This section contains 3,661 words
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Critical Essay by Hertha Dawn Wong
SOURCE: "Contemporary Innovations of Oral Traditions: N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko," in Sending My Heart Back across the Years: Tradition and Innovation in Native American Autobiography, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1992, pp. 153-99.
In the following excerpt, Wong analyzes Momaday's emphasis on "orality" and its influence on the discussion of ancestral and racial heritage, communal self, and individual identity in The Way to Rainy Mountain.
Momaday's belief in the transforming capabilities of the imagination, in the synthesizing potential of memory, in the identity-inducing possibilities of the land, and in the power, beauty, and grace of the word finds its way into The Way to Rainy Mountain. The first of his two autobiographies, The Way to Rainy Mountain is the more experimental. Many critics, including Momaday himself, have commented on its unique structure and purpose.
Claiming that it defies generic classification, Robert L. Berner refers to The Way to Rainy Mountain [in "N. Scott Momaday: Beyond Rainy Mountain," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 3, No. 1 (1979)] as "an abbreviated history of the Kiowa people, a re-working of Kiowa folklore, a mixture of legend, historical fact, and autobiography." Not content with these attempts at labeling, he calls it "a kind of prose poem," "an exercise in self-definition," and, most dubiously, "a profoundly civilized work of literature." Similarly, Kenneth Fields writes [in "More Than Language Means: A Review of N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain," Southern Review 6, No. 1 (1970)]: "… I know of no book like Rainy Mountain…." Due to its concentrated and evocative language, it approaches poetry; but also, due to its multiple voices, its form "resembles those ancient texts with subsequent commentaries." Its "real subject," however, "is the recognition of what it means to feel himself a Kiowa in the modern American culture that displaced his ancestors." Not sharing Berner's and Fields's quandary over the work's genre, Thekla Zachrau mistakenly calls it [in "N. Scott Momaday: Towards an Indian Identity," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 3, No. 1 (1979)] "Momaday's second novel," which can be read "as a variation on the identity theme." Charles A. Nicholas, on the contrary, interprets the work [in his "The Way to Rainy Mountain: N. Scott Momaday's Hard Journey Back," South Dakota Review 13, No. 4 (1975)] as expressing Momaday's belief in "the essential continuity of myth and poetry and their ability to induce vision and compel belief." For Mick McAllister [in "The Topography of Remembrance in The Way to Rainy Mountain," Denver Quarterly 12, No. 4 (1978)], "The Way to Rainy Mountain has the simplicity, and the complexity, of a piece of music," and "is at once a celebration and an exercise in form." [In "The Art and Importance of N. Scott Momaday," Southern Review 14, No. 1 (1978)] Roger Dickinson-Brown limits his comments to its "associational structure" and its "almost Jamesian symmetry," while Barbara Strelke calls it "a multivoiced response to the question of personal and cultural creation through imagination and language" ["N. Scott Momaday: Racial Memory and Individual Imagination," Literature of the American Indians: Views and Interpretations, edited by Abraham Chapman, 1975]. In his study of the Western literary sources of Momaday's works [entitled N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background] Matthias Schubnell states that Momaday's mentor Yvor Winters "urged Momaday to try a combination of expository writing and fictitious, historical, or legendary narrative…." The result was The Way to Rainy Mountain, which reflects "Momaday's own exploration of his racial heritage." Certainly, Arnold Krupat's recent denunciation of Momaday [in his 1989 The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon] as the "Native American writer most committed to hegemonic monologue" and his insistence that Momaday's "writing offers a single, invariant poetic voice that everywhere commits itself to subsuming and translating all other voices" is overstated. In fact as will be discussed in this section throughout this unique polyvocal autobiographical narrative, Momaday constructs a communal self. His individual identity comes into being only in relation to the ancient tribal past, the historical Kiowa experience, and the multicultural present.
Momaday himself has plenty to say about The Way to Rainy Mountain:
In one sense, then, the way to Rainy Mountain is preeminently the history of an idea, man's idea of himself, and it has old and essential being in language….
The journey herein recalled continues to be made anew each time the miracle comes to mind, for that is peculiarly the right and responsibility of the imagination.
This journey, "made with the whole memory, that experience of the mind which is legendary as well as historical, personal as well as cultural," evokes three particular things: "a landscape that is incomparable, a time that is gone forever, and the human spirit, which endures." Momaday links the legendary, historical, and personal literally in his journey and literarily in his imagination. After retracing the historical Kiowa migration, Momaday returned to Oklahoma. There, like a Kiowa Neihardt, he "interviewed a number of Kiowa elders and obtained from them a remarkable body of history and learning, fact and fiction—all of it in the oral tradition…." Since Momaday does not speak Kiowa, these oral accounts were translated and added to by Momaday's father, Al Momaday. This collaborative work was then published privately as The Journey of Tai-me (1967), which later formed the basis for The Way to Rainy Mountain.
The Way to Rainy Mountain is an autobiography in which Momaday constructs and narrates a Kiowa personal identity that can come into being only in relation to Kiowa myth and history. Like many transitional personal narratives, Momaday's autobiographical self is relational and his form predominantly a reconstruction of the spoken word in writing. The multilayered autobiographical narrative is composed of three basic divisions that are preceded by a prologue and an introduction, concluded by an epilogue, and framed by two poems. The two poems, "Headwaters" and "Rainy Mountain Cemetery," which begin and end the work, repeat in miniature the longer narrative of the Momaday-Kiowa journey. Al Momaday drew the eleven illustrations found throughout, and the running title along the bottom of the three main chapters beckons the book designer's reader-traveler like a typographical trail into the journey.
The autobiography's tripartite structure reflects three narrative voices: the mythical, the historical, and the personal, each accentuated by different typeface. The twenty four three-part narrative units are divided into three larger chapters: "The Setting Out" (sections I-XI), "The Going On" (sections XII-XVIII), and "The Closing In" (sections XIX-XXIV). These three main divisions reflect the historical movement of the Kiowa migration from "the mountains of what is now western Montana," traveling south and east to what is now southwestern Oklahoma, as well as Momaday's personal journey in their distant trail. The first chapter, "The Setting Out," tells the story of the beginning of the Kiowas—their emergence into the world through a hollow log, their tribal split, and their "struggle for existence in the bleak northern mountains." This chapter also describes the beginning of their migration south and east across the plains. The primary aspects of the Kiowa religion are introduced as well: the hero twins fathered by the Sun, who came to earth, helped overcome chaos, and metamorphosed into the ten sacred bundles; Tai-me, the sacred symbol of the Sun Dance Ceremony; the Sun Dance; and the peyote religion.
"The Going On," the second chapter, deals with the interim of Kiowa culture, "a time of great adventure and nobility and fulfillment," when, by obtaining the horse, the Kiowa male was transformed from "a half-starved skulker" into "the daring buffalo hunter." Momaday describes the highlight of the Kiowa Plains culture, and a people who "had dared to imagine and determine who they were." We hear stories of the magic of Kiowa language, the arrowmaker, the "buffalo with horns of steel," the hard lives of women, and the everyday life on the Plains.
"The Closing In" describes the end of the Kiowa Plains culture, which "withered and died like grass that is burned in the prairie wind." It is filled with images of constraint and destruction: capture by the U.S. Cavalry; lack of food; extermination of the buffalo, "the animal representation of the sun"; destruction of the Kiowa's horses; deicide; and, as a consequence of all these, the loss of personal bravery. Despite the dreariness of the subject, the chapter ends with a description of a woman buried in a beautiful elk-tooth buckskin dress—a vision of the timeless connection of the people to the land of the buried beauty of the Kiowa culture.
Although the overall narrative movement of these three main sections is chronological, Momaday blends the mythic, historical, and personal by an elaborate process of association. The intermixing of these distinct historical periods suggests a kind of timelessness or, at the very least, an intimate and irrevocable connection among the three. McAllister refers to such associations as "secondary patterns" that weave the various parts of the work together. A more subtle association, though, is the connection between personal and tribal experience, present and past lives united in story.
Momaday's experimentation with the structure of The Way to Rainy Mountain reflects his familiarity with Western literary conventions and his knowledge of Kiowa oral traditions. Like the Indian autobiographers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (such as Charles Alexander Eastman and Black Elk), Momaday modifies pre-contact oral and pictographic modes of personal narrative. Unlike those of earlier Native American autobiographers, Momaday's changes are highly self-conscious, not residual forms that innocuously find their way into written expression. Likewise, they are due to his creative imagination, rather than to a political or an ethnological expediency. He wishes to show the evolution from an oral tradition to a written tradition, to show the oral tradition "with the framework of a literary continuance…." In fact, according to Momaday, who applies an evolutionary model to traditional Kiowa notions of the cyclical nature of life and narrative, the Kiowa tales in The Way to Rainy Mountain "constitute a kind of literary chronicle." [According to Charles Nicholas, he] dramatizes this evolution in the text when, in the third chapter, he replaces ancient Kiowa myths with family stories now elevated to legendary status: "that is, Momaday is creating myth out of his memories of his ancestors rather than passing on already established and socially sanctioned tales." Similarly, the historical accounts become family memories, and the personal reminiscences become "prose poems containing symbols which link them thematically to the other two, suggesting that all three journeys are products of the imagination," and, I would add, suggesting that the mythical, historical, and personal are all facets of Momaday the autobiographer. Refashioning pre-contact personal narrative is one way he attempts to define his Kiowa identity and to suggest the continuity of Native American traditions, from orality to literacy.
The oral aspects of personal narrative are focused within, but not limited to, the mythical sections, which, of course, were all originally oral. Momaday emphasizes orality by including dialogues; multiple voices; songs; oral devices such as repetition of words, phrases, and images; and oral formulas, as well as a few variations on Plains Indian coup tales. Throughout the work, Momaday includes a type of one-sided dialogue that allows for many voices to be heard. An enemy appears to a family, demanding, "If you will feed us all, we will not harm you." Although this is a one-way conversation (we hear only the enemy), a response from the listener is implied. Other speakers provide little besides lively choral backgrounds—like the dog, the sun, the giant's wife, Tai-me, an invisible voice, and the blind hunter. Thus Momaday, with economical concentration, provides the feeling of conversation but allows only one person to speak.
More important than unidirectional dialogues (not to be confused with monologues, which require no listener) are the few voices that speak for themselves. Only two people—Aho and Ko-sahn—are allowed to speak for themselves at length. They, of course, are major figures in the entire work. Momaday's Kiowa grandmother, Aho, provides the occasion for the work and its best unifying image. It is her death that compels Momaday to begin his personal/tribal quest, to return to his people, and to write his book. In the introduction, Aho tells the legend of the creation of Devils Tower (a rock formation in northeastern Wyoming) and of the seven sisters who "were borne into the sky, and … became the stars of the Big Dipper." "From that moment," says Momaday, "and so long as the legend lives, the Kiowas have kinsmen in the night sky." This story links earth to sky and humans to both. Also, we discover elsewhere, the story and the place are significant as the source of one of Momaday's names—Tsoaitalee, Kiowa for Rock Boy, a name inspired by Devils Tower.
Balancing Aho's story in the introduction, Ko-sahn's recollections are found in the epilogue. Momaday refers to this "hundred-year-old woman" as the embodiment of the "living memory and verbal tradition which transcends it." For her, at least as she is re-created on the page by Momaday, there is no distinction between individual and tribal memory, between mythical and historical realms. Just as Aho is the deceased image of the Kiowa past, Ko-sahn is the living symbol of Kiowa antiquity. Through her memory, reenvisioned by Momaday, the mythical and historical unite in the present. Finally, both Aho and Ko-sahn, as Momaday imagines them, function as literary images of Kiowa heritage rather than as realistic depictions of flesh-and-blood women.
Five brief songs, a second oral component, are included in The Way to Rainy Mountain. These five songs parallel Momaday's ideas about the process of literary evolution. The first is sung by a mythical character, Spider Woman, while the song of the wife of Many Bears is clearly grounded in historical experience. Ko-sahn's songs unite the mythical and historical in the personal present. Of course, empowered by myth and history, Momaday is the creative intelligence behind each of these singers. With his belief in the liveliness of the past in the present moment, a tribal past that he tries to resurrect in himself and in his work, he presents The Way to Rainy Mountain as the polyphonous song of his Anglo-Kiowa identity, of his individual/tribal self.
As well as multiple voices and songs, Momaday uses the formulas and style of oral composition. His language is simple, and he frequently begins his stories with traditional openings such as "They were going along …," "A long time ago …," "Once there was a man and his wife …," "This is how it was: Long ago …," and "Once upon a time…." At times, he inserts the phrase "you know" to slow the pace of the sentence, accentuating the orality of the story and giving it a personal tone.
One aspect of oral style he masters is repetition, which creates an "irresistible accumulation of power." In this case he repeats words, phrases, images, themes, characters, and structural units. For instance, the poem "Headwaters" introduces the Kiowa creation myth in which the Kiowa emerge through a "log, hollow and weather-stained." This is echoed in the prologue: "You know, everything had to begin…. For the Kiowas the beginning was…." This phrase is repeated almost exactly in the first and last sentences of the mythical passage of section I. In the historical part of section I, the ethnological explanation, derived from nineteenth-century ethnographer James Mooney's reports, repeats the previously mentioned notion that Kwuda means "coming out." This idea of emerging is again repeated when, in the personal recollection, Momaday writes: "I remember coming out upon the northern Great Plains…." Similarly, the end of the prologue is repeated exactly in Ko-sahn's final words in the epilogue. Such resonant repetition is used with images of halves (e.g., the Kiowa haircuts, which are long on one side and short on the other; the tribal split; the twins; and the mirror image), animals (varying images of antelope, buffalos, dogs, horses, and spiders are echoed throughout), and people (e.g., Mammedaty, Ka-au-ointy, Ko-sahn, and Aho). In addition, in the songs particularly, Momaday uses the progressive repetition often associated with oral poetry. It is important to keep in mind, though, that such techniques owe as much to his study of Euro-American modernists as to his examination of Kiowa oral traditions.
Similarly, repeated themes occur often. The three parts of section VIII introduce Momaday's insistence on the importance of language. When the twin warriors are in danger of being killed by giants, they remember Grandmother Spider's advice to say to themselves "the word thain-mom, 'above my eyes.'" They "repeated the word thain-mom over and over to themselves," and the smoke from the giants' fire stayed above their eyes. In the historical section, Momaday elaborates: "A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things. By means of words can a man deal with the world on equal terms. And the word is sacred." Momaday completes his ethnographic discussion of Indian language with a discussion of the potency of a Kiowa's name. Then, in his personal account, he remembers that Aho, when she "saw or heard something bad,… said the word zei-dl-bei, 'frightful'"—"an exertion of language upon ignorance and disorder."
The theme of the potency of words is repeated in the often quoted story of the arrowmaker (section XIII), in the use of a phrase to pacify the storm spirit (section XIV), and in the anecdote about the "bad woman" who, abusing the power of language, lies to her blind husband and her people (section XVII). Of course, the entirety of The Way to Rainy Mountain is testimony to the power of language to create and shape reality, to recreate myth, to recollect history, to recall personal responses, and to unify these imaginatively.
As well as verbal and thematic repetitions, there are structural repetitions. Each of the three main sections ends at Rainy Mountain, as do the introduction, the epilogue, and the final poem, "Rainy Mountain Cemetery." These returns reveal several cyclical patterns within the larger framework of the journey. Rainy Mountain is where Momaday returned to seek his roots, where the Kiowa made their way, where Aho is buried, and where the reader arrives. It represents more than a specific geographic location; it is the localized source and end of our collective seeking.
A final oral aspect that Momaday uses sparingly is a modification of Plains Indian coup tales—accounts of brave deeds generally performed during a hunt or a fight. Basically, Momaday retains only the barest echoes of the "bragging biographies" of the Kiowa, whose contact with horses, according to Momaday, gave them "a taste for danger and an inclination to belligerance [sic]." According to legend, on one hunting trip the tribe split in two because of a quarrel over an antelope udder. The historical passage does not glorify a particular hunting exploit, but explains the technique for a great circle hunt. In the personal reflections, Momaday is a poet, an artist, a man of sensibility as he describes not the triumph of catching a fine deer, but the joy of attaining a lovely image—the white rump of a frightened pronghorn bounding across the plains "like a succession of sunbursts against the purple hills."
Most of the brave deeds recounted in The Way to Rainy Mountain are the mythical exploits of the twin heroes. In one reference to hunting, the hunter needs magical assistance to know how to kill the "buffalo with horns of steel." Ironically, immediately following this tale is a historical account of a degraded version of hunting buffalo. Rather than the magnificent beast of the previous tale, the hunters chase "a poor broken beast in which there was no trace left of the wild strain." Similarly, the personal passage reverses the traditional hunter's tale altogether as the buffalo mother chases Momaday and his father, instead of the other way around.
What we have here is not the nineteenth-century Plains Indian narrative of personal accomplishment, but a contemporary, lyrical narrative, based on pre-contact oral traditions of all sorts, that Momaday modified to educate and inspire contemporary readers. It is, in effect, a series of Momaday's tribal coup tales, but in place of arrows, Momaday uses words. The story of the arrowmaker makes this clear. The arrowmaker, sensing a person outside his tipi, tells his wife to continue their conversation as though everything were normal so as not to reveal to their potential enemy their awareness of him. As he should, the arrowmaker tests his newly made arrow, drawing it in the bow and aiming "first in this direction and then in that." The story continues:
And all the while he was talking, as if to his wife. But this is how he spoke: "I know that you are there on the outside, for I can feel your eyes upon me. If you are a Kiowa, you will understand what I am saying, and you will speak your name." But there was no answer, and the man went on in the same way, pointing the arrow all around. At last his aim fell upon the place where his enemy stood, and he let go of the string. The arrow went straight to the enemy's heart.
This story is about language, says Momaday, "the repository of [the arrowmaker's] whole knowledge and experience, and it represents the only chance he has for survival." For the arrowmaker-storyteller, language is not merely decorative, but a tool for self-creation, a weapon for survival. Momaday has shifted the thematic focus from the arrows of the nineteenth-century Kiowa to the language of the twentieth-century author. In the process, he fuses the two in the image of the arrowmaker. Both the toothmarked arrow and the well-crafted word go "straight to the enemy's heart." But arrows did not save the buffalo, or the horses, or Tai-me, or even the Kiowas themselves. When in 1879 they surrendered to the U.S. Cavalry, the hunting and warring ways of their life on the Plains were over. Now, over one hundred years later, Momaday uses language as a means to salvage his personal and tribal story.
This section contains 3,661 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)