In The Names, Momaday pursues the theme of identity which dominates his two earlier works. For him, as for many other contemporary Native Americans, tribal identity is no longer a given but rather a consciously constructed concept, which allows them to participate in the mainstream of American society without sacrificing their attachment to a cultural heritage. Storytelling is central to this process, as it has always been in tribal societies; it is not an art for art’s sake but a matter of individual and communal survival.
The Names continues Momaday’s exploration of tribal identity which began in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn. This novel reflects, both in form and content, the threat of personal and cultural fragmentation and disintegration which modern Native Americans often face. Momaday argues that only through trust in language, in the oral tradition, and in the continuing validity of ancient stories can a sense of wholeness be preserved. In House Made of Dawn, the protagonist’s loss of voice accounts in large measure for his nightmarish existence between two worlds. The restoration of his voice at the end of the novel becomes one of the prerequisites for healing and reunifying him with his tribe.
In The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday charts the process of placing himself into his Kiowa background. It is the account of a physical, spiritual, and intellectual journey through stories and places, a blend of myth, history, and autobiography which crystallizes into Momaday’s personal reality. While he emphasizes the relationship between racial experience and tribal consciousness in The Way to Rainy Mountain, he examines his sense of self in a more direct and detailed fashion in The Names, examining family influences and the impact of other cultures. In doing so, he offers the reader a deeper insight into the components and the process which have made Momaday the unique individual that he is.