N. Scott Momaday, a poet and novelist of Kiowa descent, learns that his grandmother, Aho, has died. She is buried near Rainy Mountain, Oklahoma, and Momaday wants to visit her grave. He decides to make the journey the long way—by following the ancient migration route of the Kiowas, from their original homeland near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River east to the Black Hills and then south to Oklahoma. During this migration, the Kiowas had acquired horses and the Sun Dance religion. Their warrior society once dominated the southern Great Plains.
As Momaday follows his ancestors’ journey, he recounts oral histories passed on to him by his parents and grandparents. He collects pieces of historical information, records his own impressions and memories, and composes poems. He arranges these diverse materials to form a narrative wheel, in which the voice of Kiowa oral tradition, the voice of historical commentary, and the personal voice of the author take turns telling stories of multiple journeys that form a single journey of the human spirit. Paintings by Al Momaday, the author’s father, illustrate key scenes from the Kiowas’ oral history.
The voice of oral tradition begins with the myth of how Kiowas enter the world through a hollow log. Although they must leave many of their people behind, they are happy with what they see. Sometime later, two of their chiefs argue over the udders of an antelope. One chief gets so angry that he takes his followers and leaves, never to be seen again. A talking dog agrees to help a man escape his enemies, and in return the man cares for her puppies.
A Kiowa woman hangs a little girl’s cradle in a tree. A redbird lures the child out of her cradle. As the girl climbs after the bird, the tree grows and carries her to the sky. There the sun is waiting to make her his wife. The girl weds the sun and has a child. Later, after arguing with her husband, the woman lowers a rope and climbs down, trying to reach her people. The angry sun throws a ring and kills his wife, leaving the child alone. A grandmother spider ensnares the sun’s child, a little boy, and raises him as her own son. The sun’s child keeps the ring that killed his mother. He tosses the ring toward the sky. The ring falls on him and splits him in two. Now grandmother spider must raise twins. She teaches them a sacred word that helps them escape evil giants. Then the twins kill a snake without realizing he is their grandfather. Heartbroken, the grandmother spider dies, but the twins live on for a long time.
The Kiowas suffer hard times, when food is scarce. A man is out looking for food when Tai-me (the sacred Sun Dance doll) appears, covered with feathers. She promises to give the Kiowas whatever they want. From this time on she will belong to the Kiowas. Another legend tells of two brothers who receive a mysterious gift of meat during a hungry winter. While one brother feels afraid of the meat, the other brother eats it and is transformed into a water beast.
Kiowa storytellers recite newer legends about their forebears and their life on the plains. They tell of a woman who saves her family by throwing hot grease at her enemies and of a skilled arrow maker who shoots his enemy right in the heart. They speak of how horses came to be and of terrible winds and storms. The elders relive the love story of the great warrior Quoetotai and one of the wives of Many Bears. They celebrate a buffalo with horns of steel—and the hunter who kills him with one last perfect shot. One tale relates what happens to a wife who abandons her husband. Another tale tells of some young men who ride south to find the homeland of the sun and of the spooky events that made them return to their homes and their life of hunting buffalo.
The Kiowas also tell of two brothers who are captured by the Utes. The Ute chief offers freedom if one brother can carry the other over a path of greased buffalo heads. The Kiowa hero accomplishes the task. The elders also tell how a great horse dies of shame after its hunter shows fear.
The Kiowas recite stories about Mammedaty, the grandson of Guipahgo. Mammedaty has visions, such as his vision of a child in the grass. He also has a bad temper—he shoots a horse in anger. Aho, Momaday’s grandmother, joins the voices of the elders. She tells of the time the Tai-me bundle fell to the floor with a great noise. Momaday, the author, adds the tale of a beautifully dressed woman buried somewhere near the house of Mammedaty, his grandfather.
Momaday adds historical comments after each story in the Kiowas’ oral history. He explains that the name Kiowa contains the meaning of two different halves. Momaday describes Kiowa traditional dress, their hunting practices, their “dog societies” of skilled warriors, their skill with horses, their Sun Dance ceremony, which was centered on the sacred doll Tai-me, and their later peyote rituals. He also records key events in the decline and destruction of the Kiowas and their culture.
Momaday also adds comments in his own voice after each Kiowa story and historical comment. He describes the land and its living things—wildflowers, insects, and spiders—in intimate detail and records how places make him feel. Momaday adds memories of his grandmother, Aho; of his grandfather, Mammedaty; and of Mammedaty’s grandmother and other elders. He shares a final oral memory from Ko-sahn, a one-hundred-year-old woman. Ko-sahn remembers how, in her childhood, she helped get the lodge ready for the Sun Dance, how an old woman sprinkled special earth on the lodge floor, and how beautiful it was to watch the Sun Dance, which was all for Tai-me.