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House Made of Dawn

N. Scott Momaday

The Priest of The Sun (Los Angeles, 1952)

Prologue–The Longhair (Walatowa, Cañon de San Diego, 1945)

The Night Chanter (Los Angeles, 1952)–The Dawn Runner (Walatowa, 1952)

Summary

January 26

After spending some years in prison for murder, Abel finds himself in Los Angeles, under the care of the Indian Relocation program. The chapter begins with the Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah, the Pastor and Priest of the Sun, delivering a sermon entitled "The Gospel According to John." Tosamah has a disciple, Cristobal Cruz. A good deal of the priest's sermon is a retelling of old Kiowa legends he has heard from his grandmother, such as the story of Tai-me.

Abel lives with another Indian, Ben Benally, in a small apartment, and spends some time working with Ben at a factory. In the present moment of the narrative we find a broken and beat up Abel lying semi-conscious on the beach, reminiscing over the events and experiences of the past months in Los Angeles—Tosamah's sermons among those experiences. Abel recalls Milly, a social worker who comes by the apartment to ask questions and help Abel adjust to life in Los Angeles. Milly eventually became Abel's lover.

At this point, only fragments of what has happened to Abel are revealed, such as his experience as a fearless and crazy soldier in World War II. Abel also briefly reminisces on one of the ceremonies with the Priest of the Sun that involved the use of the hallucinogenic peyote.

January 27

The next day, Tosamah delivers a second sermon—titled "The Way to Rainy Mountain"—that retells the Kiowa story of the origin of Devil's Tower in Wyoming. Tosamah's grandmother had been about seven when she witnessed the last of the Kiowa sun dances, held in 1887 above Rainy Mountain Creek. Three years later she witnessed the last gathering of the Kiowa as a sun dance culture, known as "Sun Dance When the Forked Poles Were Left Standing." At this last gathering, American soldiers from Fort Sill rode out and dispersed the Kiowa tribe, preventing them from carrying out the ceremony, which was the essential act of their faith.

In her later years, Tosamah's grandmother lived in a small house near the point where Rainy Mountain Creek runs into the Washita River. Here, every summer, there was excitement and reunion among the Kiowa. At the end of his sermon Tosamah retells the story of visiting his grandmother's grave on Rainy Mountain.

Abel, meanwhile, finally gets up from the ditch where he lies on the beach, and slowly makes his way across Los Angeles toward the apartment he shares with Ben.

Analysis

Momaday describes Abel's entrance into modern-day America through the symbol of the helpless and vain smelt—fish that throw themselves on the beach in the moonlight, only to be casually captured by fishermen. After Abel kills the albino he is sent to prison and then to Los Angeles, where he spirals down from a productive member of society to a helpless drunk. The central sections of House Made of Dawn take place at a point in the narrative when Abel has been badly beaten up and is close to death on the beach. Through flashbacks and the Priest of the Sun's sermons, Momaday presents us with a sketchy picture of what has happened to Abel prior to his awakening on the beach. Intermittently arranged through this section are the musings, longings, and desires Abel recalls as he lies semi-conscious on the beach. Central to these desires is Milly, the social worker to whom Abel calls out for help.

The clear counterpoint and foil to Abel is the Priest of the Sun, whose sermons are primarily retellings of the stories and origin myths of the Kiowa. Momaday uses the character of the Priest of the Sun to tell the stories of the Kiowa—stories that represent the heritage from which Abel feels impossibly far at this moment. Abel says, "he had lost his place… he had known where he was… now [he was] reeling on the edge of the void." For many peoples, the origin myth is the birth story of their culture, and has the power to bestow a concrete notion of who they are as a people and as individuals. By structuring the chapter in such a way—juxtaposing the Kiowa creation myth with Abel's hopeless alienation and aloneness—Momaday always reminds us who Abel is and how far he has degenerated.

Closely paralleling Abel's degeneration is the story of the demise of the Kiowa as a sun dance culture. On the beach we see Abel, the modern Indian, washed up on the shore of America's indifference and cruelty, while in the priest's sermon we see the soldiers of Fort Sill preventing the Kiowa from celebrating their faith through their own ignorance and intolerance. This juxtaposition of present and the past drives home a point Momaday reiterates throughout the novel—the destruction of American Indian culture continues to reenact itself in the present lives of many Indians. The past is never replaced, but instead continues to trickle into the future as loss and loneliness.

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