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.