Pulitzer Winner Who Told Stories for Generations

N. Scott Momaday, MA ’60, PhD ’63

May 2024

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Brit Momaday-Leight, daughter of acclaimed poet, essayist, and novelist N. Scott Momaday, grew up listening to her father and grandfather telling the stories that had been passed along to them through the Kiowa Tribe’s oral tradition. She remembers one about the old man Dragonfly, who arose every morning to “pray the sun up.” The story is one of many Momaday shares in his book Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land, published in 2020.

N. Scott MomadayPhoto: Courtesy Momaday family

“My father’s father was Kiowa, and he grew up hearing all the Kiowa stories that had never been written down,” says Momaday-Leight. “My father always said it was up to us, up to him, to write them down. That it was important these stories get passed on to our children, these stories that explain how certain things came to be.” 

Navarre Scott Momaday, MA ’60, PhD ’63, a member of the Kiowa Tribe, the first Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize, and a recipient of the 2007 National Medal of Arts, died January 24 at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 89. 

Momaday was born in Lawton, Okla., in 1934. When he was an infant, his parents moved to Arizona and then New Mexico, working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and teaching. When he was 12, his family settled in the Jemez Pueblo, N.M. In 1958, he graduated from the University of New Mexico and a year later moved to Stanford to begin a Stegner fellowship in poetry. After earning his master’s degree and PhD, he taught English and comparative literature at universities around the country, including Stanford, and continued to write. He considered himself foremost a poet, says Momaday-Leight, and published 19 books. 

Traces of Momaday’s experience as a young man in Jemez Pueblo run through his 1968 novel, House Made of Dawn. A year after it was published, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A report from the Pulitzer fiction jurists to the advisory board pointed to the “eloquence and intensity of feeling, its freshness of vision and subject, its immediacy of theme,” noting “the arrival on the American literary scene of a matured, sophisticated literary artist from the original Americans.”

Generations of Native writers, including former U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo, found inspiration in his work. In a tribute published in the Washington Post after his death, Harjo thanked him “for making a door that wasn’t there in the generations that preceded him. It took bravery, imagination, listening to what isn’t always heard and, most of all, a great love of the word and how it can and will remake us.”

Momaday was preceded in death by his wife, Barbara Gregg Glenn Momaday, and daughter Cael Doran. In addition to Momaday-Leight, survivors include his daughters Lore Denny and Jill; eight grandchildren, including Dylan Momaday-Leight, ’25; and a great-granddaughter.

Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at traciew@stanford.edu.

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