Momaday, N. Scott 1934–

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Momaday, N. Scott 1934–

(Navarre Scott Momaday)

PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "Ma-ma-day"; born Navarre Scott Mammedaty, 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) Mommedaty; married Gaye Mangold, September 5, 1959 (divorced); married Regina Heitzer, July 21, 1978 (divorced); children: (first marriage) Cael, Jill, Brit (all 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.

ADDRESSES: Office—University of Arizona, 445 Modern Languages Building, P.O. Box 210067, Tucson, AZ 85721. E-mail—natachee\

CAREER: Artist, author, and educator. University of California, Santa Barbara, assistant professor, 1963–65, associate professor of English, 1968–69; University of California, Berkeley, associate professor of English and comparative literature, 1969–73; Stanford University, Stanford, CA, professor of English, 1973–82; University of Arizona, Tucson, professor of English and comparative literature, 1982–, regents professor of English; former teacher at New Mexico State University. Has exhibited drawings and paintings in galleries. Museum of American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, NY, trustee, 1978–. National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, consultant, 1970–.

MEMBER: PEN, Modern Language Association of America, American Studies Association, Gourd Dance Society of the Kiowa Tribe.

AWARDS, HONORS: Academy of American Poets prize, 1962, for poem "The Bear"; Guggenheim fellowship, 1966–67; Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1969, for House Made of Dawn; inducted into Kiowa Gourd Clan, 1969; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1970; shared Western Heritage Award with David Muench, 1974, for nonfiction book Colorado: Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring; Premio Letterario Internazionale Mondelo (Italy), 1979; inducted into Academy of Achievement, 1993.


(Editor) The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1965.

(Reteller) The Journey of Tai-me (Kiowa Indian folktales), with original etchings by Bruce S. McCurdy, University of California Press (Santa Barbara, CA) 1967, enlarged edition published as The Way to Rainy Mountain, illustrated by father, Alfred Momaday, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1969.

House Made of Dawn (novel), Harper (New York, NY), 1968, reprinted, 1989.

Colorado: Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring, illustrated with photographs by David Muench, Rand McNally (Chicago, IL), 1973.

Angle of Geese and Other Poems, David Godine (Boston, MA), 1974.

(And illustrator) The Gourd Dancer (poems), Harper (New York, NY), 1976.

The Names: A Memoir, Harper (New York, NY), 1976, reprinted, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1996.

(Author of foreword) An Painter, A Coyote in the Garden, Confluence (Lewiston, ID), 1988.

The Ancient Child (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1989.

(Contributor) Charles L. Woodward, Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1989.

(Author of introduction) Marcia Keegan, Enduring Culture: A Century of Photography of the Southwest Indians, Clear Light (Santa Fe, NM), 1991.

In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields, Rydal (Santa Fe, NM), 1992.

In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991 (poems, stories, art), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1992.

(Author of introduction) Gerald Hausman, Turtle Island Alphabet: A Lexicon of Native American Symbols and Culture, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1992.

Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story, Clear Light (Santa Fe, NM), 1994.

Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1997.

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. Contributor of articles and poems to periodicals; a frequent reviewer on Indian subjects for the New York Times Book Review.

WORK IN PROGRESS: A study of American poetry in the middle period, The Furrow and the Plow: Science and Literature in America, 1836–1866 (tentative title), for Oxford University Press; a book on storytelling, for Oxford University Press.

SIDELIGHTS: N. Scott Momaday's poetry and prose reflect his Kiowa Indian heritage in structure and theme, as well as in subject matter. "When I was growing up on the reservations of the Southwest," he told Joseph Bruchac in the American Poetry Review, "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." Roger Dickinson-Brown indicated in the Southern Review that Momaday has long "maintained a quiet reputation in American Indian affairs and among distinguished literati" for his brilliance and range, "his fusion of alien cultures, and his extraordinary experiments in different literary forms."

Momaday is half Kiowa. His mother, Mayme Natachee Scott, is descended from early American pioneers, although her middle name is taken from a Cherokee great-grandmother. Momaday's memoir also includes anecdotes of such Anglo-American ancestors as his grandfather, Theodore Scott, a Kentucky sheriff. His mother, however, preferred to identify with her imagined Indian heritage, adopting the name Little Moon when she was younger and dressing Indian style. She attended Haskell Institute, an Indian school in Kansas, where she met several members of the Kiowa tribe. Eventually she married Momaday's father, also a Kiowa. The author grew up in New Mexico, where his mother, a teacher and writer, and his father, an artist and art teacher, found work among the Jemez Indians in the state's high canyon and mountain country, but he was originally raised among the Kiowas on a family farm in Oklahoma. Although Momaday covers his Anglo-American heritage in the memoir, he prefers, like his mother, "to imagine himself all Indian, and to 'imagine himself' back into the life, the emotions, the spirit of his Kiowa forebears," commented Edward Abbey in Harper's. He uses English, his mother's language, according to Abbey, to tell "his story in the manner of his father's people; moving freely back and forth in time and space, interweaving legend, myth, and history." In Modern American Poetry, Kenneth M. Roemer remarked that Momaday's culturally rich childhood led him to "fall in love with Kiowa, Navajo, Jemez Pueblo, Spanish, and English words."

Momaday's The Names: A Memoir explores the author's heritage in autobiographical form. It is composed of tribal tales, boyhood memories, and genealogy, reported New York Times Book Review critic Wallace Stegner. Momaday's quest for his roots, wrote Abbey, "takes him back to the hills of Kentucky and north to the high plains of Wyoming, and from there, in memory and imagination, back to the Bering Straits." Stegner described it as "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. Momaday is the son of parents who successfully bridged the gulf between Indian and white ways, but remain Indian," he explained. "In boyhood Momaday made the same choice, and in making it gave himself the task of discovering and in some degree inventing the tradition and history in which he finds his most profound sense of himself." New York Review of Books critic Diane Johnson agreed that "Momaday does not appear to feel, or does not discuss, any conflict of the Kiowa and white traditions; he is their product, an artist, heir of the experiences of his ancestors and conscious of the benignity of their influence."

Momaday does not actually speak Kiowa, but, in his work, he reveals the language as not only a reflection of the physical environment, but also a means of shaping it. The title of The Names, reported Richard Nicholls in Best Sellers, refers to all "the names given by Scott Momaday's people, the Kiowa Indians, to the objects, forms, and features of their land, the southwestern plains, and to its animals and birds." When he was less than a year old, Momaday was given the name Tsoaitalee or "Rock-Tree-Boy" by a paternal relative, after the 200—foot volcanic butte in Wyoming, which is sacred to the Kiowas and is known to Anglo-Americans as Devil's Tower. "For the Kiowas it was a place of high significance," Abbey pointed out. "To be named after that mysterious and mythic rock was, for the boy, a high honor and a compelling one. For among the Indians a name was never merely an identifying tag but something much more important, a kind of emblem and ideal, the determining source of a man or woman's character and course of life."

Momaday's first novel, House Made of Dawn, tells "the old story of the problem of mixing Indians and Anglos," reported New York Times Book Review critic Marshall Sprague. "But there is a quality of revelation here as the author presents the heart-breaking effort of his hero to live in two worlds." In the novel's fractured narrative, the main character, Abel, returns to the prehistoric landscape and culture surrounding his reservation pueblo after his tour of duty in the Army during World War II. Back home, he kills an albino. He serves a prison term and is paroled, unrepentant, to a Los Angeles relocation center. Once in the city, he attempts to adjust to his factory job, like his even-tempered roommate, Ben, a modern Indian, who narrates parts of the novel. During his free time, Abel drinks and attends adulterated religious and peyote-eating ceremonies. He can't cope with his job; and, "because of his contempt," Sprague indicated, he's brutally beaten by a Los Angeles policeman, but returns again to the reservation "in time to carry on tradition for his dying grandfather," Francisco. The novel culminates in Abel's running in the ancient ritual dawn race against evil and death.

According to Kerr, the book is "a creation myth—rife with fabulous imagery, ending with Abel's rebirth in the old ways at the old man's death—but an ironic one, suffused with violence and telling a story of culture loss." The grandfather, he maintained, "heroic, crippled, resonant with the old ways, impotent in the new—acts as a lodestone to the novel's conflicting energies. His incantatory dying delirium in Spanish flexes Momaday's symbolic compass …, and around his dying the book shapes its proportions." Francisco is "the alembic that transmutes the novel's confusions," he commented. "His retrospection marks off the book's boundaries, points of reference, and focal themes: the great organic calendar of the black mesa—the house of the sun (which locates the title)—as a central Rosetta stone integrating the ceremonies rendered in Part One, and the source place by which Abel and [his brother] could 'reckon where they were, where all things were, in time.'"

Momaday meets with difficulties in his attempt to convey Indian sensibility in novelistic form, Kerr related. The fractured narrative is open to criticism, in Kerr's opinion, and the "plot of House Made of Dawn actually seems propelled by withheld information, that besetting literary error." Of the novel's structure, Dickinson-Brown wrote that the sequence of events "is without fixed order. The parts can be rearranged, no doubt with change of effect, but not always with recognizable difference. The fragments thus presented are the subject. The result is a successful depiction but not an undertanding of what is depicted: a reflection, not a novel in the comprehensive sense of the word." Kerr also objected to the author's overuse of "quiet, weak constructions" in the opening paragraph and indicated that "repetition, polysyndeton, and there as subject continue to deaden the narrative's force well into the book." Commonweal reviewer William James Smith agreed that "Momaday observes and renders accurately, but the material seems to have sunken slightly beneath the surface of the beautiful prose." The critic maintained, however, that the novel should also be regarded as "a return to the sacred art of storytelling and mythmaking that is part of Indian oral tradition," as well as an attempt "to push the secular mode of modern fiction into the sacred mode, a faith and recognition in the power of the word." And a Times Literary Supplement critic pointed out Momaday's "considerable descriptive power," citing "a section in which Tosamah [a Los Angeles medicine man/ priest] rehearses the ancient trampled history of the Kiowas in trance—like visionary prose that has moments of splendour."

In a review of The Way to Rainy Mountain, Southern Review critic Kenneth Fields observed that Momaday's writing exemplifies a "paradox about language which is often expressed in American Indian literature." Momaday himself has written that "by means of words can a man deal with the world on equal terms. And the word is sacred," commented Fields. "On the other hand … the Indians took for their subject matter those elusive perceptions that resist formulation, never entirely apprehensible, but just beyond the ends of the nerves." In a similar vein, Dickinson-Brown maintained that Momaday's poem "Angle of Geese" "presents, better than any other work I know … perhaps the most important subject of our age: the tragic conflict between what we have felt in wilderness and what our language means." What Momaday must articulate in The Way to Rainy Mountain, Fields argued, is "racial memory," or "the ghostly heritage of [his] Kiowa ancestors," and "what it means to feel himself a Kiowa in the modern American culture that displaced his ancestors."

Described by Fields as "far and away [Momaday's] best book," The Way to Rainy Mountain relates the story of the Kiowas journey 300 years ago from Yellowstone down onto the plains, where they acquired horses, and, in the words of John R. Milton in the Saturday Review, "they became a lordly society of sun priests, fighters, hunters, and thieves, maintaining this position for 100 years, to the mid-nineteenth century," when they were all but destroyed by the U.S. Cavalry in Oklahoma. And when the sacred buffalo began to disappear, Fields wrote, "the Kiowas lost the sustaining illumination of the sun god," since, as Momaday explains, the buffalo was viewed as "the animal representation of the sun, the essential and sacrificial victim of the Sun Dance." "Momaday's own grandmother, who had actually been present at the last and abortive Kiowa Sun Dance in 1887, is for him the last of the Kiowas," related Fields.

In The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday uses form to help him convey a reality that has largely been lost. His text is made up of twenty-four numbered sections grouped into three parts, "The Setting Out," "The Going On," and "The Closing In." These parts are in turn divided into three different passages, each of which is set in a different style typeface. The first passage in each part is composed of Kiowa myths and legends, the second is made up of historical accounts of the tribe, and the third passage is a personal autobiographical rendering of Momaday's rediscovery of his Kiowa homeland and roots. Fields explained that in form, the book "resembles those ancient texts with subsequent commentaries which, taken altogether, present strange complexes of intelligence; not only the author's, but with it that of the man in whose mind the author was able to live again."

By the end of the last part, however, wrote Nicholas, the three passages begin to blend with one another, and "the mythic passages are no longer mythic in the traditional sense, that is Momaday is creating myth out of his memories of his ancestors rather than passing on already established and socially sanctioned tales. Nor are the historical passages strictly historical, presumably objective, accounts of the Kiowas and their culture. Instead they are carefully selected and imaginatively rendered memories of his family. And, finally, the personal passages have become prose poems containing symbols which link them thematically to the other two, suggesting that all three journeys are products of the imagination, that all have become interfused in a single memory and reflect a single idea." Dickinson-Brown considered the book's shape a well-controlled "associational structure," distinctively adapted to the author's purpose. The form, according to Fields, forced Momaday "to relate the subjective to the more objective historical sensibility. The writing of the book itself, one feels, enables him to gain both freedom and possession. It is therefore a work of discovery as well as renunciation, of finding but also of letting go."

After The House Made of Dawn, Momaday wrote mainly nonfiction and poetry. He did not write another novel for twenty years. "I don't think of myself as a novelist. I'm a poet," he told Los Angeles Times interviewer Edward Iwata. Yet, in 1989, the poet completed his second novel, The Ancient Child. Building this book around the legend behind his Indian name, Tsoaitalee, Momaday uses the myth to develop the story of a modern Indian artist searching for his identity. A number of reviewers lauded the new novel. Craig Lesley, for one, wrote in the Washington Post that The Ancient Child "is an intriguing combination of myth, fiction and storytelling that demonstrates the continuing power and range of Momaday's creative vision." A "largely autobiographical novel," according to Iwata, The Ancient Child expresses the author's belief that "dreams and visions are pathways to one's blood ancestry and racial memory."

In addition to his poetry and fiction, Momaday is also an accomplished painter. His diverse skill is evident in In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991. The collection includes numerous poems from Momaday's early poetic career; twenty new poems; a sequence of poems about the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid; stories about the Kiowas' tribal shields; and sixty drawings by the author. "A slim volume, [In the Presence of the Sun] contains the essence of the ancestral voices that speak through him. It is a refined brew of origins, journeys, dreams and the landscape of the deep continental interior," remarked Barbara Bode in the New York Times Book Review.

In the Bear's House is a mixture of paintings, poems, dialogues, and prose relating to the bear, an animal of spiritual significance to the Kiowas. "Momaday's blend of biblical and Native American spirituality and language seems almost old-fashioned in light of more separatist studies that have dominated since he first arrived on the scene back in the 60s," remarked a Kirkus Reviews contributor. However, the same contributor noted that "Momaday's clean, sharp measures enhance a number of well-made poems that date mostly from recent times." The critic further observed, "The bold brushstrokes of Momaday's paintings echo the power and precision of his poetry and prose."

Momaday views his heritage objectively and in a positive light. He explains much of his perspective as a writer and as a Native American in Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, the result of a series of interviews with Charles L. Woodward. World Literature Today contributor Robert L. Berner called the volume "an essential tool of scholarship" in analyzing and understanding Momaday and his work. Discussing his heritage with Bruchac, Momaday commented: "The Indian has the advantage of a very rich spiritual experience. As much can be said, certainly, of some non-Indian writers. But the non-Indian writers of today are culturally deprived, I think, in the sense that they don't have the same sense of heritage that the Indian has. I'm told this time and time again by my students, who say, 'Oh, I wish I knew more about my grandparents; I wish I knew more about my ancestors and where they came from and what they did.' I've come to believe them. It seems to me that the Indian writer ought to make use of that advantage. One of his subjects ought certainly to be his cultural investment in the world. It is a unique and complete experience, and it is a great subject in itself."



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Blaeser, Kimberly, Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, edited by Gerald Vizenor, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1989, pp. 39-54.

Brumble, H. David, III, American Indian Autobiography, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1988, pp. 165-180.

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Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 143: American Novelists since World War II, Third Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994, Volume 175: Native American Writers of the United States, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997, Volume 256: Twentieth-Century American Western Writers, Third Series, 2002, pp. 203-218.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 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.

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Krupat, Arnold, The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1989.

Lincoln, Kenneth, Native American Renaissance, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1983, pp. 82-121.

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, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.

Owens, Louis, Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1992.

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St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Schubnell, Matthias, N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1985.

Trimble, Martha Scott, Fifty Western Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Fred Erisman and Richard W. Etulain, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1982, pp. 313-324.

Velie, Alan R, Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1982.


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Atlantic, January, 1977.

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Bloomsbury Review, July-August, 1989, p. 13; July-August, 1993, p. 14; November-December, 1994, p. 25.

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Canadian Literature, spring, 1990, p. 299.

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Denver Quarterly, winter, 1978, pp. 19-31.

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Indiana Social Studies Quarterly, Autumn, 1975, Joseph F. Trimmer, "Native Americans and the American Mix: N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn," pp. 75-91.

Journal of Popular Culture, fall, 1999, review of The Ancient Child, p. 23.

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Modern American Poetry, (May 30, 2003), Kenneth Roemer, "N. Scott Momaday: Biographical, Literary, and Multicultural Contexts."