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Momaday Essays

*Momaday, N.Scott

Navarre Scott Momaday


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Momaday, N.Scott

American, 1934–
Navarre Scott Momaday is often recognized as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn (1968). But since that initial novel, Momaday has gained increasing notoriety as one of America’s most important essayists—a reputation that was established by the publication of The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) and The Names: A Memoir (1976), the latter often being referred to as a Native American version of Alex Haley’s Roots. Besides these autobiographical collections, Momaday has written numerous scholarly and journalistic pieces, and, during 1972 and 1973, produced 86 short essays on a variety of topics for Viva, Northern New Mexico’s Sunday Magazine. It is, however, Momaday’s exploration of his Kiowa Indian heritage and identity that have gained him the most critical and popular attention as an essayist.
The issues of subjectivity and identity explored in Momaday’s work place him squarely in the postmodern essay tradition, but, as several scholars have observed, Momaday’s racial heritage gives these personal and literary issues a cultural urgency.
Although Momaday spent much of his childhood in American Indian communities— Kiowa, Navajo, and Jemez—the traditional religion and language of these cultures had mostly vanished due to a century-long campaign of violence, oppression, and assimilation waged by the U.S. government. Momaday thus had limited access to tribal traditions, even though his father was full-blooded Kiowa. Along with his mother, who was of Anglo-American descent, Momaday’s father raised him in an educated, middleclass home environment protected from the often intense poverty and despair of reservation life. Still, his parents modeled a deep connection to American Indian culture, and taught Momaday the importance of maintaining his Kiowa identity in the face of its extinction. Much of Momaday’s essay writing thus illustrates the difficult yet important process of resurrecting elements of a tribal heritage within a modern, individualistic sense of identity.
Momaday’s treatment of nature and landscape in his essays also represents a unique blending of cultural perspectives. Like his Kiowa ancestors, Momaday sees his physical and spiritual existence as being deeply influenced by the “remembered earth,” particularly the desert Southwest where he grew up and the Great Plains where the Kiowa tribe once flourished. Momaday’s “native vision” of the natural world—his belief that it is made up not only of “objects and forms, but also of essences and ideals” (“A Vision Beyond Time and Place,” 1971)—reveals the influence of the American transcendental tradition of nature writing. However, his physical journey through his home landscapes and his close observation of natural detail become particularly crucial given that so much of Kiowa material culture has vanished. Ultimately, in his essays, the landscape represents the most significant physical remnant of Kiowa culture to which he can attach his personal identity.

Navarre Scott Momaday

The issue of identity, for Momaday, is also an issue of language, and he has used his essay writing to create and sustain a persona that reflects both his Kiowa and AngloAmerican heritage. His literary voice, while crafted in written English, often contains the oral, storytelling characteristics of the Kiowa tradition. In The Way to Rainy Mountain, for instance, Momaday divides each short essay into three distinct voices— each isolated into a separate paragraph and font—to articulate historical, mythical, and personal narratives. In this way Momaday emphasizes at once his personal connection to, and distance from, Kiowa legend and history. The essays in The Names, however, represent a more seamless weaving together of tribal history, ancestral legends, and personal recollections into a unified vision of self. He accomplishes this at the sentence level, slipping in and out of different tenses, using cyclical, dream-like imagery, and moving quickly from a Kiowa storytelling voice (“It happened so:”) to an Anglo- American sense of personal history (“I was thirteen years old”). Examples like these from “My Horse and I” are found throughout this essayistic memoir, and together create a reading experience in which Anglo and Indian, past and present, dream and reality, landscape and imagination coalesce.
Momaday’s emphasis on a kind of writing that is “very much like speaking aloud to an audience” links him not only to the Kiowa oral tradition, but also to the tradition of the familiar essay exemplified by such writers as Montaigne, Virginia Woolf, and E.B.White—all of whom used conversational language to create the sense of a personal presence in their essays. Momaday can also be seen as an important voice among modern
Western American essay writers—including Wallace Stegner, Momaday’s teacher at Stanford—who have often emphasized the interconnectedness of self, language, and landscape. The influence of poet Yvor Winters, his tutor at Stanford, and novelist William Faulkner, whom he met while attending the University of Virginia, can also be discerned in Momaday’s use of lyrical language, disjunctive time-plots, and multiple voices in his nonfiction prose.
Just as important, however, is the influence of his Kiowa grandmother, and other American Indian voices, who first introduced him to the legends of tribal culture and the beauty of the native language. Critic Matthias Schubnell (1985) claims that the central value of Momaday’s writing resides in this ability to “bridge the gap between cultures and join literary and artistic traditions.” If so, much of the value of his essays can be traced to the complexity of the personal journey which has so often informed them—a pilgrimage which, as Momaday himself has said, contains “many journeys in the one.”

Navarre Scott Momaday. Born 17 February 1934 in Lawton, Oklahoma. Studied at the Augusta Military Academy; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, A.B., 1958;
Stanford University, California (creative writing fellow, 1959), A.M., 1960, Ph.D., 1963.
Married Gaye Mangold, 1959 (later divorced): three daughters. Taught English and comparative literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, 1963–69, University of California, Berkeley, 1969–73, Stanford University, 1973–81 and from 1985, and University of Arizona, Tucson, 1981–85; visiting writer or teacher at various universities and institutions, 1970–85. Member of the Board of Trustees, Museum of the American
Indian, New York, from 1978. Married Regina Heitzer, 1978 (later divorced): one daughter.
Awards: many, including the Pulitzer Prize, for House Made of Dawn, 1969;
American Academy Award, 1970; Mondello Prize (Italy), 1979; Western Literature Association Award, 1983; honorary degrees from nine universities.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
The Journey to Tai-Me, 1967; enlarged edition, as The Way to Rainy Mountain, 1969
The Names: A Memoir, 1976

Other writings: two novels (House Made of Dawn, 1968; The Ancient Child, 1989) and poetry.

Further Reading
Ballassi, William, John F.Crawford, and Annie O.Eysturoy, editors, This Is About Vision:
Interviews with Southwestern Writers, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990
Blaeser, Kimberly, “The Way to Rainy Mountain: Momaday’s Work in Motion,” in Narrative Chance: Posttnodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, edited by Gerald Vizenor, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989: 39– 54
Bloodworth, William, “Neihardt, Momaday, and the Art of Indian Autobiography,” in
Where the West Begins: Essays on Middle Border and Siouxland Writing, edited by Arthur R.Huseboe and William Geyer, Sioux Falls, South Dakota: Center for Western Studies Press, 1978:151–60
Brumble, H.David, “The Way to Rainy Mountain and the Traditional Forms of American Indian Autobiography,” in Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, edited by Kenneth M.Roemer, New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988: 41–46
Lincoln, Kenneth, “Word Senders: Black Elk and N.Scott Momaday,” in his Native American Renaissance, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983: 81–121
Lincoln, Kenneth, “Tai-Me to Rainy Mountain: The Makings of American Indian Literature,” American Indian Quarterly 10, no. 2 (Spring 1986): 101–17
Martin, Calvin, editor, The American Indian and the Problem of History, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987
Popovich, J.Frank, “Landscape, Tradition, and Identity in The Way to Rainy Mountain” Perspectives on Contemporary Literature iz (1986): 13–19
Prampolini, Gaetano, “‘Many Journeys in the One’: The Way to Rainy Mountain and N.Scott Momaday’s Literary Work,” in Native American Literatures, edited by Laura Coltelli, Pisa, Italy: SEU, 1994: 3–30
Schubnell, Matthias, N.Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985
Strelke, Barbara, “N.Scott Momaday: Racial Memory and Individual Imagination,” in Literature of the American Indians, edited by Abraham Chapman, New York: New American Library, and London: New English Library, 1975: 348–57
Thompson, Craig B., Speaking of Identities: The Presentation of American Indian Experience (dissertation), San Diego: University of California, 1993
Trimble, Martha Scott, N.Scott Momaday, Boise, Idaho: Boise State College, 1973
Woodard, Charles L., Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N.Scott Momaday, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989

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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...

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