N. Scott Momaday | Howard Meredith

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of N. Scott Momaday.
This section contains 2,507 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
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Howard Meredith

SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday: A Man of Words," in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 405-07.

In the essay below, Meredith discusses Momaday's literary attempts to preserve Native American culture and examines his use of Kiowa traditions as a narrative form and "a measured angle of vision" through which to view the world.

N. Scott Momaday marks a decisive line of demarcation in the cultural tradition of the Kiowa people. In doing so, he has struck a responsive chord among the other diverse peoples of North America. He is a collector of the ancient traditions that circulated orally among the Kiowa people and others of the American Southwest. With him begins a literary tradition of those prose narratives which previously had circulated almost exclusively within specific tribal contexts. This process is one in which a great literary work, House Made of Dawn, issued at a stroke.

Such a collecting and refashioning of old material cannot be ascribed to the initiative of Momaday alone. The time and place are ripe for it. Indeed, what is most important is that the presuppositions for this collecting and refashioning are present in the ancient tribal traditions themselves. The majority of these old narratives are etiologies. Their purpose is to explain some facts in tribal heritage, about a place or in the spiritual tradition. Previously the validity of these traditions and the interest in them have been regionally limited to the lands occupied by the Kiowa in Oklahoma and the Navajo-Pueblo country farther west. The ancient spiritual traditions in particular are previously unthinkable outside the sacred context. Only in the course of traditional acts could a person meet and experience them. These sacred narratives are not some kind of ornamental addition to the tribe. Rather, they are its inmost nerve. It is by this that the tribal community lives and from this that the content and form of the ceremonials and dances proceed.

What a profound change occurs as these materials from different Kiowa societies and diverse places along their line of migration became unified and even altered by a superimposed plan! In a word, they became available as literature in Momaday's House Made of Dawn, The Way to Rainy Mountain, The Names, and The Ancient Child. Above all an inner shift occurs in the meaning of these narratives. Momaday lives in a time of continuing crisis for the Kiowa tribe and all native peoples of the Americas. Connected with this crisis is the decline of the ancient Kiowa tribal unity. The translation of oral traditions into literary ones is fostered to a degree by this disintegration. Focus in the literary narrative is brought to bear on unifying elements. Some of these are explained in personal terms that have become intimately associated with traditions surrounding the Tai-me, a sacred figure of the Kiowa, and the tribal migration story ending at Rainy Mountain. In each of these Momaday uses words and formal variations to provide for emphasis in meaning and purpose which the material once possessed in its oral tribal context. He does not forget that the narrative has changed by virtue of the context in which he has placed it.

One conceptual problem about Momaday's work is that of making explicit the criteria by which a narrative is recognized as coherent or incoherent. He chooses Kiowa tradition in his fictional and personal narratives as a measured angle of vision. Consistent reference is made to the Tai-me and its central place in Kiowa understanding of the world in both narrative and conversational form. In House Made of Dawn we read of how the Tai-me came to the Kiowa.

Long ago there were bad times. The Kiowas were hungry and there was no food. There was a man who heard his children cry from hunger, and he began to search for food. He walked four days and became very weak. On the fourth day he came to a great canyon. Suddenly there was thunder and lightning. A Voice spoke to him and said, "Why are you following me? What do you want?" The man was afraid. The thing standing before him had the feet of a deer, and its body was covered with feathers. The man answered that the Kiowas were hungry. "Take me with you," the Voice said, "and I will give you whatever you want." From that day Tai-me has belonged to the Kiowas.

In The Way to Rainy Mountain the Tai-me is described and brought within a personal memory.

The great central figure of the kedo, or Sun Dance, ceremony is the taime. This is a small image, less than 2 feet in length, representing a human figure dressed in a robe of white feathers, with a headdress consisting of a single upright feather and pendants of ermine skin, with numerous strands of blue beads around its neck, and painted upon the face, breast, and back with designs symbolic of the sun and moon. The image itself is of dark-green stone, in form rudely resembling a human head and bust, probably shaped by art like the stone fetishes of the Pueblo tribes. It is preserved in a rawhide box in charge of the hereditary keeper, and is never under any circumstances exposed to view except at the annual Sun Dance, when it is fastened to a short upright stick planted within the medicine lodge, near the western side. It was last exposed in 1888.—Mooney

Once I went with my father and grandmother to see the Tai-me bundle. It was suspended by means of a strip of ticking from the fork of a small ceremonial tree. I made an offering of bright red cloth, and my grandmother prayed aloud. It seemed a long time that we were there. I had never come into the presence of Tai-me before—nor have I since. There was a great holiness all about it in the room, as if an old person had died there or a child had been born.

Finally the Tai-me is referred to in terms of the imagination in The Ancient Child.

And Tai-me was exposed there, Tai-me, the sacred Sun Dance doll and most powerful medicine in the tribe, more powerful even than the tal-yi-da-i, the ten bundles containing the "boy medicine," one of which was kept by her uncle T'ene-taide. She dared to look upon it, the stiff polished figure gleamed in a splinter of light, and the downy feathers of his headdress trembled on the warm, sluggish breeze. She placed a patch of blue wool among the other, richer offerings. The presence of Tai-me was palpable; it was as if she had walked into a warm, slow-moving stream; the presence lay against her like water.

Momaday places the Tai-me and its specific context in relation to the earth and sky. This place is in southwest Oklahoma on and around Rainy Mountain, which becomes [according to Momaday in The Ancient Child] "the center of the world, the sacred ground of sacred grounds."

In the same instance, structures and processes are determined in large part by what Momaday leaves out of his representations as much as by what he places in the literary versions. As with many American Indian traditions, family relationships are paramount. Although Momaday's Kiowa relations are discussed prominently, his Cherokee background is less well known. It is critical to remember that Momaday perceived how his mother's native heritage enabled her to assume an attitude of defiance. Natachee Scott Momaday's knowledge of her Cherokee ancestry allowed her to take an intellectual perspective that might have eluded her otherwise.

This decision by Momaday's mother, in turn, provided freedom of choice to her son. The defiance of the mother allowed added cultural perspectives through which to make critical choices. The tension between the requirements of the system in place and those of change, between order and adventure, were brought into bold relief through the native heritage. In his memoir [The Names], Momaday wrote of his mother's choice of the cultural and intellectual forces that would provide her with life's perspective.

It was about this time that she began to see herself as an Indian. That dim native heritage became her fascination and a cause for her, inasmuch, perhaps, as it enabled her to assume an attitude of defiance, an attitude which she assumed with particular style and satisfaction; it became her. She imagined who she was. This act of the imagination was, I believe, among the most important events of my mother's early life, as later the same essential act was to be among the most important of my own.

To both mother and son, the attitude existed in all kinds of narrative practice, including oral tradition, as well as literary fiction. This intellectual tension at certain moments became acute enough to become the principle of narrative works. In his graduate study Momaday examined the "literatures of resistance." He echoed this theme in his dissertation, an edition of the collected verse of the nineteenth-century poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. In his ["The Heretical Cricket," a study of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman's poem "The Cricket" appearing in Southern Review n. s. 3 (1967),] he wrote that this poem "must concern us with the matter of intellectual integrity in a context of intellectual dissolution." He returned to the theme of resistance in The Ancient Child, emphasizing the concept that all art was resistance.

Momaday challenges readers to accept the knowledge bound up in the themes of imagining the self and resisting the disintegrating intellectual climate. In a talk given in 1970, "The Man Made of Words," he stated: "We Americans need now more than ever before—indeed more than we know—to imagine who and what we are with respect to the earth and sky." As the West European roots of Anglo-American culture become less relevant, the need is for each person and family of people to know themselves. New means of communication and mass media allow the oral traditions of America to emerge to influence segments of society as never before possible. Americans need to know themselves for what they are and not as a fading colonial image.

Momaday describes the world in which he lives as derived from mental schemata rather than from observation. He can discern the essential features of an order that happens to suit him. He highlights the essence of traditional narratives by emphasizing that the various traditions construct their objects. The terms are objects of language, not entities of which words are in some way copies. On the nature of the relationship between language and experience, Momaday states: "It seems to me that in a certain sense we are all made of words; that our most essential being consists in language." The Way to Rainy Mountain exhibits this ideal. As such it is an integration of old Kiowa tales, historical commentary, and autobiographical commentary. In large part, living memory and the oral tradition that transcends it outline the terms of Momaday's resistance. he is careful to define these integrating elements [in "The Man Made of Words"].

The oral tradition is that process by which the myths, legends, tales, and lore of a people are formulated, communicated, and preserved in language by word of mouth, as opposed to writing. Or, it is a collection of such things….

In the context of the remarks, the matter of oral tradition suggests certain particularities of art and reality. Art, for example,… involves an oral dimension which is based markedly upon such considerations as memorization, intonation, inflection, precision of statement, brevity, rhythm, pace, and dramatic effect. Moreover, myth, legend, and lore, according to our definitions of these terms, imply a separate and distinct order of reality. We are concerned here not so much with an acute representation of actuality, but with the realization of the imaginative experience….

Generally speaking, man has consummate being in language, and there only. The state of human being is an idea, an idea which man has of himself. Only when he is embodied in an idea, and the idea is realized in language, can man take possession of himself.

Momaday's sense of native literature is unified, intelligible, based on proper subordination of the part to the ends of the whole, whereas academic ethnology and history of the same subject matter know only the paratactic organization of contiguity or succession. This is a distinct sense of reality in comparison with that of oral tradition. Both oral tradition and written literature are realized in and through narrative. The shape of narrative and the angle of vision that particular narrative forms convey are thereby common to both at any given time.

Tradition has come to be associated with the singular, the unexpected, the uncontrollable, the unsystematic, whereas literature, especially fiction, on the other hand, is associated with the ordered, the coherent, the general. Momaday undercuts the narrative coherence of his novels through appeals to traditions other than the Anglo-American. The important thing for him in this context is not "objective" truth, as distinct from subjective belief, but the fact that the material is part of an accepted tradition. He finds an angle of vision from which readers can allow their gaze to embrace the entire sequence of facts—a pregnant principle for which each particular fact would be only a development. Isolated facts that cannot be related to the principal action are treated in digressions, as they are important in themselves.

Momaday's appeal to tradition—in fact, to a number of traditions, including Kiowa, Navajo-Pueblo, and Anglo-Saxon—raises questions and creates conditions in which the individual subject, the critical reason, could exercise and assert its freedom. It is not presented as an objectively true and therefore compelling discovery of reality itself. On the contrary, its verity and validity are always problematic, provoking the readers' reflections and thus renewing their own freedom. Discontinuity, rather than continuity, is placed at the heart of Momaday's use of the various traditions, as it has been placed at the heart of his fiction. He reaches through to past-present-future reality by a process of symbolic interpretation of the evidence.

The older distinction between fiction and history or tradition, in which fiction is conceived as the representation of the imaginable and historical narrative as the representation of the actual, gives way to the recognition that this author knows the actual as the imaginable.

The cognitive function of Momaday's use of narrative form is not just to relate a succession of events but to bring forth an ensemble of interrelationships of many different elements as a single whole. In fictional narrative the coherence of such complex forms affords esthetic and emotional satisfaction. Momaday relates to the reader his figures' lives in language, "and of the awful risk involved." On one level he prepares his readers for the risk of experiencing another plane of existence, one that can be realized through acceptance of the oneness of past, present, and future in accord with spatial terms. Momaday provides for the defiance of renewal. He points the way to mental sanctuary. He brings American readers to a new sense of maturity through the use of the traditions of America. He asks readers to imagine themselves, but always in relationship to the American earth and sky.

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