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Critical Essay by Barbara Strelke
SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday: Racial Memory and Individual Imagination," in Literature of the American Indians: Views and Interpretations; A Gathering of Indian Memories, Symbolic Contexts, and Literary Criticism, edited by Abraham Chapman, New American Library, 1975, pp. 348-57.
Strelke is a photographer, poet, editor, and educator who frequently teaches courses on Native Americans. In the essay below, she examines Momaday's thematic focus on personal redemption and identity and discusses his blending of individual history, racial memory, Native art and culture, and Western aesthetics in House Made of Dawn and The Way to Rainy Mountain.
On one level, the writings of N. Scott Momaday, notably the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, House Made of Dawn, and the multigenre books, The Way to Rainy Mountain, center on the responses that Native Americans make to their ethnic backgrounds, their racial memory, their "Indianness." Because of these concerns, and because Momaday is himself a Native American, these books are taught in Native American literature courses or are included as material in courses in ethnic studies: they picture the values, lifestyles, and problems of minority groups in "mainstream" American culture, presenting examples of racial conflict which are too often resolved with the Native American's rejection, alienation, or assimilation.
On another level—and for me a much more evocative plane altogether—Momaday is dealing with the individual subtleties which lend credence to group encounters. What is striking about Momaday's message and art is its reflection of Native American tradition in the context of the personal and the universal. In a lecture he gave on the University of New Mexico campus during the summer of 1972, Momaday asserted that humanness waits on the individual's ability to imagine himself into existence, to leap with racial memory, personal wit, and faith to the point of redemption and wholeness. Man's birth, then, is by his own power of imagination; his life is atemporal, neither time nor space bound; and the word—sacred and creative—is the vehicle of articulation.
In House Made of Dawn and The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday combines elements of western philosophy and literature with specific aspects of Indian culture and art. I should like to concentrate on the central insight of House Made of Dawn: Abel's redemption. This personal redemption is more clearly placed in the context of racial memory and community in The Way to Rainy Mountain, In this book, theme, voice, and structure subtly articulate the relationship between imagination, existence, and redemption.
What is "western" in House Made of Dawn? Very briefly, the Angst of the main character. He is isolated most of the time, unable to really connect with his grandfather or to communicate with his best friend or his lover. He is a rugged, ragged individual. The tension between the rural and the industrial/technological is typically a condition of modern western man. The fictional complexities—changing points of view, distortion of temporal and spatial realities—show Momaday's debt to western literature. The use of a great many words to analyze and explore a simple thing is a western, not Native American, propensity. And what is "Indian"? Much of the beauty of the work rests in the Indian tradition of art, song, and poetry. Concrete nature imagery is a characteristic of Native American poetry and Momaday's concise haiku-like passages are "Indian" in their care for detail and their economy in style. The four-part structure of the novel forms a circular unit. The image of the circle and, consequently, the sense of the cyclical is recurrent in Indian thought and art, as are references to the number four—the quadrants, the directions, with corresponding colors, symbols, animals, etc. This structural artifice is as carefully made as a Navaho rug or a finely pounded silver conch. In these arts, the whole as circular unit works toward one end: that the silver sing, that the rug come alive. My analogies between weaving and silver-making and Momaday's novel are not farfetched. Indian art voices the major beliefs of Indian culture, and Momaday's novel articulates through specific detail these traditional premises:
Life and power reside in the Circle.
All creatures / All forces / co-exist equally.
Man is powerful and is capable of affecting, and
being affected by, the forces of the universe.
He sees signs and through word and ritual
participates in the Sacred.
House Made of Dawn opens with the protagonist's return to his pueblo after a stint in the army. Abel is portrayed as an outsider even to his own people and a stranger to mainstream American culture. He is a hybrid in a society which to him appears mirage-like and foreboding. The pueblo is no longer home for him. He's been to war; he's been separated from the simple verities of his home. When Abel steps off the bus to greet his grandfather, he steps down drunk.
During the few weeks he spends in his mountain village, Abel recognizes and acts upon the form, but not the substance of things. He is not attuned to Francisco, his grandfather, nor to the people of the pueblo. While he walks the land, Abel recalls incidents from his past. These remembrances form fragments of Abel's identity, fragments which he can not piece together to make a whole. "This—everything in advance of his going—he could remember whole and in detail. It was the recent past, the intervention of days and years without meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused, that he could not put together in his mind." But two incidents are most revealing. He remembers the sight of two eagles—tumbling in the air—a rattlesnake gripped between the female's talons. "It was an awful, holy sight, full of magic and meaning." Another vision, also in a sense full of magic and meaning, is Abel's remembrance of a war experience:
There was one sharp fragment of recall, recurrent and distinct … for a moment it seemed apart from the land; its great iron hull lay out against the timber and the sky, and the center of its weight hung away from the ridge. Then it came crashing down to the grade, slow as a waterfall, thunderous, surpassing impact, nestling almost into the splash and boil of debris. He was shaking violently, and the machine bore down upon him, came close, and passed him by. A wind arose and ran along the slope, scattering the leaves.
As the golden eagles are a sign of elemental and spiritual power in Native American culture, the tank, the machine are symbols of the power of technology and of modern warfare. Throughout the novel, the machine is an alien force to Abel, the cold antithesis of his heritage and home.
The climactic action in this first section of the novel is the scene in which Abel kills the albino, the man of the pueblo who embodies evil. Abel does not commit murder, but rather performs ritual death on a figure of evil. But Abel doesn't really understand this at the time he acts. The realization of this action comes later in the novel when Abel is lying, bleeding and delirious, on the beach outside Los Angeles. At this point there is again the merging of time and space as Abel's mind and memory wander to a sight from the past—a vision of the owl (the bird of warning, the bird often used as the spirit animal of the brujo, the witch), and the runners after evil:
So far had his vision reached that the owl, when he saw it, seemed to fly in his face, and break apart, torrential, ghostly, silent as a dream. He was delirious now and gasping for breath; he hurried on in his mind, holding the owl away in the corner of his eye. The owl watched him without meaning, and something was going on.
And then Abel sees the runners after evil:
… old men running after evil, their white leggings holding in motion like smoke above the ground. They passed in the night, full of tranquillity, certitude … The runners after evil ran as water runs deep in the channel, in the way of least resistance, no resistance. His skin crawled with excitement; he was overcome with longing and loneliness, for suddenly he saw the crucial sense in their going, 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.
Francisco realizes not only that the albino was evil but that evil, although confronted and chased, could never be killed. In the cornfields Francisco sees the albino spying upon him. Francisco was "too old to be afraid. His acknowledgment of the unknown was nothing more than a dull, intrinsic sadness, a vague desire to weep, for evil had long since found him out and knew who he was." Francisco understands that evil lives within the circle of life and that it can be only temporarily subverted. In this way the balance and equilibrium of life is assured.
At the beginning of the novel Abel is sick, is in disequilibrium. A western psychologist might cite Abel's symptoms—irresponsible behavior, character disintegration—and label his disease the ennui of modern man or the schizophrenia of bicultural man. But Indian culture would view Abel's sickness differently. If Abel had been a Plains Indian, he would have gone in quest of a vision or undergone a sweat bath to purify himself of the rigors of a foreign war. If Abel had been a Navaho with family and clan, he would have had a Night Chant sung for him. And thus, the sickness would have left on the last day. The point of Momaday's book, however, is that Abel's cure is not simply affected because Abel's identity is not clearly defined. He wanders and "runs" for a great deal of the time in a sort of spiritual limbo. He fights against what is strange and what is evil. At the end of the novel Abel cures himself by experiencing and learning from the two cultures in which he lives. Finally, he chooses to sing the song of the Night Chant. He makes a spiritual commitment and an imaginative leap—to life and death. By so doing, Abel finds the path of beauty, is restored, redeemed and made whole again. He sings the great curing song under his breath: "There was no sound, and he had no voice; he had only the words of a song. And he went running on the rise of the song. House made of pollen, house made of dawn. Qtsedaba."
The Way to Rainy Mountain is a multivoiced response to the question of personal and cultural creation through imagination and language. In this book Momaday retraces the migration route of the Kiowa from the headwaters of the Yellowstone to Rainy Mountain, a knoll on the Southern Plains. In his own fifteen-hundred-mile journey he recreates the Emergence, Golden Age, and waning of Kiowa culture. He had heard the legends from Aho, his grandmother. He says in the introduction that he wanted to see in reality what Aho "had seen more perfectly in the mind's eye."
The book, like House Made of Dawn, is carefully structured. He begins with a poem—"Headwaters," proceeds with prologue and introduction, and develops the body of the work in three main sections: "The Setting Out," "The Going On," "The Closing In." Each of these major sections is comprised of a number of three part units which reflect on the subjects—literal or metaphoric—through legend, history, and personal recollection. "The Closing In" is followed by an epilogue and a final poem—"Rainy Mountain Cemetery." Illustrations by Al Momaday, N. Scott's father, accent the images of the legends and sketches.
In the prologue Momaday clarifies his theme. The Kiowa, he says, "had conceived a good idea of themselves; they had dared to imagine and determine who they are. 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." Momaday continues in the prologue to elucidate his method, which parallels the workings of the mind and memory:
It is a whole journey, intricate with motion and meaning; and it is made with the whole memory, that experience of the mind which is legendary as well as historical, personal as well as cultural. And the journey is an evocation of three things in particular: a landscape that is incomparable, a time that is gone forever, and the human spirit, which endures. The imaginative experience and the historical express equally the tradition of man's reality. Finally, then, the journey recalled among other things the revelation of one way in which these traditions are conceived, developed, and interfused in the human mind.
Momaday's link with the legends of the Kiowa, with his racial memory, comes through Aho. In the introduction he recalls his grandmother, a woman who remembered in her life the last days of the Golden Age—the horse, the buffalo, and the Sun Dance, the expression of religious belief and cultural pride. His grandmother was present at the bend of the Washita in July 1890, when the soldiers rode out from Fort Sill to put an end to the Dance. "Forbidden without cause the essential act of their faith, having seen the wild herds slaughtered and left to rot upon the ground, the Kiowas backed away forever from the medicine tree." His grandmother, "without bitterness and for as long as she lived, bore a vision of deicide." This passage and others in the introduction establish the tone of nostalgia, regret, and sadness at the virtual destruction of Kiowa culture.
In "The Setting Out," the emphasis is on the sacred myths of the Kiowa—the origin of the tribe, of their name for themselves, of Tai-me, the Sun Dance figure, and of the medicine bundles. The legends in this section of the book are based on the verbal tradition from time immemorial and, because of this, much of "The Setting Out" is sacred, mythic, and profound. The individual legends in themselves show the power of the imagination translated through racial memory. The ability to make a story to explain changes in the physical environment is one thing. But the power to make a story change the physical environment is another. The legends of the twins, grandmother spider, of dogs and sea creatures who speak to man, are complimented by references to Mammedaty, the narrator's grandfather, a peyote man who had the holy man's power to see signs full of magic and meaning.
The eighth unit of this section specifically concerns language. The legend centers on the twins, the offspring of the sun. The twins, having gotten caught in the cave of the giant, recall the advice of their grandmother spider:
"If ever you get caught in the cave, say to yourselves the word thain-mom, 'above my eyes.'" When the giant began to set fires around, the twins repeated the word thain-mom over and over to themselves, and the smoke remained above their eyes. When the giant had made three great clouds of smoke, his wife saw that the twins sat without coughing or crying, and she became frightened. "Let them go," she said, "or something bad will happen to us."
The historical passage notes the custom of the people concerning names:
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. A man's name is his own; he can keep it or give it away as he likes. Until recent times, the Kiowas would not speak the name of a dead man. To do so would have been disrespectful and dishonest. The dead take their names with them out of the world.
And Momaday's recollection is of Aho and the word she pronounced to ward off evil:
When Aho saw or heard or thought of something bad, she said the word zei-dl-bei, "frightful." It was the one word with which she confronted evil and the incomprehensible. I liked her to say it, for she screwed up her face in a wonderful look of displeasure and clicked her tongue. It was not an exclamation so much, I think, as it was a warding off, an exertion of language upon ignorance and disorder.
In these passages Momaday illustrates how the power of language lives on the mythic, cultural, and personal levels.
In "The Going On" Momaday narrows his scope and concentrates on the picture of the Kiowa during their Golden Age. The individual segments disclose aspects of the customs of the people. One episode tells of the poor status of women; another relates the veneration paid to a horse and a dog. Another triplet, segment XVI, shows contrasting views of the buffalo. Because "The Going On" shows the customs of the people, it also shows the changes in Kiowa lifestyle after the coming of the white man. The three parts of this segment directly contrast each other, pointing out nobility, pathos, and nostalgia. The legend tells of a buffalo with horns of steel—a beautiful and sacred creature. The historical passage relates how in the early 1930s the townspeople of Carnegie, Oklahoma, gathered around two old Kiowa men who found and ran down a broken down buffalo; a crowd of men shouted and laughed at the scene. Then Momaday recalls how he and his father were chased by a buffalo cow who was protecting her newborn calf. Her "great dark head (was) low and fearful-looking … she gave up after a short run, and I think we had not been in any real danger. But the spring morning was deep and beautiful and our hearts were beating fast and we knew just then what it was to be alive."
In "The Closing In" the subjects and references become more and more particular. Mammedaty and Aho now figure in the legends. The narrator has literally closed-in on specific figures—his grandparents—who embody the creative qualities of myth and language. Mammedaty, we have been told, was a peyote man. In section XXI, the narrator recalls the four important things his grandfather had seen:
Mammedaty saw four things that were truly remarkable. This head of the child was one, and the tracks of the water beast another. Once, when he walked near the pecan grove, he saw three small alligators on a log. No one had ever seen them before and no one ever saw them again. Finally, there was this: something had always bothered Mammedaty, a small aggravation that was never quite out of mind, like a name on the tip of the tongue. He had always wondered how it is that the mound of earth which a mole makes around the opening of its burrow is so fine. It is nearly as fine as powder, and it seems almost to have been sifted. One day Mammedaty was sitting quietly when a mole came out of the earth. Its cheeks were puffed out as if it had been a squirrel packing nuts. It looked all around for a moment, then blew the fine dark earth our of its mouth. And this it did again and again, until there was a ring of black, powdery earth on the ground. That was a strange and meaningful thing to see. It meant that Mammedaty had got possession of a powerful medicine.
Aho remembered a strange, unexplainable thing also. It concerned the Tai-me bundle:
Once Aho went to see the Tai-me keeper's wife. The two of them were sitting together, passing the time of day, when they heard an awful noise, as if a tree or some other very heavy object had fallen down. It frightened them, and they went to see what on earth it was. It was Tai-me—Tai-me had fallen to the floor. No one knows how it was that Tai-me fell; nothing caused it, as far as anyone could see.
With the last entry in "The Closing In" Momaday restates his method and subject—to imagine from the many angles of vision the remembered earth:
Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.
Momaday has ended his pilgrimage, has recreated, by merging time and space, the journey of the Kiowa. And because of his pilgrimage he has added another dimension to his existence.
Two other writers, neither Native American, come to mind in connection with the above passage. One is Wendell Berry, the Kentucky writer and teacher, whose essays in The Long-Legged House speak prophetically about the power of the land. Similar to Momaday in conviction and poetic intensity, Berry believes that unless we understand the land, we are "at odds with everything we touch." He says that to understand we need "to leave the regions of our conquest—the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways—and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world's longevity …"
Another Southerner, Eudora Welty, in an essay entitled "Place in Fiction" characterizes writing which renders the actual and metaphoric force of a particular place. Although she uses the word "place" in a more limited sense than Momaday intends, Ms. Welty's words cast an added perspective on Momaday's experience with the particular landscape of which he speaks. She says:
I think the sense of place is as essential to good and honest writing as a logical mind; surely they are somewhere related. It is by knowing where you stand that you grow able to judge where you are. Place absorbs our earliest notice and attention, it bestows on us our original awareness; and our critical powers spring up from the study of it and the growth of experience inside it…. One place comprehended can make us understand other places better. Sense of place gives equilibrium; extended, it is sense of direction too … it is the sense of place going with us still that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and in every sense of the word to bring us home. ["Place in Fiction," South Atlantic Quarterly 55 (January 1956)]
I think Momaday's journey in The Way to Rainy Mountain, informed by personal and racial memory and evocative of real and imagined place, arrives at a remarkable destination. It is the same destination which Abel reached when he came "home" and learned to experience his own cure. It is a destination not often reached in western literature, for to get there a person must call upon the power of the spirit to speak, sing, and affirm existence.
This section contains 3,943 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)