House Made of Dawn | Paula Gunn Allen

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of House Made of Dawn.
This section contains 3,352 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
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Paula Gunn Allen

SOURCE: "Bringing Home the Fact: Tradition and Continuity in the Imagination," in Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 570-78.

Allen is a Pueblo Laguna and Sioux poet, critic, essayist, novelist, and editor. In the following excerpt, she discusses the inclusion of Navajo and Pueblo beliefs in House Made of Dawn, arguing that Momaday's focus in the novel is sickness, healing, and harmony.

As familiarity with the Bible makes Western culture accessible to the understanding, the basic texts of the Pueblo or the Navajo make their cultures, especially their literature, accessible to scholarly interpretation. It is a nearly hopeless task to explicate House Made of Dawn without such a familiarity, though an understanding of historical processes in the Southwest and of Western attitudes and lore is also important to this task. The basic meanings important to these American Indian systems are carried over into the book. To be unaware of the meanings of these symbols and their accompanying structures is to miss the greater part of the significance of the novel.

It is not impossible to read this novel when one is not conversant with the underlying symbolic structure, but the reading will result in confusion and distortion of what the writer was up to. It will also probably result in political distortions that will have an ultimately disastrous effect socially, for such is the power of the imagination over our more conscious activities. The symbols are there; the deep meanings are there. It is necessary to bring these factors into consciousness when studying the novel in order for them to have the ultimate curative or restorative effect which is the basic purpose of that book. For if elements improperly understood are imagined with sufficient care, a distortion will occur in our relationships with those misimagined persons. If House Made of Dawn is seen only as the chronicle of a man "fallen between two chairs," the impact on Indian men and women will continue to be that of victimization. For as we perceive, so we behave; and as we behave, so we create.

In order to imagine Abel as he is, the symbol-structure of the novel must be carefully examined. The underlying assumptions about the nature of reality and of the human being's place within it must be imagined truly; for Abel is not so much a man caught between two cultures and two orientations to reality as he is a medicine person who does not understand the nature of his being or of his proper function. The novel, in its structure and in its symbolic content, carefully makes this clear, though the meaning of Abel's experience is not evident unless the beliefs of the Pueblo and Navajo are taken into account. Momaday makes this point through the eyes of Angela St. John, through the eyes of Benally, and through the peculiar character of Tosamah as it contrasts with that of Abel. The identity of the protagonist is drawn through the author's personal history, through the history of the Bahkyush and through the journals of Fray Nicolás; it is apparent in the peculiar interweaving of names and places and, especially, in the sequence of events as they occur in the novel.

House Made of Dawn is an act of the imagination designed to heal; it is about the relationship between good and evil, and the proper place of a certain human being within that relationship. It is not about redemption, for redemption is not a Pueblo (indeed, not an American Indian) notion; it is not about a fall from grace. It is about sickness and disharmony, and about health and harmony. The title is the clue: "House Made of Dawn" is the first line of the chant sung on the third day of the Navajo healing ceremony called the Night Chant. It is the first prayer of the third morning ritual; the third day is designated the Day of the West. The prayer appears in the third chapter of the novel. Narrated by the Navajo friend of Abel, Ben Benally, this chapter is concerned with Abel's sojourn in Los Angeles, the major relocation center for southwestern Indians on the west coast. The prayer is sung in the Night Chant as part of the Purification section of the ceremony, and is accompanied by a rite in which a set of eight prayer offerings "sacred to gods of the shrine known as the House Made of Dawn (in the distant canyon of Tségihi)" are used to bless or purify the patient and are then sacrificed or offered to the sun. Tségihi is an ancient Pueblo ruin, and the controlling metaphor of the book can be said to be the relationship of the sun to Abel. The sun forms the central issue of life at Walatowa. It is the race which is performed each year at spring equinox as an offering of the strength of the people to the sun and as a source of strength and power among them for the coming planting season which frames the book. The peyote ceremony in Los Angeles is a sun rite, and so is one of the purification rituals which Abel must go through. It is also significant that a patient participating in a Night Chant offers himself on the last morning of his healing to the rising sun, singing these words:

       Thus will it be beautiful.
       Thus walk in beauty, my grandchild.

As these words are sung, the patient faces east and breathes in the breath of dawn.

In addition to these clues, Momaday has structured his novel in ways that are directly analogous to the major Chantway structure. The events of twelve days are chronicled, and each of these is divided into subsections that consist of flashbacks, events of that day in the past, and events surrounding the main action on that day.

According to Leland C. Wyman [in his 1975 Beautyway: A Navajo Ceremonial], there are ten or twelve more-or-less standard rituals within a major Chantway. These can vary with circumstances and the particular Chantway selected for healing the particular illness troubling the patient. The major variants which appear in House Made of Dawn include the consecration of the hogan (which does not appear in the novel until Abel returns home), a short singing, a setting-out of prayer offerings, a purification, an offering ceremony (to attract the Holy People), a cleansing, an all-night singing, a shock rite, blackening and ash-blowing, and the final dawn procedure. A feature of a healing is that various ceremonies may be tried experimentally; it seems that this may be the case with Abel. Another practice of note is the fact that the completion of a ceremonial healing may be delayed for years. Not surprisingly within a Native American framework seven years pass as Abel seeks his appropriate ceremonial and is finally healed.

In addition to the ceremonial structure, there is a layer-structure that is Pueblo at the deepest layer, Christian at the next layer, and modern Anglo at the topmost layer. Or, to phrase it another way, the book at its most superficial layer is about a displaced Indian caught between the old and the new; it is, in that sense, a sociological novel. In its middle layer it is concerned with religious conflict, that conflict which began with the first Franciscan missionaries in the Southwest and continues on to the present in the person of John Big Bluff Tosamah, missionary and Priest of the Sun. Its deepest layer is Indian: the tradition, the knowledge, the deep values of the Indian on a continent whose land and creatures are also Indian, but whose surface has been overlaid with a thin epidermis of European society. In its branching and circularity, the novel operates structurally in a way similar to the Navajo Chantway system, and in its careful divisioning it follows the number structure of 4-7-6 and 12, which are the major ceremonial numbers of the American Indian and are the classic divisions of a major chantway….

As the mythic structure of Moby Dick is the Bible, so the mythic structure of House Made of Dawn is Beautyway and Night Chant. As there are departures from the source in the former, so there are departures from the text in the latter. This is the nature of continuity: to bring those structures and symbols which retain their essential meaning forward into a changed context in such a way that the metaphysical point remains true, in spite of apparently changed circumstances. It is, perhaps, a manifestation of that law which demands that literature have a quality that appeals to humankind universally: Surely there is no more universal a theme than that of the play between good and evil, and no more universal a plot than the part humanity plays in the balance between them. There are those laws of our being which are always true; there are those processes common to humankind which always occur. It is this fact of commonality which allows a Kiowa to read and understand Moby Dick, given appropriate references, and which allows a New Englander, also appropriately guided, to read and understand House Made of Dawn.

The exchange between good and evil is not to be understood in the context of House Made of Dawn as it is understood in the context of Christian cosmology. It is the understanding that evil is an unavoidable aspect of the universe which finally allows Abel to begin his return to wholeness and to his proper place in things. It is the way of the Christian to oppose evil, and this Abel attempts to do. But it wounds him, like the arms of the dying witch, "only in proportion as Abel resisted."

Abel had thought that he could leave the pueblo and get a job, but he did not reckon with universal processes. Angela St. John was to help him get a job, but then, according to what he'd told Benally, "he got himself in trouble." The dream of the modern world was not for Abel, for it was his part to be Monster Slayer and, in his own time, to bring the people to a new world. The story, in its mythic dimension, began with Francisco—perhaps it began before Francisco, with the coming of the Bahkyush to Walatowa. Perhaps it began with the European invasion. But it was Francisco who slept with the daughter of a witch, and who abandoned her after their child was still-born. And because of his perfidy and fear, Porcingula's mother (the old Pecos bruja) cursed Abel. In the pueblo, witches traditionally transform themselves into snakes (or snakes turn themselves into humans for the purpose of witchcraft), and after the little boy is cursed by the Bahkyush bruja known as Nicolás teah-qhau, and runs, he hears a certain sound: the wind whistling around a snake hole, "and it filled him with dread. For the rest of his life it would be for him the particular sound of anguish." Indeed, for the rest of his life, as it is known to us through the novel, he would bear that curse; he would kill a snake and in turn be mortally wounded by another, the culebra Martinez in Los Angeles. Yet, had it not been for the curse and for his encounters with evil, had it not been that within his own person, perhaps because of that curse, he contained the contrary principles of light and darkness, Abel could not have made that final run and delivered that final blessing to himself and his people. Abel, like his grandfather Francisco, is a brujo himself, and so he recognizes evil. He is Snake Man and he is Bear Man. At some level, he is also Monster Slayer, prototypical hero of the Navajo. He is, like his grandfather, kin to those spirits who must run forever, keeping evil in its place. In order to do this he must first come to terms with the enormity of the thing; he must, like his grandfather, acknowledge that "evil had long since found him out and knew who he was."

The idea embodied here is perhaps strange to the Westerner. It is presumed that the forces of good are separate from the forces of evil, and the universe is conceived as a dualistic structure forever at war with itself. And so Abel perceives it, or tries to, and Tosamah perceives it so as well. But the point that is being made is that such a concept is not so: The old priest learns this, and through his journals, so does Father Olguin, who considers Fray Nicolás a saint—perhaps because the old priest was more like Francisco than like those with pious fantasies of sanctity being that condition untainted by any form of sin or evil.

The interplay between the dual forces of good and evil in this system must be recognized. It is not for human beings to attempt to annihilate either force; it might be said that it is our destiny to be forever manifesting one or the other, until we can locate the balance between them. This balance is located for Pueblos in the House of the Sun, at the mid-point of the northern and southern poles of its journey. "Just there at the saddle, where the sky is lower and brighter than elsewhere on the high black land" is the position that signals the time to clear the ditches and the "long race of the black men at dawn." The House of the Sun, which is a feature of every pueblo, is the calendar which allows the people to locate their own equilibrium in the continuous interplay of the forces of the universe; it is the ceremonial timepiece which allows a person to know "who and what and that they are."

The essential nature of pueblo life is its mysteriousness. The central issue of pueblo belief is growth and transformation; the belief in spirit is strong among them, and their life is a matter of locating the mortal being in spirit. This is not a factor of historicity, nor is it a matter of linear chronology. There is, for each individual, a perfect moment when the balance of mortal and spirit is achieved, though this moment occurs at a different point in the life of each person. Francisco achieved his perfect moment when he was a young man. He played the drum during the clan dance for the first time; he changed drums without missing a beat: "there had been nothing of time lost, no miss in the motion or the mind … and it was perfect." Afterward, the women came out and distributed food among the assembled people "in celebration of his perfect act. And from then on he had a voice in the clan, and the next year he healed a child who had been sick from birth."

In some sense, all the stories of the pueblo are about the ways in which that perfect act is achieved. The ways are different as the individuals are different; in that sense, House Made of Dawn is in the long tradition of the people, for it is a story about how a modern Indian locates his being within the center of all things, and achieves that equilibrium which is beyond words and thought.

But Abel is sick, disequilibrated; in order for him to discover himself balanced in the universe of being, he must be healed. The Navajo elements of the story are the healing elements, and the events which Abel experiences are analogous to those commonly experienced by those who have been wounded or cursed as they make their journey toward wholeness. For wholeness is the essential nature of healing: One who is whole is healed; one who is whole is holy.

Abel's trials are in the nature of the testing which the protagonist of the Chantway undergoes. Abel is subjected to at least eight such tests, and … he disobeys prohibitions established by the Holy People and gets himself into trouble. But, by this disobedience, Abel, like the Chantway protagonists, is taught the ceremonial which will be brought back to the people item by item.

What penetrates Abel's consciousness during those final brutal weeks in Los Angeles is the song Benally sings. For him, thoughts of home, the music, the stories, are the only comfort he finds; not even Milly can reach across the barriers of his isolation after he has been wounded by Tosamah, and by Martinez. Benally narrates his account: "House made of dawn. I used to tell him about those old ways, the stories and the sings, Beautyway and Night Chant. I sang some of those things, and I told him what they meant, what I thought they were about."

The prime feature of Navajo life is the healing. Singers devote many years to learning one Chantway perfectly. The ceremonies are handed down in the traditional way, but must be learned and paid for by the apprentice before he can practice independently. The Navajo may be the finest healers in the world; certainly, their Chantway system is one of the more complex metaphysical systems, made even more so by its relationship to Pueblo ceremonialism. The two are related, vaguely, as are Abel and Benally, who says "We're related somehow, I think. The Navajos have a clan they call by the name of that place." This relationship is an old one. It goes way back in time, beyond the coming of the Spaniards, and is as complicated in its inter-workings as the Chantway system itself. The relationship is important, for clansmen have a tighter bond than might be supposed, and this bond is of more Spirit than of earth. For clanspeople derive from the same mythic, the same archetypal source; their power and their consciousness are more closely attuned, because of their common source, than are those of many blood relatives. Then, too, Benally is a deeply traditional person himself; he'd have to be since he is able to sing parts of the Chantways and talk about what they mean. Benally is not a singer, but he is as much of one as Abel is of a priest when they meet—he is as much of one as many modern Indians will ever be, and it is enough. For through the power of his song, Abel survives the worst beating Benally has ever seen and returns to Walatowa to spend the seven days of Francisco's dying with him. After preparing the old man for burial. Abel takes up his place; running into the dawn, he performs his own perfect act of pure balance, and learns the true meaning of the songs:

He was alone and running on. All of his being was concentrated in the sheer motion of running on, and he was past caring about the pain. Pure exhaustion laid hold of his mind, and he could see at last without having to think…. He was running, and under his breath he began to sing. There was no sound, and he had no voice; he had only the words of a song. And he went running on the rise of the song. House made of pollen, house made of dawn.

So Abel finds himself healed, and in the recovery of his primal completeness he sings the chant to the sun, in the dawn light, which is sung by one who is healed.

The ceremonial is the means of achieving wholeness of being; it is the vehicle of the imagination which allows the human being to imagine himself fully—outside the bounds of social concerns, and beyond the constraints of physical imperatives. It is that part or function of consciousness where the Spirit and the Human meet and merge and become one, and it is beyond history or time as it is far from the narrow confines of pure reason…. The narrative concerning his journey toward the center of his being is analogous to the narratives connected to the Chantways and the ceremonial narratives of the Pueblo, in which the significance of events is embodied and transmitted. It is this process of working events into meaning which makes them true—more true, perhaps, than they would have been otherwise.

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This section contains 3,352 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Paula Gunn Allen