The Names: A Memoir

by N. Scott Momaday

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The Names rests on the assumption that one comes to understand who one is through an act of the imagination, and that this imaginative act relies on the power of language. Momaday’s names are building blocks from which he assembles the stories in which and by which he lives. He explains that “life . . . is simply the construction of an idea of having existence, place in the scheme of things.” This important tenet is introduced at the work’s opening, when Momaday states: “My name is Tsoai-talee. I am, therefore, Tsoai-talee; therefore I am.” Language, Momaday contends, precedes individual existence and determines it. Reflecting back to the words he heard as an infant, Momaday muses, “Had I known it, even then language bore all the names of my being.” To the degree to which one explores and understands language, then, one is capable of determining one’s place in a given cultural tradition.

Momaday illustrates the controlling and creative function of language in two passages which instruct the reader in the appropriate way of reading the work. In the first of these episodes, Momaday recalls a nightmare he had as a child in the course of which he finds himself trapped in a room with a mysterious presence that gradually grows into a huge and threatening mass. He tries to raise his voice against the menace but remains dumb. Without the power of language, Momaday suggests here, an individual is incapable of ordering and controlling experience. Referring to his terrifying sense of impotence, Momaday explains how the situation might have been resolved:I sometimes think that it is surely a name, the name of someone or something, that if only I could utter it, the terrific mass would snap away into focus, and I should see and recognize what it is at once; I should have it then, once and for all, in my possession.

In a second passage, Momaday describes his discovery of the creative power of language. As a child, he draws a boy’s head on a sheet of paper. He wonders about his creation’s identity and attaches a name to it; he calls it Mammedaty, the name of his grandfather. This act of naming gives rise to a great sense of wonder, for suddenly Momaday knows himself in the presence of his ancestor. His name, all of a sudden, has opened a window to the past and forged a vital link between the boy and his ancestry.

Thus the act of naming is profoundly creative in the process of formulating a personal identity. According to Momaday, “The storyteller Pohd-lohk gave me the name Tsoai-talee. He believed that a man’s life proceeds from his name, in the way that a river proceeds from its source.” Working with these premises, typical of an oral culture, Momaday creates an imaginative reconstruction of his childhood and youth in which history and autobiography, myth and reality, dreams and visions merge and give rise to a modern Indian’s sense of belonging to an ancient and evolving tribal tradition.

Technically, Momaday uses a variety of devices which place his memoir into the middle ground between fiction and history. He frequently employs novelistic techniques to re-create events and experiences of which he could not have been a part. He freely enters other people’s minds, an option closed to the traditional autobiographer, dramatizes encounters between ancestors who died long before Momaday was born or could possibly remember them, or presents an episode in his life through the eyes of an omniscient third-person narrator, as in the story of Uncle James. In using these devices, Momaday is concerned...

(This entire section contains 1059 words.)

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not with factual truth but rather with a subjective, emotional, personal truth.

Momaday’s reality, then, is not restricted to what he has experienced directly in his lifetime but subsumes his ancestral past and tribal mythology, a reality accessible to him by way of stories and names and brought to life through the power of his imagination. The following passage is crucial to an understanding of Momaday’s memoir:The past and future were simply the large contingencies of a given moment; they bore upon the present and gave it shape. One does not pass through time, but time enters upon him, in his place. . . . Notions of the past and future are essentially notions of the present. In the same way an idea of one’s ancestry and posterity is really an idea of the self.

Momaday’s descriptions of places and landscapes contain not only the palpable elements of which they consist but also the shadows of those who peopled them long before the beholder’s lifetime.

The portrayal of Pohd-lohk suggests that Momaday believes in a racial component capable of shaping his life. Momaday’s relation to Pohd-lohk is not a matter of blood but of a shared racial imagination. Momaday perceives himself, at least in part, as following the pattern of Pohd-lohk’s experience. Pohd-lohk had searched for his past in the Kiowa calendar history, a chronicle Momaday describes as “an instrument with which he could reckon his place in the world.” Momaday emulates him in this effort. Furthermore, Momaday claims that both his and Pohd-lohk’s lives have been propelled by a spiritual power particular to the tribe, “a force that had been set in motion at the Beginning.” Whereas Pohd-lohk examines the “yellow, brittle leaves” of his ledger for “the long swath of his coming to old age” (“swath” carrying the meaning of “footstep” or “trace”), Momaday searches for his tribal precursors in the land: “I invented history. In April’s thin white light, in the landscape of the Staked Plains, I looked for tracks among the tufts of coarse, brittle grass.” This parallel suggests not only the continuity of experience from one generation to the next, but also of the presence of the past in landscapes and language, in leaves of grass and the leaves of Pohd-lohk’s ledger and Momaday’s writings.

Momaday’s symbolic and imaginative alignment with Pohd-lohk is one of many examples of his mythmaking in The Names. Once Momaday’s readers understand and accept that they live in a world made of stories, they will have transcended the immediate personal and cultural context of Momaday’s work and discovered that names are of equal significance in the shaping of their own lives.


Critical Context