The Names: A Memoir

by N. Scott Momaday

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The Names

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Among the richer themes characterizing the literature of the 1970’s are the search for ancestral roots, and, as a logical counterpart, a new sense of the regional basis of American writing. The Names excellently combines these two qualities in a poetic evocation of N. Scott Momaday’s infancy and childhood within the shaping traditions of the Southwestern Indian communities of which he is a product. As our foremost Native American writer, Momaday is in an excellent position to bridge the gap between the European American tradition in which he currently lives and works as a Professor of English at Stanford University and the tribal world of the Southwest in which he grew up. More than a simple memoir or factual autobiography, however, The Names is, according to its author, “an act of the imagination” through which he seeks to come to terms with his own past and to discover his identity within a larger context than that of the self. It is, in fact, Momaday’s own portrait of the artist as a young man.

Appropriate to its title, The Names begins: “My name is Tsoai-talee. I am, therefore, Tsoai-talee; therefore, I am.” For Momaday this name is the word that is in the beginning, and from which all subsequent events flow. Tsoai-talee is the Kiowa name given Momaday by old Pohd-lohk, the storyteller, who “believed that a man’s life proceeds from his name, in the way a river proceeds from its source.” Thus, through the magic of his Indian name, Momaday is given at once his being and his place in the fixed order of things. Meaning in Kiowa “Rock-Tree Boy,” the name links him inextricably to the Kiowa past through the Tsoai or Rock-Tree which whites know as the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Native to the Wyoming region, the Kiowas “many generations before . . . had come upon Tsoai, had been obliged in their soul to explain it to themselves. And they imagined that it stood in some strange and meaningful relation to them and to the stars. It was therefore a sacred thing.”

The first significant episode of Momaday’s life came when he was six months old and his parents took him to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming “to be in Tsoai’s presence even before the child could understand what it was, so that by means of the child the memory of Tsoai should be renewed in the blood of the . . . people.” Later, old Pohd-lohk would formalize this relationship between the child and the Kiowa past by conferring upon him the name Tsoai-talee. The old man gives the child more than just a name, however. As the storyteller, Pohd-lohk keeps alive the memory of the Kiowa past by means of a book of pictographs “in which the meaning of his racial life inhered—a force that had been set in motion at the Beginning.” In naming Momaday, Pohd-lohk in effect anoints him as successor to the tradition of storytelling which keeps alive the Kiowa past and assures that its cultural memories will not pass from the earth.

Though never overtly stated, a strong sense of destiny informs The Names and to some extent shapes the form of Momaday’s work. Divided into four sections, each of which deals with a distinct period in the life of the developing artist as he grows from infancy to young manhood, the book reads more like a novel than an autobiography as it records the emergence of a sensitive and intelligent mind. Along the way, a range of people and experiences combine to shape a personality which will ultimately find identification both as...

(This entire section contains 1888 words.)

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an artist and as an American Indian. It is the complex vision resulting from this dual identity which givesThe Names its particularly rich flavor.

The opening section of the book covers Momaday’s infancy up to the point where he is given his Kiowa name by old Pohd-lohk. Previous to the naming ceremony, however, Momaday establishes himself in terms of the two traditions of his life by a detailed summary of his ancestors on both sides. “An idea of one’s ancestry,” he writes, “is really an idea of the self.” In search of this idea, we learn that on his mother’s side Momaday descends from a Kentucky frontier family who, in their movement Westward, incorporated some Cherokee blood into their European stock. His father, a well-known American Indian painter, is pure Kiowa and the source of most of Momaday’s own Indian blood. As the histories of these two distinct clans lead inevitably toward Momaday’s birth, we feel a strong sense of destiny uniting within the child the two cultures which give him his consciousness as a writer.

Like several other passages in the book, the naming ceremony is frankly imaginary. However, this episode as well as others serves to suggest that, unlike a factually limited biographer, Momaday refuses to distinguish between the truth of fact and the the truth of the imagination. It is, rather, the final effect—that is, the artistic effect—of truth that shapes his work, making it an act of the imagination. Recalling the moment when he left childhood behind forever, Momaday writes, “I should never again see the world as I saw it on the other side of that moment, in the bright reflection of time lost. There are such reflections, and for some of them I have the names.” The episodes, memories, and impressions that make up The Names are just such bright reflections.

The second section of the book recalls the early childhood years when Momaday began developing the qualities which would ultimately define his mature personality. Though the child seems to identify most strongly with the white or non-Indian world at this point, actually he is surrounded by both cultures and gains from each. From his mother, Momaday learned the myths and legends of the European tradition, while at the same time he absorbed from his father and Indian relatives the legends and traditions of their culture. Though his mother elected that English should be his primary language, the richness of both cultures are absorbed into Momaday’s life and work.

The most interesting figures to emerge from this section are his grandmother and uncle, each of whom holds an important lesson for him. Uncle James, though a sympathetic and warm character, nevertheless represents the sad portrait of a drunken Indian who cannot adjust to the world in which he must live. Momaday’s grandmother, on the other hand, is so fully centered within her Indian identity that she “seemed simply to know how to be comfortable in the world.” This contrast between the tragic existence of Uncle James and the stable self-acceptance of the grandmother is a theme which to some degree preoccupies Momaday. It is, in fact, essentially this relationship he dramatizes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn. In that work, Abel, the drunken young misfit, is contrasted with old Francisco in ways similar to the relationship seen here. In each case, the acceptance of Indian identity leads to an almost mystical sense of wholeness and acceptance which brings great beauty and dignity to these old Indian figures.

Momaday’s early adolescence, as recorded in Part III, was spent largely at Hobbs Air Force Base in New Mexico during the years of World War II. Composed largely of a series of recollections of a boy’s world of adventure and excitement centered around friends, school, the war, and the games of childhood, Part III again suggests little strong identification with the Indian culture. Through the section, however, runs the dual themes of the development of imagination which would point Momaday toward his artistic career and his increasing discovery of himself as a unique individual. As he says of those years, “I was yet a child and I lay low at Hobbs, feeling for the years in which I should find my whole self.” The section ends with an epiphany through which the young boy perceives in a mystical moment the continuity of time and space which unites in a living present, past, and future. “Time receded into Genesis on an autumn day in 1946,” he writes. Shortly thereafter Momaday would begin his emotional integration into the primal world of Native American culture.

Though he lived in a number of other places, it is clear that Momaday’s true spiritual home as a youngster was the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico where he was taken to live when he was twelve. His parents accepted positions as teachers in the Jemez Day School, and the reservation became for Momaday “the last, best home of my childhood.” The traditions of the Jemez people seem already to have been in decline when Momaday came to live there, and to some extent his description of the rituals and customs of the pueblo describes a dying culture. Nevertheless, he absorbed from his experience there both a strong sense of Indian culture and the powerful sense of place which is characteristic of his writing. Of his strong identification with Jemez he writes,the events of one’s life take place, take place. . . . Events do indeed take place; they have meaning in relation to the things around them. And a part of my life happened to take place at Jemez. I existed in that landscape, and then my existence was indivisible with it. I placed my shadow there in the hills, my voice in the wind that ran there, in those old mornings and afternoons and evenings.

Appropriately, the final episode of The Names dramatizes Momaday’s break with this final world of his childhood. His parents decide he should go east for his final year of high school so he will be better prepared for college. Contemplating his departure, Momaday climbs to the top of a favorite mesa where he is accustomed to go to be alone with his thoughts. Trying to descend by a seemingly easy, but untested, route, he suddenly finds himself trapped halfway down, unable to either ascend again or to descend the rest of the way down. “I believed then that I would die there,” he writes, “and I saw with a terrible clarity the things of the valley below. They were not the less beautiful to me.” Momaday professes not to know what happened after that, but suddenly he was sitting safely on the ground “looking up at the rock where I had been within an eyelash of eternity.” Reflecting on that moment of confrontation with his own mortality, Momaday says, “I think of it as the end of an age.”

Partially The Names is a recollection of the innocence lost in that moment of transition into maturity, but it is ultimately more than a simple record of the bright reflections of childhood and youth. Momaday recounts his mother’s conscious decision to affirm her Indian heritage, “she imagined who she was. This act of the imagination was, I believe, among the most important events of my mother’s early life, as later the same essential act was to be among the most important of my own.” In the final analysis, The Names is the act of imagination through which Momaday discovers who he is and assimilates his own Indian heritage into his sense of himself as man and artist.

Form and Content

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In 1968, thirty-four-year-old N. Scott Momaday wrote to his old friend and academic mentor, Yvor Winters, that he was planning a book of nonfiction, “an evocation of the American landscape informed by autobiographical elements and the history of the Kiowas.” His goal was to write “an indigenous book.” At this point in his life, Momaday, whose father was a full-blooded Kiowa and whose mother was of English, French, and Cherokee extraction, had begun to wonder about his Indian heritage and to explore his tribal and familial history. He had visited many of the places along the Kiowas’ migration route from Yellowstone to the Staked Plain of Texas, worshiped in front of the sacred Tai-me medicine bundle in Oklahoma, and collected ancient stories from tribal elders, all in an effort to define his place in the traditions of his forebears. Artistically, this exploration yielded Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, published in 1969, a year after his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn. Encouraged by his editor, Frances McCullough, to write an autobiography about growing up Indian, Momaday began work on The Names.

The Names is divided into four parts, framed by a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue recalls the Kiowa creation story about the tribe’s emergence from an underground world through a hollow log. In the epilogue, Momaday relates the last stage of his journey along the Kiowas’ migration route. Entering the Staked Plain, Momaday imagines the presence of the buffalo, of his ancestors engaged in storytelling, and of the Kiowas’ deserted camps. He celebrates the beauty of the land along his way, which finally leads him to a hollow log, like the one that gave birth to his tribe. The prologue and the epilogue, then, form a circle, outlining the larger racial story surrounding Momaday’s personal account.

The four parts of The Names follow Momaday’s life chronologically and geographically, from his early infancy in Oklahoma to his childhood on the Navajo reservation at Shiprock, New Mexico, and Tuba City and Chinle, Arizona, and his boyhood among the people of Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico. Within this rough structure, however, Momaday constantly moves back and forth between the present and the past, creating a sense of cotemporality, a dimension of personal time in which the boundaries between past and present are fluid.

The Names cannot easily be attributed to a single genre; rather, it is a collage of vignettes of people and places, family photographs, landscape pictures, poems, imaginary dialogues between ancestors or between Momaday and his forebears, family stories, renderings of sense impressions from early childhood, and tales of adventures and conflicts about growing up as a modern Indian in a multicultural environment. A genealogical chart and a glossary of Kiowa terms and names help the reader follow Momaday’s explorations, in the course of which the author-subject negotiates myth and autobiography, tribal and individual experience, racial and personal identity.

Part 1 brings to life Momaday’s European ancestors who settled in Kentucky; it relates how Momaday’s mother, in tracing her Cherokee heritage, provided a model for what he himself would later pursue in exploring his father’s Kiowa background. Through stories and photographs, Momaday introduces not only Kau-au-ointy, Keahdinekeah, Aho, Guipagho, and Mammedaty but also the Galyens, Scotts, Ellises, and McMillans. Of particular significance is the portrayal of Pohd-lohk, the man who gave Momaday his Indian name, because by calling him Tsoai-talee, he integrated the boy into tribal myth and landscape, affirming “the whole life of the child in a name.”

Part 2 deals with Momaday’s childhood years in Navajo country, but his memories of Oklahoma remain a constant presence. The two landscapes are fused into a single whole in Momaday’s imagination. The long and moving story of Uncle James, which concludes this part, is a sad reminder of what can occur when an Indian fails to accommodate himself to the modern world. Momaday’s tribute to his relative, who sought refuge in alcohol, underscores the need for creating a personal myth which gives order and meaning to a life between two cultural worlds.

In part 3 Momaday relives his early boyhood in New Mexico during World War II and illustrates that modern America—the films, popular songs, and football— became as much a part of his imagination as Kiowa warriors and chiefs. It also reveals some of the conflicts Momaday encountered in reconciling his modern self with his tribal antecedents, for example, when he confesses, “I don’t know how to be a Kiowa,” or when his shortsightedness causes this anguished response: “The Indians didn’t wear glasses not the Kiowas how can you hunt buffalo with glasses on I broke my glasses.” The extended stream-of-consciousness section, which makes up more than half of part 3, allows the reader to participate directly in the process Momaday called the creation of an idea of himself.

Part 4, finally, explores Momaday’s formative years at Jemez Pueblo, where he grew up among the Jemez and Navajo peoples. This part of the memoir contains loving renditions of neighbors, feasts, ceremonials, and adventures in a spectacular and spiritually meaningful landscape. Like Tolo, the protagonist of the Christmas story, Momaday enters into the landscape of his adopted home, the Canyon de San Diego, appropriating it to his physical and spiritual experience. The Names ends with Momaday’s symbolic fall from innocence into experience. The reader leaves him facing the world beyond childhood, equipped with a strong sense of self and the certainty of being rooted in an ancient tradition and a spiritually sustaining landscape. The book’s form and content reflect the author’s purpose in piecing together stories, images, and names from the past to create a personal myth, whole and intricately interwoven with the larger story of his ancestors.

Bibliography

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Abbey, Edward. “Memories of an Indian Childhood,” in Harper’s Magazine. CCLIV (February, 1977), p. 94.

Schubnell, Matthias. “Myths to Live By: The Names: A Memoir,” in N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, 1985.

Stegner, Wallace. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXII (March 6, 1977), pp. 6-7.

Velie, Alan R. “The Search for Identity: N. Scott Momaday’s Autobiographical Works,” in Four American Indian Literary Masters, 1982.

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