The Names

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

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 an artist and as an American Indian. It is the complex vision resulting from this dual identity which gives The 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...

(The entire section is 1888 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 961 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.