House Made of Dawn | Critical Essay by Joseph F. Trimmer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 26 pages of analysis & critique of House Made of Dawn.
This section contains 7,722 words
(approx. 26 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Joseph F. Trimmer

Critical Essay by Joseph F. Trimmer

SOURCE: "Native Americans and the American Mix: N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in The Indiana Social Studies Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Autumn, 1975, pp. 75-91.

Trimmer is an American nonfiction writer, editor, and educator. In the following essay, he provides an overview of the themes and structure of House Made of Dawn, and discusses whether the book meets the Pulitzer Prize's criterion of recognizing works which support "the wholesomeness of culture."

At the beginning of this century when Joseph Pulitzer was composing the citations for the literary awards to be given in his name [in recognition "for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood"], he could not have foreseen that in 1969 the fiction prize would be given to a Kiowa Indian, N. Scott Momaday, for a novel, House Made of Dawn, that would reveal why the wholesome American way could not assimilate and sustain everyone on the American continent. Even in our own time, the savants of contemporary literature did not foresee that this first novel by an unknown author would be singled out by the Pulitzer judges. It produced no extensive commentary when it was published—perhaps, as [William James Smith mused in a review of the work in Commonweal LXXXVIII (20 September 1968)] because "it seems slightly un-American to criticize an American Indian's novel"—and its subject matter and theme did not seem to conform to the prescription above. W. J. Stuckey has demonstrated [in The Pulitzer Prize Novels: A Critical Backward Look (1966)] that throughout the controversial history of the Pulitzer competition, the judges have usually adhered to the original prescription by selecting books that express a very traditional or conservative view of American culture. The major tenet of this view is that the ideal of rugged individualism, as it was formed on the frontier and codified in the American dream of success, remains the most reliable way of characterizing the mainstream of "American manners and manhood." Perhaps the Pulitzer judges saw the novel as dealing with a different form of the frontier experience or appreciated its affirmation of the conservative values of continuity and tradition. But House Made of Dawn would be better characterized as offering a view of American culture that is absolutely alien to the Pulitzer prescription. Indeed, because it reveals the deficiencies of American culture and affirms the values of Indian culture, the novel illustrates Leslie Fiedler's contention [in the 1968 The Return of the Vanishing American] that the Indian is the "utter stranger … [who] in his ultimate otherness has teased and baffled the imagination of generation after generation" of Americans.

To say that House Made of Dawn describes a different culture is not to say that it describes an indecipherable one. Early reviewers [such as Marshall Sprague in his "Anglos and Indians," New York Times Book Review (9 June 1968)] complained that the novel contained "plenty of haze" but suggested that perhaps this was inevitable in rendering "the mysteries of cultures different from our own." And those few critics [such as Carole Oleson in her "The Remembered Earth: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," South Dakota Review II (Spring 1973)] who have given the novel extended analysis acknowledge that much more explanation is needed "before outsiders can fully appreciate all the subtleties of House Made of Dawn." Because much of our contemporary fiction has been written by authors from America's various ethnic minorities, some spokesmen for these ethnic groups have challenged the right of disinterested critics to interpret "minority" literature. But the recognition of cultural differences should not prevent outsiders from attempting to discover the meanings amidst the apparent haze. To suggest that the novel's cultural differences make it incomprehensible to the non-Indian reader not only limits the universality of its theme, but also denies it its rightful place in the history of American literature, a history that has always been distinguished by the achievements of artists who have written out of their individual ethnic or regional experience rather than some vague notion of an homogenous American experience.

It is true that House Made of Dawn, like many modern American novels, presents some initial problems for the uninitiated. The characters seem flat and enigmatic because their motivation is not detailed with clinical precision; the plot seems, on occasion, fragmented and confusing because the transitions are not signaled by elaborate exposition; and the style seems unnecessarily compressed and cryptic because it is punctuated with a variety of oblique images. But given his subject, Momaday's use of these characteristic features of the modern novel seems appropriate: the world of the Indian in modern America appears to be a world with an eroding center, a world of fragments in danger of losing whatever cultural coherence it still retains; it is also a world dominated by the enormity of the physical landscape and the immediacy of sensory perceptions, a world diminished rather than explained by extensive use of "the word." Yet the world of the novel, like the world it describes, operates in accord with laws that confer perspective, design, and meaning. And like the novel's major character Abel, the reader will be able to find his place in this world once he learns to understand and accept these laws.

The Prologue that opens the novel depicts Abel, naked to the waist and smeared with ashes, running in the annual race for good hunting and harvest. As Carole Oleson points out, "all that Momaday will tell us of the human condition is summarized on that one page of prologue, but we must go on to the beginning of the story and curve around to the end, then read again the prologue in order to understand what he is saying here." The first paragraph describes the "old and everlasting" land: it is immense, multicolored, and seems to abide forever in the cycle of the seasons. The second paragraph describes Abel as he runs alone across this landscape, and his running, as we shall see in more detail later, functions as a multiple symbol: it is a ceremonial designation of the dawning of a new season, it marks the continuation of a cultural tradition into the next generation, and it embodies the essential wisdom Abel gains about his purpose and place in the world. Later in the novel, Abel will have a vision of men running: "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." But here in the Prologue, the image of the running man carries no such significance. The reader is certainly not aware of the meanings that will eventually accrue to this simple act, and Abel does not see, at least not in a symbolic sense, the ultimate importance of his act, a fact suggested by his inability to see around the curve in the road and through the bank of rain. Once the reader reaches the end of the novel, however, he, like Abel, will understand the significance of the race, will understand that the end is in the beginning.

The novel proper is divided into four sections each marked by titles that seemingly refer to the major character developed in that section: "The Longhair" (Abel); "The Priest of the Sun" (Tosamah); "The Night Chanter" (Benally); and "The Dawn Runner" (Francisco). This identification is not nearly as neat as it would appear, however, because Abel is the center of consciousness for much of section 2, the major subject of section 3, and the major actor in section 4. Equally important stories, such as Angela's, Father Olguin's, Fray Nicolas's, Milly's, and old Carlozini's, are also mixed into sections 1, 2, and 3. More significantly, the identities of Abel and Francisco are intentionally blurred in sections 1 and 4 to reinforce the theme of generational continuity: Francisco, who begins, appears intermittently throughout, and ends section 1, is as surely a "longhair" as Abel, whose memories and actions dominate the section and who is labeled a longhair in section 3; similarly, although Francisco's deathbed memories dominate section 4, Abel begins the section and ends the novel when he becomes "the dawn runner" in the race that was once the major event in his grandfather's life.

The design and sequence of the four sections are also important to the themes of the novel. The first and last take place in the expansive sunlit landscape of Walatowa and the middle sections take place in the claustrophobic darkness of Los Angeles. The journey to and from Los Angeles, reinforced as it is by the onset of night and the return of day, suggests not only the cyclical pattern already mentioned but also the sense of dawning awareness experienced by both Abel and the reader. On first reading, section 1 appears almost incomprehensible. Abel's fragmented memories are elliptical and confusing, and the inscrutable tribal ceremonies in which he participates are only partially explained by the "outside" commentator, Father Olguin. When we move away from the sunlight of the reservation to the neon of the city in section 2, we feel momentarily enlightened by the elaborate analysis of the historical-cultural condition of the Indian offered by The Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah, Pastor of the Los Angeles Holiness Pan-Indian Rescue Mission and Priest of the Sun. And in section 3, we feel even more enlightened by Benally's sympathetic interpretation of why Abel, the unlucky longhair, failed to make it in Los Angeles. But this linear movement from mystery to meaning is misleading because neither Tosamah nor Benally really sees the significance of Abel's experience. In this context, it should be noted that Momaday uses a variety of sight images throughout the novel to symbolize degrees of knowledge and insight. Once we read section 4, we see, and perhaps in a different sense Abel also sees, that the seductive glitter of the white world has corrupted Tosamah's and Benally's vision. They may see Abel's return to the reservation as a return to darkness and defeat, but it is they who remain unenlightened (literally, in the dark) about the meaning of Abel's assumption of his foreordained place. Thus, as certain traditions are clarified and passed on to Abel in section 4, the reader is educated about the meaning of the mysterious events in section 1—again, the novel recycles to the beginning.

One final comment needs to be made about the overall design and structure of the novel before moving on to an analysis of its individual sections. Each of the four sections is subdivided into smaller chapters designated by dates: section 1 contains seven such chapters identified by seven dates between July 20 and August 2, 1945; section 2 contains two chapters, January 26 and 27, 1952; section 3, one, February 20, 1952; and section 4, two, February 27 and 28, 1952. Once we piece together the major events in Abel's life—his service in the army, his return to the reservation, his imprisonment for killing the Albino, and his abortive stay in Los Angeles—these dates present themselves as a meaningful seven-year sequence. They are as important to Abel's growth into manhood as the date of Francisco's victory in the dawn race is to his, a date that Francisco commemorates with a pencil drawing of a running man inscribed with the legend "1889." But like the headings for the major sections, the dates for these chapters only nominally control content. The chronological unity of each chapter is fractured by the personal recollections of characters and by the more extensive historical context provided Fray Nicolas's journals and the prehistoric accounts of the epic migration of the Kiowas out of the forested mountains, the tragic journey of the Bahkyush in search of a home, and the legendary descent of man from the caves down the ladder of the canyon to the plains. This constant mixing of contemporary experience with historical, and even mythical, experiences suggests that the novel renders time more as a repetitive cycle than a linear sequence. Certainly, the reader is more aware of time evolving within the cycle of a single season, from February (Prologue) to February (Section 4), than time advancing along a continuum from 1945 to 1952. In fact, time, like vision, is a major motif in the novel: Abel must see, must understand, must know what time it is, if he is to be able to find his place in the world. In section 4, Francisco explains the "long journey of the sun on the black mesa … the larger motion and meaning of the great organic calendar," and suddenly everything falls into place. We see that the dates of the chapters mark not only the major events in Abel's life but also the important ceremonial days of a culture. Like the sun's journey along the mesa, Abel's journey can thus be understood as a sequence within a cycle: the end of all his journeying is to return to the place where he began; once there, his race, like his grandfather's, will commemorate the dawn of a new beginning.

The seven chapters of "The Longhair" make it the largest and most complex of the novel's four sections. Repeating the pattern of the Prologue, the section opens with a description that organizes the landscape and evokes the orderly cycle of the seasons. We next see an old man, Francisco, stopping his wagon near the river to inspect a snare he has constructed to trap a bird for a prayer plume; he hopes to catch a bird with bright feathers, like a bluebird or tanager, but when to his disappointment he finds only a sparrow in his trap, he resets the snare and drives on. This small episode contains images and themes that reappear everywhere in the novel. The theme of disappointment is a constant, emerging with particular poignancy in the Los Angeles sections, but of more significance is the theme of entrapment. The trapping and killing of a variety of birds throughout the novel represents metaphorically the sense of imprisonment Abel feels whenever he is forced out of the world he knows and is enmeshed in the confusion of an alien culture: for example, at the end of section 1, he will be trapped in the embrace of the mysterious Albino, and in Los Angeles, he will be cornered in an alley by the equally ominous Martinez.

The first chapter concludes with two brief episodes. As Francisco continues his journey along the ancient road, he remembers the details of his victorious run in 1889. Invading this environment is the "strange sound" of the bus as it brings Abel home from the army. The bus stops, "the door swung open and Abel stepped heavily to the ground and reeled. He was drunk and he fell against his grandfather and did not know him." In contrast to his grandfather, who knows the place of the snare and whose running has earned him a place in the tribe, Abel is here portrayed as having lost his place. His experiences in the white world have disturbed his balance, blurred his vision, and infected him with "bad medicine."

It is to exorcise the influence of these experiences and to restore his sense of place that on the next day Abel climbs high above the valley to watch the coming of dawn. As he sits above this familiar landscape, Abel tries to "remember" the fragments of his shattered life. Each of the memories in this biographical sequence of seven touches on the themes of confusion, disappointment, and estrangement. The first three, which deal with Abel's early boyhood, underscore his sense of his difference from others, the foreboding mystery of the landscape, and the impermanence of life. We learn, for example, that his father, a Navajo who has deserted the family, was considered an "Isleta, an outsider … which made him and his mother and Vidal somehow foreign and strange." And we learn that Abel lives in dread of the moaning wind because "it would be for him the particular sound of anguish," a sound he connects with the unintelligible curses of the witch woman Nicolas, and the deaths of his mother and brother, Vidal. The fourth memory details Abel's initiation into manhood and acceptance by the community, but even though he kills a doe and returns with it for a triumphant ceremonial dance, he is disappointed in the evening's lovemaking with one of Medina's daughters. When he wants her a second time, she runs and then stands at some distance laughing at his drunken attempts to follow her.

The fifth memory, Abel's experiences with the Eagle Watchers Society, contains information vital to our understanding of Abel's final decision at the end of the novel. Outsiders often assume that Indian culture is a single entity, but this episode and others throughout the novel suggest that Indian culture, like American culture, is quite diverse. The twenty Bahkyush survivors of persecution and plague demonstrate not only the essential pluralism of Indian culture, but also those qualities that insure their survival within the dominant culture of their hospitable kinsmen. In fact, the Bahkyush did more than survive. By maintaining an allegiance to the traditions and ceremonies central to their faith, they became an important and even a superior society within their new tribe: "It was as if, conscious of having come close to extinction, they had got a keener sense of pride…. They had acquired a tragic sense, which gave to them as a race so much dignity and bearing." Abel's vision of the exalted sport of a pair of eagles in the sky above Valle Grande qualifies him to join these medicine men on their November hunt. But he feels "something like remorse or disappointment" when he has to kill rabbits for bait, and he experiences "shame and disgust" once he sees the noble eagle he has captured reduced to a "drab," "shapeless," "ungainly" bird in a sack. The eagle, unlike the society that bears its name, cannot survive with dignity in a different environment. Abel, who will eventually find himself caught in a similar situation in the alien environment of Los Angeles, responds sympathetically to the eagle's plight when he holds its "throat in the darkness and cut[s] off its breath."

Abel's final two memories concern his initial departure into the anomalous world of the white man. Both memories concern the nightmarish movements of a machine. The bus that takes him away to the army represents a new and strange form of imprisonment: he feels trapped behind its glass windows, estranged from his environment, as he experiences "the jar of the engine and the first hard motion of the wheels,… the lurch and loss of momentum." Abel's single recollection of the war focuses on a monstrous tank that appears dramatically in his vision as it climbs over a ridge and blots out the sun. As it passes him, "a wind arose and ran along the slope, scattering leaves."

This allusion to the wind reminds us that Abel's war experience is only one of many that have contributed to his alienation: he has never felt at home in the world. His actions throughout section 1 suggest, however, that his return to Walatowa signals the beginning of an attempt to find his place within the orderly traditions of his people. But before we examine his participation in these activities, it would be best to consider two other characters who suffer from the torments of alienation.

Like Abel, Angela St. John (the white woman who has come to the Benevides house, Los Ojos, searching for a vision of the good life) has lost her sense of place. Her pregnancy has caused her to feel vaguely dissatisfied and trapped. Her doctor-husband has sent her to Walatowa for the cure, but as she paces throughout the house it is clear that her daily baths and reading from the lives of the saints will not provide her with the perspective she desires. She senses in the Indian ceremonies and in Abel's expressionless face "some reality that she did not know, or even suspect…. Somewhere, if only she should see it, there was neither nothing or anything. And there, just there, that was the lost reality." She searches for this exotic other-reality in her relationship with Abel; she even compares their love-making to a totemic vision she has had about touching the wet, black snout of a bear. Her position between the white and Indian worlds is indicated by her names: Angela ties her to Los Angeles (the scene of Abel's abortive relocation) and the Catholic tradition but also to Maria de Los Angeles, Porcingula, and Our Lady of the Angels, interchangeable names for the patroness of the Bahkyush, the old witch-woman Francisco loves, and the totem at the center of the ceremony of the little house and the bull; similarly, St. John ties her to the Catholic tradition but also to Tosamah's sermon at the Pan-Indian Rescue Mission in section 2. By the conclusion of section 1, Angela has learned to see the value of these multiple traditions and no longer feels lost: she sees no need to confess to Father Olguin, and despite the onset of a horrifying storm, she does not feel threatened by the environment. In section 3, back in her place in the suburbs of Westwood, she will demonstrate that she has learned something from her experiences in Walatowa.

Like his predecessor Fray Nicolas, Father Olguin feels trapped in the confusing world of the Indian. Both men want to educate and sanctify those poor souls still bewitched by "dark custom," but neither has had much impact on the culture around him. Fray Nicolas's poor health and Father Olguin's limited vision suggest that their religious tradition can neither thrive nor bring enlightenment to the Indian community. Fray Nicolas's journal indicates that he was "not called" to attend the death of Tomacita Fraqua until it was time for burial, and in section 4 Father Olguin will not be called to attend the death of Francisco, one of Fray Nicolas's sacristans, until Abel has finished preparing his grandfather for burial. As Oleson points out, "the priests see themselves as models for the heathen, but the villagers relegate them only a part of their religious traditions, adding Catholic mass to their ceremonial life while subtracting nothing of their own."

Because Father Olguin is half-blind, it is ironic that he should explain the meaning of the first of the two major ceremonial occasions in section 1. According to his narrative, the rooster race commemorates Santiago's successes in the games at the royal city and his gifts of animals and harvest to the Pueblo people. By tradition, Santiago (St. James) is said to have brought Christianity to the primitive culture of Spain. In Father Olguin's version of the story, Santiago appears disguised as a peon in the American Southwest, is given hospitality by an old couple who sacrifice their only possession of value, a rooster, to provide him a meal, is victorious in the royal games and thus wins the king's daughter ("a girl with almond-shaped eyes and long black hair"), avoids the king's treachery when the rooster he had previously eaten is miraculously restored to warn him and to provide him with a sword to slay the king's guard, and insures the wealth of the Pueblos forever by sacrificing the rooster and his horse. The ceremony that Father Olguin and Angela observe contains many of the details from this legend, but their precise identification and meaning remain obscure, and the results of the ceremony seem enigmatic indeed. The rooster race is a game; Angela, whose "hair is long and very dark," can be seen as the prize for victory; and Abel, who has only recently exchanged his army uniform for his old clothes might conceivably be seen as enacting the role of one of the king's guard. The Albino, whose name, Juan Reyes, is perhaps meant as a symbolic allusion to John, brother of James, triumphs at the game and holds the rooster high above his head as he reins his horse to a stop in front of Angela. Abel, astride "his grandfather's roan black horse," is then singled out, trapped, and beaten with the rooster. The Albino, who is larger and more powerful than the other contestants and whose poor eyes are covered by black glasses shaped like pennies, is clearly a figure of mystery. But unlike the legendary Santiago, the Albino's victory does not seem to portend success for the Indian culture. His brutality and destructiveness seem impulsive, somehow not part of the normal ceremony: "there was something out of place, some flaw in proportion or design, some unnatural thing." The white man plays the game but does so with a malice that seems to reverse rather than exemplify the theme of the Santiago legend. In fact, his unnatural whiteness and insatiable cruelty seem to tie him symbolically to the white culture that brutalized and destroyed the wealth of the Indian culture. Whatever the Albino's exact identity, Francisco and Abel seem justified in identifying him as an alien and evil force.

The second major ceremony contains a similar cast of symbolic characters and is enacted to celebrate the "return of weather, of trade and reunion," of wealth to the town. At the center of the ritual is Porcingula, Our Lady of Angels, who serves as both the shrine at the center of the Catholic Mass and the patroness of the Bahkyush. The two other characters in this ritual, the bull and the little horse, are also part of the tradition of the Bahkyush. The little horse, with its spotted hide, "black hat and black mask," is reminiscent of the little horse that Abel rode in the rooster race, and the bull, with its black costume "painted with numerous white rings" and its eyes represented with black metal buttons, evokes the image of the Albino, particularly since the bull also has the "look of evil." But this ceremony reverses the results of the first: the bull is made an object of ridicule and revelry as the children, dressed as black-faced clowns, chase it through the streets and the little horse not only leads the lovely Lady through the streets but also is given prayers, plumes, pollen, and meal by the medicine men.

For the outsider, the ultimate meaning of each detail in these ceremonies remains inscrutable. And significantly, the white outsider (Father Olguin) who attempted to explain the first ceremony in which the Albino is triumphant is excluded from this second ceremony when he is trapped in his car and, like the bull, ridiculed by the children. But for Francisco, this montage of rituals forms a unified tradition that gives design and meaning to existence. Confronting and exorcising evil as well as bestowing wealth are the inescapable conditions of the yearly cycle: he has sensed the presence of an evil force (the Albino) amidst the rows of corn awaiting harvest and he has even played the bull several times in the annual harvest ceremony. But he acknowledges that it is difficult to understand these things "now that the men of the town had relaxed their hold upon the ancient ways, had grown soft and dubious." Abel too recognizes the deeper significance of these ceremonies. When, after a long day of harvest celebration, he is trapped by the embrace of the Albino, he kills him. Later, at his trial, he will say that he killed an "evil spirit": "He had killed the white man. It was not a complicated thing after all, it was very simple. It was the most natural thing in the world…. A man kills such an enemy if he can."

The white judge is not satisfied with this explanation, however, and so condemns Abel to jail for committing "a brutal and premeditated act." Thus, while Abel has symbolically slain Cain, Abel remains Cain's victim. His experiences in the white man's jail, like his experiences in the white man's army, produce bewilderment. When he serves his seven-year term and is relocated in Los Angeles, he can recall from his prison experience only the vague shape of the walls of his cell. Los Angeles proves even more disorienting. As Oleson points out, Abel resembles the small silversided fish he sees spawning on the California beach: "they hurl themselves upon the land and writhe in the light of 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." Like the fish who once thrived in the sea, Abel is floundering on the beach: "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 is the situation for all the Indians who gather at the bar called The Silver Dollar or who attend the peyote ceremonies at the Pan-Indian Rescue Mission. But like Father Olguin, who continues to celebrate the Mass in the primitive culture of Walatowa, these Indians continue to try to find a place in urban America.

"The Priest of the Sun," section 2, is centered in Abel's consciousness as he lies drunk and beaten on a California beach. The memories that form in his mind are more disjointed and garbled than the more orderly sequence he recalled in section 1, but his loss of intelligibility is indicative of both his immediate situation and his experiences ever since he came to Los Angeles. Those experiences are given an historical context by The Priest of the Sun, John Big Bluff Tosamah, whose sermon on "The Gospel According to John" appears as a coherent unit amidst Abel's incoherent reveries. He begins by fashioning a vision of creation for his audience to illustrate that "in the beginning was the world." But then, like the John in his text, John Tosamah's vision fails him and he must go on to explain what the Truth meant: "He tried to make it bigger and better than it was, but instead he demeaned and encumbered it." According to Tosamah

… old John was a white man, and the white man has his ways. Oh gracious me, he has his ways. He talks about the Word. He talks through it and around it. He builds upon it with syllables, with prefixes and suffixes, and hyphens and accents. He adds and divides and multiplies the Word. And in all this he subtracts the Truth. And, brothers and sisters, you have come here to live in the white man's world. Now the white man deals in words, and he deals easily, with grace and sleight of hand. And in his presence, here on his own ground, you are as children, mere babes in the woods.

In the long history of the Indian's relationship to white America, he has often been betrayed and deceived by the word. And certainly Abel feels, at his trial, in prison, and in Los Angeles that the white man's words—especially as they are characterized by the endless questionnaires he is given by prison officials and social workers—have no direct relationship to his life. Indeed, the white man has forgotten that words, in Emerson's terminology, are signs of natural facts: the white man's words no longer connect with the physical world. And because his words abstract, dilute, and attenuate experience, the white man has become sated and insensitive to the world around him. His fascination for the prolification of paper and the enclosures of cement and steel protects him from confronting either himself or nature.

Certainly this alienation from nature helps explain the history of Milly, the white social worker Abel lives with in Los Angeles. Like Abel, Milly is a refugee in Los Angeles. Her father was a farmer, but unlike Francisco, who reveres the land he cultivates even though it is often cracked and dry, "Daddy began to hate the land, began to think of it as some kind of enemy, his own personal and deadly enemy." His counsel to his daughter is to leave the place, but her arrival in the city of lights brings only tragedy and death: her husband deserts her and her child dies of a burning fever. Like Angela before her, Milly gives herself to Abel out of a vague sense of her own incompleteness. She may provide for Abel by bringing him food and finding him jobs, but it is Abel who sustains Milly by providing her with a symbolic link to the land she has left and lost.

In a slightly different sense, Tosamah is also a refugee. He may possess all the sophistication of white culture, but in his second sermon, "The Way to Rainy Mountain," he acknowledges that he too has lost something. It is because he wishes to understand his grandmother's culture that he reenacts the epic journey of the Kiowa tribe. Originally, the tribe lived in the high wall of woods in the mountains, but "the Kiowas reckoned their stature by the distance they could see, and they were bent and blind in the wilderness." They migrated to the open plains where they confronted the immensity of the landscape and the constant illumination of the sun. It was only natural that the sun became their god, but the tribe lost contact with their god when the white man killed the buffalo and forbade the sun dance, "the essential act of their faith." Thus, unlike the Bahkyush, the Kiowas were denied their sense of cultural identity. Without such an identity, Tosamah finds it difficult to understand his place in the world. Of course, Tosamah continues to serve as a "priest of the sun," but he enacts this role with a mixture of "conviction, caricature, callousness." The sun he worships is merely a red and yellow decorative symbol in the dark basement of a Los Angeles tenement. Symbolically, he is as bent and blind within the walls of cement as his ancestors were in the wilderness; he sees the dawn only in the fire of the peyote ceremony, a ceremony that is surely a parody of the way "the ol' people … tol' us to do it" and about as meaningful in Los Angeles as the Mass is in Walatowa. In fact, the names of John Big Bluff Tosamah and his disciple Cristabal Cruz suggest that both men may be more interested in conning than serving the Indian community.

Milly's memory of the world her father never loved has turned to nostalgia and Tosamah's understanding of the world his grandmother revered has turned to cynicism, but Abel's experiences in Los Angeles reaffirm his commitment to the old way. He is ridiculed by the urbanized Indians at The Silver Dollar for being a "longhair"; he is dismissed from his job because he fails to adapt to the dulling regimen of time clocks and to maintain the mindless, machine-like perfection required of workers on the line; and he is humiliated and beaten by the powerful Martinez, a representative of the white man's law whom the Indians correctly identify as a culebra. Of course, this last experience is not dissimilar to the humiliating beating Abel received from the malevolent Albino, but in Walatowa the culture provided a way to understand and respond to the evil in the world. As Abel lies beaten on the beach, he sees through his swollen eyes a vision of "the old men in white leggings running after evil in the night…. 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." It is the sense of coherence and continuity communicated by this vision that convinces Abel to return to his place in the old culture, to give up the rat race and become a dawn runner.

Benally, Abel's healer and ally, narrates the third section of the novel, "The Night Chanter." The occasion is Abel's departure for the reservation, and as he returns from the train station through the misting rain and blurry neon to his dark apartment, Benally is disturbed by what he takes to be his friend's failure: "He was unlucky…. He was a longhair, like Tosamah said. You know, you have to change. That's the only way you can live in a place like this. You have to forget about the way it was, how you grew up and all." Unlike the recalcitrant longhair, Benally is able to change, mainly because he recognizes that "there's nothing else. And you want to do it, because you see how good it is. It's better than anything you've ever had; it's money and clothes and having plans and going someplace fast." But as he sits alone in his apartment watching a befuddled pigeon attempt to find its way amidst the maze of dark buildings, it is clear that Benally too has lost his way. He spends his days working on the line and his evenings searching for some momentary human contact. His plight is not unlike that of his neighbor old Carlozini, who shuts herself up in her apartment and shuts her pet guinea pig Vincenzo up in a box: they will all die trapped and alone. Thus, despite his insistence that life can be good in the land of plenty, Benally unknowingly reveals the truth of Tosamah's cynical carping about "Relocation and Welfare and Termination."

Although Benally dismisses the old way—"there's nothing there, you know, just the land, and the land is empty and dead"—he spends a good deal of time thinking about the way it was. His three chants, to the dawn, to his horse, and to beauty, all end with a reckoning of perspective—before, behind, below, above, all around—that suggests the way his culture once made him feel "right there in the center of everything." And his memories of his Navajo grandfather, the cycle of the seasons, and the changeless land suggest that Benally may still wish to be a longhair. In fact, as he recalls riding across the land at dawn on a black horse to dance with the girl named Pony at Cornfields, Benally's memories seem to fuse with Abel's memories of Medina's daughter in section 1. But Benally is finally different from Abel: he has been away to school and he has learned to trade successfully with the white man. He went to the dance at Cornfield once, but he never sees the girl named Pony again. Like the other Los Angeles refugees, he has become trapped on the American treadmill.

At the end of Benally's narrative he tells us that Angela visited Abel when he was in the hospital. Before Abel killed the Albino, "she was going to help him get a job and go away from the reservation." At the hospital, Angela tells Abel that she has thought about him a great deal and that she has passed on to her son "a story about a young Indian brave. He was born of a bear and a maiden … and he was noble and wise. He had many adventures, and he became a great leader and saved his people … and she always thought of him, Abel, when she told it." This allusion to the bear and the maiden returns us to Angela's totemic vision in section 1 and suggests that Angela has grasped some intimation of that other-reality. For rather than assisting Abel to stay away from the reservation, her story about the young Indian brave confirms his decision to return to his people. Benally responds to Angela's story by saying that it reminds him of a story his grandfather passed on to him about the bear and the snake, the theme of which is the recurrent nature of experience: the bear fathers a child who in turn gives birth to two children, one of whom was carried away by an owl but then escaped to the east where he became a medicine man and fathered an illegitimate child who was found by the bear. This story serves as an appropriate conclusion to Abel's relocation experience because it reinforces the pattern of Abel's return east, to the house of dawn, to the scene of his new beginning.

The scene for much of section 4, "The Dawn Runner," is Francisco's hut. Although the landscape looks bleak and gray, winter is coming to an end. But so is Francisco. Abel sits entrapped in the dark of his grandfather's house for six days while Francisco dies. As he did at the deaths of his mother and brother, Abel feels a sense of despair, a sense of betrayal and abandonment. But Francisco's deathbed memories suggest the continuity rather than the end of a tradition. His memories parallel Abel's memories in section 1, thus suggesting not only the eternal repetition of experience, but also the appropriateness of Abel as an heir to his grandfather's place within the culture. Significantly, Francisco's first memory concerns his attempt to explain the meaning of the "great organic calendar" to his grandsons. Each time the sun dawns along the ridge of the black mesa, it marks the beginning of an important day in the life of their culture: "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." Because the events Francisco uses to illustrate the working of this calendar are the major ceremonial occasions in the novel, the reader now understands the schedule of the mysterious rituals in section 1; more importantly, he understands why the novel's title, House Made of Dawn, directs and controls the life of the novel.

Francisco's remaining memories concern his own participation in the cycle of events marked by the "house of dawn." He remembers his solitary hunt for the bear along the black mesa, the hunt that marked his initiation into manhood. He first visits the caves of his ancestors where, among the things of the dead, he sees a "great swooping bird" kill a small rodent. Then he tracks the bear along the mesa and finally kills it, marking the bear's eyes with yellow streaks of pollen, disemboweling the bear, and eating quickly of the bear's liver. When he returns to the village with the bear, "the men came out to meet him…. The men and women were jubilant and all around, and he rode stone-faced in their midst, looking straight ahead." In contrast with this triumphant victory, Francisco remembers his love relationship with Porcingula which, like Abel's love relationship with Angela, produces nothing. But Francisco's dead child is symbolically reborn in Abel who will continue the tradition, just as Francisco remembers that he continued the tradition when the old man passed the drum to him—"and nothing was lost, nothing." Francisco's last memory concerns his discovery that he can no longer go on in the dawn race; this memory comes before the seventh dawn of his dying and marks his death. But Abel emerges on the seventh dawn, smeared with symbolic ashes, to assume his grandfather's place. He falls once, but he gets up and runs on. His running marks the death of winter and his grandfather and the return of life to the land, the day, and his soul: the end is in the beginning.

Just as section 4 returns us to the beginning of the novel, so this conclusion will consider again some of the issues raised at the beginning of this essay. Clearly, the judges were in error if they thought House Made of Dawn extended the long tradition of Pulitzer novels which "presented the wholesome atmosphere of American life." In fact, the novel warns native Americans that they may lose more than they gain if they assimilate into the American mix. That culture—represented in the novel by the army, the legal system, the social agency, and the factory—is revealed as distempered, impersonal, moribund, productive of frantic motion and useless objects, but no true life. To believe that this manic activity is not only wholesome, but also productive of "the highest standard of American manners and manhood" is to be willfully deceived by the most pernicious of American fantasies. Tosamah and Benally may continue to pursue this deadly dream, but Abel chooses the Indian culture because its rituals, traditions, and ways of perceiving offer a more wholesome and sustaining vision of manners and manhood. Yet the novel does not prophesy that Abel will actually save his people from cultural disintegration or that his people will save America from its own malignancies. Momaday is realistic enough to agree with Tosamah about the outcome of "What's His Name v. United States." Besides, Momaday is a novelist, not a social leader. He wants to evoke, to make us see, as he says in The Way to Rainy Mountain, "a landscape that is incomparable, a time that is gone forever, and the human spirit, which endures."

Because Momaday's novel makes us see, it confirms, in a rather ironic way, the appropriateness of its selection for the Pulitzer. Such a selection may indicate that we are neither too indifferent to the complexities of Indian culture nor too presumptuous about the superiority of American culture. Certainly, from one perspective, the wholesomeness of American culture depends on its ability to tolerate and learn from those diverse groups in its midst that offer an absolutely alien version of the American experience. Momaday has said that "the Indian is a man from whom a great deal can be learned, for the Indian has always known who and what he is; he has a great capacity for wonder, delight, belief and for communion with the natural world contradictory to the destruction rampant in 'civilization'." Perhaps by the end of House Made of Dawn the reader, like Father Olguin, has glimpsed some of what the Indian has to teach:

Father Olguin shivered with cold and peered out into the darkness. "I can understand," he said. "I understand, do you hear?" And he began to shout "I understand! Oh God! I understand—I understand!"

(read more)

This section contains 7,722 words
(approx. 26 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Joseph F. Trimmer