Places: House Made of Dawn

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1968

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1945-1952

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Wolatowa

*Wolatowa. House Made of DawnMain village in the Jemez Pueblo, a sovereign Native American nation in the Jemez Mountains, west of Santa Fe in New Mexico. Momaday, who moved with his Kiowa parents to Jemez at age twelve, has stated that life events “take place,” by which he means that “place,” or landscape, is indivisible from self. Momaday felt indivisible from Jemez Pueblo, and the central theme of his novel is that Abel, his Native American protagonist, is spiritually ill because he is emotionally separated from some aspects of the land after returning from military service during World War II. The land has its own terms, and to heal himself Abel must be possessed by the land under those terms. Throughout the book, physically harsh landscapes are shown to best nurture the Native American spirit. For Abel, only such a place, Wolatowa, can heal his personal agonies.

The central plaza at Wolatowa, called the Middle, is where ancient human dwellings have become indivisible from the earth. Here, Abel first encounters the albino, a man who comes to embody a snake-like evil for Abel. Later, outside Paco’s, a bar about four miles south of the pueblo, Abel kills the albino as he would kill a snake.


*Seytokwa. Location of an early Jemez settlement. The Winter Race, run by Pueblo men for bountiful harvests and good hunting, starts here, when the first sliver of the sun appears over Black Mesa (today’s Mesa Chamisa). The race winds along the wagon road for several miles to end in Wolatowa’s Middle. The novel’s prologue, a flash-forward, shows Abel running in the Winter Race, through snow that covers the dunes, through cold rain that turns the juniper and mesquite trees black with wetness. At the book’s end–after Abel’s grandfather dies–Abel is shown again as the “Dawn Runner,” his spiritual sickness healed in communion with the land.

*Valle Grande

*Valle Grande (VAH-yay grahn-DAY). Large volcanic crater on the western slope of the mountains above Wolatowa described as “the right eye of the earth.” The crater’s valley is grassy, with a river running through it and clouds drifting above in the pure sky. On the crater’s rim, Abel’s separation from the land becomes apparent. He admires two great eagles as they “dance” with a rattlesnake, taking turns dropping it and diving to catch it again. Abel seems at one with the “eagle spirit” that can possess the land, but is uncomfortable with the “snake spirit” that is possessed by the land. The latter is the same spirit that Abel symbolically slays when he kills the albino.

*Benevides house

*Benevides house (beh-neh-VEE-dehs). Large white house of stucco and stone in the canyon north of Jemez Pueblo. The novel places this house at the settlement of Los Ojos, which is not the modern town of that name. The Los Ojos of the novel is called Jemez Springs today. Staying at this house is the beautiful Angela St. John, a married white woman who comes to the springs alone to take the mineral baths. The canyon landscape comes alive to Angela. At night she even sees the Benevides house as part of the landscape, as a “black organic mass” as old as the canyon itself. Later, Angela has an affair at this house with Abel, who becomes, for her, an animal extension of the land.

*Los Angeles

*Los Angeles. California city in which Abel settles after spending six years in prison for murder. Although the middle portion of the book takes place here, Abel’s spiritual separation from his Jemez homeland is intensified by the huge city’s alienness. Abel relives the pattern that took place earlier at Wolatowa, but, being further removed from the healing land, has no more success than before at curing his inner sickness. However, while he is in Los Angeles, he learns of two more “holy” landscapes from other displaced Native Americans. One is Rainy Mountain, a knoll arising from the Oklahoma plain, a place of blizzards and tornados where, one senses, creation began. (Momaday later wrote a book about Rainy Mountain.) The second holy place is Wide Ruins, Arizona, an austere landscape of brush and red rock gullies.

BibliographyBevis, William. “American Indian Novels: Homing In.” In Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Discusses House Made of Dawn alongside other important American Indian texts.Coltelli, Laura. Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. An interview with Momaday concerning his fiction and the issues informing it. Especially useful in understanding the ideas at work in House Made of Dawn.Momaday, N. Scott. “The Man Made of Words.” In The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature, edited by Geary Hobson. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1980.Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. Places House Made of Dawn in relation to other novels by American Indians. Provides an insightful reading of the novel and its characters.Scarberry-Garcia, Susan. Landmarks of Healing: A Study of “House Made of Dawn.” Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990. A book-length study of the Navajo and Jemez Pueblo religious and cultural symbols that shape the novel. Important for understanding the novel’s cultural context and its subtle allusions.Schubnell, Matthias. N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985. Contains a biographical sketch and chapters that discuss the roles of nature and of language in Momaday’s work. One chapter, “The Crisis of Identity,” examines House Made of Dawn in particular. Also includes a history of the novel’s reception and an extensive critical bibliography (up to 1985).Trimble, Martha Scott. “N. Scott Momaday.” Fifty Western Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book, edited by Fred Erisman and Richard W. Etulain. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.Velie, Alan R. Four American Indian Literary Masters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.
Categories: Places