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Santa Fe’s Momaday – an ‘American Master’

A camera catches an image of Santa Fe resident N. Scott Momaday during filming of the documentary about him. (Courtesy of Rainy Mountain Media)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

N. Scott Momaday is a literary giant.

In 1969, with his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “House Made of Dawn,” Momaday led the breakthrough of Native American literature into the mainstream.

He also received the National Medal of Arts in 2007 from President George W. Bush.

Not to mention the 20-plus honorary degrees from various universities.

Today, the Kiowa legend lives in Santa Fe.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday is the subject of a documentary airing on PBS. (Courtesy of Sirin Samman)

And his story will be told in the documentary, “N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear.” It will air as part of the “American Masters” series at 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 18, on PBS.

The film was shot in Oklahoma and New Mexico – including Albuquerque, Jemez Pueblo and Santa Fe.

It is directed by Jeffrey Palmer, who is also Kiowa.

“I describe my filmmaking as a personal exploration of Native American life in 21st-century America,” said Palmer. “Much like N. Scott Momaday, I was a young Kiowa artist growing up in the shadows of the Wichita Mountains, dealing with issues of poverty, racism and marginalization. I also experienced the triumphs of using art to maintain the stories of my people, a feeling of respect and honor that I will always present in my work.”

Palmer said some filming was done at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe as well as a few places around Albuquerque.

“We were trying to get the landscape captured just as Momaday has described,” Palmer said. “The whole film is really about place and landscape. It’s a story about his life and how the landscape informs all of those things. The landscape is so beautiful there that it’s hard not to frame a space.”

Being able to helm the documentary is an honor for Palmer, who worked on the film for three and a half years.

“The whole path has been ongoing,” Palmer said. “The film has gone through the festival circuit and we continued to work on it and deliver it for the TV broadcast.”

It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Born in 1934 in Lawton, Oklahoma, Momaday grew up on several reservations across New Mexico, including Jemez Pueblo, where his imagination ripened and he showed superior writing skills as a young mission student.

In 1958, he earned a B.A. in political science from the University of New Mexico.

The film covers Momaday’s prolific years as a doctorate fellow at Stanford University, his transformative Pulitzer Prize for Fiction win in 1969 and his later works that solidified his place as the founding member of the Native American renaissance in art and literature, influencing a generation of fellow Native American artists, scholars and political activists.

Palmer said getting Momaday to open up was priceless.

“He’s an open person in some aspects,” Palmer said. “In his life as an artist, he’ll talk about it. As a private person, it was hard to break that shell. We were able to find out a lot of things about his own psychology and why he writes the things.

“One of the biggest things that we found about him in the film is his aversion to politics. Read his poems and you realize that he has always been speaking out. But he didn’t want to talk about politics.”

Palmer dug deep into Momaday’s life.

“We got him to talk about his connection with his mother and father,” Palmer said. “These are things that we don’t know about or hear about often. The film illuminates those.”

Then there’s the connection he has with his daughter, Jill.

“We were able to capture that and it’s special,” he said.

Heritage is a central theme in Momaday’s work and it often asks questions such as, “What are our origins?” and “How do we connect them through our collective memories?”

Momaday has grappled with these questions, his identity and the challenges of being a Native American artist.

“In some ways, he sits in the middle on a lot of different issues,” Palmer said. “I thought he would go into that. Like what his feelings are on how native people have been treated. He avoided that. But we were able to crack a few more subjects.”

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