The Novels of N. Scott Momaday

On April 12, The Paris Review announced N. Scott Momaday as the recipient of the 2021 Hadada Award, presented each year to a “distinguished member of the writing community who has made a strong and unique contribution to literature.” To honor the multifariousness of Momaday’s achievements, the Daily is publishing a series of short essays devoted to his work. Today, Chelsea T. Hicks considers Momaday’s revolutionary novels, House Made of Dawn and The Ancient Child, which blend the conventions of American literary realism with the oral tradition of Kiowa storytelling.

N. Scott Momaday, 1968. From the Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Courtesy of Momaday.

The first work I ever read by a Native author was N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, in an undergraduate English literature seminar. Although I am a Native person and a voracious reader, I’d grown up under the influence of Southern Christian teachers who warned their students against paganism. Perhaps that is why they never assigned us anything by Momaday, whose novels, set in Jemez Pueblo and the Navajo Nation as well as Los Angeles and San Francisco, tell of witches and traditional medicine women, sacrilegious preachers and alcoholics. Reading James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha in high school made me wary of literary depictions of Native people. My discomfort became avoidance, until my second year of college, when the syllabus of “Literature of the West” included The Way to Rainy Mountain.

I remember feeling confused, excited, and curious, and then as I began to read, delight overtook me. The sense of place in Momaday’s work is so immediate and gripping that upon finishing the book, I wrote an essay arguing that people are formed by their relationship to the landscape. When I later read Momaday’s first novel, House Made of Dawn, I was shocked to find that the author had made nearly the same argument in a postscript:

Both consciously and subconsciously, my writing has been deeply informed by the land with a sense of place. In some important way, place determines who and what we are. The land-person equation is essential to writing, to all of literature. Abel, in House Made of Dawn, must exist in the cultural and physical context of Walatowa, just as Stephen Dedalus, say, must be fashioned in the mold of Dublin.

House Made of Dawn, with its lyric passages evoking the land, recalls John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Navajo narrator Ben Benally’s conversational descriptions of Abel’s cultural dislocation and struggle against assimilationist attitudes in Los Angeles seem to echo Nick Carraway’s narration in The Great Gatsby. Yet Ben and Abel are Native characters, and this virtuosic novel is also a container for the high oral tradition of Kiowa and Navajo songs. As Momaday once put it, “I grew up in two worlds and straddle both those worlds even now. It has made for confusion and a richness in my life. I’ve been able to deal with it reasonably well, I think, and I value it.” After House Made of Dawn won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, the Native American Renaissance began, in part because Momaday’s syncretistic method—using English-language literary conventions to represent distinct and sovereign peoples—showed readers the vastness and complexity of the Native world.

Momaday did not publish another novel for more than twenty years. His second, 1989’s The Ancient Child, follows a Kiowa painter named Set, living in San Francisco, who travels to Oklahoma for the first time after the death of his grandmother; it ends outside of Lukachukai on the Navajo Nation. The language Momaday uses here is simpler and more direct than the heavily wrought passages in House Made of Dawn, yet it has an enigmatic, absurdist quality I relished: “God’s boredom is infinite,” Set says at one point.

While in Oklahoma, Set meets a nineteen-year-old medicine woman named Grey, someone who “had never to quest after visions.” Grey gives Set an old medicine bag, and his connection to the sacred objects within the bundle sets off an identity crisis, only resolved by his excruciating metamorphosis into a bear. This medicine bundle belongs to Set, and Grey is insistent that he have it as they attend a ceremonial dance. The dance reminds me of the ones at my ancestral tribal district in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Growing up, Momaday spent time on Navajo, Apache, and Pueblo reservations, and he is wonderfully adept at depicting commonalities among different Native experiences. He conveys a sense of community and kinship in rituals, food, and dance in a way I found moving.

Through characters like Grey, Momaday offers readers a beguiling mixture of sacredness and irreverence. Grey has lines like, “I like to see the sun rise and set, I like to hear birds singing and horses farting, wind and water running, and I like to feel hot and cold, hard and soft.” She also has smutty sex that wouldn’t be out of place in a Charles Bukowski novel. She dreams of being Billy the Kid’s lover, and their imaginary trysts are as humorous as they are intense. This combination of fantastical plot, poetic style, and traditional Indigenous worldviews makes Momaday’s fiction unlike any other.

When I read The Ancient Child, I thought of other Native artists like Set who had returned from cities to their tribes. Some I knew thought tribal traditions were near dead or even totally lost, but I didn’t believe that. In the way that Grey wove literature out of her fantasies of Billy the Kid, I was mesmerized by dreams and wanted to write about mine as an expression of old, Indigenous ways of knowing. In one scene of The Ancient Child, Set studies a drawing in order to paint Grey’s face, and she tells him: “Only a few of the women paint their faces now. This is how the grandmother painted hers.” Face painting is now considered taboo by some Native people. I appreciate Momaday’s anti-assimilation attitude and his bravery in including traditions like face painting and sacred medicine bundles in his work.

Momaday’s novels have inspired many writers I admire, including Brandon Hobson and Louise Erdrich, who earlier this year became the second Native American author ever to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. When Erdrich’s award was announced, not long after Momaday received the Hadada, I decided to revisit House Made of Dawn, the first Native-authored work to win a Pulitzer. I typed out his sentences to see what they felt like on my fingers. I wondered, How had I missed Momaday in my years of reading as a teenager?

Momaday’s greatest contribution as a novelist has been to indigenize the American literary canon. As he wrote in 2020, “My writing is supported by considerable experience. In Arizona I have seen the Navajo Yeibichai and heard the haunting chants of the mountain gods. In Moscow I have seen numerous commuters reading books of poetry on the Metro … In Siberia I have heard the Khanty songs of the bear ceremony. And in London I have heard the words of Shakespeare and Ben Johnson.” His aesthetic is inclusive, encompassing European and American realism as well as traditional Native orality, bridging contemporary American life.

The Ancient Child and House Made of Dawn are mysterious, disturbing, beautiful, haunting, and instructive books. They contain lines I carry in my heart, because they are words capable of changing those who read them, instilling a permanent sense of the endurance of Native American people:

Their invaders were a long time in conquering them; and now, after four centuries of Christianity, they still pray in Tanoan to the old deities of the earth and sky and make their living from the things that are and have always been within their reach; while in the discrimination of pride they acquire from their conquerors only the luxury of example. They have assumed the names and gestures of their enemies, but have held on to their own, secret souls; and in this there is a resistance and an overcoming, a long outwaiting.

—N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn

 

Chelsea T. Hicks’s writing has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, McSweeney’s, The Believer, The Audacity, Yellow Medicine Review, Indian Country Today, and elsewhere. She is an incoming Tulsa Artist Fellow and a recent graduate from the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is a 2016 Wah-Zha-Zhi Woman Artist featured by the Osage Nation Museum, a 2016 and 2017 Writing by Writers Fellow, and a 2020 finalist for the Eliza So Fellowship for Native American women writers. She is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation, and she belongs to Pawhuska District.