no jobs, no hope for a decent future. Many of them were eventually destroyed by violence and alcohol. They were victims of dramatic historical circumstances.”15

“In the wake of a postwar America entering the atomic age,” summarizes Donald Fixico in his study of the policy of terminating U.S. involvement in Indian affairs, “the new attitudes of a Republican leadership in Congress and an assimilationist Bureau of Indian Affairs rendered a new direction in federal-tribal relations . . . which reversed the federal Indian policy of the earlier 1900s.”16 The new commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Dylan S. Meyer, was the former head of the War Relocation Authority, which had been responsible for the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. He advocated total assimilation of Indian people and strove to end all federal services for them. In 1958 a single law terminated forty-one California reservations at once. Along with this termination policy came a hard-headed relocation effort. In 1951, the first year of the relocation program, the Bureau of Indian Affairs placed 442 Native Americans in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver. Between 1952 (the year Abel in House Made of Dawn comes to Los Angeles) and 1960 the bureau moved some thirty thousand Native Americans from reservations into the cities. Los Angeles County’s Indian population grew from about five thousand in 1940 to about fifty thousand by 1980.

Although post-World War II urbanization affected everyone, the circumstances for people from the reservations was unique. The relocation of American Indians was not completely voluntary. As could be expected, the rural reservation immigrants to the cities faced severe problems of adjustment, both short-term and long-term. The new arrivals tended to be from small communities where they belonged to close-knit, extended families; suddenly, they faced the anonymity of living in huge, alien urban areas. In many cases they came from a culture of communal responsibility and communities that valued sharing; thus, many were unprepared for the force of individual competition they suddenly faced. The immigrants often experienced an unremitting urban routine to which they did not feel they belonged. Rather than participate in the social and economic struggle, they endured alienation, racism, unemployment, poverty, and a marginal existence in the urban slums. Ben Benally in House Made of Dawn describes the problems of urbanization:

Everything is different, and you don’t know how to get used to it. You see the way it is, how everything is going on without you, and you start to worry about it. You wonder how you can get yourself into the swing of it, you know? And you don’t know how, but you’ve got to do it because there’s nothing else. And you want to do it, because you can see how good it is. It’s better than anything you’ve ever had; it’s money and clothes and having plans and going someplace fast. You can see what it’s like, but you don’t know how to get into it; there’s too much of it and it’s all around you and you can’t get hold of it because it’s going on too fast.”17

As a result of the failed governmental policy of termination, as many as one-third (by some counts as many as three-fourths) of those who had relocated returned to their reservation homes, despite the fact that many of them had been transported hundreds or even thousands of miles across the nation.18

Speaking of Abel’s generation (which closely parallels the author’s own), Momaday has talked about the risks one took in leaving the reservation:

At the time of Abel’s generation the pueblo probably had a population of one thousand or twelve hundred or fifteen hundred people at the most. So it is a small community as compared to other communities. It is very much self-contained; the whole world of the pueblo somewhat resides within a very tight geographical area, and it is very different from the world just beyond. One who is born into that world has a certain kind of security. . . . Once he ventures outside that space, he risks a great deal. . . . he forfeits his security: he forfeits his tribal identity. He has to live in the world on other terms, and they are terms with which he is not familiar.19

In the long run the relocated Native Americans faced the loss of their heritage. Successful relocation would include replacing traditional values and lifestyles with mainstream America’s values of competition and materialism. George Woodard, a Native American relocated to California, says, “we discovered that there was an ulterior motive behind the earlier relocation program. It was designed, in fact, to get all Indians off all reservations. . . . So, then we started digging in our heels to prevent total assimilation; assimilation to the degree that we would lose our identity as Indian people, lose our culture and our [way] of life.”20 In “The Morality of Indian Hating” Momaday comments on the relocation program, noting that its failure “resided with the premise upon which it was based: that the Indian becomes a white man by virtue of living in the presence of white men. . . . The Indian in the city was victimized by the very things that define urban existence.”21

An unlooked-for result of relocation was the development of a Pan-Indian movement in the cities, indicative of American Indian cans but essentially disregarding the workers’ health while polluting the land.

Water, another precious resource, has been a point of contention between government hydroelectric-power and irrigation interests and tribal sovereignty. Government agencies or private ranchers have continually diverted water from Indian lands. In 1950 the federal government bought Indian land for the Garrison Dam in North Dakota, and the Crees in Quebec have suffered from Canada’s damming project near James Bay. People have lost thousands of acres to flood-waters behind these dams.

In addition to land-use issues, Native Americans have struggled in courtrooms over issues of repatriation and gambling rights. In 1990 Congress passed the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, which stipulates that museums must provide tribes with inventory lists of their holdings and that they must work with tribes to return religious artifacts and skeletal remains. In another legal success for many Indian tribes, courts have tended to uphold their right to operate casinos and other gambling operations. Profits from gambling have greatly enhanced tribal economies and given opportunity for investment back into reservations in the form of museums, schools, and community centers.

Certainly, strides have been taken toward a more equitable relationship between the state and federal governments and Native Americans, but many important issues remain unresolved. According to Momaday, “in some ways the situation for Indians is better now than it was one hundred years ago.” Nevertheless, he has said, “the Indian is about in the same position he was in during the fifties. . . . It’s bad because the things that ought to change don’t.”27 In another interview Momaday suggested that times have changed a little since the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s: “As time goes on, the land base the security of the reservation, means less because more people are having experience of the larger world; they know better how to exis beyond the reservation than they did a generation or two ago. So the risk is diminishing but it is still there.”28 Reservation unemployment and poverty levels remain exceedingly high. The high-school dropout rate for American Indians is the highest of any ethnic group in the United States. Alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome remain serious and prevalent problems in Indian communities across the nation. Environmental degradation across many reservations has endangered the people and the food chain. Survival of American Indians, and of Americans in general, Momaday insists, may depend on successful and continued efforts to heal these wounds.


Like assimilation and termination policies of previous decades, the self-determination policy of the 1970s threatened to cut Native Americans off from the cultural practices of their ancestors. But whereas earlier attitudes of “kill the Indian, save the man” disallowed or discouraged native cultural and artistic practices, denounced the practice of native religions, and prohibited the speaking of native languages, policies and attitudes in the 1960s and 1970s not only tolerated but often encouraged preservation or revitalization of such practices.

After nearly five centuries of Western efforts to Christianize Native Americans, Congress signed the Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, during the administration of Jimmy Carter. Although it did not guarantee complete freedom of practices—it did not legalize the use of peyote in religious ceremonies, for example—the act did protect and formally acknowledge the validity of native religions and their practices. In 1993 (501 years after Columbus reported that the Indians would be easily converted, for they had no religion of their own) Native Americans were invited to the meeting of the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. In 1994 Congress passed the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act, which did permit the use of peyote in traditional ceremonies. Despite these apparent successes, Deloria paints a grim picture of mainstream America’s acceptance of Native American religions. He does acknowledge, however, that one “result of the Indian activist movement was the tremendous surge of interest in traditional religions and customs.”29 As is evident from the carefully researched The Way to Rainy Mountain, for example, Momaday shares in this surge of interest in Native American cultures. He Canada. Powwows and dancing have been important to Momaday. In the essay “To the Singing, To the Drums” (1975), for instance, he recalls that “Always, there comes a moment when the dance takes hold of me, becomes itself the most meaningful and appropriate expression of my being. And always, afterward, there is rejoicing among us.”35

In addition to dance, there has been a renaissance in such Native American arts as ceramics, wood carving, and painting. Many artists attempt to incorporate traditional tribal forms and motifs with innovative new styles and techniques. Of his own painting, Momaday says that he began seriously in Moscow: “I began to sketch. Drawing became suddenly very important to me, and I haunted museums and galleries and looked into as many Russian sketchbooks as I could find. When I came out of the Soviet Union I brought with me a new way of seeing and a commitment to record it. ... In Europe I discovered painters who truly inspired me: Emil Nolde, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso (whose work I thought I knew but did not), Georg Baselitz.”36 As an indicator of his success, Momaday had his own show in 1979 at the University of North Dakota Art Galleries. In 1992 he prepared a retrospective of his work for the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In August 2000 he had another show at the LewEllen Contemporary gallery in Santa Fe. An untitled 1983 etching by Momaday depicting a smallpox epidemic that the Kiowas endured in 1849 hangs as a part of the permanent collection of the Denver Art Museum. Perhaps most notably, his publications of the 1990s are full of reproductions of his own drawings, paintings, and illustrations.

In addition to a resurgence of interest in performing and graphic arts, there has been a renaissance in American Indian literature as well, especially since the publication of House Made of Dawn in 1968. If only a handful of novels by American Indians had been published before 1968, scores have been published in the decades since. This surge includes best-sellers and award winners by such writers as Northrop, Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, James Welch, Susan Power, Linda Hogan, Louis Owens, and Gerald Vizenor, among many others. There has also been a renaissance in Native American poetry in the past few decades. In 1970 there were only a few published American Indian poets. Now, in addition to novelists such as Momaday, Hogan, Erdrich, and Welch, who also publish poetry, important recent Indian poets include Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo, Maurice Kenny, and Lucy Tapahonso.

Momaday is both a leader and a representative of the developments in the lifestyles and cultures of contemporary American Indian artists. He is credited with initiating an artistic renaissance in which he fully participates as a writer, artist, storyteller, and spokesman for American Indian artists and people in general.


1. Charles R. Larson, American Indian Fiction (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978), p. 169.

2. A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography (New York: Modern Language Association, 1990), p. 71.

3. Raymond J. DeMallie, The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), p. xxi.

4. Vine Deloria Jr., God is Red: A Native View of Religion, revised edition (Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1992), p. 36.

5. Charles L. Woodard, Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 41.

6. Joelle Rostkowski, “Looking Back: House Made of Dawn as the Portrait of a Lost Generation,” QWERTY, 7 (1997): 147.

7. N. Scott Momaday, “The Morality of Indian Hating,” in his The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), pp. 69, 72, 76.

8. Momaday, The Names: A Memoir (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 86.

9. Rene Dubos, So Human an Animal (New York: Scribners, 1968), p. xi.

10. Momaday, “Native American Attitudes toward the Environment,” in Seeing with a Native Eye: Essays on Native American Religion, edited by Walter Holden Capps (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 80.

11. Momaday, “An American Land Ethic,” in The Man Made of Words, p. 48.

12. Momaday, preface to In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), p. xvii.

13. Woodard, Ancestral Voice, p. 44.

14. Wilcomb E. Washburn 11, The American Indian and the United States (New York: Random House, 1973), p. 910.

15. Rostkowski, “Looking Back,” p. 147.

16. Donald Fixico, Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1960 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986), p. xiv.

17. Momaday, House Made of Dawn (New York: Perennial Library, 1989), p. 158.

18. Fixico, Termination and Relocation, pp. 135-140.

19. Daniele Fiorentino, “The American Indian Writer as a Cultural Broker: An Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” Studies in American Indian Literatures, 8, no. 4 (1996): 70.

20. George Woodard, quoted in Fixico, Termination and Relocation, p. 157.

21. Momaday, “The Morality of Indian Hating,” in The Man Made of Words, p. 72.

22. Charles Woodard, Ancestral Voice, p. 38.

23. Peter McDonald, quoted in Collin G. Calloway, First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History (Boston: Bedford, 1999), p. 436.

24. Calloway, First Peoples, pp. 436-437.

25. Fixico, Termination and Relocation, pp. 202, 203.

26. Ibid., p. 203.

27. Woodard, Ancestral Voice, pp. 42, 44.

28. Fiorentino, “The American Indian Writer as a Cultural Broker,” p. 70.

29. Deloria, God is Red, p. 23.

30. See James J. Rawls, Chief Red Fox is Dead: A History of Native Americans since 1945 (New York: New Press, 1996), p. 177.

31. Momaday, The Names, p. 65.

32. Momaday, “Navajo Place-Names,” in The Man Made of Words, p. 125.

33. Buffalo Trust website.

34. Camille Adkins, “Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), pp. 229-230.

35. Momaday, “To the Singing, To the Drums,” Natural History, 84, no. 2 (1975): 44.

36. Momaday, preface to In the Presence of the Sun, p. xx.

Momaday’s Works

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The Journey of Tai-me. Santa Barbara, Cal.: Privately printed, 1967.

Before House Made of Dawn appeared, Momaday published a small edition, limited to one hundred handprinted copies, of The Journeyof Tai–me. Tai–me, the Sun Dance fetish of the Kiowas, is a medicine bundle whose power is inherent and whose safekeeping is the responsibility of an official tribal Tai–me keeper. As Momaday explained in an interview, it is “a fetish which is medicine. And it was the most powerful medicine in the tribe. The only time it was exhibited to view was during the Sun Dance.”1The journey of the title refers to the generations–long migration of the Kiowas from the headwaters of the Yellowstone River in northwestern Wyoming to Rainy Mountain in southwestern Oklahoma. The book provides an account of that migration, an account that served as the basis for Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, published two years later. Like that later book, The Journey of Tai-me includes several short episodes that re–create the mythology, legends, history, and lore of the Kiowas, from their emergence through a hollow log near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River to episodes from the lives of Momaday’s paternal grandmother and grandfather, Aho and Mammedaty.

Of the thirty episodes recounting the migration, nineteen appear almost exactly as they do in The Way to Rainy Mountain. The others are unique to The Journey of Tai–me. An episode not recounted in the later book is the story of Botone’s death. According to Momaday, Botone was the last Tai–me man, and when he died, his daughter—who had dreamed of doing so—“brought Tai–me home to live with her.” She had dreamed that her grandmother gave her some mushrooms, which Betone interpreted as representing the sacred bundle; hence, she was awarded the responsibility of keeping this “grandmother” bundle. A subsequent episode tells about how Mammedaty, the grandson of Guipahgo, had a Tai-me bundle about his neck: “if someone failed to show proper respect for the grandmother bundle, it grew very heavy around his neck.”2

Momaday devotes six episodes to Ko–sahn, the ancient woman who makes her appearance at the end of The Way to Rainy Mountain. Ko–sahn tells the story of a man who cleverly hides in a tree from which he later jumps to kill his enemy. She tells of old White Bear‘s passing on of a sacred arrow to a well–known young man with a good reputation: “When the people saw that, they all yelled out, for they were very happy”. Aho relates a controversy over whether an arrow can be borrowed, bought, or sold. Ko–sahn recalls participating in the sacred worship, the Tai–me ceremony. The people told her what to do with the small piece of ceremonial cloth she had been given: “they said that I should tie it to the Tai–me tree. There were other pieces of cloth on the tree, and so I put mine there as well.” As in the epilogue of The Way to Rainy Mountain, Ko–sahn tells of the celebration upon finishing a lodge:

We have brought the earth. Now it is time to play; As old as 1 am, 1 still have the feeling of play.

Ko–sahn concludes, “That was the beginning of the sun dance. . . . It was all for Tai–me, you know, and it was a long time ago.”3

House Made of Dawn. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

House Made of Dawn, Momaday’s first novel, was published in 1968, and it won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. The novel has been reprinted several times and was published as an audiobook in 1976. In addition to the many English–language editions, the book has been translated and published in Russian, German, Polish, Italian, and Turkish.

The novel consists of a prologue and four major sections: “The Longhair,” “The Priest of the Sun,” “The Night Chanter,” and “The Dawn Runner.” The most obvious and crucial narrative device that Momaday uses to link these sections is flashback. In a sense, one can interpret the entire novel as a series of flashbacks that Abel, the protagonist, has as he runs. The prologue—which begins with the traditional opening for a Pueblo story, “Dypaloh”—describes Abel running at dawn: “Abel was running. He was alone and running, hard at first, heavily, but then easily and well.”4

The first section, “The Longhair,” recounts seven days in July and August 1945. On the first day, 20 July, the canyon landscape around Walatowa (the native name of Jemez Pueblo) is described as Francisco, Abel’s maternal grandfather, drives his wagon along the old road on his way to meet Abel, who has just returned from World War II. On 21 July, Abel wakes before dawn and climbs a hill, where he reminisces, leading to a series of flashbacks to his childhood and youth. On the same day Angela Grace St. John, the wife of a Los Angeles doctor named Martin St. John, drives to the local mission to ask Father Olguin if she can get someone to chop wood for her. On 24 July, Abel chops wood for Angela, and later Father Olguin visits her at the Benevides house, which she has rented. (She has moved to the area to try the mineral baths; her husband has remained in Los Angeles.) On 25 July the pueblo celebrates the Feast of Santiago; the celebration includes a rooster pull, in which several Indians on horseback ride past a rooster buried alive up to its neck and attempt to pull it from the ground. An albino contestant named Juan Reyes successfully pulls the rooster from the ground; in keeping with the game, he singles out Abel and beats him with the bird. The 28 July episode begins with a detailed description of the landscape of the valley. On this day Abel returns to Angela’s house and continues chopping wood. When he finishes, he and Angela have a brief, one-time sexual encounter, after which he simply walks away. On 1 August, Abel stabs and kills the albino. The next morning, as Francisco works in his field, he senses an indefinable loss.

The second section of the novel, “The Priest of the Sun,” is set in Los Angeles on 26 and 27 January 1952. Like the first section, this one consists of a series of recollections. Because Abel has these flashbacks as he lies on the beach after having been severely beaten by a corrupt policeman named Martinez, they are not as ordered as those in the first section. They blend so intricately into the present moment that it is sometimes difficult to tell past from present, and in this way they seem to reflect Abel’s own confusion and sense of displacement. Lying on the beach, battered and bruised, Abel thinks about his experiences in Los Angeles. He remembers a sermon delivered by J. B. B. Tosamah, “Pastor & Priest of the Sun” (89), who runs the Los Angeles Holiness Pan-Indian Rescue Mission. Tosamah took as his text John 1:1—“In the beginning was the word.” Abel thinks back to his trial for the murder of the albino and other more recent events. The subsection headed “January 27” consists of Tosamah’s Sunday sermon, “The Way to Rainy Mountain.” This sermon was later used as the prologue to “The Way to Rainy Mountain”. It is the story of the Kiowa migration from the headwaters of the Yellowstone River to their present homeland in Oklahoma.

In the third section of the novel, “The Night Chanter,” the perspective and style of storytelling change; instead of an omniscient narrator using flashback as a primary literary device, there is a first-person stream-of-consciousness account. Ben Benally, Abel’s roommate and close friend, recalls Abel’s experiences in Los Angeles. The entire section is set on the night of 20 February, beginning just after Ben has seen Abel off on his train trip home.

In the fourth section, “The Dawn Runner,” the scene returns to Walatowa in 1952. Like the “Longhair” section, this one begins with a description of the river and the landscape. Abel sits at Francisco’s deathbed and listens to his dying grandfather’s stories. On 27 February, Abel wakes to find that Francisco has died. Knowing what has to be done, he performs the appropriate Pueblo death rituals, preparing the old man for burial. He then goes to Father Olguin, telling the priest that his grandfather has died and that he must bury him. After performing these duties, Abel prepares himself for another ritual, the dawn run. He rubs his still-aching body with ash from an oven before going to where the rest of the runners are waiting for the sun to rise over the black mesa. At sunrise they begin to run, and Abel accompanies them. At the same time, however, he runs alone. He can see the landscape, and, like his grandfather before him, who also ran the race as a young man, he runs beyond pain. The final word in the novel, “Qtsedaba,” is the conventional Pueblo formula for the ending of a story.

Critical reception and recognition of Momaday’s House Made of Dawn began with a brief essay by Marion Hylton in Critique, “On a Trail of Pollen: Momaday’s House Made of Dawn” (1972). Although the article primarily offers a plot summary, Hylton initiated a critical trend of reading Abel’s “real suffering and purgation” as beginning only “after he leaves prison and wanders to Los Angeles.”5 Subsequent readers have challenged this view by considering the suffering and learning experiences recorded in the “Longhair” section of the novel.

In N. Scott Momaday (1973), a volume in the Boise State College Western Writers series, Martha Scott Trimble touches briefly on several issues that later critics have developed more fully: the effect of the structure of House Made of Dawn, the changing point of view, symbolism, the importance of language, and Momaday’s presentation of both Indian and non-Indian traditions and lifestyles. Also important in Trimble’s reading is her willingness to accept the open-endedness of some aspects of the novel. In several instances, she argues, especially those involving Pueblo ritual, Momaday “presents the mystery that must remain.”6

Floyd C. Watkins made an important contribution to scholarship by including a critique of House Made of Dawn in a study of works in the modern American literary canon. Rather than making an interpretative assessment, Watkins points out the many sources for the novel. He does argue, however, that “the tragedy of the book is that for Abel, as for modern Americans, place and culture are vanishing from their ken.” He also maintains that “the novel is about man’s loss of traditions, past, community, nature, fellow man, religion, even meaning.”7 In this sense, Watkins places Momaday’s novel in the modernist tradition at the same time that he outlines its native sources.

Charles R. Larson calls House Made of Dawn “the most complex and the most obscure novel written by an American Indian.” In his discussion he offers a summary of the plot and then argues that meaning and structure are “irrevocably bound.” According to Larson, “the novel should not be interpreted without reference” to The Way to Rainy Mountain and Momaday’s memoir, The Names.”8 He thus suggests that the reader must have a sense of the Kiowa context in order to appreciate House Made of Dawn. Most notable about Larson’s reading is that he sees the novel as an expression of Momaday’s pessimistic vision of the American Indian: “Again and again he shows us Indians who are the last members of a dying race.” Larson reads the dawn run that frames the novel as Abel’s “ritual suicide.” Indeed, almost all of the Native American characters in the novel are “headed toward spiritual suicide. . . . Abel returns home in order to die.”9Paula Gunn Allen makes a similar assessment, suggesting that the early popularity of the novel with mainstream Americans was owing to its pessimisticportrayal of Native Americans’ ability to survive: “I understood the record Momaday had made. The one about how the Indian vanishes, with a fine, soundless song; the one that got him the Pulitzer Prize.”10

For Matthias Schubnell the thematic center of House Made of Dawn is a search for identity; the novel is “a detached portrayal of the tragic consequences when identity cannot be formed or begins to disintegrate.” But it is also hopeful, argues Schubnell. Redemption finally comes, but only when Abel “renews his attachment to his tribal heritage.” Schubnell traces the conflicts that result from Abel’s initial departure from the community, the young man’s attempts to resolve his confusion, and his return to Jemez Pueblo, which is a sort of “rite of passage.” In this context, his struggle is both universal and specific, both communal and individual. Abel’s search is emblematic of any teenager’s growing pains, but his failure also “reflects a crisis in Pueblo culture.” When he comes back to Jemez after the war, Abel tries to reenter the community, but according to Schubnell, he fails to do so. Other than the rooster pull, in which he is humiliated, he does not take part in the traditional ceremonies associated with the Feast of Santiago. He does not speak to his grandfather, and he is unable—as is evident from his encounter with Angela—to establish a meaningful relationship. Most significantly, Abel kills the albino, an act that Schubnell attributes to his inability to deal with complexity and “the confusion he is subject to in his personal and cultural isolation.”11

Lawrence Evers refers to two important traditions as they relate to House Made of Dawn: Native Americans’ relationship with the land and their special regard for language. As Evers puts it, “A sense of place derives from the perception of a culturally imposed symbolic order on a particular physical topography.” From this landscape one draws strength and authority. Restoration and harmony for the Navajo come through “Chantway rituals”; thus, the word becomes of fundamental importance not only in healing but also in perceiving the landscape: “It is only through words that a man is able to express his relation to place.“12

In “Who Puts Together” (1980) Linda Hogan also explores the use of language, which she sees as central to House Made of Dawn. She identifies a linguistic universe of positively and negatively charged words, and she points out the many ways in which Abel has been undone or wounded by words (at court and through his loss of imagination, for example). Hogan is in agreement with Evers in her assessment of how Tosamah, Benally and Francisco reintroduce Abel to language and thereby help him on his return to health. Through these characters, Hogan suggests, Abel learns that when the word is properly used, language becomes deed and is thus “a force of dynamic energy, able to generate and regenerate.“13 Through this use of language, then, Abel is restored to his proper place in the universe.

In Landmarks of Healing: A Study of House Made of Dawn (1990), the first book-length study devoted exclusively to the novel, Susan Scar-berry-Garcia argues that “healing constitutes both the matter and the mode of the novel’s being.” She describes the book as a “study of the Navajo, Pueblo, and Kiowa oral traditions that provide the symbols, structures, and themes of the healing patterns that Momaday has embedded” in it.14 Allen makes a similar point about the novel, arguing that it is “an act of the imagination designed to heal.”15 For this healing to occur, the reader must take into account Pueblo and Navajo belief systems. Complementing these two readings of Momaday’s use of Native American traditions, James Ruppert argues that Momaday’s “mediation is not in eliminating the psychological underpinnings of the modern novel but in finding a way to make them serve Native purposes.” Ruppert explores how Native American texts “create a dynamic that brings differing cultural codes into confluence to reinforce and re–create the structures of human life.” What he has contributed to scholarship on House Made of Dawn is the idea that the novel serves as a means of healing, not only for Abel but for the reader as well. Ruppert sees the dawn run that frames the novel as Abel’s triumph: “He has an identity, a mythic identity which readily fulfills Native expectations but also gives meaning to a non–Native sense of identity.”16

In “Acts of the Imagination” (1992) Louis Owens argues that with Momaday’s book, “the American Indian novel shows its ability to appropriate the discourse of the privileged center and make it ’bear the burden’ of an ’other’ world–view.” In this regard Owens agrees with Ruppert’s reading of the novel as one of mediation between two cultures. Like most other readers and critics, Owens argues that the novel is one of healing: “The prologue tells us that Abel’s quest will be complete and successful. . . . As in traditional storytelling we know the outcome at the beginning.”17

Looking carefully at characters in the novel other than Abel, Jane P. Hafen argues that the three main Indian characters retain their tribal distinction, through which “each finds reconciliation by claiming his own specific tribal tradition and identity.” She maintains that “Momaday never subordinates the individual tribe to a Pan–Indian communal whole.”18 Bernard Hirsch also focuses on the urban Indians’ relationships with Abel. As suggested by his essay’s title, “Self–Hatred and Spiritual Corruption in House Made of Dawn” (1983), Hirsch argues that “Martinez, Tosamah, and Ben have been spiritually corrupted by the white world, and they make Abel their scapegoat; he is both the victim of their hatred and the example to them of what they are not.”19

In Place and Vision: The Function of Landscape in Native AmericanFiction (1993), Robert M. Nelson devotes a long chapter to the role of the landscape in House Made of Dawn. In Nelson’s view, Abel’s dislocation results not from exposure to white culture or from his experiences during the war but from “his unwillingness to be held by the land, that is, his resistance to the snake spirit of the place.”20

Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez argues that in Momaday’s novel, Abel’s antagonists (such as Tosamah and the trial lawyers) use language to treat him as an object of their prejudice and thereby dispose of him through their language. They deny him his “personhood,” writes de Ramirez. In contrast to this objectifying discourse, the reader, like Benally and Francisco, for example, sees Abel in an inclusive sense that acknowledges him as an individual person. By treating Abel as an individual, Benally is able to introduce the reader to the “tribal traditions [and] sacred rituals,” that are fused through storytelling.21

The Way to Rainy Mountain. Illustrated by Al Momaday. Albuquerque:University of New Mexico Press, 1969.

Although the beginnings are clearly evident in The Journey ofTai–me, it is in The Way to Rainy Mountain that Momaday most successfully (both artistically and commercially) recounts the history of the Kiowa tribe. Through artful juxtapositions of story, history, and autobiography, he records the tribe’s origin and migration as they relate to his own and his family’s past. The book is framed by two poems, “Headwaters” and “Rainy Mountain Cemetery,” which was previously published in 1968. It includes a prologue; an introduction (Tosamah’s Sunday sermon from House Made of Dawn); three sections, “The Setting Out,” “The Going On,” and “The Closing In”; and an epilogue. The three sections are divided into short chapters, which are numbered continuously throughout the book. Momaday’s careful use and recombination of materials is suggestive of how he conceives his work. It is an ongoing project, a telling and retelling; like oral narrative, it is always evolving. This narrative vivifies the past while it incorporates the new.

In the prologue Momaday offers an overview of the Kiowa journey recorded in the book: “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.”22 The journey itself is an evocation of “a landscape that is incomparable, a time that is gone forever, and the human spirit which endures” (4). In the introduction Momaday begins with a description of the Kiowa migration from the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, and he tells of the life of his paternal grandmother: “Her name was Aho, and she belonged to the last culture to evolve in North America” (6). He describes the coming of the Tai–me and the Sun Dance culture and tells the legend of the formation of Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming: running from their brother, who had become a bear, seven sisters climbed onto “the stump of a great tree”; the bear “scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper” the scored trunk of the giant tree became Tsoai, or Rock Tree, now known as Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming: running from their brother, who had become a bear, seven sisters climbed onto “the stump of a great tree” the bear “scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper” (8); the scored trunk of the giant tree became Tsoai, or Rock Tree, now known as Devils Tower.

The tripartite structure of The Way to Rainy Mountain, which carefully juxtaposes different types of history, can only be fully appreciated as one experiences the complete text. In “The Setting Out,” as in the two other sections of the book, each numbered chapter is divided into three parts: an account of a Kiowa legend passed down to Momaday, a related “historical” anecdote, and a personal reminiscence. The first chapter of “The Setting Out,” for example, consists of the tribe’s emergence narrative—“the Kiowas came into the world through a hollow log” (16); an anthropological description of the Kiowa tribal name; and Momaday’s recollection of his own “coming out upon the northern Great Plains in late spring” (17). He devotes several chapters of this section to the leg–ends surrounding the son of an unnamed woman and the sun. The young woman is lured into the sky by a redbird and has a child with the sun, who then kills her as she tries to escape from him and flee to earth. Although she dies, her son lives and is raised by a spider grandmother. The son splits himself into twins and kills a snake, who, unbeknownst to him, is his grandfather. Each of these episodes is accompanied by related historical and personal accounts.

The second section, “The Going On,” includes Momaday’s much–cited story of an arrow maker. While making an arrow, a man notices someone outside his tepee and speaks “as if to his wife,” who is also in the tepee with him: “I know that you are there. . . . If you are Kiowa you will understand what I am saying, and you will speak your name” (46). When the person does not speak, the man knows he is an enemy and so kills him with the arrow he has just made. This section also includes a story about a horse of clay that understands and heeds the difficult Kiowa language; another describes a powerful buffalo that has horns of steel and attacks a hunter.

In the final section, “The Closing In,” the separation of legend, history, and autobiography becomes marvelously fused. Momaday moves from presentations of the power and importance of a legendary horse that knew shame to descriptions of his own paternal grandfather, Mammedaty. Momaday makes an important transition from legendary to historical personages. The effect of such a transition is twofold. On the one hand, it demonstrates that the Kiowa people have survived into the present; on the other hand, it implies the legendary, even mythic, stature of actual historical people, such as Mammedaty and Aho. In the first paragraph of chapter XXI, for example, Mammedaty seems to have a vision. In the historical paragraph that follows, Momaday describes a photograph of his grandfather, a move that marks Mammedaty as an important historical person. Finally, in an autobiographical paragraph, Momaday describes his grandfather’s visions, phenomena that might, in another context, be construed as legendary or mythological. Once Momaday makes this transition, the remainder of the book continues in this vein, fusing and overlapping the formerly distinct genres. In the final paragraph of chapter XXIV, the concluding chapter of “The Closing In,” Momaday even more overtly links history, myth, and personal perception of the landscape: “Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth. ... 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” (83).

In the epilogue Momaday associates three historical occurrences with the demise of Kiowa culture: a meteor shower in 1833, the temporary loss of Tai–me to the Osage, and the signing of treaties with the U.S. government. Although these events suggest the end of the golden age of Kiowa culture, Momaday insists that the culture is “within the reach of memory still” and “is even defined in a remarkably rich and verbal tradition” (86). At the end of the epilogue Momaday recalls the old woman Ko–sahn, who reminds him of the beginning of the Sun Dance and of the importance of play.

The most logical place to start with criticism of The Way to Rainy Mountain is with Schubnell’s account of the genesis of the book. He cites the influence of Yvor Winters, who made an early suggestion that Moma-day combine the historical, the legendary, and the personal in an account of his Kiowa ancestry.23 As other critics have done, Schubnell comments on the issue of memory in the blood: “By an individual and imaginative act [Momaday] has raised the latent ‘blood memory’ to a conscious level.” Momaday achieves the conscious level from having heard Kiowa legends from his grandmother Aho and others, from literally traveling the migration route himself, and from his own acts of the imagination. Schubnell compares Momaday with Wallace Stevens and Frederick Goddard Tucker-man, and he provides a detailed summary of The Way to Rainy Mountain. Referring to the last sentence of the introduction—“Looking back once, I saw the mountain and came away” (12)—Schubnell sums up what he sees as Momaday’s major point: this coming away “is the fourth stage of Kiowa evolution, a coming away from a glorious past the spirit of which continues to have a powerful presence in the life of modern Kiowa people. The Way to Rainy Mountain is the assertion of this point.”24

Kenneth Lincoln’s essay “Tai-Me to Rainy Mountain” (1986) picks up where the first several pages of Schubnell’s account of the genesis of The Way to Rainy Mountain leave off. Lincoln introduces the manuscript history and records Momaday’s interaction with his editor at the University of New Mexico Press. Lincoln refers to the reports of the several anonymous readers of the early manuscript, chronicles Momaday’s responses, and adds the comments of several established writers who also read the book in manuscript. Lincoln’s essay establishes the mood prevalent in the late 1960s concerning American Indian writing. One unidentified anthropologist, for example, claimed that “Momaday’s relation to Kiowa culture is too marginal for him to give either an objective portrait or a really valid ‘inside view.’”25 Lincoln juxtaposes this and several such remarks with either Momaday’s response or with reference to Vine Deloria Jr., who, at the time of the writing of The Way to Rainy Mountain, was scoffing at the “massive volume of useless knowledge produced by anthropologists attempting to capture real Indians.”26 Lincoln characterizes the importance of Momaday’s publishing success: “The Way to Rainy Mountain represents a hybrid set text emerging through the hollows of cultural history. The makings of the book itself. . . generate a paradigm for writers to come.”27

In an important early review of The Way to Rainy Mountain, “More Than Language Means” (1970), Kenneth Fields suggests that through the book’s tripartite structure Momaday controls his nostalgic desire for a past that he cannot recover except imaginatively: his form “forces him to relate the subjective to the more objective historical sensibility.” Fields argues that the book, like Momaday’s poem “Angle of Geese” (1968), is “thoroughly Indian” in that it suggests “the extreme value of words . . . at the same time it suggests their limitations.” He also touches on an issue that critics have picked up in relation to both The Way to Rainy Mountain and The Names: Momaday “is dealing with . . . an intensely felt experience something on the order of racial memory, an inheritance that he feels in his blood.” Perhaps for this reason, the “real subject of the book,” Fields maintains, “is the recognition of what it means to feel himself a Kiowa in the modern American culture that dis–placed his ancestors.”28

Trimble offered one of the earliest critical discussions of the book in her brief monograph on Momaday. Though her discussion is primarily a summary, she does provide insights that subsequent critics have further developed. Trimble identifies the tripartite structure of the book, for example: the first part of each numbered chapter tells a Kiowa legend, the second submits anthropological or historical lore, and the third presents the author’s personal reminiscence. She maintains that “the book’s structure is both tragic and epic” in that it describes the whites’ destruction of a culture. Trimble also argues that as one reads the book, “the inadequacy of the ’scientific’ information grows more apparent, whereas Momaday’s experiences and memories begin to resemble the legends.“29

In Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor (1982) Alan R. Velie emphasizes that The Way to Rainy Mountain is a book about the sacredness of language; it is a “testament to the power of the word, and to the Indian oral tradition.” Thus, in the context of the Kiowa journey, “the story of The Way to Rainy Mountain, is as important as making the journey in the first place.” Velie also suggests that another “extremely important motif in the book is the relationship between the Kiowas and the horse,” which Momaday’s ancestors acquired from other Plains tribes during the literal migration toward Rainy Mountain.30

In a brief discussion of The Way to Rainy Mountain in The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon (1989), Arnold Krupat also finds Momaday’s treatment of language central to the book. It represents “a determination . . . to the establishment . . . of a single authoritative voice, with its own ’unique’ or ’personal’ style, sufficiently distinctive to subordinate all other voices.” There is in Momaday “a tone of high portentousness” insofar as every sentence “is capable of the ‘yes’ of mythic affirmation.” At the same time, however, “his texts remain possible only in relation to the speech of others.” For Krupat, the power of Momaday’s words comes from their relation to the words of others: “[James] Mooney, [George] Catlin, Euramerican artists, and even Momaday’s own earlier works, as well as the words of a great many Kiowa people living and dead.”31

Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain (1988), edited by Kenneth M. Roemer, is a collection of essays about the book. In addition to providing a brief biography and a bibliography, the collection includes ten short critical essays concerning topics such as biography, culture, genre, form, and theme. Though written as a rhetoric for teachers of Momaday’s book, these essays explore many of the issues that other scholars have discussed in the criticism of The Way to Rainy Mountain. Roemer’s book also features seven additional essays about teaching Momaday’s book in composition and literature courses.

In an essay in Roemer’s collection that employs a biographical approach, Schubnell suggests that The Way to Rainy Mountain “grew out of a personal and historical need for self-definition.”32 Like Schubnell, Lawana Trout emphasizes the importance of Momaday’s 1970 essay “The Man Made of Words” because it formulates the author’s ideas on the criteria for defining an Indian identity. Referring to the early essay “The Arrowmaker,” which recounts the arrow-maker legend given in The Way to Rainy Mountain, Trout acknowledges the importance of Kiowa history and culture, both sacred and secular, especially the importance of the oral tradition.33 In a discussion of traditional forms of American Indian autobiography, H. David Brumble urges that to understand The Way to Rainy Mountain the reader must have an understanding of and an appreciation for Plains Indian autobiography, especially as evident in Plains coup tales. (To count coup meant to touch one’s enemies in battle.) Through these tales of battlefield deeds “the tellers become who they are essentially.” It is not enough that they perform these deeds; they must also tell about them, “not once but many times. Only by telling their tales can they achieve ’consummate being.’”34

Several essays in Roemer’s collection articulate responses to the structure of The Way to Rainy Mountain. According to Joan Henley, the book is an “epistemological exploration”; that is, it investigates “the ways available to human beings to understand themselves and the world around them.”35 Henley suggests that the very tripartite structure of the book teaches that there are different ways, or different combinations of ways, to know Rainy Mountain and its significance. Robert Berner argues that Momaday’s decision to give the book its three-part structure is related to “his conception of language.” The movement of the book is from a time when language served to preserve the Kiowas (when, for example, the arrow maker knew the man outside his tepee was an enemy because he did not know the Kiowa language) to a time when language “has fallen to earth,” that is, a time when language can no longer save the people from destruction.36

William Oandasan compares the internal three-part structure of The Way to Rainy Mountain with the structure of other works by Momaday, especially House Made of Dawn. In making this comparison, he argues that “Momaday must resolve three dialectics involving the mythic, historic, and personal. Momaday brings these oppositions into harmony through memory, renewed respect, and an act of the imagination.”37 Helen Jaskoski focuses on how The Way to Rainy Mountain “creates its reader. . . . To be comprehensible, the book requires cultivation of silence and of visual as well as verbal attentiveness.” Emphasizing her point, Jas-koski quotes a passage from Momaday’s essay “To Save a Great Vision” (1984), in which Momaday writes that “the storyteller . . . creates himself . . . through the power of his perception, his imagination, his expression, and his devotion to important detail.”38

Three other essays in Roemer’s collection introduce themes concerning identity formation, oral tradition, and a sense of the sacred. Gretchen Bataille sees The Way to Rainy Mountain as a means for readers to understand Momaday’s “approach to defining the elusive nature of ’Indianness.’” She argues that the “values and memories from the past determine identity in the present,” and Momaday’s book offers at least three ways of perceiving that past.39 Both Norma Wilson and Scar-berry-Garcia stress the importance of language and landscape in the text. Wilson argues that “Momaday presents a convincing and creative argument for esteeming the spoken as the most powerful form of literature, just as he argues for a new-old reciprocal relation to nature.”40 Scar-berry-Garcia notes that Momaday emphasizes sacred events: “when recalled through story, they become models of human involvement with the dynamic processes of nature.”41

In the essay collection Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures (1989), edited by Gerald Vizenor, Kimberly Blaeser applies a reader-response critique to The Way to Rainy Mountain. In an essay titled “The Way to Rainy Mountain: Momaday’s Work in Motion,” Blaeser describes the book as an open text because it resists definitive explication. It works on two levels at once, activating “the imagination of the reader” and at the same time providing an example of how the author himself “acts out the reader/creator role within the text.” Through the structure of the book, Momaday invites the “imaginative participation” of the reader, but the text also “demands” the reader’s response. Indeed, argues Blaeser, the book can “realize its full dynamic potential” only through the response of the reader. Referring to Wolfgang Iser and Umberto Eco, two reader-response theorists, Blaeser suggests that the text remains open to a reader’s interpretation but at the same time “never allows the reader to move outside the strict control of the author.” Just as The Way to Rainy Mountain challenges the reader’s methods of reading and knowing, it also changes the author’s own way of thinking. If, at the beginning of the book, Momaday accepts conventional distinctions between past and present and those who are alive versus those who are dead, by the end of the book “myth and history become alive in him.” The text shows how Momaday comes to “understand the imagination’s power to transcend time.”42

In the same collection Elaine A. Jahner calls for investigations of Momaday’s book much like Blaeser’s. For Jahner The Way to Rainy Mountain exists as a dialogue between author and reader, but it is a “dialogue with tradition,” and it “dramatizes the tensions and intensities of one effort to situate the subject as sense-maker of lived experience that would otherwise disappear into an inaccessible past.” She presents passages from The Way to Rainy Mountain along with theoretical passages from other contexts, thereby creating an imagined dialogue between Momaday and several “major critics.” The Latin American writer Carlos Fuentes and the Native American Momaday present the “diverse forms through which the past survives into the present”; through this presentation Momaday “demonstrates the animating potential of longing.” Jahner also compares Momaday with the critical theorist Jacques Derrida, arguing, in essence, that their relation can be noted in the way both are “engaged in a process which seeks the hidden implications of the way European philosophy has formulated its ideas.” Momaday’s literary journey, Jahner writes, “exists in some intermediate position between the oral and the written traditions,” and one of his fundamental enterprises is to investigate ways in which people of different cultures attain knowledge. He exposes the fact that there are diverse ways of knowing.43 Jahner makes a connection between Momaday and the feminist critic Julia Kristeva, noting that both emphasize how words function depending on particular contexts. She quotes Kristeva: “The word as minimal textual unity thus turns out to occupy the status of mediator, linking structural models to cultural (historical) environment.”44 Jahner then turns to a scholar of the American Renaissance, Donald Pease, to suggest that a look at different ways of reading and interpreting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s visionary experience helps readers better understand Momaday in relation to critical theorists such as Derrida and Kristeva. Jahner sums up her essay by suggesting that the time has come to fit American Indian literature in a “broader critical enterprise.”45

Kurt Spellmeyer briefly mentions The Way to Rainy Mountain in his essay “Language, Politics, and Embodiment in the Life-World,” collected in Rhetoric in an Antifoundational World: Language, Culture, and Pedagogy (1998), edited by Michael Bemard-Donals and Richard R. Glejzer. Spellmeyer notes that Momaday uses the English language to suggest “its ability to silence those who give things other names.”46 In an essay published in American Literature in 1999 Chadwick Alien also briefly mentions The Way to Rainy Mountain, arguing Momaday develops “the process of blood memory as a method for re-collecting and re-membering as text his indigenous identity.”47

In “’Dancing the Page’: Orature in N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain,” Arlene Elder suggests that the book is “a deeply intertextual and interoral narrative that illustrates orature’s dual composition and performance values.” Elder makes the point that even the buffalo-shield drawings on the cover of the 1976 paperback edition are part of the overall intertextuality. The three buffalo shields anticipate “the three narrative segments we find within.” Like oral performance, too, the structure “is changing and indeterminate.” Even the blank space, she argues, replicates the silence endemic to oral narration. Finally, the educative nature of the narrative’s “dynamic involvement of the reader in the story’s meaning” most significantly places the book in the tradition of oral narrative.48

Colorado: Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring. New York: Rand McNally, 1973.

Between the publication of The Way to Rainy Mountain and his 1976 memoir, The Names, Momaday wrote the text to accompany a book of photographs by David Muench: Colorado: Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring. In his commentary Momaday asserts his affinity for the Colorado landscape: “My mind has been involved in the landscape of Colorado for a long time—from the moment I was old enough to conceive an idea of my home-land,” by which he means the Rocky Mountains.49 As in other instances, Momaday stresses the importance of the imagination in relation to the landscape: “Time and again I have entered into that landscape, taken possession of it in my imagination, given myself up to it” (7). In a description of the bristlecone pines of the high country, he speaks again of the power and importance of imagination: “by means of some extraordinary act of the imagination, I came suddenly upon a full awareness of the life force within me, intensely conscious of my being alive, of sharing the irresistible continuum of life itself. . . . Such moments are concentrated in these trees” (51).

The book begins with summer and moves season by season through the year as Momaday skips around from descriptions of mountain flowers to ghost towns, trains, and cities. Rather than the man–made, he emphasizes the raw, natural beauty and the geology of the state. Characteristically, he identifies the spirit in the land: “There is a legend which has it that the mountains were conjured up from the depths of a dark, primordial sea. Water touches a holiness to the mind and sight. Indeed it is appropriate to believe in the legend; such beliefs are integral to the soul” (43).

Momaday carries this sense of the legendary or mythic from summer into fall. He sees hawks and a haze on the skyline and asks whether it is rain? “Or is it something else, an apparent sheen upon the near side of infinity, a pale wash like rain?” (72). In winter the cold and consequently clear vistas stir the mind and the blood: “Here is my imagination realized to its whole potential. Nothing that I behold is lost upon me here” (86).

In the spring section Momaday sounds another of his characteristic themes: a person carries knowledge or a vision of place in the blood, and thus has a racial memory: “A child who is born in the mountains has them forever in his mind. . . . I have seen evidence of this in my own racial experience. The Kiowa, when they entered upon the Great Plains, were a long time—many generations—in holding the mountains in their view ” (100). Although Colorado: Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring is primarily a collection of photographs—and is thus something of an exception in Momaday’s published writings—it is also a part of his work as a whole because he explores issues and themes in the book that have engaged him in his other writings. Most notable among these are his interest in landscapes as an integral part of human existence, the power of the imagination, and the notion of memory in the blood.

Angle of Geese and Other Poems. Boston: Godine, 1974.

The Gourd Dancer. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

Motifs concerning landscape, the power of the imagination, and blood memory surface repeatedly in many of the poems Momaday had been writing during the 1960s and early 1970s that were published in two early collections, Angle of Geese and Other Poems and The Gourd Dancer. The Gourd Dancer consists of three sections, the first of which comprises the contents of the previously published Angle of Geese and Other Poems. In an interview with Joseph Bruchac, Momaday described the grouping of the poems in The Gourd Dancer: “There is a chronological progression. . . . The early poems, recogniz–ably traditional forms, I think, are contained in the first section, then the second section is of a very different character, informed by a native voice, and the third section is, or was then, quite recent work. Much of it was written in the Soviet Union.”50 In the poems of the first section, “Angle of Geese and Other Poems,” Momaday explores two apparently contradictory themes: he acknowledges the finality of death, but he also presents situations in which death is somehow transcended after all. Although other issues are clearly involved in this section of the book, a look at the relationship between these two issues helps the reader to recognize in part Momaday’s underlying poetic worldview.

Schubnell compares Momaday’s “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion” with Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” (1915), arguing that in both poems “the poet is forced to conclude that death is final, immortality a fiction.”51 For Christ, Momaday suggests, “The Passion wanes into oblivion,” whereas for humans “The hours advance / Like flecks of foam borne landward and destroyed.”52 Several other poems suggest a similar theme: the vanity of the hope for eternal life. In “Rainy Mountain Cemetery,” for example, a visitor to the graveyard seems unable to call forth the memory even of the deceased’s name: “The wake of nothing audible he hears / Who listens here and now to hear your name” (30). That silence is associated with the shadow cast by the gravestone itself during “the long approach of noon” when, of course, there is no shadow.

The title poem of the first section of The Gourd Dancer, “Angle of Geese,” is also about death. The first three stanzas describe a human response to a child’s death, which the speaker meets with custom and civility. Despite the custom, however, the speaker finds little comfort: “I am slow to find / The mere margin of repose” (31). The second half of the poem describes the death of a goose, evidently shot during a November hunt. Here, to a certain extent, the poet describes the death with the bird—rather than the hunter—at the center:

Quit of hope and hurt, It held a motionless gaze Wide of time, alert, On the dark distant flurry. (32)

According to Roger Dickinson–Brown, the overriding theme of this poem is not the speaker’s apparently futile attempt to find comfort in the face of death but rather “the extended understanding of the significance of language and its relation to identity.” The poem shows “the tragic conflict between what we have felt in wilderness and what our language means.”53

Critics have suggested that “Earth and I Gave You Turquoise” is equally dismissive of the speaker’s ability to conjure up a satisfying belief in eternal life. Schubnell writes that the “three final lines suggest that the passing of time has not eased the sense of loss, and that the longing for a speedy reunion remains unfulfilled:”54

The years are heavy I will ride the swiftest horse You will hear the drumming hooves. (16)

From another viewpoint, however, the poem might suggest that a reunion is imminent, one that does not require the speaker’s death. The final three lines may be taken to imply such a reunion, especially since the departed “will hear the drumming hooves.” The second stanza implies that the woman addressed in the poem lives insofar as the speaker remembers her; she survives through his imagining:

I will bring corn for planting and we will make fire Children will come to your breast You will heal my heart I speak your name many times The wild cane remembers you. . . . (15)

More hopeful than these poems about human death are those about animals’ will to survive. In “The Bear,” for example, the poet describes a bear as old and scarred, riddled with pain, but nonetheless “whole” and “without urgency.” The bear is out of sight, suggests the poet, but he is not necessarily dead; rather, the imagery is suggestive of survival through a power that humans cannot perceive:

Then he is gone, whole, without urgency, from sight, as buzzards control, imperceptibly, their flight. (11)

Similarly, in the “Pit Viper]’ the viper seems to transcend death through a kind of metamorphosis. The snake has seen death “come nigh and over–come” (12). In “Comparatives,” though one fish dies on the planks of a wharf, the essence of the fish survives as a fossil on the “inland sea” and thus outlasts death, exists forever (13). Fish and fossil are perhaps “the same thing,” suggests the poet. In the prose poem “The Horse That Died of Shame,” Momaday includes as an epigraph a paragraph from The Way to Rainy Mountain about that same horse. In the poem he gives the horse life even after it has died of shame: “And that evening it broke away into the long distance, running at full speed. And so it does again and again in my dreaming” (26).

In “The Delight Song of Tsoai–talee” (Rock–Tree Boy, Momaday’s Kiowa name), the speaker describes his identification with many of the animals and images that appear in the poems:

I am the blue horse that runs in the plain I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water I am the shadow that follows a child. . . . (27)

Through the act of writing the poems, the poet imbues these characters—people, animals, and landscapes—with life. Similarly, perhaps, the poet gives himself life: “You see, I am alive, I am alive / I stand in good relation with the earth . . .” (27).

The second section of The Gourd Dancer, “The Gourd Dancer,” consists of blank verse and prose poems. The title poem describes Mammedaty’s participation in the traditional Kiowa dance. The first of four parts of the poem, “The Omen,” rehearses the fact that an “owl ascends.” The second part, “The Dream,” introduces Mammedaty: “He dreamed of dreaming and the summer breaking upon his spirit.” In “The Dance” the speaker makes a transition from an apparent fusion of dancing and dreaming to the moment when Mammedaty is actually dancing. In the final part, “The Giveaway,” the speaker tells the story of Mammedaty’s receiving “a black horse.” Momaday describes this same incident in The Names and in an essay he wrote for the magazine Natural History, “To the Singing, to the Drum” (1975). Each telling has its special contextual meaning. In the prose poem, for instance, the giving of the horse is an objective means for the poet to demonstrate the honor due to Mammedaty: “And all of this was for Mammedaty, in his honor, as even now it is in the telling, and will be, as long as there are those who imagine him in his name” (37).

In general, the poems in the “Gourd Dancer” section seem more hopeful than those in the previous section in that, like the title poem, they celebrate Kiowa people and tradition. In “Carriers of the Dream Wheel,” for instance, rather than hearing the silence in a Kiowa graveyard, the speaker feels the power of the wheel and hears the voices of the old men

Saying: Come, come Let us tell the old stories, Let us sing the sacred songs. (42)

Similarly, in “The Eagle-Feather Fan” the poet seems to fuse the eagle itself with the poet-dancer. Initially, the speaker says, “The eagle is my power.” But further into the poem, there is a fusion of speaker and bird:

The bones of my hand are fine And hollow; the fan bears them. My hand veers in the thin air. . . . (43)

The poet thus becomes the bird and thereby celebrates the strength and beauty of himself, the dancer, the eagle, and the dance: “All afternoon it circles / To the singing, to the drums” (43).

According to Schubnell, Momaday explained the eight prose poems that make up “The Colors of Night” as his attempt “to associate all the colors of night into one thing.”55 In the interview with Bruchac, Momaday described this prose-poem sequence as “really a collection of quintessential novels, I suppose—very short, lyrical stories.”56 Although several of the poems (or colors that make up the night) deal with dying, death is presented as a means of transcendence rather than as a finality. In “White,” for instance, a man discovers that the life of his son “consists in his bones” (44). In “Yellow” a drowned boy becomes a howling dog: “a black dog emerged from the river, shivering and shaking the water from its hair. All night it stood in the waves of grass and howled the full moon down” (44–45). Similarly, in “Red” a mistreated woman—who was created from sumac leaves in the first place—becomes again “a thousand withered leaves scattered in the plain” (45).

The third section of The Gourd Dancer, “Anywhere Is a Street into the Night” consists of poems written during Momaday’s stay in the Soviet Union in 1974. As the writer has explained, this sojourn was a high point in his life, and he recalls that the time was inspirational: “I wrote numerous poems, some on the landscapes of my native south-west, urged, I believe, by an acute homesickness.”57 Many of the poems in this section describe Russian strangers or old friends— people Momaday knew, saw in passing, or admired from a distance. “Forms of the Earth at Abiquiu,” for example, is dedicated to the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and describes Momaday’s friendship with O’Keeffe and both artists’ love of the landscape. The poet gives the painter a small brown stone which she knows at once to be beautiful. Momaday writes,

. . . you knew, As you knew the forms of the earth at Abiquiu:

That time involves them and they bear away, Beautiful, various, remote, In failing light, and the coming of cold. (60)

“The Gift” is dedicated to Momaday’s old college friend Bobby Jack Nelson: “We give each other hope” (62). “Abstract: Old Woman in a Room” is dedicated to a new friend, Olga Sergeevna Akhmanova, the head of the English Department at the University of Moscow, where Momaday taught during his stay in the Soviet Union.

Other poems in the third section of The Gourd Dancer describe people Momaday may have seen or met in passing or people he imagined. The character introduced in “That Woman and This Woman,” for example, is not identified beyond the description itself:

She sits at a small, round table, rather far away, against the sunlit wall. I see that her mouth is expressive, that she is certainly beautiful. (57)

In “Krasnopresnenskaya Station” Momaday describes “a girl not yet dis–appointed, perhaps,” who, unlike others on the subway, does not seem to be afraid of him. She approaches, and the poet imagines their actually meeting:

She would speak of ordinary things; I would listen for the hard resonances of the river, the ice breaking apart in the afternoon. (63)

As in the poem describing his friendship with O’Keeffe, here the delightful, imagined meeting is imbued with the stark beauty of the landscape, in this case, the Russian landscape in winter. What remains unclear, how–ever, is whether or not the poet attributes to the brave woman the ability to recognize the beauty of the world above the underground station. With this ambiguity, a distance remains between the speaker and the girl.

The title poem of the third section, “Anywhere Is a Street into the Night,” evokes a similar sense of distance that can be overcome only through imagining. Again, perhaps on a subway train, the poet uses the dark, reflecting glass of the window for his imagining:

Desire will come of waiting Here at this window—I bring An old urgency to bear Upon me, and anywhere Is a street into the night. . . . (54)

These lines suggest the power of the poet’s imagination—after all, as a poet he can create any image he wishes on that glass, but because it is merely on the glass, what he has imagined remains only an image: “evenly it will pass/Like this image on the glass” (54).

The most thorough critical response to Momaday’s early poetry remains Schubnell’s N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background (1985). Schubnell traces Momaday’s poetic development from his days before attending Stanford University, through his work with Winters, to the later free-verse and prose poems. These different stages, however, are not, in Schubnell’s view, “strictly chronological or mutually exclusive."58 He examines in some detail most of the poems collected in The Gourd Dancer and the poems from the “Billy the Kid” series, which, though not published in The Gourd Dancer, were originally part of the manuscript of the collection. (These poems were later included in Moma-day’s 1989 novel, The Ancient Child, and they were also published as a section of his 1992 collection, In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991.)

Schubnell’s examination includes a summary of the poetic theory of Winters, which “is essential to an understanding of Momaday’s syllabic and postsymbolist poetry.” Schubnell also compares Momaday’s poetry with that of other “postsymbolists” such as Stevens and Paul Valery, as well as Winters himself. Schubnell examines Momaday’s “use of prose poetry for the treatment of his American Indian heritage, mainly in part two of The Gourd Dancer” and he groups the poems written while Momaday was in Moscow, arguing that they show a return to “a more formal technique."59

The Names: A Memoir. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

In The Names Momaday narrates the early part of his life and his family heritage, beginning with his Kiowa ancestors and continuing through his last days at Jemez Pueblo before he left for college. To re-create the past, he uses what he calls “an act of the imagination": “When I turn my mind to my early life, it is the imaginative part of it that comes first and irresistibly into reach."60 This assertion of the imaginative power appears between a genealogical chart and a photograph of Pohd-lohk, the great-grandfather who gave Momaday his Kiowa name, Tsoai-talee, or Rock-Tree Boy. In this way the text moves back and forth between tribal lore, history, and personal memory aided by imaginative recollection. Although the structure is much looser, the memoir recalls the earlier tripartite structure of The Way to Rainy Mountain.

Momaday initiates the autobiography proper by discussing his father’s Kiowa family and his mother’s European American bloodline, but he begins his mother’s story by detailing her Cherokee ancestry (she was named for her Cherokee great–grandmother, Natachee). Especially important to Momaday is her conscious decision to see herself as an Indian: “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” (25). Momaday remarks that “Some of my mother’s memories have become my own. This is the real burden of the blood; this is immortality” (22).

Similarly, Momaday begins detailing the paternal side of his family by describing Mammedaty, his father’s Kiowa father, whom the grandson never knew: “he came to be imagined posthumously in the going on of the blood” (26). By the time Mammedaty was born, writes Momaday, the glory days of the Kiowas had already passed. The Kiowas “had been routed in the Indian wars, the great herds of buffalo had been destroyed, and the sun dance prohibited by law” (28). Mammedaty therefore became a farmer who worked hard, traded well, and prospered. His son, Alfred Morris Mammedaty (later Momaday), worked his father’s fields as a boy, but he became restless. Momaday remarks, “I believe this restlessness is something in the blood” (36). In what the author calls an act of “profound affirmation” (38), his father made a life for himself; he became an artist and a teacher. He married Natachee Scott in 1933. The next year, on 27 February 1934, their son was born.

Following this account of his birth, Momaday details a history of the Kiowas as his great–grandfather Pohd–lohk might have recorded it. Momaday begins by citing a big meteor shower that was marked in the Kiowa calendar in 1833, some one hundred years before his own birth. He recalls the smallpox epidemic of 1839–1840, the hard winter of 1851–1852, the sun dance, and the coming of the imprisoned Nez Perces in 1883. Ultimately he imagines his trip as an infant with his parents to Devils Tower in Wyoming, a trip that earned him his Kiowa name. Momaday insists that he was taken into “Tsoai’s presence even before the child could understand what it was, so that by means of the child the memory of Tsoai should be renewed in the blood of the coming–out people” (55). Through the naming ceremony “Pohd–lohk affirmed the whole life of the child in a name, saying: Now you are, Tsoai–talee.” Momaday the autobiographer elaborates: “I am. It is when I am most conscious of being that wonder comes upon my blood, and I want to live forever, and it is no matter that I must die” (57).

In the second part of the autobiography Momaday recounts his family’s move to Gallup, New Mexico, in 1936 and his life on the Navajo reservation at Shiprock. During this time, he writes, “Memory begins to qualify the imagination, to give it another formation, one that is peculiar to the self” (61). If, up to this point, Momaday has been writing a communal history supplemented by his imagination, he now begins a personal history, based on his own memories. Although he selects the memories, and although they are continually evolving and mythic, they are what defines the man: “If I were to remember other things, I should be someone else” (63). Momaday remembers visiting his great-grandmother, who held him on her lap, and he finds “great good in such a remembrance” (65). In conjunction with describing members of his family, Momaday recalls the Navajo and Kiowa languages that he heard as a child. He also recalls how his uncle James suddenly became aware of the enchanted landscapes of the Southwest. Momaday seems to project onto his uncle his own feelings when he imagines that James saw “the most brilliant colors in the earth” (60). Like his nephew, James became intensely aware of the beauty of nature. A single moment, writes Momaday, “held more beauty and wonder than he could know” (80).

The third part of the memoir begins with the Momaday family’s move to Hobbs, New Mexico, where Momaday’s parents had worked during World War II. Of the many incidents of his childhood and adolescence that he recounts here, one particularly stands out (and has been commented on by several critics). Once, when visiting at his paternal grandmother’s house, Momaday recalls looking into the green base of a kerosene lamp, where he sees his own reflection, distorted by the glass: “I take up a pencil and set the point against a sheet of paper and define the head of a boy. . . . I like him certainly, but I don’t know who or where or what he is, except that he is the inscrutable reflection of my own vague certainty. And then I write, in my child’s hand, beneath the drawing, ’This is someone. Maybe this is Mammedaty. This is Mammedaty when he was a boy’” (93). After drawing and naming the boy, the ten-year-old boy Momaday walks outside and imagines taking part in a ceremonial give-away in which one of a group of dancers is honored with gifts. Momaday imagines for himself the honorable role of handing over the reins of a black horse to his grandfather: “It is good and honorable to be made such a gift—the gift of this horse, this hunting horse—and honorable to be the boy, the intermediary in whose hands the gift is passed” (94).

Following the recollection of this event (in which Momaday imagines his own participation), Momaday admits, “I invented history” (97). With this statement he begins a long, stream-of-consciousness account of his time at Hobbs, cautioning the reader that “One does not pass through time, but time enters upon him, in his place” (97). In this account Momaday mentions his first encounter with the legend of Billy the Kid: “Billy and me we rode the range together” (111).

The third part of the memoir ends with a description of the view of the great red mesa and the canyon to the west of Jemez Pueblo. The fourth part begins with Momaday’s visit to the pueblo as an adult just after the burning of the Jemez Day School, where his parents taught for more than twenty-five years. He writes that the school “had been my home; it was the last, best home of my childhood” (117). He describes the school, the pueblo, the people, the festivals, and the landscape, recalling the words of Isak Dinesen: “Here I am, where I ought to be” (121). Momaday remembers an old man named Francisco Tosa, of whom he writes, “There are certain people whom you are simply glad to see at any moment, anywhere, for they hold themselves to their lives very peacefully and know who they are” (127). He recalls the Navajos coming to the pueblo for the Feast of San Diego and the expert horsemanship of John Cajero. (These descriptions anticipate the horsemanship of Grey in The Ancient Child.) He also tells of his family’s being honored with invitations to dine in the homes of friends on feast days. After elaborating on the traditional rituals of the pueblo townspeople, Momaday devotes a paragraph to the Christmas dances. Remembering his Christmases at Jemez, he tells a story about “a poor mute boy whose name was Tolo” (137). (This account later became the story Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story, published in 1994).

In recounting his years at Jemez Pueblo, Momaday describes several incidents that appeared in one guise or another in House Made of Dawn. In addition to the coming of the Navajo, for example, he describes the rooster pull, the Pecos bull run, and the carrying of the statue of Porcingula. About such tribal ceremonies, Momaday comments that “some of these were secret dances, and on these holiest days guards were posted on the roads and no one was permitted to enter the village. My parents and I kept then to ourselves, to our reservation of the day school, and in this way, through the tender of our respect and our belief, we earned the trust of the Jemez people, and we were at home there” (147). Despite the fact that the family voluntarily excluded itself from some Pueblo ceremonies, the young Momaday felt at home in Jemez and writes that “among the people of the valley I was content” (154).

When Momaday was thirteen, his parents gave him a horse. He describes a ride he took into the surrounding settlements, but in the telling about it, the ride becomes symbolic of his growing up: “I went on, farther and farther into the wide world. Many things happened. And in all this I knew one thing: I knew where the journey was begun” (159). Momaday concludes the last part of his memoir with a section that begins, “At Jemez I came to the end of my childhood” (160).

In the brief epilogue Momaday describes a journey on horseback in which he enters a great canyon, visits with the “old people in the arbor,” and rides north into the Black Hills, where he beholds Tsoai, Devils Tower. From there he rides westward to a place near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, the place of the hollow log where the Kiowa first emerged. With the epilogue Momaday thus recalls his own migration and the migration of the Kiowa people; as he does so, he completes the circle of his memoir.

In an early review of The Names, “Memories of an Indian Childhood” (1977), Edward Abbey writes that although Momaday uses English, his mother’s language, he “tells his story in the manner of his father’s people,” the Kiowa. Abbey recognizes an elegiac tone in the book, a tone that acknowledges without nostalgia that the Kiowa past is gone and that perhaps “through some new alliance of the best in the Indians’ culture and the best of the white man’s civilization,” contemporary America might find a way to survive what Abbey calls “the malaise of the rapacious modern Western culture.” Whereas Abbey contends that Momaday’s autobiographical narrator—who “has chosen to imagine himself all Indian"—achieves “an inner view, not merely an insider’s view” of Kiowa culture,61 Kenneth Lincoln writes that the narrator is an “Indian child in a non-Indian and mixed-blood setting, [who] grows confused about his composite identity.” According to Lincoln, “Momaday’s self-portrait reveals a child inside looking out at Indians, questioning how he can define himself as a bicultural American.” Further disagreeing with Abbey’s assessment, Lincoln describes what he calls Momaday’s “nostalgia for a mythic Indian world that he never felt fully or singly integrated with."62 Schubnell agrees with Lincoln’s assessment, stating that Moma-day was “an outsider to the culture he describes.” In this context Schub-nell emphasizes influences of the Western autobiographical tradition on Momaday’s memoir. Especially important, argues Schubnell, are Dinesen’s two book-length accounts of her experiences in Africa, Out of Africa (1937) and its sequel, Shadows on the Grass (1960). Momaday and Dinesen “are akin in the way they impose their imagination on the landscape."63 Other important influences or “literary echoes” cited by Schubnell include Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, and James Joyce.

Despite his assertion that Momaday remains an outsider, Schubnell delineates the non-Western elements of The Names and argues that the author’s identification with “a racial tradition that has all but vanished from the modern world he lives in requires introspection and an imaginative recreation of his tribal past.” Momaday’s Indian name itself, argues Schubnell, establishes his connection to this world. In summing up the book, Schubnell further acknowledges that Momaday is, to some extent, an insider as well as an outsider: “The Names is an imaginative reconstruction of childhood and youth, an account of a search for identity, and a portrayal of how past and present, myth and reality, dreams, and visions come together in the mind of a contemporary American Indian.” Both the cyclical structure of the memoir and Momaday’s “symbolic and imaginative” representations of his past help to link him with his Indian heritage. Momaday’s mythmaking, in Schubnell’s view, tends to place him “in the racial matrix which produced Kiowa culture."64

If Schubnell’s account of Momaday’s memoir sets up a dichotomy between Western and Indian worlds, Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez—in comparing Momaday with Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldua—argues that although autobiography itself is a Western form, Momaday draws “on ethnic heritages . . . in which the individual identity is subordinate to the collective identity,” a trait that fuses “theautobiographical ‘I’ with the ethnic ‘we.’” Momaday thus enacts “a dialogue between [his] particular ethnic group and dominant American culture, between the collective, typically ethnic use of memory and the individual, typically Western use of memory.” Momaday, de Hernandez argues, “wholeheartedly embraces his Kiowa heritage."65

Demonstrating Momaday’s sense of the indigenous self, de Hernandez cites as an example the scene in which, as a boy, he draws his own reflection but names it for his grandfather Mammedaty: “Tellingly, this first act of self-portraiture leads straight back to Momaday’s ancestry.” Momaday thus privileges his Indian identity, especially his Kiowa heritage. By telling his story in print, he borrows from a Western literary tradition that enables him to make available a tale from an oral tradition that would otherwise be unknown outside the circle of its immediate audience. According to de Hernandez, Momaday’s modernist tendency to mix “traces of the oral tradition with Western literary styles” enabled him to write an autobiography that is itself an example of how he has constructed his own identity through a combination of Kiowa and Western traditions.66

In the essay “Pan-Indianism and Tribal Sovereignties in House Made of Dawn and The Names” (1999), Jane P. Hafen joins the debate about Momaday’s “insider-outsider” status with the comment that the autobiographer “describes the Pueblo with the voice of an inside observer.” Hafen argues that Momaday establishes his Indian identity in several ways. He exposes the absurdity of blood-quantum stipulations while contrasting such stipulations with the “communal construction of the tribal self.” He also privileges the power of the imagination, asserts Hafen, citing the description of his mother’s “act of self-invention” in emphasizing her Cherokee heritage. Momaday establishes “his Kiowa origins through events, place, narrative, familial and tribal relationships. His Kiowaness is unassailable.”67

Complementing Hafen’s essay about Momaday’s satire of blood quantum as indicator of Indianness is Chadwick Alien’s essay on blood memory. Alien takes as his starting point the scholarly debate over what familial and collective memory might mean for indigenous peoples. In his opinion, Momaday’s “signature trope” of memory in the blood is at the center of the debate: in Momaday’s works “blood memory achieves tropic power by blurring distinctions between racial identity and narrative.”68

As with the debate over whether or not the narrator in The Names is an insider or an outsider, the controversy concerning the issue of blood memory is hotly contested. As Alien points out, in Arnold Krupat’s study of Native American literature and the canon, The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon, Krupat calls Momaday’s insistence on racial memory racist.69 According to Alien, a prime example of Momaday’s use of blood memory is found in his account of the giveaway in which Mammedaty is given the black horse. Through a reading of this narrative, Alien concludes that “Blood memory thus tropes the conflating of storytelling, imagination, memory, and genealogy into the representation of a single, multifaceted moment in the particular landscape.” Through strategies of rhetoric, then, Momaday “makes available to readers both that indigenous past and his contemporary identity as indigenous” (Allen’s emphasis). In The Names, as in The Way to Rainy Mountain and in his published conversations with Charles L. Woodard, Momaday “continues and expands his project of constructing a viable contemporary indigenous identity.”70

The Ancient Child. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

In his second novel, The Ancient Child, Momaday again explores the ground between different cultures, incorporating Kiowa legend and nineteenth-century Western American lore. Part of this exploration includes his setting of the story in the contemporary American Southwest, San Francisco, and Paris. One of the two main characters is a successful Kiowa painter, Locke Setman (called Set), who moves through these landscapes and through the four books of the novel, which take their titles from elements of painting: “Planes,” “Lines,” “Shapes,” and “Shadows.”71 In a brief prologue Momaday retells the Kiowa story, presented earlier in the introduction to The Way to Rainy Mountain, of how Tsoai (Rock Tree, or Devils Tower) came to be. Set identifies with both the bear in the legend and the boy who becomes the bear, and he can thus be viewed as the “ancient child” of the title.

The other main character, Grey, is a young woman of Kiowa and Navajo descent who quests after visions and learns to become a medicine woman. Like Set, she moves between two worlds, the Western and the Kiowa: she is a Kiowa medicine woman who ultimately leads Set to his bear identity, but she also imagines being Billy the Kid’s partner and lover. Through her imagination Grey creates his legend. In the opening scene of the novel, for example, she imagines the death of Billy the Kid. Through this and other visions of Grey’s, the reader obtains a history of the infamous Western outlaw. As Grey tells it, she rides with him, loves him, helps him escape from the jail in the Lincoln County, New Mexico, court-house, and finally completes a circle by imagining (and thus witnessing) his death. Both Grey and Set, then, are torn between two cultures: the Kiowa (and Navajo) of their pasts (and future) and the Western culture of their ephemeral present moment.

Grey’s visions and her attendance on her Kiowa grandmother are juxtaposed with the story of Set. As a boy he lost his parents and was raised by a man named Bent Sandridge; Set has become a successful painter in San Francisco. When his grandmother is dying, he receives a telegram and travels to Oklahoma, his homeland, but he arrives too late. She has already died, and he has missed both her death and her funeral. But he meets Grey, who gives him a sacred bundle, and this gift constitutes the first step in the man’s introduction to the bear medicine. The gift of this bear medicine, embodied in the sacred bundle, is intended to provide Set with the power inherent in his totem, the bear. Its powers can be both natural and supernatural, and by accepting the gift he acknowledges his Kiowa (and hence non-Western) heritage. As Grey tells Set when she visits him in the middle of the night, “The grandmother, Kope’mah, wants me to give you back your medicine. It belongs to you. You must not go without it.” (72). As in House Made of Dawn, Momaday makes use of flashback and juxtaposition in The Ancient Child. Between Grey’s midnight visit and her actually giving Set the bundle at a dance, for example, the reader is taken through Grey’s imaginary encounter with Billy the Kid as he breaks out of the Lincoln County jail with her help. Momaday juxtaposes this escape episode with one in which Grey imagines she is with Billy when she is actually being raped by Dwight Dicks, a neighboring cattleman.

In the second book, “Lines,” Set has received the medicine bundle and returned to San Francisco. In the third chapter the narrative switches to a first-person account by Set of his life in the city; the next chapter is a third-person account of Grey’s life in Oklahoma. In a self-referential gesture Momaday depicts Grey reading a passage from his own memoir, The Names. She is also shown writing her own poems and stories about Billy the Kid. Meanwhile, Set travels to Paris for the opening of his art show; he has an affair with Alais Sancerre, the gallery owner, and then hears of Bent’s death. He returns immediately to San Francisco and shortly afterward suffers a nervous breakdown. Though there is no apparent reason for his malady other than Bent’s death, the reader presumes it is because of the bear medicine, which has been too strong for Set. It is as if he has not prepared himself and thus cannot control or use the powerful medicine appropriately. Set refuses to paint; stops seeing his girlfriend, Lola Bourne; and begins drinking heavily. Eventually, he becomes so sick he must be hospitalized. Meanwhile, Grey continues perfecting her powers, imagines her life with Billy the Kid, and prepares for Set’s arrival. She knows he will return when the time is right.

In the third book, “Shapes,” Set has returned to Oklahoma, where Grey is to take care of him. They travel through northern New Mexico on their way to Lukachukai, in northeastern Arizona, where Grey’s Navajo mother lives. Here, Set completes his healing and his preparations for a journey to Devils Tower. In the short fourth book, “Shadows,” Set has arrived at Devils Tower, where he becomes the bear.

Reviewers of The Ancient Child emphasize Momaday’s use of disparate fragments to create a whole. One reviewer writes, for example, that the “entire work is a clever mosaic of ... tiny facets of meaning that inexorably draw the reader in."72 Another comments on how the episodes concerning Billy the Kid contrast with those concerning Set, and how that contrast points toward an American identity that “will be intimately involved with its Indianness."73 Writing for The New York Times Book Review, Ed Marston finds fault with the mosaic pattern in The Ancient Child, not because the different plotlines do not work together, but because the novel ignores the history of the American West: it may be that Momaday’s “romantic treatment of the murderous Billy, the wild throwback Grey, and the blocked and suffering Set is meant as a healing novel. . . . 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."74

In the essay “Ancient Children at Play: Lyric, Petroglyphic, and Ceremonial” (1993) Kenneth M. Roemer focuses on three types of play in The Ancient Child: lyric, petroglyphic, and ceremonial. By lyric play he refers to the beauty of the prose and Momaday’s emphasis on imagination, emotion, and beauty. Roemer uses the petroglyphic as an analogy for structural play, suggesting that the overlapping and superimposing of stories results in an accretion of images in a way similar to the art of petroglyphs. In other words, the stories of Set, Grey, Billy the Kid, and the bear all overlap and intertwine, each adding meaning to the others. The ceremonial play refers to rituals of marriage, healing, and daily life. These types of play not only enable Set’s regeneration and transformation and make manifest the complexity and sophistication of contemporary American Indian literature, but they can also “have powerful heuristic and therapeutic effects on modern readers."75

As with some of the criticism of House Made of Dawn, Roemer investigates how The Ancient Child affects both its readers and the characters therapeutically. That is, the healing effects of the novel reach beyond the characters to the readers themselves. In comparing The Ancient Child with House Made of Dawn, Roemer suggests that whereas Abel clearly earns and deserves readers’ sympathy, they are unlikely to sympathize with Set because he is young, successful, artistic, and mobile. It is harder to take his “illness” seriously. Roemer also notes that there seems to be a devaluation of women in the novel in that they exist only to help Set. In a sense, claims Roemer, the book is almost a parody of other healing novels, especially of Momaday’s own House Made of Dawn and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977). Given the autobiographical links, Momaday runs the risk of making “the text vulnerable to interpretation as a narrow and idiosyncratic ceremonial play.” Roemer argues that, insofar as Momaday himself identifies with the bear and, like Set, is an artist, the self-satire redeems the book, making it a “healing game of personal therapy."76

In a feminist reading of the novel Kathleen Donovan argues more forcefully than Roemer that through his characterization of Lola and Grey, Momaday objectifies and ultimately devalues women. Although they are superficially independent, she argues, Lola, Alais, and Grey finally exist only to assist Set in his healing. Donovan concludes that, despite the ultimate healing of Set (as of Abel in House Made of Dawn), the “characterization of women in Momaday’s novels demonstrates a lack of harmony and balance, and underlying misogyny."77

In the essay “Planes, Lines, Shapes, and Shadows: N. Scott Momaday’s Iconological Imagination” (1995) Catherine Rainwater explores the similarities between Momaday the artist and his character Set. According to Rainwater, Momaday “exploits an elaborate, self-reflexive iconography. The result is an iconological metalanguage revealing basic interconnections between the aesthetic structure of his works and the thought, emotion, belief, morality, and even personal identity represented therein.” In his fiction, Rainwater suggests, Momaday creates his own artistic images or symbols that function as both part of the plot and structure of The Ancient Child and also as tools for interpreting the novel itself. Rainwater’s point is that Momaday himself is in certain senses not only the author and narrator but also the protagonist. By an iconological reading of Momaday, Rainwater suggests that he creates not only works of art such as novels and paintings but that he also creates a self that is a kind of “imaginative construction comparable to a work of art."78 Such a reading runs the risk of obscuring any clear lines between author, narrator, and character, of course, but Momaday himself has said that he is what he has imagined himself to be, and in this sense he is as much a conscious creation as are his characters.

Rainwater maintains that Momaday’s own paintings are “much like Set’s as described in this partially autobiographical novel,” and that Momaday, like his paintings, “resists ‘precise outline’ and reductive ‘definition’ by developing a rich language of images, complete with an implied set of instructions for their decoding.” She refers to Momaday’s use of the image of pointing. (Billy the Kid tells Grey she must point the gun, for example, and she draws an arrow on the ground, pointing out where she and Set must go.) These images of pointing, Rainwater argues, also “provide excellent general instruction for the reader.” That is, Momaday points out “that we read with certain habits and preconceptions that may, nevertheless, lead us to see beyond our preconceptions.” Finally, Rainwater suggests that by “writing, drawing, and painting, Momaday has invented himself as the bear in response to an inner vision, an ‘idea’ that he has about himself as an Indian.”79 By inventing himself, he becomes an aesthetic object.

Philip Heldrich argues that a major component of The Ancient Child is the argument that “subjectivity created through the voices of myth, legend, dream, historical account, and poetry, gives rise to identity.” Grey discovers her identity primarily through imagining and re-creating the legend of Billy the Kid; she “comes to an understanding of how language and vision structure identity.” Set discovers his identity through imagining and creating him-self in his painting. He leams from his painting and from Grey that “story shapes identity and the world.”80 For Susan Roberson, identity is more associated with place than with story. She traces “the theme of return and the connection between place and self” in the novel. According to Roberson, The Ancient Child suggests “the impact of specific geographies on the inner cognitive landscapes of the self.”81

In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields. Santa Fe, N. Mex.: Rydal, 1991.

In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991 is a collection of works, most of them previously published, presented in four sections: “Selected Poems,” “The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid,” “In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields,” and “New Poems.” All but one of the poems in the first section originally appeared in The Gourd Dancer. Momaday’s imaginings of the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid in the second section are essentially the same as the collection published in American West in 1985 and then reinvented as passages by Grey in The Ancient Child. (Many of the pieces were, in fact, first published in various journals or books during the 1970s.82) The third section, a collection of shield poems and drawings, was published in 1991 in a limited edition of 140 copies as In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields. The final section, “New Poems,” introduces twenty-seven previously uncollected poems. In addition to the shield drawings in the third section, there are forty-one drawings and illustrations throughout the rest of the book.

“The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid” is a mix of poems and short accounts of the narrator’s own imagined life with the notorious outlaw. As Momaday has indicated several times, he is fascinated with the life of this renegade and believes that “few if any men have lived more deeply in legend."83 As he does in The Names, Momaday describes the Navajos’ coming to the Feast of San Diego at Jemez, New Mexico, and a man in black who shares distinct similarities with the albino from House Made of Dawn but turns out to be Billy the Kid. There is a tobacco-gift episode in which Billy, the man “in whose eyes there was no expression” (63), buys tobacco to share with an old man. After the sharing he spills the remainder on the ground. Billy asserts that it is more important to share his own than to give outright: “this the old man understands and appreciates more even than the tobacco itself,” he argues (60).

The character of Billy the Kid is neither all good nor all bad as Momaday presents him. He is a murderer and whoremonger, but he shows kindness to his friend the old man. He also makes an interesting gesture to a nun who visits him in the Santa Fe jail. In the poem “He Would Place a Chair for Sister Blandina,” Momaday describes how the prisoner is “shackled, hand and foot,” when she comes to see him in the jail:

Still, he regards her. “I wish I could place a chair for you, Sister.” And she regards him. Later she will weep for him. (62)

“In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields” includes sixteen stories of the shields and the drawings that accompany them. Of the stories, Momaday writes, “Here are sixteen shields, a quantity that is deeply meaningful, for it is predicated upon the sacred number four. The shields make four fours” (75). The shields are masks, and each has a story; in this way they create their own power and embody a sort of medicine. The stories themselves often tell the history of the making of a shield or its medicine. In “The Shield That Came Back,” for instance, Momaday describes a beautiful and carefully built fan that has been lost on a raiding expedition. But the shield itself is redemptive: “You see, the shield was more powerful than the fan . . .” (79). In another shield story, Many Dogs is willing to trade his grandfather’s shield for a special hunting horse, but Dragonfly is amazed at this willingness because of the value of the shield. “The end of the story is that Dragonfly gave Many Dogs eight horses for the shield that was brought down from Tsoai” (105).

The final section of In the Presence of the Sun consists of twenty-seven new poems that vary immensely in subject and tone. Several are playful lines that serve as epitaphs, while others take the same and other subjects much more seriously. The playfulness is seen in the two-line poem “Ambition”: “He drove himself, and was undone/And left no stone unturned but one” (116).

In “A Fire at Thule,” which juxtaposes play, make-believe, and grieving, Momaday treats the subject of death earnestly. An implied death is central to the poem, in which the poet compares a child’s sense of loss to his own: “My little daughter speaks of you. She says/You are sad, you have done with make-believe.” In the next stanza he expresses his own sadness: “The having done is hard to my ear . . .” (123). “Concession” offers another consideration of death: “Believe that death inhabits the mere shade/Intimacy demands” (127).

Momaday considers other types of loss in several of these new poems. In “The Great Fillmore Street Buffalo Drive” he describes the decline of the buffalo. The poet depicts the animal’s blisters and sore hooves and then has to imagine one bull back into healthy existence:

One bull, animal representation of the sun, he dreams back from the brink to the green refuge of his hunter’s heart. (119)

Such dreaming shows that these poems about death remain somewhat hopeful. In “Rings of Bone” the speaker states that “the leaves are dead” but concludes that

Again the leaves have more or less to do with time. Music pervades the death of leaves. The leaves clatter like the rings of bone on the bandoliers of old men dancing. (132)

In “Scaffold Bear” a “good man killed himself,” and his death is linked to the apparent butchering of a bear, but nevertheless the speaker retains a glimmer of hope:

The bear spoke to someone there, perhaps to me. For in this cave of sleep, I am at home to bears. (133)

The illustrations in In the Presence of the Sun are reproductions of Momaday’s artwork in several different media: acrylic, graphite and wash, monoprint, etching, ink, watercolor, and colored pencil. They range widely in subject matter as well. There is, for example, a realistic graphite-and-wash self-portrait (xvi) and also “Self Portrait with Leaves” (also graphite and wash), an abstract drawing that appears to be a bear rather than a human (1). There are also several other portraits and many drawings of horses. In “In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields” Momaday includes nineteen drawings of the shields. All but two of them are straightforward ink representations of shields. Some are quite simple, such as Bote-talee’s shield (82), which is made up of a spider web. Several are more elaborate: the Floating Feathers shield, for example, has five feathers and a background and depicts an action. Unlike some of the other art in the book, these shields stand starkly against the page and are unambiguous.

In The Ancient Child Momaday suggests the importance of the plane, which seems apt in the context of these shields: “You have to be always aware of the boundaries of the plane, and you have to make use of them; they define your limits, and they enable you to determine scale, proportion, juxtaposition, depth, design, symmetry correctly. You see, you can make something, a line, a form, an image. But you have to proceed from what is already there—defined space, a plane” (55). In this sense the shields, with their sharpness and clarity, constitute an exception in Momaday’s artwork. In her essay on The Ancient Child Rainwater makes an important connection between Momaday’s writing and his pictorial art, arguing that he seems to apply the same theory of composition to both pursuits. As she describes it, both language and picture for

Momaday have the following characteristics: “Simple, slightly blurred images emerge out of vague backgrounds, as though the artist has coaxed them from a world of incipient form. . . . [P]atches of shadows suggest that the spirit of coal bears a humanlike face [or] the shaman appears in a foggy liminal space, as though suspended between material and spiritual worlds.”84 Momaday seems to agree; in the preface to In the Presence of the Sun he compares writing and painting: “The poet says, ‘Here, let me show you something.’ That is, let me help you to see something as you have not seen it before. And so says the painter” (xix).

According to Rainwater, Momaday’s art reminds the viewer of what Westerners are taught to reject: “the tendency to see faces in clouds and on the surfaces of rocks and tree trunks."85 Again, Momaday might agree. In an essay for Viva: Northern New Mexico’s Sunday Magazine, for instance, he writes that “An Indian child . . . sees with both his physical eye and the eye of his mind; he sees what is really there to be seen, including the aesthetic effect of his own observation upon the scene, the shadow of his own observation upon the scene, the shadow of his own imagination. It is the kind of vision that is cultivated in poets and painters and photographers."86

As he recalls in the preface to In the Presence of the Sun, Momaday watched his father at his artwork as a child, but not until he was an adult did he begin to “see” as an artist, at least as the term applies to painting and drawing: “When I came out of the Soviet Union I brought with me a new way of seeing and a commitment to record it. I moved from charcoal to paint, from black and white to color, from paper to canvas, and back again” (xx). His statements about his art retain a childlike openness and Romanticism that can be seen in his emphasis on the spontaneity of the artist’s creative impulse. Momaday describes impulses that cannot be forced by stipulations or deadlines: “I believe that poems and paintings are made as they are made. . . . When I had found my way with charcoal and graphite, I went to watercolor and acrylics, to oils, to printmaking. . . . [W]ith every attempt to write a line or draw an image I have learned something” (xvii). As to the importance of his art , he writes in the same Romantic vein: “If you look closely into these pages, it is possible to catch a glimpse of me in my original being” (xx). Yet, Momaday would not want to be too precise in delineating his art. As he said in an interview with Woodard, “I don’t want to enclose the thing I’m drawing in a precise outline. Giving a thing such definition sometimes reduces it."87 This attitude suggests the method behind the abstract quality of much of his artwork.

Barbara Bode writes that Momaday’s drawings evoke “traditional Plains Indian art” but that it is primarily words that Momaday “is in love with.” Concerning the “Gathering of Shields” section, for instance, she insists that “the prose poems that go with the drawings of war shields illustrate his romance with symbol.” His words, she contends, contain “the essence of the ancestral voices that speak through him."88 Certainly, the verbal and pictorial art in In the Presence of the Sun complement each other.

Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story. Santa Fe, N. Mex.: Clear Light, 1994.

In 1994 a children’s story by Momaday, Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story, was published. (It was reprinted by University of New Mexico Press in 1999.) The story first appeared in the 24 December 1972 issue of Viva: Northern New Mexico’s Sunday Magazine as “The Circle: A Fable of Christmas.” It also appears as a part of The Names.89 By publishing the account of Tolo as a children’s book, Momaday gave the story its own standing; he also included his own illustrations to complete the imagery and meaning. The story thus becomes a retelling in a new context, and it thereby gains a meaning it would not otherwise have. In this instance the story becomes not just one a child might hear at Jemez Pueblo but one with a much more universal value, suitable for a wide audience, including nonIndian children and their parents, who might read the children’s book but might not read The Names.

The story tells of a mute Indian child named Tolo. Although the boy’s grandfather has died, the boy recalls his experiences with the old man: “Tolo wanted to tell his parents of what he had seen and heard, but because he had no voice he lived alone with his memories, dreaming.”90 Then, one Christmas, he has an extraordinary experience. After Mass he leaves the church and wanders to a great meadow where he and his grandfather used to go. Here Tolo enters the circle of wonder, where he shares the real meaning of fire with an elk, a wolf, and an eagle. The story is especially interesting in that although it takes place on Christmas Eve, the focus of the story is on the boy’s encounter with the wild animals in the wilderness rather than on the birth of Jesus. This encounter gives Tolo his voice by the end of the story.

Although Circle of Wonder has not received much critical attention, a few reviewers have noted that Momaday skillfully fuses Native American and Christian traditions in the story. Of the illustrations, Alan Tack writes that they “are evocative both in their richness of color and in their simplicity of image.”91 Another reviewer notes that the book “features Momaday’s singular, impressionistic artwork.”92

The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages is a collection of essays and other short prose pieces written over a thirty-five-year span of Momaday’s career. Chronologically, the earliest essay is “The Morality of Indian Hating,” first published in 1964, which Momaday recalls that he wrote as “a student at Stanford in 1962 or 1963.”93 A few pieces were originally published in Momaday’s column in Viva: Northern New Mexico’s Sunday Magazine in the early 1970s. Other essays are more recent. “Granada,” for example, is a travel account that first appeared in The New York Times in 1996. The collection is divided into three parts, with the essays grouped loosely by topic. The first part, “The Man Made of Words,” comprises essays about language and identity. The second part, “Essays in Place,” features pieces in which Momaday develops his ideas concerning the sacredness of place: “We Native Americans in particular, but all of us, need to restore the sacred to our children” (76). The third part, “The Storyteller and His Art,” consists of nineteen “passages” on various topics.

After a brief introduction in which Momaday discusses the importance of language and the stories his father told him, the collection begins appropriately with the essay “The Arrowmaker,” delivered as part of a talk at the First Convocation of American Indian Scholars in 1970. The essay recounts the legend, presented earlier in The Way to Rainy Mountain, of an arrow maker who identifies a man outside of his tepee as an enemy because he does not understand the Kiowa language. It is absolutely fitting that the collection begin with this essay because, in Momaday’s view, the “arrowmaker is preeminently the man made of words” (11). Like Momaday, this man “has consummate being in language” (11). Since the arrow maker protects himself and his wife by speaking, the story highlights the importance of language. The legend came to Momaday through his father; thus, it embodies the importance of storytelling. Presented in written form in the essay, it becomes an embodiment and extension of an oral tradition. The story deals with a life-and-death situation and thus suggests the importance of and risk involved in storytelling and language. In Momaday’s words, “Language determines the arrow-maker, and his story determines our literary experience” (12).

If the story of the arrow maker is taken to demonstrate the general thesis that “reality consists in language” (11), as Momaday suggests, one can appreciate the importance that Momaday attributes to language, words, and stories in several of the essays throughout the collection. In “The Native Voice in American Literature” he describes someone who, millennia ago, “fixes the wonderful image in his mind’s eye” by brushing pigment onto a wall: “All the stories of all the world proceed from the moment in which he makes his mark. All literatures issue from his hand” (13). But American literature predates even this first cave painting: “oral tradition is the foundation of all literature” (14). In support of this contention Momaday presents and discusses several native songs or chants from the oral tradition. At their best these chants “transcend their merely symbolic value and become one with the idea they express” (18).

One of the fundamental ideas the essays express concerns the connection between the oral tradition and the landscape. Momaday articulates this idea in “A First American Views His Land,” in which he suggests that the voice of the old woman Ko-sahn “proceeded from the land itself” (38). Indeed, he writes, the “oral tradition is rich with songs that celebrate natural beauty” (38). Even in the essays devoted primarily to an explanation of his land ethic, Momaday expresses his belief in the indivisibility of word and landscape. The essay “On Indian-White Relations” articulates what he calls an American Indian attitude toward the land: “not an idea but a perception on the far side of ideas, an act of under-standing as original and originative as the Word. The dichotomy that most closely informs the history of Indian-white relations is realized in language” (52). In “A Divine Blindness: The Place of Words in a State of Grace” Momaday writes of the centrality of language, especially written language, to human experience. After briefly tracing the history of the written word, he concludes by stating that “Paradise is a library. It is also a prairie and a plain, and it is a place of the imagination, the place of words in a state of grace” (88).

In “The American West and the Burden of Belief” Momaday again writes of the importance of language. In briefly recounting the experiences of three notable men of the West—George Armstrong Custer, William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and Plenty Horses—he argues that they were finally blind to the ambiguities of the landscape that could be understood only through language. Custer and Cody, of course, were part of Western or European-American literate culture and therefore could not perceive the landscape as sacred. The departure from the oral tradition, Mbmaday maintains, “was also the dilution of the sacred, and the loss of a crucial connection with the real” (105). Emblematic of Custer’s inability to see the sacred was his failure to hear the warning given him after he led a massacre of the members of the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle’s band on the Washita River in western Oklahoma. Custer was warned that if he made war on the Indians again he would be killed, but he did just this on the banks of the Little Bighorn River in Montana, where he and his men were slaughtered. Plenty Horses was a young Lakota who spent five years at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. When he returned to his home, he was rejected by the other members of the tribe; in an attempt to regain their acceptance, he killed a cavalry officer. Momaday argues that Plenty Horses was robbed of his Native American voice at the school and thus failed to see the sacred in the landscape: “He could not realize his vision, for his old way of seeing was stolen from him in the white man’s school” (106).

The selections in the second part of The Man Made of Words, “Essays in Place,” also stress the importance of recognizing the sacred in the landscape: “Where words and place come together, there is the sacred” (111). This section consists primarily of travel essays. Momaday records his thoughts about travel from New Mexico and the American West to France, Russia, Bavaria, Granada, and back to New Mexico and Rainy Mountain Creek in Oklahoma. One of the unifying themes of these journeys is the traveler’s recognition of the sacred. In “Sacred Places” Momaday writes about the mystery of the holy, its final unknowability, and the desperate need of humans to preserve sacred places, “to preserve the spiritual centers of our earth, those places that are invested with the dreams of our ancestors and the well-being of our children” (116-117). In “Revisiting Sacred Ground” and “Navajo Place Names” Momaday describes several places sacred to Native Americans (such as Medicine Wheel, Devils Tower, and the Black Hills) and insists that they be recognized and preserved. He begins the essay “Navajo Place Names” with a statement that might be said to sum up much of the idea he invests in the sacredness of place: “Where language touches the earth, there is the holy, there is the sacred” (124). He writes that “the essential things of the world and the universe are in place, in place” (126, Momaday’s emphasis).

From the western United States, Momaday travels to the caves at Altamira, Spain, to show his reader the cave paintings there. As in “The Native Voice in American Literature,” he argues in “Sacred Images” that there is a fundamental similarity or connection between cave painting (or any painting or drawing, for that matter) and writing. Thus, he argues the rock paintings of the Southwest in the United States are a beginning of American literature. Similarly, the cave paintings in Spain and at Lascaux and Grotte Chauvet in France tell stories. Although modern viewers may not know what the stories are, they certainly feel that the paintings tell stories: “To behold them is to see into the spiritual caverns of our evolution, which is to see into eternity. We can ask no more, and we must not ask less, of art” (131).

The next stop is the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius of Radonezh, Russia, a place Momaday first saw when he taught in Moscow in 1974. Here the traveler is inspired by the devotion of the Russian pilgrims he sees and meets. He compares their ability to survive and persevere with the similar abilities of American Indians: “I had seen and heard in the faces and voices of the pilgrims the kind of faith and resolve that has survived generations of persecution and privation. . . . Here was a point on the planet where survival and renewal are one” (137-138).

In “Bavarian Byways” Momaday takes his reader into southern Germany, where he is especially interested in the medieval city of Regensburg on the Danube River. He recalls the Bavarian city as one of the “extraordinary places” of his experience, primarily because of its Dom, St. Peter’s Cathedral, which dominates the skyline. Momaday calls it the darkest cathedral he has ever seen, “inside and out, and its darkness is a thing to be pondered, for such darkness expresses the medieval intelligence more impressively than many architectural monuments” (140, 141). The Roman-built Steinerne Brucke (Stone Bridge) across the Danube and the city’s narrow cobbled streets also fascinate the traveler. From Bavaria, Momaday returns to Spain, where he mixes history and geography, commenting that “a kind of sadness underlies the beauty of Granada” (149). He sees the natural setting as complementary to the buildings as he tours the Alhambra. Because of its beauty, profundity, and mystery, he writes, it is a place “to seek out and behold with wonder” (153).

In “New Mexico: Passage into Legend” Momaday completes the circle, as it were, by returning to his home state, “La Tierra del Encanto,” the land of enchantment, which for him “comprehends the richness and variety of the continent itself” (154). As the subtitle of the essay suggests, this is a journey into the legendary, in which the author recounts some of the life of his idol, Billy the Kid. The essay gracefully meanders through history as the present-day Momaday walks the streets of Lincoln, New Mexico, where Billy the Kid made his storied escape from the courthouse jail.

As Momaday begins the second part of The Man Made of Words with a description of Carnegie, Oklahoma, where his father and grandfather danced, he completes the section with a homecoming: “The Homestead on Rainy Mountain Creek.” In this essay Momaday recalls his own past and to some extent that of the Kiowa people, much as he did in The Way to Rainy Mountain and The Names. He recalls his boyhood excitement at visiting with old people who “imaged” for him “the bygone . . . and infinitely exciting time of the centaurs, the warriors, and the buffalo hunters” (165). Especially important is his recollection of Koi-khan-hodle (Dragonfly), his father’s friend who painted his face and prayed every morning before dawn. The conclusion of the essay perhaps sums up how Momaday regards and fuses the landscape, the imagination, and storytelling: “Home. Homestead. Ancestral home. If I close my eyes, I can see Dragonfly there beyond the hedge. I can see my young parents walking toward the creek in the late afternoon, a coppery light on the path. I can hear my grandmother’s voice in the rooms of the house and in the cool corners of the arbor. And these are sacred recollections of the mind and heart” (166). This passage suggests how Momaday values landscape, but it also speaks to his notion of blood memory. Through his imagination he hears the voices of his ancestors, both in his mind and in his heart.

The third section of The Man Made of Words, “The Storyteller and His Art,” consists of nineteen short passages covering a wide range of topics and eras. In “Chopetl” Momaday recalls how, when he was a boy of ten, the son of the explorer Viktor Firpo gave him an ancient slingshot (called a dullimer or chopetl). Using the language of the explorers, Momaday describes how Firpo’s expedition “was attacked by savages and decimated” (196). Momaday concludes that the slingshot has “grown weary of war” (197). In “I Wonder What Will Happen to the Land” Momaday laments the current mistreatment of the environment in contemporary America: “What we have developed all too frequently is not the land, but a crisis in our relationship to the land, a state of emergency” (187).

Momaday also draws on and adds details to some of the episodes from The Names. In Pohd-lohk’s diary he reads of the Kiowa people’s confused response to the night in 1833 when there was a meteor shower. He retells a story about buying a dog from a Navajo man, and he tells about how a Navajo woman, anxious to see the photograph his father had taken of her, finally did not seem to like the picture. Momaday speculates on what might have motivated her response. Perhaps she saw herself differently, or perhaps the photograph “in its dim, mechanical eye . . . had failed to see into her real being” (175).

In several of these short essays Momaday recalls people who have been important to him—whether or not he ever actually met them. He describes his father’s friend Quincy Tahoma, who let the young Momaday “into the inner circle” by including him in excursions to the mountains and letting him listen to them talk “in the manner of old Indian men” (182). He honors Jay Silverheels, the Mohawk who played Tonto in the television series, by suggesting that he is the stuff of legend: “isn’t it possible that the Lone Ranger is a figment of Tonto’s vivid imagination?” (184) Momaday recalls that Edmund Wilson, a scholarly friend and mentor, remembers after thirty years that he had known “a beautiful Indian girl named Tersita” (199). In “A Turning Point” Momaday tells the story about his friend Nelson, who, while traveling through Spain, met the most beautiful woman he had ever seen: “Oh, my friend, how I loved her! Completely, do you see? And a more perfect love there never was” (178). Momaday asks his friend why he didn’t “steal the woman and run away with her.” Nelson answers, “Because I was twenty-five . . . and full of understanding.... If only I had been twenty and known nothing” (179).

As might be expected, Momaday again shows his enthusiasm for the history and landscape of the Southwest in several of the passages in the final section of The Man Made of Words. He writes about places of special importance, such as Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, and a beach in Santa Barbara where he rescued an octopus and placed it back in the water. He speculates about whether the octopus might have been “struggling to take my presence into account” (208). Momaday asks that readers remember Antonio Jose Martinez, “The Dark Priest of Taos,” immortalized as the antagonist of Father Jean Latour in Willa Cather’s novel Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), as the educator and advocate of literacy that he truly was. Momaday also re-creates an historical moment in the life of Billy the Kid: he describes Sister Rosa Maria Segale’s meeting the outlaw and asking him to spare the lives of the physicians of Trinidad. When she meets him again, he is chained hand and foot; his leg irons are spiked to the jail floor. Billy says, “I wish I could place a chair for you, Sister” (203).

In the last of these passages Momaday recalls having a drink with his friend Drum Hadley. Drum, a cowboy himself, sees “a vaquero, a real one” and acknowledges that because he and the stranger are both cowboys they intuitively have a sense of each other. Momaday ponders this and writes: “It was a strange moment for me, the moment of truth and exile, as it were. I was an Indian among cowboys” (211). Coming as it does at the end of the essay that concludes the collection, this remark carries special significance. At the same time, however, the comment seems out of place and disjointed. Why, one must ask, would the narrator of such a volume, a Western writer who moves so easily and freely among Indian and non-Indian friends throughout the text, suddenly feel a “loneliness, a sense of exclusion and disaffection” (211)? Underlying all these essays is Momaday’s feeling that, like his father’s friend Tahorria, he “had been severed for many years in his mind from the world in which his roots were planted. This is not a rare affliction among Indians, especially those who have the old ways fixed forever in their blood” (180). Perhaps like Tahoma, Momaday feels to some degree this alienation from the landscape and from the self.

John Motyka calls The Man Made of Words “a fine collection of essays and occasional pieces with a seeming contradiction."94 For Motyka the contradiction is not a result of Momaday’s feelings of alienation; rather, he feels that Momaday contradicts himself when he says that he privileges sound over meaning but then concludes that meaning is after all more important than sound, insofar as language formulates meaning. Motyka seems to imply that Momaday overcomes this apparent contradiction through his integrity and skill as a writer. In another review Neil Schmitz calls the collection “problematic” but does little to explain what he means or what is particularly problematic about the collection. He does, however, write that the book is “Momaday in a nutshell, essential Momaday."95 Since the essays collected in The Man Made of Words span the author’s entire career to the date of its publication, this seems a fair assessment.

In the Bear’s House. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Like The Way to Rainy Mountain, In the Bear’s House is a collection of works in several different genres and makes liberal use of previously published material. The book includes a collection of Momaday’s bear paintings, eight bear-God dialogues, several poems about bears, and two prose passages, also about bears. Despite the heavy presence of the bear, Momaday proclaims in the introduction that “this is not a book about Bear... . I am less interested in defining the being of Bear than in trying to understand something about the spirit of wilderness, of which Bear is a very particular expression.”96

“The Bear-God Dialogues” introduce the reader to Urset (the bear) and Yahweh (the creator) through a series of conversations, analogous to Platonic dialogues. Urset comes to Yahweh because he is troubled, but he has no words to describe his troubles; or, perhaps more accurately, he is troubled because, as he says, “all words confound me” (18). In contrast, Yahweh “was the word”: “We are indivisible, the word and I. I Am is my name” (17). Urset says to Yahweh, “Berries. I am a bear, and it is in my nature, as I understand it, to relish berries, but is it in your nature to do so?” (23). Urset asks Yahweh to make a prayer for him, which he does, remarking that he prays unceasingly: “It is what I do; it is what I am” (26). Yahweh also offers wisdom about dreaming and storytelling: “Dreaming is the soul’s perception of the world” (29), he says. About storytelling, he says, “A story must have a shape, a design, and it must have some consequential meaning” replete with “wonder, delight, belief, and grace” (34-35). He adds, “All stories are true” (37).

The topics of discussion between Urset and Yahweh include several other issues. On the subject of evolution, for example, Yahweh declares that the fact that humans have language shows that they are more highly evolved than nonhumans, and poetry is “the highest of all languages” (39). Urset considers the concept of everlasting life (without a physical body) and questions the value of having a soul: “A while ago my children were warm and full of motion. They danced and they sang and they climbed trees. . . . What happened to them? ... I want to feel the solid resistance of their flesh. I don’t want to touch the shadows of their having been” (44-45). In the final dialogue Yahweh considers the concepts of time and timelessness: “Artificial tenses, the past and future of which you speak, mere extensions of the present. I am. You are. Time is” (48), he says.

In the Bear’s House includes nineteen poems whose tone ranges—like the bear pictures themselves—from the serious and philosophical to the light and playful. The playful tone is seen in “The Corporeal Bear”:

You are too large for a quatrain. You must be fitted in such verse As will your prominence contain, Lines neither narrow, neither terse, Et cetera, et cetera. (55)

Momaday comments with similar playfulness on the constellations in “The Blind Astrologers”:

They ascend the ancient bridge and lay fishes in our way, so to feed us and our dogs. (58).

In “Prayer for Words” the speaker seems to be a bear who, ironically, uses words to lament the lack of words: “I could tell of the splintered sun. I could / Articulate the night sky, had I words” (60). More serious yet is “Summons,” in which the speaker seems to be a bear in search of “the bear doctor”:

I have come from the mountains to die. I have come from my home to go forth. Where is the bear doctor? Where is he? Who will outfit me for my journey? (72).

The death of a bear is also the subject of “Notes on a Hunting Scene.” In this prose poem the emotional impact of the bear’s death and a woman’s unaccountable laughter—“like ice rattling in a tin cup”—seem to work against the rhetoric of the poem, which argues for consolation through ritual: “The bear lay lifeless on the sledge. Sooner or later the singer would come, and everything would have its place in the relief of ritual” (71). With these lines the poem ends; no singer has come. In the delightful prose poem “Moscow Circus” the speaker describes his company on a Moscow subway: “At Park Kultury the bear got on, and I lost my place in the book.” The speaker stares and tries to memorize the appearance of his fellow passenger. After getting off the train, the speaker looks back: “In his window the bear had turned to look at me. Did he smile? Was he trying to memorize me? His was the last face I saw as the carriage vanished ...” (69).

Momaday’s fascination with and love of bears is evident throughout this collection. In “Revenant” the speaker acknowledges his indebtedness to the bear, the “spirit” which “summons me and confirms/My passage” (74). In “The Print of the Paw,” another prose poem, the speaker discovers a paw print in fallen leaves, a print from which he imagines the whole bear: “Were I to construct a model of this bear, based upon this single print, it would turn out to be a mythic and wondrous thing. . . . And I would be an artist of the first rank. . . . And all who should lay eyes upon my work would know . . . how much I love the bear whose print this is” (61).

“Passages,” the final section of In the Bear’s House, includes the two longest prose pieces. “The Bear Hunt” is a verbatim retelling of a story Francisco tells near the end of House Made of Dawn. Once again, Momaday reuses old material in a new context, thereby continuing a larger, longer story, reminiscent of the oral tradition, in which stories are told and retold in various contexts that inevitably give them new meaning. “The Bear Hunt” as Francisco tells it suggests a young man’s close relationship with both the literal earth and with the traditions of his ancestors, who lived in direct daily contact with the earth and animals. Though Francisco does indeed kill the bear, it is a necessary and appropriate killing as described in the novel. The night before the killing, the hunter senses the nearness of the bear: “he did not want to break the stillness of the night, for it was holy and profound; it was rest and restoration, the hunter’s offering of death and the sad watch of the hunted, waiting somewhere away in the cold darkness and breathing easily of its life, brooding around at last to forgiveness and consent. . .” (210).97

Critics of House Made of Dawn tend to agree that this passage suggests Francisco’s affinity with the natural world. In the context of In the Bear’s House, the passage takes on an added and perhaps contradictory dimension. It is helpful to recall Momaday’s comment in the introduction that the book represents an attempt “to understand something about the spirit of wilderness, of which Bear is a very particular expression” (9). In In the Bear’s House, then, the hunt seems somewhat out of place, told as it is from a human perspective. Indeed, the reader sees the bear only at the moment of his being shot; and even then, the bear is described through the eyes of the hunter. This is an appropriate point of view in Francisco’s coming-of-age narrative, but it jars the reader in this new context, recalling as it does Urset’s lament from the dialogues: “In the caves are the bones of my children, Great Mystery. I go there and look upon them, and I shudder and weep. What are these lifeless, brittle remains?” (45).

The second piece in this last section, “The Transformation,” describes the transformation of boy into bear—told in Tosamah’s sermon in House Made of Dawn and retold in both the introduction to The Way to Rainy Mountain and The Ancient Child. Indeed, the text of “The Transformation” is identical to that in The Ancient Child, beginning with the prologue that describes the eight children at play, the disappearance of the sisters, the subsequent sighting of the boy, and the transformation itself. Again, one can see that Momaday retells the story of Tsoai (Devils Tower). He simply tells an age-old tale in another context, again recalling the oral tradition. In its new context, the transformation tale suggests that the wilderness Momaday is interested in exploring in this collection is indeed at the very heart of man, much as is the bear itself. “You are not a man,” Yahweh tells Urset, “But you are manlike” (23).

In addition to selections of writing, In the Bear’s House includes fourteen of Momaday’s illustrations. Six of them are in color and eight are not. Of the eight that do not use color, all but one consist of agitated contours that are not uniform. The combination of thick, thin, heavy, light, and disconnected lines suggests spontaneity, movement, and even the pulse of the artist’s hand or of the bear’s heart. Such gestures in the sketches are especially appropriate, for example, in the illustration opposite “The Transformation” (91), in which the drawing itself seems to be in a state of becoming. Indeed, the composition becomes a bear only after one studies the sketch or considers it in relation to the narrative that follows it. Perhaps Momaday expresses this sense himself in the poem “Cave Painting.” Addressing a cave painting, the speaker speculates,

Stillborn in pigment, you keep the posture of becoming and are informed by that dread of the darkness that is art. (79)

Since the bear sketches are without other figures, shapes, or background, they also create meaningful empty space. That is, the empty space on the one hand suggests the centrality of the bear—especially given that the figure usually takes up most of the page—but on the other hand, the drawings provide space in which viewers can imaginatively complete the picture for themselves.

In addition to having various hues, the six paintings in color tend to have sharper, more-distinct contours than do the other sketches. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part these bears stand out distinctly against backgrounds that fill with color what in the other drawings remains empty space. Thus, although the colored bear portraits are also without accessories, the empty space has value other than what the viewer attributes to it. Brush strokes tend to be obvious even though the colors in general (and especially in the background) tend toward a low saturation, leaving the suggestion of empty space for the viewer’s mind to wander around in. The exception to this low-saturation rule might be found in the standing pink bear. The painting is unrealistic but distinctly outlined and brightly painted with a brownish-yellow background. This illustration accompanies the poem “The Bear.” It is an interesting choice on Momaday’s part, because the poem itself describes an old, maimed bear who suddenly “is gone, whole, / without urgency, from sight” (53). The pink bear, in contrast, stands powerfully on the page and remains vividly in the reader’s eye.


As is clear from the interviews in which Momaday has talked openly about his life and work and from his two autobiographical books, The Names and The Way to Rainy Mountain, a biographical approach to his work is not only appropriate but is also perhaps somewhat necessary. Momaday insists that one is who one imagines oneself to be. In this sense his art imitates life, certainly, but his life also imitates his art. In addition to the two clearly autobiographical works, his other writings also reveal interesting parallels between his works and his life.

As many critics have suggested, and as Momaday himself has admitted, there are many biographical elements in House Made of Dawn. Perhaps the most obvious example is his use of the story of the Kiowa migration (as he imagines it) as one of Tosamah’s sermons. There are parallels between the author and the protagonist. Abel is a young Pueblo Indian (not much older than Momaday himself at the time he wrote the novel) who, as Momaday had done, leaves his home at Jemez Pueblo to enter the larger world. Perhaps a more apt parallel is that between the author and Tosamah, the Kiowa trickster and storyteller of the novel.

Readers may find similarities between the novel and Momaday’s life by comparing episodes that reappear as (or turn out to be) biographical or historical elements as recounted in The Names. Momaday describes boyhood incidents in the memoir that also appear in the novel. The coming of the Navajos to Jemez at the time of the Feast of Santiago is one good example. In The Names their arrival is described: “From the yard of the day school I looked southward, along the road to San Ysidro, and there was a train of covered wagons, extending as far as I could see” (129). A similar description appears in the novel: “On the old road to San Ysidro, the first covered wagons had come into view” (69).

The basis for the structure of the novel, the dawn run, also has its roots in Jemez tradition and Momaday’s experience. In the early spring, coinciding with the clearing of the irrigation ditches, the men participated in a dawn run, described in The Names: “at dawn there was a footrace.... I saw the runners pass in front of the day school in the cold gray morning, running evenly, their breath visible on the dark air, stripped to their waists. They ran without effort” (142). This passage may be compared with the opening of the novel: “Abel was running. He was alone and running, hard at first, heavily, but then easily and well... . He was naked to the waist” (1). The chicken pull also appears in both the novel and the memoir. In The Names Momaday remembers that one of the ablest riders of the village “took the rooster up and held it high in the air, its wings beating furiously. He turned then and walked his horse back to the west end, among the other riders, and one of these he began to beat heavily with the rooster about the head and shoulders” (144). In House Made of Dawn the albino is the expert horseman: “The white man looked down the Middle toward the other riders and held the rooster up and away in his left hand while its great wings beat the air” (43). He has successfully pulled the rooster from the ground and now beats Abel with it: “he rode beside Abel, turned suddenly upon him, and began to flail him with the rooster” (44).

A biographical reading of the eagle scene—another crucial early episode—in House Made of Dawn suggests a motive for Abel’s killing the eagle he has caught. In The Names Momaday recalls that in Jemez “there was kept a golden eagle in a cage. Always, in passing, I spoke to it; and then, for a long moment, it held me fast in its regard, which was like doom. There was much shame between us, at the wire” (147). Clearly it troubled the young Momaday to see this caged bird, much as it horrified Abel to think of his bird in a similar situation. Looking at the eagle in the night, “The sight of it filled him with shame and disgust. He took hold of its throat in the darkness and cut off its breath” (22). Momaday relates another episode concerning the power of shame in The Way to Rainy Mountain, where he tells of a fine hunting horse whose rider turned the horse during a charge: “That was a bad thing. The hunting horse died of shame” (70).

Momaday also used biographical elements in his second novel, The Ancient Child. The character Grey’s association with Billy the Kid, for instance, is drawn from Momaday’s own childhood. As he said in a conversation with Charles L. Woodard, “In this novel, one of my characters fantasizes about Billy the Kid in nearly the same way that I did when I was a child. So it’s something that has become a part of the life of my mind.”98 In The Names the young Momaday imagines himself avenging Billy’s death: “go for your gun Garrett gun Garrett gun Garrett I’ll give you the chance you never gave poor Billy Garrett go for it what you’re not afraid are you Garrett . . . just say that I’m a friend of the man you shot down in cold blood . . . Billy and me we rode the range together” (111). In The Ancient Child Grey imagines meeting Billy the Kid at Arroyo Seco. She sits across the table from him, describing his face, hands, and speech:

. . . his speech was plain and direct—and

disarmingly polite.

“Thank you for coming,” he said.

“I will go with you,” I replied.

And this is how it began: and this is the

strange and true story of my life with Billy the Kid. (184)

In the Presence of the Sun includes a section comprised of the poems that make up Grey’s chapbook in The Ancient Child; the section has the same title in both works: “The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid.” In In the Presence of the Sun Momaday writes that as he rode his horse named Pecos he imagined himself as the enemy of desperados and hos-tile Indians, as the one who saved a “lovely young girl” who was in need of saving. “After a time Billy the Kid was with me on most of those adventures. . . . We got on well together in the main, and he was a good man to have along in a fight” (47). Thus, Grey’s involvement with Billy the Kid in The Ancient Child clearly reflects the imagination of Momaday himself.

Momaday’s interest in recounting the expert horsemanship of a Navajo mentioned in The Names, that of the albino in House Made of Dawn, and that of Grey in The Ancient Child all perhaps have their genesis in his own expert horsemanship. Speaking of his horse, Pecos, Momaday writes in In the Presence of the Sun that “we two came to a good understanding of each other, I believe. I did a lot of riding in those days, and I got to be very good at it. My Kiowa ancestors, who were centaurs, should have been proud of me” (47). In The Ancient Child the reader sees how Grey becomes an expert rider through hard, diligent practice. Practicing to pull a matchstick from the ground while riding past on her horse, Grey makes several unsuccessful attempts; on the eighth, “she took the match from the ground, and she was elated. She was somewhat battered and bruised, but she was triumphant” (169).

The Ancient Child is also revealing about the inner life of Momaday. Locke Set man identifies with Devils Tower and the bear, and he is an artist. Speaking about the novel (the working title of which was “Set") in a conversation with Woodard, Momaday described his affinity with the Devils Tower and the bear: “It is the sacred place in Kiowa tradition, and it is the place where the boy turned into a bear. I identify with that boy. I have for many years. . . . Set, my work in progress, is about the boy who turns into a bear, and in a sense I am writing about myself. I’m not writing autobiography, but I am imagining a story that proceeds out of my own experience of the bear power."99 Thus, it is easy to identify Momaday with the character Set, the artist who straddles the two worlds, Western and Kiowa, and who finally becomes the bear. Set’s transformation is not merely literal. Referring to the Kiowa legend of the bear and his sisters, Momaday speaks of the complexity of the bear and his relationship to it: “My notion is that the boy and the bear are divisible. That after the end of the story, the bear remains and the boy remains and they come together now and then. The boy becomes a boy again and becomes a bear again. . . . Probably in every generation there is a reincarnation of the bear—the boy bear. And I feel that I am such a reincarnation, and I am very curious about it."100

In The Ancient Child, Set is led toward the bear and toward becoming the bear. The prologue retells the story of the Kiowa boy who becomes a bear and chases his sisters. But the potential transformation of Set himself becomes readily apparent only near the end of the novel. When Grey’s mother, Lela, tells him that he has been sick and that the bear stands against him, Set replies:

“Yes. I am sick. I have been sick for a long time, but I hope to be well and strong. I can be well and strong with Grey’s help—she knows how to help me. I have become stronger since I have been here, because of Grey. . . .

“I have been afflicted. The bear stands against me. . . .

“Aoo’. I am the bear.” (295)

In this passage Momaday presents an ambiguity toward the bear that is similar to the ambiguity he expressed in an interview. He told Woodard he had been aware of the bear power’s relation to him since he was about twenty-five years old: “I have struggled with my bear power through those years. I think I have come to terms with it. I feel good about it."101 Momaday’s daughter Jill has corroborated this notion, maintaining that her father “really believes that he does turn into the bear.” Momaday has said that the bear spirit “comes and goes, and he’s a very creative spirit. . . . I think some of my closest, my most ominous, the times I’ve been in greatest danger have also had to do with the bear."102

In the Bear’s House takes on special meaning in regard to Moma-day’s affinity with the bear and bear medicine. In “The Bear-God Dialogues” the bear comes to the creator, the Great Mystery, because he is troubled about language: “all words confound me,” he says, “yet silence resonates among all these words, and silence disturbs me most of all” (18). One need read only as far as the introduction to learn of the identification Momaday feels with Bear: “I am acquainted with Bear, indeed more than acquainted. Bear and I are one, in one and the same story” (9). Thus, from his naming at the foot of the rock tree (Devils Tower) when he was a baby through the 1999 publication of In the Bear’s House, Moma-day’s fascination and connection with the bear power has been an important part of his life and writing.

Given the striking similarities between his writing and his life, the question arises as to what Momaday has imagined and what actually took place. But to ask the question at all is to miss an important characteristic of his art. One cannot, or at least Momaday does not, draw a hard and fast line between what took place historically and what takes place in the imagination. With the historical figure of Ko-sahn, for instance, Momaday evokes her physical presence, long after she has died, through his writing. Her reply to his suggestion that he has imagined her and that she is not real demonstrates his sense of the power of the imagination. She replies: “If I am not here in this room, grandson, then surely neither are you."103


To appreciate the place of Momaday’s works in history, one need only look as far as the many scholarly references to House Made of Dawn as the novel that initiated the American Indian literary renaissance. Momaday himself modestly de-emphasizes the importance of the novel in relation to that renaissance. When asked by Hartwig Isernhagen specifically how he accounted for its importance, the author laughed: “I think, maybe, the answer to that is that it is simply timing, that it appeared at a time when the world was ready for it, in 1968."104 Scholars of American Indian literature, however, are more assertive about the place and importance of House Made of Dawn. LaVonne Ruoff, for example, writes simply that “Momaday has been a major influence on contemporary literature."105

Gerald Vizenor, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and prolific Anishinaabe author and scholar, has praised Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, calling it “a great act of imagination. Momaday has certainly given us the contemporary voice that has a kind of courage to speak with complexity and diversity.” That “contemporary voice,” coupled with the Pulitzer Prize awarded to Momaday for the novel, Vizenor says, “brought attention to what was thought to have been a nonexistent literature."106 He claims that shortly after the publication of House Made of Dawn Charles R. Larson published the first critical study of Native American fiction, American Indian Fiction. Although Larson’s study did not actually come out until 1978, a full decade after the publication of Momaday’s novel, Vizenor’s point is well taken. The publication of the novel initiated a renaissance, agrees Vizenor, but he also praises the book in its own right. In an essay on Momaday in Updating the Literary West, Robert Gish states emphatically that Momaday’s novel “was a momentous book, both in itself and in what it signified and what it sparked: a renaissance of American Indian writing."107 Of Momaday’s place in history, Arnold Krupat writes that “Momaday is not only the best known and most celebrated contemporary Native American writer, recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for fiction,” but he is also “the presumptive groundbreaker or forefather” for other American Indian writers.108


In the 1970s Firebird Productions made a motion-picture version of House Made of Dawn; it was produced and directed by Richardson Morse and starred Larry Littlebird as Abel, Judith Doty as Milly, Jay Val-era as Ben Benally and John Saxon as Tosamah. Momaday said in a 1975 interview that the movie was made but never distributed.109 In 1987 New Line Home Video released a video version of Morse’s production. Although Momaday, along with Morse, is given credit for writing the screenplay, the author himself claims that he “had very little to do with the film."110 It seems to have been Morse’s project: “The producer once said to me that he could make eight different films of the book."111 Moma-day has commented, “I was happy with the film that was made. The external photography was good; the way the race and the man running worked as a thread throughout was well done. There were things that disappointed me. The acting was not particularly distinguished, but I’m not sure that distinguished acting was called for in the parts."112

As Momaday himself notes, perhaps the strongest features of the movie are the photography of the landscape and the way the dawn runner ties the whole together. Although, unlike the book, it begins with the scene of Francisco’s death, it then turns immediately to Abel’s dawn run. Since it ends with the run as well, the movie thus preserves the circular structure of the novel. From the dawn run the story is told as a series of flashbacks from the runner’s point of view, a technique that fairly represents the use of flashback in the novel. According to Momaday, “there are time confusions in the novel—distortions of time, which belong there because they reflect Abel’s mind in certain ways, valid ways."113 The movie attempts to depict these confusions through flashback.

In addition to the use of Abel’s running and flashbacks to retain the structural feel of the novel, the movie includes scenes not found in the novel that associate and link the forces of evil represented by the snake, the albino, and Martinez. Early in the movie Francisco pulls the boy Abel away from a coiled rattlesnake that immediately afterward seems to have been the albino himself. When Abel kills the albino, the scene cuts back and forth between the stabbing and scenes of an eagle fighting a rattlesnake. Later, two telling scenes are juxtaposed. In the first, Martinez, the corrupt cop in Los Angeles, walks into a bar, silencing the patrons, and in the next scene the albino walks into a bar on the reservation. This sequence artfully links Martinez and the albino.

As is obviously necessary in making a motion-picture adaptation, Morse cut several major elements of House Made of Dawn. Momaday comments that the movie “isn’t a representation of the whole novel, but it deals fairly with a part of the novel."114 One major element of the plot that was cut is that involving Angela Grace St. John. She makes no appearance in the movie; nor does Father Olguin have a role, except in the opening scene, where he is told Francisco is dead. Morse also altered the time setting of the novel. Rather than a post-World War II setting, the movie takes place in the late 1960s or early 1970s, making Abel a Vietnam War veteran. One drawback of this change is that it misses the point (in terms of historical accuracy, at any rate) of the Indian relocation policies of the 1950s. When asked about the change, Momaday comments that he was not really disturbed by the time period: “In order to reflect the time span and the convolutions of time in the film one would have had to make a very long and complicated film.”115

The movie gives perhaps undue attention to a scene involving a peyote ceremony. Though the ceremony is only a small part of the novel, it occupies a proportionally much greater and therefore more central place in the movie. (The scene lasts just over ten minutes in the seventy-seven-minute production, but it takes up only 5 pages in the 212-page book.) This difference can perhaps be attributed to the period when the movie was made (the early 1970s), when there was a popular interest in peyote culture and court cases involving Native Americans’ right to use the drug in religious ceremonies, finally granted in the Religious Freedom Act of 1978.

When asked about the emphasis in the movie on the peyote ceremony, Momaday responded that it was important for the scene to be done imaginatively “because the peyote ceremony itself is highly imaginative and very dramatic. It is an artistic consideration more than anything else.” As to whether or not depicting the tribal peyote ceremony was appropriate in the first place, Momaday seemed to beg the question: “There are ineffable qualities of Indian religious experience; there are sacred areas that are sacred because they are private, and those are unavailable to us. There are always questions of that kind, whether you are making films or writing books.” In other words, it seems as if he did not feel he had inappropriately revealed what should have remained private. In a broader sense, Momaday claimed that in making movies about American Indians, “We shouldn’t worry about the representation of the cultural realities; that should be secondary to the idea of making an exciting, creative, and inspirational film.”116


As the books, articles, and dissertations devoted to Momaday indicate, his place among literary scholars is well established. Among the public—that is, among nonacademic readers—his position also seems secure. One indication of the favorable public response to Momaday is the fact that House Made of Dawn, The Way to Rainy Mountain, The Names, The Ancient Child, In the Presence of the Sun, The Man Made of Words, Circle of Wonder, and In the Bear’s House are still in print. Three books featuring interviews with Momaday are available: Woodard’s Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday (1989); Conversations with N. Scott Momaday (1997), a selection of interviews from various sources, edited by Schubnell; and Isernhagen’s Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing (1999), which features an interview with Momaday. There are also book-length critical studies of Momaday’s works by Schubnell and Susan Scarberry-Garcia. Guides for students, teachers, and scholars are also still in print, including Kenneth M. Roemer’s 1988 study Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain.

That Momaday’s works are often taught to high-school and college students is evident from anthologies of American literature compiled in the 1990s by publishers such as Prentice Hall, Heath, Harper, and Norton. The Literary West: An Anthology of Western American Literature (1999) includes a selection from The Way to Rainy Mountain, as does an introduction to literature, Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers (2000). Selections from Momaday’s writings are also often anthologized in college readers for writers, such as Common Ground: Reading and Writing about America’s Cultures (1994) and Essays in Context (2001). In such readers and anthologies Momaday often receives acknowledgment for his literary success: “The poetic qualities of Momaday’s prose have elicited almost universal praise; his talent for poetry is prodigious, and his experiments with style show his sensitivity to the way that form creates meaning.”117

Momaday’s writing is almost always featured in anthologies of American Indian literature produced both for the classroom and the general public. Such books include American Indian Literature: An Anthology (1979; revised, 1991), edited by Alan R. Velie; Native American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology (1995), edited by Vizenor; Songs from This Earth on Turtle’s Back: Contemporary American Indian Poetry (1983), edited by Joseph Bruchac; Earth Song, Sky Spirit: Short Stories of the Contemporary Native American Experience(1993), edited by Clifford E. Trafzer; and Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1900-1970 (1994), edited by Paula Gunn Allen.

Momaday can be seen and heard in several videos. He is the narrator of A Matter of Promises, part one of the two-part Winds of Change (1990). The video chronicles Indian-white relations among three different tribes: Onondage, Navajo, and Lummi. Momaday is also the narrator of Our Vanishing Forests (1992), a video overview of the management of national forests in the United States. Momaday: Voice of the West (1996) is a video interview that introduces the writer and artist to a nonacademic audience. Momaday also contributed to the popular public-television documentary The West (1996).


1. Lee Abbott, “An Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, edited by Matthias Schubnell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), p. 19.

2. N. Scott Momaday, The Journey of Tai-me (Santa Barbara, Cal.: Privately printed, 1967), n.p.

3. Ibid.

4. Momaday, House Made of Dawn (New York: Perennial Library, 1989), p. 1. Subsequent parenthetical references in the text are to this edition.

5. Marion Hylton, “On a Trail of Pollen: Momaday’s House Made of Dawn,” Critique, 14, no. 2 (1972): 63.

6. Martha Scott Trimble, N. Scott Momaday, Boise State College Western Writers Series, no. 9 (Boise, Idaho: Boise State College Press, 1973), p. 24.

7. Floyd C. Watkins, In Time and Place: Some Origins of American Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1977), pp. 158, 134.

8. Charles R. Larson, American Indian Fiction (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978), pp. 78, 81.

9. Ibid., pp. 93, 79, 82, 84.

10. Paula Gunn Allen, “All the Good Indians,” in The 60s Without Apology, edited by Sohnya Sayres (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 229.

11. Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), pp. 100, 101, 105, 118.

12. Lawrence Evers, “Words and Place,” in Critical Perspectives on Native American Fiction, edited by Richard Fleck (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1977), pp. 114, 116.

13. Linda Hogan, “Who Puts Together,” Denver Quarterly, 14, no. 4 (1980): 141.

14. Susan Scarberry-Garcia, Landmarks of Healing: A Study of House Made of Dawn (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990), p. 2.

15. Allen, “Bringing Home the Fact,” in Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 571.

16. James Ruppert, Mediation in Contemporary Native American Fiction (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), pp. 39, 3, 54.

17. Louis Owens, “Acts of the Imagination,” in his Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1992), pp. 95, 96.

18. Jane P. Hafen, “Pan-Indianism and Tribal Sovereignties in House Made of Dawn and The Names,” Western American Literature, 34 (Spring 1999): 7.

19. Bernard Hirsch, “Self-Hatred and Spiritual Corruption in House Made of Dawn,” Western American Literature, 17 (Winter 1983): 320.

20. Robert M. Nelson, Place and Vision: The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), p. 48.

21. Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez, Contemporary American Indian Literatures and the Oral Tradition (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999), pp. 52, 55.

22. Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969), p. 4. Subsequent parenthetical references in the text are to this edition.

23. Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday, p. 144.

24. Ibid., pp. 148, 157.

25. Kenneth Lincoln, “Tai-Me to Rainy Mountain,” American Indian Quarterly, 10 (Summer 1986): 105.

26. Vine Deloria Jr., quoted in Lincoln, “Tai-Me to Rainy Mountain,” p. 106.

27. Lincoln, “Tai-Me to Rainy Mountain,” p. 115.

28. Kenneth Fields, “More Than Language Means: Review of The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday,” Southern Review, new series 6 (January 1970): 203, 198, 199, 201.

29. Trimble, N. Scott Momaday, pp. 27, 32.

30. Alan R. Velie, Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982), p. 28.

31. Arnold Krupat, The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 178, 180, 182, 187.

32. Schubnell, “Tribal Identity and the Imagination,” in Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, edited by Kenneth M. Roemer (New York: Modern Language Association, 1988), pp. 24-25.

33. See Lawana Trout, “The Way to Rainy Mountain: Arrow of History, Spiral of Myth,” in Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, pp. 32-40.

34. H. David Brumble, “The Way to Rainy Mountain and the Traditional Forms of American Indian Autobiography,” in Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, p. 45.

35. Joan Henley, “Exploring the Ways to Rainy Mountain,” in Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, p. 47.

36. Robert Berner, “The Way to Rainy Mountain: Structure and Language,” in Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, pp. 54, 58.

37. William Oandasan, “The Way to Rainy Mountain: Internal and External Structures,” in Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, p. 63.

38. Helen Jaskoski, “Image and Silence,” in Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, p. 69.

39. Gretchen M. Bataille, “Momaday and the Evocation of Identity,” in Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, pp. 79, 83.

40. Norma Wilson, “Discovering Our Natural Resources in Language and Place,” in Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, p. 85.

41. Scarberry-Garcla, “Beneath the Stars: Images of the Sacred,” in Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, p. 89.

42. Kimberly Blaeser, “The Way to Rainy Mountain: Momaday’s Work in Motion,” in Narrative Chance, edited by Gerald Vizenor (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989), pp. 39, 42, 43, 50, 52.

43. Elaine A. Jahner, “Metalanguages,” in Narrative Chance, edited by Gerald Vizenor (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989), pp. 157, 158, 160, 162, 168, 166.

44. Kristeva, quoted in Jahner, “Metalanguages,” p. 174.

45. Jahner, “Metalanguages,” p. 182.

46. Kurt Spellmeyer, ‘“Too Little Care’: Language, Politics, and Embodiment in the Life-World,” in Rhetoric in an Antifoundational World: Language, Culture, and Pedagogy, edited by Michael Bernard-Donals and Richard R. Glejzer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 258.

47. Chadwick Allen, “Blood (and) Memory,” American Literature, 71, no. 1 (1999): 101.

48. Arlene Elder, ‘“Dancing the Page’: Orature in N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain,” Narrative, 7 (October 1996): 273, 274, 279, 285.

49. Momaday, Colorado: Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring (Chicago: Rand McNally 1973), p. 6. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

50. Joseph Bruchac, “The Magic of Words: An Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, p. 99.

51. Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday, p. 206.

52. Momaday, “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion,” in The Gourd Dancer (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 29. Subsequent references to poems included in both The Gourd Dancer and Angle of Geese and Other Poems are to this collection and appear parenthetically in the text.

53. Roger Dickinson-Brown, “The Art and Importance of N. Scott Momaday,” Southern Review, new series 14 (January 1978): 42, 45.

54. Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday, p. 198.

55. Momaday, quoted in Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday, p. 233.

56. Bruchac, “The Magic of Words: An Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” p. 99.

57. Momaday, preface to In the Presence of the Sun (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), p. xx.

58. Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday, p. 189.

59. Ibid., pp. 189, 190.

60. Momaday, The Names: A Memoir (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), n.p. Subsequent parenthetical references in the text are to this edition.

61. Edward Abbey, “Memories of an Indian Childhood,” Harper’s, 254 (February 1977): 95.

62. Lincoln, Native American Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 105, 104.

63. Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday, pp. 168, 169.

64. Ibid., pp. 174, 177, 187.

65. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, “The Plural Self,” in Memory and Cultural Politics: New Approaches to American Ethnic Literatures, edited by Amritjit Singh, Joseph T. Skerrett Jr., and Robert E. Hogan (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996), pp. 42, 45.

66. Ibid., pp. 44, 51.

67. Hafen, “Pan-Indianism and Tribal Sovereignties in House Made of Dawn and The Names,” pp. 21, 15, 18.

68. Alien, “Blood (and) Memory,” pp. 93-94.

69. See Krupat, The Voice in the Margin, pp. 13-14, note 7.

70. Alien, “Blood (and) Memory,” pp. 101, 104.

71. Momaday, The Ancient Child (New York: HarperPerennial, 1990). Subsequent parenthetical references in the text are to this edition.

72. Edward B. St. John, review of The Ancient Child, Library Journal, 114 (August 1989): 165.

73. J. E. Deflyer, review of The Ancient Child, Choice, 27 (June 1990): 1697.

74. Ed Marston, review of The Ancient Child, New York Times Book Review, 31 December 1989, p. 14.

75. Kenneth M. Roemer, “Ancient Children at Play: Lyric, Petroglyphic, and Ceremonial,” Critical Perspectives on Native American Fiction, edited by Richard F. Fleck (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1993), p. 111.

76. Ibid., pp. 110, 111.

77. Kathleen Donovan, Feminist Readings of Native American Literature: Coming to Voice (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998), p. 98.

78. Catherine Rainwater, “Planes, Lines, Shapes, and Shadows: N. Scott Momaday’s Iconological Imagination,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 37, no. 4 (1995): 376.

79. Ibid., pp. 381, 384, 387.

80. Philip Heldrich, “Constructing the Self through Language and Vision in N. Scott Momaday’s The Ancient Child,” Southwestern American Literature, 22, no. 2 (1997): 11, 13, 16.

81. Susan L. Roberson, “Translocations and Transformations: Identity in N. Scott Momaday’s The Ancient Child,” American Indian Quarterly, 22, nos. 1 and 2 (Winter/Spring 1998): 32.

82. See, for example, “Wide Empty Landscape with a Death in the Foreground” and “Trees and Evening Sky,” in Carriers of the Dream Wheel, edited by Duane Niatum (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), pp. 90, 102.

83. Momaday, In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), p. 43. Subsequent quotations are cited parenthetically in the text.

84. Rainwater, “Planes, Lines, Shapes, and Shadows,” p. 381.

85. Ibid.

86. Momaday, quoted in Charles L. Woodard, Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 152.

87. Woodard, Ancestral Voice, p. 173.

88. Barbara Bode, “Imagination Man,” review of In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991, New York Times Book Review, 14 March 1993, p. 15.

89. See Momaday, The Names, pp. 137-142.

90. Momaday, Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999), p. 10.

91. Alan Tack, review of Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story, Native Peoples, 8 (Fall 1994): 82.

92. Unsigned review of Circle of Wonder, Publishers Weekly, 241 (19 September 1994): 28.

93. Momaday, The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p. 76. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

94. John Motyka, review of The Man Made of Words, New York Times Book Review, 15 June 1997, p. 23.

95. Neil Schmitz, review of The Man Made of Words, Buffalo News, 8 June 1997, sec. F, p. 8.

96. Momaday, introduction to In the Bear’s House (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), p. 9. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

97. See also Momaday, In the Bear’s House, p. 85.

98. Woodard, Ancestral Voice, p. 22.

99. Ibid., p. 13.

100. Ibid., p. 14.

101. Ibid., p. 13.

102. Momaday: Voice of the West, produced and edited by Jean Walkinshaw (Alexandria, Va.: PBS Video, 1996).

103. Momaday, “The Man Made of Words,” in Indian Voices, edited by Rupert Costo (San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1970), p. 51.

104. Hartwig Isernhagen, Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), p. 35.

105. A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography (New York: Modern Language Association, 1990), p. 60.

106. Isernhagen, Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong, p. 96.

107. Robert Gish, “N. Scott Momaday,” in Updating the Literary West, edited by Thomas Lyon and others (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1997), p. 538.

108. Krupat, The Voice in the Margin, p. 177.

109. William T. Morgan Jr., “Landscapes: N. Scott Momaday,” in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, p. 54.

110. Bataille, “Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, p. 65.

111. Morgan, “Landscapes,” p. 55.

112. Bataille, “Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” p. 64.

113. Morgan, “Landscapes,” p. 55.

114. Ibid.

115. Bataille, “Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” p. 65.

116. Ibid., pp. 65, 66.

117. Sandra Fehl Tropp and Ann Pierson D’Angelo, eds., Essays in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 405.

Momaday on Momaday

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I can almost see into the summer of a year in my childhood. I am again in my grandmother’s house, where I have come to stay for a month or six weeks—for a time that bears no common shape in my mind, neither linear nor round, but it is a deep dimension, and I am lonely in it. Earlier in the day—or in the day before, or in another day—my mother and father have driven off. Somewhere on a road, in Texas, perhaps, they are moving away from me, or they are settled in a room away, away, thinking of me, or not, my father scratching his head, my mother smoking a cigarette and holding a little dog in her lap. There is a silence between them and between them and me. I am thoughtful. I see into the green transparent base of a kerosene lamp; there is a still circle within it, the surface of a deeper transparency. Do I bring my hands to my face? Do I turn or nod my head? Something of me has just now moved upon the metal throat of the lamp, some distortion of myself, nonetheless recognizable, and I am distracted. I look for my image then in the globe, rising a little in my chair, but I see nothing but my ghost, another transparency, glass upon glass, the wall beyond, another distortion. I take up a pencil and set the point against a sheet of paper and define the head of a boy, bowed slightly, facing right. I fill in quickly only a few details, the line of the eye, the curve of the mouth, the ear, the hair—all in a few simple strokes. Yet there is life and expression in the face, a conjugation that I could not have imagined in these markings. The boy looks down at something that I cannot see, something that lies apart from the picture plane. It might be an animal, or a leaf, or the drawing of a boy. He is thoughtful and well-disposed. It seems to me that he will smile in a moment, but there is no laughter in him. He is contained in his expression—and fixed, as if the foundation upon which his flesh and bones are set cannot be shaken. I like him certainly, but I don’t know who or where or what he is, except that he is the inscrutable reflection of my own vague certainty. And then I write, in my child’s hand, beneath the drawing, “This is someone. Maybe this is Mammedaty. This is Mammedaty when he was a boy.” And I wonder at the words. What are they? They stand, they lean and run upon the page of a manuscript—I have made a manuscript, rude and illustrious. The page bears the likeness of a boy—so simply crude the likeness to some pallid shadow on my blood—and his name consists in the letters there, the words, the other likeness, the little, jumbled drawings of a ritual, the nominal ceremony in which all homage is returned, the legend of the boy’s having been, of his going on. I have said it; I have set it down. I trace the words; I touch myself to the words, and they stand for me. My mind lives among them, moving ever, ever going on. I lay the page aside, I imagine. I pass through the rooms of the house, slowly, pausing at familiar objects: a quiver of arrows on the wall, old photo-graphs in oval frames, beaded emblems, a Bible, an iron bedstead, a calendar for the year 1942. Mammedaty lies ten years in the ground at Rainy Mountain Cemetery. What is there, just there, in the earth, in the bronze casket, under Keahdinekeah’s shawl? I go out into the yard; the shadows are long to the east, and the sunlight has deepened and the red earth is darkened now to umber and the grasses are burnished. Across the road, where the plain is long and undulant and bears the soft sheen of rose gentian and rose mallow, there are figures like fossils in the prisms of the air. I see a boy standing still in the distance, only his head and shoulders visible above the long, luminous grass, and from the place where he stands there comes the clear call of a meadowlark. It is so clear, so definite in the great plain! I believe that it circles out and out, that it touches like ancient light upon the thistles at Saddle Mountain, upon the broken floor of Boke’s store, upon the thin shadows that follow on the current of the Washita. And round on the eastern shelves I see the crooked ravines which succeed to the sky, a whirlwind tracing a red, slanting line across the middle distance, and there in the roiling dust a knoll, a gourd dance and give-away, and Mammedaty moves among the people, answers to his name; low thunder rolls upon the drum. A boy leads a horse into the circle, the horse whipping its haunches around, rattling its blue hooves on the hard earth, rolling its eyes and blowing. There are eagle feathers fixed with ribbons in the braided mane, a bright red blanket on the back of the black, beautiful hunting horse. The boy’s arms are taut with the living weight, the wild will and resistance of the horse, swinging the horse round in a tight circle, to the center of the circle where Mammedaty stands waiting to take the reins and walk, with dignity, with the whole life of the hunting horse, away. It is good and honorable to be made such a gift—the gift of this horse, this hunting horse—and honorable to be the boy, the intermediary in whose hands the gift is passed. My fingers are crisped, my fingertips bear hard upon the life of this black horse. Oh my grandfather, take hold of this horse. It is good that you should be given this horse to hold in your hands, that you should lead it away from this holy circle, that such a thing should happen in your name. And the southern moon descends; light like phosphorus appears in the earth, blue and bone, clusters of blue-black bunch grass, pocks in pewter. Flames gutter momently in the arbor and settle to the saffron lamps; fireflies flicker on the lawn; frogs begin to tell of the night; and crickets tell of the night, but there is neither beginning nor end in their telling.1


My Indian name, Tsoai-talee, was given to me in commemoration of my having been taken, when I was an infant, to Devils Tower, Wyoming, which is sacred ground in Kiowa tradition. That great monolith in the Black Hills is known in Kiowa as Tsoai, “Rock Tree.” The ancient vision of Tsoai, informs a story, in the immediate presence of which I live my life in my name, Tsoai-talee, “Rock Tree Boy”. . .

I believe that those Kiowas of old who beheld the rock tree for the first time must have been stricken by the sight. It is one of the awesome things of the world. They had to account for it; their very well-being was at stake. They had to appropriate it to their experience, once and for all. To do less than that would have been to compromise their humanity. They told a story about it. And from that time on, it was acceptable to them in their terms; they had given a name to their wonder. And in the process they related themselves to the stars.2


Naming is very complicated, and a sacred business. I don’t know where to begin with this. It’s a large, large topic. I have the idea that names and being are indivisible. When you name something, you confer being upon it at the same time. That is what I believe language does. Language is essentially a process of naming. When you talk about a tree, you must use its name. If the object does not have the name “tree,” its existence is brought into question. The same is true of people. I tell a little story in one of my prose poems about a boy who appears in camp one night and speaks a language nobody understands. The next morning he’s gone. Everybody has been enchanted by him. They have delighted in his presence and they have listened to his nonsense with pleasure. They’re all disturbed that he’s gone, until somebody points out that he never was. An old man says, “Well, you know, we can’t believe in the child, because he spoke not a word of sense, and so what we saw, if we saw anything at all, must have been a dog or a bear come down from the high country.” And I think that’s true. If there is one unimaginable tragedy, it is to be without a name, because then your existence is entirely suspect. You may not exist at all without a name. That’s a fascinating idea. So an awful lot is involved in this business of names, and I meant to indicate that in the title of my book. I don’t see how you could find a more intrinsically powerful title than The Names.3


To be a Kiowa is to have a subject—but then everybody can say that about his experience, whatever it happens to have been. It is a very rich experience, it is a very rich part of my heritage, and it’s a fascinating one. It’s a romantic thing in itself, you know, if you think about the nineteenth-century culture of the plains. It’s highly colorful and romantic and it’s a great subject. So that’s the big advantage. I have that and very few people have that rich a subject, I think. The disadvantage ... I don’t know about that. I don’t see that there’s a disadvantage particularly. Of course, there are people who want to categorize you, and I sup-pose that’s a disadvantage, but it seems a very minor one. Every writer is categorized, every author, you know. That’s just something you deal with. You can’t let that bother you. I’ve known people who were defensive about being called a Jewish author, but it doesn’t bother me at all to be called an Indian author. That’s what I am.4


I don’t see myself as an Indian writer. I don’t know what that means. I am an Indian, and I am a writer, but I don’t just want to say “Indian writer” or talk about Indian literature. I don’t know what that means, exactly, and I don’t identify with it at all.5


I feel very close to the Navajo. I lived on the Navajo reservation growing up, at a critical age. I lived among the Navajo at a good time in my life, when I was young and gathering all sorts of experience and information to myself. I feel very close to the Navajo because they were like family to me when I was little. Even now, when I go among them, I feel at home. I feel that I have some investment in that community and that landscape, and I love the Navajo spirit. They have a great generosity of spirit. They are good to be with.6


There is most certainly a world that is exclusively Indian. I have been privileged to live in that world, and I have written about it from within. That world is very important to me, but I do not think that it is necessarily important to others, other than Indians, I mean. The reflection of the Indian world in House Made of Dawn is of course a matter of literary considerations, and it is important on that level. But there is a distinction to be made between the Indian world and the Indian world reflected in literature. As a writer, it is the reflection, the appearance that matters to me (literature is made up of surfaces, appearances); as an Indian it is the reality that matters. The one thing is negotiable by definition; the other is indeed exclusive.7


It was all a complete fluke. What happened was that when I graduated from college, I took a job teaching at a school on the Jicarilla reservation. It was a combined grammar school and high school, started with grade one, pre-school, and went on through twelfth grade. All the students, or virtually all of the students, were Apache kids. I was recruited right out of the University of New Mexico to go and teach. They had just started a program, the State Department of Education started a pro-gram, on the teaching of oral English. I had a minor in Speech and a major in English and I was Indian, so I was just what they were looking for. They came and hired me. I was delighted because I didn’t have anything better to do and having a steady job sounded great to me. So I went up there to teach, and I did for one year. And in the year I applied for the Stanford Creative Writing fellow-ship and won it, got it. ...

So I did, and damned if I didn’t get it, and I was so happy at Dulce on the Jicarilla that I was reluctant to leave. But here I had this opportunity, and so I applied for a year’s leave of absence and got it. But I fully intended to go back at the end of that year and take up my job at Dulce. But I fell into the clutches of Yvor Winters, who turned out to be one of the great men in my life. He took me by the hand and told me I had been admitted to one of the prestigious schools in the country and I’d be a damn fool if I didn’t work towards an advanced degree. So I did. I allowed myself to be talked into that.8


I find that writing, and painting as well, are learning processes. I once had a very able teacher; he taught at Stanford, and I took his course called “The Writing of Poetry” every single year that I was there, and I repeated it again and again because it was never the same, and I always learned something new. . . . But I remember that one day he said, “You know, if you write poetry long enough you will become a learned man.” And I thought to myself I didn’t understand what he meant then, but I understand now. It is true, when you write you bring your whole mind to bear upon the writing, and it is a learning process. I have any number of times begun a poem, say, thinking that I knew what I needed to know about the subject in order to write a poem, only to find that I needed to know more than I knew, I had to research it. One poem comes to mind especially. . . . Very early in my graduate career I wrote a poem called “Buteo Regalis,” which happens to be the scientific name of a hawk that is very common to the Western United States—it’s called Western Ferruginous Rough-Legged Hawk. I had grown up looking at these birds, but when the time came to write the poem, I discovered that I needed to know much more about the creature than I knew, and so it involved a great deal of research. I went to books and started to read about the Western Ferruginous Rough-Legged Hawk; I had to read about its hunting habits. There’s a line in the poem which describes the motion of its wings in flight: “Angle and curve gathering momentum....” I had looked at photographs of the bird flying directly towards the camera; hawks beat, and when their wings are uplifted they form a “v,” but when they beat downward the wings bend to form a parenthesis, curved rather than angled. So all of this came to my knowledge, into my understanding in the course of writing the poem, and that’s how it has been with virtually everything I have written. In the course of my career to date I have found out a great deal about the things that I have written about, I found out that I could write. . . .9


The poem is a moral judgment. That’s, I believe, what Winters believed. A poem is a poet’s judgment of his subject that is necessarily moral, because our lives are moral. The poem as an institution raises the moral judgment to the highest level possible. So that a great poem on a great subject, as Winters might say, such as George Herbert’s “Church Monument,” is about the highest expression of morality that one can get. ... If you accept that as a fact and as a standard of poetry, then every poem becomes a moral consideration. So the best poem is by the poet who understands that fact. I believe that is a fair way of looking at a poem.10


The prose pieces in The Way to Rainy Mountain are illustrations of the very thing that I was talking about before, the lyrical prose, the thing that is called the prose poem. The oral tradition of the American Indian is intrinsically poetic in certain, obvious ways. I believe that a good many Indian writers rely upon a kind of poetic expression out of necessity, a necessary homage to the native tradition, and they have every right and reason to do so. It is much harder, I suspect, for an Indian to write a novel than to write a poem. The novel, as a form, is more unfamiliar to him in his native context.11


I am late to come to painting. I’ve only been at it for about twelve years, seriously painting. And I’m still feeling my way. I have come from more or less abstract images and drawing to something else; I have recently taken up water-color for the first time, and I find it terribly exacting to work in watercolor. It’s very different from acrylics with which I have been working for some years, and before that, ink-and-brush work on paper, drawing in a real sense. So it’s hard for me to talk about my painting because it seems to me in flux at the moment. I don’t know where it is, where it’s going.12


Bears are wonderful creatures. They are human-like, adventurous, powerful, curious, extremely confident in their elements. If you took a lion and you pitted him against the bear, I would bet on the bear. Bears are powerful. I was sitting by a man on the plane the other day who was a graduate student in wild life management; he was telling me about bears. He hunts bears with a bow. He’s had a lot of experience tranquilizing bears with a dart gun. He said that he’d seen bears perform incredible feats of strength. Take a boulder that 20 men cannot budge. The bear can come along and just hurl it out of the way. He’d seen that. A lion can’t do that. Yes. I’d bet on the bear. Grizzlies are Ursus horribilis. They are the horrible. Polar bears. Tremendous creatures. Huge. Incredible strength.13


I think our environment is threatened even more than it was in Faulkner’s times, and I can understand his pessimism. It’s true that I don’t share it. I am very optimistic. I think the earth is yet greater than all we have devised, and we can destroy ourselves, but I don’t think we can destroy the earth or the wilderness. You can sometimes see grass growing up through the freeways, and that to me is evidence that nature is finally greater, and it will pop up out of the con-crete despite everything, given enough time. A friend of mine lived in Brooklyn for quite a while and brought up his children there. He was telling me one day that he came home from work and he saw his children and a number of others from the neighborhood all gathered round a part of the sidewalk across the street, and he went over to investigate. Some roadworkers were digging up the sidewalk with jackhammers in order to repair a pipeline or something, and the kids had all gathered around because it had not occurred to them that there was earth under the sidewalk. And they were all enchanted to see dirt there, earth. I think the earth finally emerges through the sidewalk in spite of everything. So that’s reason to be optimistic, I think.14


1. N. Scott Momaday, The Names: A Memoir (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), pp. 92-96.

2. Momaday, “Ancient Vision,” Revue Francaise d’Etudes Americaines, 38 (November 1988): 375-376.

3. Charles L. Woodard, Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 88.

4. “Shouting at the Machine: An Interview with N. Scott Momaday” (1982), in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, edited by Matthias Schubnell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), p. 112.

5. Dagmar Weiler, “N. Scott Momaday: Storyteller” (1986), in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, pp. 168-169.

6. Woodard, Ancestral Voice, p. 38.

7. Tom King, “A MELUS Interview: N. Scott Momaday—Literature and the Native Writer” (1983), in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, pp. 155-156.

8. “Shouting at the Machine,” p. 125.

9. Gaetano Prampolini, “The Ancient Child: A Conversation with N. Scott Momaday” (1990), in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, p. 214.

10. Schubnell, “An Interview with N. Scott Momaday” (1981), in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, p. 73.

11. Joseph Bruchac, “The Magic of Words: An Interview with N. Scott Momaday” (1982), in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, p. 101.

12. Laura Coltelli, “N. Scott Momaday” (1985), in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, p. 165.

13. Bettye Givens, “A MELUS Interview: N. Scott Momaday—A Slant of Light” (1982), in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, p. 91.

14. Schubnell, “An Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” pp. 77-78.

Momaday as Studied

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In a conversation with Charles L. Woodard, responding to a question about writing and the oral tradition, Momaday stated that “there is a tendency when you’re talking about oral tradition to want to distinguish it as much as you can from written traditions, and of course the distinctions are real, but I think at some point the two traditions come very close together, and perhaps merge.” Indeed, given his reliance on characteristics of the oral tradition in his writing, oral narrative is possibly the single most important genre for Momaday. As ironic as this might seem for an artist of the written word, he maintains that the “oral tradition helps us to understand that words are more valuable than we have been led to believe. It demonstrates the importance of memory and the importance of listening carefully.”1 Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez makes a similar point in a discussion of Momaday: “we cannot really draw strict and definitive lines between those literatures that are oral versus those that are textual, nor should we want to.”2 Similarly, Arnold Kru-pat notes the inevitability of invoking the oral in American Indian literatures: “the texts of Native American literatures are not only theoretically but also in practice what we may call oral texts” (Krupat’s emphasis).3 As de Ramirez interprets it, “any approach to American Indian literatures must take into account their orality.”4

Perhaps the most important defining characteristic of an oral tradition is that stories transmitted aurally (for example, from parent or grandparent to child) are always only one generation from extinction. As Momaday has noted, “There’s always the very tenuous link between being and nonbeing in the oral tradition. If the word is lost, it is lost forever.”5 A second crucial characteristic of the oral narrative is that it is a verbal art, which means that it involves a performance, often imbued with spiritual or ritual importance, which is staged before an audience. The telling occurs at a specific time and is done by authorized storytellers in appropriate places. It is not necessarily the case that vibrant oral traditions exist only in nonliterate cultures. As a study of Momaday’s use of the genre demonstrates, an oral tradition survives, and in fact thrives, among highly literate Native American cultures. As Kathleen Manley argues, Momaday’s style in HouseMade of Dawn recalls an oral tradition. In Ben Benally’s account (a first-person narration in which he addresses his audience with the second-person pronoun, you), Momaday has Ben speak in various voices that give the reader a sense of different realities. Manley also points out that in The Names Momaday recalls an oral tradition by providing a multilevel (or hypertextual) context for his autobiographical text.6 As he tells stories about his family and includes photographs of family members, for example, he creates a context of family that invites and includes the reader.

According to H. David Brumble III in his American Indian Autobiography (1988), Momaday “will write autobiography after the fashion of an oral storyteller,"7 and the author himself has argued that The Way to Rainy Mountain relies heavily on oral tradition: “The voices in that book are very important.”8 In his 1970 essay “The Man Made of Words,” Momaday reveals that the two narrative voices following the mythical voice in each chapter serve “to validate the oral tradition to an extent that might not otherwise be possible. The commentaries are meant to provide a context in which the elements of oral tradition might transcend the categorical limits of prehistory, anonymity, and archaeology in the narrow sense.”9 The form of The Way to Rainy Mountain is in large part reliant on oral narrative (especially because, for the most part, each numbered chapter contains a written version of an orally transmitted story). According to Alan R. Velie, “The Way to Rainy Mountain is a testament to the power of the word, and to the Indian oral tradition.”10

Critics have also argued that elements of oral tradition are important to House Made of Dawn. Especially significant are the roles of Tosamah and Benally, who use their oral skills quite effectively.11 Tosamah’s two sermons, of course, are drawn from an oral tradition. Benally recalls the traditional Navajo healing chants, but he also tells Abel how it will be when they are together again at Walatowa. Ben recounts what he told Abel as his friend left the city for home: “Look out for me, I said; look out each day and listen for me. And we were going together on horses to the hills. We were going to ride out in the first light to the hills. . . . We were going to be all alone, and we were going to get drunk and sing. We were going to sing about the way it always was. And it was going to be right and beautiful. It was going to be the last time” (189-190). Through Ben’s use of indirect quotation in this passage, Momaday includes the reader as audience much as Ben includes Abel. This inclusion echoes the way narratives in the oral tradition work on audiences.

Momaday’s reliance on and use of oral tradition is also central to his 1989 novel, The Ancient Child. The prologue—which sets the stage for the development of the plot and the dramatic conflict of the novel—retells the Kiowa legend of Tsoai (Rock-Tree, now called Devils Tower), a story handed down orally over generations. The account of the seven sisters and their brother who becomes the bear was presented earlier in The Way to Rainy Mountain, of course. Momaday’s use of the Billy the Kid episodes in the novel also draws on the oral-narrative tradition. He relates Grey’s” ‘memorial,’ which otherwise bore the title ‘The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid’” (175). Through his narrative retelling, Momaday contributes to the legend of Billy the Kid. His later use of these episodes as a section of his 1992 collection, In the Presence of the Sun, suggests that the story is not finished. As in the oral tradition, the story needs to be told and retold in new contexts for new audiences and ultimately for new purposes. As Momaday once said in an interview, “I don’t want to repeat myself in a negative sense, that is, to say the same thing again, but I have no hesitation in taking something that I have written before and building upon it in another work.”12


During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American Indian autobiography became very popular among non-Indian readers. Part of the interest no doubt owed something to European Americans’ desire to preserve in print what they saw as the vanishing cultures of the Native Americans and the vanishing “noble savages” themselves. This popularity resulted in part from widespread interest in native cultures among anthropologists and ethnographers. They were spread out across North America, investigating Indian cultures and languages, and as they studied various indigenous cultures, they recorded many life stories. Autobiography—including life stories transcribed by listeners—became an important genre. During this same era, Native Americans were learning to read and write English in ever-greater numbers and were thus able to write their own stories. Another factor encouraging the spate of American Indian autobiographies was the popularity of slave narratives that had swept onto the literary scene beginning in the mid nineteenth century.

Autobiography as understood in the Western world had been a genre foreign to most Native American cultures. According to Krupat and Brian Swann in the introduction to I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers (1987), the notion of an organized life story based on a unifying principle or interplay of events and demonstrating the subject’s internal growth certainly was not a part of the oral tradition of any native North American culture: “That form of writing generally known to the West as autobiography had no equivalent among the oral cultures of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas.”13 Nonetheless, the ancient Native American art of storytelling does have autobiographical elements. As Kathleen Sands argues, “autobiography is a personal genre that examines in depth the motives, actions, attitudes, and qualities of an individual within the network of family and tribe,” and such examination is found among Native American cultures.“The American Indian autobiography centers on personal experience, but the subject, no matter how dominant within the culture, is a participant in his or her own family history and in the events of the tribe.”14 Still, “In traditional Native American culture,” writes William Bloodworth, “autobiography as a form of expression is limited mainly to coup stories, stories that explain an individual’s name, and narrative elements in oratory and prophecy.”15 Similarly, although he does not mention Momaday in his book For Those Who Come After: A Study of Native American Autobiography (1985), Krupat notes that “Strictly speaking... Indian autobiography is a contradiction in terms. Indian autobiographies are collaborative efforts, jointly produced by some white who translates, transcribes, compiles, edits, interprets, polishes, and ultimately determines the form of the text and by an Indian who is its subject whose life becomes the content of the ‘autobiography.’” American Indian autobiography as Krupat understands it is an “original bicultural composite composition.”16 Momaday’s composition is indeed bicultural, maintains A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, who writes that he “combines Wordsworthian literary tradition with American Indian oral traditions.”17

In the introduction to An Annotated Bibliography of American Indian and Eskimo Autobiographies (1981) Brumble writes that “hundreds of Indians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries delivered themselves of narratives in modes to which they were unused, often including topics they regarded as taboo.” He observes that “Momaday is very much a part of Western culture,” yet “no Indian autobiographer before Momaday wrote with such a rich awareness of this Indian autobiographical literature.”18 Brumble argues that Momaday is a master at making the oral tradition appropriate for written autobiography; thus, much as Momaday combines the oral and written traditions, he also combines Western and Native American forms of autobiography.



Both as autobiographers and as important storytellers for their respective tribes and eras, the Kiowa Momaday and the Lakota Sioux Black Elk (Hehaka Sapa) are eminently comparable. Through telling their stories to primarily non-Native audiences, both have become spokesmen not only for their tribes but also for Native Americans in general. Like Momaday, Black Elk was an artist as well as an able storyteller. According to Kenneth Lincoln, both artists “find their place in an ancestry, an eco-logical setting, and a set of cultural definitions that inform tribal behavior through time.”19 In a chapter titled “Word Senders: Black Elk and N. Scot Momaday,” Lincoln argues that as storytellers both Black Elk and Momaday have served as mediators between and as translators of European American and Native American worldviews. Momaday has identified the importance of Black Elk’s 1932 autobiography, Black Elk Speaks; he believes that the document “tells us of ourselves and of all humankind. I am interested in the universal elements of the narrative, first as an example of oral tradition, then as literature.”20

Even though Black Elk was from a different tribe and era than Momaday, Lincoln finds that “the continuity of acculturating Plains Indian traditions stretches between them”; although they differ because they “represent old and new Indian ‘artistic’ voices,” both are “word senders.” Lincoln suggests that the autobiographies of both Momaday and Black Elk show a “reverence for the land, the elders, the traditions, and the spirits,” and Momaday’s poetry, with its evocation of a reality mixed with vision and shadow, its sure sense of propriety, and its articulation of loss, recalls the mood of Black Elk’s “world yonder.” As Lincoln describes it, an “unspoken poetry underlies Black Elk’s vision of the ‘real’ reality, a place unnamed, intangible, and out of reach here and now.” Momaday’s description of the Tai-me in The Way to Rainy Mountain echoes the familial tone achieved by Black Elk when he includes all of earth’s creatures, human and nonhuman, in his account of the creation. In addition to Momaday’s poetry and early autobiographical works (Lincoln does not mention The Names), House Made of Dawn also shares similarities with Black Elk Speaks. The final image of Abel singing silently, for example, “could well represent the moving oral traditions of Black Elk’s visionary plains people and Scott Momaday’s adaptive ‘way’ into modern literary forms.”21

Lincoln also compares the poetry of Momaday with Black Elk’s narrative. Despite a prevalent theme of darkness, Lincoln does identify a “visionary transience” in Momaday that is reminiscent of Black Elk’s own notion of a “native life-spirit” that promises regeneration. Despite occasional specific points of reference, the basis of Lincoln’s comparison of Momaday’s poetry and Black Elk’s narrative relies more on Lincoln’s subjective sense of underlying similarities than on specific identifiable passages: “An unspoken poetry underlies Black Elk’s vision of the ‘real’ reality, a place unnamed, intangible, and out of reach here and now. To name something is an act of possession, traveling the Black Road of this shifting world; to touch and fix anything spiritlessly is potentially to lose it, demean it, finally not to touch it all.”22

In contrast to Lincoln, Bloodworth does not compare Momaday and Black Elk but rather Momaday and John G. Neihardt, the man who transcribed Black Elk Speaks. He argues that both writers produced life stories that are “genuine literary efforts.” The unifying link, Bloodworth suggests, is that both Momaday and Neihardt “attempt to remain true to the facts and the spirit of Indian culture,” and they both imagine and shape their respective storytellers in forms that are comprehensible primarily to a non-Indian audience. Despite these similarities with Neihardt, however, Bloodworth argues that Momaday differs significantly from Black Elk as Neihardt represents him . Unlike the Sioux elder, who, according Neihardt, lamented his failures and the broken circle of family, tribe, and culture, Momaday is “an unusually successful and well-assimilated Indian.”23 Bloodworth does not account for the theme of loss that runs throughout The Way to Rainy Mountain, a theme that seems to parallel Neihardt’s interpretation of Black Elk’s own sense of loss.

Robert Berner argues that House Made of Dawn (as well as Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 novel Ceremony and James Welch’s 1974 novel Winter in the Blood) can be understood by applying Black Elk’s fundamental belief in a symbolic four-part movement through directions and seasons. According to Berner, all three novels “deal with a spiritual journey undertaken by a protagonist who begins in sterility and meaninglessness and passes through crises to achieve understanding.”24 Finally, however, the most important thematic link between Momaday and Black Elk is that they have both offered important literary testaments to the enduring power of their visions and beliefs.


In his 1983 study American Indian Renaissance, Lincoln examines published American Indian literature from the previous two decades, suggesting, in essence, that the renaissance began with Indian writers of the 1960s, seminal among whom was Momaday. Inevitably, in Lincoln’s view, the works of important later American Indian writers must be compared with House Made of Dawn, the semi-autobiographical The Way to Rainy Mountain, and Momaday’s first poetry collection, Angle of Geese and Other Poems. Preeminent among these “later” writers, if later by only a few years, are Silko and Welch.

Like House Made of Dawn, Silko’s first novel, Ceremony, portrays a character who suffers a postwar trauma in a story that begins with his coming home to the reservation. An obvious point of comparison is the similarity between the protagonists, Abel and Tayo, two Indian veterans of World War II who feel displaced and confused when they return. Also comparable are the roles that family and ceremony play in both novels. Krupat deems Momaday “the presumptive groundbreaker or forefather” of subsequent American Indian literature, arguing, perhaps too severely, that Ceremony is “heavily dependent” on House Made of Dawn. He suggests that Silko’s Storyteller (1981), a collection of stories, poems, and photography, is “perhaps no more than a rerun of ... The Names.25 What Krupat does not note is that although Silko’s collection shares structural similarities with The Names, and although both books use photographs as a part of the storytelling, Storyteller includes poetry and short stories, neither of which are found in The Names. Because Silko’s novel includes freestanding poems and stories, it is not an autobiography in the way The Names is; it is rather an anthology.

In “Liminality and Myth in Native American Fiction: Ceremony and The Ancient Child” (1996) Karen Wallace argues that both novels follow the line of reasoning that marginalization from mainstream culture opens possibilities for seeing and creating: “By gaining competence in their tribal communities, the protagonists also acquire a renewed and secure sense of self that allows them to participate successfully in the dominant culture as well.” Their very marginalization offers a site of resistance through which they are “successful in incorporating these aspects of their tribal heritages to redefine and affirm who indians [sic] are without qualification.”26 According to Wallace, both novels depict protagonists who are “psychically split between cultures” and must undergo a healing process that brings them back into a Native American context. This process ultimately comes across as an affirmation of the characters’ ability both to reenter a traditional world and assimilate the crucial elements of the “outside” world.

Actual points of comparison between Ceremony and The Ancient Child are many. In Silko’s novel Tayo turns to an old medicine man, Betonie, and later has a somewhat visionary encounter with a spirit woman, Ts’eh, who has mystical healing powers. In The Ancient Child Set travels with Grey, who, though young, has studied, been instructed in, and imbibed ancient Kiowa culture and medicine. Both novels have a somewhat mythic structure, and both novelists create (or reiterate) important legends: Silko presents Thought Woman or Spider Woman, for example, and Momaday shows Set encountering the bear legend. According to Wallace, the novels also deal with cultural “factors that necessitate acculturation” on the part of the protagonists because they realize, ultimately, that outside factors are not solely to blame for their hardships but that “failure comes finally from within.” Both Momaday and Silko, asserts Wallace, attempt “to resolve the conflicts of the mixed-blood by melding the traditions of native and Anglo America.”27 In addition to portraying the problems associated with having mixed blood, Momaday and Silko reveal their “concern with alcohol abuse.” For Momaday and Silko, “alcohol emerges as an important part of the larger tragedy of Indian social and cultural fragmentation.” But in each case, Nicholas Warner argues, the authors affirm that their protagonists “transform bondage and illness into freedom and health.”28

If the reintegration of an estranged male protagonist is a major theme in both Momaday’s and Silko’s novels, so is the way each author presents what Judith Antell calls the feminine principle. With reference to Paula Gunn, who first developed this concept, Antell writes that the feminine principle Alien, “acknowledges and supports the ancient power of Indian women in tribal life.” Antell argues that the alienated man in each novel is separated from women and that women convey culture: “Through women’s ritual, song, and story as well as through women’s material culture, tribal information is transmitted from one generation to another.”29 These protagonists have lost their mothers through death or abandonment; they have no close relationships with other female relatives; and they have no healthy or sustained relationships with girlfriends or wives. Insofar as women keep the ritual formulas for wellness, connection with the female principle through women must precede any restoration of spiritual harmony.

Another important point of comparison comparison between Momaday and Silko is their literary relationship with and use of landscape. According to Robert M. Nelson, in both House Made of Dawn and Ceremony, the protagonists’ vision grows out of their sense of and commitment to place. In Ceremony the landscape, the geographical setting of the novel (Mount Taylor, Pa‘to’ch Butte, and other places), grounds the other two planes of Tayo’s healing, his personal experience and the story of the people. In House Made of Dawn, Nelson maintains, Abel must balance the sky medicine with the earth medicine in order to achieve his healing. His final acceptance of the earth medicine—embodied in culebra, the snake, as the sky medicine is embodied in the eagle—ultimately enables his recovery.30


After Silko, the Native American author most often compared with Momaday is Welch. Like Momaday, Welch graduated from a state university (the University of Montana in Welch’s case), did graduate work in English, and taught for a while. Like Momaday, he began his writing career with poetry, switched to prose, and eventually worked in several different genres: poetry, fiction, and history. Welch also gained national recognition during the early years of the American Indian renaissance, much as Momaday did for House Madeof Dawn. Thematically Welch’s works have characteristics seen in Momaday’s as well. As a means of investigating his characters’ cultural identity, for example, he uses quest and twin motifs. Like Abel, in House Made of Dawn, Welch’s unnamed narrator in his first novel, Winter in the Blood, has a brother who dies young. Though not literally twins, such pairs recall the twin motifs in Indian legends.

In Winter in the Blood, Welch presents a young man who, like Abel in House Made of Dawn, has lost his father and brother and depends ultimately upon his maternal grandfather to discover his identity. As in the case of Abel, part of the journey for Welch’s unnamed narrator-protagonist includes excessive drinking, apparently meaningless sexual relation-ships with women he barely knows, and a feeling of alienation from his mother and other female relatives. Like Momaday, Welch investi-gates his tribal past, but rather than autobiography, Welch’s genre for this investigation is fiction. In the novel Fools Crow (1986) he re-creates the tribal life of a band of Blackfeet around 1870 and describes the impact of white immigration on his ancestors. Like Set in Momaday’s TheAncient Child, the title character of Welch’s The Indian Lawyer (1990) must balance his career in mainstream society with his personal and tribal past.

The scholarship comparing Momaday and Welch is similar to that comparing Momaday and Silko. Indeed, the three are often included in the same studies. An tell argues that, like Momaday and Silko, Welch presents characters who are alienated from the important female principle—mothers, other female relatives, and girlfriends or wives. Neither the narrator in Winter in the Blood nor Jim Loney in Welch’s The Death of Jim Loney (1979) is able to sustain a relationship with a girlfriend. The protagonists’ relation-ships with white women, Antell observes, “cannot ameliorate the ravages of estrangement from the feminine principle, which is tribally established and which informs all life.”31

Nelson also includes Welch in his discussion of landscape in Native American fiction. He argues that for Momaday, Silko, and Welch, landscape functions as a character and that it plays a role in the characters’ sense of well-being. Like Momaday, Welch centers his protagonists in a distinct landscape. As Nelson notes, “Put simply, Welch’s early novels, like those of Silko and Momaday, are designed to propose landscape as the source of cure for psychological and spiritual alienation.”32

Velie also compares Momaday and Welch, suggesting that both House Made of Dawn and Winter in the Blood can be read as pro-test novels. Velie prefers, however, not to read them as such. In discussing the latter, he suggests that, unlike House Made of Dawn, which is not a humorous work, Winter in the Blood is a comic novel (which Velie defines simply as “a funny book”) in which Welch undercuts his protagonist’s dignity. According to Velie, then, Winter in the Blood differs importantly from Momaday’s much more serious first novel.33


In addition to Native American authors, Momaday can be fruitfully compared with several of his favorite European and American authors. Momaday himself has cited Isak Dinesen as especially important to him. When she wrote about the African landscape, he says, “she created a place that probably doesn’t exist outside the pages of that book [Out of Africa]. And this may also be true of The Way to Rainy Mountain.”34 In The Names Momaday quotes Dinesen to describe the exhilaration he felt on New Mexican mornings: “‘In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: here I am, where I ought to be’” (121).

Matthias Schubnell mentions several other authors whose styles and themes are similar to Momaday’s or who may have influenced him. Whether or not one can make a case for influence, several writers can be profitably compared with Momaday. In discussing The Names, for example, Schubnell mentions Albert Camus and Marcel Proust. More significant, perhaps, is William Faulkner, with whom Momaday shares a “belief that the past has a fateful bearing on the present.” Like Faulkner’s fiction, Momaday’s writings are grounded in place, and both authors work intimately with concepts of history and family tradition. With the Irish novelist James Joyce, Momaday shares a belief that language is not a reflection of reality but is reality itself. Especially noteworthy, argues Schubnell, is Momaday’s belief in the mythical implications of his own identity. Like the young Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Momaday creates a character who is to some extent based on himself but also has mythic qualities. This is clearly evident in his emphasis on his having been named for Tsoai, Rock-Tree, in the context of the Kiowa transformation legend.35

In the essay “Rainwitch Ritual” (1990) Polly Duryea argues that “Momaday is both a critic and a prophet of our time.”36 She associates his writing with that of Willa Cather and D. H. Lawrence, comparing their similar use of the concept of the rainwitch—a woman with magical powers to bring about rainfall. Angela in House Made of Dawn possesses the power to make rain, and in this sense, Duryea argues, she recalls the protagonist of Lawrence’s “The Woman Who Rode Away” (1925). Grey in The Ancient Child has similar powers.


Although Momaday is best known and most studied for his prose, especially House Made of Dawn and The Way to Rainy Mountain, he has also produced a significant body of poetry. Some of his poems clearly reflect the influence of oral tradition and Navajo verse patterns. According to Schub-nell, Momaday’s poetry also has a place in “syllabic and postsymbolist” poetic tradition, sharing characteristics with the work of Paul Valery, Wallace Stevens, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, and, of course, Yvor Winters, Momaday’s mentor at Stanford University. In Schubnell’s view, “Momaday shares Winters’s moral stance on literature,” and many of his poems actually “exemplify the postsymbolist method,” which involves “clarity of sensory perception coupled with abstract statement.” Like Valery, Stevens, and Tuckerman, Momaday addresses the question of death from a rationalist point of view. This rationalism is clearly evident in his early poem “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion” (1965). Like Stevens in his 1915 poem “Sunday Morning,” Momaday denies “the possibilities of transcendence and resurrection.”37

Kenneth M. Roemer offers one of the few critical analyses of Momaday’s poetry other than Schubnell’s extended examination. Roemer compares Silko’s “Snow Elk” (1972) and Momaday’s “The Bear” (1961), pointing out the prevalence of a subcategory of contemporary Native American poetry that focuses on animals. He asserts that “The Bear”“is a dense Faulknerian reading experience,” noting that both Momaday’s bear and the one in Faulkner’s short story “The Bear” (1942) are scarred and have had their feet ruined by traps.38 Both bears are gone without haste, without urgency. Roemer concludes that through its ambiguities and literary allusions, Momaday’s poem challenges stereo-types of Indian writers as children of nature.

There was relatively little poetry by American Indians published during the 1960s and early 1970s, when Momaday was most productive as a poet. Perhaps for this reason, he has not been much compared with later American Indian poets. Such scholarly comparisons are overdue. Certainly thematically, Momaday’s poems investigating the role of the landscape in his life can be fruitfully compared with the poetry of such Native American writers as Silko, Welch, Joy Harjo, Lucy Tapahonso, Simon Ortiz, Wendy Rose, and Ray A. Young Bear.


Perhaps the most significant literary movement with which Momaday has been grouped is that of the Native American renaissance. The publication of House Made of Dawn in 1968 and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction Momaday received for the novel the following year marked the beginning of national (and indeed an international) recognition of litera ture by Native Americans. It seems undeniable that Momaday’s early success paved the way for the many Native American writers whose works were published in the 1970s, perhaps most notably (because most successful) Silko, Welch, Ortiz, Louise Erdrich, and Gerald Vizenor.

Just what is meant by the notion of a Native American literary renaissance? Lincoln’s 1983 study Native American Renaissance serves as a critical focal point for the movement, and he argues that despite ties to Western influences, genres, and themes, “Grounded Indian literature is tribal: its fulcrum is a sense of relatedness.” Lincoln suggests that the literature of this renaissance “is a written renewal of oral traditions translated into Western literary forms.” It is regenerate: “transitional continuities emerging from the old.”39 If Lincoln’s definition is accepted, Momaday clearly belongs to such a movement by virtue of his reliance on the techniques of oral narrative, his retelling of the old in new contexts and genres, and his use of traditional Western forms such as poetry, the novel, and autobiography.

The notion of a Native American literary renaissance inaugurated by House Made of Dawn has become so well established that in the 1990s Hartwig Isernhagen alluded to the idea in an interview question addressed to Momaday: “How—if you accept that House Made of Dawn stands at the beginning of a Native American renaissance—do you account for the seminal importance of the work?”40 In Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (1992) Louis Owens problema-tizes the Pulitzer committee’s wording in its announcement of the award, quoting the jurors’ words: the novel demonstrates “the arrival on the American literary scene of a matured, sophisticated literary artist from the original Americans.”41 Owens argues that the statement embodies colonial attitudes that continue to place the “original American” at the margin of an implied European American center. Nonetheless, Owens suggests that this recognition of Momaday’s first novel did indeed mark a seminal moment in American Indian literary history. Robert Warrior writes that the publication of House Made of Dawn (along with a few other books about American Indians, suchas Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee [1970]) “brought contemporary American Indian experience and political issues to widespread public attention.”42


One aspect of Momaday criticism, especially in regard to House Made of Dawn, is an ongoing investigation of whether he fits the modernist paradigm. Certainly, whichever side of the debate one comes down on, critics have acknowledged certain modernist characteristics in Momaday’s work. Although he ultimately argues for a different sort of sophistication in House Made of Dawn, Owens acknowledges that it “would seem ... to contain the requisite elements of a work assimilable into the modernist canon.”43

Strictly speaking, literary modernism is confined to writings from between the two world wars, but many of the characteristics of the movement help to define post-World War II literature as well. Several of these characteristics reflect a general uneasiness on the part of writers with American society and politics. As a result of World War I, there was an apparent fragmentation of coherent reality, and because of the Depression there was a loss of faith in the infallibility of the capitalist economy. The urbanization of America and the loosening of sexual mores also affected the literature of the modernist era. To reflect this general uneasiness, modernist authors created discontinuous narratives, employed stream-of-consciousness narrative styles, and offered a variety of different voices and perspectives. Many characteristics prevalent in the works of noted modernist writers—such as T. S. Eliot, Faulkner, and Eugene O’Neill—are seen as late as the literature of the 1960s and show up as well in Momaday’s writings. The modernist period seems to have been characterized by solipsism and a lack of hope. For the modernist, the past was dead, God was dead, and people were alienated from their communities. It was an era characterized by individual perceptions, nihilism, and existentialism.

Modernist literature reflected the social and political climate of the period. The perceived incoherence, for example, is apparent in the juxtaposition of modern and classical allusions, combinations of languages, fragmentation, arbitrary form, and nonlinear narrative structure. In addition to a sense of fragmentation, modernist writers also depicted corrupt or impoverished urban settings and included previously taboo explicit sexual content. The protagonist in modernist works is often alienated and set apart by generational conflicts, violence, and a lack of respect for or participation in the American dream. Even though modernists often set their fiction in real (or at least realistic) cities or regions, because of the authors’ sense of fragmentation these places lack a coherent center or coherent space in which the protagonist can be at home, feel secure, or find a sense of purpose. This antirealist skepticism, as well as the use of a stream-of-consciousness style, reflects the characters’ sense of displacement and loss. Because the allusions and references in these works are often obscure and self-referential, many modernist texts force readers to generate meaning for themselves, and the endings are often ambiguous. This list of modernist characteristics almost seems a template to describe Momaday’s House Made of Dawn.

Unlike the modernists, many later, post-World War II writers moved beyond the cataloguing of alienation and fragmentation toward the development of a more tolerable fictional world. Although there remains a distrust in a unified voice or narrator, these later writers display a belief in the coherence of language. The speaker in Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” (1941), for example, takes the modernist position, arguing that

Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, Will not stay still.44

In contrast to Eliot’s speaker, Tosamah, the Priest of the Sun in House

Made of Dawn, says “’In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ It was the Truth, all right, but it was more than the Truth. The Truth was overgrown with fat, and the fat was God” (92). In the preface to In the Presence of the Sun Momaday also celebrates the word: “Words are names. To write a poem is to practice a naming ceremony. . . . And to confer a name is to confer being” (xix). For Momaday, then, words and names can be seen to retain or regain power, and they do “stay in place.”

Like the socialist fiction of the 1930s, the radical fiction of the 1960s depicted the struggle of minorities or working-class people to find liberation and social fulfillment. Beginning with works by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, as well as later works by other minorities and women, writers protested against social inequalities and called for reform or even revolution. Out of this multiethnic literature came revisionist histories. They were told by the oppressed or disenfranchised rather than by the white, male writers who have traditionally been at the center of culture and politics. Because many writers of the 1960s and 1970s saw as part of their role the need to call for reform rather than merely to depict contemporary society, they moved away from some of the difficult structures and fragmentation of strict modernism. They began to write more- accessible literature, but because they recognized that their very message often opposed the rules of realism, they often relied on fragmentation, lyricism, and irony—characteristics that led away from accessibility.

Another important development beyond modernism in the postwar years was that the social and the political came to be seen as inter-twined. Whereas the modernist, in a strict interpretation of the movement, wrote from an ahistorical, enclosed frame of mind, many writers began to dispute the notion that the artist worked free from specific political or social concerns. According to Malcolm Bradbury, neorealism was a literature that spoke “as much to the sense of human exile and displacement as ... to the world of historical and social facts... . [I]t was a search for a vision that could relate an oppressed response to society and history to an awareness of individual loneliness, moral and transcendental hunger, and which in its quest for the reality of moral and existential existence often reached extremity or despair.”45

It should be added that any such characterizations of a period or literary movement—as helpful as they may be in painting a picture of an era or of an author’s works—is necessarily reductive. In any close reading of Momaday’s texts, the reader will see that the parallels between them and representative modernist works begin to break down. Defining a literary movement is problematic in that it establishes or imposes a form or style and, of course, excludes what does not fit that form. If one is not careful, the narrative of the movement can become more important than the literary works themselves. When asked whether a writer should write for or against something, Momaday responded that “a writer has to have a mission. . . . He has to have an objective. He has to be writing for a pur-pose. In my case, I never did think of myself as writing for the purposes of reform, or I was never addressing myself to a particular group of people, and I was never writing against any specific thing.”46

In “The Shattered Modernism of Momaday’s House Made of Dawn” (1996) Larry Landrum argues that scholarship concerning the novel has tended toward one of two kinds of assertions: the book is seen as either a modernist text in the European American tradition or as offering an authentic representation within the American Indian tradition. He argues that the “text’s strategy is not to infuse a modernist structure with an overlay of realism as most critics imply but to shatter the modernist display-case that represents cultural diversity without cultural substance.” According to Landrum, “the modernist signals and the Indian materials [are] discursively related,” and the text adapts a “wide range of cultural materials” while at the same time it retains a modernist structure and borrows from the modernist tradition of writers such as Eliot. In so doing, Landrum argues, the text achieves more than simply placing Native American culture in a modernist context. House Made of Dawn “evokes typical modernist practices only to craze the mirroring effects of their insularity.” That is, Momaday uses the conventions of modernism to call into question its assumptions. In this sense, according to Landrum, “the originality and significance of the text lies in its effort” to include Native American culture and portray elements of that culture as integral parts of the novel both artistically and thematically.47 This argument suggests that Momaday’s portrayal of Indian culture helps both to define the structure of the novel and to clarify Abel’s process of healing.

In “N. Scott Momaday and the Use(s) of Modernism” (1997) Isern-hagen explores Momaday’s indebtedness to Winters, arguing that both are modernists, particularly because they affirm the need to judge, and that as artists they speak from positions of authority. Isernhagen suggests that Momaday “derives from the modernist tradition a view of language that he can use for a (re) construction of Indianness.” From Winters, Momaday derived “an abstract gesture of judging and a critical axiom that links poetic discourse with rational judgment.”48 In a more postmodern critique, Kurt Spellmeyer posits that according to Momaday, words cannot have meaning until “they take on a power to explain the reader’s circumstances to himself.” Spellmeyer also maintains that for Momaday “words mean nothing outside the context of particular events,” and “the way events reveal themselves depends on the language we use.”49


In comparing prevalent themes in Momaday’s writing with those in the works of other writers, one sees significant overlap with discussions of genre and literary movement. Momaday’s novels share thematic similarities with those of Silko and Welch, as well as with those of other American Indian writers, such as D’Arcy McNickle. Themes associated with homecoming, searches for identity, and discovering or rediscovering the value of one’s native culture are all central to Momaday’s fiction and nonfiction. His development of these themes in some ways set the stage for other Native American writers to investigate similar issues. Perhaps the most important of these themes are Momaday’s insistence on his special relationship with the landscape, his privileging of the imagination, and his belief in the value of the word, both written and spoken, as it enables one to know one’s place in the world.

As has been pointed out by several critics and by Momaday him-self, the word is central to his sense of self and his writing. He begins his 1970 essay “The Man Made of Words” by insisting that “we are all made of words. . . . There is no way in which we can exist apart from the morality of a verbal dimension.” Thus, in response to his own question—

“What is an American Indian?”—he suggests that “an Indian is an idea which a given man has of himself. . . . And that idea, in order to be realized completely, has to be expressed.”50

In order to explain what he means by this verbal dimension of a person’s existence, Momaday narrates a story about his experience upon finishing the writing of The Way to Rainy e Mountain. He recalls how he “had a sense of the magic of words”;: “Then it was that that ancient, one-eyed woman Ko-sahn stepped out of the language and stood before me on the page.” When he exclaims that he has imagined her and that she is not “really” in the room, she replies: “You imagine that I am here in this room, do you not? . . . You see, I have existence, whole being, in your imagination. It is but one kind of being, to be sure, but it is perhaps the best of all kinds.”51 With that proclamation, Ko-sahn, through Momaday, tells of the power and value of imagining, and the imagining comes about through language.

One can see this concept of the centrality of language (and of imagining and storytelling) in much of Momaday’s work. In The Way to Rainy Mountain, he states that the literal “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” (4). In House Made of Dawn Tosamah’s Sunday sermon is a telling of the way to Rainy Mountain (and the text became the introduction to The Way to Rainy Mountain). Again, the word is central: in reference to Devils Tower, for example, Tosamah says: “There are things in nature which engender an awful quiet in the heart of man” (131). Tosamah insists that man must account for this power: “He must never fail to explain such a thing to himself, or else he is estranged forever from the universe” (131). Another important role of the word in House Made of Dawn is seen in the way it is used “against” Abel at his trial for the murder of the albino: “Word by word by word these men were disposing of him in language, their language” (102).

In the epigraph to The Names, the very title of which suggests the crucial place of words and names in one’s identity, Momaday tells the reader that it was a storyteller who gave him his name, suggesting how he exists through language. His autobiography is “an act of the imagination... . This is one way to tell a story” (Momaday’s emphasis). Also crucial in regard to language and imagination is Momaday’s account of how his mother created her identity, how “she began to see herself as an Indian” (25), even though she was only one-eighth Cherokee. This incorporation of the word Indian into her sense of self was important in several ways; as Momaday suggests, it was a similar act of imagination through which he chose to see himself as Kiowa. His mother’s imaginative choice later enabled her to meet Momaday’s father. Thus, Momaday acknowledges a literal notion of coming into being through the power of his mother’s imagination and the power of the word.

The account of the centrality of language in Momaday’s life presented in In the Bear’s House shows a mature writer arguing a similar point to that made in The Names. Indeed, the book has a concept of the power of language at its center. Yahweh, the Creator, tells Urset that “you exist in your name and in the words that tell your story, as I exist in my name and in the story in which all other stories have origin and being” (18). It seems that, as far as Momaday is concerned, little has changed in the years between the writing of these two books.

In addition to his finding fundamental importance in a person’s relationship with language, Momaday insists that one’s self is intimately and reciprocally involved with the landscape. One’s being has everything to do with one’s relationship with the land. In the 1970 essay “An American Land Ethic” Momaday writes that “We Americans need ... to imagine who and what we are with respect to the earth and sky. I am talking about an act of the imagination essentially, and the concept of an American land ethic."52 In the 1976 essay “Native American Attitudes toward the Environment” he makes the connection between self and landscape more explicit: the American Indian is “someone who thinks of himself in a particular way and his idea comprehends his relationship to the physical world."53 In The Way to Rainy Mountain Momaday makes a muchquoted statement about the land: “Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth” (52).

Readers can see this theme at work in several (perhaps all) of Momaday’s writings. One reading of House Made of Dawn, for instance, suggests that Abel’s healing ultimately depends on his coming to terms with his relationship with the earth, specifically with the snake medicine.54 In her discussion of the concept of metalanguages as it relates to The Way to Rainy Mountain, Elaine Jahner articulates the importance of place and landscape for Momaday: the idea “belongs both to time and place; for where one is shapes a fundamental relationship between self and land that, in turn, leads to a particular way of formulating that relationship in language that corresponds to the matching of self and place."55

In a sense, the whole of The Way to Rainy Mountain is about the Kiowa’s relationship with the land, beginning with the story of their crossing the prairies and coming to live in the shadow of Rainy Mountain, all of which parallels Momaday’s own life and quest. In The Names, too, landscape is of central importance. Momaday writes that at Jemez Pueblo, he was finally where he belonged. He elaborates on the importance of place when he ponders the expression “The events of one’s life take place. . . . Events do indeed take place; they have meaning in relation to the things around them. ... I existed in that landscape, and then my existence was indivisible with it. I placed my shadow there in the hills, my voice in the wind that ran there, in those old mornings and afternoons and evenings” (142; Momaday’s emphasis).

Though perhaps not as overtly as in House Made of Dawn, landscape is central to The Ancient Child. As Momaday told Woodard, “Most people cannot recover nature. . . . But this boy [Set] is an exception. He turns into a bear; that means he reconstructs that link with nature.”56 Because Momaday believes that one’s identity depends on one’s relationship to where one is, it is fitting that a novel that begins with the question “Quienes?” (Who is it?) should have as its primary plot device a return to place: “In the clearing, he belonged. Everything there was familiar to him” (312). It is also significant that Set’s transformation, in which he becomes who he really is, takes place where the author himself was named—where, in a sense, he became who he imagines himself to be. The place is Tsoai, Rock-Tree (Devils Tower), and the man is named Tsoai-talee, Rock-Tree Boy. Place is thus at the center of Momaday’s sense of self and at the center of his life and fiction. By imaginatively combining that sense of self with an intense sense of place, Momaday has created who he is.


1. Charles L. Woodard, Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989) pp. 120-121.

2. Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez, Contemporary American Indian Literatures and the OralTradition (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999), p. 3.

3. Arnold Krupat, “Post-Structuralism and Oral Literature,” in Recovering the Word, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 124.

4. de Ramirez, Contemporary American Indian Literatures and the Oral Tradition, p. 4.

5. Woodard, Ancestral Voice, p. 120.

6. Kathleen Manley, “Decreasing Distance: Contemporary Native American Texts, Hypertext, and the Concept of Audience,” Southern Folklore, 51, no. 2 (1994): 128. See also pp. 123-124.

7. H . David Brumble Ill, American Indian Autobiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 166.

8. Woodard, Ancestral Voice, p. 94.

9. N. Scott Momaday, “The Man Made of Words,” in Indian Voices, edited by Rupert Costo (San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1970), p. 59.

10. Alan R. Velie, Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982), p. 28.

11. See Manley, “Decreasing Distance,” pp. 123-124.

12. Hartwig Isernhagen, Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), p. 65.

13. Swann and Krupat, introduction to I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by NativeAmerican Writers, edited by Swann and Krupat (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), p. xi.

14. Kathleen Sands, “American Indian Autobiography,” in Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs, edited by Paula Gunn Allen (New York: Modern Language Association, 1983), pp. 56, 57.

15. William Bloodworth, “Neihardt, Momaday, and the Art of Indian Autobiography,” in Where the West Begins: Essays on Middle Border and Siouxland Writing, in Honor of Herbert Krause, edited by Arthur R. Huseboe and William Geyer (Sioux Falls, S.D.: Center for Western Studies Press, 1978), p. 152.

16. Krupat, For Those Who Come After: A Study of Native American Autobiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 30, 31.

17. A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography (New York: Modern Language Association, 1990), p. 60.

18. Brumble, An Annotated Bibliography of American Indian and Eskimo Autobiographies (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981), pp. 4, 5.

19. Kenneth Lincoln, Native American Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 107.

20. Momaday, “To Save a Sacred Vision,” in The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), pp. 22-23.

21. Lincoln, Native American Renaissance, pp. 83, 84, 95, 97, 101, 121.

22. Ibid., pp. 98, 101.

23. Bloodworth, “Neihardt, Momaday, and the Art of Indian Autobiography,” pp. 153, 156.

24. Robert Berner, “Trying to Be Round,” World Literature Today, 58 (Summer 1984): 342.

25. Krupat, The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 177.

26. Karen Wallace, “Liminality and Myth in Native American Fiction: Ceremony and TheAncient Child,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 20, no. 4 (1996): 93.

27. Ibid., pp. 101, 104, 105.

28. Nicholas Warner, “Images of Drinking in ‘Woman Singing,’ Ceremony, and House Made of Dawn,” MELUS, 11 (Winter 1984): 27.

29. Judith Antell, “Momaday, Welch, and Silko: Expressing the Feminine Principle through Male Alienation,” American Indian Quarterly, 12 (Summer 1988): 213, 217.

30. Robert Nelson, Place and Vision: The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), p. 13.

31. Antell, “Momaday, Welch, and Silko,” p. 218.

32. Nelson, Place and Vision, p. 94.

33. Velie, Four American Indian Literary Masters, pp. 93-95.

34. Woodard, Ancestral Voice, p. 67.

35. Matthias Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), pp. 173, 174-175.

36. Polly Duryea, “Rainwitch Ritual,” Journal of Ethnic Studies, 18 (Summer 1990): 72.

37. Schubnell , N. Scott Momaday, pp. 189-190, 202, 203, 211, 205.

38. Kenneth Roemer, “Bear and Elk: The Nature(s) of Contemporary Indian Poetry,” Journal of Ethnic Studies, 5, no. 2 (1977): 72, 74.

39. Lincoln, Native American Renaissance, p. 8.

40. Hartwig Isernhagen, “N. Scott Momaday and the Use(s) of Modernism,” in Aspects ofModernism: Studies in Honor of Max Nanny, edited by Andreas Fischer (Tubingen, Germany: Narr, 1997), p. 23.

41. Quoted in Louis Owens, Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), p. 90.

42. Robert Warrior, Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), p. 37.

43. Owens, Other Destinies, p. 91.

44. T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” in his The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952), p. 121.

45. Malcolm Bradbury, “Neorealist Fiction,” in Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott and others (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 1139.

46. Lee Abbott, “An Interview with N. Scott Momaday,” in Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, edited by Schubnell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), pp. 28-29.

47. Larry Landrum, “The Shattered Modernism of Momaday’s House Made of Dawn,” Modern Fiction Studies, 42, no. 4 (1996): 764, 780, 776, 781.

48. Isernhagen, “N. Scott Momaday and the Use(s) of Modernism,” p. 325.

49. Kurt Spellmeyer, “Too Little Care,” in Rhetoric in an Antifoundational World: Language,Culture, and Pedagogy , edited by Michael Bernard-Donals and Richard R. Glejzer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 257, 258.

50. Momaday, “The Man Made of Words,” p. 49.

51. Ibid., p. 51.

52. Momaday, “An American Land Ethic,” in The Man Made of Words, p. 47.

53. Momaday, “Native American Attitudes toward the Environment,” in Seeing with aNative Eye: Essays on Native American Religion, edited by Walter Holden Capps (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 80.

54. See Nelson, Place and Vision, pp. 41-89.

55. Elaine Jahner, “Metalanguages,” in Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on NativeAmerican Indian Literatures, edited by Gerald Vizenor (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989), p. 165.

56. Woodard , Ancestral Voice, p. 13.

Study Question

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  1. What stereotypes concerning American Indians are commonly encountered? How do these stereotypes appear in the context of Momaday’s works? How does he challenge or reinforce the stereotypes?
  2. What generalizations can be made about Momaday’s sense of place? How is place (or landscape, or the land itself) an important component of his writing? What similarities can be identified between the landscape in House Made of Dawn and the characters themselves? What, for example, is Francisco’s relationship to the land? How is Angela like the city she comes from (and to which she eventually returns)?
  3. Some critics have argued that Momaday stereotypes his female characters. What generalizations can be made about his representations of women? What is Milly’s or Angela’s role in House Made of Dawn? Grey’s or Lola’s role in The Ancient Child?
  4. Animals seem to have important roles in much of Momaday’s work. What is the role of the eagle or the snake in House Made of Dawn, or that of the horse or bear in The Ancient Child?
  5. Religion and ritual play important parts in much of Momaday’s prose. How may his presentation of the Catholic Church, for instance, be compared with his depictions of Pueblo religious ritual practices, Navajo beliefs, or the Pan-Indian rituals in Los Angeles in House Made of Dawn?
  6. Momaday has often said that language and the word are of fundamental importance in his definition of his own identity. What is the role of the word or of language in his novels? What is the significance of Abel’s frequent inability to articulate his thoughts? What is the significance of Tosamah’s facility with language?
  7. Choose one of Momaday’s poems, read it carefully, and identify a main idea. Describe the role of metaphor, symbol, or diction in the poem.
  8. What relationships or similarities can be found between Momaday’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction?
  9. In addition to being a writer, Momaday is a painter. What are the relationships between his nonverbal art (especially as depicted in In the Presence of the Sun and In the Bear’s House) and his prose and poetry?
  10. Many critics have noted similarities between House Made of Dawn and Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 novel, Ceremony. Identify some of these similarities. Perhaps more importantly, what are some differences in the ways the two authors treat certain subjects, such as tribal ceremony, the landscape, or the role of the mystical?
  11. What are some of the similarities between Momaday’s works and those of other Native American authors such as James Welch, Gerald Vizenor, Louise Erdrich, and Simon Ortiz? What is the function of landscape in Welch’s 1974 novel, Winter in the Blood, for example, as it compares with Momaday’s use of landscape in House Made of Dawn? What similarities are there between Welch’s nameless protagonist and Abel in Momaday’s novel?
  12. In an interview with Camille Adkins, Momaday said he admired Ortiz and Joy Harjo as poets. What similarities can be found in the poems of Harjo, Ortiz, and Momaday?
  13. How may the term modernist be used to describe a work by Momaday?
  14. Like Momaday, William Faulkner in his 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury uses different narrators and an intricate structure to tell his story. How are these modernist practices important to the themes of Momaday’s works? Consider Momaday’s explorations of nonlinear time and his refusal to accept one single, authoritative point of view.
  15. How may either The Names or The Way to Rainy Mountain be compared to other well-known autobiographies? How would you tell stories from your own life similarly or differently? Momaday, for instance, finds the circumstance of his naming quite important to his identity. How would you compare the story of your own naming?
  16. How does Momaday’s telling of stories compare with the way your own family tells stories about your ancestors or of the place where you grew up?
  17. Momaday’s House Made of Dawn and The Ancient Child were written more than twenty years apart, and much happened in those years. How may the two novels be compared in light of what has happened in American history in those twenty-one years? What has happened in those years that might be reflected in The Ancient Child?
  18. Novels often reflect the era in which they were written. House Made of Dawn is set in 1945 and 1952 but was written and published in the late 1960s. What is historically important about these two eras that the novel does or does not seem to recognize? What similarities does the novel suggest exist between the two eras?
  19. Momaday shares many important themes and issues with other Native American writers. Such themes or issues include instances of transformation, homecoming, and reconnecting with an older or sacred tradition. Trace one particular theme in the works of different Native American writers to compare how they treat it.


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Watkins, Floyd C. “Culture Versus Anonymity in House Made of Dawn.” In his In Time and Place: Some Origins ofAmerican Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1977.

Wong, Hertha D. “Contemporary Native American Autobiography: N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain.” American Indian Culture andResearch Journal, 12, no. 3 (1988): 15-31.

Woodard, Charles L. “Momaday’s House Made of Dawn.” Explicator, 37, no. 2 (1978): 27-28.

Zachran, Thekla. “M. [sic] Scott Momaday: Towards an Indian Identity.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 3, no. 1 (1979): 39-56.


Momaday’s papers are held by the following institutions:

Colorado State University, Fort Collins

New Mexico State University, Las Cruces

Stanford University, Palo Alto, California

University of California, Berkeley

University of California, Los Angeles

University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

University of Southern California, Los Angeles


A Matter of Promises, narrated by Momaday. Part one of Winds ofChange. Alexandria, Va.: PBS Video, 1990.

Momaday: Voice of the West, produced and edited by Jean Walkinshaw. Alexandria, Va.: PBS Video, 1996.

Our Vanishing Forests, narrated by Momaday. Produced and directed by Arlen J. Slobodow. Bethesda, Md.: Public Interest Video, 1992.


Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Bernstein, Alison. American Indians andWorld War II: Toward a New Era in Indian Affairs. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Bierhorst, John, ed. Four Masterworks of American Indian Literature. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974.

Boyd, Maurice. Kiowa Voices: Myths, Legends, and Folktales. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1983.

Brumble, H. David, 111. Introduction to An Annotated Bibliography of American Indian and Eskimo Autobiographies. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

Calloway, Collin G. First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American IndianHistory. Boston: Bedford, 1999.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins:An Indian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Deloria. God is Red: A Native View of Religion. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1972. Revised edition, Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1992.

Dubos, Rene. So Human an Animal. New York: Scribners, 1968.

Fixico, Donald L. Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1960. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.

Garrett, Roland. “Notions of Language in Some Kiowa Folk Tales.” Indian Historian, 5, no. 2 (1972): 32-37, 40. Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. Now That the Buffalo’s Gone: A Study of Today’s American Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

Josephy. Red Power: The American Indian’sFight for Freedom. New York: American Heritage Press, 1971.

Krupat, Arnold. For Those Who ComeAfter: A Study of Native AmericanAutobiography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Lassiter, Luke E. The Power of Kiowa Song:A Collaborative Ethnography. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998.

Marriott, Alice. Sayday’s People: The Kiowa Indians and the Stories They Told. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963.

Marriott. The Ten Grandmothers. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1945.

Mayhall, Mildred. The Kiowas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

Meadows, William C. Kiowa, Apache, andComanche Military Societies. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.

Mooney, James. Calendar History of theKiowa Indians. Washington, D.C., 1898. Reprint, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.

Nye, Wilbur Sturtevant. Bad Medicine andGood: Tales of the Kiowa. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

Parman, Donald. Indians and the AmericanWest in the Twentieth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Rawls, James J. Chief Red Fox is Dead: AHistory of Native Americans Since1945. Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt Brace, 1996.

Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown. American IndianLiteratures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography. New York: Modern Language Association, 1990.

Smith, Paul Chaat, and Robert Allen Warrior. Like a Hurricane: The IndianMovement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: New Press, 1996.

Warrior. Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Washburn, Wilcomb E. The AmericanIndian and the United States: A Documentary History. 4 volumes. New York: Random House, 1973.

Wiget, Andrew. Native American Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1985.


Momaday, N. Scott (Contemporary Literary Criticism, 1997)


Momaday, N. Scott (Poetry Criticism)