N. Scott Momaday Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The bear is a powerful figure that runs throughout N. Scott Momaday’s canon and is associated with the author himself. What are the characteristics of the bear? What is its function in the book or poems that you have read?

What is the Kiowa creation story of the Seven Sisters constellation and of the Devil’s Tower? How does Momaday personalize that story and make it part of his life?

The Ancient Child is the story of a San Francisco artist. What in the structure, the language, and the content of the book keep readers focused on the artistic? What type of artistic evolution does the main character, Locke Setman, undergo?

Billy the Kid is a recurring figure in Momaday’s books and poems. What do readers learn about him, his real life, and the fantasy life that Momaday creates for him? Is it hard to draw the line between fact and fiction? What are his virtues in the fantasy version? Why must Grey’s fascination with him end?

Momaday is a spokesperson for protecting and preserving the land and its creatures. Support this assertion with evidence from the Momaday works that you have read.

Although Momaday has his lost modern Indians return to their heritage to find themselves, he does not advocate a return to a lost past. Instead, his traditional characters have a place in the modern world. Choose two such characters and illustrate the two sides of their natures, the traditional and the modern.

How important are family and community in his stories? Support your generalizations with specific evidence.

In The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday describes the history of the Kiowa in order to delineate their character as a people. What does the history that he describes reveal about the Kiowa? What do you think his message is to modern Kiowas?

Momaday’s canon shows great respect for the elderly and a strong sense of loss when a grandparent or an aged relative dies. What does he feel is lost besides someone dear to the individuals in his story?

Some have called Momaday a purely Native American author, but others describe him as a multicultural author speaking of a wider experience than that of one ethnic group. What values does Momaday advocate and what issues does he address that speak to a cross-cultural audience?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Although he prefers to call himself a poet, N. Scott Momaday (MAHM-uh-day) is best known for his novel, House Made of Dawn, which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction the year following its publication in 1968; a second novel, The Ancient Child, appeared in 1989. Other important prose works are autobiographical. The Journey of Tai-me, privately published in 1967, became part of The Way to Rainy Mountain, an exploration of personal and cultural history, which came out in 1969. A second autobiographical book, The Names: A Memoir, appeared in 1976. Momaday’s weekly column for Viva, the Sunday magazine of the Santa Fe New Mexican, should also be included among autobiographical forms. The text that Momaday wrote to accompany David Muench’s photographs in Colorado: Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring (1973) reasserts his persistent sense of affinity for particular landscapes. An early essay, “The Morality of Indian Hating” (Ramparts, 1964), reflects an interest that Momaday has continued to explore in essays, prefaces, and speeches: an examination of the Native American people in their relationship to themselves and to the invading European culture. Momaday’s vision of nature owes much to his study of American Romantic literature.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

N. Scott Momaday’s most impressive achievement has been to demonstrate the possibility, viability, and value of Native American literature. When House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, at least one critic presumed that its author was the first Native American to write a novel. Although that critic discovered that many novels had been published by Native Americans, their works remain neglected. Writers such as Oliver La Farge had adapted Amerindian themes, and from time to time collections of tales and of poems in translation made by ethnologists had appeared. It has been Momaday, however, who has brought impeccable academic as well as tribal credentials to the writer’s task and produced a body of work that has merited critical praise and scholarly attention. Although his work is not popular with either the general public or the academic critics, both groups acknowledge its importance. The achievement is twofold. A specifically Native American tradition in American literature, exemplified by authors such as Gerald Vizenor, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and James Welch, is now recognized. Second, traditional native literary forms, as Momaday and other authors incorporate them into their writings, have greatly enriched the whole of American literature. In addition to the Pulitzer, Momaday received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1970), an Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center (1994), and an Oklahoma Book Award in poetry (2000) for In the Bear’s House (1999).


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Isernhagen, Hartwig. Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. The interviews that are the basis of this book were conducted in 1994. Isernhagen questions the authors about their roles as creators, critics, and mentors.

Mason, Kenneth C. Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Interviews by Charles L. Woodard. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. The longest published interview with Momaday, the book transcribes hours of conversation in 1986-1987. Topics range from Momaday’s sense of “bear power” and a “blood knowledge” of prehistoric migrations to his appreciation for Shakespeare and Dickinson to his sojourns in the Soviet Union. Included are reproductions of twenty-three of Momaday’s prints and drawings.

Mason, Kenneth C. “Beautyway: The Poetry of N. Scott Momaday.” South Dakota Review 18, no. 2 (1980): 61-83. Mason treats The Gourd Dancer as a unified work; he traces thematic progression through the three parts and offers close readings of poems in each section.

Mason, Kenneth C. Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Edited by Matthias Schubnell. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997. A collection of interviews from 1970 to 1993 containing Momaday’s views on the place of...

(The entire section is 575 words.)