N. Scott Momaday: Biographical, Literary, And Multicultural Contexts Essay, Research Paper
Kenneth M. Roemer
Momaday’s Major Works
The Journey of Tai-me. Santa Barbara: Privately Printed, 1967.
House Made of Dawn. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.
The Way to Rainy Mountain. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969.
Angle of Geese and Other Poems. Boston: Godine, 1974.
The Gourd Dancer. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
The Names: A Memoir. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
The Ancient Child. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991. New York: St. Martin’s
Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story. Santa Fe: Clear Light, 1994.
The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages. New York: St. Martin’s Press,
In the Bear’s House. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. New York: Oxford University
Collections of Interviews:
Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Ed., Charles L. Woodard.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Ed., Matthias Schubnell, Jackson: University
of Mississippi Press, 1997.
Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing. Ed., Hartwig
Isernhagen. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
A truism of canon formation: unrecognized literatures need
breakthrough events to gain attention and legitimacy. For American Indian literatures, the
key event occurred in 1969 when a young, unknown Kiowa painter, poet, and scholar won a
Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, The House Made of Dawn (1968). This event is
filled with ironies, two of which offer revealing insights about the way Native American
literatures have gained acceptance, about the nature of N. Scott Momaday’s writing, and
about the significance of contemporary Native American literature.
The most obvious irony is the great delay in recognition of literatures in several
hundred languages that include centuries, even millennia-old oral narratives, ceremonial
liturgies, and autobiographical accounts, as well as histories, essays, autobiographies,
poetry, and fiction written in English. The delay reflects not only the power of cultural
blinders, but also a 19th- and 20th-century disciplinary territorialism that placed
Indians within the anthropologist’s and, occasionally, the historian’s camp. Of course,
the breakthrough suggests the importance of the 1960’s commitment to civil rights and
ethnic studies. It also reflects another truism: literary critics and teachers of
literature tend to recognize examples of "new" literatures that are different
enough to seem Authentically Other but familiar enough to be incorporated into current
interpretive discourses. House Made of Dawn fulfilled these two requirements
wonderfully. The authentically different quotient was provided by the focus on a Jemez
Pueblo protagonist and two significant types of Indian settings (Jemez Pueblo in New
Mexico and an urban relocation center, Los Angeles); by the use of English recreations of
oral literatures, both specific (Kiowa narrative, Jemez ritual, Navajo song) and general
(the circular structure of the novel); and by the authority of an Indian author who
"looked Indian," was a "certified" tribal member (Kiowa), and had a
marvelous performance style and voice. Accessibility came from the use of a familiar and
popular genre (the novel) and from beautifully crafted sentences that could echo
Hemingway’s compactness, Faulkner’s stream of consciousness, and the Bible (the
protagonist’s name is Abel).
House Made of Dawn’s rich integrations of oral and written literatures suggest
another irony of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize, one that offers specific insights into Momaday’s
fiction and poetry and into the significance of contemporary Native American fiction and
poetry in general. House Made of Dawn is routinely associated with
"Indian" or "Native American" literatures. These labels, though useful
and appropriate, tend to obscure two dimensions of the multiculturalism (multitribalism,
multiethnicity) expressed in Momaday’s major works and in the best contemporary literature
by Native American writers.
Momaday’s background certainly fostered multicultural perspectives. Navarro Scott
Mammedaty was born in 1934 in Lawton, Oklahoma, Kiowa country in southwestern Oklahoma.
His autobiographical books, The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) and The Names
(1976) emphasize the importance of the Kiowa landscape and his father’s tribal heritage.
But his mother was one-eighth Cherokee and seven-eighths Euroamerican blends, and young
Scott spent his childhood in several different Southwestern communities (Gallup, Shiprock,
Tuba City, Chinle, San Carlos, Hobbes) where he was in close contact with Navajo and San
Carlos Apache, as well as Hispanic and Anglo children. When Momaday was 12, his parents
took teaching jobs at Jemez Pueblo. In his collection of prose poems and poetry In the
Presence of the Sun (1992), Momaday recalls that his childhood experiences made him
fall in love with Kiowa, Navajo, Jemez Pueblo, Spanish, and English words. After studying
at a Virginia military academy, Momaday attended the University of New Mexico (B. A. in
political science), the University of Virginia (briefly to study law), and Stanford (M.A.
and Ph. D. in English), where he was strongly influenced by the poet and critic Ivor
Winters, who supervised his dissertation, a critical edition of the poetry of Frederick
Goddard Tuckerman that was published by Oxford University Press in 1965. Momaday has won a
Guggenheim Fellowship and the Academy of American Poets Prize and has taught at Berkeley,
Stanford, and, most recently, the University of Arizona. Emblematic of his varied
achievements and background are the two honors he received in 1969: a Pulitzer and
election into the Kiowa Gourd Clan.
Momaday’s fiction and poetry make abundant use of his multicultural background. House
Made of Dawn focuses on a returning Jemez Pueblo World War II veteran sent to prison
and then relocated after he kills an albino he perceives as a witch. Indian viewpoints are
not, however, limited to Jemez perspectives. In their own (sometimes self-serving,
sometimes altruistic) ways, an L.A. Kiowa preacher and Pan-Indian peyote man, a relocated
Navajo, a white rural farmer’s daughter, and an urban doctor’s wife all try to heal Abel
from their perspectives. In Momaday’s second novel, Ancient Child (1989), the
protagonist is Set (Kiowa for bear), an adopted Kiowa-Anglo. He is a successful San
Francisco artist going through a painful mid-life crisis. Set’s primary healer Grey
nurtures him toward an understanding of his Kiowa identity and the exhilarating and
terrifying encounter with bear power that comes with that recognition. (Momaday expands on
his concepts of bear power in his collection of poems, prose, and painting, In the
Bear’s House, 1999). Grey is one of Momaday’s finest multicultural creations. She is
mostly Navajo and Kiowa but also Mexican, French Canadian, Scotch, Irish, and English.
Even The Way to Rainy Mountain — Momaday’s intricate collection of Kiowa tribal
and family stories, Kiowa history, and personal memories of Kiowa landscapes and people –
is a multicultural reading experience. It is his favorite book in part because it grew out
of stories Momaday had heard since childhood. The first published version was a privately
printed collection of Momaday’s English versions of tribal and family narratives (The
Journey of Tai-me, 1967). With the encouragement of Yvor Winters, Journey
developed into a brilliant modernist experiment in juxtapositions of private memories and
public oral and written literatures, including two of Momaday’s best-known poems
"Headwaters" and "Rainy Mountain Cemetery."
Momaday’s important collections of poetry include The Gourd Dancer (1976, which
includes Angle of Geese, 1974), In the Presence of the Sun (1992) and the
poetry section of In the Bear’s House (1999). They all demonstrate Momaday’s
ability to draw upon his complex cultural backgrounds. Certainly the topics and the styles
of Gourd Dancer reflect Kiowa and Navajo influences in particular and the general
importance of the Native oral literatures celebrated in Momaday’s collection of essays The
Man Made of Words (1997). There are poems that focus on war shields, eagle fans,
horses ridden into battle and others given as gifts, encounters with deer and bears, the
drama of the Gourd Dance, and vital portraits of Kiowa and Navaho sacred places (for
instance, the origin and terminus of the Kiowa’s migration from the Northwest to the
Southwest, and Canyon de Chelly).
There are also poems in Gourd Dancer that capture and move far beyond popular
stereotypes. The prose poem "The Fear of Bo-talee" and "Plainview 2: Old
Indian," for example, begin with familiar images of a brave Plains warrior and a
contemporary drunken Indian. But the former reveals a private moment, a glimpse of ironic
self-reflection when Bo-talee admits, "I was afraid of the fear in the eyes of my
enemies" (25). In "Plainview 2," "an old Indian . . . drank and
dreamed of drinking." His drinking dream becomes a beautiful chant celebrating
"a blue-black horse" — a horse that runs, wheels, blows, stands, hurts, falls,
and dies in a drama cadenced by the repetition of "Remember my horse" (21-23).
We not only glimpse the "motive" of his drinking, we can sense the poetic
generative powers "beneath" the stereotypical surface. As this poem and
"The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee" suggest, Momaday can build intensity by using
repetition with variation, one of the most important stylistic characteristics of Native
American song and ceremony.
In this same collection, however, we find excellent poems that focus on topics and
employ poetic forms not usually associated with Native American oral traditions: poems
about a painting of the Crucifixion, the 1969 moon landing, and a Russian train station;
and the use of heroic couplets, blank verse, complex syllabic verse, and free verse. This
variety reflects Momaday’s deep appreciation of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Paul
Val?ry, Wallace Stevens, Ivor Winters, and the early nineteenth-century American poet
Frederick Goddard Tuckerman.
Momaday’s two other major collections continue to express his delight in mixing Native
oral and written Euroamerican poetic traditions. In In the Presence of the Sun the
third section offers 16 drawings of Plains shields each accompanied by a prose poem based
primarily on Kiowa oral and written history. This section is framed by a gathering of
Momaday’s Billy the Kid poems (adolescent fantasies of Billy captivated both Momaday and
his fictional character Grey) and by recent poems and drawings that range from
celebrations of his Kiowa grandmother expressed in the cadences of a Navajo prayer to
cryptic couplet poems reminiscent of the wit of Alexander Pope and Benjamin Franklin.
Rhymed quatrains, free verse, syllabic verse, and other non-Native written forms
predominate in the poetry section of In the Bear’s House. But one poem,
"Summons," articulates a quest for healing — a search for a Russian "bear
doctor" — in an abbreviated Navajo chant form. As in several of the long prayers and
chants of the Navajo Nightway healing ceremony, the persona locates his quest by
indicating the cardinal directions from which he comes, by timing his arrival by dawn and
dusk, and by using extensive repetition to build intensity. More importantly, the entire
collection of "Bear-God Dialogues," poems, and prose passages that make up In
the Bear’s House is powerfully informed by Momaday’s deep fascination with Kiowa bear
stories which, for him embody a profound "spirit of wilderness" (9).
One of Momaday’s first published expressions of this fascination was the poem "The
Bear," written while he was a graduate student in the early 1960s at Stanford. It has
become a "signature" poem that connects all his major collections. It opens Angle
of Geese, The Gourd Dancer, In the Presence of the Sun, and the
"poems" section of In the Bear’s House. "The Bear" is not only
a long-standing personal testament to Kiowa storytelling traditions but also to Momaday’s
continuing respect for Ivor Winter’s concepts of postsymbolist poetry and syllabic verse
and for William Faulkner’s grand bear Old Ben in Go Down, Moses (1942). The
reappearances of "The Bear" throughout Momaday’s career is one of the more
striking examples of his commitment voicing his many cultures.
For scholars and critics in search of "pure" "Indian" literature,
Momaday’s fiction and poetry may be viewed as contaminated impostors rather than Native
American breakthroughs. Of course, these readers ignore the fact that intertribal
relations made Indian literatures multicultural long before Columbus labeled our native
peoples "Indians." Certainly today, as the best Indian authors repeatedly remind
us, the Native America experience is a complex multiethnic, multicultural experience. And
since, with each generation, "American culture" is becoming more multicultural,
Momaday’s breakthrough in 1969 and his diversified poetry are more than exciting
foreshadowings of recognition for centuries-old literatures and the emergence of Native
American writers as powerful as Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, Gerald Vizenor, Louis
Erdrich, and Michael Dorris. The appearance of and favorable response to House Made of
Dawn and Momaday’s poetry are also foreshadowings of central multicultural issues that
will challenge all serious American writers of the twenty-first century.
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American Literature 11 (Feb. 1977): 297-320.
Lincoln, Kenneth. "Momaday’s Way." Kenneth Lincoln. Native American
Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. 95-116.
——-. "Old Songs Made New: Momaday." Kenneth Lincoln. Sing with the
Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2000. 240-55.
Maddox, Lucy. "Native American Poetry." The Columbia History of American
Poetry. Eds., Jay Parini and Brett C. Millier. New York: Columbia University Press,
Roemer, Kenneth M., ed. Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain.
New York: Modern Language Association, 1988.
——, "Bear and Elk: The Nature(s) of Contemporary American Indian Poetry."
Studies in American Indian Literature. Ed., Paula Gunn Allen. New York: Modern
Language Association, 1983. 178-91.
Ruppert, James. "The Uses of Oral Traditions in Six Contemporary Native American
Poets." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 4.4 (1980): 87-110.
Scarberry-Garcia, Susan. Landmarks of Healing: A Study of House Made of Dawn.
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.
Schubnell, Matthias. "Momaday’s Poetry." Matthias Schubnell. N. Scott
Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1985.
———. "N. Scott Momaday." Native American Writers of the United
States. Ed., Kenneth M. Roemer. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997. 174-186.
Trimble, Martha Scott. N. Scott Momaday. Boise: Boise State University Press,
Wiget, Andrew. "Sending a Voice: The Emergence of Contemporary Native American
Poetry." College English 46 (Oct. 1984): 598-609.
(Portions of this essay appeared in Richard Wightman Fox and James T. Kloppenberg’s A
Companion to American Thought [Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1995. 464-66]. I am
grateful to the publisher for permission to used this material.)