House Made of Dawn
House Made of DawnIntroduction
N. Scott Momaday
For Further Study
When it was first published in 1968, N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn garnered scarce critical and commercial attention. Yet within a year, it won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and had received international critical acclaim.
During the early 1970s America became interested in the plight of Native Americans as the truth about reservation life was exposed and publicized by Native American activists. By chronicling the struggles of a young Native American man named Abel, Momaday was able to explore some of the issues and conflicts that faced the Native American community in the twentieth century. House Made of Dawn was a crucial link in teaching the general public about the real lives and beliefs of Native Americans.
Although most critics admire the poetic beauty of his narrative style, Momaday's indirect way of storytelling—weaving together past, present and myth with no apparent order—may prove challenging to some readers who are used to a linear progression of events. Most critics, however, consider this style necessary for understanding Abel and his culture.
Momaday was born on the Kiowa Reservation in Lawton, Oklahoma, on February 27, 1934. His father, Alfred Morris, was an artist and teacher; in fact, his artworks are used to illustrate several of Momaday's books, including his history of the Kiowa people, The Way to Rainy Mountain. His mother, Mayme Natachee Scott, taught and wrote children's books.
Momaday spent his childhood on a succession of Native American reservations, learning the cultures of the Pueblo Indians. The family eventually settled in Jemez, New Mexico, which is the model for Walatowa in House Made of Dawn.
Momaday attended military school in Virginia, and then went to college at the University of New Mexico. After graduation, he taught at the Apache reservation in Jicarilla for a year. He won a poetry scholarship to Stanford, where he studied under famed poet and literary critic Yvor Winters, who became his mentor and greatly influenced his poetic style. In 1963 he received his Ph.D. from Stanford.
House Made of Dawn, his first novel, was published in 1968. Although not commercially successful, it received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969. After that, Momaday moved to the University of California at Berkley, where he designed a graduate program in Indian Studies. In 1982 he became a professor at the University of Arizona. He has published several books of poetry, short stories, and essays. In addition, Momaday has often displayed his drawings and paintings in galleries throughout the country. He is an active member of the Gourd Dance Society, where he has succeeded his grandfather, Mammedaty.
The very first section of House Made of Dawn creates the mood for the story. Set in a canyon at sunrise, the protagonist of the novel, Abel, is introduced. Thematic issues that will appear throughout the book are also presented: Abel's isolation and his struggle to communicate, as well as the communion of man and nature. In addition, it introduces the image of Abel running, which will also be the final image in the novel.
In 1945, Abel's grandfather, Francisco, rides his horse-drawn wagon into town and picks up Abel from the bus station. The young man is returning from his service in the army during World War II. So drunk that he does not recognize his own grandfather, Abel stumbles off the bus and into his grandfather's wagon.
Waking the next day at Francisco's house, he recalls frightening images from his early life on the Native American reservation: the mournful sound of the wind blowing over a hole in the earth; the sight of a snake carried up into the sky by an eagle and then dropped, wriggling in its fall to the hard ground. He then reflects on his wartime experiences.
The story shifts to Father Olguin, the Catholic missionary assigned to the reservation at Walatowa. He is visited by Angela St. John, a pregnant white woman from Los Angeles. Mrs. St. John is pregnant and has come to bathe in the local mineral baths to soothe the soreness in her back. She asks Father Olguin to recommend a local person looking for work who can chop wood for her. A few days later, Abel comes to her house. He chops the wood, but does not talk to her.
At the feast of Santiago, Abel participates in a competition that is based on a folk story about Santiago, who founded the town by sacrificing a rooster. The townspeople believe that the discarded feathers and blood of the rooster produced plants and animals from the ground. At the feast, contes-tants ride horses toward a rooster that is buried up to its neck in the ground, trying to reach down and pull it out. Abel does poorly at the competition. The winner is an albino on a black horse, who takes the rooster over to Abel and beats him with it.
A few days later, Abel walks to Angela St. John's house. She invites him in, gives him coffee, and asks if he would like to make love to her. He accepts, and the two become lovers. Father Olguin comes to talk to her about her sin a few days later, but she does not regret her actions.
After a festival in town, Abel sits in a bar and has a few drinks with the albino. They leave together, and, while walking up the street, the man puts his arm out to Abel. Abel pulls out his knife and stabs the man, killing him.
The Priest of the Sun
Seven years later, the story shifts to Los Angeles. Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah, the pastor of the Holiness Pan-Indian Rescue Mission and the Priest of the Sun, preaches to Native Americans in the city. Tosamah is a Kiowa, and he recalls stories told him by his grandmother, who had been present for the last of the Kiowa tribe's sun dances in 1887. He passes these Indian stories along to those in his congregation, many of whom are from other native groups.
Abel has served his jail time for the murder of the albino. He is trying to start a new life in Los Angeles at the urging of the Indian Relocation Service. Abel has a close friend, Benally, who is an Indian also transplanted from the reservation to the city; Abel also has a girlfriend named Milly, who is the social worker assigned to his case. He struggles to stay out of trouble and survive in a white man's world.
The Night Chanter
Benally clarifies some of the details of Abel's life in Los Angeles. He is familiar with many of the members in the Native American community and mentions their names in the process of telling the story. He remembers that after his release from prison, Abel was brought to the factory where Benally worked. Feeling sorry for him, Benally gave him a place to live and went out to bars and to the beach with him.
One night they are stopped by Martinez, a local police officer. When Abel does not respond appropriately, Martinez hits his hands with his nightstick. His bones are not broken, but Abel's pride is—soon he stops going to work, and spends his days drinking and wandering the streets:
He went downhill pretty fast after that. Sometimes he was here when I came in from work, and sometimes he wasn't. He was drunk about half the time, and I couldn't keep up with him … Pretty soon I wouldn't give him any more, but you know what he did? He started asking Milly for money.
He loses a succession of jobs, and eventually is attacked and beaten up on the street.
Benally contacts Angela St. John. She visits Abel in the hospital and tells him that she has told Indian stories to her son Peter about a man born of a bear and a maiden. Benally puts Abel on a bus back to the reservation.
The Dawn Runner
When he returns to the reservation, Abel discovers that his grandfather is dying. Abel listens to him murmuring in his delirium for six days about a bear hunt from his youth. The old man dies on the seventh morning.
Abel wakes Father Olguin before dawn and makes arrangements for the old man's funeral service. He takes off down the road south of town. When he spots the figures of men running, he strips off his shirt and runs after them.
The protagonist of the story, Abel is a Native American war veteran who struggles to find his place in the world. Some critics have interpreted Abel's behavior as being caused by the strain of trying to balance the expectations of white culture with Indian culture. Others assert that the novel's flashbacks indicate that Abel was estranged and uncommunicative even before he left the reservation for the army.
The story begins when Abel returns to the Walatowa reservation on a bus, so drunk that he can hardly stand or recognize where he is. Shortly after his return, Abel is hired by Angela St. John to chop wood. The two quickly start an affair. After being humiliated in a festival competition, Abel drinks in a bar with his chief rival, the albino. As they leave the bar, the albino takes a step toward him and Abel stabs him. Tosamah later explains that Abel testified in court that he thought the albino was turning into a snake.
After spending seven years in jail for the murder, Abel moves to Los Angles. He takes a job at a factory and meets Benally, who becomes his friend. He also becomes romantically involved with Milly, the white social worker assigned to his case. Much of the story told in Los Angeles is interspersed with sights of Abel wandering around, severely injured from a beating, with his thumbs broken—the book does not explicitly say what happened, but an earlier encounter with a brutal police officer named Martinez implies that it was he who inflicted the damage.
In the end, Abel leaves the city and returns to the reservation. A week after his return, Francisco dies. After arranging his funeral, Abel goes running to the point of exhaustion.
The albino (also called The White Man) is a mysterious but important person in this story. He is frequently called "the white man." At the feast of Santiago, the albino beats Abel in a competition, humiliating him. A week later, Abel drinks with the albino in a bar. They leave together, and Abel hallucinates that the man is turns into a snake. He takes out his knife and stabs the albino to death.
Benally is a Native American man and a good friend to Abel. Raised on a reservation, Benally adapts to life in Los Angeles and appreciates the benefits of urban culture. He asks little more of life than to keep his job and to have a room to stay in without any interference. He is sympathetic to the way life is on the reservation, but he also recognized the benefits of assimilation: "You know, you have to change. That's the only way you can live in a place like this. You have to forget about the way it was, how you grew up and all."
Francisco is Abel's grandfather. A believer in the traditional ways, he is described as a "longhair." The novel opens with him trying to capture a sparrow so that he might have its feathers to use for ceremonial purposes. An elderly man, Francisco is mentioned in an old journal, written by Fray Nicholas. He wrote in an 1888 entry, "Listen I told you about Francisco [and] was right to say it. He is evil [and] desires to do me some injury [and] this after I befriended him all his life. Preserve this I write to you that you may make him responsible if I die." There is no indication that Francisco had done anything violent to Fray Nicholas.
Francisco recalls taking part in the Winter Race and has a page in his ledger with a drawing of himself running the race and the caption "1889." In the 1940s, when the novel begins, Francisco is a farmer working on the communal land owned by the reservation. Francisco was instrumental in raising Abel, and has been his only relative since his mother died when he was five. As such, he holds an important place in Abel's life and acts as a role model for the confused young man.
Martinez is the brutal, sadistic police officer who ambushes Abel and Benally. Martinez accosts them in an alley when the two men are drunk, attempting to intimidate them. When Abel does not cower before him, Martinez cracks his knuckles with his nightstick. It is that senseless and brutal act that alienates Abel from white civilization. Benally also asserts that Martinez would stop in at the bar sometimes to pick up bribes—sometimes a free bottle of liquor, sometimes money.
A white social worker, Milly becomes Abel's girlfriend. Eventually, he drives her away with abusive behavior.
- House Made of Dawn was adapted as a film by Richardson Morse in 1987. It starred Larry Little-bird, Judith Doty and John Saxon. The screenplay was written by N. Scott Momaday and Morse. It was released straight to videocassette by New Line Cinema in 1996.
- The unabridged audio book of the novel, read by Scott Forbes, is available from Books On Tape, Inc. It was recorded in 1976.
Father Olguin is the Roman Catholic priest at the mission at Walatowa. He is a confused man, torn between the traditions of his religion and those of the society around him. He lives with a physical handicap as a result of a childhood illness.
Because of his unique position, Father Olguin functions as an intermediary between the outside culture and the people of the reservation. When Angela St. John arrives at Walatowa, she asks Father Olguin to help her hire an Indian worker. On first meeting her, he "regarded his guest discreetly, wondering that her physical presence should suddenly dawn upon him so." As the story progresses, he develops strong feelings for her.
A large part of the book is devoted to the pages that Father Olguin reads out of the diary of Fray Nicholas, a priest who was at the reservation in the 1870s. At the end of the novel, when Abel comes to him at dawn to arrange the funeral of his grandfather, Father Olguin does not hesitate to accept the responsibility, but he is disturbed that he has been waken up so early. He reprimands Abel for waking him, but then has a sudden realization of how unimportant time is to Abel and his people. This leads to a greater understanding of his place in the community and Native American culture in general. "'I can understand,' he said. 'I understand, do you hear?' And he began to shout. 'I understand! Oh, God! I understand—I understand!'"
Angela St. John
Angela is the white woman who comes to the reservation for health reasons and ends up having an affair with Abel. Although she is pregnant, her husband never visits her at the reservation. Seven years after their affair, Abel sees her walk by on the street in California and tells Benally about her. After Abel is beaten and hospitalized, Benally contacts Angela, and she goes to visit him in the hospital. She explains that she has raised her son with an awareness of Indian culture, telling him a story about a bear and a maiden that resembles the story that runs through Francisco's mind as he is dying.
John Big Bluff Tosamah
As pastor of the Los Angeles Holiness Pan-Indian Rescue Mission and Priest of the Sun, Tosamah gives sermons on both Biblical stories and Indian folklore, often mixing the two. Like N. Scott Momaday, he is a Kiowa, and some of the stories he tells of last days of the Kiowa people are repeated in Momaday's history of the Kiowa, The Way to Rainy Mountain.
Tosamah has a vast knowledge of Indian folklore and Bible stories, but he was raised in the city; therefore, his knowledge of the Indian ways is mostly theoretical. Tosamah expresses scornful admiration for the ways in which white society has controlled and obliterated the Indian: "They put all of us renegades, us diehards, away sooner or later. They've got the right idea. They put us away before we're born. They're an almighty wise and cautious bunch, these cats, full of discretion." Once, when Tosamah ridicules the Indians who stay with the old traditions, the "longhairs," Abel becomes so angry that he almost starts a fight, driving him to a two-day drinking binge that almost costs him his job.
The White Man
Prejudice and Tolerance
Strangely, for a novel about Native American suffering in the white world, there is not a lot of overt prejudice on the parts of the characters in House Made of Dawn. The most brutal character in the novel, Martinez, says nothing to indicate that his action is racially motivated; he has a Spanish name himself, making him no more a representative of the white culture than Abel. The two white women, Angela and Milly, treat Abel well and respect his heritage.
The only character to really point out racial differences is Tosamah. He sarcastically declares his respect for the whites for the way they have oppressed the Indians. This prejudice is mirrored in Tosamah's prejudice against Native Americans that follow traditional beliefs. In talking about "long-hairs," or the people who follow the traditional way and do not adapt to urban life, Tosamah is so negative that he alienates Abel.
Some critics interpret Momaday's novel as a statement about the difficulty faced by Native Americans as they are forced to assimilate into the outside world. This struggle is reflected in the experiences of the protagonist, Abel, as he returns home after a stint in the army during World War II.
Late in the book, Abel recalls a culture clash between his Native American world and the white world during his time in the military. While under fire and faced with an advancing tank, Abel stood up, whooped, danced, sang, and gave an obscene gesture to the tank. Momaday is not clear about whether this monologue is meant to be testimony in a court marshal (it ends with Abel running off into the trees), but it is clearly not normal behavior under fire.
When he arrives back at Walatowa drunk, it is clear that he has not assimilated the standards of the white culture; yet after a short time, it becomes obvious that he is not comfortable with Native American culture either. While his grandfather, Francisco, remembers trying to instill "the old ways" into Abel, Abel remembers his advice as, "You ought to do this and that." He makes "a poor showing, full of caution and gesture" when he tries at the rooster-grabbing competition during the festival. Later, he kills the competition champion when he sees turning into an animal—the sort of transformation common to Native American stories such as Benally's story about a Bear and a Snake.
After his release from prison, Abel lives in the Native American community in Los Angeles. He attends the services of Tosamah, who is both pastor and Priest of the Sun. While Abel's friend, Ben, is able to mix his native culture with his new white culture, Abel is unable to bring the two elements together in harmony. When his heritage and pride is insulted, he quits work, drops out of society, and spends his days drinking. In the end, he finds some balance between the two cultures: he is able to memorialize his grandfather's death with both a Christian ceremony and an Indian race at dawn.
Return to Nature
Native American culture is closely associated with elements of nature in the novel. Native American customs are concerned with natural objects: the sparrow feathers Francisco gathers for a prayer plume, and the rooster used in the competition. When there is harmony between people and nature, the world is working as it is intended.
Examples of this harmony can be found with the characters in the novel. Francisco, an old farmer, is said to have "an ethnic, planter's love of harvest, and of rain." Abel chops wood in a way that indicates a special understanding of the inanimate object, a relationship that the white woman Angela wonders about. "He gave himself up to it," she thinks, admiring the beauty of his action. Milly, making love to Abel, is described as moving her mouth "like a small animal."
The problem with Abel is that just as he becomes disconnected from his native culture, so too he becomes detached from nature. He recalls having seen an eagle carry a snake off into the sky with mixed emotions: "It was an awful, holy sight, full of magic and meaning." He remembers an eagle caught in a ceremonial hunt: "The sight of it filled him with shame and disgust."
In the end, Abel returns to the reservation and reestablishes his relationship with nature by running, opening his lungs and his whole being to where he is: "He could see at last without having to think."
Topics for Further Study
- Investigate the tribal customs of Native Americans from different parts of the United States, such as the northern or southeastern regions of the country. Report on how their practices differ from those of the Pueblo peoples of the Southeast.
- Explore one of the American Indian Movement protests of the late 1960s or 1970s, such as the armed siege at Wounded Knee in 1973 or the standoff at the Oglala Reservation in 1975. What were the demands of the protesters? Did the protesters get what they wanted?
- Richard Nixon, a president often associated with corruption in government, is considered a hero by many Native Americans. Why? Prepare a report on Nixon's policies and how they benefited Native Americans.
- Examine the statistics of Native American participation in World War II. Discuss the ways in which this participation significantly changed the structure and expectations of Native American life.
- Talk to someone from a Native American group, either on the phone or through one of their websites. Identify the challenges facing Indians in the twenty-first century.
Point of View
In this novel, Momaday often shifts from one point of view to another; as a result, it is not always clear whose thoughts are being related, or when, or what they have to do with the overall story. At first it seems that Abel will be the focus of the novel, but soon the point of view shifts to Francisco. Moreover, there is little consistency in the point of view: while it seldom shifts from one person's perspective to another within one scene, it does not follow a pattern of staying with any one point of view for a whole chapter, or even a section.
For example, Father Olguin gains perspective about what the reservation was like in the last century from the diary that he reads that was written by his predecessor. Momaday is able to relate his ideas about the relationship between Native American religion and Christian religion through the sermons of Tosamah. The incidents of Abel's life in Los Angeles are not related through his point of view, but from Benally's perspective.
By shifting point of view frequently and sporadically, it is possible for Momaday to have Abel be the central character in the book without delving deeply into his thoughts and to present the communal point of view that is more characteristic of Native American thought than of the European tradition.
More than most novels, the setting of House Made of Dawn is integral to its purpose. Because the story is about a man torn between his Native American world and the white world, the reservation is rendered quite differently from that of Los Angeles. At times, the story goes beyond obvious, rational differences and considers fundamental ways in which people of the different settings think differently.
One reason that House Made of Dawn made such a powerful impact when it was published was for its treatment of Native American folklore and the values these tales passed on to subsequent generations. In Western culture, readers look for the "moral" of a story, especially one that is told in the context of a religious lesson. In the case of the folklore, interpretation for an audience of outsiders is almost impossible, so it is hard to explain the culture that values them. On the contrary, the fact that Western myths can be made so accessible is one of the factors that has helped Western culture dominate the globe during the age of colonization.
The Postwar Reservation
As with many other minority groups in America, Native American populations became more connected with the mainstream culture as a result of World War II. Prejudice and discriminatory policies did not disappear overnight, but the fact that people from ethnic subcultures were thrown together in barracks in the war led to some softening social boundaries. Many whites met real Indians for the first time, and many Indians met their first whites.
Like Abel in House Made of Dawn, many Native Americans came back to the reservations they had lived on with conflicted views, having been forced to align their own beliefs with American culture. Unfortunately, what little progress was made in human understanding was very quickly overruled by developers, who soon tried to exploit reservation land for their own profit.
Historically, the U. S. government dealt with the problem of taking land from indigenous peoples by providing land and services at limited locations: the reservations. From the start, the concept of reservations was divided between two general schools of thought. Some people considered them as sanctuaries, where the Indians could relax, free from persecution. Others, however, viewed them as prisons where Indians were left isolated, cut off from progress, and dependent on government charity.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration, and particularly his Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, determined that it would be best for Native American groups to take control of their own situations. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 included many provisions leading toward this end: it set up reservation schools that ended the practice of shipping Indian children out to boarding schools; created tribal governing organizations that would deal with the federal government and control order; and encouraged economic development.
After World War II, the resources on Native American reservations became economic assets. Some politicians in the government argued that it was wasteful to allow Indians to keep such valuable property when they were not using it. Support grew for a plan to move Indians off of the reservations, to assimilate them into society. Some Native Americans supported this idea, lured by quick profits to be made from selling the reservations. Yet most recognized this as a blatant attempt by the U.S. government to exploit the Native American population once again.
After Collier resigned in 1945, the Senate pressured his successor, William F. Zimmerman, to devise a plan for moving Indians off of the reservations. In 1947, the Relocation Service Program, with field offices in Los Angeles, Denver, and Salt Lake City, was established. In 1953, Congress passed HCR 108, a bill that removed all special status for Native Americans. Whereas they had previously been exempt from federal, state, and local taxes, HCR 108 made them liable. Reservations became accountable to the jurisdictions of local law enforcement instead of tribal or federal laws, which allowed racial tensions to dominate control issues.
Healthcare facilities on reservations, which had been run by federal agencies, were abruptly turned over to Native American groups. When they were unable to manage, they were shut down, leaving Indians to travel off reservations when they needed medical care. HCR 108, presented as a step toward Indian freedom, has gone down in history as one of the greatest follies in U.S. / Indian relations. In 1970 President Richard Nixon pushed Congress to overturn HCR 108.
Compare & Contrast
- Late 1940s: After Europe is decimated as a result of World War II, America becomes an economic superpower, creating a thriving economy and a population boom.
1968: The generation of Americans born in the late 1940s and early 1950s is dubbed the Baby Boom generation. Many members of this generation reject the materialistic culture and emphasize spiritual values.
Today: America has experienced the longest economic expansion in its history.
- Late 1940s: The Indian Relocation program uses government money to move Native Americans off of the reservations. The aim was to assimilate them into mainstream culture and provide economic and social opportunities.
1968: The American Indian Movement addresses the issue of police brutality against Indians in Minneapolis and soon becomes a nationwide organization advocating Indian rights.
Today: Government efforts strive to make Native American groups economically self-sufficient.
- Late 1940s: Segregation laws across the country prohibit blacks from using the same public services as whites, and permits exclusion of different races from private establishments.
1968: After more than a decade of civil rights protests, the fight for equality turns violent on a national scale in the mid-1960s, with race riots in major cities across America.
Today: Federal laws against discrimination are generally enforced, and abusers are subject to civil suits.
- Late 1940s: Television starts to become wide spread and influences popular culture.
1968: National awareness increases as television broadcast color footage of the summer's racial riots and the police actions at the political conventions into people's living rooms.
Today: The growing number of homes connected to the Internet resembles the postwar growth of television ownership.
Indian Activism in the 1960s
As the Civil Rights movement raised America's consciousness about the oppression of African Americans, it also raised awareness about the treatment of other groups. For example, the Indian Reform Movement became a popular cause for many American people. Probably the best known activist group, the American Indian Movement (AIM), formed in Minneapolis in 1968 to protest against police brutality. After that, the group went on to lead several high-profile protests. In 1970 they occupied a portion of the land at the base of the Mount Rushmore Memorial.
At the same time, other Native American groups were drawing attention to the government's neglect of Native American people. One hundred Native Americans took over Alcatraz Island in 1969, offering to buy the former federal prison back from the government for twenty-four dollars in glass beads (the price allegedly paid to Indians for Manhattan Island in 1626).
The most infamous protest was the siege at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The site of a famous massacre of three hundred Indian men, women, and children in 1890, members of AIM and the Sioux nation took hostages in a small hilltop church in Wounded Knee, on the Oglala Reservation, in 1973. The siege attracted international press attention. Two Native Americans were killed during the resulting gunfire, and one hundred were arrested; but as a result, the government promised to hold hearings on Indian rights. After one meeting with representatives from the White House, no further government action regarding Native American rights took place.
House Made of Dawn did not receive much attention from the mainstream press when it was first published. For one thing, Momaday was relatively unknown in literary circles. Another obstacle was the fact that it had been written by a member of a distinct social minority, and reviewers felt uncomfortable addressing its artistry because they did not want their criticism to seem like criticism of Native American culture: as William James Smith asserted in his review in Commonweal, "it seems slightly unAmerican to criticize an American Indian's novel."
Other critics found fault with the writing but suggested that the narrative problems might be necessary in order to capture the Native American mindset. Marshall Sprague, in The New York Times Book Review, thought that the "haze" that surrounds the telling of the story might be a natural byproduct of rendering "the mysteries of a culture different than our own." When the novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, the novel's literary merit was called into question less often.
John Z. Bennett, writing in Western American Literature shortly after the Pulitzer was awarded, expressed his concerns that House Made of Dawn would be valued as a social statement rather than for its artistic achievements. Bennett recognized that it used the clichés that are often used in novels about an alienated social group—the "Indian hero's ruinous journeys into the white man's world and apparent redemption" upon returning to the ways of his people; the white woman who comes to accept the tribe; the descriptions of ceremonies; and the wise grandparent representing tradition. Still, Bennett found the book a "remarkable synthesis of poetic mode and profound emotional and intellectual intellect." His concern regarding the overemphasis of the book's cultural aspect were not very far off, as some reviewers ignored the artistic weaknesses and strengths and focused almost entirely on what it could teach the dominant culture about the Native Americans view of life.
In 1972 Marion Willard Hylton maintained that House Made of Dawn was "the tragic odyssey of a man forcibly removed from the psychic environment and placed within a culture light-years away from the attitudes, value and goals of his former life. His anguished ordeal, heightened by his encounter with a white woman, endows him at last with courage and wisdom…." While Hylton's analysis of the book is accurate, it also reflects the emphasis on this as a novel primarily about the victimization of Native Americans.
Since the 1970s, critics have accepted the novel as a part of our literary culture. They concentrate on the overall themes and their relationship with one another. For instance, as Martin Schubnell wrote in N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, the book can be interpreted as an exploration of both tribal and personal identity.
Howard Meredith has credited the book with beginning "a literary tradition of those prose narratives which previously had circulated almost exclusively within specific tribal contexts." He contends that the time was ripe for these stories to be recorded and published. "He brings American readers to a new sense of maturity through the use of the traditions of America," Meredith maintained.
Since the publication of House Made of Dawn, Momaday's literary reputation has rested on his work as a poet and critic, and he has been praised for his ability to blend Kiowa sensibilities with Western literary methods.
Kelly is an instructor of Creative Writing and Literature at Oakton Community College and College of Lake County in Illinois. Here, he explores ways that Father Olguin can be a useful character for readers who have trouble understanding House Made of Dawn.
The best approach one can take to an unfamiliar text is to burrow into it at any point of access possible, like a termite forcing an attack upon a tree. I will admit that there is much I find perplexing and uninviting about N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn. At times it seems pointlessly convoluted, while at other parts it seems painfully simplistic. There were some points in my first reading where I wanted to put the book aside, to write it off as a case of weak writing masquerading as a work of substance.
Yet then I see another connection, then another, and the faith rises within me that I might make sense of all of this, if only I knew more about the traditions of the Pueblo Indians or if I had studied Spanish nuance. With that faith in mind, I can walk through this story, looking at it from the inside, by inhabiting the character most like me. I am not a Native American. The culture that is not only described but also actually lived out through the book's structure is foreign to me. I cannot pretend to know it, and I can't dismiss it just because it is new.
I can, however, experience it through the eyes of Father Olguin—the man who comes to the reservation just as I have come to Momaday's world through the book, and tries to understand.
Father Olguin actually turns out to be a very useful guide. Though Mexican, his Catholic training has accustomed him to Western thought; as a result, he is as curious about Native American customs as I would be in his position. At the same time, I find that Father Olguin's story provides a parallel version of the book's main story.
Father Olguin is introduced in the same scene as Angela St. John, and it is his connection to the protagonist, Abel, through her that solidifies his position in the story. She appears first, disrupting the natural serenity of the reservation with a car that is noticeable from a great distance.
Father Olguin initially appears as he is dressing for mass. One of the first things we find out about the priest is that he has one bad eye, clouded over with a film and almost closed. In fiction, any abnormality like that has to have a symbolic level, especially when it has to do with something as important as sight. Father Olguin has only half of the vision that he should.
Moreover, Angela is staying at Los Ojos, translated as "The Eyes." Father Olguin is aware of her from the time that she walks into his church. Certainly, she would have been a curiosity in that setting. Readers could take his curiosity to mean that he is a man of the reservation—that his way of thinking is not like that of the outside world.
This is clearly not what Angela thinks. She approaches him to act as an intermediary between her and the Native American, as if she assumes that Father Olguin is part of both the white and Indian worlds—in other words, a member of neither. Her assumption is correct: he is certainly separated by language from his young acolyte Bonifacio, addressing him in Spanish, and he is not enough part of the community to quickly come up with the name of someone to chop her wood.
It is this function as a middleman between Indian and white societies that makes Father Olguin such an appropriate stand-in for the reader. Rather than being a part of both societies and thereby providing readers with an entrance into each one, he is actually alienated from each and unable to communicate in either environment. The bad news is that this prevents readers from learning much about either world; the good news is that this alienation mirrors what Abel is going through, and it therefore takes us closer to the soul of the story.
Father Olguin's love for Angela is represented by bees. Bees swarm at the window the first time that her physiological presence "dawns" on him and he considers how her physical features make her "nearly beautiful." Later, after Abel and Angela have made love (although it is doubtful that the priest could have known about it), and after he himself has taken honey from the beehive, he is able to think about her "without the small excitement that she had so easily provoked on him at first." He relishes the thought that she will be envious of his having better things to do than sit around thinking of her—this idea might be effective in suppressing his lust, but it raises three or four other cardinal sins that do not seem to bother him.
What Do I Read Next?
- One of Momaday's best-known works is The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), his history of the last days of the Kiowa people.
- Momaday's childhood on the Jemez reservation and at Shiprock in the Navajo country is hauntingly recounted in The Names, published in 1976. More than a memoir, it blends genealogy and folklore with personal reminiscences.
- Like Abel, the protagonist of the novel Ceremony (1977) is also a Native American returning home after service in World War II. It was written by Leslie Marmon Silko, one of the most respected contemporary Native American novelists.
- James Welch is a Native American novelist who writes about the American West. His first book, Winter in the Blood (1974), is set in the early 1970s.
- A summary of Indian perspectives can be gathered from Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present, 1492–1992 (1991), edited by Peter Nabokov and published by Penguin.
- Published in 1970, Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was an international bestseller. Subtitled "An Indian History of the American West," it presents an interesting, readable story.
- Among memoirs by Native Americans, Black Elk Speaks holds a place of high esteem. Written by poet and novelist John G. Neihardt in 1932, it was neglected until psychologist Carl Jung's interest sparked a revised edition in the 1950s.
At least in Father Olguin we can see the struggle to suppress his feelings; moreover, we can understand them better because Momaday has given his feelings an external symbol—the bees. Knowing Father Olguin helps us know Abel, even though the latter keeps his own internal struggles pushed down much more deeply within him.
When Abel is in Los Angeles, Father Olguin is still present: he is represented in the figure of his opposite, The Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah. It is as fair to use Tosamah to read Father Olguin as it is to guess that the shape of one side of a cloth will follow the other, so exact are they in their oppositeness.
The distinction goes beyond the obvious fact that one is a Catholic priest in Native American territory and the other a Native American priest living in the big city. Tosamah has friends, while Father Olguin delegates to his subordinates; Tosamah embraces mysteries while Father Olguin seeks the consolation of solving mysteries; Father Olguin is reticent—like Abel—while Tosamah's speeches ramble. Readers who have trouble perceiving the connection between Father Olguin and Abel must at least concede how unlike Abel Tosamah is.
Both priests are drawn to the distant past, which is something that Abel is trying to forget. For Tosamah, it is the stories that his grandmother shared with him about the last days of the Kiowa tribe in Montana. Father Olguin studies the same period of time in the journals left by his predecessor, Fray Nicolas. Abel's grandfather, Francisco, remembers these days, and is in fact mentioned in Fray Nicolas' journal, where he is represented as evil and dangerous. Abel could possibly avert tragedy in his own life by listening to what the old man has to say and learning from it, but he doesn't.
Tosamah grew up with stories of the distant past, and so theology comes easy to him. Abel is resistant to the past until the end of the novel. Father Olguin looks to the past to make sense of the present. He steps outside of his role as a priest and takes up the journal with a cigarette and a cup of coffee in his hand, as if whatever he hopes to find is beyond the consolations of religion, in that same very human realm as his attraction to Angela St. John's body. In the journals he finds a complete person, one who is disabled like he is, as religious as he would like to be, but who is still dissatisfied with himself, writing:
Some days He comes to me in a sourceless light that rises on His image at my bed [and] then I am caught of it [and] shine also as with lightning on me…. He does bid me speak all my love but I cannot for I am always just then under it the whole heft of it [and] am mute against it as against a little mountain heaved upon me [and] can utter no help of the thing that is done to me.
In these words Father Olguin finds comfort because he recognizes himself. They are ideas that Abel might find comfort in too.
In the end, Abel and Father Olguin find their fulfillment. Whatever old Francisco carried within him passes on to Abel at his death. This understanding sends him out to run in the canyon at dawn, as Francisco had done long before. By carrying on this tradition he accepts his past and perhaps himself.
Father Olguin's enlightenment finally comes in the simple realization that to the Indians, as to death, the question "Do you know what time it is?" is irrelevant. The lesson of his predecessor, the temptation of the flesh, the humbling experience of his crippling illness all lead him toward this moment, just as Abel is guided to it by Angela, the albino, Benally, Tosamah, and all the rest.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
Bernard A. Hirsch
In the following essay, Hirsch analyzes the characters of Martinez, Tosamaah, and Benally and their relationships with the protagonist, noting that for these characters Abel is a symbol of contempt and a reminder of their Native selves.
N. Scott Momaday, referring to his protagonist Abel, has said, "None but an Indian, I think, knows so much what it is like to have existence in two worlds and security in neither." True as this is of Abel in House Made of Dawn, it is truer still of Martinez, Tosamah, and Benally because they, unlike Abel, try earnestly to conform to Euro-American social values. Indeed, the strong responses Abel generates in each of these characters indicate their perception of something unyielding and incorruptible in him, something which throws into stark relief the humiliating spiritual compromises they have felt compelled to make. In his suffering Abel is both a sorry example and stinging rebuke to them, a warning and a goad, someone both to fear and reverence, for he reminds them of who and what they are—of what they find most contemptible in themselves and most holy. Martinez, Tosamah, and Benally have been spiritually corrupted to varying degrees by the white world, and to the extent that they have, they make Abel their scapegoat and regard him as an evil to be exorcised.
This scapegoating is most apparent in the case of Martinez who, Ben tells us, is "a cop and a bad one." [The critic adds in a footnote: "Most readers assume that Martinez is white, but given his name and the fact that a number of the novel's Indian characters have Spanish names and/or surnames, it seems more likely that he is at least part Indian or Chicano—if the latter, his situation would nonetheless parallel to a significant extent that of the urban Indians. Moreover, to regard Martinez as white is to reduce him to an overworked stereotype—the sadistic white cop—of the sort that Momaday, in his portrayal of every other white character in the novel, has scrupulously avoided."] He derives his sense of self from the power and authority vested in him by white society. That power, in his eyes, makes him superior to his "brothers" in the street by enabling him to identify with the oppressor and victimize them at will. He acts out his own version of the American Dream with every Indian he extorts, yet his violent response to Abel's slight resistance suggests that he has paid a price for the power he enjoys.
Martinez emerges, appropriately enough, from a dark alley as Ben and Abel are returning home from Henry's bar. Ben meekly complies with Martinez' order to hold out his hands, and he recalls that his hands "were shaking bad and I couldn't hold them still." He had just been paid and he gives Martinez "all I had left." Martinez then notices Abel:
Martinez told him to hold out his hands, and he did, slowly, like maybe he wasn't going to at first, with the palms up. I could see his hands in the light and they were open and almost steady. "Turn them over," Martinez said, and he was looking at them and they were almost steady.
Enraged, Martinez smashes Abel's hands with his nightstick, but Abel "didn't cry out or make a sound." From Benally's description, we can see that it is Abel's attitude rather than his actions that engenders Martinez' wrath. Martinez could not help but notice the contrast between Ben's involuntary shaking and Abel's relative steadiness, and this implied slight to his authority threatens him. His response to it indicates just how precarious his sense of self is, and the extreme viciousness of his later beating of Abel further reveals the self-hatred that is the price of the Anglo authority he covets.
By his mere presence Abel threatens the protective illusions so necessary to Martinez' emotional and psychological survival, and he poses the same threat to Tosamah and Benally. Martha Scott Trimble maintains [in her 1973 N. Scott Momaday] that "the suffering of the urban Indians is … rendered painful to watch because of their reluctance to admit to themselves that they suffer." They are so reluctant because they have been conditioned by the dominant white culture to regard their very suffering as evidence of their own inferiority. Their suffering is at least as productive of guilt as of rage and therefore they have devised what Trimble calls "strategies" to avoid acknowledging that suffering to themselves. By means of these strategies, they seek not only to adapt to white society but to retain while doing so a sense of themselves as free agents making intelligent decisions. They have chosen, in Ben's words, to "go along with it" not out of fear or because they have been seduced by the false promise of the white world, but because, they would believe, it makes sense. And as regards Tosamah and Benally, it is indeed painful to watch them disparage that which they most love and most need—their Indianness.
Tosamah, for instance, tries to better his situation by assuming a superior posture toward it—as is apparent in his use of language. In his first sermon, "The Gospel According to John," Tosamah tries to convince both himself and his congregation that he understands the white man by telling them how the white man conceives of and manipulates language. He says that "the white man deals in words, and he deals easily, with grace and sleight of hand. And in his presence, here on his own ground, you are as children…." Tosamah knows what he is talking about; his assertions are verified by Abel's experience in Los Angeles and Benally's explanation of Abel's language problems. But ironically, Tosamah uses language much as the white man does, and to much the same purpose. In fact, he uses it as Martinez uses fear and violence. Like Martinez, he has carved out a little fiefdom of sorts in the Los Angeles ghetto, and language is his means of controlling it.
By manipulating a variety of verbal styles in "The Gospel According to John," Tosamah keeps his parishioners off balance, dazzling as much as enlightening them. Through an ever-shifting combination of biblical oratory, street talk, exposition, and the simple, direct narrative style of the storyteller, Tosamah tries to relate to his audience on several levels simultaneously, to establish at once his oneness with and superiority to them. He wants to be perceived as a follow Indian sharing a similar culture and values, as a ghetto brother sharing the hardship of the streets, and as a teacher in both the shamanistic and professorial senses. The sermon is full of insight, but it is a masterpiece of verbal gymnastics as well.
Tosamah is perceptive enough to know that the agonizing conflict within himself also exists to varying degrees in the other urban Indians, and he exploits their insecurity and self-doubt to shore up his own tenuous conception of self. Indeed, his need continually to assert himself over the others is one indication of his sense of inadequacy. Like them, he both loves and fears his Indianness, and this entails a roughly similar ambivalence toward the white man. Tosamah sees through the white man to a significant extent and pointedly ridicules his blindness, but like Martinez he also feels a troubling yet insistent need to identify with his oppressor. This need underlies his use of language to intimidate and manipulate the other urban Indians. But he also feels the same need with regard to his heritage and his people. When Tosamah speaks so lovingly, so evocatively in his second sermon, "The Way to Rainy Mountain," of his journey to rediscover his Indian self, we cannot doubt his sincerity. This sermon is longer than his first, and it is free of the verbal gamesmanship that characterizes much of "The Gospel." Still, he needs to be a winner. He sees in his parishioners, and even more clearly in Abel, the fate of Indians in a white world, and he cannot accept such a density. If white society has consigned him, despite his education, intelligence, and talent, to a small, severely limited space, it has at least taught him how to control that space. Like Martinez, he has learned to exalt himself by undermining others. Oppressed, he becomes an oppressor victimizing, as Martinez does, the only people he can—his own.
As Martinez batters Abel's body, so Tosamah batters his spirit, and Momaday, through his use of narrative structure, stresses the parallel between them. The novel's second chapter, "The Priest of the Sun," in effect begins and ends with a sermon by Tosamah. These sermons frame a badly beaten, semiconscious Abel whose murder trial and life in Los Angeles pass in fragments before him. Ironically, Tosamah's second sermon, which recounts his journey to the land of his people, the Kiowa, to visit his grandmother's grave, reveals the path to salvation for Abel, tells how he might be made whole again. But Abel is not there to hear the sermon. Indeed, as we later learn from Benally, it was after Tosamah had earlier humiliated Abel that, in Ben's words, "He went downhill pretty fast …," decided "to get even with" Martinez, and was beaten half to death by him. Tosamah calls himself "Priest of the Sun," and he is sufficiently imaginative, sensitive, understanding, and articulate to be that. But he lives his day-to-day life as Coyote, the trickster who is both culture hero and buffoon. Like Coyote, Tosamah has the capacity to bring spiritual gifts to his people, to be a savior of sorts, but his actions are generally self-centered and done in ig-norance—in Tosamah's case, a self-imposed igno-rance—of their consequences for the world, his people, and himself. Tosamah is quick to take advantage of others to satisfy his own needs, but because he is himself a slave to those needs (emotional and psychological needs as opposed to Coyote's purely physical ones), he is at times the victim of his own tricks. Coyote is a master of self-deception and, as his own ambivalence toward and treatment of Abel indicates, so is John Big Bluff Tosamah.
Despite his awareness of the beauty and value of his native culture, despite his profound understanding of the nearly overwhelming spiritual problems modern America has created for his people, Tosamah is himself tormented by his Indianness. Abel, in his view, is the incarnation of that Indianness, and as such he fills Tosamah with shame and guilt and reverence. Tosamah, for all his insight into its workings, has been conditioned by the white world and by himself in response to that world to see with two pairs of eyes and the result, at least as regards Abel, is a mélange of contradictory impressions and impulses. For example, Ben remembers Tosamah's warning him about Abel: "He was going to get us all in trouble, Tosamah said. Tosamah sized him up right away…." Perceptive as he is, Tosamah can sense in Abel the unyielding integrity that will make him especially vulnerable in urban Los Angeles, that will keep him from "fitting in"; and that integrity implicitly confronts Tosamah with his own compromising and compromised self.
When Tosamah speaks of Abel's trial, he is both ironic and envious. True, the white society that is puzzled by Abel is the target of his irony, and he ostensibly mocks its view of Abel as "a real primitive sonuvabitch" and a "poor degenerate Indian"; but his own view of Abel, as his warning to Benally and his later psychological attack on Abel make clear, parallels to some extent that of the society he ridicules. Consider in this regard his impression of how Abel's testimony must have sounded to the court:
"'Well, you honors, it was this way, see? I cut me up a little snake meat out there in the sand.' Christ, man, that must have been our finest hour, better than Little Bighorn. That little no-count cat must have had the whole Jesus scheme right in the palm of his hand."
Tosamah's tone conveys both embarrassment and admiration here, but alone with Ben in the privacy of Ben's apartment he lets his admiration show. Of the court's verdict, he says:
"They put that cat away, man. They had to. It's part of the Jesus scheme. They, man. They put all of us renegades, us diehards, away sooner or later…. Listen here, Benally, one of these nights there's going to be a full red moon, a hunter's moon, and we're going to find us a wagon train full of women and children. Now you won't believe this, but I drink to that now and then."
If Ben "won't believe this" it is because the sentiments Tosamah here expresses hardly parallel his actions, and Tosamah knows it. He seeks to identify with Abel, referring to "us renegades, us diehards," and to the white man as "they," but merely to wish now and again for vengeance is an empty gesture. No doubt Tosamah's desire to avenge himself on those who have poisoned his spirit is sincere, but the courage, the spirit of defiance he recognizes in Abel, lies dormant within his own heart. Ben, as he does throughout the novel, undercuts Tosamah's pretentiousness, telling us that "He's always going on like that, Tosamah, talking crazy and showing off…."
Seeing Abel through white eyes, Tosamah finds him embarrassing. Though Tosamah ridicules Anglo cultural arrogance and the stereotypes that feed it, Abel—alcoholic, at times violent, and inar-ticulate—seems to him to lend credence to the stereotypes; thus Tosamah, educated and articulate as he is, feels misrepresented, degraded by association. This is the "trouble" of which he warns Benally. Seeing Abel through Indian eyes, Tosamah cannot help but admire him as a kind of modern-day warrior who refuses to give in meekly to the torment and tribulations of urban Indian life. But if Tosamah as an Indian is vicariously elevated by Abel's integrity, he is at the same time humbled by the lack of his own. Viewed from either perspective, then, white or Indian, Abel engenders in Tosamah self-contempt so strong that it is beyond enduring; he is anathema to the illusory conception of his own superiority that is Tosamah's primary means of emotional and psychological survival. Therefore, because of the guilt he feels, a guilt stemming from a profound sense of his own inadequacy, he projects upon Abel his own diminished sense of self.
Tosamah needs to tear Abel down and one evening, during a poker game at his place, the opportunity presents itself. In a seemingly expansive mood Tosamah, Ben tells us, was "going on about everything … and talking big." Ben, seeing that this talk bothers Abel, wants to leave, but Abel, already drunk and becoming more so, ignores him. Ben recalls,
I guess Tosamah knew what he was thinking too, because pretty soon he started in on him, not directly, you know, but he started talking about longhairs and the reservation and all. I kept wishing he would shut up, and I guess the others did, too … because right away they got quiet and just started looking down at their hands, you know—like they were trying to decide what to do. I knew that something bad was going to happen.
Abel, too drunk to seriously threaten Tosamah, lunges impotently toward him, and the others, to relieve their own discomfort, laugh at his futility. Ben tells us that the laughter "seemed to take all the fight out of him. It was like he had to give up when they laughed; it was like all of a sudden he didn't care about anything anymore." Abel's response to the laughter indicates that, though perhaps not consciously aware of it, he attacked Tosamah not merely to avenge a personal insult but to avenge all the Indians at the table and back home, to avenge the honor of his people. Tosamah, who "doesn't come from the reservation" himself, has made the others ashamed of what they are, and when they try to dispel their shame by projecting it onto Abel, Abel's rage loses its foundation and he feels empty and alone. Ben remembers "that he was hurt by what had happened; he was hurt inside somehow, and pretty bad." Tosamah, the Priest of the Sun of the Holiness Pan-Indian Rescue Mission, has lost sight of the needs of his people in pursuit of his own isolated ends and in so doing, as his attack on Abel symbolically suggests, he has violated the very essence of his own Indianness. By shaming his people he has done the white man's work.
Unlike Tosamah, Benally is compassionate towards Abel; he is, from the time of their first meeting, instinctively protective of him. He trains Abel for his new job, introduces him around, and though he has very little himself, readily shares his home, his food, and his clothing. Most important of all, he shares with Abel, and Abel alone, his dearest possession—his native religion. It is Ben's honest, profound spirituality that sets him apart from the other urban Indians. As has often been noted, Ben is the one who has the vision during the peyote ceremony, and whereas Tosamah's understanding of his native culture seems at times largely intellectual, Ben "lives his religion on a level deeper than the intellect, the level of spirit and emotion" [Carole Oleson, "The Remembered Earth: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," South Dakota Review II, No. 1 (Spring 1973)]. Yet there are definite similarities between Ben and Tosamah as well, and to ignore them is to obscure considerably the scope and horror of the spiritual compromises white society, for its own material and psychological convenience, requires of Indians.
Sincere as his religious beliefs are and sensitive as he is, Benally has compromised himself almost as severely as Tosamah has, and this is most apparent from the contradictions in his narrative. Ben is trying earnestly to sell himself on the American Dream in a vain effort to convince himself that the life he feels compelled to live is in fact better and ultimately more fulfilling than the life he knew on the reservation. His pathetic monologue on the wonders of Los Angeles is a case in point:
It's a good place to live…. Once you find your way around and get used to everything, you wonder how you ever got along out there where you came from. There's nothing there, you know, but the land, and the land is empty and dead. Everything is here, everything you could ever want. You never have to be alone.
But for all practical purposes Ben, until Abel comes, is alone. He has drinking buddies, true, but no one with whom he can share what is most important to him. Moreover, the "radios and cars and clothes and big houses" which, Ben says, "you'd be crazy not to want" and which are "so easy to have" have managed to elude him. He lives in a leaky, dilapidated slum tenement, gets his clothes second-hand, and is a cipher in the plant where he works. He willfully mistakes the racist ridicule of his co-workers for good-natured kidding and the pseudo-amiable hustle of the salespeople in the stores for friendliness. The extent and cost of his self-deception, however, are most painfully revealed in his comments about the land.
Ben's narrative is punctuated at several points by contrapuntal remembrances which rise unbidden in his mind, memories of growing up on the reservation, on "the land south of Wide Ruins where I come from," on the land he still loves. These recollections are full of precise, beautiful, and evocative details which belie his remark that "the land is empty and dead." The land he recalls is rich with vitality and meaning; it is the sacred center of all life and being. He remembers childhood on the land:
And you were little and right there in the center of everything, the sacred mountains, the snow-covered mountains and the hills, the gullies and the flats, the sundown and the night, everything—where you were little, where you were and had to be.
The vision of the land inherent in his memories is that which contemporary America requires him to abandon, and he tries to do just that. After all, "That's the only way you can live in a place like this [Los Angeles]. You have to forget about the way it was, how you grew up and all." The need to "go along with it" is a recurrent motif in Ben's narrative, and all that gives his life meaning must be subordinated to it:
If you come from the reservation, you don't talk about it much; I don't know why. I guess you figure that it won't do you much good, so you just forget about it. You think about it sometimes, you can't help it, but then you just try to put it out of your mind … it mixes you up sometimes….
But Abel does not let Ben "forget about it." He is to Ben what he is to Tosamah, the incarnation of all that is Indian within him, and Ben intuitively apprehends this. He remarks:
We were kind of alike, though, him and me. After a while he told me where he was from, and right away I knew we were going to be friends. We're related somehow, I think.
Abel's mere presence evokes his memories of home, and the first of Ben's "flashbacks" occurs as he recalls their first real conversation. Ben's history resembles Abel's in certain respects, and his memories [according to Lawrence J. Evers in his "Words and Place: A Reading of House Made of Dawn, " Western American Literature XI, No. 4 (February 1977)] "reveal a sense of place very like that Abel groped for on his return to Walatowa." What is especially sad about these memories is that they convey a sense of wholeness and security that contrasts sharply with the fragmented, fear-ridden, tenuous existence Ben now endures. He appears to regain a modicum of that sense with Abel, however; Ben knows that his most precious treasures are safe with him:
"House made of dawn." I used to tell him about those old ways, the stories and the signs, Beauty-way and Night Chant. I sang some of those things and told him what they meant, what I thought they were about.
Abel is wonderfully receptive, as Ben knew he would be, and "would want me to sing like that." And Abel, Ben fears, is the only one who would. Just as Tosamah finds "longhairs" like Abel an embarrassment to him in the white world, so is Benally, within the context of that world, embarrassed by his own best impulses—and that world includes the other urban Indians. He tells of a night when he and Abel, along with the others, are drinking and having fun on a hill overlooking the city:
I started to sing all by myself. The others were singing, too, but it was the wrong kind of thing, and I wanted to pray. I didn't want them to hear me, because they were having a good time, and I was ashamed, I guess. I kept down because I didn't want anybody but him to hear.
Only with Abel does Benally feel good about being an Indian; only with Abel can he free his spirit in song and prayer, and see past and future merge into an all-inclusive present. When Abel is in the hospital recovering from his beating, Ben, to comfort him, makes up a plan about going home, about "going out into the hills on horses and alone. It was going to be early in the morning, and we were going to see the sun coming up." There, they would "sing the old songs," sing "about the way it used to be, how there was nothing all around but the hills and the sunrise and the clouds." Ben at first did not take his plan seriously, but Abel "believed in it" and "I guess I started to believe in it, too." Dream and waking reality come together for Ben in Abel's presence, albeit briefly, and the deepest impulses of his spirit are vindicated in Abel's existence. In that respect Abel is truly a blessing for Benally. But they live in a world uncongenial to these impulses, a world contemptuous of vision and song, and in that world Abel also becomes an agonizing problem for Ben.
Ben's Indianness can find expression only through his religion and his friendship with Abel, and in a world hostile to Indians both, Ben feels, must be sheltered and protected. This is one reason why he tries to shepherd Abel as he does at the factory and why he takes him into his home. That Ben truly believes he is acting in Abel's best interest is undeniable, and in a very real sense he is. Abel sorely needs the kind of support Ben provides, and if Tosamah's attempt to isolate Abel is a denial of his own Indianness, Ben's generous inclusion of Abel in his own life is a wonderfully rich expression of his. Moreover, by telling Abel of the old traditions and teaching him the old songs, Ben not only provides him with necessary spiritual sustenance in a world unresponsive to spiritual need, but prepares him for his return to Walatowa to try again, this time more successfully, to find himself in the life of his people. But Ben's concern for Abel is motivated by fear as well as by compassion. Tosamah feared that Abel "was going to get us all in trouble," and so does Ben. He speaks to Abel of things Indian, for, as we have seen, his own spirit requires as much, but throughout his narrative he emphasizes repeatedly Abel's inability to "get along." He understands why Abel has difficulty adjusting and implies that he himself has faced similar obstacles, but he never questions the need to accommodate oneself to the white man's world, and that is why he eventually loses patience with Abel. Abel's problems, in Ben's view, go beyond those which confront every relocated Indian, severe as these problems may be. What Tosamah recognizes as Abel's unyielding integrity Benally sees as sheer obstinacy; or rather, the sustaining illusion he has constructed about the "good life" in Los Angeles demands that he see it as such. After all, Abel has a steady job, a place to live, drinking buddies—everything he needs, Ben would believe, to make it in urban America. Yet despite these advantages, he persists in being a trial to those who care for him.
Abel scares Ben. He scares him when he subtly defies Martinez in the alley and he scares him during Tosamah's harangue about "longhairs and the reservation." In both instances his actions threaten to undermine Ben's illusions by confronting him with the truth that life in urban America is incompatible with his identity as an Indian. Benally, as Carole Oleson has said, has whitened himself considerably by removing his religion from his daily life. He retains the songs and traditions within himself, and that is good, but he also compromises the old religion by confining it like a retarded child whom the family loves but of whom they are ashamed. Like Angela St. John, whose affair with Abel in Walatowa puts her in touch, if only temporarily, with her body's potential for joy and wonder, he turns off his own light, as it were, denies his own intuitive wisdom in a futile attempt to avoid emotional and psychological conflicts which might prove irreconcilable. And like Father Olguin, Benally also preaches the white man's re-ligion—not in the form of Christianity, as Olguin does, but in its true aspects of materialism and conformity; like both Olguin and his predecessor, Fray Nicolás, he would convert the Indian to a new and alien faith for, like them, he needs converts to vindicate his own. Thus it is that when Abel ultimately proves "unregenerate," the usually mild Benally, possessed by anger but more by fear, loses patience:
He wouldn't let anybody help him, and I guess I got mad, too, and one day we had a fight … he was just sitting there and saying the worst thing he could think of, over and over. I didn't like to hear that kind of talk, you know; it made me kind of scared, and I told him to cut it out. I guess I was more scared than mad; anyway I had had about all I could take.
As with Martinez and Tosamah earlier, Ben knew "something bad was going to happen and … didn't want any part of it." At this point Abel goes to look for Martinez, but even after he is gone and Ben cools off, Ben nonetheless maintains that "It had to stop, you know; something had to happen."
Benally, then, like Tosamah, is a priest whose saving message, because he has divorced his religion from his everyday life, has an ironic as well as a revelatory dimension. It is especially ironic that despite his deeper, more sincere spirituality, Ben lacks Tosamah's awareness of the redemptive potential of the old ways of seeing and knowing. As the "Night Chanter," Ben, as we have seen, is essential to any hope Abel has for recovery, but Ben himself does not see the sharing of himself and his religion in this way. The road to recovery he consciously charts, as we have also seen, involves passively assimilating the values and accommodating oneself to the demands of white America, even at the cost of one's heritage and identity. Thus the role of "Night Chanter" assumes a second, and contrary, meaning. Though with the best intentions, Benally also, and quite unknowingly, chants the dark night of the soul, the tortured, fragmented, solipsistic state of being that Los Angeles comes to symbolize in the novel. Through the distorting lens of his own desperate need for some sense of meaning to his life, Ben sees an urban paradise, and it is this vision that he consciously advances as salvation.
Though it exists to differing degrees in each of them and, given their enormously diverse natures, manifests itself in various ways, Martinez, Tosamah, and Benally all share a single quality: self-contempt. Each is ashamed of being what he is, of being an Indian, and that is why Abel, when he is relocated in Los Angeles, becomes a kind of sacrifice to their fear and desperation. A "longhair" from the reservation, he is, among other things, a constant reminder to them of how they are perceived by the dominant culture and of that which has made them wretched. They have been made to feel, against all logic and common sense, that their suffering is somehow deserved because of what they are; thus each of them projects his own diminished sense of self upon Abel and responds to that self in his own way. Martinez tries to obliterate it through violence, Tosamah tries to disassociate himself from it, and Benally tries to remake it to fit the white world he inhabits. The issue is agonizingly complicated, however, because the very Indianness within them which they have been taught to hate is that which they intuitively love. Tosamah and Benally especially know in their very depths that fulfillment and wholeness lie in the realization and free expression of their Indian selves. Tosamah has made a long journey to the land of his people to rediscover his Indianness, and Ben hoards the old songs like treasure within his heart. Therefore, their self-contempt is further intensified by a profound sense of guilt stemming from their perceived inability to live their Indianness, by what they themselves see as a personal betrayal of their heritage and of themselves. However, though it saddens him, Momaday does not condemn the urban Indians for feeling as they do. Their self-hatred is in fact his most telling indictment of a modern America which relentlessly tries to compel its native peoples to barter dignity and self-respect for material, emotional, and psychological survival.
Source: Bernard A. Hirsch, "Self-Hatred and Spiritual Corruption in House Made of Dawn," in Western American Literature, Vol. XVII, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 307-20.
Vernon E. Lattin
In the following excerpt, Lattin emphasizes Momaday's presentation of the failure of Christianity in the Indian culture and the desire of the latter for a renewed reverence for the land in its mythic vision of wholeness.
The Native American novel House Made of Dawn … presents the failure of Christianity. Further, its mythic vision of existence becomes an alternative not only to Christianity but to modern civilization based on secular, technological structures….
Father Olguin reveals the inadequacies of Christianity for the Indian. Although attempting to live within the Indian community, he meets only with isolation and failure because he cannot understand the Indian…. Near the end of the novel, awakened from sleep by Abel's announcement that his grandfather is dead, Father Olguin can only complain about being disturbed. After Abel leaves, the priest illuminates the irrelevance of Christianity for the Indian by crying out after Abel in the darkness: "I can understand … I understand, do you hear?… I understand. Oh God. I understand—I understand!" Olguin and his religion have never understood the Indian culture, and Christianity is but a futile cry.
Also in House Made of Dawn, a Native American, the Rev. J. B. B. Tosamah, Pastor and Priest of the Sun, is a more complex religious figure than Father Olguin. Living in Los Angeles among urban Indians, Tosamah represents the religious confidence man in his most subtle form: he is both critic and supporter of the white way; he is both priest and medicine man; he is both friend and foe. Ultimately, he is a religious sham, speaking the truth but never the whole truth. His full name reveals and hides him: he is "The Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah."
[Tosamah] tries to span two religions and cultures; neither Christian nor pagan, he remains isolated from himself and his tribal past. A sacred vision emerges in the novel when Abel discovers himself and when … he returns home through his grandfather and his racial memory. His quest takes him through the typical monomythic pattern of descent and death, through "loneliness and fear" … until he is able to return to the reservation and join the ancient religious ritual, the run against evil and death…. [He] will be able to accept his place in the universe and defeat the fear that has dominated his life.
Abel's fear arises from unconscious recognition of individual, racial, tribal, and religious extinction. He cannot see the continuity, the oneness of life, because of his fragmented existence…. Like the Bahkyush tribe, which was almost destroyed by marauders and then by the plagues, he makes a "journey along the edge of oblivion," a journey which takes him through the white man's war, a series of brief sexual encounters, prison, and finally near-death from a brutal beating by a Los Angeles policeman. Out of their suffering, the Bahkyush acquired a tragic sense, a "dignity and bearing" which made them holy, "medicine men … rainmakers and eagle hunters." During the depth of his despair, close to extinction, Abel likewise discovers some religious truths and acquires a holy vision that returns him to himself and his tribal past.
His final vision results from pagan realities of which he has gradually become aware. During the feast of Santiago, which takes place in the Middle, "an ancient place,"… the sacred center, the "axis munde," Abel is forced to confront his fear, his enemy in the form of a huge, grotesque Albino….
[The resulting struggle between them] reenacts the spiritual confrontation between creative and destructive elements that has been going on forever. At the end of the battle, Abel appropriately kneels down to watch the white man die. During the later trial, when the white world disposes of Abel with "their language," Abel's defender, Father Olguin, speaks of the "psychology of witchcraft" and of "an act of imagination,"… unable to recognize the religious significance of Abel's act. Abel understands, however: "They must know that he would kill the white man again, if he had the chance, that there could be no hesitation whatsoever. For he would know what the white man was, and he would kill him if he could."
Abel's quest also takes him back to a reverence for all existence and for the land which supports this existence. Elsewhere Momaday has written of modern America's need to come to accept the land, to develop an "American Land ethic … not only as it is revealed to us immediately through our senses, but also as it is perceived more truly in the long turn of seasons and of years. And we must come to moral terms." One of the major themes of House Made of Dawn is that the people will return in a new dawn to this ancient way, throwing off the invasion and conquests of the white people and their religious vision. The narrator speaks in the novel of a prehistoric civilization that "had gone out among the hills for a little while and would return; and then everything would be restored to an older age, and time would have returned upon itself and a bad dream of invasion and change would have been dissolved in an hour before the dawn…. In part, this explains the significance of the chant "House Made of Dawn" …: it is a prayer for a return, a rebirth of the old way….
At the end of the novel, beside his grandfather's deathbed, [Abel] is for six mornings reminded of all that is; and within these six dawns of his grandfather's dying he is reunited with his individual, racial, and religious self….
Finally, Abel's life blends with his grandfather's death, and he takes up the past and runs onward…. [As] Abel joins the ancient race against evil and death, he unites himself with his sacred past. He also completes the circle of the novel, which begins and ends with his running; he completes the circle of the history of the American continent, which began with this original pagan religion, survived the Christian polemics and onslaught, and now returns to its origin; and he completes the infinite circle itself, the circle of life which all ancient people recognized and accepted. With such knowledge, the reader recognizes that the running at the end of the novel, with Abel breathing a song, is both beginning and end….
[Momaday has] created a new romanticism, with a reverence for the land, a transcendent optimism, and a sense of mythic wholeness. [His] reverence for the land can be compared to the pastoral vision found in most mainstream American literature, but the two visions contain essential differences. In Norris's The Octopus, for example, the wheat remains, a symbol of the vitalistic force moving everything, but this vision of cyclically renewed life is unconvincing, overshadowed by the railroad's evil….
[Many] white heroes fail or are unconvincing because their relationship to the land has been more fantasy than history and because they are conquerors and violators. Their vision must then remain either an anomaly or forlorn and tragic. This is even more true of modern Americans, whose experience as a nation, as Momaday has said, is a repudiation of the pastoral ideal, an uprooting of man from the land, and a consequent "psychic dislocation … in time and space." In contrast, Abel … can return and rediscover, because [he has] a land vision that preceded the white conquerors. Abel's grandfather, a farmer and holy man who lives by the organic calendar [is] … able to sustain the shock of civilization and technology and preserve and transmit the land vision that [he has] never violated as [an individual] or as a people. The bad dream of violation may not end, but Abel … can transcend the nightmare, and like the Bahkyush tribe, [he] can return to the land….
[Momaday is] willing to face the "silence of the transcendent" in the modern world. Rejecting the phenomonological limitation of writers like Beckett and Kafka, where the dissolution of the hero's quest is the form, [he creates] an optimistic fiction with the protagonist returning to wholeness and mythic vision and transcending the limitations of both society and time…. This quest can be contrasted with postmodern works like Pynchon's V, in which Herbert Stencil's quest is undercut by a denial of form and meaning in the universe, or with Gravity's Rainbow, in which the hundreds of characters, appearing and disappearing, deny the possibility of individual, personal transcendence. Abel's … pagan vision, however, is a way of viewing the world as a religious whole: it is belief. This sacred transcendence is also different from attempts at secular transcendence in novels like Humboldt's Gift or the popular Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. [Moreover, Momaday's novel is a form of rediscovery, an attempt] to return to the sacred art of storytelling and myth-making that is part of Indian oral tradition. [It is an attempt] to push the secular mode of modern fiction into the sacred mode, a faith and recognition in the power of the word which "comes from nothing into sound and meaning … [and] gives origin to all things."
This rediscovery of the land, of mythic vision, and of the sacred word offers modern America not only a kind of fiction seldom seen, but, if [Annette Kolodny in her The Lay of the Land] is correct in her analysis of America's failure to deal with the environment and in her assessment that the twentieth century demands a new pastoral vision offering "some means of understanding and altering the disastrous attitudes toward the physical setting that we have inherited from our national past," then perhaps the mythic vision and land ethic of those people our nation so brutally conquered are appropriate and even necessary at this time.
Source: Vernon E. Lattin "The Quest for Mythic Vision in Contemporary Native American and Chicano Fiction," in American Literature, Duke University Press, Vol. L, No. 4, January, 1979, pp. 625-40.
Lawrence J. Evers
An American critic and educator, Evers has authored several books on Native American songs and has served as president of the Association for Study of American Indian Literatures. In the following essay, he examines Momaday's focus on language, landscape, and Native American rituals and narratives in House Made of Dawn.
Native American oral traditions are not monolithic, nor are the traditions with which Momaday works in House Made of Dawn—Kiowa, Navajo, and Towan Pueblo. Yet there are, he suggests [in "A Conversation with N. Scott Momaday," Sun Tracks: An American Indian Literary Magazine 2, No. 2 (1976)], "common denominators." Two of the most important of these are the native American's relation to the land and his regard for language.
By imagining who and what they are in relation to particular landscapes, cultures and individual members of cultures form a close relation with those landscapes. Following D. H. Lawrence and others, Momaday terms this a "sense of place" [in his "A Special Sense of Place, " appearing in Viva, Santa Fe New Mexican, (7 May 1972)]. A sense of place derives from the perception of a culturally imposed symbolic order on a particular physical topography. A superb delineation of one such symbolic order is offered by Tewa anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz in his study The Tewa World from which the following prayer is taken:
Within and around the earth, within and around the hills, within and around the mountains, your authority returns to you.
The Tewa singer finds in the landscape which surrounds him validation for his own song, and that particular topography becomes a cultural landscape, at once physical and symbolic. Like Kosahn, Momaday's grandmother, the native American draws from it "strength enough to hold still against all the forces of chance and disorder" [" An American Land Ethic," Sierra Club Bulletin 55 (February 1970)].
The manner in which cultural landscapes are created interests Momaday, and the whole of his book The way to Rainy Mountain may be seen as an account of that process. During their migration journey the Kiowa people "dared to imagine and determine who they were…. The journey recalled is among other things the revelation of one way in which these traditions are conceived, developed, and interfused in the human mind." The Kiowa journey, like that recounted in emergence narratives of other tribes, may be seen as a movement from chaos to order, from discord to harmony. In this emergence the landscape plays a crucial role, for cultural landscapes are created by the imaginative interaction of societies of men and particular geographies.
In the Navajo emergence narrative, for example, First Man and First Woman accompanied by Coyote and other actors from the animal world journey upward through four underworlds into the present Fifth World. The journey advances in a series of movements from chaos to order, and each movement takes the People toward greater social and symbolic definition. The cloud pillars of the First World defined only by color and direction become in the Fifth World the sacred mountains of the four directions, the most important coordinates in an intricate cultural geography. As with the Tewa and the Kiowa, that cultural landscape symbolizes the Navajo conception of order, the endpoint of their emergence journey. Through the emergence journey, a collective imaginative endeavor, the Navajos determined who and what they were in relation to the land.
The extraordinary interest in geography exhibited in Navajo oral literature then may be seen as an effort to evoke harmony in those narratives by reference to the symbolic landscape of the present world. Significantly, a major test theme in Navajo oral literature requires identification of culturally important geographic features. Consider the Sun's test of the Hero Twins in one of the final episodes in the emergence narrative [as recounted in Ethelou Yazzie's 1971 Navajo History]:
He asked them to identify various places all over the surface of the earth. He asked, "Where is your home?" The boys knew where their home was. They pointed out Huerfano Mountain and said that was where they lived. The Sun next asked, "What mountain is that in the East?"
"That's Sis Naajiní (Blanca Peak)," replied the boys.
"What mountain is down here below us?"
"That's Tsoodzi (Mount Taylor)," said the boys.
"What mountain is that in the West?"
"That's Dook'o'oosííd (San Francisco Peak)."
"Now, what mountain is that over in the north?"
"Those are the Dibé Nitsaa (La Plata Mountains)."
Because all the boy's answers were correct, the Sun said goodby to them as they were lowered down to the earth at the place called Tó Sidoh (Hot Springs).
Through their knowledge of the Navajo cultural landscape the Twins proved who and what they were to the Sun.
The pattern of the emergence narrative—a journey toward order symbolized by a cultural landscape—is repeated in Navajo chantway rituals. A patient requires a chantway ritual when his life is in some way out of order or harmony. In order for that harmony to be restored he must be taken through a ritual re-emergence journey paralleling that of the People. It is important to note the role of the singer and his ritual song here, for without songs there can be no cure or restoration of order. Through the power of the chanter's words the patient's life is brought under ritual control, and he is cured.
We come round, then, to another of the "common denominators" Momaday finds in oral traditions: attitude toward language. Of Kiowa oral tradition Momaday writes [in The Way to Rainy Mountain]: "A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things." It is this concept, remarkably like one text version of the Navajo origin giving "One Word" as the name of the original state of the universe, which forms the center of Tosamah's sermon on St. John's gospel in the novel [House Made of Dawn]. But more germane to our discussion of oral tradition generally is the related notion that "by means of words can a man deal with the world on equal terms." It is only through words that a man is able to express his relation to place. Indeed, it is only through shared words or ritual that symbolic landscapes are able to exist. So it is that the Tewa singer, the Navajo chanter, and the Kiowa "man of words" preserve their communities through their story and song. Without them there would be no community. One contemporary Navajo medicine man [Curley Mustache] suggests that loss of ceremonial words will signal the end of the world: "The medicine men who have knowledge in the Blessing Way (Hozho ji) will all evidently be lost. The words to the song will vanish from their memory, and they will not know how to begin to sing."
In this context we can better appreciate Abel's dilemma in House Made of Dawn. As Momaday suggests [in "A Conversation with N. Scott Momaday"]: "One of the most tragic things about Abel, as I think of him, is his inability to express himself. He is in some ways a man without a voice…. So I think of him as having been removed from oral tradition."
House Made of Dawn opens and closes with the formulaic words which enclose all Jemez pueblo tales—dypaloh and qtsedaba, placing it consciously in that oral tradition. As many oral narratives, the novel is shaped around a movement from discord to harmony and is structurally and thematically cyclic. The prologue is dominated by the race, a central theme in the novel as Momaday has suggested [in an interview appearing in Puerto del Sol 12 (1973)]:
I see [House Made of Dawn] as a circle. It ends where it begins and it's informed with a kind of thread that runs through it and holds everything together. The book itself is a race. It focuses upon the race, that's the thing that does hold it all together. But it's a constant repetition of things too.
[Elsie Clews Parsons tells us in the 1925 The Pueblo of Jemez] that racing is a conspicuous feature of Jemez ceremonialism. The winter race Abel runs in the prologue and at the end of the novel is the first race in the Jemez ceremonial season, an appropriate ceremonial beginning. But the race itself may be seen as a journey, a re-emergence journey analogous to that mentioned in connection with Navajo and Kiowa oral tradition. Indeed, the language echoes a Navajo re-emergence song sung in the Night Chant, from which the title of the book is taken.
These journey and emergence themes begin to unfold in the following scene as Francisco goes in his wagon to meet the bus returning Abel to Walatowa after WWII. The wagon road on which he rides is parallel to the modern highway on which Abel rides. The two roads serve as familiar metaphors for the conflicting paths Abel follows in the novel, and Momaday reinforces the conflict by parallel auditory motifs as well. As the wagon road excites in Francisco memories of his own race "for good hunting and harvests," he sings good sounds of harmony and balance. At the same time the recurrent whine of tires on the highway is constantly in the background until "he heard the sharp wheeze of the brakes as the big bus rolled to a stop in front of the gas pump…." The re-emergence theme is suggested in the passage by the presence of the reed trap—recalling the reed of emergence, and the fact that Abel returns "ill." He is drunk, of course, but he is also ill, out of balance, in the manner of a patient in a Navajo chantway.
Abel's genealogy, the nature of his illness, and its relation to the auditory motifs mentioned above are further defined in the seven fragments of memory he experiences as he walks above the Cañon de San Diego in the first dawn following his return. At the same time these fragments establish a context for Abel's two prominent encounters in Part I with Angela Grace St. John and with the albino Juan Reyes Fragua.
Abel's genealogy is complicated. He did not know who his father was. "His father was a Navajo, they said, or a Sia, or an Isleta, an outsider anyway," which made Abel "somehow foreign and strange." The ties Abel does have to Walatowa are through his mother whose father, Francisco—both sacristan and kiva participant—is the illegitimate son of the consumptive priest Fray Nicolas V. Through Francisco, Abel is a direct descendant of the Bahkyush, a group of Towan-speaking pueblos who immigrated to Jemez in the mid-nineteenth century. He is a "direct [descendant] of those men and women who had made that journey along the edge of oblivion," an experience which gave them a "tragic sense." Abel, as his Bahkyush ancestors, is on just such a "journey along the edge of oblivion" in the novel.
Abel's journey in Part I is a journey of return to Walatowa and his illness is most explicitly related to a WWII experience. At the end of his seven memory fragments in the first dawn of his return Abel recalls:
This—everything in advance of his going—he could remember whole and in detail. It was the recent past, the intervention of days and years without meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused, that he could not put together in his mind.
In the confusion of war among soldiers who recognized him only as a "chief" speaking in "Sioux or Algonquin or something," Abel lost both the sense of place which characterized his tribal culture and the very community which supports that sense of place. "He didn't know where he was, and he was alone." Incredibly, he doesn't even recognize the earth: "He reached for something, but he had no notion of what it was; his hand closed upon the earth and the cold, wet leaves."
Mechanical sounds are associated with Abel's disorientation. The "low and incessant" sound of the tank descending upon him reaches back in the novel to the "slow whine of tires" Francisco hears on the highway and looks ahead to the sound of Angela's car intruding on his vision in the first dawn above the valley as it creeps along the same highway toward the Jemez church. These are the same mechanical sounds Abel tried "desperately to take into account" as the bus took him away to the war—again on the same highway. They are the sounds that reminded him as he left the pueblo to go to war that "the town and the valley and the hills" could no longer center him, that he was now "centered upon himself."
That Angela Grace St. John, the pregnant wife of a Los Angeles physician who comes to Walatowa seeking a cure for her own ailments, will become an obstacle in Abel's re-emergence journey is first suggested by the extensive auditory motifs of Part I. Yet her perceptions of his problems and of the Indian world generally have earned the sympathy of some readers. Perhaps her most seductive perception is that of the significance of the corn dancers at Cochiti Pueblo:
Their eyes were held upon some vision out of range, something away in the end of distance, some reality that she did not know, or even suspect. What was it that they saw? Probably they saw nothing after all,… nothing at all. But then that was the trick, wasn't it? To see nothing at all,… nothing in the absolute. To see beyond the landscape, beyond every shape and shadow and color, that was to see nothing. That was to be free and finished, complete, spiritual…. To say "beyond the mountain," and to mean it, to mean, simply, beyond everything for which the mountain stands of which it signifies the being.
As persuasive as Angela's interpretation of the Cochiti dancers may seem, it is finally a denial of the value of the landscape which the novel celebrates. Angela's assumption that the Cochiti dancers possess a kind of Hindu metaphysics which rejects phenomena for noumena is a projection of her own desires to reject the flesh. Her attitude toward the land is of a piece with her attitude toward her own body: "she could think of nothing more vile and obscene than the raw flesh and blood of her body, the raveled veins and the gore upon her bones." We become almost immediately aware of the implications of that denial she craves in two following scenes: the corre de gaio and Abel's second reflection on the Cañon de San Diego.
We view the corre de gaio through Angela who again projects feelings about her own existence on the ceremony. For Angela the ceremony like herself is "so empty of meaning … and yet so full of appearance." Her final impression of the ceremony is sexual. She senses some "unnatural thing" in it and "an old fascination returned upon her." Later she remarks of the ceremony: "Like this, her body had been left to recover without her when once and for the first time, having wept, she had lain with a man." In the albino's triumph and Abel's failure at the corre de gaio she finds sexual pleasure.
The etiological legend of Santiago (St. James) and the rooster is told by Fr. Olguin appropriately enough for his "instinctive demand upon all histories to be fabulous." The legend explains the ceremonial game which follows in the novel. Just as the sacrifice of the rooster by Santiago produced cultivated plants and domesticated animals for the Pueblo people, so too does ritual re-enactment of the sacrifice promote fertility at Walatowa. While ethnographers suggest that the corre de gaio is of relatively minor ceremonial importance in Pueblo societies, in the context of the novel the rooster pull affords Abel his first opportunity to re-enter the ceremonial functions of the village. It is, we are told, the first occasion on which he has taken off his uniform. Though the ceremony itself seems efficacious, as rain follows in the novel, Abel is "too rigid" and "too careful" at the game and fails miserably.
Abel's failure at the rooster pull demonstrates his inability to reenter the ceremonial life of the village, as he realizes in his second reflection at dawn, July 28, 1945. The section opens with an explicit statement of the relation of the emergence journey and the landscape: "The canyon is a ladder to the plain," and is followed by a description of the ordered and harmonious existence of life in that landscape. Each form of life has its proper space and function in the landscape, and by nature of that relation is said to have "tenure in the land." Similarly, "man came down the ladder to the plain a long time ago. It was a slow migration…." Like the emergence journeys of the Kiowa and the Navajo mentioned earlier, the migration of the people of Walatowa led to an ordered relation to place which they express in their ceremonial life. As Abel walks in this landscape in the dawn he is estranged from the town and the land as well. "His return to the town had been a failure" he realizes because he is no longer attuned to its rhythms. He has no words to express his relation to the place. He is "not dumb," but "inarticulate."
Despite his inarticulateness, the rhythm and words are still there "like memory, in the reach of his hearing." We recall that on July 21, seven days before, "for a moment everything was all right with him." Here however,
He was alone, and he wanted to make a song out of the colored canyon, the way the women of Torreón made songs upon their looms out of colored yarn, but he had not got the right words together. It would have been a creation song; he would have sung lowly of the first world, of fire and flood, and of the emergence of dawn from the hills.
Abel is at this point vaguely conscious of what he needs to be cured. He needs a re-emergence. He needs words, ceremonial words, which express his relation to the cultural landscape in which he stands. He needs to feel with the Tewa singer quoted earlier his authority return to him. But here out of harmony with himself and his community he needs most of all the kind of re-emergence journey offered in a Navajo chantway.
Significantly, the passage closes, as did the dawn walk of July 21, with an emblem of Angela St. John intruding on Abel's vision: "the high white walls of the Benevides house." The house itself is another symbol of Angela's denial of the land or more particularly the landscape of the Cañon de San Diego. In contrast to Francisco and the other native residents of Walatowa who measure space and time by reference to the eastern rim of the canyon, Angela measures hers in relation to this "high, white house:"
She would know the arrangement of her days and hours in the upstairs and down, and they would be for her the proof of her being and having been.
His re-entry into the village spoiled, Abel turns not to the ceremonial structure of the pueblo for support but to Angela. And it is the Benevides house, not the land, which provides "the wings and the stage" for their affair. Abel's first sexual encounter with Angela is juxtaposed in the novel with Francisco's encounter with the albino witch in his cornfield. Indeed, Angela, who "keened" to the unnatural qualities of the albino during the corre de gaio, echoes the auditory symbols of evil mentioned earlier. Just as Nicolas teah-whau "screamed" at him, and the moan of the wind in the rocks frightened him earlier, as Angela and Abel make love "she wanted to scream" and is later "moaning softly."
Earlier in his life Abel found physical regeneration through a sexual experience with Fat Josie. His affair with Angela has just the opposite effect. Lying physically broken on the beach in Part II Abel reflects:
He had loved his body. It had been hard and quick and beautiful; it had been useful, quickly and surely responsive to his mind and will…. His body, like his mind, had turned on him; it was his enemy.
The following couplet in the text implicates Angela in this alienation:
Angela put her white hands to his body. Abel put his hands to her white body.
Later Abel tells Benally that "she [Angela] was going to help him get a job and go away from the reservation, but then he got himself in trouble." That "trouble" derives in part from Abel's separation from his land.
Auditory symbols follow Abel directly from his affair with Angela to the climactic scene of Part I, the killing of the albino. Just before the murder the albino laughs "a strange, inhuman cry." Like the sound of Nicolas teah-whau it is "an old woman's laugh" that issues from a "great, evil mouth." At the very scene of the murder the only sound that breaks the silence is "the moan of the wind in the wires."
That Abel regards the albino as evil, as a witch (sawah), is clear enough even without the explicit statements of Father Olguin, Tosamah, and Benally later. Moreover, it is clear at the time of the murder that Abel regards the albino as a snake. He feels "the scales of the lips and the hot slippery point of the tongue, writhing." But that Abel is "acting entirely within the Indian tradition" when he kills the albino is wrong.
Abel's compulsion to eradicate the albino-snake reveals an attitude toward evil more akin to the Christian attitude of Nicolas V.: "that Serpent which even is the One our most ancient enemy." The murder scene is rife with Christian overtones. The killing takes place beneath a telegraph pole which "leaned upon the black sky;" during the act "the white hands still lay upon him as if in benediction," and after the albino's death "Abel knelt" and noticed "the dark nails of the hand seemed a string of great black beads." Abel appears to kill the albino then as a frustrated response to the White Man and Christianity, but he does so more in accordance with Anglo tradition than Indian tradition. Indeed, he has been trained in the Army to be a killer.
We recall here that the murder takes place squarely in the middle of the fiesta of Porcingula, the patroness of Walatowa, and that a central part of the ceremony on that feast is a ritual confrontation between the Pecos bull and the "black-faced children, who were the invaders." Parsons describes the bull-baiting at Jemez during the fiesta of Porcingula, August 1, 1922, as follows:
An hour later, "the Pecos bull is out," I am told and hasten to the Middle. There the bull-mask is out playing, with a following of about a dozen males, four or five quite young boys. They are caricaturing Whites, their faces and hands painted white; one wears a false mustache, another a beard of blond hair. "U.S.A." is chalked on the back of their coat or a cross within a circle…. They shout and cry out, "What's the matter with you boy?" or more constantly "Muchacha! Muchacho!"…
The bull antics are renewed, this time with attempts of his baiters to lasso. Finally they succeed in dragging him in front of their house, where he breaks away again, to be caught again and dragged into the house. From the house a bugler steps out and plays "Wedding Bells" and rag-time tunes for the bullbaiters to dance to in couples, "modern dances," ending up in a tumble. Two by two, in their brown habit and sandaled feet, four of the Franciscan Fathers pass by. It grows dark, the bugler plays "taps" and this burlesque, reaching from the Conquistadores to the Great War, is over for the night.
The very day then that Abel kills the albino the community from which he is estranged could have provided him with a way of ritually confronting the white man. Had his return not been a failure, he might have borne his agony, as Francisco had "twice or three times," by taking the part of the bull. "It was a hard thing," Francisco tells us, "to be the bull, for there was a primitive agony to it, and it was a kind of victim, an object of ridicule and hatred." Hard as that agony was, Abel as Francisco before him might have borne it with the support of his community. Separated from that community, he acts individually against evil and kills the white man.
Momaday forces us to see the murder as more complicated and subtle in motivation despite Benally's sympathetic reflections on the realities of witchery, Tosamah's reference to the murder as a legal conundrum, and Abel's own statement that the murder was "not a complicated thing." Death has not been a simple thing for Abel to cope with earlier in the novel, as shown by his emotional reactions to the deaths of the doe, the rabbit, the eagle, as well as the deaths of his brother Vidal and his mother. More to the point is the fact that the White Man Abel kills is, in fact, a white Indian, an albino. He is the White Man in the Indian; perhaps even the White Man in Abel himself. When Abel kills the albino, in a real sense he kills a part of himself and his culture which he can no longer recognize and control. That that part should take the shape of a snake in his confused mind is horribly appropriate given the long association of the Devil and the snake in Christian tradition and the subsequent Puritan identification of the American Indians as demonic snakes and witches in so much of early American literature. In orthodox Pueblo belief the snake and the powers with which it is as-sociated are accepted as a necessary part of the cosmic order: "The Hebres view of the serpent as the embodiment of unmitigated evil is never elaborated among the Pueblos; he is too often an ally for some desired end" [Hamilton A. Tyler, Pueblo Gods and Myths, 1964].
Yet, the whiteness of the albino suggests something more terrible than evil to Abel. As the whiteness of the whale does to Ishmael, it suggests an emptiness in the universe, a total void of meaning. It is an emblem complementary to Angela's philosophizing over the Cochiti dancers. The albino confronts Abel with his own lack of meaning, his own lack of a sense of place.
This reading is reinforced by the poignant final scene in Part I. Francisco stands alone in his corn field demonstrating the very sense of place Abel has lacked on his return. We recall that in this very field Francisco too had confronted evil in the shape of the albino, but that he responded to the confrontation very differently:
His acknowledgement of the unknown was nothing more than a dull, intrinsic sadness, a vague desire to weep, for evil had long since found him out and knew who he was. He set a blessing upon the corn and took up his hoe.
Because of Abel's act, Francisco is for the first time separated from the Walatowa community. He stands muttering Abel's name as he did in the opening of the chapter, and near him the reed trap—again suggesting the reed of emergence—is empty.
Part II of the novel opens with Abel lying broken, physically and spiritually, on the beach in Los Angeles. Like the helpless grunion with whom he shares the beach, he is out of his world. Abel's problem continues to be one of relating to place. As in Part I at Walatowa he fails to establish a sense of place in Los Angeles because of a failure to find community. Not only is he separated from other workers at the factory, but even Tosamah and the Indian men at the Silver Dollar reject Abel. That rejection is a major cause of Abel's second futile and self-destructive confrontation with evil in the person of Martinez, a sadistic Mexican policeman. The pattern of the second confrontation is a repetition of the first. Just as Abel kills the albino at Walatowa after he has failed to find community there, so too he goes after Martinez, also perceived as a snake (culebra), after he has failed utterly to find community in Los Angeles. Implication of Anglo society in this failure is again explicit and powerful, as Abel has been sent to Los Angeles by the government on its Relocation Program after serving time in prison for killing the albino.
On the beach Abel "could not see." This poverty of vision, both physical and imaginative, is akin to the inability of one-eyed Father Olguin to "see" and is related to Abel's prison experience: "After a while he could not imagine anything beyond the walls except the yard outside, the lavatory and the dining hall—or even walls, really." Yet it is by the sea that Abel gains the insight required to begin his own re-emergence. For the first time he asks himself "where the trouble had begun, what the trouble was," and though he still cannot answer the question consciously, his mind turns again to the mechanical auditory images noted earlier:
The bus leaned and creaked; he felt the surge of motion and the violent shudder of the whole machine on the gravel road. The motion and the sound seized upon him. Then suddenly he was overcome with a desperate loneliness, and he wanted to cry out. He looked toward the fields, but a low rise of the land lay before them.
The bus takes Abel out of a context where he has worth and meaning and into a context where "there were enemies all around." From the cultural landscape of the Cañon de San Diego to the beach where "the world was open at his back," Abel's journey has taken him, as his Bahkyush ancestors, to "the edge of oblivion": "He had been long ago at the center, had known where he was, had lost his way, had wandered to the end of the earth, was even now reeling on the edge of the void." On the beach, then, Abel finally realizes that "he had lost his place," a realization accompanied by the comprehension of the social harmony a sense of place requires. Out of his delirium, as if in a dream, his mind returns to the central thread of the novel, the race, and here at last. Abel is able to assign meaning to the race as a cultural activity:
The runners after evil ran as water runs, deep in the channel, in the way of least resistance, no resistance. His skin crawled with excitement; he was overcome with longing and loneliness, for suddenly he saw the crucial sense in their going, of old men in white leggings running after evil in the night. They were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe. Meaning because of them. They ran with great dignity and calm, not in hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect. Evil was. Evil was abroad in the night; they must venture out to the confrontation; they must reckon dues and divide the world.
We recall that as Abel killed the albino "the terrible strength of the hands was brought to bear only in proportion as Abel resisted them" (emphasis added). The murder is an expression of Abel's disharmony and imbalance. As Abel here realizes "evil is that which is ritually not under control" [Gladys A. Reichard, Navajo Religion: A Study of Symbolism, 1974]. In the ceremonial race, not in individual resistance, the runners are able to deal with evil.
Tosamah's description of the emergence journey and the relations of words and place serve as a clue to Abel's cure, but the role he plays in Abel's journey appears as ambiguous and contradictory as his character. He is at once priest and "clown." He exhibits, often on the same page, remarkable insight, buffoonery, and cynicism. He has then all the characteristics of Coyote, the trickster figure in native American mythologies. Alternately wise and foolish, Coyote in native American oral tradition is at once a buffoon and companion of the People on their emergence journey. As Coyote, a member of "an old council of clowns," the Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah speaks with a voice "full of authority and rebuke." As Coyote, "he likes to get under your skin; he'll make a fool out of you if you let him." Note how Momaday describes Tosamah:
He was shaggy and awful-looking in the thin, naked light; big, lithe as a cat, narrow-eyed, suggesting in the whole of his look and manner both arrogance and agony. He wore black like a cleric; he had the voice of a great dog.
The perspective Tosamah offers Abel and the reader in the novel derives not so much from his peyote ceremonies, for which Momaday seems to have drawn heavily on La Barre's The Peyote Cult, but rather from the substance of the two sermons he gives. The second sermon, "The Way to Rainy Mountain," which Momaday has used in his book by the same title and several other contexts, addresses the relation of man, land, community, and the word. In it Tosamah describes the emergence of the Kiowa people as "a journey toward the dawn" that "led to a golden age." It was a journey which led the Kiowa to a culture which is inextricably bound to the land of the southern plains. There, much in the manner of Abel looking over the Cañon de San Diego in Part I, he looks out on the landscape at dawn and muses: "your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun." By making a re-emergence journey, Tosamah is able to feel a sense of place.
That coherent native relation to the land described so eloquently by Tosamah is counter-pointed in the novel not only by Abel's experiences but also by the memories of Milly, the social worker who becomes Abel's lover in Los Angeles. Milly, like Tosamah, is from Oklahoma. There her family too had struggled with the land, but "at last Daddy began to hate the land, began to think of it as some kind of enemy, his own very personal and deadly enemy." Even viewed in the dawn her father's relation to the land was a despairing and hopeless one:
And every day before dawn he went to the fields without hope, and I watched him, sometimes saw him at sunrise, far away in the empty land, very small on the skyline turning to stone even as he moved up and down the rows.
The contrast with Francisco, who seems most at home in his fields, and with Tosamah, who finds in that very landscape the depth of his existence, is obvious. The passage also recalls Angela's denial of the meaning of the land and Abel's own reflections on "enemies."
In his first sermon in the novel, Tosamah addresses the crucial role of words and the imagination in the reemergence process. The sermon is a bizarre exegesis of St. John's gospel which compares Indian and Anglo attitudes toward language. As participants in oral traditions, Indians, Tosamah tells us, hold language as sacred. They have a childlike regard for the mysteries of speech. While St. John shared that sensibility, he was also a white man. And the white man obscures the truth by burdening it with words:
Now, brothers and sisters, old John was a white man, and the white man has his ways. Oh gracious me, he has his ways. He talks about the Word. He talks through it and around it. He builds upon it with syllables, with prefixes and suffixes, and hyphens and accents. He adds and divides and multiplies the Word. And in all of this he subtracts the Truth.
The white man may indeed, Tosamah tells us, in a theory of verbal overkill that is wholly his own, "perish by the Word."
Words are, of course, a problem for Abel. On the one hand, he lacks the ceremonial words—the words of a Creation song—which properly express his relation to community and place. He is inarticulate. On the other, he is plagued by a surfeit of words from white men. The bureaucratic words of the social worker's forms effectively obscure his real problems. At the murder trial, he thinks: "Word by word by word these men were disposing of him in language, their language, and they were making a bad job of it." Again when Benally takes him to the hospital after the beach scene bureaucratic words get in the way. Indeed, Benally perceives Abel's central problem as one of words, as he equates finding community with having appropriate words:
And they can't help you because you don't know how to talk to them. They have a lot of words, and you know they mean something, but you don't know what, and your own words are no good because they're not the same; they're different, and they're the only words you've got…. You think about getting out and going home. You want to think that you belong someplace, I guess.
Tosamah perceives a similar dislocating effect of words on Abel, though he relates it to religion. Scorning his inarticulateness and innocence, he sees Abel as caught in "the Jesus scheme." Beyond his sermons, there is a special irony in the fact that Tosamah doesn't understand Abel and his problems, for he is described several times in Part II as a "physician." Though they put Abel's problems in a broader and clearer perspective, Tosamah's words are of little use to Abel.
Part III is told from the point of view of Ben Benally, a relocated Navajo who befriends Abel in Los Angeles. Roommates in Los Angeles, Ben and Abel share many things in their backgrounds. On his one visit to Walatowa, Benally finds the landscape there similar to that in which he grew up. Like Abel he was raised in that landscape without parents by his grandfather. Benally even suggests that he is somehow related to Abel since the Navajos have a clan called Jemez, the name of Abel's pueblo. Moreover, we recall that Abel's father may have been a Navajo, and that Francisco regards the Navajo children who come to Walatowa during the Fiesta of Porcingula as "a harvest, in some intractable sense the regeneration of his own bone and blood." This kinship gives Benally special insight into Abel's problems and strengthens his role as Night Chanter.
Benally's childhood memories of life with his grandfather near Wide Ruins reveal a sense of place very like that Abel groped for on his return to Walatowa.
And you were little and right there in the center of everything, the sacred mountains, the snow-covered mountains and the hills, the gullies and the flats, the sundown and the night, everything—where you were little, where you were and had to be.
Moreover, this sense of place gives him words: "you were out with the sheep and could talk and sing to yourself and the snow was new and deep and beautiful."
In Los Angeles, however, Benally's sense of place is lost in his idealism and naïveté. Return to the reservation seems a pale option to the glitter of Los Angeles. "There would be nothing there, just the empty land and a lot of old people, going no place and dying off." Like Milly, Benally believes in "Honor, Industry, the Second Chance, the Brotherhood of Man, the American Dream…." Theirs is a 50's American Dream of limitless urban possibilities. Benally believes you can have anything you want in Los Angeles and that "you never have to be alone." Yet in the very scene following his reflection on this urban cornucopia, we find Benally excluded even from the community of The Silver Dollar, counting his pennies, unable to buy a second bottle of wine. Idealism obscures Benally's vision, even as Tosamah's cynicism obscures his.
Nevertheless, Benally is the Night Chanter, the singer who helps restore voice and harmony to Abel's life. In the hospital having realized the significance of the runners after evil, Abel asks Benally to sing for him:
"House made of dawn". I used to tell him about those old ways, the stories and the songs, Beautyway and Night Chant. I sang some of those things, and I told him what they meant, what I thought they were about.
The songs from both the Beautyway and the Night Chant are designed to attract good and repel evil. They are both restorative and exorcising expression of the very balance and design in the universe Abel perceived in the runners after evil. Ben's words from the Night Chant for Abel are particularly appropriate, since the purpose of the Night Chant is to cure patients of insanity and mental imbalance. The structure and diction of the song demonstrate the very harmony it seeks to evoke. Dawn is balanced by evening light, dark cloud and male rain by dark mist and female rain. All things are in balance and control, for in Navajo and Pueblo religion good is control. Further note that a journey metaphor is prominent in the song ("may I walk …") and that the restorative sequence culminates with "restore my voice for me." Restoration of voice is an outward sign of inner harmony. Finally, note that the song begins with a culturally significant geographic reference: Tségihi. One of its central messages is that ceremonial words are bound efficaciously to place. No matter how dislocated is Benally or idiosyncratic his understandings of Navajo ceremonialism, the songs he sings over Abel clearly serve a restorative function.
Angela also visits Abel in the hospital and offers him words. She tells Abel the story her son likes "best of all." It is a story about "a young In-dian brave," born of a bear and a maiden, who has many adventures and finally saves his people. Benally marvels at the story which reminds him of a similar story from the Mountain Chant told to him by his grandfather. Yet unlike the Navajo legend and the Kiowa bear legend told by Tosamah earlier, both etiological legends tied firmly to cultural landscapes, Angela's story is as rootless as a Disney cartoon. Abel seems to realize this, if Benally does not, for he does not respond to Angela. Benally "couldn't tell what he was thinking. He had turned his head away, like maybe the pain was coming back, you know." Abel refuses to play Angela's game a second time.
Part IV opens with a description of a grey, ominous winter landscape. Olguin is reflecting on his seven years' service at Walatowa. He claims to have grown "calm with duty and design," to have "come to terms with the town." Yet he remains estranged from the village; it is not his place. He measures his achievement in the language of commerce, noting with his predecessor Nicolas V. what good works "accrued to his account." Like Angela who was offended that Abel "would not buy and sell." Olguin seeks to at least make good the "investment" of his pride.
Whereas Abel looks to Benally's Night Chant for restoration Olguin seeks and claims to find restoration from the journal of Nicolas. In that same journal we recall Nicolas V. himself sought restoration of his Christian God:
When I cannot speak thy Name, I want Thee most to restore me. Restore me! Thy spirit comes upon me & I am too frail for Thee!
The passage leaves off in a fit of coughing and seems a singularly ineffectual request.
At the same time Abel sits with his dying grandfather. Though Francisco's voice had been strong in the dawn, it now grows weaker and fades as it has on each of the six days since Abel's return to Walatowa. The few words Francisco does speak, in Town and Spanish, juxtapose in the manner of Parts I and II the memory fragments which Abel seeks to order in his own mind. Francisco is here, as Momaday suggests [in the 1973 Puerto del Sol interview], "a kind of reflection of Abel." The passage translates:
Little Abel … I'm a little bit of something … Mariano … cold … he gave up … very, very cold … conquered … aye [exclamation of pain], Porcingula … how white, little Abel … white devil … witch … witch … and the black man … yes … many black men … running, running … cold … rapidly … little Abel, little Vidal … What are you doing? What are you doing?
As the seventh dawn comes these words grow into coherent fragments in Francisco's memory and serve as a final statement of the realizations about the relation of place, words, and community Abel has had earlier in the novel.
Each of the fragments is a memory of initiation. In the first Francisco recalls taking Abel and Vidal to the ruins of the old church near the Middle to see "the house of the sun."
They must learn the whole contour of the black mesa. They must know it as they knew the shape of their hands, always and by heart…. They must know the long journey of the sun on the black mesa, how it rode in the seasons and the years, and they must live according to the sun appearing, for only then could they reckon where they were, where all things were in time.
This is the sense of place Abel lost in "the intervention of days and years without meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused." As he is instructed to know the shape of the eastern mesa like his own hands, it is appropriate that in the corre de gaio the albino should first attack his hands, that in the murder scene (and Abel's memory of it) hands should be so prominent, and finally that as he lies on the beach after Martinez's brutal beating of his hands, Abel should think of Angela's effect on him in terms of hands. The relation to place taught him by Francisco is broken by each, as are his hands. Now through Francisco's memory Abel is retaught his ordered relation to place and how it is expressed in "the race of the dead." Abel similarly participates in Francisco's memories of his initiation as a runner (in the race against Mariano), as a dancer (from which he gained the power to heal), as a man (with Porcingula, "the child of the witch"), and as a hunter (as he stalks the bear).
All signs then point to a new beginning for Abel as he rises February 28, the last day of the novel. His own memory healed by Francisco's, for the first time in the novel he correctly performs a ceremonial function as he prepares Francisco for burial and delivers him to Father Olguin. He then joins the ashmarked runners in the dawn. Momaday comments on that race in his essay "The Morality of Indian Hating" [in Ramparts 3 (1964)]:
The first race each year comes in February, and then the dawn is clear and cold, and the runners breathe steam. It is a long race, and it is neither won nor lost. It is an expression of the soul in the ancient terms of sheer physical exertion. To watch those runners is to know that they draw with every step some elemen-tary power which resides at the core of the earth and which, for all our civilized ways, is lost upon us who have lost the art of going in the flow of things. In the tempo of that race there is time to ponder morality and demoralization, hungry wolves and falling stars. And there is time to puzzle over that curious and fortuitous question with which the people of Jemez greet each other.
That very question—"Where are you going?"—must ring in Abel's ears as he begins the race. The time and direction of his journey are once again defined by the relation of the sun to the eastern mesa, "the house made of dawn." Out of the pain and exhaustion of the race, Abel regains his vision: "he could see at last without having to think." That vision is not the nihilistic vision of Angela—"beyond everything for which the mountain stands." Rather, Abel's "last reality" in the race is expressed in the essential unity and harmony of man and the land. He feels the sense of place he was unable to articulate in Part I. Here at last he has a voice, words and a song. In beauty he has begun.
Source: Lawrence J. Evers, "Words and Place: A Reading of House Made of Dawn," in Western American Literature, Vol. XI, No. 4, February, 1977, pp. 297-320.
Martha Scott Trimble
Trimble is an American educator and critic. In this excerpt, she briefly analyzes some major themes and symbols in House Made of Dawn.
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Source: Martha Scott Trimble, N. Scott Momday, Boise State College, 1973.
Marion Willard Hylton
In the following essay, Hylton presents a thematic analysis of House Made of Dawn, relating "the tragic odyssey of a man forcibly removed from [the Native American] psychic environment and placed within a culture light-years away from the attitudes, values, and goals of his former life."
Abel was the land and he was of the land; he was a long-hair and from that single fact stemmed the fearsome modern dilemma explored by N. Scott Momaday in House Made of Dawn. Abel is an Indian of the American Southwest, a member of a culture for whom Nature is the one great reality to which men's lives are pegged, the only verity upon which men may rely. Within this massive concept lie all the religion, all the mores and ethics, all the spiritual truth any man may require. To shatter the concept is to shatter the man. Momaday describes the tragic odyssey of a man forcibly removed from this psychic environment and placed within a culture light-years away from the attitudes, values, and goals of his former life. His anguished ordeal, heightened by his encounter with a white woman, endows him at last with courage and wisdom; he comes to know who he is and what he must do to maintain that identity.
In the Indian view, the universe or Nature is a great cosmological unity characterized by a harmony and oneness of all living things. Religion is not a thing apart from life, it is life itself. Oral communication is minimal; words are not needed between people sharing a common culture whose limitations and capabilities are known to all. Abel growing up in this timeless tradition is endowed with an understanding that transcends the ordinary limits of the word: "the boy could sense his grandfather's age, just as he knew somehow that his mother was soon going to die of her illness. It was nothing he was told, but he knew it anyway and without understanding, as he knew already the motion of the sun and the seasons."
After four centuries of Christianity, the essential way of life is unchanged. The people still pray to the old deities in their own language. They have assumed the names and some of the habits of their enemies but have kept their own souls and their own secrets: "in this there is a resistance and an overcoming, a long outwaiting." Evil spirits as well as good are a part of the pantheon, and Momaday uses both in the unfolding of his remarkable novel. Slowly, by means of fragmentary glimpses into the lives of Abel, Ben, Francisco, and others, Momaday leads to an understanding not only of the Indian's dilemma in the modern world, but of Abel's particular torment and what brought it about.
Francisco, Abel's grandfather, has lived all his life on the reservation, within and a part of this culture. The important events of his life are totally alien to outsiders: the ritual killing of the bear to symbolize the coming of age, the marks of pollen made above the eyes of the bear, the arduous period of instruction preliminary to his participation in a sacred ceremony, and the healing powers he later acquires as a result of his growing "understanding." In many ways, Abel and his grandfather are much alike and only a very careful reading of some passages will make clear which of them is being referred to.
One is reminded that the diminutive of Abel, "Abelito", is much like "Abuelito", the affectionate term for grandfather. The resemblance is not accidental, of course; in a sense, his close attachment to his grandfather and the old ways is the burden Abel must struggle with during the course of the novel.
Abel is not a superficial human being. His suffering is profound and moving, as is the catharsis wrought by that suffering. In a striking passage describing the shoes Abel wears when he leaves the reservation, Momaday points up the differences in attitude: "they squeaked when he walked. In the only frame of reference he had ever known, they called attention to themselves, simply, honestly … but now and beyond his former frame of reference, the shoes called attention to Abel. They were brown and white and they were conspicuously new and too large … they shone; they clattered and creaked … and they were nailed to his feet. There were enemies all around, and he knew that he was ridiculous in their eyes." Years later, after a stint in the army, he returns, reeling drunkenly from the steps of the noisy bus into the arms of his weeping grandfather: "everything in advance of his going—he could remember whole and in detail. It was the recent past, the intervention of days and years without meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused, that he could not put together in his mind." Fully twenty-four hours elapse before Abel begins to realize where he is, both geographically and culturally. Not until he walks out, just before dawn, to a high and distant hill where he sees the vast beauty of the valleys and remembers incidents from his youth, does a kind of peace come to him. But it does not last. Less than two weeks later, during the feast of Santiago, an evil spirit reveals himself to Abel, who, acting entirely within the Indian tradition, kills him.
The albino or, significantly, the white man, has been seen earlier as a figure of evil when Francisco heard whisperings from the corn and was afraid; after he left, the albino emerged or rather seemed to materialize from the green leaves. Since corn is life itself to the Indian, to hear an evil spirit breathing in the corn is a dangerous thing. A snake, or culebra, is likewise a symbol of evil, and when the albino threatens to turn into a snake, Abel's course is clear. Significantly, after his years in prison his attitude is unchanged. "They must know," Ben says, "that he would kill the white man again, if he had the chance … for he would know what the white man was, and he would kill him if he could. A man kills such an enemy if he can."
Abel's real suffering and purgation begin after he leaves prison and wanders to Los Angeles. There he meets Ben, Milly, and Tosamah. Ben, like Abel, has been raised on the reservation but has managed to make an adjustment of sorts. Ben can compromise; he is willing to overlook evil or un-kindness and is able to see good in most situations: "You know, you have to change. That's the only way you can live in a place like this. You have to forget about the way it was, how you grew up and all … You wonder how you can get yourself into the swing of it, you know?… And you want to do it, because you can see how good it is … it's money and clothes and having plans and going someplace fast." Because Ben wants to be a part of it, he is willing to live on the fringe of white society, like a child outside a candy store window. When he speaks, one can clearly hear the voice of a lonely man: "this place is always cold and kind of empty when it rains," "you never have to be alone. You go downtown and there are a lot of people all around and they're having a good time." Ben has not yet admitted to himself that he is only an outsider; he feels the American Dream is his, too, and he is committed to pursuing it. "I could find someplace with a private bathroom if I wanted to, easy. A man with a good job can do just about anything he wants."
Tosamah (John Big Bluff Tosamah) is a very different sort of man. Like Ben he acknowledges his heritage but is not chained to it like Abel. "Priest of the Sun" is a key section for understanding the Indian concept of "The Word" as opposed to the Christian. Tosamah begins by stating in Latin, "In Principio erat Verbum." Caught up in the mystery of the words, he continues, "in the darkness … the smallest seed of sound … took hold of the dark-ness and there was light; it took hold out of the stillness and there was motion forever … it scarcely was; but it was and everything began." But at this point, his voice and attitude abruptly switch from that of a priest to that of a huckster, as he tells how this mystery was corrupted by a Christian interpretation: "But it was more than the Truth. The Truth was overgrown with fat; the fat was John's god and God stood between John and the Truth … and he said, 'In the Beginning was the Word …' and man, right then and there he should have stopped … Old John was a white man and the white man builds upon [the word], he adds and divides and multiplies the Word and in all of this he subtracts the Truth." Tosamah's bitterness can be heard in his parting words to his "parishoners": "Good night and get yours."
Tosamah, the Priest of the Sun, is as much an outsider in white society as Father Olguin is in Indian society. The dry, mechanical Mass which Father Olguin conducts contrasts interestingly with the peyote ritual at which Tosamah presides, where the mysticism each participant comes to feel is translated into a moving and spontaneous prayer without the embarrassment of spoken prayer; it is part of the old tradition. The tears of one of the participants are not despised, they are accepted; weeping is no disgrace if the occasion calls for weeping. The Mass has the bread, the wine, the incense, the bell; the peyote ritual has the peyote buttons, the prayer sticks, the "makings," and the drummer. The Indian's ritual marking is with pollen, and the priest's with ashes. Tosamah reverts to a caricature of American speech in explaining the impact of peyote: "that little old woolly booger turns you on like a light, man. Daddy peyote is the vegetal representation of the sun," recalling the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
Where the Indian view is at one with Nature, one might say the Catholic view, as typified by Father Olguin and Angela Grace St. John, exists in spite of Nature; the basic difference would seem to doom in advance any hope of accord. Reflecting the missionary zeal which is characteristic of his faith, Father Olguin tries over the years to enlarge his small flock and to urge his parishioners away from the old ways. In the end, he comes to recognize tacitly that some old and final cleavage still exists which he can never bridge. He tries, however, to make the legal authorities understand, as best he can, what prompted Abel to kill the albino. Once again we see the clash of the two cultures: "I believe that this man was moved to do what he did by an act of imagination so compelling as to be inconceivable to us…. Yes, yes, yes. But these are the facts: he killed a man—took the life of another human being…. Homicide is a legal term, but the law is not my context; and certainly it isn't his…. Murder is a moral term. Death is a universal human term."
Both the parole officer and the Relocation people attempt to keep Abel out of trouble, but his problems only deepen. "They have a lot of words," as Ben says, "and you know they mean something but you don't know what … Everything is different and you don't know how to get used to it." Ben understands Abel's plight, and is compassionate. Tosamah understands and is contemptuous.
Ben and Milly literally keep Abel alive in his darkest hours. Where he has understanding based on knowledge, she has understanding based on love. "She was a lot like Ben. She believed in Honor, Industry, the Second Chance, the Brotherhood of Man, the American Dream and him—Abel; she believed in him." She also loved him; she gave him money, a place to stay, and ministered to his needs out of love. On a few rare occasions, she could even make him laugh. But Milly is gentle and vulnerable. And Abel is possessed by an evil spirit. They are drawn together by their awful loneliness, but it is not enough. All her experience had been a getting away from the land where his had been a returning. At the height of his suffering, her name echoes through his mind; only her name, and a question mark. Sadly, the name is remembered, but not the identity.
Abel sinks ever deeper in the white world's web. One night, too drunk and helpless to answer Tosamah's taunts, he sets out to seek some kind of release, to kill the evil spirit, the culebra, that has brought about his misery. Instead of exorcising the evil, he undergoes a mortal combat (presumably at the hands of Martinze, the sadistic cop) that leaves him broken and near death. "He had lost his place. He had long ago been at the center, had known where he was, had lost his way, had wandered to the end of the earth, was even now reeling on the edge of the void … The sea reached and waned, licked after him and withdrew, falling off forever in the abyss."
Abel, badly beaten and lying on the beach, is unable to see because of his swollen eyes. We remember that Father Olguin's vision is also poor and that the albino masks his weak sight with small dark glasses. All, in one way or another, "see" with difficulty. The albino's vision is clouded by evil, Fa-ther Olguin's by his Christian beliefs, and Abel's by not accepting his birthright. If Abel's suffering suggests that of Oedipus, then we might say that the grunion form a chorus, and it is no mean comparison. Momaday's evocation of the grunion metaphor seems singularly appropriate for the situation. They, like Abel, belong to the natural order of things; they respond from the tradition of centuries, only to fall victim to the wanton ways of the white man. Abel, too, has been beaten by an evil spirit of the white world and must somehow get back to his own environment in order to survive. "His body was mangled and racked with pain. His body, like his mind, had turned on him; it was his enemy." He has tried to do what seemed to him must be done: extirpate evil. But he has failed; in the white man's world, right and wrong are not the same, and the old values somehow do not apply. He remembers seeing, in his youth, the old men running after evil. Here, it is not the same. He knows at last that he must survive beyond his pain, and return to the life he understands.
Abel has indeed, "lost his place." A reason for his particular suffering lies in the ancient Indian belief that all secrets, even those of sorcery and evil, are divulged during sexual intercourse. Abel had lain with a woman, Angela Grace St. John, and both were altered by the experience.
When Angela comes to live at Los Ojos (The Eyes), she is a distant, disturbed woman. Her attitudes are as far as possible from the Indian's. She keeps herself coldly apart from human contact and "would have her bath and read from the lives of the saints." She despises her body and the child growing within her: "She could think of nothing more vile and obscene than the raw flesh and blood of her body, the ravelled veins and gore upon her bones. And now the monstrous fetal form, the blue, blind, great headed thing growing within and feeding upon her … at odd moments she wished with all her heart to die by fire, fire of such intense heat that her body should dissolve in it all at once." To the suggestion of disharmony is added the hint of evil: Abel would not bargain, hence, "it remained for her to bring about a vengeance."
Their coming together is an epiphany for each of them; she draws from him a kind of vision she has never experienced before, a "knowingness" of who she is, and of her relationship to other living things and to life itself. But the evil spirit which has hitherto clouded her days now descends upon him. "Angela put her white hands to his body. Abel put his hands to her white body."
Father Olguin is the first to sense the change in her. He has seen her as an ally with whom he can share his world of words; a fellow outsider in the Indian world. But "she listened through him to the sound of thunder and of rain that fell upon the mountains miles away,… she had a craving for the rain … 'Oh, my God' she said, laughing, 'I am heartily sorry … for having offended Thee.'" Her laughter horrifies him almost as much as her confession.
When the sky darkens and the storm breaks, Angela no longer fears nor shrinks from Nature: she "stood transfixed in the open door and breathed deep into her lungs the purest electric scent of the air. She closed her eyes, and the clear aftervision of the rain, which she could still hear and feel so perfectly as to conceive of nothing else, obliterated all the mean and myriad fears that had laid hold of her in the past." From that moment on, evil stalks Abel's steps; the disharmony and alienation that had characterized Angela's life now infects his.
Not until years later, when she visits Abel in the hospital and, in effect, releases him, does the evil finally begin to ebb. As she speaks of her son, Peter, and the Indian tales he loves to hear, Ben remembers the stories told by his grandfather who spoke from the legends of his heritage. Abel understands; he does not speak, nor refer to her visit afterwards. Hearing Angela and seeing how she has changed has at last made clear to him just how and why he has lost his way.
House Made of Dawn is an intricately structured novel, and difficult to analyze. Time, for the Indian, is conceived not as a rigidly divided set of days, months, and years, but as experience and wisdom and knowledge, occurring today or yesterday or many yesterdays ago. Memory is the only immortality. Through memory history is transmitted from generation to generation. Memory, too, presents the novel; events from Francisco's past, or from Abel's, Ben's, or Tosamah's, are juxtaposed with events of the present moment, giving the reader a dimensional montage of thought and attitude.
Few of us suffer from our pasts as Abel must suffer. The Abel who comes back to the reservation to tend his dying grandfather is broken in body but healed in spirit. Wordlessly, he attends the last hours until death, then dresses the body according to the ancient ways. Summoned at night, the priest, significantly, is indignant over the time: "Good Heavens, couldn't you have waited until—Do you know what time it is?" By then, Abel indeed knows what time it is as far as his life is concerned, and he knows, too, that the particular hour of the day or night is of no consequence. Father Olguin, for all his good intentions, understands the Indian no better than his late nineteenth-century predecessor, Fray Nicholas, who, we learn from the old journal, was called on a similar occasion only after the Indian rites had been performed on a body.
After a long and bitter odyssey and much suffering, Abel has come home. He knows at last where he belongs in the scheme of things. During the long vigil before Francisco's death, he begins once again to feel a peace and a kinship with his heritage: "it was the room in which he was born, in which his mother and his brother died. Just then, and for moments and hours and days, he had no memory of being outside of it." When Abel leaves the mission, rubs himself with ashes, and goes on to join the other dawn runners, he is not only assuming his role as male survivor of his family, but also completing the final phase of his own spiritual healing. As he runs, as he becomes a part of the orderly continuum of interrelated events that constitute the Indian universe, Abel is the land, and he is of the land once more.
Source: Marion Willard Hylton, "On a Trail of Pollen: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in Critique, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1972, pp. 60-69.
Bennett, John Z., review, in Western American Literature, Volume V, Number 1, Spring, 1970, p. 69.
Meredith, Howard, "N. Scott Momaday: A Man of Words," in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 405-07.
Schubnell, Matthias, "The Identity of Crisis: House Made of Dawn," in N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, University of Oklahoma Press, 1985, pp. 109-39.
Smith, William James, review, in Commonweal, Vol. LXXXVII, September 20, 1968.
Sprague, Marshall, "Anglos and Indians," in The New York Times Book Review, June 9, 1968.
Willard Hylton, Marion, "On a Trail of Pollen: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in Critique, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1972.
Mayhill, Mildred, The Kiowas, University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.
Mayhill presents a well-documented sociological account of the Kiowa people.
Nelson, Robert M., The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction, Lang Publishers, 1993.
Examines works by Momaday, Silko, and Welch.
Nelson Waniek, Marilyn, "The Power of Language in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in Minority Voices, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1980, pp. 23-8.
Addresses the importance of language in the novel.
Scarberry-Garcia, Susan, Landmarks of Healing: A Study of House Made of Dawn, University of New Mexico Press, 1990.
A rare book-length consideration of the novel that touches upon all of the varied theories, offering an excellent overview of critical opinion.
Sharma, R. S., "Vision and Form in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in Indian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1, January 1982, pp. 69-79.
Discusses the roles of vision and narrative form in the novel.
Zachrau, Thekla, "N. Scott Momaday: Towards an Indian Identity," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1979, pp. 39-56.
An overview of Momaday's career, including his attempts to use varied storytelling techniques to bring the Kiowa vision of reality to a broader public.
"House Made of Dawn." Novels for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 13, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/house-made-dawn
"House Made of Dawn." Novels for Students. . Retrieved April 13, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/house-made-dawn
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