American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Momaday, N. Scott

Kiowa poet, novelist, artist, and educator N. Scott Momaday received critical acclaim in 1969 when he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel, House Made of Dawn. The book helped to usher in a renaissance in Native American writing and placed Momaday at the forefront of the genre. In the years since House Made of Dawn, Momaday has published numerous books of poetry and fiction. The common theme of integrating cultural tradition into modern life unites his works. In addition to being a gifted writer, Momaday is an accomplished artist. He has exhibited his sketches, oils, acrylics, and etchings in numerous shows and used them to illustrate his books.

Momaday was born on February 27, 1934, in Lawton, Oklahoma, to Alfred and Natachee Scott Momaday. His father, a full-blooded Kiowa, and his mother, who was of French and Cherokee descent, were both painters and teachers who instilled a strong sense of self in their son. At the age of six months, a Kiowa storyteller and tribal elder bestowed on Momaday the Kiowa name Tsoaitalee ("Rock-Tree Boy"). The name referenced a place along the Kiowa migration route known as Devil's Tower, and it forever linked Momaday to his ancestral past.

In 1936, Momaday and his family left Kiowa Country and moved to New Mexico, where they lived on the Navajo Reservation for seven years. In 1946, the family moved to the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico after Momaday's parents accepted teaching positions at the local day school.

Growing up on the Navajo and Jemez Reservations left a lasting impression on Momaday and gave him a pan-Indian experience that has strongly influenced his writing. Living at Jemez in the mid-1940s, Momaday witnessed the changes that occurred after World War II ended. The Jemez population increased, modern conveniences became more commonplace, and returning veterans brought their off-reservation experiences home with them. Although some veterans adjusted to pueblo life, many others found the task difficult. Some left the reservation in a quest to find themselves and employment, while others remained but turned to alcohol or suicide to escape. Momaday never fell victim to the identity crises that so many Native Americans suffered after the war. He did absorb the experiences of his Navajo and Jemez neighbors, however, and he returned to those themes in his writing.

In 1958, Momaday received a BA in political science from the University of New Mexico. Unsure of his future, he accepted a teaching position on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in New Mexico. While there, Momaday spent his free time writing, and in 1959 Stanford University awarded him the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Scholarship for poetry. The scholarship gave Momaday an opportunity to work under respected poet Yvor Winters, who became a lifelong friend and mentor. Although he expected to return to the reservation teaching position after a year, Momaday's experiences at Stanford reshaped his career path.

In 1960, Momaday received his MA from Stanford and immediately began work on his Ph.D., which he completed in 1963. The following year, he accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Momaday's literary breakthrough came in 1968 with the publication of House Made of Dawn, a classic novel about the search for identity. The novel's main character, a Jemez man named Abel, leaves his reservation to serve in Europe during World War II. When he returns to the reservation after the war, however, Abel suffers an identity crisis. Like many returning veterans, Abel is caught between two worlds. He embarks on a journey during which a Navajo and a Kiowa help him recognize the importance of Indian culture and tradition. Only after he reconnects with his tribal heritage does Abel overcome the identity crisis that plagued him.

Since the publication of House Made of Dawn, Momaday has written numerous literary works that stress the importance of tradition and address the problems of Indians in modern society. Among them are The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), which weaves Kiowa myths with tribal history and personal memories; The Names (1976), a memoir of childhood; The Gourd Dancer (1976), a collection of poems; and The Ancient Child (1989), a novel that connects Kiowa myth with Western legend. He has also held professorships at universities in the United States and Europe and continues to utilize his artistic talents.

Jennifer L. Bertolet


Further Reading
Momaday, N. Scott. 1968. House Made of Dawn. New York: Harper & Row.; Momaday, N. Scott. 1976. The Names. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.; Schubnell, Matthias, ed. 1997. Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.; Schubnell, Matthias. 1985. N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
 

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