House Made of Dawn | Critical Essay by Marilyn Nelson Waniek

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of House Made of Dawn.
This section contains 3,333 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Marilyn Nelson Waniek

SOURCE: "The Power of Language in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in Minority Voices, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1980, pp. 23-8.

Waniek is an American poet, translator, and essayist. In the following essay, she analyzes the role of language as a source of power in House Made of Dawn.

In 1969, one year after the publication of his novel House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday, in an article entitled "The Story of the Arrowmaker," interpreted the Kiowa legend of the arrowmaker as a story essentially about the power of language. For the arrowmaker, says Momaday, "language is the repository of his whole knowledge and experience, and it represents the only chance he has for survival." The legend depicts "the man made of words." Other writers have pointed out the native American's belief in the power of language; Margot Astrov, in her introduction to American Indian Prose and Poetry, writes, "The word, indeed, is power. It is life, substance, reality. The word lived before earth, sun, or moon came into existence." In their anthology [entitled Literature of the American Indian], Thomas E. Sanders and Walter W. Peek say this about the power:

Whether it existed before Wah'kon-tah, simultaneously, or shortly after, the word is vital to the Great Mystery, being perhaps the greatest mystery, for it has power to cause medicine to work, to lure game into range, to cause plants to grow, to allow man to address, be heard by, and join with the Great Mystery. As such, language itself is sacred …

The belief in such powers of language is not peculiar to the American Indian; Ernst Cassirer and Bronislaw Malinowski, among others, discuss the power of the word in various societies. Cassirer, writing of the bond between the linguistic consciousness and the mythical-religious consciousness [in his Language and Myth] tells us that, "the Word, in fact, becomes a sort of primary force, in which all being and doing originate. In all mythical cosmogonies, as far back as they can be traced, this supreme position of the Word is found." [In an essay appearing in Max Black's 1962 The Importance of Language] Malinowski links this supreme position of the word to the development of language in every individual. He writes, "we realize that all language in its earliest function within the context of infantile helplessness is protomagical and pragmatic." The writings of N. Scott Momaday, himself a Kiowa, show him to be aware of the creative and healing power of the word in this broad understanding, and the power of language is an important theme in House Made of Dawn.

The prologue of the novel begins where the hero ends, running in the race of the black men at dawn. Later in the novel we learn the significance of this race; it is the race

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 race, then, is man's confrontation with his universe; his division of the world into good and evil; his creation of meaning. The prologue begins with a prayer, the Navajo Night Chant—or more properly a song from the Night Chant—through which the singer restores order in the world through his reverence for the words of the song and the influence of his voice. The prologue demonstrates the dual function of language to create and to heal, and represents in capsule form the primary concerns of the novel.

Abel is drunk when we first meet him, and the flashbacks of the second chapter serve to explain that his drunkenness is the result of his long isolation, his dislocation, the anguish of his life. Through his sight and capture of an eagle he is linked to the Eagle Watchers Society, the principal ceremonial organization of the Bahkyush, a small group of survivors of an otherwise extinct people, who "in their uttermost peril long ago … had been fashioned into seers and soothsayers." Yet Abel has not been fashioned into a seer and soothsayer, one who has "consummate being in language." He thinks, one week after his return to Los Ojos from the Army, that his return has been a failure.

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 of his own language—even the 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.

This early in the novel, Abel can use the creative and healing power of his own language neither to communicate with his grandfather nor to pray: "… he wanted to make a song out of the colored canyon, the way the women of Torreon made songs upon their looms out of colored yarn, but he had not got the right words together." This early inarticulateness seems to be the result of Abel's experience in the war. Yet, when after the Festival of Santiago he is able to use the power of the word to identify the evil of the albino, Abel faces the white man's understanding of the word and loses the power. During the trial Father Olguin tries to explain Abel's motivation to the court: "I believe that this man was moved to do what he did by an act of imagination so compelling as to be inconceivable to us." The ensuing discussion centers on the definition of Abel's act: "Homicide is a legal term … Murder is a moral term. Death is a universal human term." Abel thinks, "Word by word by word these men are disposing of him in language, their language…." Thus caught between two conflicting uses of the power of language to define his act, Abel again becomes inarticulate. He is sent to prison, paroled, and finally he rediscovers the power at the end of the novel.

The five other major characters of the novel represent in varying degrees the power of language. Father Olguin shares Abel's isolation from the world. Indeed, his isolation stems to a large degree from his literal and symbolic blindness. Blind in one eye, he is also blind to the mysteries of the Indian's spiritual life because of his pride and the prejudices of his religion. Like the earlier priest, Fray Nicolas, whose journals he reads as something of a saint's life, he is unable to articulate his concern for his parishioners. He sees them variously as "degenerate squaws … sullen bucks …" and "wizened keepers of an old and sacred alliance." He fails in his attempt to explain the motivation of Abel's killing the albino, and his suffering for Abel embarrasses and humiliates Abel. When Abel comes to tell him of Francisco's death the priest tries to express sympathy, but fails again. His position is best described in his own words: "That safety—that exclusive silence—was the sense of all his vows, certainly; it has been brought about by his own design, his act of renunciation, not the town's."

Similarly isolated is Angela Grace St. John, a white woman who comes to Los Ojos to rest and await the birth of her child. She frequently demonstrates a profound sensitivity to the mythical potential of appearances, as when she thinks of Abel as a badger or a bear, or when, watching him cut wood, she says, "I see," and is "aware of some useless agony that was spent upon the wood, some hurt she could not have imagined until now," but her concern early in the novel is to escape that power of her imagination, "to see nothing at all, nothing in the absolute." Her seduction of Abel is a battle for power which Abel wins, and which leads Angela to reject the Church in favor of the power of the individual imagination to name and create reality. Years later Abel calls for her in pain from his hospital bed, and she comes to him, not as a lover, but as one who has accepted the ability to name the mystery of their affair. She has transformed their affair into a myth of a maiden and a bear and told her son that myth. Ben Benally says about her story:

Peter always asked her about the Indians, she said, and she used to tell him 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. It was the story Peter liked best of all, and she always thought of him, Abel, when she told it. It was real nice the way she said it, like she thought a whole lot of him, and I could tell that story was kind of secret and important to her, you know….

Ben is struck with wonder by Angela's story, and compares it to the legends told him by his grandfather years ago. The significance of these legends is explained in Tosamah's sermon about the Gospel According to St. John (which may be a hint as to the significance of Tosamah's first and Angela's last name):

My grandmother was a storyteller; she knew her way around words. She never learned to read and write, but somehow she knew the good of reading and writing; she had learned how to listen and delight. She had learned that in words and in language, and there only, she could have whole and consummate being. She told stories, and she taught me how to listen … When she told me those old stories, something strange and good and powerful was going on. I was a child, and that old woman was asking me to come directly into the presence of her mind and spirit; she was taking hold of my imagination, giving me to share in the great fortune of her wonder and delight. She was asking me to go with her to the confrontation of something that was sacred and eternal.

Section two of the novel, which bears Tosamah's name, consists of slices of sermons delivered by him and of Abel's thoughts. Yet this section is unified by the theme of the power of the word. Abel cannot at first understand the experiences he remembers, yet immediately after his vision of the old men running after evil in the night, who, he understands, create an order in the universe, he realizes what has long been his problem: "Now, here, the world was open at his back. 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." And he begins to understand that this has happened because he has lost "the power to name and assimilate" the world. He remembers the powerlessness of being disposed of in language during his trial, the meaningless questionnaires according to which the individual is defined in white society, the blank emptiness of his prison cell, the way his fellow soldiers referred to him as "the chief" and talked about him as if he were not there. Juxtaposed to these memories are those of the wonder of the natural world, in which Abel remembers himself as being articulate. The one passage in the novel in which Abel is fully capable of describing the world around him is the one in which he describes his hunting wild geese with his brother. Abel's memories are clarified by Tosamah's sermons, and this second section of the novel serves to explain the resolution approached through Angela, Milly, Ben, and Francisco in the next sections.

Milly, a white social worker, and the Navajo Ben Benally become Abel's mistress and friend in Los Angeles after his parole from prison. Though Milly believes in the power of language, her belief is "in tests, questions and answers, words on paper … She believed in Honor, Industry, the Second Chance, the Brotherhood of Man, the American Dream, and him…." When she first enters Abel's world, it is as a social worker who is, according to Ben, "always asking him about the reservation and the army and prison and all … at first she used to bring a lot of questionnaires and read them to us, a lot of silly questions about education and health and the kind of work we were doing and all…." After Milly stops bringing these questionnaires, she begins to talk about her life to Abel, and it is her story rather than her physical love which enables Abel for the first time to share his memories of his own life. Though she does not understand the power of the word, their relationship thus starts Abel on the way toward realizing that he can talk, and toward regaining the power of the word.

Ben Benally also shares with Abel the stories of his life, but his belief in language, unlike that of Milly, is in the power of prayer, song, and legend to heal and create. It is from Ben that Abel learns the Night Chant, the healing prayer which he sings in the final section of the novel. Indeed, the third section of the novel, called appropriately the "Night Chanter," is primarily about Abel's learning the power of prayer from Ben. Ben, like Angela and the old grandmother of Tosamah, draws Abel again and again into the presence of his spirit to confront the truth; Ben says:

"House made of dawn." I used to tell him about those old ways, the stories and the sings, Beauty-way and Night Chant. I sang some of those things, and I told him what they meant, what I thought they were about.

Ben understands the way life in white society strips the reservation Indian—and has stripped Abel—of his language:

… they can't help you because you don't know how to talk to them. They have a lot of words, and you know they mean something, but you don't know what, and your own words are no good because they're not the same, they're different, and they're the only words you've got.

And Ben understands both the fear which drove Abel to kill the albino and the act of the imagination by which the evil of the albino was identified:

That, you know, being so scared of something like that—that's what Tosamah doesn't understand. He's educated, and he doesn't believe in being scared like that. But he doesn't come from the reservation. He doesn't know how it is when you grow up out there someplace. You grow up out there, you know, someplace like Kayenta or Lukachukai. You grow up in the night, and there are a lot of funny things going on, things you don't know how to talk about. A baby dies, or a good horse. You get sick, or the corn dries up for no good reason. Then you remember something that happened the week before, something that wasn't right. You heard an owl, maybe, or you saw a funny kind of whirlwind; somebody looked at you sideways and a moment too long. And then you know … You just know, and you can't help being scared. It was like that with him, I guess.

Although Ben has chosen to remain in the city, his memories of life on the reservation show his reverence for the traditional Navajo way of life, and his belief in the efficacy of prayer and storytelling link him to the old man Francisco, Abel's grandfather.

Francisco is the only character who is able early in the novel to articulate his relation to the world, yet he is divided between the traditional ceremonialism of his tribe and that of the Catholic Church. This division is represented literally by his being the son of the old priest, Fray Nicolas. He has tried to teach Abel the old ways, but we are told several times by Abel that his grandfather does not understand him. At the end of the novel, however, in the "Dawn Runner" section, Abel has learned to understand Francisco. As Francisco lies on his death bed, he speaks six times on six successive dawns, in what seems to be a last attempt to tell Abel what it is to be a man. Francisco, like the teller of the legend of the arrowmaker, takes and has taken the risk of passing a heritage on to his grandsons through his words:

These things he told to his grandsons carefully, slowly and at length, because they were old and true, and they could be lost forever as easily as one generation is lost to the next, as easily as one old man might lose his voice, having spoken not enough or not at all.

Here is the risk of the oral tradition, always "one generation removed from extinction." And here is the creative and healing power of all stories told by one individual to another, the risk of entrusting one's being to another, the risk of "consummate being in language." Francisco places the stories of his young manhood, his tragic love, and the race of the black men at dawn into Abel's hands. It becomes Abel's responsibility to grasp these stories, to respect their power, and to pass them on.

Francisco dies, but Abel has learned from him and from the several other characters of the novel the power of language to create and to heal. When he continues the tradition of the race of the black men at dawn he is joining the tradition of naming the world, he is saying to the universe that the word of the ancients has survived. Running alone behind the other men whose bodies are painted black with ashes, Abel begins under his breath to sing, to pray the Navajo prayer taught to him by Ben Benally. We are told that, "he had no voice; he had only the words of a song. And he went running on the rise of the song." Of the arrowmaker Momaday writes that, "the arrowmaker has more nearly perfect being than other men have, and a more nearly perfect right to be. We can imagine him as he imagines himself, whole and vital, going on into the unknown darkness and beyond. This last aspect of his being is primordial and profound." So it is with Abel.

In House Made of Dawn as in Cassirer's Language and Myth there is a distinction between the language of logic and the language of myth. In the novel the language of logic belongs to the white man, and has no magic or religious properties. It names, it fixes the world, but it does not go beyond itself. The language of myth belongs to the Indian, and it is this language which has the power to confront the truth, to create, and to heal. Cassirer writes of the language of myth that, "… Whatever has been fixed by a name, henceforth is not only real, but is Reality." This is the understanding which is so crucial to House Made of Dawn.

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This section contains 3,333 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Marilyn Nelson Waniek