Momaday, N. Scott
N. Scott Momaday
Born February 27, 1934, in Lawton, OK; son of Alfred Morris (a painter and teacher of art) and Mayme Natachee (a teacher and writer; maiden name, Scott) Momaday; married Gaye Mangold, September 5, 1959 (marriage ended); married Regina Heitzer, July 21, 1978; children: (first marriage) Cael, Jill, Brit (daughters); (second marriage) Lore (daughter). Education: Attended Augusta Military Academy; University of New Mexico, A.B., 1958; Stanford University, M.A., 1960, Ph.D., 1963.
Home— 1041 West Roller Coaster Rd., Tucson, AZ 85704. Office— Department of English, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721. Agent— IMG-Julian Bach Literary Agency, 22 East 71st St., New York, NY 10021.
Writer, educator, and artist. University of California, Santa Barbara, assistant professor, 1963-67, associate professor of English, 1967-69; University of California, Berkeley, professor of English and comparative literature, 1969-72; New Mexico State University, visiting distinguished professor of the humanities, 1972-73; Stanford University, Stanford, CA, professor of English and comparative literature, 1973-80; University of Arizona, Tucson, professor of English, 1980—, Regents Professor of the Humanities, 1988—. Moscow State University, Moscow, USSR, visiting professor of American literature, 1974; visiting professor at Columbia University, 1979, Princeton University, 1979, and University of Regensburg, Germany, 1985 and 1987; School of American Research, resident scholar, 1989-90. Consultant to National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts; trustee of Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1978-83, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, beginning 1984, and Grand Canyon Trust, beginning 1991. Member, Pulitzer Prize Jury in Fiction, 1981 and 1990, chair, 1986. Exhibitions: Paintings and drawings exhibited at Wheelwright Museum, Santa Fe, NM, 1992-93, and at galleries in Arizona, North Dakota, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Germany.
PEN, Modern Language Association of America, American Studies Association, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow, 1992—), Gourd Dance Society of the Kiowa Tribe.
Academy of American Poets Prize, 1962, for poem "The Bear"; Guggenheim fellowship, 1966-67; Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1969, for House Made of Dawn; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1970; honorary degrees from Central Michigan University, 1970, Lawrence University, 1971, University of Massachusetts, 1975, University of Wisconsin, 1976, College of Ganado, 1979, Yale University, 1980, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, 1980, Morning-side College, 1980, College of Santa Fe, 1982, University of Vermont, 1991, Ohio University, 1992, and Wheelock College, 1993. Geographic Society of Chicago Publications Award, 1973; Western Heritage "Wrangler" Award (with David Muench), 1974, for Colorado, Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring; University of New Mexico Alumni Association Zimmerman Award, 1975; Premio Letterario Internazionale Mondello (Italy), 1979; Author of the Year Award, California Association of Teachers of English, 1980; Western Literature Association Award, 1983; New Mexico Endowment of the Humanities Service Award, 1987; inducted into Oklahoma Hall of Fame, 1987; Jay Silverheels Achievement Award, National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, 1990; Wallace Stegner Award, Center of the American West, 1991; Gihon Foundation Council on Ideas fellow, 1992; special commendation, Harvard Foundation of Harvard University, 1992; UCSD Medal, University of California, San Diego, 1993.
The Journey of Tai-me (Kiowa Indian folktales), limited edition, etchings by Bruce S. McCurdy, University of California, Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara, CA), 1967, enlarged edition published as The Way to Rainy Mountain, illustrated by father, Alfred Momaday, University of New Mexico Press, 1969.
House Made of Dawn (novel), Harper (New York, NY), 1968.
Colorado, Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring (nonfiction), photographs by David Muench, Rand McNally (Chicago, IL), 1973.
Angle of Geese and Other Poems (includes "Simile," "Four Notions of Love and Marriage," "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee," and "The Horse That Died of Shame"), David Godine (New York, NY), 1974.
(And illustrator) The Gourd Dancer (poems), Harper (New York, NY), 1976.
(And illustrator) The Names (memoir), Harper (New York, NY), 1976.
(Editor and author of foreword) A Painter, a Coyote in the Garden, Confluence (New York, NY), 1988.
(And illustrator) The Ancient Child (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1989.
(And illustrator) In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields, limited edition, Rydal, 1991.
(And illustrator) In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 (includes "The Bear" and "The Wound"), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1992.
Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story, Clear Light, 1994.
The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.
In the Bear's House, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Also author of film script of Frank Water's novel The Man Who Killed the Deer. Illustrator of Flight of the Seventh Moon, by Lynn Andrews, Harper (New York, NY), 1983. Contributor of articles and poems to periodicals, including Paris Review and New York Times Book Review. Excerpts from Momaday's work read by the author on the audiocassette N. Scott Momaday: Storyteller, Lotus Press, 1990.
Dubbed "the man made of words," N. Scott Momaday is a Native American poet, novelist, storyteller, and artist who is best known for works that share the oral legends of his Kiowa heritage. "It is an identity that pleases me," the author wrote in the preface to In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991. "In a sense, a real sense, my life has been composed of words. Reading and writing, talking, telling stories, listening, remembering, and thinking (someone has said that thinking is talking to oneself) have been the cornerstones of my existence. Words inform the element in which I live my daily life."Considered one of the foremost writers of Native American literature, Momaday won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his first novel, House Made of Dawn. His work is heavily influenced by the legends, oral tradition, and spirituality of his Kiowa Indian background. "I would say that much of my writing has been concerned with the question of man's relationship to the earth," the author told Joseph Bruchac in American Poetry Review. "Another theme that has interested me is man's relationship to himself, to his past, his heritage. When I was growing up on the reservations of the Southwest, I saw people who were deeply involved in their traditional life, in the memories of their blood. They had, as far as I could see, a certain strength and beauty that I find missing in the modern world at large. I like to celebrate that involvement in my writing."
Momaday's father, acclaimed painter Alfred Morris Momaday, was a Kiowa Indian and his mother, writer Mayme Natachee Scott, was of English, French, and Cherokee descent. Momaday's mother derived her middle name from a Cherokee great-grandmother, Natachee. Momaday's father inherited the Kiowa family name "Mammedaty" from Momaday's grandfather. Momaday once explained how his grandfather's name became a family name, in European rather than Kiowa tradition: "At that time, people had but one name. [Mammedaty] . . . was the name that was given to him as a child, and that was the only name he had. But during his lifetime the missionaries came in, and the Indians adopted the Christian tradition of the surname and the Christian name. And so my grandfather was given the name John, and he became known as John Mammedaty, and Mammedaty simply became the surname of his family. It was passed down. Some of my relatives in Oklahoma still use that spelling, but my father abbreviated it to Momaday." Despite their white blood, both the author and his mother identify more readily with their Indian heritage. "I know about that part of me which is descended from a Cherokee great-great-grandmother, and about my ancestors who were European—English and French," Momaday told Charles L. Woodard in Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. The writer noted that in his memoir The Names, "I pay some attention to that side of the family. But I'm not moved as much to understand that as I am to understand my Kiowa heritage. I think that's because my Kiowa heritage is quite exotic, and it represents to me a greater challenge in certain respects."
Born in a Kiowa Indian hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma, on February 27, 1934, the author spent his childhood living on Navajo reservations in New Mexico and Arizona and at Jemez Pueblo, which is also in New Mexico. To Momaday, "'home' was particularly the Navajo country, Dine bikeyah," the author related in The Names. "My earliest playmates and schoolmates were Navajo children and the children of Indian Service employees. Just at the time I was learning to talk, I heard the Navajo language spoken all around me. And just as I was coming alive to the wide world, the vast and beautiful landscape of Dine bikeyah was my world, all of it I could perceive."
An only child, Momaday learned at an early age to give free reign to his imagination, or as he stated, "to create my society in my mind." His mother encouraged him to learn English as his native language, and this sometimes made him feel uncertain about his cultural identity. Figures from European literature blended into his Indian surroundings. He recalled that, as a child, he once perceived the shadow of Grendel, the monster in the Old English epic Beowulf, on the walls of Canyon de Chelly, an ancient Native-American trade center and ceremonial town in Arizona. Similarly, he once believed he saw English novelist Charles Dickens's hero David Copperfield at a local trading post.
Living among various Indian tribes as well as whites made Momaday comfortable in both worlds. "From early childhood," related Woodard, "it was apparent to him that his parents valued education, and the development of bicultural skills, and very physical and emotional understandings of cultural and spiritual origins." Though his parents were both teachers, Momaday remarked in The Names that he "was not much interested in the process of learning at school. I can only barely remember the sort of work that was put to us; it was a thing that was not congenial to my mind. The evil of recitation was real; I hated to be called upon. And even worse was the anticipation of it. I knew of no relief equal to that of the bell." The author continued, noting that he did enjoy it when "my mother read to me, or she told me stories in which I had the leading part. And my father told me the old Kiowa tales. These were many times more exciting than anything I found at school; they, more than the grammars and arithmetics, nourished the life of my mind."
Discovers Bear Power
Momaday remembers that the first notable event in his life occurred when he was just six months old and he accompanied his parents on a journey to the Black Hills in Wyoming to see Devil's Tower, referred to in Kiowa as Tsoai, or "Rock Tree." Before he was a year old, Momaday was named for this place; his Kiowa name is Tsoai-talee, which means "Rock Tree Boy." According to Kiowa legend, a boy and his seven sisters were playing at the spot when suddenly the boy turned into a bear. He then chased his sisters, who ran, terrified, until they came to a tree stump. The stump spoke to the sisters, telling them to climb upon it. When they did, the tree began to grow, lifting the sisters into the sky where they became the stars of the Big Dipper constellation.
Of the boy who turned into a bear, Momaday told Woodard, "I identify with that boy. I have for many years. And I have struggled with my bear power through those years....My notion is that the boy and the bear are divisible. That after the end of the story, the bear remains and the boy remains and they come together now and then. The boy becomes a boy again and becomes a bear again, and this goes on and has gone on through the centuries, and probably in every generation there is a reincarnation of the bear—the boy bear. And I feel that I am such a reincarnation, and I am very curious about it. The way I deal with it, finally, is to write about it—to imagine it and to write a story about it. All things can be accepted, if not understood, if you put them into a story."
Bears have indeed surfaced in several works by Momaday, including poems, stories, a novel, and paintings. Momaday's 1988 graphite and wash "Self Portrait with Leaves," for instance, is a depiction of a bear. His 1999 collection In the Bear's House contains poems and drawings about bears. "I'm never more alive than when I'm really in touch with my bear power," the author told Woodard. "It is difficult to describe.... There is an energy, an agitation, an anger, perhaps. A power that rises up in you and becomes dominant. The feeling is unmistakable. And you deal with it in various ways. You become very spiritual. You feel a greater kinship with the animal world and the wilderness. You feel strong when you're most in touch with this bear. You become very intense in your work. And in your life. You accelerate your activity—writing, painting, whatever. You tend to be reckless, careless, self-destructive. You drink too much. You drive too fast. You pick on guys bigger than you are. . . . You become a magnificent lover, storyteller—it's just a great burst of vitality."
Though storytelling was an important part of his childhood, Momaday did not begin writing seriously until he was in college. He spent his last year of high school at the Augusta Military Academy in Fort Defiance, Virginia, in order to obtain a college-preparatory education that was unavailable in the remote areas where he lived. Momaday then enrolled at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, where he earned a degree in political science and won prizes for public speaking and creative writing. "I think I had wanted to be a writer, as so many young people do, but I didn't know what that meant until I was an undergraduate," the author explained. "Then I started writing poems and kept up the writing of poetry pretty much through graduate school. Then I turned to prose."
After earning his bachelor's degree in 1958, Momaday taught school for a year on the Jicarilla Apache reservation in Dulce, New Mexico. The author fondly recalled the experience to Woodard, who asked how Momaday's life might be different had he settled there. Momaday replied, "I can't imagine staying there a possibility. . . . I did love the time I spent there. But if I were still there, I'd be principal at the school, maybe, and I'd be married to a Jicarilla Apache girl and we'd have thirteen children. Maybe I would be a writer and maybe not. . . . That was a very interesting time in my life. . . . I was becoming an adult when I went to Dulce. It was a wonderful environment....Well away from distraction and temptation. Lots of time in which to write, and I used it well. I think back upon that as a very happy and productive time in my life."
A Novel Based on Kiowa Tales
Following his stay in Dulce, Momaday attended Stanford University as a graduate student in literature, earning his master's degree in 1960 and his doctorate in 1963. While at Stanford, Momaday met famed scholar Yvor Winters, who later became a close friend and adviser. Following his graduate studies, Momaday became an assistant professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) in 1963. He remained at UCSB until 1969, except for spending the 1966-to-1967 academic year doing literary research at Harvard University. In 1969 he became professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught creative writing and introduced a new curriculum centered around American Indian literature and mythology. Momaday's doctoral dissertation, a compilation of the work of New England poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, became his first published book in 1965. Although Momaday's own first literary efforts were poems, he turned to a different genre with his second book, a collection of Kiowa folktales titled The Journey of Tai-me. These legends became the basis for The Way to Rainy Mountain, an experimental work that tells the story of the Kiowa people through myth, objective observation, and the author's personal impressions.
The Way to Rainy Mountain, which was published in 1969, consists of twenty-four numbered chapters. Each chapter is divided into three passages, with the first passage of each chapter being a Kiowa tale, the second containing a historical anecdote, and the third consisting of Momaday's autobiographical observations. Near the end of The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday has "transformed his threefold division into mythic, historic, and autobiographical journeys into a single, all encompassing but nonetheless personal one," according to Charles A. Nicholas in the South Dakota Review. In The Way to Rainy Mountain Momaday details the migration of the Kiowas from the mountains of the northwestern United States to the southern Great Plains. The tribe acquired horses along the way to Rainy Mountain, which is in Oklahoma, and became "a lordly society of sun priests, fighters, hunters, and thieves, maintaining this position for 100 years, to the mid-nineteenth century," wrote Saturday Review contributor John R. Milton. In the late-nineteenth century, the Kiowas were almost annihilated by the U.S. Calvary, and the buffalo herds that sustained them were being destroyed as well. To the Kiowa, the buffalo were earthly representations of their sun god. "Momaday's own grandmother," reported Kenneth Fields in the Southern Review, "who had actually been present at the last and abortive Kiowa Sun Dance in 1887, is for him the last of the Kiowas." The reviewer continued, noting that "the real subject of [Momaday's] book is the recognition of what it means to feel himself a Kiowa in the modern American culture that displaced his ancestors."
Referring to The Way to Rainy Mountain, Roger Dickinson-Brown wrote in the Southern Review that "the story is simple, and dignified, and rich in coherent detail." The book was praised enthusiastically by other critics, some of whom pointed out its unusual form and sometimes elegiac tone. "When I say that I know of no book like Rainy Mountain the reader may react with understandable skepticism," Fields commented. "But it must be seen to be believed....As Momaday alternates his voices we watch his cultural past, endlessly fascinating and forever irrecoverable, taking its life in his mind." According to Milton, "Momaday stresses three things in particular throughout the book. . .: a time that is gone forever, a landscape that is incomparable, and a human spirit that endures."
"After I wrote The Way to Rainy Mountain, a number of people came up to me and said, 'Oh, this is wonderful, that you are able to look back into your ancestry to this degree. We wish we could do that.' It hadn't occurred to me that most people can't do that," Momaday remarked to Woodard. "But just
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about that time, there was a growing interest in that sort of thing. I think it is still there, and may be still growing. We have such things as roots, after all, and there seems to be a great hunger to discover and understand those roots, those origins, in many people these days."
Wins the Pulitzer Prize
The search for a cultural identity is a major theme in Momaday's most famous work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn. Published in 1968, the book "presents the heart-breaking effort of [Momaday's] hero to live in two worlds," wrote Marshall Sprague in the New York Times Book Review. The protagonist, Abel, is a young Native American who returns from serving in World War II to live on an Indian reservation in the desert Southwest. There he becomes involved in a brief romantic affair with a white California woman before killing a contemptible albino man. Abel serves a prison sentence for his crime and is then paroled to a Los Angeles relocation center. Though he attempts to adapt to the white world and his new factory job, Abel drinks in his spare time and eventually returns to the reservation. There he carries on the tradition of his dying grandfather by participating in an ancient ritual, the dawn footrace against evil and death.
In House Made of Dawn Momaday employs an episodic narrative that led Dickinson-Brown to describe the book as "a batch of often dazzling fragments" rather than a novel. "The result," Dickinson-Brown added, "is a successful depiction but not an understanding of what is depicted." Writing in Southwest Review, Baine Kerr called the first part of the novel "a staggeringly difficult interrupted narrative," but conceded, "the fact is that it works." Commenting in the same vein, Sprague noted that "there is plenty of haze in the telling of this tale—but that is one reason why it rings so true. The mysteries of cultures different from our own cannot be explained in a short novel, even by an artist as talented as Mr. Momaday."
Though some reviewers were not completely satisfied with House Made of Dawn, others responded enthusiastically to the novel, which Best Sellers contributor Charles Dollen judged to be "as exquisite as its title suggests" and Sprague found to be "as subtly wrought as a piece of Navajo silverware." Kerr described House Made of Dawn as "a creation myth—rife with fabulous imagery, ending with Abel's rebirth in the old [Indian] ways at [his grand-father's] death—but an ironic one, suffused with violence and telling a story of culture loss." The reviewer continued, "Momaday is a preserver of holiness in House Made of Dawn. He has transported his heritage across the border; in a narrative and style true to their own laws, he has mythified Indian consciousness into a modern novel." In the Village Voice, Ann Gottlieb remarked that "Momaday blends the ancient Indian belief in the literal creative power of the Word with a poet's mastery of the resources of English. Here, if anywhere, we may see how English might be tuned to communicate the essence of Indian experience."
Momaday's success with House Made of Dawn, as well as his winning of the Pulitzer Prize, came as a surprise to the author. "It's probably not the best thing for a man in his thirties to win a major prize like that," he commented to Woodard. "It was all on the basis of that one book, and when I did win the prize, it placed pressure on me. I thought, What do I do now? I don't know to what extent it was a deterrent to subsequent writing, but I'm sure it was a deterrent. Especially in the first two or three years."
Regardless of its affect on his writing, The success of House Made of Dawn presented Momaday with the opportunity to become a spokesman for Native Americans, a role the author rejected. "I had the good sense from the very beginning not to take on the responsibility of speaking for the Indian," he explained to Woodard. "I think that was an expectation on the part of many people.... When I was asked if I was speaking for the American Indian . . . I was quick to say, 'No, I'm not. What I'm doing is mine. It's my voice and my ideas, and I don't want to be that, and I don't think I'm entitled to be that. I can write about the Indian world with authority because I grew up in it. I know a lot about it, but I would be the last person to say that my opinions are anybody else's—Indian or not.'"
Turns to Poetry
After House Made of Dawn, Momaday published two volumes of poetry, Angle of Geese and Other Poems and The Gourd Dancer. In the poem "Angle of Geese," Momaday discusses the difficulty of conveying condolences to a friend whose child has died and the inadequacy of language to convey his feelings at the funeral. The speaker's musings on death bring to mind another event: his killing of a goose while hunting as a boy. As the goose dies in his arms, it gazes at the rest of its flock, which has rear-ranged its formation and flown on. In "The Wound," which was reprinted in In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991, he writes: "The wound gaped open;/ it was remarkably like the wedge of an orange/ when it is split, spurting." Much of Momaday's poetry is inspired by nature, especially the landscape of the Southwest, which "few people have described . . . with such love and precision," commented Bruchac. Along with his native landscape, Momaday expresses his Indian heritage in poems such as "The Gourd Dancer," "Carriers of the Dream Wheel," and "Sun Dance Shield." The award-winning "The Bear" and "Angle of Geese" are considered by critics to be among Momaday's best works, and Dickinson-Brown judged the poems in Angle of Geese to be "astonishing in their depth and range." According to John Finlay in Southern Review, "Angle of Geese, made up of eighteen poems, three of which are in prose, is by far the greatest thing Momaday has done and should, by itself, earn for him a permanent place in our literature."
Momaday wrote much of The Gourd Dancer, which he also illustrated, while serving as a visiting professor at Moscow's State University in 1974. "Something about that time and place made for a surge in me, a kind of creative explosion," the author explained of his time in the then-communist USSR in his preface to In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991. "I wrote numerous poems, some on the landscapes of my native Southwest, urged, I believe, by an acute homesickness. And I began to sketch. Drawing became suddenly very important to me, and I haunted museums and galleries and looked into as many Russian sketchbooks as I could find. When I came out of the Soviet Union I brought with me a new way of seeing and a commitment to record it."
The desert Southwest that Momaday renders in his paintings and poems is "a much more spiritual landscape than any other I know personally," the author told Bruchac. "And it is beautiful, simply in physical terms. The colors in that landscape are very vivid, as you know, and I've always been greatly moved by the quality of light upon the colored landscape of New Mexico and Arizona. . . . And I think of it as being inhabited by a people who are truly involved in it. The Indians of the Southwest, and the Pueblo people, for example, and the Navajos with whom I grew up, they don't live on the land; they live in it, in a real sense. And that is very important to me, and I like to evoke as best I can that sense of belonging to the earth." In his poem "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee" in Angle of Geese, Momaday writes: "You see, I am alive, I am alive/ I stand in good relation to the earth/ I stand in good relation to the gods/ I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful."
Momaday followed Angle of Geese and The Gourd Dancer with the publication of The Names in 1976. This book, as Matthias Schubnell explained in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "is best described as an extension of The Way to Rainy Mountain: while the earlier work conveys the mythic and historical precedents to Momaday's personal experiences in story fragments within an associative structure, The Names is a chronological account of his childhood and adolescence." As with The Way to Rainy Mountain, the author experiments with form in this memoir; he traces his lineage and tells the story of his childhood using stream-of-consciousness passages, recreated conversations, and occasional poems and Indian tales in addition to straightforward narrative. The Names "is an Indian book, but not a book about wrongs done to Indians. It is a search and a celebration, a book of identities and sources," remarked Wallace Stegner in the New York Times Book Review. The critic continued, "Momaday has not invented himself, as many Americans have tried to do. He has let the blood speak, looked for tracks, listened and remembered." The Names, according to Stegner, is a "mystical, provocative book." In American Indian Quarterly Jack W. Marken noted that "the book is closely related to all other major works by Momaday. In all of them he transmutes memories into art." The Names, wrote Mick McAllister in Southern Review, "offers a sharp and moving portrait of what it was—and is—to grow up Indian in America."
When asked by Woodard why he titled his memoir The Names, Momaday replied: "I meant to indicate how important names are to me. Because it's an autobiographical narrative, the great principle of selection in the book is the principle of naming. I wanted to tie all kinds of varied experiences together, and the common denominators of those experiences were the names of people who were important to me, growing up. And the names of places.... Naming is very complicated, and a sacred business.... If there is one unimaginable tragedy, it is to be without a name, because then your existence is entirely suspect. You may not exist at all without a name.... So an awful lot is in volved in this business of names, and I meant to indicate that in the title of the book. I don't see how you could find a more intrinsically powerful title than The Names. "
Pens another Novel
After The Names, Momaday concentrated on writing poetry and nonfiction pieces and did not publish another major work until his novel The Ancient Child appeared in 1989. "I don't often think of myself as a novelist," Momaday commented to Woodard. "I started out writing poetry, and I identified with poetry and the poet when I was earning my wings, and I still think of myself as a poet. I haven't had, until [ The Ancient Child], a strong desire to write a novel." The Ancient Child is the story of Locke "Set" Setman, a successful middle-aged Kiowa artist residing in San Francisco, and Grey, a young Kiowa and Navajo medicine woman who often fantasizes about the infamous outlaw Billy the Kid. The protagonists meet in Oklahoma after the funeral of Grey's great-grandmother, a wise medicine woman. Grey gives Set a medicine bundle that belonged to his father, who was killed when Set was a child. Because Set's mother died in childbirth, the death of his father left Set an orphan and he was raised by a white couple in California. Though Set is initially out of touch with his Kiowa background, Grey and the medicine bundle cause Set to look inward and eventually identify with his Indian heritage.
During Set's time with Grey, he searches "for his fierce, bearlike Kiowa self," wrote Ed Marston in the New York Times Book Review. "Man into bear—that is Set's transformation at its basic level," Chicago's
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Tribune Books contributor Charles R. Larson explained, "aided by Grey's loving tutelage and her own renewal with the Navajo world. In the process of describing this symbolic metamorphosis, Momaday's writing soars to heights of poetic beauty." Though praise for The Ancient Child was not as enthusiastic as for House Made of Dawn, Marston called the book a "mythic and romantic novel." According to Howard Meredith in World Literature Today, in The Ancient Child Momaday "provides a living sense of the framework of myth that remains important to Native American existence."
Several aspects of The Ancient Child are derived from Momaday's own experience and interests. The novel "is about the boy who turns into a bear, and in a sense I am writing about myself," he told Woodard. "I'm not writing an autobiography, but I am imagining a story that proceeds out of my own experience of the bear power. It is full of magic." Grey's mystical visions of Billy the Kid in The Ancient Child originated in Momaday's own fascination with the nineteenth-century outlaw. When Woodard asked the author about his interest in Billy the Kid, he replied: "I think it might be because I grew up in New Mexico and heard about Billy the Kid from the time I was very young.... I'm now probably one of the authorities on Billy the Kid. I've thought so much about him. . . . Billy the Kid is opposed to one part of my experience—to the Indian side of me. He's diametrically opposed to that, but at the same time he's very much a reflection of the world I love. The Wild West."
Billy the Kid, the landscape of the Southwest, and Momaday's Indian heritage all figure prominently in his 1992 collection, In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991. The book is also illustrated with Momaday's paintings, with subjects ranging from Native American shields to bears and buffalo. In the Presence of the Sun is divided into sections: "Selected Poems," "New Poems," "The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid," which contains poems and stories about the outlaw, and "In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields," a previously published grouping that includes illustrated vignettes such as "Walking Bear's Shield" and "The Shield That Was Touched by Pretty Mouth." Momaday finds shields fascinating. "They're like coats of arms, but they're more personal," he explained to Woodard. "They're individual and they're magic.... It's a wonderful symbolic representation of the ideal of the self." Much as if he had created a shield, Momaday reveals his personality in In the Presence of the Sun. In the preface to the volume Momaday writes, "The poems and stories, the drawings here, express my spirit fairly, I believe. If you look closely into these pages, it is possible to catch a glimpse of me in my original being." The collection is, according to Barbara Bode in the New York Times Book Review, "a refined brew of origins, journeys, dreams and the landscape of the deep continental interior."
Expands Focus, Creative Outlet
Momaday turns his attention to younger readers with Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story, published in 1994. The story revolves around Tolo, a young mute boy grieving for the loss of his beloved grandfather. On Christmas Eve, his grand-father's spirit unexpectedly leads Tolo to a mountain bonfire, where he meets an elk, a wolf, and an eagle and discovers new meaning to the Christmas tradition.
The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages appeared in 1997. A gathering of Momaday's stories and essays over the past thirty years, the collection includes his accounts of journeys around the world, including visits to the Soviet Union, Granada, and Germany. Presented here too are his remembrances of tribal elders from his childhood and his views of Indian sacred places. The book's final section contains a series of brief vignettes and short tales. According to Joe Knowles in the Nation, "These fits of narration are sometimes grandfatherly, dodderingly humorous ramblings.... Elsewhere he is incisive and a touch sorrowful." "Expressive and lyrical, Momaday's essays are witty as well as profound," Kate Melhuish wrote in the Virginian Pilot, "Throughout, The Man Made of Words is remarkable for its polish." The critic for Publishers Weekly maintained: "In this masterful new collection of essays and articles, it is clearer than ever that he is not simply a very good 'Indian' writer, but a great American writer."
Momaday's 1999 collection, In the Bear's House, is an assemblage of artwork, poems, and prose focusing on the central character of "Bear," a symbol for wilderness. Ray Olson, writing in Booklist, maintained that the book "radiates metaphysical wisdom, especially in the simply worded, witty dialogues, and an aura of mysterious beauty."
Acknowledging the similarities of theme and subject matter in his writings, Momaday told Bruchac, "I think that my work proceeds from the American Indian oral tradition, and I think it sustains that tradition and carries it along. And vice versa. . . . I've written several books, but to me they are all parts of the same story. And I like to repeat myself, if you will, from book to book, in the way that [American writer William] Faulkner did—in an even more obvious way, perhaps. My purpose is to carry on what was begun a long time ago. . . . In a sense I'm not concerned to change my subject from book to book. Rather, I'm concerned to keep the story going. I mean to keep the same subject, to carry it further with each telling."
Through the years Momaday has become more interested in telling his story with both words and illustrations. His drawings and paintings have been exhibited in various galleries, including the University of North Dakota Art Galleries and a retrospective show at the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As he explained to Woodard, Momaday sees a relationship between writing and visual art. Drawings and paintings, the author noted, "can be very powerful and can draw upon some sort of universal power in the way that language does." Momaday continued, "I think that I need to paint. I certainly need to write, and painting seems to come from the same impulse. . . . If I didn't write, I would cease to be. . . . Painting, now that I have discovered it, is becoming a necessary activity for me—a necessary expression of my spirit."
Momaday commented further to Woodard that he is slowly becoming as well known for his art as he is for his writings, a phenomenon he considers "progress." The author continued, "I think that my talents are becoming steadily more nearly equal. I have a long way to go, and I get some resistance. There are people who don't want to believe that I can paint, because they have already accepted me as a writer, and there is in human nature, I think, a tendency to resist new definitions." Momaday went on to tell about a German friend who attended an exhibition of his artwork in Heidelberg. As Momaday related to Woodard, his friend remarked: "Scott, I like your paintings. They're very nice. But you are a great writer and you're wasting your time."
If you enjoy the works of N. Scott Momaday
If you enjoy the works of N. Scott Momaday, you may also want to check out the following books:
James Welch, Winter in the Blood, 1974.
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony, 1977.
Louise Erdrich, The Bingo Palace, 1994.
Whether as a poet, novelist, or painter, Momaday has infused his work with myth, spirituality, and a reverence for nature. His writings, which draw on the Native American oral tradition in both form and subject matter, have inspired a number of Native American authors. In the years since House Made of Dawn was published, Momaday has retained his position as an influential literary figure, though it is a designation the author rarely thinks about. "I'm afraid that if I started thinking of myself as the dean of American Indian writers I might not work so well," Momaday told Bruchac. "I might be tempted to slow down and accept the deanship when I really want to be out there among the subordinates doing my thing." And "doing his thing," whether writing or painting, brings "the man made of words" much enjoyment. The author expressed to Woodard that "it is exciting to be Scott Momaday, alive at this time and presented with stimuli all around me. In fact, it is wonderful."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Allen, Paula Gunn, editor, Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs, Modern Language Association of America, 1983.
Blaeser, Kimberly, Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, edited by Gerald Vizenor, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1989.
Brumble, H. David, III, American Indian Autobiography, University of California Press, 1988.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1974, Volume 19, 1981, Volume 85, 1995, Volume 95, 1997.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 143: American Novelists since World War II, Third Series, 1994; Volume 175: Native American Writers of the United States, 1997; Volume 256: Twentieth-Century American Western Writers, Third Series, 2002.
Donovan, Kathleen M., Feminist Readings of Native American Literature: Coming to Voice, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1998.
Gridley, Marion E., editor, Indians of Today, I.C.F.P., 1971.
Gridley, Marion E., Contemporary American Indian Leaders, Dodd (New York, NY), 1972.
Isernhagen, Hartwig, Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing, University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.
Lincoln, Kenneth, Native American Renaissance, University of California Press, 1983.
Momaday, N. Scott, The Way to Rainy Mountain, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1969.
Momaday, N. Scott, The Names: A Memoir, Harper (New York, NY), 1976.
Native North American Literature, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Nelson, Margaret F., Ethnic Identity in the Prose Works of N. Scott Momaday, University Microfilms International (Ann Arbor, MI), 1982.
Notable Native Americans, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Roemer, Kenneth, editor, Approaches to Teaching Momaday's "The Way to Rainy Mountain," Modern Language Association of America, 1988.
Scarberry-Garcia, Susan, Landmarks of Healing: A Study of "House Made of Dawn," University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1990.
Schubnell, Matthias, N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1985.
Schubnell, Matthias, editor, Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1997.
Seekamp, Warren B., Momaday's Pueblo Indian Triad: Heritage, the Word, and Imagination in "House Made of Dawn," University Microfilms International (Ann Arbor, MI), 1982.
Swann, Brian, and Arnold Krupat, editors, Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, University of California Press, 1987.
Theoharris, Zoe, The Problem of Cultural Integration in Momaday's "House Made of Dawn," Emporia State University, 1979.
Trimble, Martha Scott, N. Scott Momaday, Boise State College (Boise, ID), 1973.
Velie, Alan R., Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor, University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.
Woodard, Charles L., Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1989.
Albuquerque Journal, August 15, 2002, "Indolent Boys Staged by Museum, Repertory Theater," p. 48.
American Indian Quarterly, May, 1978, Jack W. Marken, review of The Names, pp. 178-180; winter, 1986, pp. 101-117; summer, 1988, pp. 213-220; spring, 1995, p. 267.
American Literature, January, 1979; October, 1989, p. 520.
American Poetry Review, July-August, 1984, Joseph Bruchac, interview with Momaday, pp. 13-18.
American West, February, 1988, pp. 12-13.
Atlantic Monthly, January, 1977.
Best Sellers, June 15, 1968, Charles Dollen, review of House Made of Dawn, p. 131; April, 1977.
Bloomsbury Review, July-August, 1989, p. 13; July-August, 1993, p. 14; November-December, 1994, p. 25.
Booklist, April 15, 1997, Patricia Monaghan, review of The Man Made of Words, p. 1376; February 1, 1999, Ray Olson, review of In the Bear's House, p. 957.
Canadian Literature, spring, 1990, p. 299.
Commonweal, September 20, 1968.
Critique, fall, 2003, Christopher Douglas, "The Flawed Design: American Imperialism in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian," p. 3.
Denver Quarterly, winter, 1978, pp. 19-31.
Harper's, February, 1977.
Library Journal, May 1, 1997, Caroline A. Mitchell, review of The Man Made of Words, p. 104.
Listener, May 15, 1969.
Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1989.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 27, 1992, p. 6.
Nation, August 5, 1968; June 30, 1997, Joe Knowles, review of The Man Made of Words, p. 31.
New Yorker, May 17, 1969.
New York Review of Books, February 3, 1977, pp. 19-20, 29.
New York Times, May 16, 1969; June 3, 1970.
New York Times Book Review, June 9, 1968, Marshall Sprague, "Anglos and Indians," p. 5; June 16, 1974; March 6, 1977, Wallace Stegner, review of The Names, p. 6; December 31, 1989, Ed Marston, "Splendor in the Grasslands," p. 14; March 14, 1993, p. 15.
Observer (London, England), May 25, 1969.
Publishers Weekly, September 19, 1994, p. 28; March 24, 1997, review of The Man Made of Words, p. 67.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 4, 2000, Jane Henderson, "American Indian Writer Will Receive the St. Louis Literary Award," p. E1.
Saturday Review, June 21, 1969, John R. Milton, review of The Way to Rainy Mountain, pp. 51-52.
Sewanee Review, summer, 1977.
Social Studies, July-August, 1998, Rodney F. Allen, review of The Man Made of Words, p. 189.
South Dakota Review, winter, 1975-76, Charles A. Nicholas, "N. Scott Momaday's Hard Journey Back," pp. 149-158.
Southern Review, winter, 1970, Kenneth Fields, "More than Language Means," pp. 196-204; summer, 1975, John Finlay, review of Angle of Geese, pp. 658-661; winter, 1978, Roger Dickinson-Brown, pp. 30-45; spring, 1978, Mick McAllister, review of The Names, pp. 387-389.
Southwest Review, summer, 1969; spring, 1978, Baine Kerr, "The Novel as Sacred Text: N. Scott Momaday's Myth-making Ethic," pp. 172-179.
Spectator, May 23, 1969.
Times Literary Supplement, May 22, 1969.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 1, 1989, Charles R. Larson, "Tribal Roots: Exploring the Fate of an American Indian Artist," p. 3; December 4, 1994, p. 9.
Village Voice, January 29, 1970, Ann Gottlieb, "A Sense of the Land," p. 8.
Virginian Pilot, August 3, 1997, Kate Melhuish, review of The Man Made of Words, p. J2.
Washington Post, November 21, 1969; November 28, 1989.
Western American Literature, May, 1977, pp. 86-87.
World Literature Today, summer, 1977; winter, 1990, p. 175; summer, 1990, Howard Meredith, review of The Ancient Child, pp. 510-511; summer, 1993, p. 650.*