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N. Scott Momaday Essays

Navarre Scott Momaday (born February 27, 1934) — known as N. Scott Momaday — is a Kiowa novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. His novel House Made of Dawn was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969, and is considered the first major work of the Native American Renaissance. His follow-up work The Way to Rainy Mountain blended folklore with memoir. Momaday received the National Medal of Arts in 2007 for his work's celebration and preservation of indigenous oral and art tradition. He holds twenty honorary degrees from colleges and universities, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


On February 27, 1934, Navarre Scott Momaday was born in Lawton, Oklahoma.[1] He was delivered in the Kiowa and Comanche Indian Hospital, registered as having seven-eighths Indian blood.[2] N. Scott Momaday was born of Natachee Scott Momaday, of mixed English, Irish, French, and Cherokee blood, while his father, Alfred Morris Momaday was full-blooded Kiowa.[3] His mother was a writer and his father a painter.[1] In 1935, when N. Scott Momaday was one year old, his family moved to Arizona, where both his father and mother became teachers on the reservation.[1] Growing up in Arizona allowed Momaday to experience not only his father’s Kiowa traditions but also those of other southwest Native Americans including the Navajo, Apache, and Pueblo traditions.[1] In 1946, a twelve-year-old Momaday moved to Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, living there with his parents until his senior year of high school.[2] After high school, Momaday attended the University of New Mexico, graduating in 1958 with a Bachelors of Arts degree in English.[2] He continued his education at Stanford University where, in 1963, he was awarded a Ph.D. in English Literature.[2]

Literary career[edit]

Momaday received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1963. Momaday's doctoral thesis, The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, was published in 1965.

His novel House Made of Dawn led to the breakthrough of Native American literature into the American mainstream after the novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969.

House Made of Dawn was the first novel of the Native American Renaissance, a term coined by literary critic Kenneth Lincoln in the Native American Renaissance. The work remains a classic of Native American literature.

As other indigenous American writers began to gain notoriety, Momaday turned to poetry, releasing a small collection called Angle of Geese. Writing for The Southern Review, John Finlay described it as Momaday's best work, and that it should "earn him a permanent place in our literature."[4] that it The poems in Angle of Geese were later included in an expanded collection, The Gourd Dancer (1976), which also included passages excised from The Way to Rainy Mountain. Most of Momaday's subsequent work has blended poetry and prose.

In 2007, Momaday returned to live in Oklahoma for the first time since his childhood. Though initially for his wife's cancer treatment, Momoday's relocation coincided with the state's centennial, and Governor Brad Henry appointed him as the sixteenth Oklahoma Poet Laureate, succeeding Nimrod International Journal editor Francine Leffler Ringold. Momaday held the position for two years.[5]

Academic career[edit]

Momaday has taught at the Stanford University, University of Arizona, University of California-Berkeley, and University of California-Santa Barbara. He has been a visiting professor at Columbia University, Princeton University, and at Moscow State University. At UC Berkeley, he designed the graduate program for Indian Studies.[6]

In 1963, Momaday began teaching at the University of Santa Barbara as an assistant professor of English. From 1966-1967, he focused primarily on literary research, leading him to pursue the Guggenheim Fellowship at Harvard University.[7] Two years later, in 1969, Momaday was named Professor of English at the University of California-Berkeley. Momaday taught creative writing, and produced a new curriculum based on American Indian literature and mythology.[7]

In total, Momaday has tenured at the University of Santa Barbara, University of California’s Berkeley campus, Stanford University, and the University of Arizona.[8] Momaday has been a visiting professor at places such as Columbia and Princeton, while also being the first professor to teach American Literature in Moscow, Russia at Moscow State University.[8]

During the 35-plus years of Momaday’s academic career, he built up a reputation specializing in American Indian oral traditions and sacred concepts of the culture itself.[8] The many years of schooling and teaching have shown Momaday’s academic success, resulting in 12 honorary degrees from several American universities.[8]

He was a Visiting Professor at the University of New Mexico during the 2014-15 academic year to teach in the Creative Writing and American Literary Studies Programs in the Department of English. Specializing in poetry and the Native oral tradition, he will teach The Native American Oral Tradition.


  • The Journey of Tai-me (1967), folklore
  • House Made of Dawn (1968), novel
  • The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) (illustrated by his father, Alfred Momaday), folklore
  • Angle of Geese (1974), poetry chapbook
  • The Gourd Dancer (1976), poetry
  • The Names: A Memoir (1976), memoir
  • The Ancient Child (1989), novel
  • In the Presence of the Sun (1992), stories and poetry
  • The Native Americans: Indian County (1993)
  • The Indolent Boys (Play) Premiered on the Syracuse Stage during the 1993-94 season.[9]
  • Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story (1994), children's book
  • The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (1997), stories and essays
  • In the Bear's House (1999), mixed media
  • Four Arrows & Magpie: A Kiowa Story (2006), children's book
  • Three Plays: The Indolent Boys, Children of the Sun, and The Moon in Two Windows (2007), plays
  • Again the Far Morning: New and Selected Poems (2011), poetry


In 1969, Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel "House Made of Dawn" (Pulitzer.org).

Momaday was featured in the Ken Burns and Stephen Ives documentary, The West (1996), for his masterful retelling of Kiowa history and legend. He was also featured in PBS documentaries concerning boarding schools, Billy the Kid, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Momaday was honored as the Oklahoma Centennial Poet Laureate[10]

In 1992, Momaday received the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas.[11]

In 2000, Momaday received the St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates.[12][13]

Awarded a National Medal of Arts in 2007 by President George W. Bush.[14]

Momaday received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Illinois at Chicago on May 9, 2010.

Recent activities[edit]

Momaday is the founder of the Rainy Mountain Foundation[15] and Buffalo Trust, a nonprofit organization working to preserve Native American cultures.[16] Momaday, a known watercolor painter, designed and illustrated the book, In the Bear's House.


  • "I sometimes think the contemporary white American is more culturally deprived than the Indian."[17]
  • "I simply kept my goal in mind and persisted. Perseverance is a large part of writing."[17]
  • “Anything is bearable if you can make a story out of it.”[18]
  • “A word has power in it of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things.”[18]
  • “The highest human purpose is always to reinvent and celebrate the sacred.”[18]
  • “For the storyteller, for the arrowmaker, language does indeed represent the only chance for survival.”[18]
  • “Indians are marvelous story tellers. In some ways, that oral tradition is stronger than the written tradition.”[18]
  • “In the beginning was the world, and it was spoken.”[18]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

  1. ^ abcd"Scott Momaday Biography -- Academy of Achievement". www.achievement.org. Retrieved 2016-11-18. 
  2. ^ abcd"N. Scott Momaday Biography - eNotes.com". eNotes. Retrieved 2016-11-18. 
  3. ^"Momaday, N. Scott - Voices of Oklahoma". Voices of Oklahoma. Retrieved 2016-11-18. 
  4. ^Finlay, John (July 1975). "N. Scott Momaday's Angle of Geese". The Southern Review. 11 (3): 658. Retrieved 22 June 2017. 
  5. ^Holliday, Shawn (2015). The Oklahoma Poets Laureate (1st ed.). Norman, OK: Mongrel Empire Press. p. 251. ISBN 978-0-9903204-3-2. 
  6. ^"U of Arizona biography". Archived from the original on October 10, 2014. Retrieved October 8, 2014. 
  7. ^ ab"404 | Encyclopedia.com". www.encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2016-11-19. 
  8. ^ abcd"PBS - THE WEST - N. Scott Momaday". www.pbs.org. Retrieved 2016-11-19. 
  9. ^Syracuse Stage 1993-94
  10. ^Van Deventer, M. J. "Bush adding to poet's honors."Daily Oklahoman. 15 Nov 2007 (retrieved 14 Dec 2009)
  11. ^List of NWCA Lifetime Achievement Awards, accessed 6 Aug 2010.
  12. ^Website of St. Louis Literary Award
  13. ^Saint Louis University Library Associates. "Recipients of the St. Louis Literary Award". Retrieved July 25, 2016. 
  14. ^President Bush Announces 2007 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal Recipients
  15. ^"Santa Fe NM 87505 - Tax Exempt Organizations."Tax Exempt World. (retrieved 14 Dec 2009)
  16. ^Staff, January 2009, "N. Scott Momaday", Smithsonian Q&A, Vol. 39, Issue 10, 25 pgs., retrieved 04-25-2009
  17. ^ ab"N. Scott Momaday, PhD."Academy of Achievement. (retrieved 14 Dec 2009)
  18. ^ abcdef"TOP 25 QUOTES BY N. SCOTT MOMADAY | A-Z Quotes". A-Z Quotes. Retrieved 2016-11-19. 

Momaday’s vital identification with the Southwest and with Native American nations (particularly the Kiowa) is consistently reflected in his choice of locations, subject matter, and protagonists. Momaday is unwilling to write about anything that he has not examined and does not know intimately, and his focus is restrained yet powerful. He does not speak Kiowa, but he has made his Kiowa heritage a stepping-stone to understanding broader multicultural experiences. He sees in the mixed blood of his people and their ability to adapt to new situations hope for their survival, not as the Plains warriors of the past but as modern artists, thinkers, and community members with a whole sense of themselves and their place, not only in the Native American world but in the world at large as well. Thus, he regularly draws parallels between world mythologies and gives his stories a texture and a depth that promise more than an ethnic vision.

Momaday has described himself as a “word walker,” a storyteller who uses language on his life’s journey in a way that transcends dimensions. If language is as powerful as Momaday believes, the spoken word can create a new reality, with precision, awareness, and harmony with the rhythms of nature essential to their appropriate expression. For him, words have an integrity that brings insight and vitality. Consequently, Momaday’s distinctive juxtaposition of what may initially appear to be fragmented scenes is actually designed to reveal essences rather than simple chronological sequences. In House Made of Dawn, for example, the shattering of Abel’s body after his beating by Martinez is dramatically reinforced by the abrupt intrusion of prison memories, childhood experiences, and a peyote ceremony.

Such is the Native American concept of “seeing”—to recognize the facet of creation existing on this plane and beyond to its essence as an integral part of the Great Mystery (God). Momaday’s central concern is humankind’s harmonious and awe-filled relationship with all existence. When humankind denies this relationship or responsibility for it, the inevitable results are isolation, alienation, and disintegration. The blindness motif in House Made of Dawn is only one example of the consequences of self-alienation or other forms of alienation.

To Momaday, any separation from nature deteriorates the human spirit. Lack of positive female relationships, disregard for ancestral heritage, and denial of tribal memory can hasten an individual’s, or a culture’s, demise. As a result, Momaday moves repeatedly from crises to vividly detailed descriptions of landscapes, because he believes that an intimate connection with “place” is vital to human awareness and understanding. In The Way to Rainy Mountain, the historical description of an important ceremonial teepee’s destruction by fire is followed by a slow, soothing description of silence and shadow at day’s end.

Light and shadow, sound and silence, circular imagery, water and animal symbolism, and the four directions of the Medicine Wheel recur, thematic and stylistic instruments with which the author heightens his reader’s awareness of the interconnectedness of life. According to American Indian philosophy, the Medicine Wheel reflects the process of life from birth to death. Each direction possesses its own integral characteristics. The healing of Abel’s dawn run at the conclusion of House Made of Dawn exemplifies Momaday’s use of Medicine Wheel symbolism. The color for the East is the red of dawn; its season spring; its spiritual quality understanding; its animal totem the eagle, a representation of a direct connection to the Great Mystery achieved as the result of successful passage through major life crises.

Momaday’s prose writing style is most often described as lyrical. This quality is evidenced in his stress upon the rhythm and sound of his word choices, designed to reflect both the content and the substance of his subject matter. The following brief passage from The Way to Rainy Mountain describes dawn’s stillness: “It is cold and clear and deep like water. It takes hold of you and will not let you go.” The mystical quality of this language deftly projects the author’s sense of wonder and reverence.

Although he has written in traditional iambic form, Momaday’s most compelling poetry is either chant or syllabic rather than metered. A chant, such as “Plain-view: 2,” involves what might appear in print as monotonous repetition; however, when it is read aloud as if to the beat of an Indian ceremonial drum, its impact increases dramatically. Despite the classification of his poetry as experimental, the chant is firmly rooted in Native American oral tradition. Use of parallelism and repetition increases the power of the words. Furthermore, these techniques serve as memory aids for the listeners so that other levels of awareness may be more easily attained.

Syllabic poetry, such as “The Bear,” depends upon a specific pattern of syllables per line, concrete imagery, and most often the use of rhyme. The advantages of this poetic form are that its rhythms are less artificial than a fully metered poem and that the phraseology is less cluttered and more direct. For Momaday, syllabic poetry appears to reflect more accurately his mystical awareness of, and attunement to, the elements of nature.

Even in the most dire of circumstances, such as the demise of the Kiowa tribal identity, Momaday’s Native American vision enables him to surge toward the hope of resurrection and rebirth. One foundation upon which he bases his perception of life is the historical failure of externally imposed restrictions to alter internal value systems. Recognizing the exigency of establishing a tribal/family memory, whether experienced or imagined, is another. The final step that he repeatedly presents in his writing is accepting the responsibility to feel wonder and joy in communion with the “giveaway” that is this universe.

“The Bear”

First published: 1961 (collected in In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991, 1992)

Type of work: Poem

Unrecognized by humans who are out of harmony with nature, the bear is a moral animal in balance with the physical and spiritual world.

“The Bear,” winner of the 1962 Academy of American Poets prize, is a five-stanza syllabic poem. Momaday devotes the first two stanzas to the question of the processes employed by humans to distort their visions of the natural world. The remaining three stanzas depict the bear without distortion, as an integral element in the cycle of life.

Humans consciously pervert their perception of the bear because of their unwillingness to face the potential of what they might have been had they opted for nature rather than civilization. One of the defenses that humans favor is the misuse of their imagination to create artificial barriers rather than accepting what already exists. A second technique is the fragmentation of their capacity to penetrate directly to the essence, so that they can deny it.

In stanza 2, Momaday expresses his incredulity regarding human insensitivity. That anyone could so delude himself as to misperceive the grandeur of the bear, one of nature’s most graced, appears to be beyond the parameters of Momaday’s belief system. To the author, the aged bear is a warrior, a moral animal with courage and dignity.

The absolute stillness of stanza 3 is a striking poetic device to reinforce the bear’s immense power. He dominates without action. Thoughtful and discerning, he does not react. He waits. Mythic healer and destroyer, he simultaneously exists in all times, all dimensions.

The bear’s power in the physical world is now limited by age and injury. The consequent imbalance of his spiritual and his bodily potency is symbolic of his imminent return to the Earth Mother. In the final stanza, the bear has magically disappeared, without apparent sound or movement. Nature, in the form of buzzards, shows her respect.

House Made of Dawn

First published: 1968

Type of work: Novel

An alienated young American Indian undergoes the initiation trials crucial to his reemergence as an actualized human being.

House Made of Dawn, Momaday’s first novel, is divided into four major sections with dated chapter subheadings. In keeping with the Native American sense of history, the narrative is episodic rather than chronological. Thus, Momaday evokes both a sense of timelessness and a concentration on the essence of each experiential piece, gradually forming a healing pattern for Abel, the protagonist, as he moves toward an internal congruence with the earth.

Part 1, “The Longhair,” opens and closes with Francisco, Abel’s grandfather. A drunken Abel arrives by bus and is taken home. The ensuing flashbacks from Abel’s childhood are both pleasant and fearful. His lack of attunement with nature is evidenced when, as a young child, he refuses to accept the moaning of the wind and responds instead with fear. The death of his brother Vidal is juxtaposed with Abel’s coming-of-age rites.

Memories of the Eagle Watchers Society, survivors whom disaster had molded into medicine men, are next to surface. Abel catches a great eagle during the hunt but cries when he thinks of the implications of its captivity. Recognizing that the bird is no longer able to retain its natural state of grace, he strangles it. Once again, death is paralleled to life.

As the novel continues, Father Olquin, a priest fascinated by the perverted journal of Fray Nicholas, whom he sees as a saint, and Mrs. Martin St. John are introduced. Despite her pregnancy, Angela St. John plots to seduce Abel. Neither of these antagonists has made appropriate life accommodations for his or her role. Abel himself is too spiritually fragmented to meld with the rhythms of his horse in the annual rooster-snatching contest. The evil albino, however, retrieves the rooster and beats Abel with it. Thus, Abel is directly confronted with his alienation from himself and others.

Following a description of the unique gifts of animals to the land, Abel begins to reexperience nature’s rhythms but discovers that he is not yet healed enough to have words for a creation song. Nevertheless, he does have the power to bed Angela, who sees in him the bear, thereby starting down her own path of healing, which is reinforced by her craving for the cleansing rain. Abel kills the albino, then kneels beside him to honor the dying process and to soak in the purifying rain.

Part 2, “The Priest of the Sun,” is set in Los Angeles. The Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah opens a serious sermon on the power...

(The entire section is 4456 words.)

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