N Scott Momaday Biographical Literary And Multicultural

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.

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

Press, 1992.

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.

Edited Collection:

The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. New York: Oxford University

Press, 1965.

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.

Further Reading

Evers, Larry. "Words and Place: A Reading of House Made of Dawn." Western

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,

1993. 728-49.

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.)