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in 1969, the same year that N. Scott Momaday began his tenure as associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, he won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for House Made of Dawn, published his autobiographical work, The Way to Rainy Mountain, and was initiated into the Kiowa Gourd Dance Society. The critical recognition of Momaday’s novel stimulated public interest in Native American literary history as well as in contemporary Native American writers in general. However, the success of Momaday’s work results not only from his prowess as a writer but also from his capacity as an engaging mythmaker.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Navarro Scott Momaday was born on February 27, 1934, in the Kiowa and Comanche Indian Hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma. He is the only child of Alfred Momaday (of Kiowa heritage) and Natachee Scott (of European and Cherokee ancestry). Six months after his birth, at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, the storyteller Pohdlohk—who was Momaday’s step-grandfather—gave him the Kiowa name Tsoaitalee, which refers to a Kiowa myth about a ”rock tree boy” who turns into a bear. This myth of the bear child is so much a part of Momaday’s identity that it recurs throughout his works. Momaday’s second Indian name is Tsotohah, meaning ”Red Bluff.” Momaday’s many names reflect the fact that he comes from the intermarriage of several Old and New World bloodlines.
An Inherited Love of Learning
Momaday’s understanding of complex cultural contexts comes naturally out of his own experience. Both of his parents were educators, and Momaday traveled with them as they pursued various teaching opportunities. The Momadays taught among the Navajo for ten years, first at Shiprock, New Mexico, and then in Tuba City and Chinle, Arizona. In 1946 the family moved to the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico, where Momaday’s parents were the only two teachers at the day school there. Both parents taught in Jemez for twenty-five years. Momaday acquired his love of literature and writing from his mother and his love of teaching and painting from his father.
During his youth, Momaday was educated in New Mexico at the Franciscan Mission School in Jemez, the Indian School in Santa Fe, and in Bernalillo County, New Mexico. He also attended the Augustus Military Academy in Fort Defiance, Virginia. He received his undergraduate education at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque, where he studied political science, English, and speech. Momaday interrupted his stint at UNM in 1956-1957 to study law at the University of Virginia. While there, Momaday met and fell under the influence of William Faulkner. In 1958, upon graduating from UNM, Momaday accepted a teaching position on the Jicarilla Apache reservation in Dulce, New Mexico. He mar-tied Gaye Mangold on September 5,1959, with whom he had three daughters—Cael, Jill, and Brit. (His marriage to Mangold did not last, however, and on July 21, 1978 Momaday married a second time, to Regina Heitzer, whom he had met when he was a visiting professor at the University of Regensburg in Germany. Together they have one daughter, Lore.)
In 1959, poet, critic, and scholar Ivor Winters selected Momaday for a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford University. Under Winters’s guidance, Momaday pursued both a career in writing and a PhD in American literature. Winters clearly saw Momaday’s talents, and even predicted his future acclaim. Under Winters’s influence Momaday wrote and published his dissertation, an edition of the works of nineteenth-century American poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman (1965). Winters also critiqued several drafts of House Made of Dawn, but he died in 1968, a year before Momaday received the Pulitzer Prize for it.
Telling Stories, Winning Awards
The same year he won the Pulitzer, Momaday published The Way to Rainy Mountain, which is generally respected as his greatest contribution to world literature. It is the story of the journey of the Kiowa people from their mythological emergence into the world to Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma and their decline as a people. To write the book, Momaday retraced this journey both intellectually and physically. As he focused his attention on retrieving the remnants of Kiowa oral tradition, he realized how much American Indian oral poetry and mythology had already been lost. He realized that speedy research was needed to salvage what information was still able to be preserved. Deprived of his grandparents as living sources of Kiowa tradition, Momaday collected stories from tribal elders instead.
During the ten years that followed his Pulitzer Prize, Momaday was honored by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, received a Gold Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement, and in 1979 was also awarded the highest literary award Italy bestows, the Premio Letteraio Internationale Mondelio. In 1992, thirty years after his literary career began, Momaday was given the Returning the Gift Lifetime Achievement Award, an award that acknowledges contributions beyond literary productivity. In 2007, he received a National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush.
Works in Literary Context
Many of Momaday’s works are founded on Kiowa and Navajo mythology. His play Children of the Sun (1997), for example, is a dramatic re-creation of the stories of the half-boys of Kiowa mythology also written about in The Way to Rainy Mountain. Many of Momaday’s themes are clearly established in his collection The Man Made of Words, also published in 1997. In this work Momaday explores his conceptions of language, land, and storytelling. Momaday says, ”Our stories explain us, justify us, sustain us, humble us, and forgive us. And sometimes they injure and destroy us.”
Momaday’s blending of ancient and traditional material with contemporary and modernist techniques in House Made of Dawn has reminded many critics of James Joyce, who combined Catholic religious and Irish political contexts with parallels to classical Greek mythology in such works as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922). The title of House Made of Dawn is taken from the Navajo ”Night Chant,” one of sixty-two healing rituals held sacred by the Navajo. The house referred to in the title has been identified as one of the prehistoric cliff dwellings along the upper Rio Grande, and the chant alludes to it as the home of the semi-divine personification of the dawn. Throughout the novel, important events and insights occur at dawn or sunrise. Also, throughout the novel Momaday incorporates ceremonial, mythical, and anthropological material from three different American Indian nations—Jemez Pueblo, Kiowa, and Navajo—into the texture of the contemporary story of psychological disintegration and renewal. House Made of Dawn is narratively complex, constructed on a principle of fragmentation and reconstitution somewhat like the modernist poems of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, authors whom Momaday studied while in college and graduate school.
Momaday’s work reflects religion and spirituality as it exists in postcolonial Native America, where individuals often live in and learn from multiple sources. Momaday himself is living proof of this blend— he is at once a university professor, a mixed-blood Indian living outside the boundaries of his primary tribe’s native lands and customs, and a nomad—one who finds his home in various settings. His mythic vision, therefore, includes Judeo-Christian and Western myths as well as Native American ones. Indeed, many Pueblo ceremonies are Christian and Native conglomerates. Two versions of Indian Christianity exist in House Made of Dawn, for example—the Catholicism of the Jemez Pueblo and the peyote cult of the Native American church. Layers of Christianity contribute to the mosaic of values prevalent in the Pueblo. Father Olguin, the primary Christian representative in the novel, is constantly rereading the journal of his predecessor, Fray Nicolas, which exposes changes in attitudes toward Indian ceremonialism. In fact, Father Olguin eventually tries to be a bridge for understanding between Indian and white conceptions of death/murder. When Francisco dies, the protagonist, Abel, prepares Francisco’s body in the Pueblo manner and then informs Father Olguin. Amidst so many different belief systems, Abel—and Father Olguin—must figure out his own unique spirituality.
Works in Critical Context
During the First Convocation of American Indian Scholars in 1970, Rupurt Costo asked Momaday’s advice on how to preserve a Native worldview in the face of many negative alternatives offered by Western culture. Momaday answered:
For a long time … the traditional values in the Indian world have not been valued in the terms of the modern dominant society. We’ve always, I think, thought of acculturation as a kind of one way process in which the Indian ceases to be an Indian and becomes a white man…. But I think more and more we ought to educate the white man. We ought to reconstruct the institutions within the dominant society, so that the Indian values are available to the dominant society. Perhaps this is the reason Momaday has become such a quintessential Native American writer and figure: Indian values have been made available to the dominant society through Momaday’s artistic and myth-making talent.
House Made of Dawn
In House Made of Dawn, the story of Abel’s life is told from multiple perspectives and memories that are, at first read, difficult to navigate. Such difficulties prompted critic Roger Dickinson-Brown in a 1978 article for the Southern Review to call the novel a ”batch of often dazzling fragments” and ”a memorable failure” because of the ”incoherence of large parts” of the text. Indeed, psychological, historical, and cultural fragmentation are amply represented in a mosaic of images and memories with few familiar chronological standards.
Susan Scarberry-Garcia in Landmarks of Healing: A Study of House Made of Dawn (1990) discusses the strong commonalities between Navajo concepts and House Made of Dawn. Of particular importance is her insistence that Abel’s final gestures not only help his dying grandfather gain passage into another world but also give his own suffering meaning. House Made of Dawn is still an exploration of a particularly male journey, and, as Paul Zolbrod insists, the Navajo creation story ”relates how [cosmic] order is to be established and maintained, especially in male-female relationships.” In fact, says Zolbrod, ”the basic theme of the Navajo creation story is that solidarity must be maintained between male and female if there is to be harmony in the world.”
The Way to Rainy Mountain
The Way to Rainy Mountain, which most critics consider Momaday’s best work, is the story of the Kiowas’ journey three hundred years ago from Yellowstone onto the Great Plains, where they acquired horses and became a society of sun priests, fighters, and hunters until they were defeated by the U.S. Cavalry in the mid-nineteenth century. Critics note that by the last part the passages begin to blend with one another. The mythic passages are no longer mythic in the traditional sense, because Momaday creates myth out of the memories of his ancestors rather than passing on already established and socially sanctioned tales. According to critic Kenneth Fields, his form forces Momaday ”to relate the subjective to the more objective historical sensibility. The writing of the book itself, one feels, enables him to gain both freedom and possession. It is therefore a work of discovery as well as renunciation, of finding but also of letting go.”
- Allen, Paula Gunn. ”Bringing Home the Fact: Tradition and Continuity in the Imagination,” Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1987, pp. 563-569.
- Bruner, Edward M. ”Experience and Its Expressions.” The Anthropology of Experience. Edited by Victor W. Turner and Bruner. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986, pp. 3-33.
- Costo, Rupert. ”Discussion: The Man Made of Words.” Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Edited by Matthias Schubnell. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1997, pp. 3-19.
- Donovan, Kathleen M. Feminist Readings of Native American Literature: Comingto Voice. Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press, 1998.
- Dumoulie, Camille. ”Eternal Recurrence: Nietzsche’s ‘Great Thought’,” Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes. Edited by Pierre Brunel. London: Routledge, 1996, pp. 420^24.
- Scarberry-Garcia, Susan. Landmarks of Healing: A Study of House Made of Dawn. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.
- Schubnell, Matthias, ed. Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Press, 1997.
- –N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.
- Woodward, Charles L. Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
- Winters, Ivor. Forms of Discovery. Chicago: Alan Swallow, 1967.
- Witherspoon, Gary. Language and Art in the Navajo Universe. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1977).
- Zolbrod, Paul. ”When Artifacts Speak, What Can They Tell Us?” Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Edited by Brian Swann and Krupat. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1987, pp. 13-41.
- Dickinson-Brown, Roger. ”The Art and Importance of N. Scott Momaday,” Southern Review, 14 (1978): 30-45.
- Fields, Kenneth, ”More than Language Means,” in Southern Review, winter, 1970.
- Hirsch, Bernard A. ”Self-Hatred and Spiritual Corruption in House Made of Dawn,” Western American Literature, 17 (Winter 1983): 307-320.
- Kerr, Baine. ”The Novel as Sacred Text: N. Scott Momaday’s Myth-Making Ethic,” Southwest Review, 63 (1978): 172-179.
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