The Way to Rainy Mountain

by N. Scott Momaday

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What does "made of lean and leather" mean in the context of the visitors in The Way to Rainy Mountain?

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Momaday does not mean literally that the old men who visited his grandmother's house were made of "lean and leather." Instead, he is using a metaphor to create a visual image of how these older Native American figures appeared to his child's eye. Carrying themselves "upright," venturing forth only when the sun was out because they did not like the cold, we can picture these men as slender and tall, with little fat, particularly in their faces, where the fat of our earlier years tends to fall away in old age. We also can assume that, like the narrator's grandmother, they had "dark skin," which, in older people, can often attain a leathery appearance once it begins to wrinkle and become dry and soft. In describing the men as being akin to "lean and leather," Momaday is depicting them as having dark, slightly shriveled skin laid over lean frames; note, however, that the reference to "leather" also suggests a toughness, rather than a frailty, in them—like the phrase "tough as old boots," which also draws upon the idea of leather as something protective and enduring. These men have been made tough by their lives, although they are now old and slender.

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This reference comes in the 12th paragraph of Momaday’s Introduction. Here he describes the old Kiowa men who used to come along with their wives to meet at his grandmother’s house. Imagine the scene as you read it, and you may understand how the elderly Native Americans were “made of lean and leather.” They were senior citizens who had worked hard enough that they were built entirely of thin muscle, not fat. They spent a lot of time outside in the sun and the weather. Their skin was dark and thickly creased, like an old and worn leather baseball glove. These were the people who still remembered the tribal ways and legends. “They were an old council of warlords, come to remind and be reminded of who they were,” the author says. He was lucky enough to be able to listen to their stories.

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