|In 1969, Kiowa Indian N. Scott Momaday was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, House Made of Dawn (1968).
The literary community had recognized the arrival of a major contemporary Native American writer and the beginning of
the Native American Literature Renaissance.
Momaday’s writing is filled with stories about himself and his people, the Kiowa, especially in his works called The Way to
Rainy Mountain (1969), The Gourd Dancer (1976), The Names: A Memoir (1976), The Ancient Child (1989), and In the
Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields (1992).
Grounded in aboriginal oral traditions, sacred landscapes, and ancient ritual the non-native reader could immerse
themselves into the world of the Native American. Momaday’s writing speaks to the reader in ancestral voices,
simultaneously remote and immediate, and it is informed with the rhythms of magic formulas and the mysterious power of
images originating in prehistoric petroglyphs and ancient cave paintings.
Some critics, however, believe Momaday's work reflects the multiple cultural contexts and traditions of the tribe he grew
up in and the conflict between his childhood world and the American culture he would write and paint in.
Way to Rainy Mountain
In The Way to Rainy Mountain, arguably his most important work, Scott Momaday establishes the patterns of theme and
technique which have characterized his novels, poems, and memoirs. An expansion of the Kiowa folktakes retold from
The Journey of Tai-me is Momaday's attempt to develop a myth which incorporates individual lives as part of an overall
Each of the three sections ("The Setting Out," "The Going On," and "The Closing In") progresses from the most inclusive
and remote to the most personal and recent: Momaday begins with Kiowa legends, followed by tribal history, then
personal memoir. Using different typefaces to indicate the transitions, Momaday retells Kiowa origin myths, retraces the
history of the tribe's three-century migration from Yellowstone to the Great Plains, and finally links these stories with
personal memories and stories passed down by his paternal ancestors.
Each layer of the narrative explains and so adds significance to those which precede it, as the psychic journey of
Momaday the teller reenacts the wanderings of the Kiowa. Literally traveling to his grandmother's grave, he realizes that
her lifespan encompassed the decline in tribal identity.
The Names: A Memoir continues the exploration of personal identity in the larger context of the family and the tribe.
Again Momaday combines Kiowa tradition with genealogical exploration and almost idyllic memories, as he describes his
boyhood among the Kiowas, who give names to every object in, and every characteristic of, their environment.
Momaday's name, Tsoaitalee, is the Kiowa name for a spot important in tribal legends—a massive rock known in Anglo-
American culture as the Devils Tower. Since the name was supposedly prophetic of an individual's character and fate,
Momaday had been given a great honor and a profound responsibility.
This memoir emphasizes the importance of names, through those names tracing Momaday's Anglo-American heritage as
well as the Kiowa. His mother's family included not only a Cherokee great-grandmother, but also a grandfather,
Theodore Scott, who was a sheriff in Kentucky. In identifying with his Indian ancestors, however, Momaday is following
the lead of his mother, who chose an Indian name, Indian dress, and an Indian school. Initially among the Kiowa,
Momaday's paternal grandfather had only one name, Mammeday, but with the adoption of Christian names, the name
John was added. Alfred, Scott's father, modified the family name to Momaday. The development of the family surname
seems symbolic of the family's ability to remain Native Americans but to incorporate the best elements of the Anglo
House Made of Dawn
The origin of House Made of Dawn can be traced to the early 1960s, when Momaday was working on his doctorate at
Stanford. Having initially conceived the work as a cycle of poems, Momaday had turned to prose and, in 1963, had
published a short story, "The Well," that anticipates the themes of culture clash, witchcraft, and identity conflict that he
develops in depth in the novel. While the story is set on the Jicarilla Apache reservation, where he had taught in 1958, as
the settings for House Made of Dawn Momaday chose Jemez, which is called Walatowa in the novel, and -- as the urban
counterpoint to the Pueblo world -- Los Angeles.
The protagonist of House Made of Dawn, is Abel, who was a composite of individuals Momaday knew in Jemez: young
men whose inability to cope with conflicting cultural patterns led them into alcoholism, violence, and death; and veterans
who failed to reintegrate themselves into their tribal community after fighting in World War II. Abel's troubles, however,
are not caused by his exposure to the world beyond the Indian village; his war experiences and the alien milieu of the
modern American city only deepen an identity crisis that already troubles Abel as a young man. Isolated within the tribe --
his father was an outsider who left the family -- and further set apart by the deaths of his mother and brother, Abel grows
up with his grandfather, Francisco, who tries, with little success, to teach him the old ways. Abel's killing of an eagle he
has captured shows his ignorance of the traditional hunting code. His distance from his people's ceremonial life results in
a generational conflict with Francisco: "You ought to do this and that, his grandfather said. But the old man had not
understood, would not understand, only wept, and Abel left him alone. It was time to go, and the old man was away in the
Abel's quest for identity leads him first into World War II and then back to his village, where he tries to attune himself to
the land and his people's traditions. Failing to resolve his inner conflict by ceremonial means, he seeks solace in a sexual
encounter with Angela St. John, who initially exploits Abel but will later become instrumental in his healing process; finally,
he kills a mysterious albino whom he identifies as a witch. In disposing of the "evil spirit" Abel, for the first time, acts in
accordance with tribal law, signaling his return to his tribe. But he is convicted of murder and sent to jail, a world in which
he is ill equipped to survive.
The remainder of the novel traces Abel's struggle to escape the conflicting cultural forces that threaten to tear him apart
after his release from eight years in prison and his relocation to Los Angeles. The disjointed structure of the work,
particularly in the chapter "The Priest of the Sun," owes much to Faulkner's narrative technique and reflects the
protagonist's confusion, gradual disintegration, and near death. Yet it also holds the seed of Abel's restoration to his
homeland and its ancient ceremonies. Abel's vision of the runners after evil, following his nearly fatal beating by an evil
policeman, "Culebra" Martinez, reveals to him the possibility of dealing with witchcraft ceremonially rather than through
This experience lays the foundation for Abel's renewed faith in his own culture. His friend Ben Benally's Navajo night
chant, from which the novel takes its title, helps to restore Abel's psychic balance by centering him in "the house made of
dawn" -- the Navajo universe -- and by pleading for the restoration of his mind, body, and voice. Ben and another
character, the Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah, are foils for Abel.
Benally tries to live the American Dream and constantly talks about it, but his imagination is still centered in the Indian
world. Tosamah, an urban Indian, lacks any understanding of or sympathy for Abel. Tosamah is important in the novel for
articulating, in his sermon on the Gospel of John, the contrast between the written word and the oral tradition.
Abel's visit with Angela as he recovers in Los Angeles also helps his healing process. Their seemingly frivolous affair
turns out to have had a profound effect on Angela, engendering love for her previously unwanted child, which she now
regards not as her husband's but as Abel's, and leading her to an insight into Abel's tribal heritage. While much in the
novel suggests that the bridging of cultures is impossible -- the difficulty that the two Catholic priests have in
understanding their Pueblo flock is an example -- the conclusion of Abel's and Angela's relationship offers hope for
Abel's final encounter with the dying Francisco further prepares him for his reintegration into his culture. Francisco's last
utterances -- fragmented lessons on the importance of the land, the solar calendar, and hunting ceremonies (Francisco's
account of his successful bear hunt contrasts directly with Abel's failure to act appropriately on his eagle hunt) -- prompt
Abel to prepare Francisco's body for burial in the traditional manner. Abel's subsequent joining of the race of the dawn
runners confirms the restoration of his body, and his singing of "House Made of Dawn" as he runs affirms that he has left
inarticulateness and alienation behind and is running toward a new day both for himself and his tribe.
Momaday also treats the issue of cultural identity in his best known work, House Made of Dawn, winner of the 1969
Pulitzer prize for fiction. In this novel, praised for its mythic themes but criticized for its difficult narrative structure, a Native
American veteran (interestingly, named Abel) cannot re-adapt to reservation life upon his return from World War II. After
killing a man and serving a prison sentence, he is paroled to a halfway house in Los Angeles.
Unlike his roommate Ben, a narrative voice who appears to be a Momaday spokesman, Abel remains outside the Anglo-
American culture; his attitude causes trouble on the job and with the police. Although the local groups he discovers do
not practice the Native American ceremonies in their pure form, the sermons of medicine man/priest John Tosamah lead
ultimately to Abel's return to the reservation and his dying grandfather. The novel's resolution is the ritual race at dawn,
in which Abel's true opponents are evil and death. Thus, coinciding with his grand-father's death is Abel's symbolic
rebirth into his culture.
Like his character Abel, Momaday finds strength and beauty in traditional Native American life, which he sees as an
antidote to the prevailing modern mood of individual isolation. A part of their belief in the principle of harmony in the
universe, the Kiowa's oral tradition links them to the land and establishes it as a spiritual entity, similar to themselves and
worthy of reverence. The retelling of history and legends also taps into the tribal memory, providing a sense of personal
and group identity.
The Gourd Dancer and Angle of Geese and Other Poems
Momaday's poems, which have received less attention than his prose, likewise recast traditional Kiowa legends in terms
of family history. In The Gourd Dancer and Angle of Geese and Other Poems, Momaday draws upon "blood memories,"
becoming in effect the successor to ancient medicine men as he interprets for his contemporary audience the Native
In attempting to express his essentially intuitive perceptions about the Kiowa, however, Momaday is hampered by the
limitations imposed in using the language of an alien culture. Nevertheless, Momaday, who does not speak Kiowa
himself, understands how the language not only reflects but also influences the way a people think, and he believes that
in relating these tales, he is offering hope and spiritual healing to modern American society.
This process of translating his ancient myths to benefit modern society is the subject of Momaday's second novel, The
Ancient Child, which is primarily autobiographical. Using the myth associated with his own Kiowa name, Momaday
portrays a Native American artist's efforts to maintain his culture and interpret it for the Anglo world. While the artist
generally is an outsider in his society, the Native American can draw upon his advantage of an alternate world view found
in tribal legends. Thus, like Momaday himself, the artist can use the traditional vehicles of dreams and visions to forge an
identity which is at once personal and universal.
Navarro Scott Mammedaty was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, on 27 February 1934 to Alfred Morris Mammedaty, a full-
blood Kiowa, and Mayme Natachee Scott Mammedaty, who is of Scottish, French, and Cherokee descent. Later his
father changed the spelling of the family name to Momaday.
When Scott was six months old, Pohd-lohk, a Kiowa elder, named him Tsoai-talee (Rock Tree Boy), thus linking the child
to one of the ancient stories in Kiowa mythology: to account for the origin of Devils Tower, the strange landmark in what
is now northeastern Wyoming that they had come upon on their journey south from the Yellowstone area, the Kiowa
created a story about a boy who was transformed into a bear and chased his 7 sisters right up a tree; the tree became
Devils Tower and the sisters became the Big Dipper. To reinforce this mythic connection, his parents took him to Devils
The myth has become so much a part of Momaday's identity that his writings gravitate to it again and again; it provides
the unifying subtext for The Ancient Child.
When Momaday was two his parents left Kiowa country for a series of teaching positions: on the Navajo reservation at
Shiprock, New Mexico; at Tuba City and Chinle, Arizona; and, in 1946, at a two-teacher day school at Jemez Pueblo, New
Mexico. As a Kiowa among Navajo and Pueblo people who was also being guided by his parents toward success in the
larger society beyond Jemez, Momaday inhabited a complex world of intersecting cultures. The need to accommodate
himself to these circumstances prepared him for the perceptive treatment of encounters with various cultures that
characterizes his literary work.
Momaday's formal education took place at the Franciscan Mission School in Jemez; the Indian School in Santa Fe; high
schools in Bernalillo, New Mexico; and the Augustus Military Academy in Fort Defiance, Virginia. In 1952 he entered the
University of New Mexico at Albuquerque as a political science major with minors in English and speech. He spent 1956-
1957 in the law program at the University of Virginia, where he met William Faulkner; the encounter helped to shape
Momaday's early prose and is most clearly reflected in the evocation of Faulkner's story "The Bear" (1942) in Momaday's
poem of that title (collected in Angle of Geese and Other Poems, 1974). Returning to the University of New Mexico,
Momaday graduated in 1958 and took a teaching position on the Jicarilla Apache reservation at Dulce, New Mexico.
There he met and, on 5 September 1959, married Gaye Mangold. They have three daughters: Cael, Jill, and Brit.
Content with his new career, Momaday had no plans for further academic training; but in 1959, on the urging of a friend,
he applied for and received a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship to Stanford University. There the poet and
critic Yvor Winters became his mentor, his friend, and the single most important influence on his early career.
Winters persuaded Momaday to pursue a doctorate in American literature and proposed and supervised his thesis, an
edition of the works of the nineteenth-century poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman that was published by Oxford
University Press in 1965. In a letter to the editor published in the 23 February 1967 issue of The Reporter Winters
predicted Momaday's impending literary acclaim. And he critiqued the drafts of House Made of Dawn, which, to him,
provided further evidence of Momaday's immense talent. Winters's untimely death in 1968, a year before Momaday's
Pulitzer award, prevented him from seeing his pronouncements on his student's literary potential validated.
After receiving his Ph.D. in 1963 Momaday taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Next came his writing
Works By Momaday
Momaday, Natachee Scott. American Indian authors. 1976.
Momaday, Natachee Scott. Owl in the cedar tree. 1992.
Momaday, Natachee Scott. Woodland Princess, a book of 24 poems. 1931.
Momaday, Natachee Scott.The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, 1965.
Momaday, Natachee Scott. The Journey of Tai-me (Kiowa Indian folktales). 1967.
Momaday, Natachee Scott. House Made of Dawn. 1968, reprinted, 1989.
Momaday, Natachee Scott. Angle of Geese and Other Poems,.1974.
Momaday, Natachee Scott.The Names: A Memoir. 1976.
Momaday, Natachee Scott. The Ancient Child. 1989.
Momaday, Natachee Scott. In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields. 1992.
Momaday, Natachee Scott. Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story. 1994.
Momaday, Natachee Scott. Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. 1997.
Momaday, Natachee Scott. The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages. 1997.
Momaday, Natachee Scott. In the Bear's House. 1999.
Caduto, M. J. Native American Stories. 1991.
Schubnell, M. N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. 1986.
Velie, A. R. Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald
|N. Scott Momaday's
The Way to Rainy Mountain
|N. Scott Momaday