The Way to Rainy Mountain

by N. Scott Momaday

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The Way to Rainy Mountain

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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 drawings of Al Momaday, the author’s father, share pages filled with his son’s words and serve as a reminder of how Kiowa traditional art thrives. The Way to Rainy Mountain explores the mutually interdependent roles of memory, spirituality, and aesthetic imagination in a people’s invention of themselves in dialogue with their sun-scorched homeland and in the author’s own self-creation “as a man” and “as an Indian” in dialogue with the past.

Impact

Although The Way to Rainy Mountain was not published until 1969, its introduction had appeared in the January 26, 1967, issue of The Reporter, where it apparently enjoyed an enthusiastic reception. The excerpt was almost immediately reprinted in numerous college rhetoric texts and literature anthologies as a model for writers. Many of the personal opinions Momaday expressed in The Way to Rainy Mountain were originally transformed into the dialogue of the Priest-of-the-Sun character, Tosamah, in the author’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel, House Made of Dawn (1968). Momaday’s early works undoubtedly influenced the development of post-1960’s Native American literature, including major works by Leslie Marmon Silko and others.

Bibliography

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.

Form and Content

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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...

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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 time he “came out” onto the plains. The juxtaposition of these three elements, in effect, relates Momaday to his Kiowa ancestors by showing the relationship of the tribe’s mythic origins to their actual historical experience of “coming out” onto the plains; this was later repeated by Momaday, who, in effect, saw the plains for the first time as the Kiowa saw them.

As the twenty-four sections which compose the book’s three principal movements unfold, significant changes in tone and content become noticeable. In “The Setting Out,” the legends have to do with the acquisition of power, often understood in terms of language: The Kiowa name themselves in terms of their miraculous origins; they acquire dogs when the first dog speaks to a hunter and saves him from his enemies; a Kiowa girl ascends into the sky and marries the Sun, who becomes the father of her son; the son becomes, in time, a set of miraculous twins who provide the Kiowa with one of the principal elements of their religion; and the Kiowa discover Tai-me, a strange half-animal, half-bird creature who becomes a primary element of the Sun Dance.

In “The Going On,” the stories are all concerned with the Kiowa’s great freedom on the southern plains and with the horse, which made that freedom possible. Two stories have to do with escape from enemies, one tells of how the “storm spirit” understands the Kiowa language and always passes over the tribe, another is of a hunter’s escape from a magic buffalo when a mysterious voice tells him of the animal’s weak spot, and the last is the story of a fantastic journey of Kiowa warriors far south into Mexico, where they see “small men with tails,” presumably monkeys.

Finally, in “The Closing In,” there is a steady decline from the freedom and power of the middle section to stories of death and deprivation. A Kiowa manages to save his brother from the Ute only by his great bravery, but a great war-horse dies of shame when his rider turns him away during a charge against the enemy. Momaday’s grandfather, in a rage, shoots an arrow at a rogue horse and accidentally hits another horse. Most telling of all, for no apparent reason—except that the Kiowa no longer seem to respect their ancient religion—the Tai-me bundle, which contains the effigy which represents the god, falls to earth.

Accompanying this story of the rise, triumph, and decline of the Kiowa is the story of the author’s discovery of himself as a Kiowa. The journey of the tribe from their place of origin in the mountains of Montana to the cemetery of the Rainy Mountain church, where Momaday’s ancestors lie buried, parallels the author’s journey. Each of the legends is understood in relation to a similar, illuminating event in the author’s own experience. For example, the legend of the acquisition of the god Tai-me by the Kiowa is glossed with Momaday’s story of the time he actually saw the Tai-me bundle, and the story of the hunter who miraculously escapes from a magical buffalo when a mysterious voice speaks to him is paralleled by Momaday’s story of how he and his father, walking in a game reserve, are chased by a buffalo.

Bibliography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

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