N. Scott Momaday (1934-2024)

Navarre Scott Momaday was born on February 27, 1934, in the Kiowa and Comanche Indian Hospital at Lawton, Oklahoma. The hospital was near the old stone corral at Fort Sill where Momaday’s ancestors had been imprisoned sixty-one years earlier, in 1873. Momaday’s storyteller great-grandfather, Pohd-lohk—the name means “Old Wolf” in Kiowa—gave him his first Indian name: Tsoai- talee, or “Rock-Tree Boy.” Momaday, in his memoir The Names (1976), describes how Pohd-lohk passed on the heritage of a Kiowa storyteller to him by telling him the story behind his Indian name. Tsoai, or the “rock tree,” is a great monolith of black igneous rock sacred to the Kiowa that rises out of the Black Hills of Wyoming. Most Americans know of this geological formation by the name Devil’s Tower. From an early age Momaday was thoroughly steeped in the Kiowa culture of his father’s family. When he was only six months old his father took him to see his namesake, Tsoai.

Momaday’s mother, on the other hand, was one-eighth Cherokee and seven-eighths Euro-American, which Momaday later said gave him the feeling that he straddled Native American and mainstream American culture. Momaday spent his childhood in several different Southwestern communities, such as the towns of Gallup and Shiprock in New Mexico and also Tuba City and Chinle in Arizona. In these communities Momaday went to school with a wide mix of children: Navajo, San Carlos Apache, Hispanic, and Anglo. In his memoir Momaday says he grew to love the words of the Navajo, Kiowa, and Apache languages along with the words of the Spanish and English languages. Fittingly, many of the characters in his fiction are modeled from the multicultural experience of his childhood years, making him a pioneer for many other Native American authors such as Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, Gerald Vizenor, Louise Erdrich, and Michael Dorris.

After studying for a year at a Virginia military academy in preparation for college, Momaday attended the University of New Mexico, where he earned an undergraduate degree in political science. In the years following, he briefly studied law at the University of Virginia and then went to Stanford University, where he received M.A. and a Ph.D. in English. At Stanford Momaday wrote a critical edition of the poetry of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman under the supervision of the poet and critic Ivor Winters. Momaday's work was published by the Oxford University Press in 1965, and he continued to write afterward, turning to poetry and fiction. Momaday has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Academy of American Poets Prize for his writing, and also spent considerable time teaching at Berkeley, Stanford, and the University of Arizona.

Momaday received a National Medal of Arts “for his writings and his work that celebrate and perserve Native American art and oral tradition“ by President George W. Bush in 2007. In 2019, Momaday participated in an episode of the PBS documentary series American Masters about him. He died at the age of 89 in Sante Fe, New Mexico in January of 2024.

Background on House Made of Dawn

In 1969 Momaday won the Pulitzer for House Made of Dawn, a narrative of a young Native American named Abel who is caught between two worlds—his native heritage on the reservation and the industrialized world of contemporary America in Los Angeles. In writing the novel, Momaday drew on his own childhood experiences of growing up on reservations through the turbulent era of World War II. His portrayal of Abel describes the difficult experience of many young Native Americans during the 20th century: Indian relocation efforts, the struggle to enter the industrial work force, the isolation of reservations, and the harmful effects of alcoholism. In House Made of Dawn, Momaday uses a combination of oral tales and personal imagination to eloquently pass on the stories his Kiowa fathers told him as a child—a task to which he had felt bound since birth.

Momaday was awarded the Pulitizer Prize for Fiction for House Made of Dawn in 1969. Also in 1969, Momaday followed up House Made of Dawn with another well-regarded work, The Way to Rainy Mountain—a work in which he skillfully blends folklore with aspects of autobiography.