SANTA FE – Midday sun muscles its way into the Santa Fe house of celebrated writer N. Scott Momaday as he moves his motorized wheelchair in short bursts about the living room, like a man pacing as he collects his thoughts or composes a poem.
“He was a famous chief,” Momaday says, rolling to a stop. “He was, above all, brave. He kept the bones of his son in a tepee. He cherished his freedom, and he was shot dead in a wagon. He was a very strange man, but memorable.”
The writer is talking about Sitting Bear, a prominent Kiowa warrior who was killed in 1871 while attempting to escape the custody of guards taking him to Jacksboro, Texas, to stand trial on murder charges for his role in an attack on a wagon train.
Momaday’s poem “The Death of Sitting Bear” provides the title for a volume of more than 200 of his poems due out from HarperCollins on March 10. Momaday, who is half Kiowa, also did the drawings for the book.
At least a third of the 15 or so books Momaday has written over the years include poetry, a literary form for which he has the highest regard and the deepest affection. “The Death of Sitting Bear” contains poems written over a 50-year period.
“But only now am I becoming known as a poet,” said Momaday, who will be 86 on Feb. 27. “Because I wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.”
Finding a voice
Momaday was in his mid 30s when his 1968 novel “House Made of Dawn” was awarded the Pulitzer for fiction in 1969. “Dawn” is the story of Abel, a Pueblo man ripped from the spiritual and physical roots of his culture by combat service during World War II. The Pulitzer cemented Momaday’s place in the world of literature as a promising novelist, a trailblazer in a renaissance of American Indian fiction.
But Momaday has written only one subsequent novel, 1989’s “The Ancient Child,” about Set, an American Indian man raised away from his native culture but drawn irresistibly to it.
In “House Made of Dawn,” Abel tries to find his way back to the culture he grew up in but has lost. In “The Ancient Child,” Set tries to find himself in a culture from which he has been estranged. When Momaday goes looking for himself, he finds a poet.
“I think I would rather be known as a poet,” said Momaday, whose own poetry has been shaped both by American Indian oral traditions and by great poets of the American canon.
“There are poetic elements in the oral traditions of Native Americans – more like prayer and song,” Momaday said. “American poets, such as Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens are also important (influences). I am finding more dimensions to my voice as I go. I am experimenting constantly as I go. There are 100 haiku in (‘The Death of Sitting Bear’), the first I have published. And I still like syllabic poetry, very short poems that count syllables per line.”
Momaday shared his thoughts with the Journal during a recent weekday interview at his home, a place filled with artwork by his father, Kiowa painter Alfred Momaday; by his late friend Fritz Scholder; by sculptor, illustrator and printmaker Leonard Baskin; and by himself. N. Scott Momaday draws in charcoal and paints with acrylics on paper.
He has lived in this house about five years, the same period of time he has been confined to the wheelchair by diabetes and the resulting lesions on his right foot.
His physical challenges have not hampered his creativity. In addition to the recently completed poetry collection, he has in the works “Earth Keeper,” a collection of essays about the spiritual connection of native people to the Earth, and “Dream Drawings,” 100 very short stories that he will illustrate himself. He also wants to bring his 1976 memoir “The Names” up to date.
Audio versions of “House Made of Dawn” and “The Death of Sitting Bear” are due out soon. Momaday provided the narration for the preface of the former and for all of the latter.
“I find myself being happiest when I’m working, so I am happiest when I am writing,” he said, his voice deep and smooth, like a lazy river talking to itself as it passes by.
He believes, however, that he will never again write a novel.
“I think I have satisfied my inclination by writing other kinds of prose – travel literature, essays, prose poems, memoirs,” he said. “The introduction to ‘The Way to Rainy Mountain’ is one of the best pieces of writing that I have done.”
I am bear
A dark mist lay over the Black Hills, and the land was like iron. At the top of a ridge I caught sight of Devil’s Tower upthrust against the gray sky as if in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through its crust and the motion of the world was begun.
That’s from the introduction to “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” Momaday’s 1969 account of his Kiowa people’s long-ago migration from the Yellowstone River country of western Montana to the southern plains of Oklahoma and the landmark knoll the Kiowa named Rainy Mountain. The book recounts not only the history of that journey but also the myths that grew out of it.
In a sense, “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” which was illustrated by Momaday’s father and dedicated to his parents, was Momaday’s attempt – like Set’s in ‘The Ancient Child’ – to connect with his own culture. He was born in 1934 in a Kiowa and Comanche Indian hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma, but he grew up on the Navajo, Apache and Jemez Pueblo reservations where his father and his mother, Natachee Momaday, were teachers at Indian schools.
“I was growing up in the Native American world, the world of nature,” he said. “I had a wonderfully varied upbringing, but I know more Navajo than Kiowa.”
In “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” Momaday immersed himself and his readers in the stories of the Kiowa people, including one about Devil’s Tower, an imposing rock butte in northeastern Wyoming. According to Kiowa mythology, this is where a boy turned into a bear and chased his seven sisters, who escaped his jaws by climbing up on a tree stump which rose with them into the heavens where they became stars. Devil’s Tower, the Kiowa say, is that tree stump, scarred by the claws of the boy turned bear. Momaday’s Kiowa name, Rock Tree Boy comes from that legend.
“That story is important to me,” Momaday said. The Kiowa tale does not tell what happened to the bear. But Momaday knows.
“I am that bear,” he said.
Grabbing at stars
A boy, or a bear, reaching for the stars is an apt way to think of Momaday, considering the heights he has attained. Those perceptive enough to notice would have marked him for success early on.
His creative tendencies were never in question. As a youngster, for example, he rode ponies at Jemez Pueblo in the company of his imaginary sidekick Billy the Kid.
After earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of New Mexico and a doctorate in English literature from Stanford, he launched a teaching career that would take him to universities such as California-Santa Barbara, California-Berkeley, Arizona and New Mexico.
In 2007, President George W. Bush presented him a National Medal of Arts. And Momaday’s life was the subject of a 2019 PBS “American Masters” TV documentary.
But what would that life have been like if he had not been awarded the Pulitzer?
“I have no idea,” he said. “It certainly made a difference.”
Likely he would have continued to teach and write poetry. And maybe that would have been enough.
“I like being with students. I find them invigorating,” he said. “And I couldn’t do without poetry.”