This section contains 13,319 words
(approx. 45 pages at 300 words per page)
SOURCE: "The Crisis of Identity: House Made of Dawn," in N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, University of Oklahoma Press, 1985, pp. 101-39.
In the following excerpt, Schubnell discusses Abel's search for belonging and identity in House Made of Dawn.
My reading of House Made of Dawn focuses on the novel's thematic center: the problem of identity. First I deal with Abel's early years of harmony and the gradual emergence of conflicts which lead to his departure from the community. Next I examine Abel's attempts to resolve his confusion after his return from a war which has further undermined his sense of belonging. In fact, Abel has become a man between two cultures, unable to cope with either. In the last section of this reading I argue that Abel's eventual return to his native culture takes the course of a rite of passage. The interpretation is based on a close analysis of the novel's symbolism against the background of Mircea Eliade's studies of initiation ceremonies and religious patterns.
By way of introduction to the tragic effects of identity conflicts among American Indians as Momaday witnessed them at Jemez, it may be best to quote from one of his letters. I have deleted the names of the victims to protect their privacy and that of their families:
Abel is a composite of the boys I knew at Jemez. I wanted to say something about them. An appalling number of them are dead; they died young, and they died violent deaths. One of them was drunk and run over. Another was drunk and froze to death. (He was the best runner I ever knew). One man was murdered, butchered by a kinsman under a telegraph pole just east of San Ysidro. And yet another committed suicide. A good many who have survived this long are living under the Relocation Program in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, etc. They're a sad lot of people.
This statement spells out the disastrous violence, suffering, and despair which frequently accompanies cultural change. While Abel's conflicts are aggravated by a particularly unsettling historical period, his difficulties in reconciling his tribal origin with the presence of a modern world are a latent and potentially disruptive problem for every generation of American Indians.
Abel is struggling to find an identity within his own tribe long before he comes into direct contact with the culture of modern America. From a developmental point of view his experience is universal: it is the struggle of a young man to establish a stable position in his community. From a historical perspective his crisis reflects a crisis of his culture which denies its young tribal members accommodation to changing conditions.
Abel's problem grows out of a generation conflict within a tribal community in which the ancient traditions tend to lose their meanings for young Indians in their confrontation with the cultural tradition of modern America. The old generation of traditionalists tends to exert pressure on young tribal members in order to assure the perpetuation of the old ways. This can lead to a conflict between communal obligations and the search for a new Indian identity which must include the benefits of modern society.
Abel cannot simply adopt the traditional customs of his tribe as would have been natural in a community unaffected by the encroachment of an alien culture. He turns his back on the Indian world and enters modern America. Here, under the influence of an unsympathetic environment, Abel's conflict is aggravated. He shows all the symptoms of identity confusion: estrangement from both the tribal and the Anglo-American cultures, sexual and emotional disturbance in his personal relationships, and an inability to channel his aggression appropriately.
His return to the native community suggests that Indian cultures are capable of overcoming such crises, not by isolating themselves but through an adherence to basic traditional values and by the selective acceptance of new elements from other cultures. This strategy, which has been a strength of American Indian societies throughout the period of contact with other cultural groups, must be continued. In giving an account of the developmental crisis in the protagonist's life history Momaday makes a statement about Indian life in a period of increasing cultural and economic pressures. House Made of Dawn, then, is a novel about an individual and a communal search for identity.
The Indian community in which Abel grows up belongs to the Rio Grande Pueblo villages in New Mexico. Momaday opens the first chapter with the place name "Walatowa, Canyon de San Diego." Walatowa literally means "the people in the canyon." It is the native name of Jemez. As a result of their geographical isolation and their cultural conservatism the Rio Grande Pueblos have succeeded in keeping their languages, religions, and traditional customs relatively intact despite the pressures of Spanish and Anglo-American cultural encroachment. This is how Momaday portrays life in the village:
The people of the town have little need. They do not hanker after progress and have never changed their essential way of life. 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.
Abel grows up in a world where the preservation of old values counts more than progress. Even today Pueblo life revolves around a complex system of religious ceremonials based on a solar calendar, whose keeper is the cacique, the Pueblo medicine man. According to his observation of the course of the sun, the cacique determines all the essential events of tribal life, the planting, harvesting, and the religious ceremonies.
In House Made of Dawn the old man Francisco functions as the teacher and guardian of the traditional Pueblo way of life. He represents the old generation of the tribe which possesses the cultural heritage and strives to preserve it by handing it down to the next generation. Francisco teaches his grandsons, Abel and Vidal, to observe the sun. He tells them that "they must know the long journey of the sun on the black mesa, how it rode in the seasons and the years, and they must live according to the sun appearing, for only then could they reckon where they were, where all things were, in time." In revealing the connection between the sun, the landscape, and the rhythms of Indian life, Francisco roots the two boys in the old ways of the tribe. Francisco's teachings are central to their development as well as the perpetuation of Jemez tradition.
Under the guidance of old man Francisco, Abel is raised according to the tribal patterns of his people and acquires a deep feeling for his environment. Typical of Abel's consciousness is his natural attitude toward death: "… he knew somehow that his mother was soon going to die of her illness. It was nothing he was told, but he knew it anyway and without understanding, as he knew already the motion of the sun and the seasons." Abel is at the center of Indian life. He herds sheep, takes part in a deer hunt, and participates in the ceremonial activities of his tribe.
Despite this seeming harmony with the tribal world, however, Abel somehow remains a stranger within his community. Not only during his time away from the reservation but also while growing up among his own people, he lives in a state of isolation. He was born into his position as an outsider: "He did not know who his father was. His father was a Navajo, they said, or a Sia, or an Isleta, an outsider anyway, which made him and his mother and Vidal somehow foreign and strange." Tribal communities are not necessarily homogenous entities as they are often perceived by outsiders; within the tribe subgroups may exist which do not meet the full acceptance of the majority. The early deaths of his mother and brother increase Abel's isolation. He is left with his grandfather, Francisco, as his only other relation.
Preoccupied with Abel's conforming to the tribal tradition, Francisco monopolizes his education. He forbids him to find a substitute mother in Josie, one of the women in the village. The lack of family ties prevents Abel's full integration into the native community. As Abel approaches adolescence he finds it increasingly difficult to accept tribal patterns and the domineering authority of his grandfather.
It is common for young people at this stage of personal development to question the way of life which adults in their families or communities expect them to adopt. Momaday shows in his novel the severity of the conflict between a budding individual and a rigid tribal pattern which depends for its perpetuation on the absence of individual awareness. He reveals how the crisis in Abel's personal development reflects a crisis in Pueblo culture.
Pueblo traditionalists maintain that in an age of growing pressure from outside the tribal culture can only survive in isolation. Even though technical attainments of Anglo-American culture have been adopted for their obvious usefulness, Pueblo communities are very reluctant to allow any interference that could dilute traditional tribal life. This inevitably leads to tremendous pressures in the educational processes of young Indians. A culture which depends for its survival on the adoption of age-old patterns by the next generation not only shelters against influences from the outside but also ignores or even suppresses the individual needs of its members. Thus a generation conflict is almost unavoidable….
Abel's decision to leave the Pueblo community grows out of the realization that he cannot find an identity simply by adopting the teachings of his grandfather. Momaday shows by means of a few central events that Abel has no choice but to step out of the limiting realm of his native village in order to remain true to himself.
A most significant experience during Abel's adolescence is his vision of an eagle which carries a snake in its talons: "He had seen a strange thing, an eagle overhead with its talons closed upon a snake. It was an awful, holy sight, full of magic and meaning." Both eagle and snake have deeply religious meanings for the Indians of the Southwest. The snake is associated with the coming of water and is worshiped in ceremonies such as the famous snake dance of the Hopis. The eagle is believed to attain supernatural powers on its flights and is revered in the eagle dance. The appearance of the eagle and snake together is of particular religious importance, just as the plumed serpent is a major mythological figure.
For Abel the eagle is a symbol of freedom, beauty, and life: "They were golden eagles, a male and a female, in their mating flight. They were cavorting, spinning and spiraling on the cold, clear columns of air, and they were beautiful." When Abel first sees the two birds, he is "on the rim of the Valle Grande, a great volcanic crater that lay high up on the western slope of the range. It was the right eye of the earth, held open to the sun. Of all places that he knew, this valley alone could reflect the great spatial majesty of the sky." Standing high above the plateau he has a view of the whole extent of his world and observes the eagles as they fly across and beyond the land, disappearing in the endless sky. Perhaps it is in this vision that Abel realizes the limitations of his life under the rules of his tribal community.
His observation of the eagles and the snake gains him the permission of the Eagle Watcher Society to take part in an eagle hunt. Again he sees the two eagles and eventually succeeds in catching the female bird. He returns to the other hunters in the plain who celebrate him in much the same way as Francisco was celebrated after his successful bear hunt. Abel, however, cannot enjoy this honor. He does not understand or cannot accept that his respect for the animal can be reconciled with his act of depriving it of its freedom for the benefit of the community. Eagle feathers are highly valued as indispensable requisites for ceremonials. The closeness of the captive eagle's spirit to the village is regarded as a beneficial influence on the life at Jemez.
When his peers allow the less attractive male eagle to return to the sky, Abel is overcome by a feeling of longing, as if he wanted to follow the bird:
It leveled off and sailed. Then it was gone from sight, but he looked after it for a time. He could see it still in the mind's eye and hear in his memory the awful whisper of its flight on the wind. It filled him with longing. He felt the great weight of the bird which he held in the sack. The dusk was fading quickly into night, and the others could not see that his eyes were filled with tears.
Instead of feeling victorious about the hunt, in keeping with tribal tradition, Abel is sad and disgusted. He decides to kill the bird rather than allow it to live in captivity in the village. This killing is not a ritual act, as one critic assumed, but an act of rebellion against a tribal custom Abel cannot comprehend. This interpretation is corroborated by the absence of any ritual preparation and by Abel's psychological state when he acts.
There are a number of other scenes in the novel which show Abel in similar emotional states in response to animal life. After the rabbit hunt he feels "something like remorse or disappointment" about the killing of animals. Similarly, he shows a strange affection for the small fish along the coast of California: "… small silversided fishes spawned mindlessly in correlation to the phase of the moon and the rise and fall of the tides. The thought of it made him sad, filled him with sad, unnamable longing and wonder."
These emotional reactions reflect a deep respect for the well-being of other life forms, an attitude common among American Indian peoples. However, Abel fails to see the wider implications of the man-animal relationship in his tribal religion. The hunting and killing of animals does not constitute a breach of the spiritual bond between man and animal if it is performed in the appropriate traditional way….
Momaday dramatized this concept in Francisco's bear hunt. Francisco proceeds strictly according to the code of honor which regulates the hunt:
And he did not want to break the stillness of the night, for it was holy and profound; it was rest and restoration, the hunter's offering of death and the sad watch of the hunted, waiting somewhere away in the cold darkness and breathing easily of its life, brooding around at last to forgiveness and consent; the silence was essential to them both, and it lay out like a bond between them, ancient and inviolable.
The bear's knowledge of Francisco's approach, the absence of fear and hurry, and Francisco's following "in the bear's tracks" suggest an old intimacy between the hunter and the hunted. The ritual blessing of the bear with pollen is an expression of gratitude and respect, a plea for propitiation.
Without the knowledge of these ancient practices Abel reacts emotionally rather than ritualistically. His shame and disgust are inappropriate responses within the framework of traditional Indian thought and reflective of his estrangement from his tribal heritage. Abel's failure to perceive or accept the intricacies of tribal tradition is also at the center of his conflict with Francisco. The young Indian not only is unable to comprehend certain aspects of his native tradition but also has lost respect for his grandfather as the representative of the ancient ways. Abel is "almost a grown man" when he has a riding accident: "… for days afterward there was a sharp, recurrent pain in the small of his back. Francisco chanted and prayed; the old man applied herbs and powders and potions and salves, and nothing worked." This incident may well have contributed to Abel's loss of faith in his grandfather and his native culture.
His inability to adhere to the rules of tradition brings about the final break between Francisco and Abel: "You ought to do this and that, his grandfather said. But the old man had not understood, would not understand, only wept, and Abel left him alone. It was time to go, and the old man was away in the fields." Abel's decision to leave is the final rejection of authority, grown out of the conviction that in the rigidness of his tribal environment he will be unable to find fulfillment and an identity. His leaving is a departure in dread, accompanied by fear of an unknown future in an unknown world.
Momaday stresses the young Indian's position between two cultures by means of Abel's shoes. The shoes are typical of the white man's fashion in the city and therefore conspicuous to traditional Indians. In some Pueblo communities tribal rules demand that shoes or boots can be worn only if the heel is cut off, to a avoid injury to the sacred earth on which the community's existence depends. Abel, however, does not share this orthodox view; to him the shoes are simply objects of good craftsmanship, admirable in their own right, like "the work of a good potter or painter or silversmith." As Abel steps out of his native community, he is wearing these shoes, having waited "a long time for the occasion to wear them." In this situation they signify the world he is about to enter, and as Abel realizes this he grows anxious and afraid:
But now and beyond his former frame of reference, the shoes called attention to Abel. They were brown and white; they were conspicuously new and too large; they shone; they clattered and creaked. And they were nailed to his feet. There were enemies all around, and he knew that he was ridiculous in their eyes.
Despite Abel's fears of what awaits him in the alien world of modern America, his departure is a necessary step toward his understanding of himself.
Abel's withdrawal from the tribe is the result of a disturbed communication between the old and the young generation. Anxious to preserve the ancient tribal ways, the old members of the pueblo have grown blind to the needs of the young. In the following section I examine Abel's struggle for an identity in the context of the tension between modern American and tribal cultures.
When Abel returns to his grandfather after having served in the U.S. Army in World War II, he is drunk. His flight into alcohol indicates his inability to cope with the horror and turmoil of his recent past. Abel is confused. His drunken state reflects a lack of inner stability as a result of his bicultural situation. Alcoholism, in part a reaction to being cut adrift from native cultures and being unable to come to terms with the mainstream of American society, is a widespread problem among the American Indian population.
During the two weeks Abel spends in his grandfather's house, he tries to halt his mental and physical disintegration and find his way back to the center of Indian life. He struggles to become attuned to the culture he left as an adolescent, and he tries to rid himself of the destructive influences of a war in an alien world.
On the morning after his return Abel climbs the hill outside the village. In the growing light of the new day, he looks out over the pueblo and the land. As he is standing there, a number of episodes from his boyhood and the war come to his mind. The series of flashbacks must be seen not merely as a technical device Momaday employs to make the reader familiar with the protagonist's past. In reliving central episodes of his childhood and adolescence, Abel tries to reintegrate himself into his environment, to imagine himself into an existence he can understand and with which he can identify. He re-creates previous experiences in his mind, trying to come to grips with his confused state. His recollections become a psychological process of searching for the roots of his confusion.
While Abel is very capable of comprehending the memories of his Indian boyhood, he is unable to come to terms with the months and years he spent away from the pueblo: "This—everything in advance of his going—he could remember whole and in detail. It was the recent past, the intervention of days and years without meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused, that he could not put together in his mind."
The shock of war is the determining factor in Abel's early manhood, as the vision of the eagles' flight was a central event in his adolescence. In the alien world he becomes subject to a dehumanizing military conflict. The dehumanization comes across forcefully in his recollection of his war experience through the recurrent reference to the tank as "the machine." The tank symbolizes the deadening force of an aggressive, technological society. The atmosphere of death and destruction is reinforced by another recurrent image pattern; damp, matted, wet, cold, and falling leaves intensify the scene's implications of decay and annihilation:
Then through the falling leaves, he saw the machine. It rose up behind the hill, black and massive, looming there in front of the sun. He saw it swell, deepen, and take shape on the skyline, as if it were some upheaval of the earth, the eruption of stone and eclipse, and all about it the glare, the cold perimeter of light, throbbing with leaves. For a moment it seemed apart from the land; its great iron hull lay out against the timber and the sky, and the center of its weight hung away from the ridge. Then it came crashing down to the grade, slow as a waterfall, thunderous, surpassing impact, nestling almost into the splash and boil of debris. He was shaking violently, and the machine bore down upon him, came close, and passed him by. A wind rose and ran along the slope, scattering the leaves.
The image of the machine as the embodiment of destruction and denial of life stands in sharp contrast to the crucial experience in Abel's youth when the eagles appeared to him as symbols of life and freedom.
It has already been pointed out that Abel had no stable identity when he left the pueblo; indeed, he entered the world of modern America because the restrictive environment of his home impeded his growth toward personal identity. During his absence from the Indian village his inner stability does not grow but is further disturbed by the traumatic events of the war. As an Indian among white soldiers he is denied a personal identity by his comrades. He is the "chief" who is "giving it to the tank in Sioux or Algonquin or something." This statement by one of Abel's war companions shows why Abel is prevented from becoming assimilated. The dominant Anglocentric environment has stereotyped him as an Indian without regard for his individuality. In pressing him into this misconceived role, his peers not only shut him out from their culture but also deny his identity as a Jemez man.
Abel returns to the reservation in a state of identity confusion which is typical of adolescence. Even though Abel is approximately twenty-five years old, he is devoid of the sense of wholeness which is the basis for maturation into adulthood. [In his Identity: Youth and Crisis] Erik Erikson wrote that "the young person, in order to experience wholeness, must feel a progressive continuity between that which he had come to be during the long years of childhood and that which he promises to become in the anticipated future: between that which he conceives himself to be and that which he perceives others to see in him and expect of him."
For Abel progressive continuity is disrupted by his inability to accept tribal rules and by the damaging impact of his life outside the native community. The break from his culture and the effects of the war lead Abel into a state of confusion, isolation, and estrangement. With regard to such a crisis Erikson pointed out that "youth which is eager for, yet unable to find access to, the dominant techniques of society, will not only feel estranged from society, but also upset in sexuality, and most of all unable to apply aggression constructively." Abel shows all these symptoms of identity confusion in his estrangement from the ritual and ceremonial practices of his tribe, in his relationship with Angela, and in his outburst of aggression which leads to the killing of the albino.
First Abel tries to reattune himself to the land and the culture of his tribe by searching for a sign in his environment: "He stood for a long time, the land yielding to the light. He stood without thinking, nor did he move; only his eyes roved after something." Abel is feeling his way back to a center which has been lost to him. Only by relating himself to this center can he reestablish order and overcome his inner chaos. His search is informed with religious meaning, as it aims at a communion with the land which is sacred to his people. This search for a sign, as Mircea Eliade pointed out [in The Sacred and the Profane], is a universal religious impulse in a state of disequilibrium: "A sign is asked, to put an end to the tension and anxiety caused by relativity and disorientation—in short, to reveal an absolute point of support."
When a little later Abel sees his grandfather and some of the other Indians working in the fields, he acquires for a moment the old familiar sense of unity with his homeland: "The breeze was very faint, and it bore a scent of earth and grain; and for a moment everything was all right with him. He was at home." But even as Abel recognizes that he has not entirely lost the ties to his native environment, he soon finds himself unable to enter the ceremonial life of his tribe.
Five days after Abel's return, the people of Jemez celebrate the game of the Chicken Pull. This activity was introduced by the Spaniards and adopted by many of the southwestern tribes. The Rio Grande Pueblos view the insertion of the rooster into the ground and its subsequent removal as a symbolic representation of planting and reaping. The scattering of the rooster's feathers and blood are representative of rain and are believed to increase the fertility of the land and the success of the harvest.
Abel's participation in this ancient ceremony offers him an opportunity for reconciliation with his tribal culture: "For the first time since coming home he had done away with his uniform. He had put on his old clothes." His effort in the game, however, proves to be a failure: "When it came Abel's turn, he made a poor showing, full of caution and gesture." And when the albino as the victorious rider turns against Abel and starts beating him with the rooster in accordance with the rules of the game, he is unable to cope with the situation: "Abel was not used to the game, and the white man was too strong and quick for him." He is estranged from the old traditions and consequently fails to integrate himself into the cultural context of his community.
Another Pueblo ceremonial which could have been of help to Abel is the Pecos Bull Dance, which the Jemez people perform on August 1. Momaday witnessed the ceremony as a child. He described it thus [in The Names]:
On the first of August, at dusk, the Pecos Bull ran through the streets of Jemez, taunted by the children, chased by young boys who were dressed in outlandish costumes, most in a manner which parodied the curious white Americans who came frequently to see the rich sights of Jemez on feast days. This "bull" was a man who wore a mask, a wooden framework on his back covered with black cloth and resembling roughly a bull, the head of which was a crude thing made of horns, a sheepskin, and a red cloth tongue which wagged about. It ran around madly, lunging at the children.
Alfonso Ortiz noted [in New Perspectives on the Pueblos] that one purpose of burlesque and mock violence in Pueblo ritual drama is catharsis, the "purgation of individuals or community of rebellious tendencies so that they behave during the rest of the year." The ceremony could have offered Abel a chance to vent his aggression against white Americans in a ritual way rather than in the hostile manner he later employs against the albino….
Abel's reluctance to take part in the Bull Dance arises from his lack of identification with tribal rituals and perhaps also from his disbelief in their effectiveness. His loss of confidence after the Chicken Pull is a further obstacle to his participation in the event: "It was a hard thing to be the bull, for there was a primitive agony to it, and it was a kind of victim, an object of ridicule and hatred; and harder now that the men of the town had relaxed their hold upon the ancient ways, had grown soft and dubious. Or they had merely grown old." Momaday indicates in this context the increasing difficulty of adhering to the old traditions, which is a major problem, particularly for the young Indian generation represented by Abel. The ancient traditions tend to lose their meaning for young tribal members in their confrontation with mainstream America. This crisis in the Indian cultures adds to the identity problem exemplified in the figure of Abel.
A further indication of Abel's failure to reenter the Indian world of his childhood is his loss of articulation. His inability to find the proper words to acquire wholeness and communion with his culture and his homeland makes him aware that his return to the town has failed:
Abel walked into the canyon. His return to the town had been a failure, for all his looking forward. He had tried in the days that followed to speak to his grandfather, but he could not say the things he wanted; he had tried to pray, to sing, to enter into the old rhythm of the tongue, but he was no longer attuned to it. And yet it was there still, like memory, in the reach of his hearing, as if Francisco or his mother or Vidal had spoken out of the past and the words had taken hold of the moment and made it eternal. Had he been able to say it, anything in his own language—even the most commonplace formula of greeting "Where are you going"—which had no being beyond sound, no visible substance, would once again have shown him whole to himself; but he was dumb. Not dumb—silence was the older and better part of custom still—but inarticulate.
Some sense of the old harmony still remains, but Abel lacks the active power to reestablish harmony. This power is the power of the word….
The word links the Indian to his religious and mythological heritage. Indian culture is based on an oral tradition and maintained through the creative power of the word. If the word is lost, culture and identity are forfeited, as wholeness can only be established by the word. The following passage shows that Abel has indeed lost the power of words:
He began almost to be at peace, as if he had drunk a little of warm, sweet wine, for a time no longer centered upon himself. He was alone, and he wanted to make a song out of the colored canyon, the way the women of Torreón made songs upon their looms out of colored yarn, but he had not got the right words together. It would have been a creation song; he would have sung lowly of the first world, of fire and flood, and of the emergence of dawn from the hills.
As his imaginative re-creation of his childhood and adolescence was an attempt to understand his problematic situation, his effort to make a song is an endeavor to restore harmony between himself and the universe. Abel's creation song would have been a bid for the creative power that heals, restores harmony, and provides wholeness. However, he "has not the right words" and thus remains isolated. It is not until his recital of the Night Chant at the end of the book that he regains his voice.
The second symptom of identity confusion, according to Erikson, the upset in sexuality, becomes apparent in the relationship between Abel and Angela St. John. After his failed attempts to find access to the tribal rituals and ceremonies, Abel tries to acquire some kind of stability in an intimate relationship with the white woman. This second endeavor proves to be as unsuccessful as the first. The insecurity Abel exposes in both his dealing with tribal roles and his relationship with Angela is a symptom of his confused identity. Erikson described the crisis of intimacy as the first postadolescent identity crisis. He pointed out that without a well-developed identity formation true intimacy cannot be achieved. "Where a youth," he continued, "does not accomplish such intimate relationships with others—and … with his own inner resources—in late adolescence or in early adulthood, he may settle for highly stereotyped interpersonal relations and come to retain a deep sense of isolation."
Abel's inability to achieve true intimacy, then, can be seen as the result of the absence of meaningful relationships in his formative years. He grew up fatherless, lost his mother and brother in early boyhood, and never fully achieved an intimacy with the tribal community. There was also a possibly decisive, unsuccessful encounter with a young Indian girl during his adolescence. Abel's behavior toward Angela seems to indicate that this incident is still somewhere in the back of his mind. He tenaciously avoids exposing himself to humiliation and chooses to remain in the shell of his own self: "He would give her no clear way to be contemptuous of him."
Abel is portrayed as the stereotype of the mute Indian. He avoids talking at any length and frequently does not react at all to Angela's questions. His fear of getting hurt and his inability to communicate his feelings are typical of his behavior: "His face darkened, but he hung on, dumb and immutable. He would not allow himself to be provoked. It was easy, natural for him to stand aside, hang on." His lack of articulation, which earlier in the novel prevented him from bringing forth a creation song, is now the main obstacle to an intimate relationship with Angela. She grows aware of a kind of powerlessness in Abel: "There he stood, dumb and docile at her pleasure, not knowing, she supposed, how even to take his leave."
Abel's failure to establish a relationship with Angela seems to be the result of his incomplete identity formation. Throughout the novel he appears as a loner on a quest for a secure place, for a stability which he cannot find in an intimate relationship because he has not found himself. This dilemma accompanies Abel on his odyssey between Indian and modern American culture.
The third characteristic of identity confusion, the inability to vent aggression appropriately, leads to the climax of the first chapter, Abel's killing of the albino. This act of violence reflects Abel's inability to cope with the confusion he is subject to in his personal and cultural isolation. American culture has estranged him from his home: his endeavor to enter into the ceremonial life of his tribe has been unsuccessful; his attempt to establish an identity in an intimate relationship with Angela has failed. The resulting frustration is one source of the aggression Abel directs against the albino. Another is the deeply rooted fear which has dwelt in him since his early childhood—the fear that evil forces in the universe may exert their influence in him. This anxiety is common among Indian tribes. Abel's inability to comprehend the intricate nature of witchcraft leads to his individual and violent reaction against the albino, which could have been avoided through ritual.
The figure of the albino is a complex image of Abel's schizoid state of mind: his outburst of violence is an act of revenge against the "white man's world" and is at the same time the execution of an evil spirit….
Abel's first encounter with the albino takes place during the Chicken Pull: "The appearance of one of the men was striking. He was large, lithe, and white-skinned; he wore little round colored glasses and rode a fine black horse of good blood." The albino turns out to be the winner in the game, even though Angela observes that in his movements "there was something out of place, some flaw in proportion or design, some unnatural thing." This is the first indication, apart from the physical otherness of the white man, that there is something strange about him. In the course of the game Abel finds himself confronted with the albino and loses out because of his alienation from tribal customs.
Although the albino is an Indian, he carries the stigma of an outsider and, in Abel's mind, seems partly associated with the evils of the white world. In the community he is believed to be a witch. Old man Francisco has a vague notion of his presence when working in the fields: "… he was suddenly conscious of some alien presence close at hand…. He was too old to be afraid. His acknowledgment of the unknown was nothing more than a dull, intrinsic sadness, a vague desire to weep, for evil had long since found him out and knew who he was." Francisco can accept the existence of evil embodied in the albino. He has an understanding of the presence of sinister forces in the universe. Abel, however, cannot rationalize the inevitability of evil at this stage. It is not until his vision of the runners after evil later in the novel that he comprehends this idea.
Abel's latent fear of witchcraft is awakened by his encounter with the albino. Perhaps he is reminded of his childhood experience with the ill-reputed old woman Nicolás teah-whau.
The fear of witchcraft is Abel's conscious motive for killing the albino, which makes his action an act of self-defense. The problem, however, is more complex, for Abel's action cannot be seen simply in terms of the tribal context which allows the execution of witches. Abel's act of violence grows out of his frustration about his cultural estrangement and his feeling of inadequacy. It is possible that Abel recognizes himself in the figure of the albino, a mixture of Indian and white. Viewed in this light, Abel's act of destruction is an attempt to annihilate his own confused self. In doing so by culturally sanctioned means he is trying to find his way back to his tribal background. The albino, then, serves as a scapegoat. The cultural ambiguity of the albino figure is highlighted in this scene:
Then he [the white man] closed his hands upon Abel and drew him close. Abel heard the strange excitement of the white man's breath, and the quick, uneven blowing at his ear, and he felt the blue quivering lips upon him, felt even the scales of the lips and the hot, slippery point of the tongue, writhing. He was sick with terror and revulsion, and he tried to fling himself away, but the white man held him close. The white immensity of flesh lay over and smothered him. He withdrew the knife and thrust again, lower, deep into the groin.
Abel's destruction of the "white immensity" which threatens to crush him appears not only as an act of self-defense against an assault by a witch but also against the corrupting forces of Anglo-American culture. This latter interpretation is reinforced by the scene's sexual implications—"the white man raised his arms as if to embrace him …, the blue, quivering lips … the hot, slippery point of the tongue, writhing"—all of which suggest a homosexual assault.
Questioned on the ambiguity of this scene, Momaday accepted an interviewer's suggestion that Abel's motif for stabbing the albino is left "entirely open to interpretation." He explained his deliberately ambiguous presentation of the incident by saying that there is "an ineffable aspect to the killing so you simply point to it." One critic pointed to the snake symbolism—"the scales of the lips"—and concluded that it is indicative of Abel's conception of the albino in traditional Christian terms of evil. He judged the killing [according to Lawrence J. Evers] as "more in accordance with Anglo tradition than Indian tradition." There is, however, strong evidence to suggest that Abel is involved in the ritualistic killing of an incarnation of evil which is consistent with the laws of his tribal culture. Abel's statements at the trial that the killing was "the most natural thing in the world" and that "a man kills such an enemy if he can" give credence to such a reading. Moreover, the cruelty and messiness of the slaying are typical of witch executions….
The killing of the albino is a symbolic representation of the cultural conflict which Abel is trying to resolve. In the context of his native culture his act is justified and necessary. Momaday himself said that "not a person at Jemez would have held Abel liable." Nevertheless, Abel's subsequent recognition of the ritual defenses against evil forces and his realization that evil can only be contained, but not eradicated, are fundamental steps to the resolution of his dilemma and his eventual understanding of his tribal tradition.
Many critics of House Made of Dawn have dealt with the albino figure from an anthropological point of view. Only a few have realized that the albino reflects not only Momaday's knowledge of the Indian world of the American Southwest but also his indebtedness to American literature. Charles Woodard was the first critic to point out that the whiteness of the albino owes something to the whiteness of the whale in Melville's Moby-Dick. A closer look at Melville's writings, however, reveals that Moby-Dick is only a minor influence on House Made of Dawn. Momaday's novel shows a more obvious similarity to Billy Budd, Sailor. This is by no means surprising—Billy Budd was one of Momaday's great favorites as a graduate student. Claggart, the albino's counterpart in Melville's story has "an evil nature," is referred to as a "snake," and has a "pallid" complexion as the outer manifestation of his depraved character. Moreover, the story is permeated with homosexual innuendo. Both Billy and Abel are inarticulate, both react violently in their respective crisis, and both are victimized….
The "Priest of the Sun" chapter is the most puzzling and haunting section of House Made of Dawn. The narrative voice is centered in Abel's consciousness as he is lying, delirious from alcohol and the brutal beating he received from Martinez, a violent and corrupt police officer, on the beach outside Los Angeles. Through multiple flashbacks Momaday reveals the psychological situation of a man who is lost between two worlds, torn apart culturally and spiritually, and drifting toward death. Abel is "reeling on the edge of the void," but he does not fall. The very moment when Abel seems to have exhausted all the possibilities of finding redemption holds the seed to his ultimate recovery. In the extremity of his situation Abel gains insights into the core of his native culture which lead him to a new understanding of his place in the scheme of things.
A gap of about six and a half years lies between the end of the opening chapter and the beginning of the next, "The Priest of the Sun." During this time Abel served his prison sentence for killing the albino and, after his release, settled in Los Angeles. However, the burden of the past proves too heavy and the pressure of life in the city too great to allow him integration into his new environment.
In this second chapter Momaday abandons a continuous plot line and operates instead with a device resembling the cutting technique employed in film. Whereas the series of flashbacks in the opening chapter showed a certain continuity by following Abel's growth, this characteristic is now absent. Without any apparent logical connections, fragmentary scenes from Abel's past alternate with blurred perceptions of his immediate environment. The flashbacks encompass scenes from Abel's childhood—Josie, Francisco, Vidal, and his departure from the village—from the trial and his stay in prison, and finally from his relationships with Milly and Angela.
The trial scene is of particular significance, for it is here that the issue of cultural relativism is addressed most explicitly. Abel registers the proceedings with detachment and a keen awareness that his case lies beyond his judges' frame of reference: "Word by word these men were disposing of him in language, their language, and they were making a bad job of it. They were strangely uneasy, full of hesitation, reluctance. He wanted to help them." Father Olguin, the Catholic priest in the pueblo, tries to explain Abel's perception of his victim as an evil spirit, admitting that the motivation behind and execution of the killing must ultimately resist comprehension by anyone outside the Jemez world. The nature of Abel's act is such that it cannot be assessed in terms of American law.
Abel states his own feelings on the issues with the conviction of someone who believes himself to be in accordance with the relevant law:
He had killed a white man. It was not a complicated thing, after all; it was very simple. It was the most natural thing in the world. Surely they could see that, these men who meant to dispose of him in words. They must know that he would kill the white man again, if he had the chance, that there would be no hesitation whatsoever. For he would know what the white man was, and he would kill him if he could. A man kills such an enemy if he can.
The tragedy is that Abel's law and the law of his judges are incompatible, resting on different cultural assumptions, and that it is in accordance with his judges' law that he is sentenced and sent to prison.
This passage of House Made of Dawn is reminiscent of the trial scene in Albert Camus's The Outsider. In fact, Momaday declared that he had Camus in mind when he wrote about Abel's trial. Although for different reasons—philosophical rather than cultural in nature—Meursault in The Outsider is unrepentant of his killing. He too experiences his case with a profound sense of detachment and isolation. Like Abel he "wasn't to have any say," and "his fate was to be decided out of hand." Yet he too feels the need to help his judges: "Quite often, interested as I was in what they had to say, I was tempted to put in a word, myself." In the end neither Abel nor Meursault can make himself understood.
The sequence of sense perceptions and flashbacks in "The Priest of the Sun" is connected by an underlying image pattern. The intensity of these images, the apparent disjunction of time elements, and the surface illogic—all typical of dreams and hallucinations—account for the haunting, nightmarish effect of this chapter. The reader gets only fragmentary impressions of the conflicts which contributed to Abel's decline. Most of the fragments remain obscure until Ben Benally's first-person narrative in "The Night Chanter" chapter, which gives a coherent account of Abel's life in the city. But in allowing the reader to enter Abel's consciousness in the final stage of his decline Momaday conveys not only the protagonist's confusion but also the possibility that social and cultural barriers are the sources of Abel's disintegration. On the symbolic level Abel's isolation is evoked by the image of the fence: "There was a fence on the bank before him; at his back there was a broad rocky beach, tilting to the sea. The fence was made of heavy wire mesh…. There were cans and bits of paper and broken glass against the fence;… he could almost touch it. He raised himself to reach for the fence and the pain struck him again." Abel's inability to reach let alone overcome the fence is symbolic of his failure to break through the barriers between him and the mainstream of society. After realizing the source of his dilemma during his vision of the men running after evil, Abel finds the strength to reach the fence. It is with its help that he manages to raise himself. Thus the fence symbolism stresses the theme of cultural segregation and at the same time emphasizes Abel's vision as the turning point of the novel.
It is not only the fragmentary structure which precludes any easy interpretation of this crucial chapter. Equally complex is Momaday's use of imagery; only when the seemingly unrelated symbols are combined in a coherent pattern does the full meaning of the beach scene surface. I have argued above that Abel has been suffering from the lack of stable identity, as evidenced by his position as an outsider in the community, his inability to identify with tribal rituals and ceremonies, and his failure to relate on a level of intimacy to his female partners. The process of degeneration resulting from this lack of stability reaches its climax in Abel's struggle with the murderous police officer and subsequently with death itself. The symbols which surround these events suggest that what is actually happening in this powerfully conceived scene is a rite of passage in which Abel progresses from lack of understanding to knowledge, from chaos through ritual death to rebirth.
The scene's setting is in itself suggestive. Abel is "lying in a shallow depression in which there were weeds and small white stones and tufts of long grey grass." It is a common feature of initiation ceremonies that the initiate is placed into a shallow grave from which he eventually rises as a new being. Moreover, the scene happens at night. Darkness, according to Eliade, signifies in such rituals "the beyond, the 'infernal regions.'" The beating Abel receives results from his attempt to get even with Martinez, who has tyrannized him. On the symbolic level this beating represents the initiatory mutilations which are frequent features of rites of passage. Abel's injuries are numerous: "His hands were broken, and he could not move them. Some of his fingers were stuck together with blood, and the blood was dry and black;… there was blood in his throat and mouth." These injuries point to his symbolic death, and it can hardly be a coincidence that amputations of fingers and the knocking out of teeth are common initiatory tortures.
That Abel is lying on the beach, close to water, is of further importance in this context; although there is no suggestion that he actually comes into contact with the sea, he is closely associated with it and the small, silver-sided fish which dwell off the California coast. Water is traditionally a symbol of potential life, of creation and fertility, the element from which all cosmic manifestations emerge and to which they return. Water creates and dissolves. According to Eliade:
Immersion in water symbolizes a return to the pre-formal, a total regeneration, a new birth, for immersion means a dissolution of forms, a reintegration into the formlessness of pre-existence; and emerging from the water is a repetition of the act of creation in which form was first expressed. Every contact with water implies regeneration: first, because dissolution is succeeded by a "new birth," and then because immersion fertilizes, increases the potential of life and of creation. In initiation rituals, water confers a "new birth."
Abel's proximity to and association with water, then, suggest the dissolution of his state of estrangement and the potential for rebirth into his tribal culture.
Abel's connection with the fish reinforces the meaning of his transformation:
There is a small silversided fish that is found along the coast of southern California. In the spring and summer it spawns on the beach during the first three hours after each of the three high tides following the highest tide. These fish come by the hundreds from the sea. They hurl themselves upon the land and writhe in the light of the moon, the moon, the moon; they writhe in the light of the moon. They are among the most helpless creatures on the face of the earth.
The meaning of this seemingly unimportant descriptive passage becomes gradually apparent through the affiliation of Abel with the fish. Like them he is lying on the beach. He too is a helpless creature removed from the natural element of his native culture. In his delirious state Abel's thoughts constantly return to the fish, "His mind boggled and withdrew … and it came around again to the fishes." He feels a kind of sympathy for the "small silversided fishes spawned mindlessly in correlation to the phase of the moon and the rise and fall of the tides. The thought of it made him sad, filled him with sad, unnamable longing and wonder." Finally Abel is directly identified with the fish, "He had the sense that his whole body was shaking violently, tossing and whipping, flopping like a fish."
The fish imagery not only reflects Abel's suffering but also indicates the upward movement in his development after he has become aware of his situation. When Abel raises the energy to fight against and eventually escape the drift towards death, the fish too have found their way back to safety in the depth of the sea, as Abel will eventually return home to his tribal community: "And far out in the night where nothing else was, the fishes lay out on the black water, holding still against all the force and motion of the sea; or close to the surface, darting and rolling and spinning like lures, they played in the track of the moon."
The most complex symbol Momaday employs in this chapter is that of the moon. The common denominator in a number of scenes throughout the novel, it brings the various episodes together in Abel's and the reader's minds. The moon, of course, is also associated with the sea and the initiation ritual. Most important, however, it is Abel's realization of the cosmic significance of the moon which brings about his new understanding of a universal order. To appreciate the subtlety of this image pattern, we need to scrutinize in detail its various functions.
The connection of the moon with initiation rituals has already been mentioned. The moon's reappearance after her three-day "death" has traditionally been read as a symbol of rebirth. The Juan Capistrano Indians of California, according to James Frazer [as quoted by Eliade], declared, "As the moon dieth and cometh to life again, so we also, having to die, will again rise." In a number of shamanistic initiation rites the novice is "broken in pieces" in analogy to the phases of the moon. Among the Plains Indians it was customary to focus one's eyes on the moon in order to secure help in a moment of distress. The Pueblo medicine-water chief implored the moon to give him power to see disease. With this information the prominence of the moon image in Abel's consciousness becomes more readily intelligible.
However, it is not just the meanings of regeneration, spiritual assistance, and clearer vision which make the moon such a revealing image of Abel's struggle for recovery. His rise to a securer mode of being is effected above all by his growing awareness of the moon as a unifying and controlling force in the universe. Eliade pointed out [in Patterns on Comparative Religion] that "the myths of 'quest' and of 'initiation trials' reveal, in artistic or dramatic form, the actual act by which the mind gets beyond a conditioned, piecemeal universe, swinging between opposites, to return to the fundamental oneness that existed before creation." An important step towards Abel's understanding of cosmic unity lies in his realization that the moon controls the sea as well as the land: "Why should Abel think of the fishes? He could not understand the sea; it was not of his world. It was an enchanted thing, too, for it lay under the spell of the moon. It bent to the moon, and the moon made a bright, shimmering course upon it" (italics added). This recognition of the moon's universal power to order and control the universe reflects Abel's growing reattunement to American Indian thought.
In the Southwest, as elsewhere among tribal peoples, the moon functions together with the sun as the measure of the yearly cycle in the life of the community. The Santa Clara Pueblos believe that "the function of the sun, the moon, stars, the Milky Way, and other such features, is to make the earth inhabitable for human beings" [Edgar L. Hewett and Bertha P. Dutton, The Pueblo Indian World, 1945]. This idea has practical consequences for everyday Indian life. The belief, for instance, that the moon exerts a strong influence on the growth of plants has immediate impact on the process of sowing and reaping. At the beginning of House Made of Dawn, Momaday refers to the moon's influence on the communal work in the fields: "The townsmen work all summer in the fields. When the moon is full, they work at night with ancient, handmade plows and hoes." The holiness attributed to the moon by American Indians is alluded to in the "red and yellow symbols of the sun and the moon" which decorate the lectern in the Indian church in Los Angeles. Eliade noted that "the moon shows man his true human condition; that in a sense man looks at himself, and finds himself anew in the life of the moon." If one subscribes to this idea, then Abel's rediscovery of his native heritage appears to be a result of his reattunement to a lunar rhythm.
Abel's understanding of the secrets of lunar control of the universe also arises from recollections and reinterpretations of some of his earlier hunting experiences. The image of the moon functions as an associative link to other scenes where animal imagery mirrors Abel's distress. One of these instances, the parallel between him and the fish, has already been discussed. The eagle hunt is another example: "Bound and helpless, his eagle seemed drab and shapeless in the moonlight, too large and ungainly for flight." A third event of this kind occurs in one of Abel's recollections of his childhood. It is the hunting scene in which he recovers a shot water bird:
He took it up in his hands and it was heavy and warm and the feathers about its keel were hot and sticky with blood. He carried it out into the moonlight, and its bright black eyes, in which no terror was, were wide of him, wide of the river and the land, level and hard upon the ring of the moon in the southern sky.
The depiction of the dying bird strikingly resembles the description of Abel's own suffering in the face of death: "He awoke coughing; there was blood in his throat and mouth. He was shuddering with cold and pain…. He peered into the night: all around the black land against the star-bright, moon-bright sky."
In these instances the moon imagery connects Abel's present and past experiences. In recollecting the dying water bird, with its fearless black eyes, Abel can establish a link between his own desperate state and the reaction of the animal. The bird is part of the complexity of nature and is by nature without the fear of death. Abel too had a natural attitude towards death when, as a boy, he was still close to the Indian understanding of the universe. His loss of identification with his heritage has led him away from this natural view of death and contributed to the intense fears which are haunting him now.
The moon, then, is strongly suggestive of a hope for rebirth. This is an entirely new perspective for Abel. If one recalls the scene in which he destroys the eagle because he felt pity and shame, it is obvious that Abel did not share in the traditional belief of many hunting communities that the spirit of the animal survives and returns in a new physical manifestation. If he had been attuned to the rituals of the hunters, as old man Francisco was on his bear hunt, he could have killed the eagle in the appropriate ritual way, with a sense of gratitude and appreciation rather than remorse.
Momaday uses a number of devices to reinforce further the connection between Abel and the moon. In two instances the course of the moonlight on the water functions as a bridge, and in the following passage a flock of birds serves as a link: "Then they [the birds] were away, and he had seen how they craned their long slender necks to the moon, ascending slowly into the far reaches of the winter night. They made a dark angle on the sky, acute, perfect; and for one moment they lay out like an omen on the bright fringe of a cloud."
Abel's recognition of the moon as a vital influence shows that he is beginning to return to the traditional Indian concept of the universe. The following passage, which comprises the three images of sea, moon, and fish, unites bird and fish imagery and thus widens the scope of Abel's vision to a universal dimension:
And somewhere beyond the cold and the fog and the pain there was the black and infinite sea, bending to the moon, and there was the cold white track of the moon on the water. And far out in the night where nothing else was, the fishes lay out in the black waters, holding still against all the force and motion of the sea;… And far away inland there were great gray geese riding under the moon.
Land and sea, man and animal are related in their connection with the moon. This notion coincides with the general idea of the interrelatedness of all elements in the Indian universe. By growing aware of this idea Abel discovers that he too is tied up in the totality of creation and has a legitimate place in it.
Another major step towards restoration and initiation into his tribal culture is Abel's vision of the runners after evil. Dreams and visions have always been of utmost significance in the lives of American Indian peoples. John Skinner commented on the religious nature of dreams in the Indian world: "Man succeeds first in his dreams…. man becomes in dreams and words before he becomes in deeds. A man becomes his successful dream, not his successful deed" ["On Indian Poetry and Religion," Little Square Review, Nos. 5-6 (1968)]. Abel's experience must be seen in the light of this statement. In his vision he catches, for the first time, a glimpse of the meaning of tribal ritual as he becomes aware of its importance for the relationship between the individual and the universe:
The runners after evil ran as water runs, deep in the channel, in the way of least resistance, no resistance. His skin crawled with excitement; he was overcome with longing and loneliness, for suddenly he saw the crucial sense in their going, of old men in white leggings running after evil in the night. 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.
The vision confronts Abel with the ritualistic practices the elders of the tribe employ to maintain control over the supernatural. The race is connected with the ceremony of clearing the irrigation ditches in the spring. It is an imitation of water running through the channels, a magic bid for the vital supply of rain, and a ritual act to prevent the harvest from being influenced by evil powers. This vision modifies Abel's view of his own actions in the past; he realizes that, although his destruction of the albino as a source of evil was in accordance with tribally sanctioned practices, Pueblo religion offers nonviolent ways of controlling supernatural powers. The ritualistic expression of human creativity through words in songs and prayers and through motion in dance and ceremonial races is the central instrument by which the Indian maintains a balance between himself and the universe.
Abel's growing understanding of the cosmic order in terms of his tribal heritage leads him to the recognition that his estrangement from the center of Indian life has been the cause of his dilemma. This diagnosis of the source of his "disease" puts him on the road to recovery. Abel's previous inability to make sense of his situation is indicated in a flashback to his departure from the village, which is the continuation of the corresponding passage in the opening chapter: "He tried to think where the trouble had begun, what the trouble was. There was trouble; he could admit that to himself, but he had no real insight into his own situation. Maybe, certainly, that was the trouble; but he had no way of knowing."
Now in his hallucinatory state the insight for which he had searched so long suddenly comes to him: "He had lost his place. he had been long ago at the center, had known where he was, had lost his way, had wandered to the end of the earth, was even now reeling on the edge of the void." This recognition epitomizes the entire development of the novel up to this point. Abel realizes that the Indian world of his boyhood is the only place where he can find a meaningful existence and an identity. As in a vision quest Abel receives a sign which shows him the way to personal wholeness.
Once Abel has by means of his subconscious gained insight into the meaning of ritual and the controlling forces in the universe, he is ready to establish a formal union with his tribal heritage through the ceremony of the Night Chant which Ben Benally conducts for him. The changes he undergoes as a result of his vision enable him to make the "spiritual commitment" of submitting himself to the healing powers of the Night Chant. In doing so, he shows his newfound trust in the effectiveness of Indian ceremonials. In the Night Chant ceremony Abel, as the "patient," remains passive yet, but it is the first step toward his own conduction of a ceremony—the funeral rite after the death of his grandfather—and toward his participation in the ceremonial race that ends the novel.
The result of the Night Chant is the restoration of the wholeness Abel had lost in his crisis of identity and through his exposure to the disruptive forces of incompatible cultural patterns. American Indian ritual and song aim at the preservation of order and at the integration of the individual into the larger context of his environment. [In her "The Sacred Hoop: A Contemporary Perspective on American Indian Literature," an essay appearing in Abraham Chapman's Literature of the American Indians] Paula Allan remarked that through ceremonial practices "the isolated individualistic personality is shed and the person is restored to conscious harmony with the universe." The Night Chant, then, reestablishes Abel's inner balance and equilibrium with the world around him. In order to achieve this harmony Abel must regain his physical and mental wholeness and his power of the word.
Physical disintegration is the outward sign of Abel's inner conflict: "He had loved his body. It had been hard and quick and beautiful; it had been useful, quickly and surely responsive to his mind and will;… [now] his body was mangled and racked with pain. His body, like his mind, had turned on him; it was his enemy." The line "restore my body for me" in the chant is directed at the return of Abel's physical strength and his control over his body. The line "restore my mind for me" aims at the restitution of Abel's mental wholeness and the coordination between his body and spirit.
Abel's lack of articulation stood at the center of his personal and cultural isolation. It was a syndrome of his estrangement from the oral tradition without which he remained cut off from his tribal heritage. Gladys A. Reichard stressed the fact that "the 'word' … is of great ritualistic value, and in order to be complete, man must control language. The better his control and the more extensive his knowledge, the greater his well-being." The desire to regain power over the word finds expression in the request "restore my voice for me."
Finally, it is necessary to bring back the power of motion Abel lost in the course of his decline. Reichard pointed out the importance of the power of motion for the Navajos: "Man may breathe and speak, his organs may function well, but without the power of motion he is incomplete, useless." The lines "Restore my feet for me, / Restore my legs for me, / Restore my body for me, / … Happily I recover. / … Happily I go forth. / … Being as it used to be long ago, may I walk" call for the return of Abel's power of motion. The race at the end of the novel shows that the request has been granted.
Abel's return to the Jemez world proceeds from a visionary, subconscious level through a ritualistic to a rational level. His recovery, which originates in his hallucinatory visions and is furthered through Ben's performance of the Night Chant, continues after his return to the pueblo. There he finds Francisco dying. For six days the old medicine man struggles against death, uttering memories of his life during the hours of dawn. Abel listens to his voice but initially fails to understand the meaning of his words. And yet the "voice of his memory was whole and clear and growing like the dawn." It reminds Abel of the secrets of the solar calendar which his grandfather had taught him many years ago, of the ceremonial races and festivities of Jemez, and, in the story of Francisco's bear hunt, of the traditional hunting ways and rituals. Francisco's final recollections seem to refresh Abel's knowledge of the ancient ways of his people; in the end they begin to make sense and carry meaning, for on the morning of the seventh day Abel for the first time conducts a ceremony: "… he knew what had to be done." Strictly adhering to the timeless practices of his tribe, he prepares Francisco for the funeral. In doing so he takes over the role of the dead medicine man.
Significantly, Abel's return to his tribal tradition takes place only a short time before dawn. This event is part of a coherent pattern of dawn images which permeate the novel. The book opens and closes with Abel running across the land at dawn. When Abel is lying on the beach after his fight with Martinez, struggling against death, he can hear the "sound of the city at night, ticking like a clock toward the dawn." If one takes the symbol of dawn to stand for rebirth, a new beginning, and creation, the reference to dawn at this point anticipates Abel's resurrection.
The connection between the symbol of dawn and the idea of creation is suggested in the following passage about Abel's attempt to bring forth a creation song: "He would have sung lowly of the first world, of fire and flood, and of the emergence of dawn from the hills." The first world, fire, and flood are references to the creation myths of many southwestern Indian tribes, such as the Hopi, Zuni, and Navajos. They hold in common the belief that they emerged to their present land after a migration through several underground worlds, in which they encountered floods or fire. Dawn marks the moment of emergence from the underworld, the beginning of tribal life, and the creation of tribal culture. Every new morning "is the moment of invigoration, when new life awakens and all creation is astir—it is creation itself, an 'in the beginning.'… From the dawn comes generation and birth" [Hartley Burr Alexander, The World's Rim: Great Mysteries of the North American Indians].
At the center of the dawn image pattern stands the following passage, which encompasses the historical migration of a tribe, its cultural crisis, and its potential regeneration:
Man came down the ladder to the plain a long time ago. It was a slow migration, though he came only from the caves in the canyons and the tops of the mesas nearby. There are low, broken walls on the tabletops and smoke-blackened caves in the cliffs, where still there are metates and broken bowls and ancient ears of corn, as if the prehistoric civilization had gone out among the hills for a little while and would return; and then everything would be restored to an older age, and time would have returned upon itself and a bad dream of invasion and change would have been dissolved in an hour before the dawn.
This short passage [from The Way to Rainy Mountain] encapsulates the essence of House Made of Dawn: the novel shows how a traditional Indian community which is threatened in its cultural survival by an encroaching alien world is struggling to defend itself against this influence. The demand for strict adherence to traditional practices leads to pressure within the tribe and thus aggravates the crisis. This pressure may result, as in Abel's case, in identity conflicts among young Indians, who, though rooted in their cultural background, cannot ignore the reality of a modern age brought about by an alien culture. Their need to develop their individuality within the tribal community must find the support of their elders.
In the passage quoted above Momaday puts a cultural crisis in its wider historical and mythological context. He points out that the archaeological remnants of previous Indian generations only seem to indicate the extinction of an ancient civilization, because Pueblo culture has survived to the present. In referring to the cyclical concept of time Momaday demonstrates his belief in the inherent potential of American Indian cultures to survive historical crises. That the new rise of the old culture should take place an hour before the dawn seems unimportant in the narrow context of this passage. In the larger context of the novel, however, it becomes most significant: Abel's celebration of the funeral rites for his grandfather "a while … before the dawn" is not only the moment when he finds his way back to his tribe but also, from a historical perspective, the point where Jemez culture gains new impetus in its struggle to survive a period of cultural encroachment and oppression. Like the Bahkyush people who had once journeyed along the edge of oblivion and recovered to become eagle hunters and rainmakers, Abel, who is associated with this group as an eagle hunter, also returned from the edge of the void to become a dawn runner. As the Kiowas' migration from the north of the American continent to the south and east was "a journey toward the dawn" which "led to a golden age," the positive outcome of Abel's migration between two worlds can be seen as a hopeful beginning of a new period of Pueblo culture.
In much the same way as the reference to the cyclical concept of time indicates the potentially positive resolution of the historical crisis in Indian culture, the cyclical structure of the novel justifies a hopeful reading of Abel's future. At the close of the book Abel returns to the personal wholeness and harmony with the universe which were his main strengths at its beginning. Indeed the cyclical concept of tribal history and the cyclical movement of Abel's personal history interconnect at the end. Abel, whose dilemma is the product of historical crisis in Indian culture, overcomes his identity conflict and symbolically resolves the communal crisis of his tribe. Momaday's own comment on House Made of Dawn points in this direction: "I see the novel as a circle. It ends where it begins and it's informed with a kind of thread that runs through it and holds everything together" ["An Interview with N. Scott Momaday," Puerto del Sol 12, No. 1 (1973)] This race, then, is a race for identity, both personal and communal. It finds its final resolution in the ceremonial race which shows Abel reconciled with his native culture and the Indian universe.
Many alienated characters in recent American fiction—Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Faulkner's Joe Christmas in Light in August, and John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit Run—are running away from something and have no viable alternative to which they can turn. Abel is unique in that his running manifests an act of integration, not a symbol of estrangement. Momaday himself suggested this reading of the symbol by referring to its cultural context: "The man running is fitting himself into the basic motion of the universe…. That is simply a symbolism which prevails in the southwestern Indian world." In ["The Morality of Indian Hating"] Momaday explained this ceremonial race which is "run at dawn before the spring cleaning of the Jemez irrigation ditches":
It is a stick race: the runners imitate the Cloud People who fill the arroyos with life-giving rain, and keep in motion, with only their feet, a "stick-ball" which represents the moving drift of the water's edge. The first race each year comes in February, and then the dawn is clear and cold, and the runners breathe steam. It is a long race, and it is neither won nor lost. It is an expression of the soul in the ancient terms of sheer physical exertion. To watch those runners is to know that they draw with every step some elemental power which resides at the core of the earth and which, for all our civilized ways, is lost upon us who have lost the art of going in the flow of things.
Abel's running at dawn, singing the words of the Night Chant, marks the end of his struggle for identity. He has finally returned to his place in the house made of dawn. He has found the right words to articulate himself and he has a vision of the appropriate path to wholeness. The novel's final scene is charged with mythological overtones: according to a Pueblo emergence myth, Iatik, the corn mother, after creating the present world, called on the people to emerge from the previous world underground. As they entered their new environment they were blind. Then, the story [as related by Richard Erdoes in The Rain Dance People] goes on to explain, "Iatik lined them up in a row facing east and made the sun come up for the first time in this new world to shine upon them. And when its rays shone upon the eyes of the people, they were opened and they could see."
In the primordial setting of dawn over the Jemez Valley, Abel too "could see at last without having to think. He could see the canyons and the mountains and the sky. He could see the rain and the river and the fields beyond. He could see the dark hills at dawn." His new vision and voice are expressions of his communion with his native tradition and raise the hope that he may become the living link between the ancient past and a promising future for his tribal culture.
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