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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Becoming Visible N. Scott Momaday (b. 1934)

[5972] Nancy Crampton, N. Scott Momaday Portrait (n.d.), courtesy of Nancy Crampton.

Writer, teacher, artist, and storyteller, Navarre Scott Momaday has spent his life preserving the oral traditions and culture of Native American peoples. As the only child of Al Momaday (Kiowa) and Natchee Scott (part Cherokee), he grew up on Navajo and Apache reservations in Arizona and New Mexico, though he continued to visit his Kiowa family in Oklahoma. His parents, who were artists as well as teachers, taught in a small school in New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley, and he attended a variety of schools, including reservation, mission, and military, with classmates of not only Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache descent but Hispanic and Anglo as well. After earning his B.A. at the University of New Mexico in political science, he went on to receive his M.A. and Ph.D. in English from Stanford under the guidance of poet and critic Yvor Winters. In addition to visiting professorships at institutions such as Columbia University, Princeton University, and the University of Moscow, Momaday holds honorary degrees from a variety of American universities, including Yale. Well-schooled in canonical American literary traditions as well as Native American narratives, he writes as a member of many worlds, and sometimes as an exile from them all, as he tackles the effects of a post-World War II materialistic culture on his people.

Momaday uses Native American oral and European American poetic traditions, oral and written history, autobiography, and legend to create a rich panorama of Native American life. His first major work, House Made of Dawn (1968), is about a Native American who cannot reconcile his Pueblo heritage with city life. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel heralded the beginning of what many scholars refer to as “the Native American Renaissance.” Other works by Momaday include The Ancient Child (1989), a novel about a San Francisco artist struggling with his Kiowan identity; three volumes of poetry; three autobiographical works, which include The Journey to Tai-me (1967) and The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969); a collection of essays, The Man Made of Words (1997); and various pieces of literary criticism and works on Native American culture.

Teaching Tips

  • Students may be surprised by the innovative format of Momaday’s autobiography and by the way that he moves between myth and personal recollections. In an interview for American Passages, Momaday notes that “the voices are all around us, the three voices. You have the mythic and the historical and the personal and then they become a wheel, they revolve, they alternate. . . . Myth becomes history becomes memoir becomes myth.” Ask students to prepare for a discussion on The Way to Rainy Mountain by reviewing the Momaday interviews in the archive.
  • Today over 11,000 Kiowa live on their reservation in Oklahoma, but Kiowa oral tradition tells of how the Kiowa originally lived and hunted in what is now Montana. The Kiowa are a Plains Indian community. Traditionally, Kiowa have lived in tipis; they have ridden horses since their introduction in the seventeenth century, and each of the six bands has its own Sun Dance ritual. Most Kiowa stories about the self customarily took the form of what critic Hertha Wong has called “communo-bio-oratory”-that is, community-life-speaking (for more on this see Unit 1). These tales include oral stories of counting coup, narrative paintings on tipis and Buffalo hides, and ledger books and pictorial calendars from the late nineteenth century. As early as the nineteenth century, Kiowa art was commissioned for exhibitions. Some of this work, along with more recent drawings, can be seen in the Smithsonian. This tradition has continued into the twentieth century and can be seen in the work of writers such as N. Scott Momaday, as well as paintings by the Kiowa Five of the “Oklahoma school”: Spencer Asah, James Auchiah, Jack Hokeah, Stephen Mopope, and Monroe Tsatoke, all of whom studied at the University of Oklahoma in the late 1920s. You may find it helpful to begin a discussion of Momaday’s work by analyzing the way that a ledger book, winter count, or painted hide functions as a communo-bio-oratory.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Look carefully at the two-column sections (set in three different typefaces) of The Way to Rainy Mountain. How are we to read them? Simultaneously? One at a time? What does this arrangement suggest about the mind of the writer or the kind of thinking we need to be doing to understand him?
  2. Comprehension: Grandparents played a crucial role in educating and acculturating children. They were important storytellers who communicated Kiowa history, legends, and religion. What role does Momaday’s grandmother play in The Way to Rainy Mountain? What are you led to expect when Momaday invokes his grandmother early in his story? What do you find surprising in the way that he develops that part of his account? In House Made of Dawn, what effect does viewing Able through the perspective of Ben Benally in the third section of the book have on your understanding of Able?
  3. Context: The Way to Rainy Mountain contains several accounts of Kiowa history from both a native and a non-native perspective, some of which are offered without much interpretation. Why might Momaday allow these stories to float and flow like this?
  4. Exploration: How do Momaday’s works, and Native American works in general, seem to fit this unit? How does Momaday represent local cultures and ethnic differences in his writing? Make a list of ways in which Native American cultural concerns are similar to and different from those of African Americans and Jewish Americans.

Selected Archive Items

[4203] Anonymous, Protest Against the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) (1970),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.
Along with the development of contemporary Native American writing in the late 1960s and 1970s, protest movements arose against the discrimination suffered by American Indians.

[5972] Nancy Crampton, N. Scott Momaday Portrait (n.d.),
courtesy of Nancy Crampton.
Momaday (Kiowa) spent most of his childhood on reservations in New Mexico and Arizona, where he was exposed to the rituals and traditions of tribal life, as well as the influence of postwar cultural, unemployment, and alcoholism. Momaday is part of the movement sometimes called the Native American Renaissance.

[5973] Nancy Crampton, N. Scott Momaday 3/4 Shot (n.d.),
courtesy of Nancy Crampton.
Momaday’s 1968 House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize and is seen by some scholars as the beginning of the Native American Renaissance. His work focuses on the power of language and place that helps shape Native American identity.

[8106] Anonymous, Girl’s Dress (c. 1890),
courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, gift of Elizabeth Cole Butler.
This hoestôtse, or Cheyenne dress, is made of leather and incorporates glass beadwork. This style was developed by the Kiowa in the mid-1800s and was copied by other Plains tribes.

[8295] N. Scott Momaday, Interview: “Becoming Visible” (2003),
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media.
N. Scott Momaday discusses the relationships among the mythic, the historical, and the personal.

[8861] N. Scott Momaday, Interview: “Becoming Visible” (2003),
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media.
N. Scott Momaday discusses the oral tradition.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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