Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


Throughout the novel Momaday creates parallel between the locations of Walatowa and Los Angeles. One strong parallel element, like the one between Angela and Milly, is the doubling of the priests or spiritual leaders. Father Olguin and Tosamah, the Priest of the Sun, both tell stories of the past, act as examples to follow, and help those around them. They act as the center of social activity from which events in the novel spiral forth.


A recurrent literary device Momaday uses is the flashback. In the novel, flashbacks are often triggered by a place or an object in the landscape, such as when Francisco passes the place called Seytokwa in the novel's first section, "The Longhair." Passing the place causes Francisco to remember the races held there when he was young. Another similar flashback occurs for Abel after he sees an eagle fly overhead and remembers the Eagle Watchers Society he became a part of when he was young. These pervasive flashbacks highlight the inextricable connection between past and present, and emphasize the repetition and handing down of events and traditions through the generations.


The act of running has a significant role in the novel. Both the first and last scenes of the novel portray Abel running the race that Francisco remembers running when he was young. Furthermore, during the festival in Walatowa, clowns run after the bull, and Abel also sees some men run past him while he is hiding in a ditch by the beach in Los Angeles. Descriptions of running are also central to two coming of age events for both Francisco and Abel—Francisco's bear hunt and Abel's return from his eagle hunt. In repeating his grandfather's action of running, Abel signals his recognition of his status as the new torchbearer of his ancestors' traditions, now that his grandfather, mother, and brother have all passed away.