(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Because the Kiowa always were a small tribe, the stories which Momaday tells about them often emphasize a preoccupation with their numbers, and particularly with the danger of tribal disunion. One of the earliest tribal memories is of a quarrel between two chiefs over a slain antelope, which causes one of the chiefs to lead his people away into the darkness of prehistory, never to be seen again. This story is accompanied by that of an antelope drive which succeeds because all the people unite in a common effort.

Yet balanced against the threat of disunion are the grandmothers who appear again and again in the book. The death of Momaday’s grandmother Aho brings him back to Rainy Mountain. Spider Grandmother assures the survival of the twin sons of the Sun. The Talyi-da-i is associated with Spider Grandmother and with Keahdinekeah, Momaday’s father’s grandmother. Momaday’s grandfather’s grandmother Kau-au-ointy and the ancient Ko-sahn, who describes one of the last Sun Dances, are other examples. The grandmothers maintain tribal traditions, and they stand for harmony and tribal unity in the face of all the forces which threaten it.

At the same time, the element which provides Momaday with the means for uniting his own present with the Kiowa past, once Aho is dead, is language. The stories he tells imply, and his own commentaries say explicitly, that the book’s ultimate subject is language, which, in his view, is the one miracle-making power available to humanity. His grandmother’s strange word zei-dl-bei (meaning “frightful”) was her way of confronting evil, “a warding off, an exertion of language upon ignorance and disorder.” Again and again in the book language is seen in this way: Kiowa are saved from their enemies by the power of language, the god Tai-me gives himself to the Kiowa with a promise, an arrow maker saves himself and his family by using the Kiowa language, the storm god does not attack the Kiowa because he knows their language.

Eventually, however, language loses this redemptive power for the Kiowa, and, not coincidentally, this is the time when the traditional religion of the tribe also can no longer save them. Momaday’s juxtaposition of these two events with the general decline of the Kiowa as an independent tribe is related to his conception of language itself. Just as the Kiowa emerge from myth and legend to enter the historical record, so words lose their original metaphoric power and lapse into mere denotation. From that stage...

(The entire section is 1023 words.)