Multicultural Momaday

N. Scott Momaday was born on this day in 1934. Though Momaday’s fame is tied to Native American history and tradition, many have pointed out that his upbringing was multicultural, that he is Stanford-educated, and that his accomplishments should not be attributed to the fact that “he is Indian, and therefore bizarre” (Wallace Stegner). Those who selected Momaday’s novel House of Dawn for the 1969 Pulitzer Prize emphasized that the author was “a matured, sophisticated literary artist from the original Americans”; the critics and biographers remind us that Momaday had experience of not only Kiowa life but of William Faulkner, whom he had met as well as studied.

The new poems included in Momaday’s most recent collection, Again the Far Morning (2011), reflect a range of topics and places — art gazing and lovemaking, the caves of Lascaux and the streets of Moscow. But many do proceed from and imagine a return to the ancestral past, as here in the last lines of “Keahdinekeah, Her Hands,” about Momaday’s great-grandmother:

Gladly I remember,
In your little, trembling hands
There was lightly held a gathering
Of many years: old men singing,
Children stamping the ochre earth,
Magpies drifting in fields of snow,
Thunder rolling, and among
The dark saddles of the Wichitas
The howling of wolves ascending
To a hunter’s moon.

As Momaday was gifted his heritage, so he gives back through his Rainy Mountain Foundation and Buffalo Trust, which attempts to redress the “theft of the sacred” from Native life:

I believe that the greatest threat to the survival of American Indians — more than the wars, the disease, the poverty, the discrimination, and the European occupation — is the removal of the spiritual matrix of traditional life, the theft of the sacred. From the beginning, American Indians have centered their world views upon profound belief in the spiritual. That belief has become tentative in our time. Fewer and fewer Indian young people are acquiring those aspects of sacred being which have always defined them. I am deeply concerned to expose this theft of the sacred, and to see that American Indians, young people especially, are allowed to define themselves in terms of the spiritual values that inform their ancient heritage.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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