This section contains 8,119 words
(approx. 28 pages at 300 words per page)
Lawrence J. Evers
SOURCE: "Words and Place: A Reading of House Made of Dawn," in Western American Literature, Vol. XI, No. 4, February, 1977, pp. 297-320.
An American critic and educator, Evers has authored several books on Native American songs and has served as president of the Association for Study of American Indian Literatures. In the essay below, he examines Momaday's focus on language, landscape, and Native American rituals and narratives in House Made of Dawn.
Native American oral traditions are not monolithic, nor are the traditions with which Momaday works in House Made of Dawn—Kiowa, Navajo, and Towan Pueblo. Yet there are, he suggests [in "A Conversation with N. Scott Momaday," Sun Tracks: An American Indian Literary Magazine 2, No. 2 (1976)], "common denominators." Two of the most important of these are the native American's relation to the land and his regard for language.
By imagining who and what they are in relation to particular landscapes, cultures and individual members of cultures form a close relation with those landscapes. Following D. H. Lawrence and others, Momaday terms this a "sense of place" [in his "A Special Sense of Place," appearing in Viva, Santa Fe New Mexican, (7 May 1972)]. A sense of place derives from the perception of a culturally imposed symbolic order on a particular physical topography. A superb delineation of one such symbolic order is offered by Tewa anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz in his study The Tewa World from which the following prayer is taken:
Within and around the earth, within and around the hills, within and around the mountains, your authority returns to you.
The Tewa singer finds in the landscape which surrounds him validation for his own song, and that particular topography becomes a cultural landscape, at once physical and symbolic. Like Ko-sahn, Momaday's grandmother, the native American draws from it "strength enough to hold still against all the forces of chance and disorder" ["An American Land Ethic," Sierra Club Bulletin 55 (February 1970)].
The manner in which cultural landscapes are created interests Momaday, and the whole of his book The Way to Rainy Mountain may be seen as an account of that process. During their migration journey the Kiowa people "dared to imagine and determine who they were…. The journey recalled is among other things the revelation of one way in which these traditions are conceived, developed, and interfused in the human mind." The Kiowa journey, like that recounted in emergence narratives of other tribes, may be seen as a movement from chaos to order, from discord to harmony. In this emergence the landscape plays a crucial role, for cultural landscapes are created by the imaginative interaction of societies of men and particular geographies.
In the Navajo emergence narrative, for example, First Man and First Woman accompanied by Coyote and other actors from the animal world journey upward through four underworlds into the present Fifth World. The journey advances in a series of movements from chaos to order, and each movement takes the People toward greater social and symbolic definition. The cloud pillars of the First World defined only by color and direction become in the Fifth World the sacred mountains of the four directions, the most important coordinates in an intricate cultural geography. As with the Tewa and the Kiowa, that cultural landscape symbolizes the Navajo conception of order, the endpoint of their emergence journey. Through the emergence journey, a collective imaginative endeavor, the Navajos determined who and what they were in relation to the land.
The extraordinary interest in geography exhibited in Navajo oral literature then may be seen as an effort to evoke harmony in those narratives by reference to the symbolic landscape of the present world. Significantly, a major test theme in Navajo oral literature requires identification of culturally important geographic features. Consider the Sun's test of the Hero Twins in one of the final episodes in the emergence narrative [as recounted in Ethelou Yazzie's 1971 Navajo History]:
He asked them to identify various places all over the surface of the earth. He asked, "Where is your home?" The boys knew where their home was. They pointed out Huerfano Mountain and said that was where they lived. The Sun next asked, "What mountain is that in the East?"
"That's Sis Naajiní (Blanca Peak)," replied the boys.
"What mountain is down here below us?"
"That's Tsoodzi (Mount Taylor)," said the boys.
"What mountain is that in the West?"
"That's Dook 'o'oosííd (San Francisco Peak)."
"Now, what mountain is that over in the north?"
"Those are the Dibé Nitsaa (La Plata Mountains)."
Because all the boy's answers were correct, the Sun said goodby to them as they were lowered down to the earth at the place called Tó Sidoh (Hot Springs).
Through their knowledge of the Navajo cultural landscape the Twins proved who and what they were to the Sun.
The pattern of the emergence narrative—a journey toward order symbolized by a cultural landscape—is repeated in Navajo chantway rituals. A patient requires a chantway ritual when his life is in some way out of order or harmony. In order for that harmony to be restored he must be taken through a ritual re-emergence journey paralleling that of the People. It is important to note the role of the singer and his ritual song here, for without songs there can be no cure or restoration of order. Through the power of the chanter's words the patient's life is brought under ritual control, and he is cured.
We come round, then, to another of the "common denominators" Momaday finds in oral traditions: attitude toward language. Of Kiowa oral tradition Momaday writes [in The Way to Rainy Mountain]: "A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things." It is this concept, remarkably like one text version of the Navajo origin giving "One Word" as the name of the original state of the universe, which forms the center of Tosamah's sermon on St. John's gospel in the novel [House Made of Dawn]. But more germane to our discussion of oral tradition generally is the related notion that "by means of words can a man deal with the world on equal terms." It is only through words that a man is able to express his relation to place. Indeed, it is only through shared words or ritual that symbolic landscapes are able to exist. So it is that the Tewa singer, the Navajo chanter, and the Kiowa "man of words" preserve their communities through their story and song. Without them there would be no community. One contemporary Navajo medicine man [Curley Mustache] suggests that loss of ceremonial words will signal the end of the world: "The medicine men who have knowledge in the Blessing Way (Hozho ji) will all evidently be lost. The words to the song will vanish from their memory, and they will not know how to begin to sing."
In this context we can better appreciate Abel's dilemma in House Made of Dawn. As Momaday suggests [in "A Conversation with N. Scott Momaday"]: "One of the most tragic things about Abel, as I think of him, is his inability to express himself. He is in some ways a man without a voice…. So I think of him as having been removed from oral tradition."
House Made of Dawn opens and closes with the formulaic words which enclose all Jemez pueblo tales—dypaloh and qtsedaba, placing it consciously in that oral tradition. As many oral narratives, the novel is shaped around a movement from discord to harmony and is structurally and thematically cyclic. The prologue is dominated by the race, a central theme in the novel as Momaday has suggested [in an interview appearing in Puerto del Sol 12 (1973)]:
I see [House Made of Dawn] as a circle. It ends where it begins and it's informed with a kind of thread that runs through it and holds everything together. The book itself is a race. It focuses upon the race, that's the thing that does hold it all together. But it's a constant repetition of things too.
[Elsie Clews Parsons tells us in the 1925 The Pueblo of Jemez] that racing is a conspicuous feature of Jemez ceremonialism. The winter race Abel runs in the prologue and at the end of the novel is the first race in the Jemez ceremonial season, an appropriate ceremonial beginning. But the race itself may be seen as a journey, a re-emergence journey analogous to that mentioned in connection with Navajo and Kiowa oral tradition. Indeed, the language echoes a Navajo re-emergence song sung in the Night Chant, from which the title of the book is taken.
These journey and emergence themes begin to unfold in the following scene as Francisco goes in his wagon to meet the bus returning Abel to Walatowa after WWII. The wagon road on which he rides is parallel to the modern highway on which Abel rides. The two roads serve as familiar metaphors for the conflicting paths Abel follows in the novel, and Momaday reinforces the conflict by parallel auditory motifs as well. As the wagon road excites in Francisco memories of his own race "for good hunting and harvests," he sings good sounds of harmony and balance. At the same time the recurrent whine of tires on the highway is constantly in the background until "he heard the sharp wheeze of the brakes as the big bus rolled to a stop in front of the gas pump…." The re-emergence theme is suggested in the passage by the presence of the reed trap—recalling the reed of emergence, and the fact that Abel returns "ill." He is drunk, of course, but he is also ill, out of balance, in the manner of a patient in a Navajo chantway.
Abel's genealogy, the nature of his illness, and its relation to the auditory motifs mentioned above are further defined in the seven fragments of memory he experiences as he walks above the Cañon de San Diego in the first dawn following his return. At the same time these fragments establish a context for Abel's two prominent encounters in Part I with Angela Grace St. John and with the albino Juan Reyes Fragua.
Abel's genealogy is complicated. 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 Abel "somehow foreign and strange." The ties Abel does have to Walatowa are through his mother whose father, Francisco—both sacristan and kiva participant—is the illegitimate son of the consumptive priest Fray Nicolas V. Through Francisco, Abel is a direct descendant of the Bahkyush, a group of Towan-speaking pueblos who immigrated to Jemez in the mid-nineteenth century. He is a "direct [descendant] of those men and women who had made that journey along the edge of oblivion," an experience which gave them a "tragic sense." Abel, as his Bankyush ancestors, is on just such a "journey along the edge of oblivion" in the novel.
Abel's journey in Part I is a journey of return to Walatowa and his illness is most explicitly related to a WWII experience. At the end of his seven memory fragments in the first dawn of his return Abel recalls:
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.
In the confusion of war among soldiers who recognized him only as a "chief" speaking in "Sioux or Algonquin or something," Abel lost both the sense of place which characterized his tribal culture and the very community which supports that sense of place. "He didn't know where he was, and he was alone." Incredibly, he doesn't even recognize the earth: "He reached for something, but he had no notion of what it was; his hand closed upon the earth and the cold, wet leaves."
Mechanical sounds are associated with Abel's disorientation. The "low and incessant" sound of the tank descending upon him reaches back in the novel to the "slow whine of tires" Francisco hears on the highway and looks ahead to the sound of Angela's car intruding on his vision in the first dawn above the valley as it creeps along the same highway toward the Jemez church. These are the same mechanical sounds Abel tried "desperately to take into account" as the bus took him away to the war—again on the same highway. They are the sounds that reminded him as he left the pueblo to go to war that "the town and the valley and the hills" could no longer center him, that he was now "centered upon himself."
That Angela Grace St. John, the pregnant wife of a Los Angeles physician who comes to Walatowa seeking a cure for her own ailments, will become an obstacle in Abel's re-emergence journey is first suggested by the extensive auditory motifs of Part I. Yet her perceptions of his problems and of the Indian world generally have earned the sympathy of some readers. Perhaps her most seductive perception is that of the significance of the corn dancers at Cochiti Pueblo:
Their eyes were held upon some vision out of range, something away in the end of distance, some reality that she did not know, or even suspect. What was it that they saw? Probably they saw nothing after all,… nothing at all. But then that was the trick, wasn't it? To see nothing at all,… nothing in the absolute. To see beyond the landscape, beyond every shape and shadow and color, that was to see nothing. That was to be free and finished, complete, spiritual…. To say "beyond the mountain," and to mean it, to mean, simply, beyond everything for which the mountain stands of which it signifies the being.
As persuasive as Angela's interpretation of the Cochiti dancers may seem, it is finally a denial of the value of the landscape which the novel celebrates. Angela's assumption that the Cochiti dancers possess a kind of Hindu metaphysics which rejects phenomena for noumena is a projection of her own desires to reject the flesh. Her attitude toward the land is of a piece with her attitude toward her own body: "she could think of nothing more vile and obscene than the raw flesh and blood of her body, the raveled veins and the gore upon her bones." We become almost immediately aware of the implications of that denial she craves in two following scenes: the corre de gaio and Abel's second reflection on the Cañon de San Diego.
We view the corre de gaio through Angela who again projects feelings about her own existence on the ceremony. For Angela the ceremony like herself is "so empty of meaning … and yet so full of appearance." Her final impression of the ceremony is sexual. She senses some "unnatural thing" in it and "an old fascination returned upon her." Later she remarks of the ceremony: "Like this, her body had been left to recover without her when once and for the first time, having wept, she had lain with a man." In the albino's triumph and Abel's failure at the corre de gaio she finds sexual pleasure.
The etiological legend of Santiago (St. James) and the rooster is told by Fr. Olguin appropriately enough for his "instinctive demand upon all histories to be fabulous." The legend explains the ceremonial game which follows in the novel. Just as the sacrifice of the rooster by Santiago produced cultivated plants and domesticated animals for the Pueblo people, so too does ritual re-enactment of the sacrifice promote fertility at Walatowa. While ethnographers suggest that the corre de gaio is of relatively minor ceremonial importance in Pueblo societies, in the context of the novel the rooster pull affords Abel his first opportunity to re-enter the ceremonial functions of the village. It is, we are told, the first occasion on which he has taken off his uniform. Though the ceremony itself seems efficacious, as rain follows in the novel, Abel is "too rigid" and "too careful" at the game and fails miserably.
Abel's failure at the rooster pull demonstrates his inability to reenter the ceremonial life of the village, as he realizes in his second reflection at dawn, July 28, 1945. The section opens with an explicit statement of the relation of the emergence journey and the landscape: "The canyon is a ladder to the plain," and is followed by a description of the ordered and harmonious existence of life in that landscape. Each form of life has its proper space and function in the landscape, and by nature of that relation is said to have "tenure in the land." Similarly, "man came down the ladder to the plain a long time ago. It was a slow migration…." Like the emergence journeys of the Kiowa and the Navajo mentioned earlier, the migration of the people of Walatowa led to an ordered relation to place which they express in their ceremonial life. As Abel walks in this landscape in the dawn he is estranged from the town and the land as well. "His return to the town had been a failure" he realizes because he is no longer attuned to its rhythms. He has no words to express his relation to the place. He is "not dumb," but "inarticulate."
Despite his inarticulateness, the rhythm and words are still there "like memory, in the reach of his hearing." We recall that on July 21, seven days before, "for a moment everything was all right with him." Here however;
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 lowly of the first world, of fire and flood, and of the emergence of dawn from the hills.
Abel is at this point vaguely conscious of what he needs to be cured. He needs a re-emergence. He needs words, ceremonial words, which express his relation to the cultural landscape in which he stands. He needs to feel with the Tewa singer quoted earlier his authority return to him. But here out of harmony with himself and his community he needs most of all the kind of re-emergence journey offered in a Navajo chantway.
Significantly, the passage closes, as did the dawn walk of July 21, with an emblem of Angela St. John intruding on Abel's vision: "the high white walls of the Benevides house." The house itself is another symbol of Angela's denial of the land or more particularly the landscape of the Cañon de San Diego. In contrast to Francisco and the other native residents of Walatowa who measure space and time by reference to the eastern rim of the canyon, Angela measures hers in relation to this "high, white house:"
She would know the arrangement of her days and hours in the upstairs and down, and they would be for her the proof of her being and having been.
His re-entry into the village spoiled, Abel turns not to the ceremonial structure of the pueblo for support but to Angela. And it is the Benevides house, not the land, which provides "the wings and the stage" for their affair. Abel's first sexual encounter with Angela is juxtaposed in the novel with Francisco's encounter with the albino witch in his cornfield. Indeed, Angela, who "keened" to the unnatural qualities of the albino during the corre de gaio, echoes the auditory symbols of evil mentioned earlier. Just as Nicolas teach-whau "screamed" at him, and the moan of the wind in the rocks frightened him earlier, as Angela and Abel make love "she wanted to scream" and is later "moaning softly."
Earlier in his life Abel found physical regeneration through a sexual experience with Fat Josie. His affair with Angela has just the opposite effect. Lying physically broken on the beach in Part II Abel reflects:
He had loved his body. It had been hard and quick and beautiful; it had been useful, quickly and surely responsive to his mind and will…. His body, like his mind, had turned on him; it was his enemy.
The following couplet in the text implicates Angela in this alienation:
Angela put her white hands to his body.
Abel put his hands to her white body.
Later Abel tells Benally that "she [Angela] was going to help him get a job and go away from the reservation, but then he got himself in trouble." That "trouble" derives in part from Abel's separation from his land.
Auditory symbols follow Abel directly from his affair with Angela to the climactic scene of Part I, the killing of the albino. Just before the murder the albino laughs "a strange, inhuman cry." Like the sound of Nicolas teahwhau it is "an old woman's laugh" that issues from a "great, evil mouth." At the very scene of the murder the only sound that breaks the silence is "the moan of the wind in the wires."
That Abel regards the albino as evil, as a witch (sawah), is clear enough even without the explicit statements of Father Olguin, Tosamah, and Benally later. Moreover, it is clear at the time of the murder that Abel regards the albino as a snake. He feels "the scales of the lips and the hot slippery point of the tongue, writhing." But that Abel is "acting entirely within the Indian tradition" when he kills the albino is wrong.
Abel's compulsion to eradicate the albino-snake reveals an attitude toward evil more akin to the Christian attitude of Nicolas V: "that Serpent which even is the One our most ancient enemy." The murder scene is rife with Christian overtones. The killing takes place beneath a telegraph pole which "leaned upon the black sky;" during the act "the white hands still lay upon him as if in benediction", and after the albino's death "Abel knelt" and noticed "the dark nails of the hand seemed a string of great black beads." Abel appears to kill the albino then as a frustrated response to the White Man and Christianity, but he does so more in accordance with Anglo tradition than Indian tradition. Indeed, he has been trained in the Army to be a killer.
We recall here that the murder takes place squarely in the middle of the fiesta of Porcingula, the patroness of Walatowa, and that a central part of the ceremony on that feast is a ritual confrontation between the Pecos bull and the "black-faced children, who were the invaders." Parsons describes the bull-baiting at Jemez during the fiesta of Porcingula, August 1, 1922, as follows:
An hour later, "the Pecos bull is out," I am told and hasten to the Middle. There the bull-mask is out playing, with a following of about a dozen males, four or five quite young boys. They are caricaturing Whites, their faces and hands painted white; one wears a false mustache, another a beard of blond hair. "U.S.A." is chalked on the back of their coat or a cross within a circle…. They shout and cry out, "What's the matter with you boy?" or more constantly "Muchacho! Muchacho!"
The bull antics are renewed, this time with attempts of his baiters to lasso. Finally they succeed in dragging him in front of their house, where he breaks away again, to be caught again and dragged into the house. From the house a bugler steps out and plays "Wedding Bells" and rag-time tunes for the bull-baiters to dance to in couples, "modern dances," ending up in a tumble. Two by two, in their brown habit and sandaled feet, four of the Franciscan Fathers pass by. It grows dark, the bugler plays "taps" and this burlesque, reaching from the Conquistadores to the Great War, is over for the night.
The very day then that Abel kills the albino the community from which he is estranged could have provided him with a way of ritually confronting the white man. Had his return not been a failure, he might have borne his agony, as Francisco had "twice or three times," by taking the part of the bull. "It was a hard thing," Francisco tells us, "to be the bull, for there was a primitive agony to it, and it was a kind of victim, an object of ridicule and hatred." Hard as that agony was, Abel as Francisco before him might have borne it with the support of his community. Separated from that community, he acts individually against evil and kills the white man.
Momaday forces us to see the murder as more complicated and subtle in motivation despite Benally's sympathetic reflections on the realities of witchery, Tosamah's reference to the murder as a legal conundrum, and Abel's own statement that the murder was "not a complicated thing." Death has not been a simple thing for Abel to cope with earlier in the novel, as shown by his emotional reactions to the deaths of the doe, the rabbit, the eagle, as well as the deaths of his brother Vidal and his mother. More to the point is the fact that the White Man Abel kills is, in fact, a white Indian, an albino. He is the White Man in the Indian; perhaps even the White Man in Abel himself. When Abel kills the albino, in a real sense he kills a part of himself and his culture which he can no longer recognize and control. That that part should take the shape of a snake in his confused mind is horribly appropriate given the long association of the Devil and the snake in Christian tradition and the subsequent Puritan identification of the American Indians as demonic snakes and witches in so much of early American literature. In orthodox Pueblo belief the snake and the powers with which it is associated are accepted as a necessary part of the cosmic order: "The Hebres view of the serpent as the embodiment of unmitigated evil is never elaborated among the Pueblos; he is too often an ally for some desired end" [Hamilton A. Tyler, Pueblo Gods and Myths, 1964].
Yet, the whiteness of the albino suggests something more terrible than evil to Abel. As the whiteness of the whale does to Ishmael, it suggests an emptiness in the universe, a total void of meaning. It is an emblem complementary to Angela's philosophizing over the Cochiti dancers. The albino confronts Abel with his own lack of meaning, his own lack of a sense of place.
This reading is reinforced by the poignant final scene in Part I. Francisco stands alone in his corn field demonstrating the very sense of place Abel has lacked on his return. We recall that in this very field Francisco too had confronted evil in the shape of the albino, but that he responded to the confrontation very differently:
His acknowledgement 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. He set a blessing upon the corn and took up his hoe.
Because of Abel's act, Francisco is for the first time separated from the Walatowa community. He stands muttering Abel's name as he did in the opening of the chapter, and near him the reed trap—again suggesting the reed of emergence—is empty.
Part II of the novel opens with Abel lying broken, physically and spiritually, on the beach in Los Angeles. Like the helpless grunion with whom he shares the beach, he is out of his world. Abel's problem continues to be one of relating to place. As in Part I at Walatowa he fails to establish a sense of place in Los Angeles because of a failure to find community. Not only is he separated from other workers at the factory, but even Tosamah and the Indian men at the Silver Dollar reject Abel. That rejection is a major cause of Abel's second futile and self-destructive confrontation with evil in the person of Martinez, a sadistic Mexican policeman. The pattern of the second confrontation is a repetition of the first. Just as Abel kills the albino at Walatowa after he has failed to find community there, so too he goes after Martinez, also perceived as a snake (culebra), after he has failed utterly to find community in Los Angeles. Implication of Anglo society in this failure is again explicit and powerful, as Abel has been sent to Los Angeles by the government on its Relocation Program after serving time in prison for killing the albino.
On the beach Abel "could not see." This poverty of vision, both physical and imaginative, is akin to the inability of one-eyed Father Olguin to "see" and is related to Abel's prison experience: "After a while he could not imagine anything beyond the walls except the yard outside, the lavatory and the dining hall—or even walls, really." Yet it is by the sea that Abel gains the insight required to begin his own re-emergence. For the first time he asks himself "where the trouble had begun, what the trouble was," and though he still cannot answer the question consciously, his mind turns again to the mechanical auditory images noted earlier:
The bus leaned and creaked; he felt the surge of motion and the violent shudder of the whole machine on the gravel road. The motion and the sound seized upon him. Then suddenly he was overcome with a desperate loneliness, and he wanted to cry out. He looked toward the fields, but a low rise of the land lay before them.
The bus takes Abel out of a context where he has worth and meaning and into a context where "there were enemies all around." From the cultural landscape of the Cañon de San Diego to the beach where "the world was open at his back," Able's journey has taken him, as his Bahkyush ancestors, to "the edge of oblivion": "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." On the beach, then, Abel finally realizes that "he had lost his place," a realization accompanied by the comprehension of the social harmony a sense of place requires. Out of his delirium, as if in a dream, his mind returns to the central thread of the novel, the race, and here at last. Abel is able to assign meaning to the race as a cultural activity:
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, 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.
We recall that as Abel killed the albino "the terrible strength of the hands was brought to bear only in proportion as Abel resisted them" (emphasis added). The murder is an expression of Abel's disharmony and imbalance. As Abel here realizes "evil is that which is ritually not under control" [Gladys A. Reichard, Navajo Religion: A Study of Symbolism, 1974]. In the ceremonial race, not in individual resistance, the runners are able to deal with evil.
Tosamah's description of the emergence journey and the relations of words and place serve as a clue to Abel's cure, but the role he plays in Abel's journey appears as ambiguous and contradictory as his character. He is at once priest and "clown." He exhibits, often on the same page, remarkable insight, buffoonery, and cynicism. He has then all the characteristics of Coyote, the trickster figure in native American mythologies. Alternately wise and foolish, Coyote in native American oral tradition is at once a buffoon and companion of the People on their emergence journey. As Coyote, a member of "an old council of clowns," the Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah speaks with a voice "full of authority and rebuke." As Coyote, "he likes to get under your skin; he'll make a fool out of you if you let him." Note how Momaday describes Tosamah:
He was shaggy and awful-looking in the thin, naked light; big, lithe as a cat, narrow-eyed, suggesting in the whole of his look and manner both arrogance and agony. He wore black like a cleric; he had the voice of a great dog.
The perspective Tosamah offers Abel and the reader in the novel derives not so much from his peyote ceremonies, for which Momaday seems to have drawn heavily on La Barre's The Peyote Cult, but rather from the substance of the two sermons he gives. The second sermon, "The Way to Rainy Mountain," which Momaday has used in his book by the same title and several other contexts, addresses the relation of man, land, community, and the word. In it Tosamah describes the emergence of the Kiowa people as "a journey toward the dawn" that "led to a golden age." It was a journey which led the Kiowa to a culture which is inextricably bound to the land of the southern plains. There, much in the manner of Abel looking over the Cañon de San Diego in Part I, he looks out on the landscape at dawn and muses: "your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun." By making a re-emergence journey, Tosamah is able to feel a sense of place.
That coherent native relation to the land described so eloquently by Tosamah is counterpointed in the novel not only by Abel's experiences but also by the memories of Milly, the social worker who becomes Abel's lover in Los Angeles. Milly, like Tosamah, is from Oklahoma. There her family too had struggled with the land, but "at last Daddy began to hate the land, began to think of it as some kind of enemy, his own very personal and deadly enemy." Even viewed in the dawn her father's relation to the land was a despairing and hopeless one:
And every day before dawn he went to the fields without hope, and I watched him, sometimes saw him at sunrise, far away in the empty land, very small on the skyline turning to stone even as he moved up and down the rows.
The contrast with Francisco, who seems most at home in his fields, and with Tosamah, who finds in that very landscape the depth of his existence, is obvious. The passage also recalls Angela's denial of the meaning of the land and Abel's own reflections on "enemies."
In his first sermon in the novel, Tosamah addresses the crucial role of words and the imagination in the reemergence process. The sermon is a bizarre exegesis of St. John's gospel which compares Indian and Anglo attitudes toward language. As participants in oral traditions, Indians, Tosamah tells us, hold language as sacred. They have a childlike regard for the mysteries of speech. While St. John shared that sensibility, he was also a white man. And the white man obscures the truth by burdening it with words:
Now, brothers and sisters, old John was a white man, and the white man has his ways. Oh gracious me, he has his ways. He talks about the Word. He talks through it and around it. He builds upon it with syllables, with prefixes and suffixes, and hyphens and accents. He adds and divides and multiplies the Word. And in all of this he subtracts the Truth.
The white man may indeed, Tosamah tells us, in a theory of verbal overkill that is wholly his own, "perish by the Word."
Words are, of course, a problem for Abel. On the one hand, he lacks the ceremonial words—the words of a Creation song—which properly express his relation to community and place. He is inarticulate. On the other, he is plagued by a surfeit of words from white men. The bureaucratic words of the social worker's forms effectively obscure his real problems. At the murder trial, he thinks: "Word by word by word these men were disposing of him in language, their language, and they were making a bad job of it." Again when Benally takes him to the hospital after the beach scene bureaucratic words get in the way. Indeed, Benally perceives Abel's central problem as one of words, as he equates finding community with having appropriate words:
And 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…. You think about getting out and going home. You want to think that you belong someplace, I guess.
Tosamah perceives a similar dislocating effect of words on Abel, though he relates it to religion. Scorning his inarticulateness and innocence, he sees Abel as caught in "the Jesus scheme." Beyond his sermons, there is a special irony in the fact that Tosamah doesn't understand Abel and his problems, for he is described several times in Part II as a "physician." Though they put Abel's problems in a broader and clearer perspective, Tosamah's words are of little use to Abel.
Part III is told from the point of view of Ben Benally, a relocated Navajo who befriends Abel in Los Angeles. Roommates in Los Angeles, Ben and Abel share many things in their backgrounds. On his one visit to Walatowa, Benally finds the landscape there similar to that in which he grew up. Like Abel he was raised in that landscape without parents by his grandfather. Benally even suggests that he is somehow related to Abel since the Navajos have a clan called Jemez, the name of Abel's pueblo. Moreover, we recall that Abel's father may have been a Navajo, and that Francisco regards the Navajo children who come to Walatowa during the Fiesta of Porcingula as "a harvest, in some intractable sense the regeneration of his own bone and blood." This kinship gives Benally special insight into Abel's problems and strengthens his role as Night Chanter.
Benally's childhood memories of life with his grandfather near Wide Ruins reveal a sense of place very like that Abel groped for on his return to Walatowa:
And you were little and right there in the center of everything, the sacred mountains, the snow-covered mountains and the hills, the gullies and the flats, the sundown and the night, everything—where you were little, where you were and had to be.
Moreover, this sense of place gives him words: "… you were out with the sheep and could talk and sing to yourself and the snow was new and deep and beautiful."
In Los Angeles, however, Benally's sense of place is lost in his idealism and naïveté. Return to the reservation seems a pale option to the glitter of Los Angeles. "There would be nothing there, just the empty land and a lot of old people, going no place and dying off." Like Milly, Benally believes in "Honor, Industry, the Second Chance, the Brotherhood of Man, the American Dream…." Theirs is a 50's American Dream of limitless urban possibilities. Benally believes you can have anything you want in Los Angeles and that "you never have to be alone." Yet in the very scene following his reflection on this urban cornucopia, we find Benally excluded even from the community of The Silver Dollar, counting his pennies, unable to buy a second bottle of wine. Idealism obscures Benally's vision, even as Tosamah's cynicism obscures his.
Nevertheless, Benally is the Night Chanter, the singer who helps restore voice and harmony to Abel's life. In the hospital having realized the significance of the runners after evil, Abel asks Benally to sing for him:
"House made of dawn." I used to tell him about those old ways, the stories and the songs, Beautyway and Night Chant. I sang some of those things, and I told him what they meant, what I thought they were about.
The songs from both the Beautyway and the Night Chant are designed to attract good and repel evil. They are both restorative and exorcising expression of the very balance and design in the universe Abel perceived in the runners after evil. Ben's words from the Night Chant for Abel are particularly appropriate, since the purpose of the Night Chant is to cure patients of insanity and mental imbalance. The structure and diction of the song demonstrate the very harmony it seeks to evoke. Dawn is balanced by evening light, dark cloud and male rain by dark mist and female rain. All things are in balance and control, for in Navajo and Pueblo religion good is control. Further note that a journey metaphor is prominent in the song ("may I walk….") and that the restorative sequence culminates with "restore my voice for me." Restoration of voice is an outward sign of inner harmony. Finally, note that the song begins with a culturally significant geographic reference: Tségihi. One of its central messages is that ceremonial words are bound efficaciously to place. No matter how dislocated is Benally or idiosyncratic his understandings of Navajo ceremonialism, the songs he sings over Abel clearly serve a restorative function.
Angela also visits Abel in the hospital and offers him words. She tells Abel the story her son likes "best of all." It is a story about "a young Indian brave," born of a bear and a maiden, who has many adventures and finally saves his people. Benally marvels at the story which reminds him of a similar story from the Mountain Chant told to him by his grandfather. Yet unlike the Navajo legend and the Kiowa bear legend told by Tosamah earlier, both etiological legends tied firmly to cultural landscapes, Angela's story is as rootless as a Disney cartoon. Abel seems to realize this, if Benally does not, for he does not respond to Angela. Benally "couldn't tell what he was thinking. He had turned his head away, like maybe the pain was coming back, you know." Abel refuses to play Angela's game a second time.
Part IV opens with a description of a grey, ominous winter landscape. Olguin is reflecting on his seven years' service at Walatowa. He claims to have grown "calm with duty and design," to have "come to terms with the town." Yet he remains estranged from the village; it is not his place. He measures his achievement in the language of commerce, noting with his predecessor Nicolas V. what good works "accrued to his account." Like Angela who was offended that Abel "would not buy and sell." Olguin seeks to at least make good the "investment" of his pride.
Whereas Abel looks to Benally's Night Chant for restoration Olguin seeks and claims to find restoration from the journal of Nicolas. In that same journal we recall Nicolas V. himself sought restoration of his Christian God:
When I cannot speak thy Name, I want Thee most to restore me. Restore me! Thy spirit comes upon me & I am too frail for Thee!
The passage leaves off in a fit of coughing and seems a singularly ineffectual request.
At the same time Abel sits with his dying grandfather. Though Francisco's voice had been strong in the dawn, it now grows weaker and fades as it has on each of the six days since Abel's return to Walatowa. The few words Francisco does speak, in Towa and Spanish, juxtapose in the manner of Parts I and II the memory fragments which Abel seeks to order in his own mind. Francisco is here, as Momaday suggests [in the 1973 Puerto del Sol interview], "a kind of reflection of Abel." The passage translates:
Little Abel … I'm a little bit of something … Mariano … cold … he gave up … very, very cold … conquered … aye [exclamation of pain], Porcingula … how white, little Abel … white devil … witch … witch … and the black man … yes … many black men … running, running … cold … rapidly … little Abel, little Vidal … What are you doing? What are you doing?
As the seventh dawn comes these words grow into coherent fragments in Francisco's memory and serve as a final statement of the realizations about the relation of place, words, and community Abel has had earlier in the novel.
Each of the fragments is a memory of initiation. In the first Francisco recalls taking Abel and Vidal to the ruins of the old church near the Middle to see "the house of the sun."
They must learn the whole contour of the black mesa. They must know it as they knew the shape of their hands, always and by heart…. They must know the long journey of the sun on the black mesa, how it rode in the seasons and the years, and they must live according to the sun appearing, for only then could they reckon where they were, where all things were in time.
This is the sense of place Abel lost in "the intervention of days and years without meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused." As he is instructed to know the shape of the eastern mesa like his own hands, it is appropriate that in the corre de gaio the albino should first attack his hands, that in the murder scene (and Abel's memory of it) hands should be so prominent, and finally that as he lies on the beach after Martinez's brutal beating of his hands, Abel should think of Angela's effect on him in terms of hands. The relation to place taught him by Francisco is broken by each, as are his hands. Now through Francisco's memory Abel is retaught his ordered relation to place and how it is expressed in "the race of the dead." Abel similarly participates in Francisco's memories of his initiation as a runner (in the race against Mariano), as a dancer (from which he gained the power to heal), as a man (with Porcingula, "the child of the witch"), and as a hunter (as he stalks the bear).
All signs then point to a new beginning for Abel as he rises February 28, the last day of the novel. His own memory healed by Francisco's, for the first time in the novel he correctly performs a ceremonial function as he prepares Francisco for burial and delivers him to Father Olguin. He then joins the ashmarked runners in the dawn. Momaday comments on that race in his essay "The Morality of Indian Hating" [in Ramparts 3 (1964)]:
The first race each year comes in February, and then the dawn is clear and cold, and the runners breathe steam. It is a long race, and it is neither won nor lost. It is an expression of the soul in the ancient terms of sheer physical exertion. To watch those runners is to know that they draw with every step some elementary power which resides at the core of the earth and which, for all our civilized ways, is lost upon us who have lost the art of going in the flow of things. In the tempo of that race there is time to ponder morality and demoralization, hungry wolves and falling stars. And there is time to puzzle over that curious and fortuitous question with which the people of Jemez greet each other.
That very question—"Where are you going?"—must ring in Abel's ears as he begins the race. The time and direction of his journey are once again defined by the relation of the sun to the eastern mesa, "the house made of dawn." Out of the pain and exhaustion of the race, Abel regains his vision: "he could see at last without having to think." That vision is not the nihilistic vision of Angela—"beyond everything for which the mountain stands." Rather, Abel's "last reality" in the race is expressed in the essential unity and harmony of man and the land. He feels the sense of place he was unable to articulate in Part I. Here at last he has a voice, words and a song. In beauty he has begun.
This section contains 8,119 words
(approx. 28 pages at 300 words per page)