P.O.V. No.18 - Storytelling

Perpetuating Remembrance
N. Scott Momaday and Kiowa Storytelling

James Ransom

You don't have anything
if you don't have the stories.
Silko. Ceremony.

Among the more notable developments in North American literary production since the revolutionary year of 1968 has been the burgeoning of a highly popular Native American literature. A significant number of today's bestselling and most critically acclaimed North American novelists, short story writers, and poets identify with their respective indigenous tribal heritages and write from a Native American perspective and about Native American subjects. Among the best known are James Welch, Gerald Vizenor, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, and, of course, N. Scott Momaday. These writers participate in a much larger movement among descendants of a diverse range of indigenous tribal peoples of North America, who, sharing a common history of defeat and dispossession as "Indians," [1] have come together in order to pursue an agenda of political and economic redress, social reconstruction, and cultural revival. Born in the social protest and political activism of the late 1960's and early 1970's, and lead by urban Indians of mixed indigenous and European ancestry, this "Native American Renaissance" [2] has taken various forms in political action, community organizing, entrepreneurial ventures, and an entire spectrum of cultural expression, including journalism, scholarship, photography, film, poetry, fiction, painting, music, dance, crafts, clothing, hair styles, and so forth. While its impact is increasingly evident on the reservations, this movement continues to draw significantly for self-definition and leadership upon mixed-blood individuals who have lived much of their lives in urban environments and who have earned university degrees. This is especially the case with its literary wing, where most of the leading poets and novelists have advanced degrees and many are on the faculties of major universities.

This is certainly true of Scott Momaday, whose 1968 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, House Made of Dawn, is rightly said to have initiated the Native American Renaissance as a literary phenomenon. With his Ph.D. in American Literature from Stanford University, his tenure at the University of California and now Arizona, his Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and his international recognition for his achievements as a poet, novelist, painter, scholar, and teacher, Momaday has been a high achiever within the institutions, both academic and literary, of mainstream American culture. At the same time, Momaday is a registered member of the Kiowa Indian Tribe. His mastery of cultural practices within the institutions of Euramerican society has given him the capacity not only to interject an indigenous voice into the discourse of North American culture but, indeed, to help reconstruct a native culture out of which such a voice might speak. Any discussion of Momaday's writing must take into consideration his position as progenitor of the burgeoning body of writing by contemporary authors who identify with their indigenous tribal antecedents and whose writings directly address the question of Native American identity and the representation of Native American life. Momaday's work establishes definitive features of the larger story promulgated and elaborated by those who have found their own starting point as writers in a shared sense of identity and purpose at least in part fostered by Momaday's published writings.

I want in this essay to call attention especially to the roll played in Momaday's act of cultural reconstruction by his remembering of traditional Kiowa stories. In the introduction to a collection of essays, stories, and what he calls "passages," published in 1997 under the general title, The Man Made of Words, Momaday writes,

My father told me stories from the Kiowa oral tradition even before I could talk. Those stories became permanent in my mind, the nourishment of my imagination for the whole of my life. They are among the most valuable gifts that I have ever been given. [3]

Momaday's paternal grandmother, Aho, also told him traditional stories, as did other Kiowa elders with whom he came into contact as a child visiting his grandmother's home on her allotment near Rainy Mountain on the Kiowa Reservation in north central Oklahoma. In 1963, at the time he was finishing up his work for the Ph.D. from Stanford University, Momaday was reawakened to his Kiowa heritage on the occasion of Aho's death. In order better to understand what it might mean for him that his father had been born in a tepee to parents who remembered a time when their people roamed the southern plains as a tribe of mounted hunters and warriors, Momaday once again sought out and listened to Kiowa storytellers.

When Momaday then devoted much of his time during the 1966-67 academic year to finishing House Made of Dawn, he was, in a sense, playing hooky, taking time to write his novel away from work on a very different kind of book, for which he was under contract with Oxford University Press. This was a study of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman and his fellow nineteenth-century Connecticut Valley poets, Jones Very and Emily Dickinson, tentatively titled The Furrow and the Glow: Science and the Landscape in American Poetry, 1836-66. Momaday's intention with this book was to trace an anti-transcendentalist, rationalist strain within 19th-century American poetry. The influence of his Stanford mentor, the renowned modernist poet and scholar-critic, Ivor Winters, who had himself first promoted Tuckerman as a rationalist alternative to the romanticism of Emerson and Whitman, is apparent in this project; and, indeed, it had been under Winters' direction that Momaday prepared a critical edition of Tuckerman's poetry as his dissertation for the Ph.D. at Stanford. Oxford University Press brought out Momaday's scholarly edition of The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman in 1965 and Momaday was subsequently awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for the 1966-67 academic year, so that he might take up residence in Amherst, Massachusetts for the research and writing of The Furrow and the Glow. This book never materialized. Instead, in 1968, Momaday published House Made of Dawn.

Crucial to this momentous turning away from the mainstream of a modernist Anglo-American literary tradition into which he had been educated at Stanford in order to take up the story a young Towan pueblo man's struggle to survive in post-WWII America was a process of self-fashioning as a Kiowa that Momaday had begun in the spring of 1963. What Momaday himself has called his act of imagining for himself an identity as an American Indian[4] is narrated in his mixed-genre masterpiece, The Way to Rainy Mountain. This text, upon which Momaday had begun work before taking up House Made of Dawn and upon which he continued to work throughout the period of the novel's composition, performs a process of self-construction in which Momaday reclaims for his thoroughly assimilated American self an identity as a member of a hunter-warrior tribe that, along with the Comanche and despite its relatively small numbers, dominated the southern plains for more than a century before its defeat in the 1870's by the United States Army.

The Way to Rainy Mountain may be said to be the culmination of what began in 1963 as a folklore project. In the summer following his grandmother's death, Momaday, who does not himself speak the Kiowa language, set out with the help of his Kiowa-speaking father (the artist, Al Momaday) to collect what he could of the fragmentary remains of the oral culture that had once belonged to his grandmother's people. This project was prompted by Momaday's realization that he really knew very little about the people from whom he was patrilineally descended. Beginning with stories he and his father remembered having heard from Aho, they went on to interview tribal elders still living on the reservation in and around his recently deceased grandmother's house at Mountain View, Oklahoma-elders whose living memories reached back into the time before traditional Kiowa culture was fragmented and deformed in its defeat and subjugation at the hands of the US Army. This original fieldwork, supplemented by material found through research into the work of ethnographers and folklorists (James Mooney, Mildred Mayhall, Alice Marriot, and Wilbur S. Nye) first resulted in a collection of Kiowa myths, tales, legends, and family stories, each artfully rendered in Momaday's own carefully crafted English, and published by the University of California Press at Santa Barbara in a beautifully hand-printed limited edition of 100 copies in 1967, under the title The Journey of Tai-me.[5] This collection then became the core of stories that make up the first of each of the tripartite sections in the main body of what is today Momaday's most widely read book, The Way to Rainy Mountain, published in 1969 and including eleven pen and ink drawings by Momaday's father.

This remembering and, indeed, honoring of Kiowa oral tradition is the first step in what became for Momaday a journey into deepening levels of human time. As recorded in The Way to Rainy Mountain, this journey leads from the construction of time as a series of discreet moments experienced as loss and isolation, through a recovery of time in the form of historical design or pattern (what Momaday calls "destiny"), and on into a deepened awareness of time similar to what Paul Ricoeur, in his Heideggerian analysis of narrative time, names "temporality" and describes as "the deep unity of future, past, and present [,] . . . of expectation, memory, and attention[,] . . . [and] of communication . . . between contemporaries, predecessors, and successors." [6]

One of the poems from Rainy Mountain, "Rainy Mountain Cemetery," marks Momaday's starting point in its expression of a stymied and, indeed, "deranged" subjectivity bound within the discrete present moment of loss and isolation. This is the condition away from which Momaday's research into the past of his own family and the indigenous tribe to which they belong leads him toward a sense of time much like what Ricoeur calls "historicality," where discreet events are configured in a pattern characterized by a beginning, middle, and end (Momaday's "The Setting Out," "The Going On," "The Closing In"), and are capable of being translated into "theme" or "point"- that is to say, become open to interpretation as to the ways in which the various aspects of what is recorded fit together so as to define a form of life. This is what Momaday calls the Kiowa's "good idea of themselves . . . [in which] they . . . dared to imagine and determine who they were," [7] thus transforming what Momaday calls in his Preface "the mean and ordinary agonies of human history" into the journey of "a lordly and dangerous society of fighters and thieves, hunters and priests of the sun." [8] This is the journey that results in "many things to remember, to dwell upon and talk about" [9] - that is to say, the stories of the Kiowa oral tradition. The tripartite structure of the individual sections of "The Setting Out," "The Going On," and "The Closing In" work sequentially to deepen historicality into the assumption and affirmation of cultural or tribal identity of the Epilogue, centered upon the figure of Ko-sahn, whom I read as Momaday's troping of what Ricoeur calls "temporaltity." Thus it is that the multi-layered and complex temporal journeys of The Way to Rainy Mountain arrive at that Native American identity in which Momaday has grounded himself and his work for three decades now.

Momaday tells us in the Preface that the journey to Rainy Mountain is made so that he might rescue "the spirit" of the Kiowa people from the oblivion of "history"- and that the way to Rainy Mountain is "many journeys in one." The text of this multiplicitous journey records, in each of twenty-four tripartite sections, (1) Momaday's skillfully rendered English translation of a traditional oral story, (2) excerpts and paraphrases from the historical and anthropological record of the Kiowa, and (3) Momaday's own personal reminiscences-"many journeys in one," which together trace the crossing over of a Kiowa identity from the oral culture of his tribal ancestors into the self-representation inscribed into the text of Momaday's own contemporary American print culture. This many-layered odyssey is thus an act of what Walter Benjamin, in his essay on "The Storyteller," has called "perpetuating remembrance." To be distinguished from "short-lived reminiscence," "perpetuating remembrance" is that form of memory which "creates the chain of tradition, which passes a happening on from generation to generation," discovering the "one hero" and "one odyssey" in the "many diffuse occurrences" within "the web which all stories together form in the end." [10]

Quite specifically, Momaday remembers a tradition of storytelling peculiar to a relatively small and largely self-contained tribe of indigenous North American people who migrated down out of the northern Rockies and onto the plains around the time that the English begin to settle the Atlantic Seaboard. The Kiowa gradually worked their way southward until, by the middle of the 18th Century, they enjoyed the freedom of the southern plains, sharing control only with the Comanche of a vast area stretching from what is now the southern half of Kansas on down to the present border between the United States and Mexico - an area that comprises today a good deal of Kansas, the western more than halves of Oklahoma and Texas, and all of Colorado and New Mexico east of the Rockies. By the 1830's, the Kiowa had begun to encounter the advance parties of Euramerican expansion and conquest, with the usual results. "The culture would persist for a while in decline," writes Momaday in his Epilogue,

but then it would be gone, and there would be very little material evidence that it had ever been. Yet . . . it is defined in a remarkably rich and living verbal tradition [.][11]

The essential features of Momaday's remembrance of this tradition may be adumbrated in a reading of section XXIV, the final triptych, where the most frequently quoted phrase from Momaday's text, "the remembered earth," [12] is juxtaposed with the memory of a woman buried in a beautiful dress, somewhere east of Aho's house and south of "the" pecan grove:

Mammedaty [Momaday's grandfather] used to know where she Is buried, but now no one knows. If you stand on the front porch of the house and look eastward towards Carnegie, you know that the woman is buried somewhere within the range of your vision. But her grave is unmarked. She was buried in a cabinet, and she wore a beautiful buckskin dress. How beautiful it was! It was one of those fine buckskin dresses, and it was decorated with elk's teeth and beadwork. That dress is still there, under the ground. [13]

Here, what has vanished from the visible world is nevertheless present in an act of remembrance grounded in a specific landscape made luminous by a family story; and the cultural tradition epitomized in the fine workmanship of this dress is echoed in

Aho's high moccasins . . . made of softest, cream-colored skins. On each instep is a bright disc of beadwork - an eight-pointed star, red and pale blue on a white field - and there are bands of beadwork at the soles and ankles. The flaps of the leggings are wide and richly ornamented with blue and red and green and white and lavender beads. [14]

Here, then, are definitive features of a representation of Native American culture familiar to readers of contemporary Native American novelists, short story writers, and poets: (1) a sense of place grounded in a specific and particularized North American landscape; (2) kinship ties that extend across many generations; and (3) a tradition of fine craftsmanship celebrated both as referential object and in the writer's own skill as an artisan working in the medium of the printed word. This representation provides a native ground upon which Momaday and such younger Native American writers as Leslie Silko and Sherman Alexie position themselves authoritatively within contemporary public discourse on issues having to do with social justice, environmental responsibility, race relations, and the politics of gender. At the very least, the Native American cultural construction undertaken by such writers memorializes alternatives to the rootlessness, atomization, and kitsch so pervasive in contemporary American life.

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1 "Indians" are a European and Euramerican cultural construct. There were no Indians, and still wouldn't be, except that Columbus got lost on his way to the East Indies. This is not to deny that, when Columbus ran aground on the island of Guanahaní, there were millions and millions of people living in the western hemisphere, probably more than eight million in North America. It is, however, to recognize that these people belonged to hundreds of distinct and, in many instances, vastly dissimilar (and sometimes mutually hostile) tribal cultures. "Indians" have tended to render these diverse peoples virtually invisible, covering them over with the self-serving constructions of Euramerican cultural discourse. Together with the actual deterioration and even destruction of traditional cultures, the range of more or less egregious misrepresentation of indigenous tribal peoples as "Indians" has had a profound effect on native peoples themselves. What begin in the imaginations of bewildered Europeans came eventually to determine much in the actual lives of the descendants of the pre-invasion indigenous tribal populations.

2 This designation, echoing F.O. Matthiessen's landmark book on mid-nineteenth-century writing in the USA, was first used by Kenneth Lincoln in his pioneering study, Native American Renaissance (Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1983).

3 N. Scott Momaday, The Man Made Out of Words (New York: St. Martins Press, 1997), p. 8.

4 Momaday, The Names (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976), 25.

5 Momaday, The Journey of Tai-Me (Santa Barbara: Hand Printed at the University of California, 1967). Unpaged. Illustrated with 7 woodblock prints by Bruce McCurdy. Typography by D.E. Carlsen. Printed on handmade German paper (Nideggen). Bound in leather. I have examined copy no. 63, which is in the Rare Book Collection of the Magill Library at Haverford College, Haverford, PA. The Journey of Tai-Me contains all of the stories subsequently published in The Way to Rainy Mountain. There are six additional stories not used in Rainy Mountain.

6 Paul Ricoeur, "Narrative Time," in On Narrative, ed. By W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 176-77,184.

7 Rainy Mountain, op. cit. , 4.

8 Ibid., 7.

9 Ibid.

10 Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller," from Illuminations, Harry Zorn, trans. (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 98.

11 Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain (Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1969), 85-86.

12 Ibid., 83.

13 Ibid., 82.

14 Ibid., 83.

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