House Made of Dawn | Alan R. Velie

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of House Made of Dawn.
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Alan R. Velie

SOURCE: "House Made of Dawn: Nobody's Protest Novel," in Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor, University of Oklahoma Press, 1982, pp. 52-64.

Velie is an American nonfiction writer, editor, and educator. In the following essay, he presents a thematic overview in which he discusses the dangers of viewing House Made of Dawn as a protest novel, then maintains that the work is about the protagonist's search for acceptance of his identity and heritage.

House Made of Dawn is Momaday's masterpiece. In fact, I do not think it is excessive praise to say that it is one of the best American novels of the last decade. The book received the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1969, an indication that its merits have not been lost on the critics. Although it has been thoroughly praised, it has been less thoroughly understood.

House Made of Dawn is the story of Abel (we never learn his last name), an illegitimate son of a Tanoan mother and an unknown father, probably a Navajo. The story begins with Abel's return from World War II to his village of Walatowa, a fictionalized version of the Jemez Pueblo where Momaday grew up. Abel is so drunk when he arrives that he fails to recognize his grandfather, who has come to pick him up. Abel feels lost on his return, and obviously his problem is largely that he has lost his cultural identity.

On the Festival of Santiago, Abel enters a ceremonial game in which men on horseback attempt to pull a rooster out of the ground. The rider who accomplishes this feat is then entitled to beat another of the participants with the rooster. The winner, an albino Tanoan named Fragua, chooses to beat Abel, who is unnerved and humiliated. Several days later Abel kills the albino in a knife fight outside a bar and is sent to jail for seven years.

When Abel gets out of jail he is "relocated" in Los Angeles, where he works diligently at his job for a short period. But he is harassed by a sadistic policeman named Martinez and taunted by a Kiowa named Tosamah, who considers Abel an ignorant savage. Eventually Abel turns to drink and loses his job. In his drunkenness Abel attacks Martinez, and Martinez gives him a beating that is almost fatal. After a long, slow recovery, Abel returns to Walatowa as his grandfather is dying. When his grandfather dies, Abel performs the traditional preburial rituals and then prepares to enter a traditional Tanoan race for good hunting and harvests that his grandfather had won years before. The book ends with Abel running, singing the words to a Navajo prayer. Apparently he has found a sort of peace of mind by joining in the cultural life of the Tanoan community.

Knowing about Momaday's experiences as a Kiowa growing up among the Navajo and Jemez is very important if we are to understand Momaday's treatment of Abel. There are also recognizable literary influences: Momaday owes a debt to writers like Faulkner for his use of stream of consciousness and limited point of view—for instance, in the scene in which Abel lies half dead on the beach after Martinez beats him. Also apparent is the influence of Melville's symbolism in the significance Momaday makes of the whiteness of the albino.

The result of these influences is a masterfully complex novel. Unfortunately, the tendency of most white American readers (at least if my students of the past ten years are any indication) is to read the book simplistically, as a protest novel. According to this reading, Abel, the Indian protagonist, is a noble red victim of the barbaric forces of white America. The impression is based on several things. First, because Momaday is himself an Indian, readers often expect him to blame Abel's failure on racial injustice. Second, Abel's name is an obvious allusion to the Bible's first victim. When I ask my students who is the Cain that destroys Abel, they always answer that it is white society. Last, if not least, there is the inevitable comparison with Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima, an act memorialized in the famous Marine Corps statue. When Hayes returned to his reservation after the war, he became an alcoholic and one evening, out of doors, he passed out and died from exposure. His death received a good deal of attention from the press, and Hayes's story served as the basis of the film The Outsider. Tony Curtis played Hayes in accordance with the Hollywood stereotype of the Indian as victim. The point of the movie was that Indians can die for their country but cannot live in it with dignity.

Whatever the reasons for the reader to believe that Abel is simply a victim of white society, the conclusion is incorrect—far too simplistic. Momaday presents a highly-complex portrait of Abel and does not rely on Hollywood clichés or on those of students.

First of all, although there is a general similarity in the situation of Abel and Ira Hayes—both are Indian veterans from the Southwest who cannot readjust to their role in postwar America, and so turn to alcohol—the resemblance may simply be coincidental. Momaday has said that his chief models in creating Abel were Indians he knew at Jemez. In an interview in November, 1974, Momaday told Charles Woodard, "I knew an Abel at Jemez who was a close neighbor…. I was thinking of him; he's one of the people who adds to the composite Abel."

No doubt Momaday was familiar with Hayes's story, and it may have been somewhat in his mind when he created the character of Abel, but there is an enormous difference between Momaday's complex character and the stereotype into which Hollywood turned Hayes. To those who read press accounts of Hayes's death or saw The Outsider, Hayes was a hero during the war and a victim of white injustice afterwards. In the normal way these terms are used, Abel was neither. In a very curious, ambiguous sense, he may have been both, but in ways so different from Hayes that there is really no basis for comparison.

The only glimpse we get of Abel's combat experience is a curious scene in which Abel gives an enemy tank the finger. His fellow soldiers find this bizarre, not heroic. The gesture, totally inexplicable in terms of modern warfare, seems a rough equivalent of the old plains Indian custom of counting coups. Plains warriors considered it more glorious to ride up to an armed enemy and touch him harmlessly with a stick they called a coupstick, than to shoot him from a distance. Counting coups, which insulted the enemy by showing him that you scorned his ability to harm you, seems to be what Abel has in mind, though Momaday never says so. This is not to imply that Abel, a Navajo/Tanoan, would have known about or have consciously thought about coups; nevertheless, he is displaying the same attitude toward the enemy. Momaday, a Kiowa, would certainly know about counting coups.

The matter of Abel as victim of white injustice brings us to the next point, the significance of his name. Momaday told Woodard, "I know about Abel and the Bible and that certainly was in my mind, but I don't think I chose the name on that account." This seems a slight evasion. Momaday may have chosen the name because he knew an Abel, but he does not give Abel a surname, and a man as sensitive to symbolic meanings as Momaday could not have failed to realize that his readers would have imagined a link between a character named simply Abel and the Bible's first victim. The question is, victim of what? In these secular times, even in the Bible Belt, where I teach, students have forgotten the Bible. Cain was Abel's brother, not some hostile outsider. In House Made of Dawn two of the men who do the worst damage to Abel are his brother Indians, John Tosamah, the Kiowa "Priest of the Sun," who ridicules Abel until he drives him to drink (admittedly a short haul) and Juan Reyes Fragua, the Tanoan albino who humiliates Abel, and whom Abel murders, as a result spending seven years in jail. Abel's third tormentor, the sadistic policeman Martinez, is either a Chicano or an Indian with a Spanish surname—at any rate, he is not an Anglo-American. He appears to be a free-lance grafter, and not in any very direct sense a representative of the white society the students have indicted.

The albino is a very curious figure. From Fray Nicolas's letter of January 5, 1875, we know that at the time Fragua and Abel participate in the Festival of Santiago, Fragua is seventy years old, although apparently still remarkably athletic. In some mysterious way the albino is evil. In the scene in which the albino watches, or spies on, Abel's grandfather Francisco, Francisco senses the presence of evil, although he sees no one. The scene is ambiguous, but it is evident that Momaday wants the reader to apprehend the albino as evil and possibly to recognize him as a witch (Indians use the term for men and women both). [In "Incarnate Grace and the Paths of Salvation in House Made of Dawn," American Indian Quarterly 2, No. 1 (1975)] H. S. McAllister argues that the albino is linked through witchcraft and possession with Fray Nicolas and the Bahkyush witch Nicolas teah-whau. The three are, in McAllister's words, "three manifestations of a single person." I find this thesis far-fetched, or at least in excess of the evidence McAllister has marshaled, but according to Momaday himself, the albino is a witch. Momaday told Woodard about the passage in question: "He [the albino] is manifesting the evil of his presence. Witchcraft and the excitement of it is part of that too." Abel is aware that the albino is evil, but his decision to kill him seems to spring from a specific incident, his beating at the Festival of Santiago.

When the albino pulls the rooster out of the ground and chooses Abel to beat, Abel is infuriated by the humiliation and determines to kill the albino. Momaday refers to this gory ritual as a game, and it is a game in the sense that it is an activity done for entertainment and governed by a well-defined set of arbitrary rules. If Abel decides to play the game, he should be aware of the risks and willing to suffer the consequences. His anger and decision to kill the albino exceed the rules of the game, and indicate a mind out of touch with its cultural context. It is as if a black halfback, considering it a racial incident when he is tackled by a white linebacker, wants to fight him. A man who does not want to be knocked down should not play football, and a man who does not want to be beaten with a rooster should avoid participating in rituals in which that is the practice. Nonetheless, Abel does not see it that way. He kills the albino.

In understanding the albino we must recognize the symbolic dimension to his character. The conjunction of whiteness and evil inevitably suggests Melville's Moby Dick. In chapter 42, "The Whiteness of the Whale," Melville describes how white not only symbolizes purity and goodness to men but also transmits the spectral qualities of terror and evil. As Melville puts it, white is "the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind." Melville particularly mentions the albino man who "so particularly repels and often shocks the eye, as that sometimes he is loathed by his own kith and kin." Momaday told Woodard of his special interest in Melville, whom he teaches in his course on antiromantic American literature. In his interview with Woodard he confirms the influence of Melville in the depiction of the albino.

One of the most interesting things about the albino is that throughout House Made of Dawn, Momaday refers to him as the "white man." We must remember that we are dealing with symbolism here, not allegory. Momaday's albino does not stand for Caucasian Americans in the way that Bunyan's Mr. Wordly Wiseman stands for earthly knowledge. Primarily, Juan Reyes Fragua is a Tanoan Indian who interacts with other characters on a purely realistic level. There is an additional symbolic and ironic sense, however, in which the "white man" represents white society. Perhaps this is most strongly apparent in the scene in which Abel murders the albino. Although Momaday is describing a stabbing, the terms he uses are obviously sexual:

The white man raised his arms, as if to embrace him…. Then he closed his hands on Abel and drew him close. Abel heard the strange excitement of the white man's breath, and the quick, uneven blowing in his ear, and felt the blue shivering lips upon him, felt even the scales of the lips and hot slippery point of the tongue, writhing.

What is happening here, on a literal level, is that Abel is killing the albino while, on a symbolic level, the white man is raping Abel. What exactly this means in symbolic terms is impossible to put neatly into words. Momaday has told Woodard about Fragua: "There is a kind of ambiguity that is creative in the albino—the white man, the albino, that equation, whatever it is."

Abel's other "brother" is Tosamah, the enigmatic Priest of the Sun who resembles Momaday in a number of respects. First of all, Tosamah is the only Kiowa in House Made of Dawn. Second, Momaday's description of Tosamah—"big, lithe as a cat, narrow eyed"—fits Momaday himself. More important, Momaday has Tosamah express some of his most deeply felt ideas about the sacred nature of the word and the power of language in the sermon Tosamah delivers to his parishoners. Finally, and most remarkably, when Tosamah tells his life story, it is the story of Momaday's life. The chapter headed "January 27" in the "Priest of the Sun" section of House Made of Dawn is also the introduction to The Way to Rainy Mountain.

If Tosamah is the character in House Made of Dawn who most closely resembles Momaday, how do we account for the way Tosamah despises Abel? Tosamah says of Abel that the whites

deloused him and gave him a lot of free haircuts and let him fight on their side. But was he grateful? Hell, no, man. He was too damn dumb to be civilized…. He turned out to be a real primitive sonuvabitch, and the first time he got hold of a knife he killed a man. That must have embarrassed the hell out of them.

Obviously Tosamah is being ironic about the generosity of the whites—"they let him fight on their side"—but he means what he says about Abel—that he is "too damn dumb to be civilized," and "a real primitive sonuvabitch." Tosamah does not see anything noble in Abel's savagery. He is ashamed that Abel, a member of the same ethnic group, has made a spectacle of himself. Abel has "embarrassed the hell out of" Tosamah by fulfilling the white stereotype of the Indian—primitive, violent, superstitious, backward, and, significantly, dumb—inarticulate.

Tosamah is so scornful of Abel that he baits him until he breaks Abel's spirit. After Tosamah's taunts, Abel gets violently drunk and loses his job; with it go his hopes for a new life in California. Tosamah never shows any compassion or understanding of Abel; to Tosamah, Abel is simply an object of derision. Momaday's attitude toward Abel is obviously more sympathetic than Tosamah's, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Tosamah reflects one side of Momaday.

Recall that, during Momaday's youth, although he too was an Indian, he was an outsider among the Navajo and Jemez Indians. In his fantasy world he often saw himself as white and Indians as hostile. This side of Momaday is reflected in Tosamah.

But Tosamah is only one side of Momaday, and he is a caricature at that. Momaday gives him the middle name of Big Bluff, and Tosamah, in fact, sounds very much like the Kiowa word for "woman of the house," to·so·a·mah. Momaday says Tosamah has the voice of a "great dog," and there are deflating, comic touches in his sermon. "May the Great Spirit—can we knock off the talking back there—be with you always." In short, Tosamah reflects Momaday's self-irony, and he is clearly more of a caricature than a self-portrait of the artist. If Momaday is like Tosamah, however, he is also like Abel: both are outsiders. Although Momaday got along well with the Jemez, his accounts of early life at Jemez Pueblo make it clear that he felt he was different from the local Indians.

Abel's problems, in fact, seem to stem chiefly from the intolerance of other Indians. I do not mean just a few individuals like Tosamah and the albino, but the whole Tanoan community of Walatowa. Abel's mother and grandfather Francisco were Tanoans, but Abel was considered an outsider because of his illegitimacy: "He did not know who his father was. His father was a Navajo, they said, or a Sia, or an Isleta, an outsider anyway, which made him and his mother and Vidal somehow foreign and strange."

Abel's mother and brother die during his childhood, and Abel is alone in a hostile world save for his grandfather. Obviously Abel is not living successfully within the Indian cultural tradition before he goes to live in the white world, although this is the impression given on the cover of the New American Library edition—the one the students use: "His name was Abel, and he lived in two worlds. One was that of his fathers, wedding him to the rhythm of the seasons, the harsh beauty of the land, the ecstasy of the drug called peyote. The other was the world of the twentieth century, goading him into a compulsive cycle of sexual exploits, dissipation, and disgust." Abel's chief problem, both before he goes to war and immediately after he returns, is that he is not living in the world of his fathers. He does not know who his father is, nor does he know who he is himself.

Abel's problem is most acute just after his return from the war. He finds that he is totally alienated from his grandfather. He is frustrated because he is completely inarticulate. Language, the power of the word, is extremely important to Momaday, and he makes it clear that, because he cannot express himself, Abel is emotionally stifled and repressed, and so potentially violent.

His return to the town had been a failure, for all his looking forward. He had tried in the days that followed to speak to his grandfather, but he could not say the things he wanted; he had tried to pray, to sing, to enter the old rhythm of the tongue, but he was no longer attuned to it…. Had he been able to say … anything of his own language … [it] would have once again shown him whole to himself; but he was dumb.

A short time later Momaday describes Abel's walk into the hills:

He was alone, and he wanted to make a song out of the colored canyon, the way the women of Torreón made songs upon their looms out of colored yarn, but he had not got the right words together. It would have been a creation song; he would have sung slowly of the first world, of fire and flood, and of the emergence of dawn from the hills.

The song Abel is looking for is the Navajo hymn "House Made of Dawn," which he later learns from his friend Benally.

Abel remains inarticulate and emotionally repressed throughout his years in jail and during his relocation in Los Angeles, where, as Momaday points out symbolically with a scene that includes grunions, he is like a fish out of water. Abel achieves emotional release with the death of his grandfather. When Francisco dies, Abel buries him in the prescribed Tanoan fashion. For the first time since his disastrous participation in the rooster ceremony, Abel takes part in a Tanoan ritual. The act symbolizes his entry into the culture of his fathers. Immediately after preparing his grandfather for burial, Abel participates in the traditional race for good hunting and harvests. His grandfather had won this contest more than half a century earlier, in what had been the climactic point of his life: "Some years afterward, when he was no longer young and his leg had been stiffened by disease, he made a pencil drawing on the first page of a ledger book which he kept with his store of prayer feathers in the rafters of his room. It was the likeness of a straight black man running in the snow." One cannot help thinking of the contrast between him and A. E. Housman's runner ("To an Athlete Dying Young"), who dies shortly after winning his race. Francisco survives to join the "rout / Of lads that wore their honors out, / Runners whom renown outran."

As the novel ends, Abel smears his arms and chest with ashes, as the ritual prescribes, and joins the runners, though unlike Francisco he runs behind them. As he runs, he sings the song he had longed to sing: "House made of pollen, house made of dawn."

This is a happy ending, or as happy an ending as the novel will allow. Abel has entered into the ceremonial life of his people, and he has regained his voice. His running is symbolic of his emotional and spiritual health, even though his legs buckle and he falls. For him to win the race would be impossibly corny—a totally discordant note of contrived cheerfulness.

Abel does not win this race, nor does Momaday imply that he will win in the future. Yet by the simple act of entering the race Abel establishes that, despite the onslaughts of the Cains who have attacked him, he has survived. Abel survives because he is able to integrate himself into Tanoan culture. But this is not to say that he has rejected white culture and returned to an Indian culture. There is no such thing as a pure culture.

The culture of Walatowa is particularly complex. It was originally a Tanoan Pueblo settlement. When the Conquistadores conquered the Pueblos, they introduced the Spanish language and Catholicism; with the Mexican War, Walatowa became part of America, and a new language and culture were superimposed on the other two. For centuries the Walatoans practiced both Christianity and their native religion, but slowly the religions merged, and by the time of the novel's central action the people of Walatowa have their own peculiar brand of Pueblo Christianity, with its own rituals and mythology. Momaday explicitly chronicles the shift. Fray Nicolas, the nineteenth-century priest who keeps a diary, reveals his horror that his sacristan Francisco (Abel's grandfather) participates in the traditional Tanoan ceremonies by dancing in the Kiva, the sacred dugout of the Pueblos. Fray Nicolas believes that practicing traditional Indian rituals is sinful and disgusting, and he expects the Holy Spirit to strike Francisco down when the boy assists at mass. By 1945 the attitude of the church apparently had changed, because the current priest, Father Olguin, proudly shows Angela St. John the ceremonial dancing and other rituals that take place on the Feast of Santiago.

In fact, the whole myth and ceremony of Santiago is an illustration of the merging of the cultures. Santiago is Momaday's name for San Diego (both are Spanish names for Saint James), the saint whose day was celebrated in Jemez on November 12. The Tanoans celebrate the holiday in the novel by going to mass and then carrying an effigy of Porcingula, Our Lady of the Angels—a saint they inherited from the Bahkyush—through the streets to her position next to the kiva where

The Lady would stand all day in her shrine, and the governor and his officials would sit in attendance at her feet, and one by one the dancers of the squash and turquoise clans would appear on top of the kiva, coming out upon the sky in their rich ceremonial dress, descend the high ladder to the earth, and kneel before her.

Momaday's myth of Santiago also shows the blending of the cultures, as it combines the Christian genre of the saints tale, with its miracles, and the Indian myth of origin that features the trickster as culture hero. Santiago, who escapes the evil king by the miracle of the rooster and horses (which is as much trickster prank as Christian miracle), ends by providing plants and animals for the Pueblo people, the standard task of the culture-hero trickster.

Like Joyce's Finnegans Wake, House Made of Dawn ends as it begins. Abel is running and, as he runs, he sings. It is important to notice what he sings: the Navajo prayer song, House Made of Dawn. Abel has found himself in his own culture, a blend of Tanoan, Spanish, and American influences, and he is singing a Navajo song, appropriate in light of his own mixed ancestry.

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