The Names: A Memoir

by N. Scott Momaday

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The Names: A Memoir differs from the traditional autobiographical account in both its approach and its subject matter. Again, Momaday has structured his writing to reflect the essence rather than the chronology. Across a cultural continuum of his and own and his ancestors’ experiences, Momaday weaves imaginative re-creations.

Naming is a process by which one identifies and reinforces predominant characteristics of a situation or an individual. In this memoir, Momaday sustains a mythic familial and tribal consciousness by naming the significant events that shape their distinctive spirit. For Momaday, active participation in a life experience does not necessarily imply that he is the protagonist in that event. He adheres to the Native American beliefs in the timelessness of the universe and the vital union of the physical and the spiritual worlds.

Therefore, Momaday’s memoir serves two purposes. First, his assimilation of the collective memory through his contribution as a listener in the oral tradition perpetuates the heritage of his people. Second, his sharing of this heritage by creating an avenue to express oral traditions through the written word increases the tribe. His memories become the reader’s memories.

As Momaday studies a picture of Mammedaty, the grandfather who died two years before the author was born, Momaday experiences with full sensory impact the great Sun Dance giveaway in which a young boy joyfully led his black horse into the circle for Mammedaty. The author describes the feel of his own hands upon the horse. In the time-ridden physical universe, this event is an impossibility; in dimensions of the metaphysical universe, it is a reality.

Employing visual symbolism as a catalyst to shifting levels of awareness is a technique crucial to Momaday’s potency. Minute detail of landscapes, animal behaviors, and characteristics of the aged in a synesthetic presentation of his emotional response evoke like awarenesses in his readers. The genealogy of his family nurtures in others their own histories.

Directly and succinctly, Momaday reaffirms the timelessness of his universe with the statement, “Notions of the past and future are essentially notions of the present.” Similarly, family trees are mirrors rather than extensions of an individual. Momaday then names the idea that he is defining himself, thereby giving physical existence to the process. The subsequent flow of his stream-of-consciousness musings is uninterrupted by punctuation. His paragraphing confirms that the only boundaries he places upon his creation of self are those of ideas.

In the epilogue, Momaday closes the metaphysical circle of his Kiowa identity with his return to the hollow log from which the Kiowa entered this world.

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