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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Cultural Studies: N. Scott Momaday and Russell Leong Session Author and Literary Works: N. Scott Momaday

N. Scott Momaday

Courtesy, University New Mexico Press

Author Bio

Navarre Scott Momaday (1934- ), a Native American of Kiowa and Cherokee descent, was raised in the American Southwest on various Native American reservations. His mother and father both worked as teachers in Native American schools, but they also pursued artistic interests: Momaday’s mother was a writer, his father a painter.

Like his parents, Momaday has been both a teacher and writer. Since earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of New Mexico, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. at Stanford, Momaday has held tenured appointments at the University of California, Berkeley; UC Santa Barbara; Stanford; and the University of Arizona. He has been honored for his poetry and prose with numerous awards: His debut novel, House Made of Dawn, was the first by a Native American author to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and the Premio Letterario Internationale Mondello, Italy’s highest literary honor.

Momaday’s work has greatly influenced other Native American authors, like Joy Harjo and Leslie Marmon Silko. In fact, the structure and content of Silko’s Storyteller are in many ways similar to Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, and her award-winning Ceremony was influenced by Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. Momaday has also brought Native American literature into a conversation of sorts with other traditions. This is partially due to the fact that Momaday’s work successfully combines various literary styles. His poetry, for example, often employs heroic couplets and blank verse. In this way, Momaday successfully celebrates traditional Native American culture without isolating it from multicultural America.

Despite his willingness to draw on European and European-American literary traditions, Momaday focuses his work on Native American culture. Interestingly, he only came to explore that culture as an adult. “When I was in my early 30s,” Momaday once said, “I began to wonder about my heritage, which I had always taken for granted.” Once Momaday began to investigate his heritage, it quickly became the central focus of both his writing and his scholarship. Perhaps more importantly, it seems to have become a personal mission for Momaday to keep Kiowa culture alive. “When I go and walk among the stones of Rainy Mountain cemetery, where my grandmother, in an unmarked grave, and my aunt, dead in infancy, are buried,” he says, “I am conscious of something terribly important to my being. I could sense in that situation the vitality in myself; I could sense it but could not take possession of it until I translated it into language My poem ‘Rainy Mountain Cemetery’ is an act of understanding. Beyond that, there is no other way.” Through his poetry and his innovative fiction and scholarship, Momaday has infused both Kiowa and American culture with life.

Synopsis of The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday

The Way to Rainy Mountain combines personal, familial, and tribal stories about Kiowa Indian history. Momaday juxtaposes his personal memories of Kiowa culture and traditional tribal narratives to create an impression of the Kiowa way of life that is both mystical and well-grounded. The book was illustrated by the author’s father, Al Momaday.

The Way to Rainy Mountain recalls one of Momaday’s earlier works, The Journey of Tai-me, a collection of Kiowa myths translated into English. With the encouragement of his graduate school advisor, Momaday took that manuscript and added his personal memories and poems to create the brilliant, experimental juxtapositions of The Way to Rainy Mountain.

In the book, Momaday not only presents traditional Kiowa myths, but enlightens readers as to how these stories help create and reflect Kiowa culture. He does this by splitting the book’s perspective between himself, his forebears, and anthropologists. The tension between these perspectives offers readers a means of understanding Kiowa culture as a living entity that changes depending on one’s point of view. Through the process of mentally balancing the traditional tribal stories with Momaday’s comments on contemporary tribal life and observers’ impressions, the reader is able to appreciate the fluctuating, lived experience of Kiowa culture.

Audio Clip with Kathryn W. Shanley

I get a kick out of hearing people say this, but Momaday has been referred to as the Shakespeare of Native American letters. And I think that phrase captures something of his significance, in the sense of a baseline excellence — as a writer. He’s a person with a tremendously imagistic mind, but he loves the voice in what he does. He got his Ph.D. from Stanford and worked on Yvor Winters’s work. So, he studied poetry, and he studied it in a generation when the sound of it was very important — knowing how it sounded as well as it how it could be structured.

Q & A with Kathryn W. Shanley

What is N. Scott Momaday’s place within the Native American literary tradition?
In the 1970s, there were all kinds of bills passed, including [a] civil rights bill for Indian people, a bill for American Indian education, religious freedom. Most people wouldn’t believe that Indian people in this country got freedom of religion in 1978. And then when Reagan came in, in 1980, he reversed some of those things. So we had freedom of religion for two years — in this country that is supposedly founded on the freedom of religion!

Momaday fit right in that historic moment of Indian people coming to the fore of American imagination, not as the end-of-the-trail, bedraggled kind of warrior who’s lost vision and hope, but they came into full view as contemporary Indians. There had been as sense of Indian people being reduced to wards of poverty, policy, and programs, not having culture left, etc.

And along about that time, too — well [into] the 1950s, actually — Carl Jung had become interested in Black Elk Speaks (Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Souix, by Black Elk, et. al) And so that mythic, poetic vision of Black Elk Speaks was a kind of precursor, but that book opened that world. People went back to that book to say, “We aren’t defeated, we have cultures left, we have languages left, we are here.”

Why is it important to teach The Way to Rainy Mountain to high school students?
This is a journey, and it starts in Montana and it goes down to Oklahoma. The history of Kiowa people, actually, is that they are linguistically related to Southwest Pueblo tribes. And somehow, at some point, unbeknownst to the oral historians of the Kiowa tradition, they went north and then they came back down to Montana, and then from Montana they went to Rainy Mountain. So that book gets kids, young people, in touch with a world that’s moving, on the move. In an odd sense, it’s the same kind of appeal that a coyote story can have. Because coyote — the one thing about a literal coyote, but certainly the mythic coyote — is he’s always on the move. In some traditions, the stories start by saying “Coyote went out walking.” And so that adolescent age is one of movement, and this is about movement.

Momaday stands and looks out across the landscape and relates to you how he feels. But when he does that, he talks about how his ancestors are buried there, so that he reclaims the land through his own memory. I think The Way to Rainy Mountain is a remarkable work in the sense that it’s truly a work of literature, a fine work of literature that will last forever. It’s timeless. Anyone will be able to pick it up and find in it something of great value a hundred years from now. So it’s got a lot of appeal for young, young reading audiences, especially high school.

What is the role of ancestry and cultural heritage in Rainy Mountain?
Well, I should say first and foremost that The Way to Rainy Mountain is based on a literal journey where N. Scott Momaday retraced what he saw to be his ancestors’ trek from Montana down to Oklahoma. And it was an important journey for him as a human being in the sense [of] standing on the lands that they stood on, looking out across the desert or the prairie as he went down toward Rainy Mountain. But another aspect of it is important as well: He wasn’t raised among Kiowa in Oklahoma. He was raised in the Southwest, on the Jemez Pueblo where his parents worked. His mother was Cherokee and his father was Kiowa, but he was also profoundly influenced by Pueblo peoples and Navajo peoples. So he’s “recovering” himself, and that makes his work interestingly American. Many immigrants come to this country — the first generation struggles to make it, the second generation has it a little easier, and then the third generation wants to revisit the life of the grandparents, to go back and see where they came from, who they were when they were in the Old World.

And so between generations, the recovery of history, family history, and cultural identity are important to human beings. High school students especially need to think about that. Their grandmothers may very well be living. And recovering photographs and stories from living relatives is an extremely valuable thing to ground students, to take them forward. They aren’t at the stage where they are thinking about that. They aren’t thinking [about] their own mortality most of the time, fortunately. But their record will be important to them some day if they work with a text like The Way to Rainy Mountain, and work at recovering some of those things. But again, what I’m trying to emphasize is that for Momaday, it’s a journey of the imagination that parallels the literal journey of The Way to Rainy Mountain.

Information About Key References

The Way to Rainy Mountain is essentially a cultural and historical study of the Kiowa Indians. The Kiowa, a tribe of nomadic buffalo hunters, migrated from the northern to the southern Plains in the eighteenth century, eventually settling in areas of Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. Known as fierce warriors opposed to white incursions on their territory, the Kiowa allied with the Comanche to make daring raids throughout the southern Plains, and as far south as Mexico, attacking settlements, stealing horses, and taking captives. Although they were assigned a reservation in Oklahoma in 1868, they refused to settle completely and continued to war with white settlers until they were ultimately defeated in 1874. Today, there are close to 12,000 Kiowa who live mostly in Oklahoma and other areas of the southwestern United States.

The Ghost Dance
The Ghost Dance was a Native American religious movement started in the late 1880s by Wovoka (a.k.a. Jack Wilson), a mystic of the Paiute tribe. Intended to herald a new age in which whites would disappear and Native Americans would be reunited with their lost loved ones to live in peace and material abundance, the Ghost Dance caught on quickly; by 1890, most Western tribes were performing its ecstatic songs and dances. The movement outraged white settlers and the government, who feared the Ghost Dance would provoke a pan-Indian uprising. The massacre by U.S. soldiers of 300 Lakota Indians at Wounded Knee in December 1890, during the height of the Ghost Dance’s popularity, effectively ended the movement.

The Sun Dance
The Sun Dance, a ceremony lasting anywhere from four to eight days, was one of the most spectacular Plains Indian religious rituals. Originally a Lakota rite, it is today considered a sacred ritual by many tribes. The dance, which is performed at the time of the Summer Solstice, involves young men, or “warriors,” piercing themselves with hooks attached by ropes to a large pole. The dancers circle the pole, staring into the sun, until the hooks break through their flesh. Ultimately, the Sun Dance is intended to insure the harmonious continuance of the natural world, in which death and life are gracefully entwined.

The Way to Rainy Mountain is, in part, a migration narrative. It is an oral history of Kiowa movement from the northern Plains to the southern Plains, and eventually to the Rainy Mountain region of Oklahoma. This migration echoes the natural movement of many other Native American tribes, as well as their forcible resettlement onto reservations, which were generally distant from their traditional tribal grounds.

Aho is Momaday’s grandmother, who is honored in The Way to Rainy Mountain. She was steeped in the oral traditions that told of the migration of the Kiowa form the north, but she herself always lived near Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma.

Native American Civil Rights Movement
Begun in the late 1960s to address issues of racism, poverty, unemployment, and government oppression, the Native American civil rights movement sought to encourage greater self-determination and international recognition of Native American treaty rights. While lobbying efforts and direct action — including the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969; the takeover of the Washington, DC, Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972; and the 1973 seizing of the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota — were always key elements of the movement, equally important was the flowering of Indian literary and artistic talent. In 1969, Vine Deloria Jr. published the provocative Custer Died for Your Sins, signaling a new era in Native American self-awareness and cultural reclamation. That same year, N. Scott Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn. The movement, which broke down long-held cultural stereotypes, not only changed the way the larger culture began to view Native Americans, but resulted in a number of important legislative changes as well.

Suggestions for Applying Other Theories to The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday

From a reader-response perspective, The Way to Rainy Mountain invites many possible literary transactions. After students have read the entire book, teachers can assign each student one segment of the book on which to focus. Once students have done this, perhaps by writing a journal entry about the material, the teacher should have them wander around the class, talking informally with each other about their particular passage. In the course of these informal conversations, students will begin to understand how the book’s sections are related.

An inquiry approach to the book might include a personal genealogy or family history project, similar to the family tree projects that teachers initiated in the 1970s when the film Roots was popular. In this instance, however, the inquiry would engage students in family history instead of solely addressing family lineage. The goal of such an inquiry would be for students to create a work, similar in structure to Momaday’s book, in which they fuse family history, cultural history, myth and cosmology, and geography.

A critical read of the book would focus on the history of Indian Territory, now known as the state of Oklahoma. Students could explore the history of the forced resettlement of tribes in this area and discuss the new relations that came about as a result of this resettlement. Students might write a new textbook on Oklahoma history for others and publish it on the Internet.

Author and Literary Works

Works by the Author

Momaday, N. Scott. The Ancient Child. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
Locke Setman returns to his tribal lands for his grandmother’s funeral and begins a quest to find his identity within Native American tradition.

—-. Angle of Geese and Other Poems. Boston: Godine, 1974.
This collection features many nature poems.

—-. Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story. Santa Fe: Clear Light, 1994.
This book tells the story of Tolo, who learns about the gift of fire.

—-. The Gourd Dancer. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
This collection features many poems influenced by the Native American oral tradition.

—-. House Made of Dawn. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.
This novel tells the story of Abel, a Tano Indian trying to find his place in post-World War II America.

—-. In the Bear’s House. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
These poems and paintings are inspired by Native American myths about the bear.

—-. In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and poems, 1961-1991. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
These stories, poems, and drawings reflect on Native American legends.

—-. The Journey of Tai-me. Santa Barbara: Privately printed, 1967.
This collection of Kiowa stories was later integrated into the larger structure of The Way to Rainy Mountain.

—-. The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories Passages. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
In this collection of essays and articles, Momaday reflects on his career as a writer and his journey to discover his Native American identity.

—-. The Names: A Memoir. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
This memoir presents Momaday’s recollections and reflections on the lives of his ancestors.

—-. The Way to Rainy Mountain. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969.
This inventive collection of traditional Kiowa stories, anthropological notes on Kiowa culture, and personal memories of Kiowa life from the author, is matched with illustrations by the author’s father.

—- (ed). The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
This collection is based on Momaday’s doctoral dissertation on Tuckerman, a naturalist poet from New England.

Works about the Author

Evers, Larry. “Words and Place: A Reading of House Made of Dawn.” Western American Literature,11 (February 1977): 297-320.
This piece offers a critical analysis of Momaday’s novel.

Isernhagen, Hartwig. Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
The three interviews in this book focus on Native American writing and writers.

Lincoln, Kenneth. “Momaday’s Way.” In Native American Renaissance: 95-116. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
This chapter in Lincoln’s book presents an analysis of the journey metaphor in Momaday’s work.

—-. Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
This book examines the influence of Native American sensibilities and poetics on American poetry.

Nelson, Robert M. Place and Vision: The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.
This book offers a critical analysis of the work of Momaday, James Welch, and Leslie Marmon Silko.

PBS – The West – Momaday
This Web site offers an interview with Momaday along with links to the resources and teaching materials of the PBS series The West.

Roemer, Kenneth M (ed). “N. Scott Momaday.” In Native American Writers of the United States: 174-186. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.
This chapter offers a concise introduction to Momaday’s life and work.

—- (ed). Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain. New York: Modern Language Association, 1988.
This collection of essays details the cultural and biographical background of The Way to Rainy Mountain, along with suggestions for intertextual reading from Momaday’s Man Made of Words.

—- and Paula Gunn Allen (eds). “Bear and Elk: The Nature(s) of Contemporary American Indian Poetry.” In Studies in American Indian Literature: 178-91. New York: Modern Language Association, 1983.
This article is a consideration of natural imagery in Native American poems.

Ruppert, James. “The Uses of Oral Traditions in Six Contemporary Native American Poets.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 4:4 (1980): 87-110.
This article takes a look at myth and translation in Native American poetry.

Schubnell, Matthias. N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1985.
Critical analysis, as well as biographical and historical information, is presented in this book.

—- (ed). Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 1997.
These interviews, from 1970 to 1993, reflect on nature, the relationship between Native Americans and America, and the craft of writing.

Trimble, Martha. N. Scott Momaday. Boise: Boise State University Press, 1973.
Biographical material and critical analysis of the author is covered.

—-. “The Return of the Native: The Renaissance of Tribal Religions As Reflected in the Fiction of N. Scott Momaday.” Religion and Literature, 26:1 (Spring 1994): 135-45.
This article explores the religious backdrop of Momaday’s work.

Vizenor, Gerald (ed). Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.
This collection of critical essays focuses on issues of translation in the work of N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, D’Arcy McNickle, Louise Erdrich, Gerald Vizenor, and others.

Warner, Nicholas O. “Images of Drinking in ‘Woman Singing,’ Ceremony, and House Made of Dawn.” MELUS, 11:4 (Winter 1984): 15-30.
This analytic essay reflects on alcoholism in the literature of Native Americans.

Woodward, Charles L (ed). Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
This book contains interviews about writing and Native American traditions.

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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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