The Way to Rainy Mountain

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

Occasioned by the death of Momaday’s grandmother, Aho, who witnessed the last Kiowa Sun Dance in 1887, The Way to Rainy Mountain traces the history of the Kiowas from their emergence through a hollow log onto the arid North American plains. Momaday poetically recounts Kiowa devotion to the sacred Sun Dance doll, Tai-me. His apparent motive for writing was to draw the reader into his “journey” of recovery of the past as he partially creates his own “Indian” identity from the “fragmentary . . . mythology, legend, lore, and hearsay” found in books and family and tribal sources. The graphic arrangement of the work lets the reader piece together compelling fragments, much as Momaday did. Most left-hand pages contain short, traditional Kiowa tales, including stories of how the Kiowas acquired dogs, of Grandmother Spider and Arrowmaker, and of human-animal transformations. Right-hand pages feature brief selections from mainstream history texts and anthropological sources, presenting non-Indian views of the Kiowa; at the bottom of these pages, in italics, are personal, usually autobiographical statements that reveal the author’s perspective. These personal passages frequently pay tribute to Momaday’s grandmother, whose death and burial, for the author, mark a profound intersection of the unchangeable past, stretching from time immemorial, with the present, replete with creative possibilities. The bold, pen-and-ink...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Kiowa tribe emerged from the mountains of Montana soon after horses became available to the people of the northern plains. Early in the nineteenth century they migrated south to Oklahoma, where they fought their final battles with white civilization and were defeated. This is the story which N. Scott Momaday, whose father was a Kiowa, tells in The Way to Rainy Mountain. Yet the book’s impressionistic methods make it less a history of the Kiowa than a personal meditation on that history in which Momaday employs myth, legend, ethnographic and historical data, and his own memories.

Momaday has included a prologue and an introduction which relate the history of the Kiowa tribe that follows to his own experience, particularly to his grandmother, Aho, who gave him the first accounts of the Kiowa that he ever heard. The book ends with an epilogue, in which he recounts a story of a Kiowa Sun Dance, which he heard from a hundred-year-old woman who actually witnessed it.

Yet the bulk of the book is made up of three movements: “The Setting Out,” which describes the origins of the tribe and their acquisition of a religion and a sense of tribal destiny; “The Going On,” which recounts legends of the Kiowa heyday on the southern plains; and “The Closing In,” in which the old Kiowa freedom is restricted until they and their destiny, in a sense, fall to earth. These three movements are composed of twenty-four numbered sections, each of which includes three very brief pieces: a legend, recollected by the author from the stories of his grandmother; an ethnographic or historical gloss on this legend; and a personal recollection or observation, which is related to the legend or to the gloss or to both.

In the first of these sections, for example, Momaday gives the legend of the origin of the Kiowa tribe, which tells how they emerged from beneath the earth through a hollow log and how some of them were forced to remain underground when a pregnant woman got stuck in the log—an explanation of why the Kiowa have always been a relatively small tribe. This legend is followed by an explanation of the linguistic origin of the tribal name, which derives from a word which means “coming out.” Finally, the author relates this story of origin and self-definition to his own memory of the first...

(The entire section is 952 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Berner, Robert L. “N. Scott Momaday: Beyond Rainy Mountain,” in American Indian Culture and Research Journal. III (1979), pp. 57-67.

Lincoln, Kenneth. “Tai-me to Rainy Mountain: The Makings of American Indian Literature,” in American Indian Quarterly. X (1986), pp. 101-117.

McAlister, Mick. “The Topology of Remembrance in The Way to Rainy Mountain,” in Denver Quarterly. XII (Winter, 1978), pp. 19-31.

Milton, J.R. Review in Saturday Review. LII (June 21, 1969), p. 51.

The New Yorker. Review. XLV (May 17, 1969), p. 150.

Papovich, J. Frank. “Landscape, Tradition and Identity in The Way to Rainy Mountain,” in Perspectives on Contemporary Literature. XII (1986), pp. 13-19.

Schubnell, Matthias. N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, 1985.

Trimble, Martha Scott. N. Scott Momaday, 1973.

Velie, Alan. Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor, 1982.