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N. Scott Momaday: Biographical, Literary, and Multicultural Contexts

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, 1997.

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 Valéry, 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. 189-254.

---------. "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, 1973.

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.)

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