I have decided to add a new feature here at Mixedblood Messages: birthday profiles for Native authors! This will be a small way to briefly introduce the work of important figures in Native American literature, and perhaps Native scholars and historical figures as well. Today, we kick it off with the man at the beginning of every Native American Literature syllabus, N. Scott Momaday.
N. Scott Momaday was born into the Kiowa tribe of good ole’ Oklahoma in 1934. He did a lot of bouncing around Indian Country throughout his early years, especially in the Southwest, and became familiar with the Navajo, Apache and Pueblo tribes. It seems it was not long before he became convinced of the power of language and literature and started writing poetry and prose.
Momaday’s first novel, House Made of Dawn, was published in 1969 and basically blew America’s mind by being a modernist work written by a Indian. Suddenly aware that Native peoples are really good at writing, American critics were ready to declare an Native American Renaissance in literature and Momaday as the movement’s progenitor.
House Made of Dawn tells the story of Abel, an alienated WWII vet who returns to the Jemez Pueblo reservation where he was born and commits two of the ultimate sins: sleeping with a white woman and killing a “white” (actually albino) man. He then leaves the reservation for L.A. as part of the relocation program which began in the late 50’s and was designed to get Indians off their traditional homelands and into the American mainstream. While in L.A. Abel meets a variety of characters meant to represent the spectrum of the Urban Indian experience, such as the Priest of the Sun who performs peyote ceremonies and Ben Benally, recently relocated from the Navajo reservation, and Milly, a white social worker who becomes a mother figure for Abel. L.A. is full of drunkenness, alcohol-fueled bouts of violence and extreme loneliness for Abel. After being hospitalized by a brawl with a cop, Abel returns to the reservation to bury his grandfather and reclaim his tribal traditions.
This is one of the most common tropes in Native American literature: self-destruction in modern America followed by a homecoming. But while it may seem easy at first to categorize Momaday’s most famous book in the canon of predictable tales of the tragic Indian male, there is a lot more in there than that. When he isn’t playing the Kiowan Hemmingway or the overly-lyrical poet, he is taking on a much larger and more difficult project, trying to convey oral histories and sacred ceremonies in a written, English form. He not only works with Pueblo and Navajo stories but as Abel’s name implies, christian theology as well. The result is somewhat disoriented but all the better for conveying the penetrating mood of alienation.
Momaday’s book The Way to Rainy Mountain and his many collections of poetry also work across genres, histories and cultures both Indian and Anglo that all seek not only the individual’s power through language but the Indian peoples’ power as well.