Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Bear of a Man

N. Scott Momaday
By Daniel Gibson | Published 11/1/2003

N. Scott Momaday

He is large in all respects: in intellect, in accomplishment, in spirit, in the level of respect he engenders—and physically, as he says, “I am a bear.” In 1969, the realm of Native American literature and scholarly acknowledgment passed a major milestone when Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his powerful, dark and moving first novel, House Made of Dawn. The prize acknowledged that written works by Native American authors had moved forever out of the category of anthropology and historical romance and taken their rightful place alongside the world’s other great literary traditions. And for a young Indian author, it would serve as springboard to a career of surprising grace, productivity and acclaim.

“The most important question one can ask is, ‘Who am I?’” explained Momaday in a recent interview in his new condominium in Santa Fe. “We sometimes spend our entire lives trying to find the answer to that. People tend to define you. As a child, you can’t help that, but as you grow older, the goal is to garner enough strength to insist on your own definition of yourself.” This is perhaps even more true for Native Americans, who have been inappropriately defined by non-Natives for centuries.

“One of the primary themes that run through my books is identity—people trying to understand who they are. Abel [the protagonist in House Made of Dawn] has lost his tribal identity and spends the rest of the book trying to regain that. Set, in The Ancient Child, is Indian, he knows that much, but he doesn’t understand what that means. He discovers it in the course of the novel. Of course, identity is an ancient theme in literature. And I too have searched.” In fact, Momaday not only searched, he hit pay dirt.

Born in 1934 in Lawton, Oklahoma, he was first raised by his grandmother amidst “dire poverty.” His parents, both teachers, eventually secured work at various Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, and Momaday spent his early years in Gallup and Shiprock, New Mexico, and in Tuba City, Chinle and San Carlos, Arizona. When he was 12, the family settled down in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, where his father worked as principal andhis mother as a teacher at the Jemez Pueblo Day School. Exposed to the then-prevalent use of Spanish among both the Pueblo people and Hispanic residents of the region; to the languages of his Kiowa relatives, as well as his Navajo, Apache and Pueblo classmates; and to English in the world at large, Momaday absorbed them like a parched earth embracing a gentle rain. And through these various influences, he found his own voice.

With both parents encouraging his pursuit of writing (his mother was a writer as well) and art (his father later illustrated Momaday’s favorite book, The Way to Rainy Mountain), young Momaday graduated from the University of New Mexico and then received a fellowship to attend Stanford University, where he eventually obtained a Ph.D. in literature. Then he set to work, producing novels, books of poetry, two plays and nonfiction works that brilliantly weave together Native oral storytelling traditions with complex poetry structures, journalistic observation, narrative and other forms and styles of telling a tale, as each story dictates. Along the way he also spent some 20 years teaching literature at Stanford (he still commutes once a week to Tucson, where he teaches at the University of Arizona), raised a family, secured a Guggenheim Fellowship, became a founding trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, was accepted into the Kiowa Gourd Dance Society and launched a nonprofit youth foundation, The Buffalo Trust.

“I manage to keep fairly busy,” he says in a massive understatement. “Normally I’m doing four or five things at once. Sometimes I hop from one thing to another within a couple of days. Other times, I’ll stick with one project for several weeks. I find that this is a good way for me to work. When I’m writing, which is a very concentrated activity, I find it energizing to go to painting or other artwork for a while—it’s a different kind of creativity. One activity feeds the other, I think.

“Currently I’m writing a book that started out as a novel, but in the course of things I’ve turned it into something that is more autobiographical,” he continues. “I wrote a book called The Names, which is about my growing up, and what I’m writing now may turn out to be a sequel to that. And I’m teaching, of course. But I consider myself a poet, above all. I started out writing poetry and got sidetracked, but I’ve held onto my love of poetry. I have a number of poems on hand and I’m thinking of putting out a book of new and collected poems, with perhaps 100 or so. That’s another iron in the fire.”
In his rare “downtime,” Momaday says he loves to travel, “and I like walking. I like going to new places [often writing about these adventures for the New York Times]. I also love to cook and have people over—I like to have guests for dinner. My specialties are soups and stews, so we’re approaching my time now.”

Like a bear sitting down to the feast of a lifetime, eyeing last year’s growth—the spicy buds, hidden roots, and juicy berries ripened under the sun—N. Scott Momaday relishes his fare, consuming and giving voice to life’s seasons of bitter and sweet.

Daniel Gibson is editor of Native Peoples magazine and author of Pueblos of the Rio Grande: A Visitor’s Guide (Rio Nuevo).

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