N. Scott Momaday Momaday, N. Scott (Literary Masters) - Essay


(Literary Masters)

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 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

(Literary Masters)


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...

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Momaday at Work

(Literary Masters)


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...

(The entire section is 5980 words.)

Momaday’s Era

(Literary Masters)


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...

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Momaday’s Works

(Literary Masters)


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 Journey of Tai–me. Tai–me, the Sun Dance fetish of the Kiowas, is a medicine...

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Momaday on Momaday

(Literary Masters)

Momaday as Studied

(Literary Masters)


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,...

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Study Question

(Literary Masters)

  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...

(The entire section is 816 words.)


(Literary Masters)



The Ancient Child. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

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

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

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

The Colors of Night. San Francisco: Arion, 1976.

The Gourd...

(The entire section is 3118 words.)