House Made of Dawn begins with a prologue that invokes the title image: "there was a house made of dawn, it was made of pollen and rain." Abel, the protagonist of the novel, is running through the rain at dawn near Walatowa, New Mexico, his body dwarfed by the winter sky and covered by the marks of burnt wood and ashes.
The farmers of Walatowa work all summer in the fields. Abel's grandfather, the elderly Francisco, is one such farmer. We find him driving a team of roan mares along a road thinking of a race he ran in his youth. The race is for good hunting and harvests, and all the young men of the tribe race along the wagon road at dawn. Francisco remembers how he had won the race by surpassing the speedy Mariano, who had been in the lead and was considered the best long distance runner in the area. Francisco is having this memory in 1945, on the day Abel is returning to the reservation after armed service in World War II. Around midday, the drunken Abel stumbles off the bus into his grandfather's arms.
The following day, Abel remembers his brother Vidal and his mother, both of whom died of a disease years ago, when Abel was young. Abel never knew his father, who was Navajo and was considered an outsider by the rest of the Indians at the reservation. Abel recalls his experiences as a member of the Eagle Watchers Society, a small group descended from immigrants of the Tanoan city of Bahkyula. The Tanoans, a forgotten tribe, suffered much persecution and hardship before they stumbled into Walatowa years ago. As a member of the Society, Abel hunts a large and vigorous eagle.
In another part of town Father Olguin receives a mysterious and beautiful woman, Angela St. John, a woman from Los Angeles who has just moved into the nearby Benevides house for rest and relaxation. Angela meets Father Olguin at the church and tells him she needs someone to chop firewood for the wood stove at the Benevides house. Father Olguin replies that he might know someone who can help her.
Abel agrees to chop Angela's wood for three dollars. He spends Tuesday afternoon at the Benevides house under the pale and thin woman's watchful gaze. Angela is fascinated by the way Abel throws his entire body into chopping wood, while she is only irritated by his reserve. Abel agrees that he will come back to chop the rest of the wood, but is ambiguous about what day he will do so. That evening, as Angela burns some of the wood, Father Olguin stops by and invites her to the feast of Santiago.
The saintly Santiago was known for his exploits on his ride southward into Mexico. Along his journey he accepted the hospitality of an old couple, who killed their only rooster to feed him. According to Father Olguin, Santiago had disguised himself as a peon and won a contest at the royal court. As his prize he wed one of the king's daughters. The king tried to have Santiago killed, only to be thwarted by the same rooster, which Santiago pulled out of his mouth whole and alive. The rooster gives Santiago a magic sword that he used to slay the king's assassins.
Ceremonially, the feast of Santiago plays itself out every July 25th, reenacting the events of history. A brilliant horseman, an albino, bloodies Abel with a dead rooster during a ceremonial contest as Angela watches.
Four days later, Abel returns to the Benevides house to finish cutting Angela's wood. Angela has been waiting, and her obsession with Abel results in a passionate romantic tryst between them. On the first of August, Father Olguin makes another appearance at the Benevides house, only to realize that Angela has no romantic intentions towards him.
Huge festivities rage through the town as a storm sets in towards the evening. Francisco has spent the evening in the ceremonial kiva, or hut, along with the other holy men in town. Additionally, a bull is running through the streets as part of the ceremony. That night, among many drunk Navajos at Paco's, the local bar, Abel and the albino have a tense conversation and leave the bar. Abel kills the albino and watches his blood drip in the rain.
At the opening of House Made of Dawn, Momaday introduces Abel, the protagonist, saying that Abel is running through a desolate landscape by himself. The landscape is "the house made of dawn, made of pollen and of rain." Such a house, in which the wall is the dawn and whose roof is the rain, is a place that is limitless and free. Abel is born into this freedom, and he is the one who has the responsibility to tend to the natural world around him, to take care of it and foster it. Momaday implies the notion of creation and beginnings by starting the novel at dawn. The chapter titles, which indicate sequences of days, indicate that time is the important structuring mechanism of the novel as a whole. Furthermore, the day the novel begins—July 20—is an important one to the Kiowa people, as it is the day that the Kiowa attempted to hold a sun dance for the last time, in 1890. Indeed, many of the events in Abel's life are connected to dates that correspond to the decline of the Kiowa tribe.
The first chapter of the novel takes place in the town of Walatowa, with Abel's grandfather, Francisco, as the protagonist. Francisco's memory of the race he won when he was young provides a direct connection to Abel's running in the prologue: we gather that the race is part of Abel's culture and tradition, and that Abel, in running, is following in the footsteps of his ancestors. In this chapter Momaday also sets up an opposition through the description of environmental sounds. For most of the chapter Francisco hears the sounds around him, such as the wind, the sparrows, or the river. As he approaches the junction to pick up Abel, however, he hears something else—the low whine of tires on road, a high-pitched mechanical sound. This sound, so alien to the environment to which Francisco is accustomed, comes from the bus that carries Abel back into town. We are instantly alerted to the fact that Abel is someone who is coming from a foreign, more modern world.
Abel's otherness has always been a part of him. Waking up the next day, he recalls that he did not know who his father was, but knew that he was Navajo, or a Sia, or something else. It was this different blood that made Abel's father foreign and strange to the rest of the Indians in the village. When we come to the climactic moment of the first chapter, when Abel kills the albino, who has previously taunted him at the feast of Santiago, Momaday purposefully leaves out the conversation between the two men. What they say to each other is never revealed—we only know that Abel stabs the albino, and that the albino is completely emotionless and expressionless as he dies.