House Made of Dawn | Critical Essay by Michael W. Raymond

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of House Made of Dawn.
This section contains 4,598 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Michael W. Raymond

SOURCE: "Tai-me, Christ, and the Machine: Affirmation through Mythic Pluralism in House Made of Dawn," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 61-71.

Raymond is an author, critic, and educator. In the following essay, he discusses the role of technology, Christianity, and the Kiowa Tai-me in House Made of Dawn.

Many critics interpret N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn as depicting disharmony, alienation, and the need for spiritual redemption in a squalid, hellish, temporal world. Martha Scott Trimble, for example, sees it [in her 1973 N. Scott Momaday] as a story of how differences in "language and culture tend through their own territorial imperatives to encompass one, sometimes to a point of isolation." Even those critics not advocating themes of alienation see House Made of Dawn as an insider's novel. To them, it portrays "the orderly continuum of interrelated events that constitute the Indian universe" and "warns native Americans that they may lose more than they gain if they assimilate into the American mix." With its alternative to Christianity and to a modern civilization based on secular, technological structures, House Made of Dawn's optimism has to be inappropriate for an outsider.

Neither of these approaches accounts for the full richness of Momaday's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Rather than denying the possibility of affirmation or suggesting that affirmation can come only through a monolithic cultural identity, House Made of Dawn focuses on the pluralism of ordinary contemporary life and the possibility of finding meaning in it. Depicting a pervasive cultural diversity in even remote, seemingly culturally isolated areas, the novel suggests that meaning in contemporary life comes when one finds his sense of place by recognizing and living within that large and diverse context.

At the end of House Made of Dawn, Abel is "running on the rise of the song." By seeing and going among the runners, Abel unmistakably associates himself with the dawn runners of eternity:

They were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe. Meaning because of them. They ran with great dignity and calm, not in the hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect. Evil was. Evil was abroad in the night; they must venture out to the confrontation; they must reckon dues and divide the world.

Abel saves himself when he identifies with the dawn runners, sees them as a part of the whole, becomes a part of them, and feels significant. But Abel's path to the beginnings of salvation is not easy. Abel's story is one of a journey through and from placelessness. It is a sordid and seemingly chaotic journey through a self-conscious and reflective uninvolvement, an alienation from people and places, homelessness, a sense of the unreality of the world and of not belonging. Abel's choices and their outcome are neither simple nor clear-cut. It is more than just the matter of returning to the fulfilling pueblo from the nasty white man's world. Abel's tribulations involve all the complexities inherent in contemporary life. He is forced to face the army, the legal system, and the social service agencies of a society almost totally alien to him. He must deal with such personal tragedies as the deaths of his mother and brother and his own alcoholism. He is torn between personal pride and the necessity for survival in a hostile environment. Swirling around him are the complicated and often obscure promises of value systems inherent in at least three Native American cultures, in Christianity, and in modern technology.

Clearly this journey through placelessness is not restricted to the white man's army, city, or values. He experiences the twentieth-century sense of alienation before ever leaving the pueblo. At Walatowa, Abel's father was an outsider of an undetermined tribe. His family is considered foreign and strange. As an adolescent, Abel unexplainably strangles an eagle he captures during a ceremonial Eagle Watchers Society hunt. On his return to Walatowa in 1945, Abel is drunk and does not recognize his grandfather. At the rooster pull, he is awkward and uncomfortable. Unattuned to the old rhythm of the pueblo, he is unable to sing a creation song. In Los Angeles, Abel is no more attuned to the white man's world. The Kiowa priest Tosamah labels him a longhair, a primitive, a What's-His-Name, and a renegade. Abel himself acknowledges that his own body and mind had turned on him and had become his enemy.

Showing that Abel's problems transcend simplistic red-white, rural-urban, primitive-modern conflicts, that not all of his villains are external, and that his problems are not unique to him or to being a Native American, House Made of Dawn exposes more fully the complexities of Abel's story. Furthermore, it becomes apparent then that Abel's salvation is not wholly due to his return to the ceremonial life of the pueblo and that salvation does not occur in an Entirely Native American place as Marion Willard Hylton, Lawrence J. Evers, Alan R. Veile, and Joseph Trimmer suggest.

[In his 1977 In Time and Place: Some Origins of American Fiction] Floyd C. Watkins finds House Made of Dawn "made almost incomprehensible by a profusion of elaborate cultural, mythical, and ritualistic detail." Indeed, Momaday includes in his narrative materials from the Jemez pueblo, the Pecos pueblo, the Navajo, the Kiowa, and Christian cultures. Set in Walatowa and Los Angeles, and narrated in multiple points of view that move freely back and forth in time, the novel provides a wide range of experiences within these many cultures. Frequently old and current rituals are alluded to or described in detail. Characters from all conditions of life and faith are a part of Abel's struggle. House Made of Dawn easily creates a sense of Abel's confusion, self-consciousness, and alienation.

As just three of the many cultural influences in House Made of Dawn, technology, Christianity, and Tai-me represent but a sample of the divergent and apparently conflicting values in the novel. Their clashing seems ubiquitous. At first glance, technology appears as the usual nightmarish movements of a machine. The novel seems structured on the archetypal conflict between the treadmill of the pursuit of the American Dream and the salvation of the natural order, between the urban industrialized life and the rural Native American sense of place, between Los Angeles and Walatowa. One has no difficulty recognizing the distinctions between the two places which represent these conflicting ideals. Los Angeles is a warehouse for A. A. Kaul Office Supply Company, a place much like a basement that is "cold and dreary, dimly illuminated by two 40-watt bulbs which were screwed into the side walls above the dais…. The walls were bare and gray and streaked with water. The only windows were small, rectangular openings near the ceiling at ground level; the panes were covered with a thick film of coal oil and dust, and spider webs clung to the frames or floated out like smoke across the room. The room was heavy and stale." As a location, Walatowa is the house made of dawn, a place where

the river lies in the valley of hills and fields. The north end of the valley is narrow, and the river runs down from the mountains through a canyon. The sun strikes the canyon floor only a few hours each day, and in winter the snow remains for a long time in the crevices of the walls. There is a town in the valley, and there are ruins of other towns in the canyon. In three directions from the town there are cultivated fields. Most of them lie to the west, across the river, on the slope of the plain. Now and then in winter, great angles of geese fly through the valley, and then the sky and the geese are the same color and the air is hard and damp and smoke rises from the houses of the town. The seasons lie hard upon the land. In summer the valley is hot, and birds come to the tamarack on the river. The feathers of blue and yellow birds are prized by the townsmen.

All of Abel's problems connect apparently to modern technology and its machines. His first departure from the pueblo is by a bus that jars, creaks, and lurches Abel into alienation and estrangement. At war, he dances on a leaf-covered, wooded hill around a black, massive enemy tank that "seemed apart from the land." After the war, Abel returns by bus to Walatowa drunk, a shame to his grandfather, and inarticulate in his own culture. In Los Angeles, Abel is a longhair "too damn dumb to be civilized." He refuses to adapt to the Jesus scheme, to the bright lights and cacophony, to the assembly-line job, and to the modern social system of prison, questionnaires, and brutal cops. All bring him down. Psychologically and physically, Abel is mangled and racked with pain. Significantly, as he attempts to revive himself from a near-fatal beating presumably administered by Martinez, his feeble efforts take place near a heavy wire-mesh fence, tractor trailers, and an industrial loading dock. As Abel tries to move, retches, and wants to die, he hears "sounds of the city at night, ticking on like a clock," foghorns, and ships. The nightmare of the modern technologically created Los Angeles apparently offers Abel only danger, chaos, and exposure.

Abel is not the only one who apparently suffers from the machine. In general, the Native Americans "do not hanker after progress" and consider the white man with his beasts of burden and trade as an enemy invader. With their changes, their unending succession of things, and their attempts to make everything bigger and better, the invaders dilute and multiply all into commonplaces. But the whites also suffer. Milly bears physical scars from barbed wire and psychological scars from her daughter's death in the hospital. Old Carlozini lives silently, alone, and afraid in a smelly, dark city apartment. The only time she comes out or speaks is to lament the death of her only friend, a black and white guinea pig. Even Angela St. John, wife of a successful doctor and a shopper in the affluent Westwood section of Los Angeles, needs to escape to Walatowa. Uncertain who she is and disgusted with her pregnant body, she seeks a vision of "some reality that she did not know, or even suspect."

Christianity is apparently as ineffectual as technology is threatening. The Jesus scheme is personified by Father Olguin and the Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah. Father Olguin is a prematurely old, blind-in-one-eye Catholic priest at the pueblo mission. A native of Mexico, he had dreams of becoming "an example in the town." However, he seems obtuse and insensitive. His services are routine and formulaic. His knowledge of his parishioners' culture seems memorized rather than understood. His attraction to Angela St. John is hardly spiritual. That Father Olguin finds comfort in Fray Nicolas's ethnocentric and misanthropic journal seems incongruous with his supposed purpose for being at the mission. His return to town after Angela's mocking rejection is symptomatic of his Christianity and its effect. Driving his car through the pueblo's narrow, dusty streets which are filled with his flock, Father Olguin bears down upon the people, leans on the car horn, and nearly hits them. While the Catholic priest is torn between revulsion, fear, and despair in his stopped car, the children laugh at him and mock him with "a shrill and incessant chant: 'Padre! Padre! Padre!'"

With the versatile abilities of an experienced confidence man, the Kiowa Reverend J. B. B. Tosamah does not seem much more effective than the pueblo priest. Pastor and Priest of the Sun, he personifies the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between white and Native American religious cultures. On Saturday, he preaches "The Gospel According to John"; on Sunday, "The Way to Rainy Mountain." Preaching in the cold, dreary basement of the A. A. Kaul Office Supply Company, Tosamah wavers between agony and arrogance, between the voice of a dog and the virtuosity of a scholar. In his three performances during the second section of House Made of Dawn, he goes back and forth among conviction, caricature, and callousness. He is dressed in black cleric clothes for the first sermon. Tosamah begins his traditional Christian sermon about the Word, God, and Truth with Latin and Genesis. Then he attacks the white man's assault on truth and ends with the paradoxical advice to listen and to learn from the white man. The peyote ceremony is as paradoxical. Ceremonially painted, Tosamah clinically describes the chemical ingredients and the psychological effects of peyote. Then he uses street slang to describe it and finally announces the Kiowa idea of peyote as "the vegetal representation of the sun." Sunday's sermon is the most personal and straightforward. Tosamah, however, cannot resist inserting into his story of his grandmother and his pilgrimage to Rainy Mountain an account of the Christians' destruction of the Kiowa deity.

Tosamah mocks both the longhairs and the Jesus scheme. His rule is "get yours." Very little seems sacred. Apparently, he does not believe in being reverent; becoming civilized is learning how to exploit the dominant culture or social system. He preaches assimilation into white society but has no respect for the white man. As a result, Tosamah's congregation is made up of Ben Benallys who consider the pastor-priest a bad drunk, a show-off, a madman, and an insensitive outsider.

Compared to the seemingly threatening technology and the apparently ineffectual Christianity, the Native American Tai-me would appear to be the only viable solution available to Abel and the twentieth century. In fact, because House Made of Dawn contains innumerable references to the sun as well as Tosamah's explicit commentaries, it would seem that Tai-me, the sun dance god, would be the most accessible, comprehensible, and affirmative myth in the novel. Tosamah's sincerely reverent account of his grandmother's memories of Tai-me is a history of the Kiowa sun dance culture. This most sacred and most powerful fetish represented the transformation of the Kiowa culture from a nation of slaves struggling for survival to one of divinity with the sun. Tai-me provided a sense of destiny, the attributes of courage and pride, and the fulfillment of an old prophecy. It led to the golden age of a "lordly and dangerous society of fighters and thieves, hunters and priests of the sun."

The attributes and effects ascribed to Tai-me seem congruent with every description of the sun in House Made of Dawn. From the novel's title to Tosamah's sermons, from the dawn running to the dance rituals, from Francisco's accounts of the organic calendar to the light images associated with Angela St. John, the sun seems to be a symbol of life, growth, and knowledge. The sun seems to be the unifying symbol of affirmation. The inclination is to link these sun references unilaterally to Tai-me. However, this would simplify inappropriately intricate but certainly more satisfying systems of cultural complexity in House Made of Dawn. This inclination is much like those critics who contribute to the reductive approaches to House Made of Dawn as just an ethnic novel in which only the vanishing breed can win or—as is more often the case—no one can win. House Made of Dawn does not sustain or deserve a reduction of itself into simplistic conflicts. The novel eschews dire warnings of ethnic apocalypse or strident calls for ethnic isolationism by emphasizing the complexities inherent in interpreting Tai-me and, therefore, in contemporary culture. One cannot eliminate or isolate any single myth or culture when it is inextricably mixed in with a score of other myths or cultures. One cannot reduce the struggles of contemporary life into an "us vs. them" conflict when one has difficulty discriminating between "us" and "them."

Not all references to the sun are in a Native American context. Furthermore, those references that are in such a context certainly do not allude only to the Kiowa sun dance fetish Tai-me. The title House Made of Dawn comes from Ben Benally's Navajo Night Chant; Francisco's dawn running emanates from the pueblo culture; the sun as a center for the organic calendar represents an archetype for even the whites in Los Angeles. Another reason for eschewing any simplified cultural conflict is that even those rituals, legends, and ceremonies directly connected to Tai-me are clearly depicted as neither pure Kiowa nor pure Native American. Tosamah's sermon on the way to Rainy Mountain indicates the influence of several cultures on Tai-me. As he indicates, the chief symbol of the Kiowa worship was given to the migrating tribe by the Crows in the late seventeenth century. Using an old hide rather than a buffalo, the last sun dance was in 1887. In 1890, the U. S. Cavalry stopped an attempted revival of the ceremony. By the time of the novel, the vestiges of Tai-me are entirely oral, relayed by Christian Kiowas, and in languages lost to the newer generations. Just from the evidence presented in House Made of Dawn, Tai-me was not indigenous to the Kiowa culture and was not left unchanged by the peoples and forces of history. Also, one should be careful to note that the blending with Tai-me was not depicted entirely as destructive dilution. The Crows provided the migrating hunters with a sense of destiny. Although a Christian in later years, Tosamah's grandmother was able to transmit with ancient awe and holy regard the sacredness of this memory to her grandson.

The blending of cultural materials indicated in the presentation of Tai-me is characteristic of how cultures are presented throughout House Made of Dawn. Momaday repeatedly emphasizes the blending of the pueblo, Kiowa, Navajo, Christian, and technological cultures and indicates the mixed blessings resulting from the blending. For example, the festival of Santiago and the feast for Porcingula dominate the "Longhair" section. The "halting talk of old fellowship" is in Tanoan, Athapascan, English, and Spanish. The participating characters are the Catholic Father Olguin, the sacristan and holy medicine man Francisco, the albino witch Juan Teyes Fragua, and the recently returned army veteran Abel. The observers include the shy Navajo children, the Jemez pueblo people, the Bahkyush descendants, and the white doctor's wife Angela St. John. The myth behind the festival is a curious adaptation of St. James' bringing Christianity to Spain into Santiago's founding of the pueblo culture. The rooster-pull or gallo is the featured event. As Watkins and Trimmer indicate, the gallo observed in House Made of Dawn is a more profane ceremony than the original, with the emphasis on the white albino-red Abel conflict and the presence of the uncomprehending Angela St. John. The feast for Porcingula mingles the worship of Catholic Virgin Mary with the adoration of the Bahkyush patroness; a procession following mass and communion leads to the dance with the Pecos masks of the bull and the horse. In the dance before the kiva, Francisco notes "the bull was a sad and unlikely thing, a crude and makeshift totem of revelry and delight … no holiness to it…." However, regardless of the sense that the hold had been relaxed upon the ancient ways, both ceremonies remain sacred. The townswomen finish the gallo by throwing water in sacrifice on the rooster remains; the Porcingula procession leaves as the cacique prays and sprinkles ceremonial meal on the Pecos horse.

In "The Priest of the Sun" section, the peyote ceremony conducted by Tosamah in the dreary Los Angeles basement is another example of cultural blending. While the ceremony follows in detail the traditional Kiowa peyote rite, the prayers of four participants reflect values besides those of the Kiowa. Cristobal Cruz ends his prayer with "in Jesus' name. Amen"; Napoleon Kills-in-the-Timber prays to the Great Spirit for help in being "frens with white mans" [sic]; Ben Benally sees a Navajo house made of dawn. The ceremony itself ends as brassy jukebox music and street sounds filter into the basement and as Tosamah strides into the street blasting his eagle-bone whistle to signify "that something holy was going on in the universe."

In "The Night Chanter" section Ben Benally recalls the old Navajo ways of the Beautyway and Night Chant, of the squaw dance, and of the Bear and the Snake story. His recollections come as he goes into the hills above Los Angeles to forget about everything. As with the ceremonies in Walatowa and in the supply company basement, Benally's ceremonies have been changed. The chants are shortened; the prayers are done quietly because Ben is ashamed. Once for the Navajo a three-day ceremony of healing, the squaw dance is now primarily a social event. Even the Bear and the Snake story—one that moves from fear to affirmation—is not initiated by Ben. The Navajo legend is Ben's response to Angela's own story in the hospital of a bear and a maiden. Each of these Navajo customs reflects Ben's empathy with Los Angeles and what it stands for. Ben (and his practice of the Navajo ways) exhibits emotional and behavioral participation in a culture of which he is not a full member. His involvement with Milly, his acquiescence to the "bright and clean" city lifestyle, and his efforts to convert Abel indicate how Ben's practice of his native ways has been affected by the cultural forces around him.

Abel's situation among such varied cultural forces as Taime, Christianity, and technology is difficult to pin down specifically. Each affects him but how, to what degree, and to what result are uncertain. However, what seems certain is that Abel is not the only character affected by confusion, self-consciousness, and alienation. From the sketches of the individual and collective influences of just these three cultural forces, one notes that everyone experiences some sense of placelessness. Francisco and Milly belong to and identify with their particular place as natives, but each suffers: Francisco through the changes to the pueblo and the particular absence of Abel; Milly through the separation from her father, the desertion of her husband, and the death of her daughter. Angela St. John and Ben Benally participate in other cultures, but they are not full members. She reacts physically and emotionally to the pueblo activities and rituals and senses the spiritual vision but finds it all strange and incomprehensible. Although Ben repeatedly says he is devoted to the city, there is little doubt that he envies Abel's return home. The practice of Father Olguin's and Tosamah's professed callings as priests reveals two men who engage in the activities of two cultures but remain dispassionate observers.

What also seems certain is that the others who suffer from the same sort of placelessness as Abel do not suffer as much as Abel. They seem to have either overcome the sense of not belonging or at least come to grips with it. To a degree, Angela, Milly, and Father Olguin come to their sense of place in the novel. Francisco, Ben, and Tosamah are there already. A character's acceptance of or adjustment to the many cultures around him marks that character's discovery of his sense of place. Native American or white, each seems to balance the various demands, promises, and perspectives inherent in the complexities of so many cultures. The sense of place does not come as one culture overcomes another; over and over again it is shown that conquerors are conquered by "a long outwaiting." Generally, the cultures are not depicted as absolutely hostile, absolutely evil, or absolutely good. They are parts of a larger context.

As House Made of Dawn moves to its conclusion with Abel symbolically running in the culture apparently more appropriate for him, three scenes signify Abel's coming to his sense of place and show how he accomplished it. These three concluding scenes also show in the background other characters achieving a similar blending of cultures.

The first scene involves the aftermath of Abel's brutal beating in Los Angeles by the policeman Martinez, which precipitates Abel's return to Walatowa. Benally finds Abel almost dead, "all broken and torn and covered with blood" in the darkened hallway. But Abel is saved by the ambulance, the hospital, and Angela St. John. The city's technology heals his body, and the white woman's stories about a young brave born of a bear and a maiden allow him to turn away and to return home.

The second is Father Olguin's next-to-last appearance in the novel at the beginning of "The Dawn Runner." The Catholic priest sits passively in his rectory. The long passage describes him as having "grown calm with duty and design" with the "hectic fire of his spirit" burned low. Composed and at peace,

he had come to terms with the town, and that, after all, had been his aim. To be sure, there was the matter of some old and final cleavage, of certain exclusion, the whole and subtle politics of estrangement, but that was easily put aside…. The fair price of his safe and sacred solitude…. He had done well by the town, after all. He had set an example of piety….

The scene ends with an allusion to Fray Nicolas' journal and Father Olguin's mild spiritual exercise for faith and humility.

The third takes place following the death of Francisco. After seven days remembering the rituals, the hunting, his marriage, his teaching, and his running, Abel's grandfather dies. Abel prepares the body by using some traditional ceremonies and disregarding others. Not calling in the singers, he wets and winds the hair; dresses and wraps the body; sprinkles meal and places corn, feathers, and pollen beside him. Abel then takes the body to Father Olguin at the mission. As the generator kicks on to power the lights, the bewildered priest comes to the door. Abel leaves the body and goes to run and to sing in the house made of dawn.

In these three concluding scenes, seemingly disparate cultures are seen together. In each scene, someone has arrived at some sense of place. The Navajo Ben Benally, the white Angela St. John, and the city hospital's technology restore Abel's body and spirit. Ben and Angela demonstrate through their instinctive reliance on technology, their invocation of Native American legend, and their apparently effortless return to daily life an unconscious sense of place that Abel must leave Los Angeles to find. Father Olguin—with his Christianity and his technology—senses the rhythm of life in the pueblo and accepts "a holiness more intrinsic than any he could ever have imagined." Finally, Abel, having employed Jemez and Catholic customs for burial, runs in a pueblo tradition, sings a Navajo prayer, and affirms himself within a community larger than one culture.

Thus, Momaday asserts that everyone has tenure in the land. Like Abel, everyone can come to accept cultural diversity and learn the necessity of finding one's place within the larger context. Using seemingly isolated or conflicting cultures, such as those surrounding Tai-me, Christ, and the machine, Momaday shows characters such as Abel, Ben Benally, Angela St. John, J. B. B. Tosamah, and Father Olguin finding a sense of place or significance. Originating from a primary culture that seems insufficient for dealing with complex, contemporary life, each character settles into his respective world by accepting the existence of a basic pluralism in cultures.

While not denying the efficacy or integrity of individual myths and cultures, House Made of Dawn continually and artistically suggests that myths or the people that make up a pluralistic society are rarely independent, insular units. By advocating compatibility in cultural pluralism and the authenticity of individual identity within that pluralism, Momaday emphasizes the potential for the individual to find a sense of place in contemporary life.

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