N. Scott Momaday (born 1934) is recognized as one of the premier writers in the United States. In 1969, his novel House Made of Dawn was awarded the Pulitzer prize for fiction.
One of the most distinguished Native-American authors writing today, N. Scott Momaday is chiefly known for novels and poetry collections that communicate the fabulous oral legends of his Kiowa heritage. In 1969 he became the first American Indian to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his novel House Made of Dawn, which had a tremendous impact on the development of Native-American literature in the United States. Published during a time of heightened cultural awareness in the late 1960s and early 70s, House Made of Dawn not only influenced but also brought attention to other gifted Indian writers, including Vine Deloria Jr., Leslie Silko, and James Welch.
Born in a Kiowa Indian hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma, on February 27, 1934, Navarre Scott Momaday was the only child of Kiowa artist Alfred Morris Momaday and teacher Mayme Natachee Scott Momaday. A descendant from early American pioneers, Momaday's mother derived her middle name from a Cherokee great-grandmother, Natachee. His father inherited the Kiowa family name "Mammedaty" from Momaday's grandfather. "At that time," Momaday explains in an essay which appears in Something about the Author, Volume 48, "people had but one name. That was the name that was given to him as a child, and that was the only name he had. But during his lifetime the missionaries came in, and the Indians adopted the Christian tradition of the surname and the Christian name. And so my grandfather was given the name John, and he became known as John Mammedaty, and Mammedaty simply became the surname of his family. It was passed down. Some of my relatives in Oklahoma still use that spelling, but my father abbreviated it to Momaday."
Growing up on Indian reservations in the American Southwest, Momaday attributes many of his childhood and lifetime memories to his parents. "Some of my mother's memories have become my own. This is the real burden of the blood; this is immortality," he relates in The Names: A Memoir. Born of mixed blood, Natachee began to identify with her Indian heritage around the age of sixteen. A beautiful girl, she called herself "Little Moon" while her cousins referred to her as "Queen of Sheba"—both of which pleased her mightily. To pursue a degree and to learn more about her Indian heritage, Natachee attended the Haskell Institute, the Indian school at Lawrence, Kansas, in 1929. Her intense love of books and English literature was a great pleasure that she passed on to her son. Through their shared experiences, Momaday learned to develop a mental repository for his vast collection of memories. As Momaday recalls, "Memories … qualify the imagination, to give it another formation, one that is peculiar to the self. I remember isolated, yet fragmented and confused, images—and images, shifting, enlarging, is the word, rather than moments or events—which are mine alone and which are especially vivid to me."
Cultivates Vivid Early Memories
Momaday remembers that the first notable event in his life occurred when he was just six months old and he accompanied his parents on a journey to the Black Hills in Wyoming to see Devil's Tower. Referred to in Kiowa as Tsoai ["Rock Tree"], Devil's Tower became the source of Momaday's Kiowa name, Tsoai-talee, given to him by Pohd-lohk ["Old Wolf"], a Kiowa elder. Pohd-lohk had in his possession a ledger which he had secured from the Supply Office at Fort Sill and which depicted the calendar history of the Kiowa people from 1833. Momaday would later derive much of his knowledge about the origin of his people from that book.
Being an only child, Momaday learned at an early age to give free reign to his imagination, or as he states, "to create my society in my mind. And for a child this kind of creation is accomplished easily enough." Momaday's mother encouraged him to learn English as his native language, and this circumstance sometimes led the boy to experience brief periods of cultural dislocation. In describing these strange incidents, Momaday relates that he was able to see "Grendel's shadow on the walls of Canyon de Chelly, and once, having led the sun around Hoskinini Mesa, saw Copperfield at Oljeto Trading Post." When he was twelve, his family moved to the Pueblo village of Jemez. Momaday remembers "not being able to imagine a more beautiful or exotic place," and Jemez offered the boy a child's natural delight full of canyons and mountains. In Momaday's interpretive mind, Jemez became a landscape full of mystery and life, and many of his descriptive details of those childhood days can be found in his later writings. Once referring to Jemez as having "horses in the plain and angles of geese in the sky," Momaday later reflected on this image when writing Angle of Geese and Other Poems (1974).
Embarks on a Writing Career
Uncertain about his future after graduating from high school, Momaday contemplated attending West Point before deciding to enroll in the University of New Mexico in 1952. He earned a bachelor's degree in Political Science in 1958, while distinguishing himself as a public speaker and creative writer. Taking a one year break from his studies, Momaday taught school on the Jicarilla Apache reservation before pursuing a graduate studies program in literature. By this time, he had received his first academic recognition as a talented writer when he was awarded the John Hay Whitney Fellowship in creative poetry writing and the Stanford Wilson Dissertation Fellowship at Stanford University. While at Stanford, Momaday met Yvor Winters, who later became a close friend and adviser. Momaday obtained his Master's degree in 1960 and his Ph.D. three years later. In 1965 he published his first book, The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, which was based on his doctoral dissertation. Momaday credits Winters for his decision to analyze the writings of Tuckerman, a reclusive New England naturalist. According to the 1971 edition of the Penguin Companion to World Literature, Momaday's thesis led to an increased awareness of Tuckerman's poems on the part of poets and critics alike.
Following his graduate studies, Momaday joined the faculty of the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1963 as assistant professor of English. Further literary research led him to pursue a Guggenheim Fellow at Harvard University during the 1966-67 academic year, after which he returned to Santa Barbara to resume teaching. Two years later, he was named professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught creative writing and introduced a new curriculum centered around American Indian literature and mythology. Also during this period, Momaday published his influential novel House Made of Dawn (1968). The story follows the adventures of Abel, a disenchanted Native-American World War II veteran who attempts to balance his identity between culturally disparate native and non-native worlds. Unable to exist peacefully in either world, Abel gradually reaches the conclusion that he is lost, and he returns to the reservation to heal his shattered psyche. In an analysis of House Made of Dawn published in the June 9, 1968, New York Times Book Review, Marshall Sprague observes that "while mysteries of culture different from our own cannot be explained in a short novel," nevertheless Momaday's book is "as subtly wrought as a piece of Navajo silverware." The next year, Momaday was accorded one of literature's highest honors when he was named the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for House Made of Dawn.
In his next novel, The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), Momaday incorporated several Kiowa myths and legends into a quasi-fictional account of the 300-year-old migration of the Kiowa tribe from their place of origin in the Yellowstone region to the plains, where they learned to domesticate horses and developed into a sophisticated society. Relating the legend of how the Kiowas came into the world through a hollow log, Momaday explains that the Kiowas are a small tribe because when they entered the log "there was a woman whose body was swollen up with child, and she got stuck in the log. After that, no one could get through, and that is why the Kiowas are a small tribe in numbers." The Way to Rainy Mountain features illustrations by Momaday's father, Alfred, and it has been characterized by a reviewer for Choice (September 1969) as "a beautiful book—honest, unique, dignified, and told with a simplicity that approaches the purest poetry…. It is a book for all seasons, for all readers."
In subsequent years, Momaday's reputation has ascended to the international level. In 1979 he was awarded Italy's highest literary award, the Premio Letterario Internationale "Mondello." Moreover, in 1990 Momaday was selected to be a keynote speaker in Moscow before the Conference on Environment and Human Survival, the Global Forum and the Supreme Soviet. That same year, he was asked to be a member of the Pulitzer Prize Jury in Fiction. The father of four daughters, Momaday continues to write and teaches classes on oral tradition at the University of Arizona.
In 1993, Momaday published In the Presence of the Sun. This book includes 70 poems and 16 new stories about the "great tribal shields of the Kiowas and a strange, arresting section on Billy the Kid," according to The New York Times Book Review's Barbara Bode. Bode further says that "the reader will not find here the 'political' Indian, the Indian as 'victim' or the romanticized Indian. Rather, we hear the voices of people like Otters Going On and the woman Roan Calf, of people raided and killed, worshipped and wept. Yet the images, the voices, the people are shadowy, elusive, burning with invention, like flames against a dark sky."
The following year saw the publication of Circle of Wonder. The is a poetic story that "skillfully blends Christian and Native American traditions," according to Publishers Weekly. The book also features Momaday's artwork.
Further Reading on N. Scott Momaday
Shubnell, Matthias, N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.
Something about the Author, volume 48, edited by Anne Commire, Detroit, Gale, 1987; 158-162.
Twentieth Century Western Writers, second edition, edited by Geoff Sadler, Chicago, St. James Press, 1991; 470-471.
Woodward, Charles, Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Review of The Way to Rainy Mountain, Choice, September 1969.
Sprague, Marshall, review of House Made of Dawn, June 9, 1968.