Grounded

Photo: Brandon Soder

As a child, N. Scott Momaday loved the story of the arrowmaker. It’s the first he remembers, and his father loved telling it. It goes like this. One night the arrowmaker and his wife were alone in their tepee as he made arrows in the firelight. One by one, he straightened them in his teeth and then fitted them in his bow, drawing back the string to check that they were true. As he glanced up, he saw between two of the tepee’s hides a figure in the darkness, staring in. He told his wife not to be afraid and said, “Let us talk easily, as of ordinary things.” In Momaday’s essay “The Arrowmaker,” he shares the story: The man straightened the next arrow in his teeth and fitted it to the bow. The arrowmaker then, as if talking to his wife, said, “I know that you are there on the outside, for I can feel your eyes upon me. If you are a Kiowa, you will understand what I am saying, and you will speak your name.” When there was no answer, the arrowmaker continued sighting along the arrow, pointing it here and there until his gaze fell upon the shadowy figure. The story ends with, “The arrow went straight to the enemy’s heart.”  

‘Itremarkable story about language, and it represents how we can be saved by language,” says Momaday, the author of 18 books and the first Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize. As a Kiowa child, born in 1934 in Oklahoma, he experienced the story as a thrilling adventure. But as he grew up, he also developed a keen sense of its deeper message. “We live in the element of language,” says Momaday, MA ’60, PhD ’63. “There is probably nothing more powerful in our lives. We have all kinds of disciplines, like science, which investigates the mysteries of the world, but it is of no use to us without language.” 

Over his nearly nine decades, language has connected him to the land that holds a central place in Indigenous traditions. In fact, in many ways, to read Momaday is to read the land. It is to encounter the earth alive with wind and sunlight, with plants and animals, and to know all of it—each aspect of the world—by name. It is also to renew a reverence for beauty and a feeling of hope. In this sense, Momaday—who has published fiction, poetry, essays, plays and folklore as well as a memoir and works for children—is an author of prayers. “In Native American communities, we pray to the land. It is deserving of our religious and spiritual investment,” Momaday says. Even his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, House Made of Dawn, is named from a verse in the winter healing ceremony, Kléjê Hatál or Navajo Night Chant. House Made of Dawn’s prologue begins with the Jemez Pueblo word that denotes the starting of a story: “Dypaloh. There was a house made of dawn. It was made of pollen and of rain, and the land was very old and everlasting.” 

Published in 1968, House Made of Dawn—what the scholar and critic of Native American literature James H. Cox calls “the single most influential piece of literature by an Indigenous writer in the United States”—inspired a number of other Indigenous authors whose work has collectively become known as the Native American Renaissance. Reissued in 2018 for its 50th anniversary, Momaday’s novel was republished again this year in yet another edition. In 2020, Momaday released two books of poetry, The Death of Sitting Bear: New and Selected Poems and Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land, which gives voice to his concern that humans are losing their connection to the earth. Over more than half a century of writing, his relationship with the land has shaped every aspect of his life and the many histories leading up to it. 

The first of those histories is the creation of the Ka’igwu (Kiowa), about whom little is known before they migrated from what is today western Montana in the 17th century to the Great Plains early in the 19th. “You know, everything had to begin, and this is how it was: the Kiowas came one by one into the world through a hollow log,” Momaday writes in The Way to Rainy Mountain, a collection of Kiowa folklore. Though many Kiowas waited to cross over, a pregnant woman got stuck and blocked the log, resulting in the Kiowa being a small tribe. On the Great Plains, they acquired horses and hunted buffalo, becoming a society with a strong warrior tradition and forming alliances with the Comanche and Apache. In his memoir, The Names, Momaday writes of this period as their golden age: “For a hundred years, more or less, they ruled an area that extended from the Arkansas River to the Staked Plains, from the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico.” 


Mammedaty (Photo: Courtesy Jill Momaday)Mammedaty (Photo: Courtesy Jill Momaday)

 

In the late 1800s, the United States Army forcibly removed the Kiowas to land in present-day Oklahoma, where Momaday’s grandfather Mammedaty (Kiowas then used a single name) became a farmer. “By the time Mammedaty was born the Kiowas had been routed in the Indian Wars, the great herds of buffalo had been destroyed, and the sun dance prohibited by law,” Momaday writes in The Names. Mammedaty—first a peyote priest and later a Christian—would, after the arrival of missionaries, take the name of John, becoming John Mammedaty. His son, Huan-toa, was Alfred Mammedaty, though he would later simplify his last name to Momaday. 

“One of the great romances in history” is how Momaday characterizes the meeting of his parents, Al and Natachee. “My mother was born in Kentucky,” he says. “She had an ancestor who was Cherokee, and that fascinated her, so she started thinking of herself as a Native American, and she went to Haskell College in Kansas, which is a Native American college.” In The Names, Momaday writes that her “act of the imagination” was “among the most important events of my mother’s early life.” At Haskell, her roommate, Lela Ware, was a Kiowa woman, who, as Momaday tells it, invited her to the reservation, saying, “I’m going to introduce you to the man you’re going to marry.” Natachee accompanied Lela to Oklahoma in 1929. There, Natachee’s first glimpse of her future husband, Al, and his younger brother was of the two of them playing marbles in bib overalls. “She said they were the best-looking men she’d ever seen,” Momaday recalls. The couple married in 1933, and Navarre Scott Momaday was born the following year in the Lawton Indian Hospital. (His first name is for the Basque province in Spain from which his mother had ancestors, though he goes by Scott, his mother’s maiden name.) 

Looking for work during the Great Depression, Momaday’s parents left Oklahoma after he was born and took jobs as teachers, first on Naabeehó Bináhásdzo (Navajo Nation) and then the Nde Nation (San Carlos Apache Reservation). When World War II started, his father, a visual artist, was hired as a draftsman for an oil company in Hobbs, N.M., and his mother, a writer, worked at the Army airfield in the provost marshal’s office. “They were gainfully employed in the service of the war effort,” Momaday says, “and I was just a kid loose on the planet.” In the local cinema, he watched war reels—often images of battles against Germans and Japanese—and he befriended Billy Don Johnson, a white boy and crucial ally in a school of white kids who, thinking Momaday looked Japanese, wanted to fight him. “If it hadn’t been for Billy Don Johnson,” he recalls, “I’d have been beaten up regularly.” Near the airbase, Johnson’s father had a farm, where the two boys often played at war. “We dug trenches and slithered like vipers through the brittle brush, dragging our toy rifles across the minefields,” Momaday writes in The Names


Al and Natachee Momaday. (Photo: Courtesy Jill Momaday)Al and Natachee Momaday. (Photo: Courtesy Jill Momaday)

 

After the war, his parents took jobs at Walatowa (Jemez Pueblo Reservation) in New Mexico, where Momaday lived until he was 17, spending days on his horse, Pecos, and exploring the land. Throughout his adolescence there, he witnessed the Pueblos’ connection with the earth. “There was one man whose designated position was watcher of the sun,” he recalls. “He declared by watching the position of the sun on the horizon when it was time to plant and to harvest and to celebrate. They were terribly aware of the vitality of the earth with the calendar upon which is based the life of all things.” Another powerful impression was of young men returning to the reservation from the war. “They died of exposure, alcoholism. They killed each other,” he recalls. “It was a terrible generational experience. They lived violent lives, and many of them couldn’t recover. They died in various ways, but others managed to get themselves back into the traditional world.”

Bridging worldviews—a frequent theme in Momaday’s writing—was a daily reality. “I have spent most of my life in two worlds, the Native traditional and the modern,” he says. “I had a great deal of help in spanning that divide. My parents, of course, were teachers, and my mother had a real command of the English language, and she passed on that knowledge and love to me.” Momaday and his parents were among the few people at Walatowa fluent in English, the language used in classrooms there. “In school, that made a real difference,” he says. “In some ways, I had an advantage that most of my peers did not.” At the same time, he saw the toll that living away from his culture took on his father. “I have great admiration for how he conducted himself and overcame great disadvantages,” Momaday says. He recalls how his father missed being surrounded by Kiowa culture and traditions. “He would sit out on the porch and he would sing to himself in a very low voice in Kiowa.”

Around the age of 12, Momaday decided he wanted to be a writer. His mother had already introduced him to poetry and guided his readings, and for his senior year of high school, his parents sent him to a military academy in Virginia to prepare him for college. Afterward, he did undergraduate studies at the University of New Mexico, publishing his first poem in a literary review—to this day the high point of his literary quest, he notes. “I could then say, ‘I am a writer.’ ”

The following year, Momaday taught middle and high school on the Haisndayin homelands (Jicarilla Apache Reservation). During that time, the poet and literary critic Yvor Winters chose him for a Stegner fellowship to study creative writing at Stanford. Momaday recalls feeling out of place surrounded by students who had attended Ivy League universities. “That was pretty stiff competition, so I was full of self-doubt,” he says. “My first year there, I wanted to give up a couple of times.” But with the support of his professors, he persisted, and he stayed on to complete a doctorate.

When Momaday earned the fellowship to Stanford, he knew very little about the traditional forms of English poetry, he says. “I was writing out of my knowledge of oral tradition.” By the time Momaday left the Farm, he wanted a break. “I got tired of writing poetry after four straight years of it.” He took a teaching job at UC Santa Barbara and then tried his hand at a novel. Momaday’s memories of growing up on the Jemez Pueblo Reservation returned—the young men pulled from traditional lives and sent back from the war with physical and emotional wounds. A year after the publication of House Made of Dawn, Momaday was stunned to learn that it had received a Pulitzer Prize. 

‘He blew open the doors that led to the amazingly diverse and impressive array of works of Native American fiction we can read today.’

In telling the story of Abel, a young Native American man recently returned from World War II, House Made of Dawn introduced a large readership to the struggles of veterans on reservations. The book starts with Abel running in the landscape: “There were many colors on the hills, and the plain was bright with different colored clays and sands. Red and blue and spotted horses grazed in the plain, and there was a dark wilderness on the mountains beyond. The land was still and strong. It was beautiful all around.” The novel’s ending—after Abel has endured violence and prison and years of alcoholism—returns to that scene, after the death of his grandfather, when Abel sees other Native American men running in the winter cold. He follows them. “He could see the dark hills at dawn. He was running and under his breath he began to sing. There was no sound, and he had no voice; he had only the words of a song.” Momaday describes this moment as Abel trying to return to the traditional world—both in the land that is so central to Native American cultures but also in the words of the song. “When you lose your voice, that’s a terrible disability. Language is so important,” Momaday says. “So, when he has nothing but the words of the song, that is his redemption, that is the one thing that can sustain him. He has a song. Without that, he would be really destitute.”

Cox, the author of three books on Native American literature and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature, points out that one striking aspect of Momaday’s novel is how he takes some of the strategies of modernism and indigenizes them. “That still remains what people celebrate about Momaday,” he says. Whereas modernist literature often used multiple voices and perspectives to convey a sense of alienation, Momaday employed the same techniques within an Indigenous worldview. “So, while his protagonist, Abel, is in fact alienated like so many modernist protagonists,” Cox says, “there’s an Indigenous world there that is vibrant and strong and coherent, and if Abel can find his way back to it, he will also find his way back to the land and ceremony.”

In 1983, literary critic Kenneth Lincoln published Native American Renaissance, a book in which he credits Momaday with blazing the path for a generation of Native American writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo and Louise Erdrich. “It wasn’t so much that later Native writers imitated him,” says Mark McGurl, a Stanford professor of English and the author of The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, which talks extensively about Momaday’s contribution to American literature. “It’s more that he blew open the doors that led to the amazingly diverse and impressive array of works of Native American fiction we can read today.”


Momaday and his maternal grandfather, Theodore Scott. (Photo: Courtesy Jill Momaday)Momaday and his maternal grandfather, Theodore Scott. (Photo: Courtesy Jill Momaday)

 

Over the years following House Made of Dawn, Momaday traveled widely, even once circumnavigating the globe, channeling a love of movement he says he inherited from his Kiowa ancestors. “The sense of nomadism is very strong in me.” He published a second novel as well as poetry and nonfiction, but he also worked as a visual artist. “My father was a painter, and I was not interested in becoming a painter as a child, but I did watch him and I learned a lot by osmosis about painting,” he recalls. In 1974, Momaday spent six months in the Soviet Union, the first person from the United States to teach American literature there. “I overcame the loneliness by sketching, and that developed into painting and printmaking.” Today, he lives in Santa Fe, a city to which he has repeatedly been drawn, loving that so many cultures—Latin, Anglo and Native American—have contributed to it, and that it is a center for the arts.

At 87, Momaday is a widower with three daughters (a fourth predeceased him) and eight grandchildren (one of whom, Dylan Scott Momaday-Leight, is a first-year student at Stanford). After decades teaching at universities, including Stanford, he retired in 2003. “I can give most of my time now to writing,” he says. “It’s a luxury.” He is currently working on a new book about the Kiowa’s journey to the Great Plains. Increasingly, his words express his concern for the planet. In his most recent book, Earth Keeper, he states, “I am an elder, and I keep the earth.” He later writes, “Ours is a damaged world. We humans have done the damage, and we must be held to account.” Language and ceremony are crucial to human well-being, he believes, and people must harness language to reconnect with the land. “We can save the earth, I think, by investing in language and looking for the spirit of the earth and expressing it,” he says. “Giving up your body and soul to the earth and celebrating it with language and song and poetry—or what is the equivalent of poetry in the oral tradition—that’s extremely important.” (The creative, transformative aspect of words, Cox says, is present throughout Momaday’s writing. “He always has that sense of the power of words and language in mind when he’s writing, a sense that comes from oral societies, that comes from oral traditions.”)

Often, throughout his career, Momaday has told the story of the arrowmaker, which left him thrilled as a child while instilling him with a sense of language’s power. Once, at Stan-ford, he gave a talk about the arrowmaker, and afterward, a professor approached and asked why the presence outside the tepee was assumed to be an enemy rather than just someone who didn’t speak Kiowa. “You have to take the story on its own terms,” Momaday recalls saying. “The storyteller tells us that it’s an enemy. You don’t quibble with that. That’s not the literary experience.” Today, Momaday is the storyteller who sees a new and more threatening enemy in the harm being done to the earth and who passes down a message—the words that end his essay on the arrowmaker: “Language does indeed represent the only chance for survival.”


Deni Ellis Béchard is a former senior writer at Stanford and the author of eight books. Email him at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.