By: Sarah Junek
N. Scott Momaday learned storytelling as a child. Kiowa families would gather around the table after dinner, expecting a tale. The old man would get up, and without making an announcement, go into his room. He would ease into his rocking chair and close his eyes. The children would slip away from the dinner table too, one by one, forming a circle below his chair. The old man’s face would be tranquil. Silently, the children would wait. No one dared move. Even the tiniest member of the tribe sat still, waiting for the magic. They knew what was coming. And after a while the old man would open his eyes and say in a deep, slow voice, Ah-KEAH-de, They were camping. A row of tiny smiles would light up, and the old man’s eyes would open to take them in, as he spoke the traditional beginning of a Kiowa story.
Today Momaday is the storyteller. But he speaks not just to the children of the Kiowa tribe. As a poet, published author, playwright, painter and professor of English and American literature, he has put the Native American story on the world map. His work illuminates the spirit of the West as it truly was and as it was imagined in the dime-novel legends of the Wild West. A Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969 for his book, House Made of Dawn, not only launched his literary career, it also unleashed a new generation of Native American writers and thinkers on the public.
It all began, he says, with a storyteller who came before him, Pohd-lohk. He gave the young boy the name Tsoai-talee, after the Rock Tree, a gray rock stump that rises nearly 1,000 feet in the black hills of northern Wyoming. It is a towering monolith filled with wonder and sacred meaning for the Kiowa. As Pohd-lohk took up the young boy in his arms, he knew the boy’s life would proceed from his name, one of the most sacred elements in Kiowa storytelling tradition. Like the buffalo, a sacred symbol to the Kiowa, a “living shield” for their way of life, Momaday has become a living shield for the culture of Native Americans. To stem the loss of their cultural identity—the “theft of the sacred,” as Momaday puts it—he founded The Buffalo Trust, a nonprofit foundation, to record and share story, song, art and history, especially with children of all tribes.
Momaday will be the keynote speaker for the 4th Annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers of the Southwest Conference this July. He spoke about his commitment to poetry at his home in Oklahoma City.
Q: Tell us about your earliest memories of writing.
I guess I wanted to be a writer from the time I was 6 or 8 years old. My mother was a poet so I was familiar with certain forms at a very early age. I made my own definitions of poetry as I went along. While I was at Stanford, I didn’t know an iamb from a trochee, but I started learning the grammar of poetry and all the forms and terms. Yvor Winters taught a course called, “The Writing of Poetry,” and I took that a number of times. He would always limit the class to about five people, all poets. We’d submit poems to each other, and we’d talk about them. Sometimes the criticism made you mad, but it turned out to be helpful. I must have taken “The Writing of Poetry” about five times. I learned
every time I took it.
Q: What does poetry offer to nonfiction writers in terms of the precision of language?
Poets generally train themselves to make the greatest possible use out of every word. If you have a poem that is a great poem, it will have nothing extraneous in it. Every syllable will count.
Q: Could you talk about the rhythm of Native Americanlife on the reservation and how it affects your writing?
I’ve lived on several reservations and the sense of time is different on the Navajo reservation, for example. It’s changing, unfortunately. They’re coming closer to the outer world. They are being subjected to the conveniences and the busyness of the outer world. I first went on the Navajo reservation as a very young child and that Navajo reservation really no longer exists except in pockets here and there. The same thing at Jemez Pueblo. I lived there when I was in my most impressionable age. There were, I think, three telephones in the whole thousand-population village. There were two or three pickup trucks and everyone went around in wagons or on horseback or on foot. There was no plumbing, no electricity. All of that changed pretty rapidly even while I was there. But vestiges of the old world are still there and I think those things are extremely important to the Jemez people. It enables them to know who they are in terms of their experience, their racial, cultural, and genetic experience.
Q: What would you say is the most sacred place for you?
I suppose I would have to think about Devils Tower, Wyoming, first of all because it’s so striking in the landscape and I’m connected to it through my name. But there are many such places. Bear Butte and Baboquivari and all kinds of sacred places in the Native American tradition. When I was writing Way to Rainy Mountain, I retraced my racial roots as a Kiowa. I went to Devils Tower. I was driving through the Black Hills and then I topped a ridge; there it was looming in front of me completely unexpected. It knocked the breath out of me. Knowing the story of my name, it all coalesced into an element of wonder. Sometime later, I made a vision quest there. I camped and fasted and that was an important time. There are lots of such places in the country and not only Indian. Gettysburg, for example, is a very inspiring place. If you know what happened there and you walk the grounds, that becomes a very sacred place.
A sense of place is very important. I spent some time studying the Navajo language. I was driving out on the reservation a lot, picking up hitchhikers and trying to talk to them. I got very quickly out of my depth, but it was fun. One of the things I learned was that the Navajos have a tremendous sense of place. They know the name of every rock beside the road. One day I picked up this young Navajo hitchhiker and started talking to him and very quickly exhausted my Navajo, but I did have the question, “What is that called?” He would tell me a story about it, how the place got its name. That is a trait common to most Native Americans. And other peoples, like the Irish and the French and the Russians as well.
Q: You talk about contemporary Americans being more culturally deprived than Indians. Can you explain?
The West as a landscape is impressive, but in terms of the American mind, in terms of the mentality, it’s not the landscape so much as the imagining of the land and the history. We talk about the American imagination and we wouldn’t have it, as it is, without the Wild West that is so important to Americans— and to Europeans, for that matter. They’re in love with it.
So you look at it as a landscape, and it’s a fantastic landscape— Grand Canyon, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming. But it’s this imagined West, the West of the dime novel that is equally important in our imagination. Of course, the Indian stands right there in the crux. We don’t understand him particularly well. He has thirty thousand years of experience on this continent and that is worth something. What is it worth? When I said the non-Indian is more culturally deprived, that is what I meant. The Indian knows who he is, generally speaking. Not that he doesn’t have a crisis of identity. But he knows who he is to a greater extent than most Americans know who they are. This is part of his ancestral experience. He can look at the land and say It’s been my land. It was my father’s land, and his and his and his and his and his and his and his. Very few contemporary non-Indian Americans can look at the land in that way, and that’s a deprivation.
In order to understand who you are, you have to know something about place and how you invest place. You have to have a sense of roots.
That’s very hard to come by in contemporary America. The Indian can do it. Most of us have a very hard time.
Q: What are the most important differences between the Indian world and the non-Indian world in terms of language?
The American Indian doesn’t have any written languages. We’re moving in that direction. We now have several orthographies for several languages, but by and large, there is no Indian writing. What there is in its stead is a very powerful oral tradition and an understanding of language that is more fundamental than the written language. All of us, even the non-Indian, have this oral tradition in his background. For example, we can point at Beowulf and Chaucer, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and things like that. In the Bible, the Book of Job is a poem, the spoken word. So there is the wonderful oral tradition but for most Westerners, it’s so far back and remote it doesn’t do us much good. Whereas the Indian has a much more immediate sense of that oral tradition and it’s very much alive.
I’ve spent a large part of my life talking about the two traditions, comparing them. The oral tradition is more vital. It demands more of you. It requires more thinking and feeling than writing does. Writing is terribly important. The invention of writing is a wonderful invention—even though it has cost us something in terms of understanding the importance of language, the magic of language, the intrinsic power of language. It gives us a false security, which you don’t have in the oral tradition. Marks on a page are more permanent in a sense than the spoken word, but they don’t demand the same degree of responsibility in terms of speaking, and hearing, and remembering.
Q: Do you spend a lot of time out on the landscape for inspiration?
Quite a bit. I’m an amateur photographer. I find taking photographs improves your vision in certain ways. You learn how to compose through the lens and I find that very helpful in poetry. You learn how to see things.
Q: The photography and the painting, how do they integrate with your writing life?
Well, the thing I want to do most is write, and I want to write poetry. That I do consistently. Writing other kinds of things I do sporadically and painting is sporadic. They all give me satisfaction. They all express my spirit, writing poetry most of all. I view painting as a kind of relaxation. Writing requires a great deal of concentration.
Q: What does your workday look like?
On a good day, I can go to my computer and my pad and I can work out the skeleton of a poem, usually. The morning is the best. I’m good for about four hours of writing. On my best schedule, I was getting up around five, preparing myself for an hour or two, and sitting down to the typewriter around seven and working until noon.
Q: You’re always on the move. How do you fit your writing life into such a busy schedule?
I write where I can. I think it’s always good to have a certain place where you become accustomed to the atmosphere and you have the reference books you need around you. I can also write on the road. I think that’s one of the great benefits of writing, you can do it anywhere. When I’m working at a computer, I always have a pad next to me so I can jot things down in longhand and then work it out on the computer.
I have a lot on my plate in the sense that I’m pretty much a full-time caregiver right now. My wife has cancer and requires a lot of attention and I chauffeur her to her doctor and to therapy fairly often. So finding time to write is a little tricky. But there are always pockets in the day where I can get off to myself and sit down and write. I give lectures, maybe 10 a year, and they always involve travel so it’s an investment of time. I can write on a plane and sleep on a plane. I always wake up with an idea.
Q: What are you working on now that must get done?
I simply want to write the best things that I can in the time I have. I think I can do that by writing poetry. By writing more of it, and trying different ways of writing it. I think my next publication is probably going to be new and selected poems. I have maybe 50 poems that have not been published.
As I grow older, I find more and more people don’t have a sufficient understanding of poetry. Very few people know what it is, or ought to be. When I first went to Russia in the ‘70s, I was amazed at how the Russians regarded poetry. You got on the metro and five people would be reading books of poetry. When a poet gave a reading, why, it was standing room only. Television was just coming into Russia so I’m sure it has had a negative influence on the appreciation of poetry, but I don’t know. I wish we could find five people on a bus reading poetry. It’s not likely.
I’m vitally interested in preserving culture. I have a foundation called The Buffalo Trust and its main purpose is to help indigenous peoples hold on to their culture. We are building an archive at Rainy Mountain in the southwestern part of Oklahoma, which will be a meeting place, a means of preserving documents and photographs and music and such things.
Q: What are you reading?
I recently read Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road. I thought it was a tour de force, an interesting book on many accounts. Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’m reading Carlisle vs. Army about the famous football game of 1912. It’s interesting, an easy read.
“Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of the moon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk…”
— N. Scott Momaday from “An American Land Ethic” in The Man Made of Words