Authors: N. Scott Momaday

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American Indian novelist, poet, memoirist, and dramatist

February 27, 1934

Lawton, Oklahoma

Biography

Navarre Scott Momaday (MAHM-uh-day) is perhaps the foremost writer of American Indian poetry, fiction, and historical autobiography. Of predominantly Kiowa ancestry, he was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, on February 27, 1934, to Alfred Morris and Mayme Natachee Scott Momaday. His father, an art teacher and painter, illustrated Momaday’s celebrated work The Way to Rainy Mountain. His mother was also a teacher, as well as a writer. {$I[AN]9810000891} {$I[A]Momaday, N. Scott} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Momaday, N. Scott} {$I[geo]AMERICAN INDIAN;Momaday, N. Scott} {$I[tim]1934;Momaday, N. Scott}

After living among the Kiowas on a family farm in Oklahoma, Momaday came of age in New Mexico, where his parents worked with the Jemez Indians in the state’s high mountain country. The influence of imaginative, talented parents led Momaday on the path to a fine formal education. Taking his A.B. degree from the University of New Mexico in 1958, he moved quickly the following year to Stanford University as a creative writing fellow. An excellent student, he took both his A.M. (1960) and Ph.D. (1963) degrees there. Momaday remained in academia, serving as assistant and associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California at Santa Barbara (1963-1969), professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley (1969-1972), and professor of English at Stanford University (1972-1980) and professor of English and comparative literature (1980-1985) before becoming Regents Professor of English at the University of Arizona in 1985.

Among Momaday’s many awards are the Academy of American Poets Prize in 1962, a Guggenheim Foundation grant in 1966, a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1970, a Western Heritage Award in 1974, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas in 1992, and the National Medal of Arts in 2007. He was also named a UNESCO Artist for Peace in 2004. Momaday won a Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn, published in 1968 while he was teaching at the University of California. It tells the story of a young American Indian, Abel, who, upon returning to his reservation in San Ysidro, New Mexico, after military service in World War II, tries to cope with the pressures and temptations to live in the white world and his conflicting desire to resume the ancient American Indian way of life symbolized by his grandfather. In this conflict, Momaday vividly juxtaposes the poetic, earth-centered native culture to the prosaic, materialistic lifestyle of the whites. Abel comes to epitomize the modern American Indian dilemma as he runs across the landscape, symbolically toward the ancient ways of his forefathers, never quite able to reach the continually expanding horizon. Abel’s race, Momaday suggests, is a futile one—lost before it was begun. The vision of a unified natural world that characterizes the American Indian view of a harmonious, borderless existence is inevitably obliterated by the white people’s exploitative possession and reshaping of that world.

As was the case with House Made of Dawn, the fictional/autobiographical The Way to Rainy Mountain represents Momaday’s attempt to express American Indian myth, culture, and way of seeing in white vocabulary without profaning that way of seeing in the process. The three sections of the book, “The Setting Out,” “The Going On,” and “The Closing In,” are divided into passages of Kiowa myths, historical information, and autobiographical facts concerning Momaday’s personal attempt to rediscover his roots. In an impressionistic style flowing with a poetic directness reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, the author imaginatively weaves these three strands together in a unified past and present, dream and fact. Thus, the book becomes a creative journey that reconciles ancient truths and Momaday’s personal instincts concerning them with the life he must live in the modern white world. In Angle of Geese, and Other Poems and The Gourd Dancer, Momaday articulates, in traditional iambic pentameter, modern free verse, and paragraph-length prose, what it means to be an American Indian surrounded by and within the modern society that has displaced his ancestors. The thematic thread running throughout his poetry is the mystery of nature and humankind’s inability to master it with muscle or mind.

With The Names, Momaday again writes in the fictional/autobiographical mode, this time focusing not so much on the conflict between white and native ways as on the possibility of cohabitation of the two cultures. In searching out his roots, both Indian and white, he explores his identity through the events and experiences that have allowed him to survive in the contemporary world. The title refers to the Kiowas’ tradition of naming their people after things of the natural world. This “name-linking” creates a bond between the people and the physical and spiritual significances of those natural objects. Indeed, as a boy, Momaday himself was named “Rock-Tree Boy,” the Indian name for a volcanic butte in Wyoming, a place sacred to the Kiowas.

Momaday’s 1999 mixed-media book, In the Bear’s House, combines painting, poetry, prose, and an extended dramatic dialogue between Yahweh and Urset, the American Indian ur-bear. Momaday uses the figure of the bear as a vehicle to investigate the interrelationship of wildness and humanity, the tensions of hunter and hunted, the seamlessness of dreaming and storytelling.

Throughout his writing, including his 1989 novel The Ancient Child, his highly acclaimed collection of poetry, short stories, and drawings In the Presence of the Sun, and his historical drama The Indolent Boys, Momaday implies that by combining memory and imagination one can recall and re-create a lost unity between world and self, a unity vital for a full and meaningful life. Most important—and key to Momaday’s tremendous appeal—is that such a unity may exist not just for contemporary American Indians but for all people. In Again the Far Morning, a collection of older poems as well as new original work, Momaday contemplates art, spirituality and nature, interracial conflict, personal and historical journeys, and, of course, his Kiowa heritage.

The 2016 poetry collection Meditations after the Bear Feast: The Poetic Dialogues of N. Scott Momaday and Yuri Vaella stands apart from the rest of Momaday's oeuvre. While its theme of humankind's relationship with nature serves as a link with Momaday's other works, Meditations is the result of a decade-long collaboration between Momaday and Native Siberian poet Yuri Vaella that depicts the similarities and differences between their respective indigenous cultures.

Momaday's dramas were collected as Three Plays in 2007. Of these, The Indolent Boys and the screenplay The Moon in Two Windows examine the detrimental effects of the residential boarding school experience for American Indians. Children of the Sun, a one-act drama aimed at juvenile audiences, describes the relationship between the people and the sun. Momaday has also ventured periodically into children's books, with such works as Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story and Four Arrows & Magpie: A Kiowa Story.

Momaday founded the nonprofits Rainy Mountain Foundation and the Buffalo Trust for American Indian cultural preservation and transmission.

Author Works Long Fiction: House Made of Dawn, 1968 The Ancient Child, 1989 Drama: The Indolent Boys, pr. 1994 Children of the Sun, pr. 1997 (juvenile) Three Plays, pb. 2007 (includes The Indolent Boys, The Moon in Two Windows, and Children of the Sun Poetry: Angle of Geese, and Other Poems, 1974 The Gourd Dancer, 1976 Again the Far Morning: New and Selected Poems, 2011 Meditations after the Bear Feast: The Poetic Dialogues of N. Scott Momaday and Yuri Vaella, 2016 (with Yuri Vaella; Alexander Vashchenko and Claude Clayton Smith, editors) Nonfiction: “The Morality of Indian Hating,” 1964 The Journey of Tai-me, 1967 (memoir; revised as The Way to Rainy Mountain, 1969) “The Man Made of Words,” 1970 Colorado: Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring, 1973 (with David Muench) The Names: A Memoir, 1976 Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, 1989 (with Charles L. Woodard) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story, 1994 Four Arrows & Magpie: A Kiowa Story, 2006 Edited Text: The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, 1965 Miscellaneous: In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991, 1992 The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, and Passages, 1998 In the Bear’s House, 1999 Bibliography Isernhagen, Hartwig. Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. The interviews that are the basis of this book were conducted in 1994. Isernhagen questions the authors about their roles as creators, critics, and mentors. Mason, Kenneth C. Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Interviews by Charles L. Woodard. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. The longest published interview with Momaday, the book transcribes hours of conversation in 1986-1987. Topics range from Momaday’s sense of “bear power” and a “blood knowledge” of prehistoric migrations to his appreciation for Shakespeare and Dickinson to his sojourns in the Soviet Union. Included are reproductions of twenty-three of Momaday’s prints and drawings. Mason, Kenneth C. “Beautyway: The Poetry of N. Scott Momaday.” South Dakota Review 18, no. 2 (1980): 61-83. Mason treats The Gourd Dancer as a unified work; he traces thematic progression through the three parts and offers close readings of poems in each section. Mason, Kenneth C. Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Edited by Matthias Schubnell. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997. A collection of interviews from 1970 to 1993 containing Momaday’s views on the place of the Indian in American literature and society, his theory of language and the imagination, the influences on his artistic and academic development, and his comments on specific works he has written. Meyers, Michael R. "N. Scott Momaday." Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, Jan. 2016, EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=89407514&site=eds-live. Accessed 7 Aug. 2017. Presents a brief biographical sketch of Momaday. Momaday, N. Scott. Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Interviews by Charles L. Woodard. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. Transcribes hours of conversation recorded in 1986-1987. Topics range from Momaday’s sense of “bear power” and a “blood knowledge” of prehistoric migrations to his appreciation for William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson to his sojourns in the Soviet Union. Includes reproductions of Momaday’s prints and drawings. Momaday, N. Scott. Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Edited by Matthias N. Schubnell. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997. A collection of interviews from 1970 to 1993 containing Momaday’s views on the place of the Indian in American literature and society, his theory of language and the imagination, the influences on his artistic and academic development, and his comments on specific works he has written. Roemer, Kenneth J. Approaches to Teaching “The Way to Rainy Mountain.” New York: Modern Language Association, 1990. The brief first part introduces a bibliography/filmography on Momaday of special use to teachers. The second, major portion collects seventeen essays dealing with background contexts, forms and themes, and teaching the book in writing and in literature courses. An interview with a Kiowa elder closes the discussions. Scarberry-Garcia, Susan. Landmarks of Healing: A Study of “House Made of Dawn.” Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990. This first monograph on House Made of Dawn examines analogues and sources in published translations and studies of Navajo chants and myths. Schubnell, Matthias. N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985. A comprehensive account of Momaday’s life and work to 1985, this study focuses particularly on Momaday’s intellectual debt to European traditions including Romanticism and symbolism. The book includes an extensive bibliography and a long chapter on the poetry. Trimble, Martha Scott. N. Scott Momaday. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College, 1973. The first monograph on Momaday and his work, this pamphlet introduces major themes through publication of The Way to Rainy Mountain and Angle of Geese, and Other Poems. Velie, Alan R. Four American Indian Literary Masters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982. The chapter on Momaday’s poetry contains detailed explications of “Angle of Geese,” “The Bear,” and “Buteo Regalis.”

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