In The Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems 1961-1991

by N. Scott Momaday

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The middle two sections, "The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid" and "In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields," focus on two disparate aspects of the American West: the legend of Billy the Kid and the material folklore behind the highly-decorated plains shields.

The Billy the Kid collection contains both poems and short stories In the preface "A Word on Billy the Kid." Momaday establishes the physical reality of the famous outlaw: his date and place of birth, family, aliases; he also establishes the facts regarding Sister Blandina, who met Billy the Kid twice in his lifetime. However, Momaday announces his caveat: "All else of what follows is imagined; nonetheless, it is so." What follows, then, are Momaday's adult versions of the stories that he heard as a boy living in Jemez, the stories he told himself about riding along with Billy the Kid. Yet the epigraph, a couplet, indicates that the other characters in his rhyme are "Death and Death's dog, Time." Clearly, this is more than Momaday's walk through memory lane, and Billy the Kid is more than fodder for a boy's fantasies.

Throughout the collection the narrator's identity is fluid: white, Native American, Westerner, hero, observer — as fluid as Momaday's own identity. And his exploration of Billy the Kid is equally probing yet mysterious. For example in "The Man in Black," Momaday gives a detailed physical description of Billy the Kid. His black clothing might have been dramatic or ominous; instead it pointed out a sense of somberness, "as if the Angel of Death had long ago found out his name." Beyond his teeth or lips or eyes, he struck the narrator as being a creature of instinct, of survival, like a shark. This description of Billy the Kid is not atypical of an outlaw or criminal.

But Momaday's exploration of Billy the Kid does not leave us with a stereotypical Western outlaw. In the poem "He Reckons Geologic Time According to His Sign," he records a moment when Billy the Kid discovers a fossil fish embedded in rock and ponders upon the significance of an existence that is made permanent. This is not unlike Billy's own permanent existence in legend. Or, in "Henry McCarty Witnesses His Mother's Marriage 1 March 1873," Momaday explores the family life of Billy the Kid before his outlaw days, and the connections made in his mind between beauty and despair, between age and pain. Through other poems and short stories, Momaday reveals a thoughtfulness in the outlaw, a man of remarkable charm and politeness, a man aware of having made his mark upon the world, and who was marked by his experiences.

These mysterious contradictions as well as great detail in Momaday's recreation of the Billy the Kid stem from Momaday's exploration of the legend of Billy the Kid — the experiences, nuances and emotions that the stories of the outlaw inspire in the imaginations of readers and listeners today. And his exploration of this legend is not limited to this collection of poems and stories. Billy the Kid also converses with a great Kiowa chief in The Ancient Child (1989) which also adds new dimensions to the character of Billy the Kid.

This not the only case where Momaday has explored his native leaders and chiefs. His most in-depth exploration of the Kiowa warriors and their personalities is depicted in the third section "In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields." This combination of ink drawings and short stories was originally printed as a signed, limited letterpress edition by...

(This entire section contains 854 words.)

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the Rydal Press in 1992. Reprinted in this text, Momaday makes available this collection of shields to a wider audience. The shield itself was made of dried buffalo hide mounted on a round wooden frame about 24" in diameter.

The shield was nominally a piece of armor; more significantly, it was medicine and a unique work of art. Momaday points out that the shield is the Plains warrior's "personal flag, the realization of his vision and his name, the object of his holiest quest, the tangible expression of his deepest being" (74). Because the shield is so deeply personalized, the shield is also a mask. It discloses the reality beyond appearance, thus it is a spiritual weapon, a physical representation of medicine, of the warrior's power. Additionally, each shield has its own story which, to be properly told, requires fasting on the part of the listener and audience, is told in groups of four stories, and only in the presence of the sun.

Each shield of the sixteen in this cycle is distinctively decorated; unfortunately the richness of detail is lost in the black-and-white-prints. However, many of the stories are not about the images on the shields. Rather, some involve the making and giving of shields, or the crucial of someone's life: the birth of a son to inherit the shield, the trading of horses for a dowry, the loss of a son to wars with hostile tribes and with whites. These stories, along with the shields, encompass all aspects of their lives, serving as a still-life portrait of Native American life.