This section contains 2,320 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Interview by N. Scott Momaday with Dagmar Weiler
SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday: Story Teller," in The Journal of Ethnic Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 118-26.
In the following excerpt from an interview conducted in April, 1986, Weiler and Momaday discuss various aspects of House Made of Dawn.
[Weiler]: I'd like to talk very briefly about your position as an Indian writer. Last semester, I took an undergraduate class in which we read Leslie Silko's Ceremony and Storyteller, and I remember that some of the students had problems with those works. We also read House Made of Dawn, which I think was the last novel, and they found difficulty there, too. They asked the question: "Where is the message [in House Made of Dawn] comparable to that of an angry woman like Leslie Silko, or that found in some of the poems by Joy Harjo and what enables them to take a stand?" The students seemed to be missing this. I remember two years ago in an interview you said that you didn't make social comments. In connection with this "Indian" issue, how do you see yourself?
Momaday on the Character Abel:
Abel is commonplace in the sense that he is a kind of, a kind of—I can't think of the word I want—he represents a great many people of his generation, the Indian who returns from the war, the Second World War. He is an important figure in the whole history of the American experience in this country. It represents such a dislocation of the psyche in our time. Almost no Indian of my generation or of Abel's generation escaped that dislocation, that sense of having to deal immediately with, not only with the traditional world, but with the other world which was placed over the traditional world so abruptly and with great violence. Abel's generation is a good one to write about, simply because it's a tragic generation. It is not the same, the generation after Abel did not have the same experience, nor the one before. So it is, in some sense, the logical one to deal with in literature.
N. Scott Momaday, in an interview with Laura Coltelli, in her Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, 1990.
[Momaday]: I don't see myself as an Indian writer. I don't know what that means. I am an Indian, and I am a writer, but I don't just want to say "Indian writer" or to talk about Indian literature. I don't know what that means, exactly, and I don't identify with it at all.
You did a review of several books in 1971. You talked then about Vine DeLoria and other Indian writers. I had the impression you criticized them somewhat for stressing their Indian stand. Let me quote this. You said: "As far as I can see, the Indians who are giving the best account of themselves at present are doing so without any particular regard to movement as such or to the ways in which they are accounted for by the others." So you would say that first of all you are a storyteller, a writer who happens to be an Indian?
Or I'm an Indian who happens to be a storyteller. I don't order those things in any particular way. I am an Indian and a writer, but I'm a lot of other things as well. They are all very important to me.
It just struck me that you have had many discussions with these young people. They were looking, especially in the early 70s, to Red Power, and these young students were expecting something out of, for example, House Made of Dawn. You know, what the Indian should do, and they didn't find it there. Maybe they missed something. They immediately realized or thought that the Albino was the symbol for the White man. It was easier with an angry woman like Silko. It was much more out in the open: the social, political, and economic problems. You stress the fact that you are a poet, but I would like to talk about the prose. "The Way to Rainy Mountain": it appeared as an essay; it has been anthologized.
Yes, the introduction.
The introduction appeared as an essay: you published it as a book together with short Kiowa tales, and later the priest Tosamah uses it in House Made of Dawn. Is there a difference between the three forms? Would you say the impact is different?
Well, yes. I would say that it functions as the introduction to The Way to Rainy Mountain. In House Made of Dawn, it functions in a different way because it tells us something about one of the characters in the novel. It is the delineation of Tosoma's character, among other things, so it's completely different.
That is one thing that I had problems with—that Tosamah was telling the story. House Made of Dawn fascinates me. It is disturbing—
—mainly because there are many beautiful voices. Let's talk about Father Olguin and Angela, or maybe not so much about Father Olguin but Frey Nicolas. How did Nicolas appear in House Made of Dawn? Did you rely on old manuscripts? Is he right out of old missionary ledgers?
I didn't research the book at all. It just came right out of my imagination. I don't know how I happened to get the idea of the character of Nicolas. He's very much in place because he's a missionary, and the missionaries, especially the Catholic missionaries in pueblos, are very important. I think they have, in over four hundred years, made a great difference—. Well, I'm not sure I want to say that. I don't know if they have made a difference or not, but they have become a kind of institution in the pueblos over that period of time, and they are interesting, you know, the priests and the pueblos. I got to thinking about their lives and what they must feel, being the representatives of the Catholic church to what in the past certainly had been a pagan society. They must have felt very isolated, and I wanted a character that would represent that sort of dichotomy in pueblo life. Frey Nicolas was the answer for me. He could occupy that position of an intermediary in the pueblo and articulate some of the conflicts that informed the pueblo world. In a sense, Father Olguin comes as a later representative of that same conflict; Angela comes as a later representative of that conflict. So it seemed that such a character would be interesting and, indeed, I enjoyed working with both Frey Nicolas and Father Olguin.
I think many of us find it fascinating that all the voices are distinctive. Nicolas, for example, in the first entry: the voice is that of [a] missionary who is still in concert with his belief. It's "They will, Lord" and "Have mercy" and "I pray." And later he falls apart. There is also this beautiful scene—"Dear Lord," I think he is talking about Francisco. He remembers watching this boy, and what fascinated me is that, by the time you tell this story, this man is dead. But still, through your style, you make him come alive. We can hear him.
And that is why it seems as if you opened a ledger and copied it.
Well, that's wonderful. I'm glad that you have that sense of it because that was my intention.
You mentioned Angela. I have a problem there. Angela seems to me to be the only one whose voice is not convincing. What is Angela's role?
Angela's role is to be a kind of foil to Abel. She represents the antithesis of the pueblo world. Yet, she and Abel are able to relate to one another on one level although they are so diametrically opposed in most of their cultural attitudes. So she enables us, I think, to see the pueblo world and Abel in a particular way, a way in which you would not otherwise be able to see him in his traditional context.
I think my criticism may derive from a comparison of Angela and Milly. Later in the book we hear Milly talk. It is a wonderful, almost Faulknerian passage as she remembers her life on the farm. It is printed in italics, but we hear her talk. Her voice is "listening"; she has her own style. Angela's is somewhat weird, a blurring sound, a compulsive cycle of sexual exploits; Angela is there, and then she vanishes. What about Milly? Would you say that while Angela is disturbing Abel, Milly has a human touch? I noticed that Milly is almost the only one Abel is communicating with. He hardly speaks throughout the whole book, except to Milly.
Yes, I would say that. I think that Milly is much more self-less than Angela. Angela is motivated by things that are deep within her that we don't know much about and she is strange, a stranger, as you suggest. Milly is not that. She is concerned about Abel and she, I think it is fair to say, wants to help him. He's certainly aware of that. He's able to perceive that she means him well, so he responds to her in a very sympathetic way. And, you know, Angela's something else. It's a sexual relationship, and I think that Angela does not mean him well, and he understands that, so he is wary of her. In a way, he plays the game with Angela. He understands that she requires a certain response on his part and he makes it. He's willing to make it; he's willing to go that far. But with Milly, I think, the feelings are much more genuine and deeper.
The priest of the sun is one character who deals explicitly with the problem of language. He uses the introduction to "Rainy Mountain." I think he accuses other people of taking the word and convoluting it, overusing it.
He says, in effect, that this is what the White man does. This is the Western tradition as far as language is concerned. They overdo it. They go too far. He talks about this in the sermon "According to John." He lets us know it's important.
To exaggerate a bit, it is Tosamah whose speech seems to be a little convoluted.
Of course. He's a trickster figure.
This is a wonderful irony.
Thank you. I agree.
There is this hipster language, such as you hear in caricatures of almost all Black preachers.
Yes. He's a trickster and he takes advantage of language in the situation and he's bright. Much of what he says, I think, is provocative and true. I think of his sermon as being a wonderful kind of commentary on language, even in his own ironic terms. What he says is thoughtful and makes sense.
What is his position in the Indian world as created in the story we have been discussing?
What is Tosamah's position? Well, I think of Tosamah as being uprooted and lost. He and Abel are poised somewhere apart from their traditional world. They are also apart from the other world, but they have fashioned an existence in that no man's land. And Tosamah has done it better than most people have because he's shrewd and a cynic and he takes advantage. He exists. He wears masks. He knows how to take a bad situation and make the best of it.
Tosamah's voice seems to be the one that will be out there, the one person who will be heard by the White man as well as by uprooted Indians in the city.
Well, perhaps that's true. Tosamah speaks the White man's language. He is able to turn the tables, as it were. He takes, after all, one of the great, classic doctrines of the Western world, The Gospel According to St. John, and he twists it around so that he condemns the whole White culture. It's a wonderful thing to do. It's a tour de force. In a way, it's fair to say that the White man, if he listens to any of these characters, will hear Tosamah. The Indian, if he hears any of these characters, will probably be most receptive to Ben Benally. When Ben Benally talks of bone craft to the traditional world and sees the sunrise on the red mesas, that's the reality of the Indian. Tosamah does both things. He speaks for both worlds, and he does it eloquently, you know. But you never know quite where he is in relation to the reality of any given moment. He wears masks.
That's right. I found him one of the most disturbing figures, and that's one of the reasons why I asked about him. The first time I read it, I thought of the story in Rainy Mountain and Tosamah's voice. It's not right. After his ranting, there is that mythical voice, and I thought, why this man? Earlier you mentioned the traditional form of the novel.
Today? I don't remember. What did I say?
I'm thinking of the plot, the straight story line, the main protagonist. Although Abel may be at the center of House Made of Dawn. I don't think it is really Abel's story. All the characters have their own stories, even if they appear only once briefly, like Milly. But they are evocative, even the dead man because he is so articulate and because he has his own voice. You can imagine his whole story. In the structure of the novel and the prologue we see Abel running—does the ritual of running have a healing effect on Abel?
He runs again at the end.
I think in the novel it says rather explicitly that his running provides him some of the rehabilitation. He is coming to terms again with his traditional world in the act of running. The question of whether or not he makes it, is open. I mean a lot of people want to know what happens after the last page, and I don't know. I don't know what happens to Abel finally, and I don't want to know.
This section contains 2,320 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)