Navarre Scott Momaday, Kiowa, a writer, poet, educator and master storyteller, has died. His Pulitzer Prize winning debut novel “House Made of Dawn” is credited with the start of a renaissance in contemporary Native American literature. He was 89. Momaday died Wednesday at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, publisher HarperCollins announced. He had been in failing health.
On Facebook, friends and organizations shared condolences and remembrances lamenting the loss of a “beloved member of our community and an inspiration to all,” and, “a giant of Native American literature.”
Vice chairman of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma Joseph Tsotigh said, “The Cáuigú and the world have lost one of the most eloquent voices of our generation! It’s with deep sadness that I acknowledge the passing of a magnificent, talented and irrepressible author, poet, and raconteur Dr. N. Scott Momaday. The world will never know another like him. Hegau ém âuibòñ:[dàu”.
Iñupiaq author and poet Joan Kane, a visiting professor at Reed College, recalls encountering Momaday’s writing during her first year as a student at Harvard College. “How late and accidentally to come to the work of one of the most influential of American writers! Without Momaday's many contributions to academia as well as literature, it's hard to imagine the increasing representation of exemplary Indigenous scholarship and creative works we've seen especially in the last decade.”
She also recalls the first time she met Momaday in person, when he spoke at a large, informal social gathering of tribal librarians, archivists, and museum staff and journalists. There, she said, he listened as much as he spoke. Kane said she saw “in his comport, that it's just as important to be present to each other as Native people through our serious efforts as it is to connect with humor, approachability and ease.”
“Scott was an extraordinary person and an extraordinary poet and writer. He was a singular voice in American literature, and it was an honor and a privilege to work with him,” Momaday’s editor, Jennifer Civiletto, said in a statement. “His Kiowa heritage was deeply meaningful to him and he devoted much of his life to celebrating and preserving Native American culture, especially the oral tradition.”
“House Made of Dawn,” published in 1968, tells of a World War II soldier who returns home and struggles to fit back in, a story as old as war itself; in this case, home is a Native community in rural New Mexico. Much of the book was based on Momaday’s childhood in Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, and on his conflicts between the ways of his ancestors and the risks and possibilities of the outside world.
“I grew up in both worlds and straddle those worlds even now,” Momaday said in a 2019 PBS documentary. “It has made for confusion and a richness in my life.”
Despite such works as John Joseph Mathews’ 1934 release “Sundown,” novels by American Indians weren’t widely recognized at the time of “House Made of Dawn.” A New York Times reviewer, Marshall Sprague, even contended in an otherwise favorable review that “American Indians do not write novels and poetry as a rule, or teach English in top-ranking universities, either. But we cannot be patronizing. N. Scott Momaday’s book is superb in its own right.”
Like Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” Momaday’s novel was a World War II story that resonated with a generation protesting the Vietnam War. In 1969, Momaday became the first Native American to win the fiction Pulitzer, and his novel helped launch a generation of authors, including Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch and Louise Erdrich. His admirers would range from the poet Joy Harjo, the country’s first Native to be named poet laureate, to the film stars Robert Redford and Jeff Bridges.
Momaday was born Dec. 27, 1934 in Lawton, Oklahoma. In a PBS interview for American Masters, he said he was born in poverty, in a house with no electricity or plumbing, “We would be considered at the very bottom of the scale in terms of land and poverty. I came from that by the virtue of good luck and perseverance into a kind of existence that has been visible. I have achieved a kind of reputation and I think the legacy has to do with what is possible. It is possible to overcome great disadvantage.”
He said Native American people at the turn of the 20th Century had a sense of defeat after being conquered, put down and held down.”It was terribly hard for them to come out of that, to survive that kind of poverty of the morale, let’s say.
But they have done it to a large extent. There’s still a ways to go. I want my legacy to be the example of how one can survive against those odds,” said Momaday.
Momaday told PBS in a 2019 documentary that the ancient oral tradition is at the heart of today’s storytelling. “The landscape, which is the embodiment of spirit, in my view, is somehow informed with language and oral tradition. I think the voices of ancestors going back into geologic time are there. They’re in the landscape and when called upon they can be – they proceed out of the landscape and into the hearts of people.”
The influence of ancestors and traditions helped shape “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” written in 1969 and “The Names: A Memoir” in 1976.
Growing up in Arizona and New Mexico, where his parents taught on reservations, allowed Momaday to experience not only his father’s Kiowa culture but also those of other southwest Native Americans including the Navajo, Apache, and Pueblo traditions.
He attended the University of New Mexico and earned a PhD in English Literature at Stanford University in 1963.
Over the following decades, he taught at Stanford, Princeton and Columbia universities, among other top-ranking schools, was a commentator for NPR, and lectured worldwide. He published more than a dozen books, from “Angle of Geese and Other Poems” to the novels “The Way to Rainy Mountain” and “The Ancient Child,” and became a leading advocate for the beauty and vitality of traditional Native life.
Addressing a gathering of American Indian scholars in 1970, Momaday said, “Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves.” He championed Natives’ reverence for nature, writing that “the American Indian has a unique investment in the American landscape.” He shared stories told to him by his parents and grandparents. He regarded oral culture as the wellspring of language and storytelling, and dated American culture back not to the early English settlers, but also to ancient times, noting the procession of gods depicted in the rock art at Utah’s Barrier Canyon.
“We do not know what they mean, but we know we are involved in their meaning,” he wrote in the essay “The Native Voice in American Literature.”
“They persist through time in the imagination, and we cannot doubt that they are invested with the very essence of language, the language of story and myth and primal song. They are 2,000 years old, more or less, and they remark as closely as anything can the origin of American literature.”
In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Momaday with a National Medal of Arts “for his writings and his work that celebrate and preserve Native American art and oral tradition.” Besides his Pulitzer, his honors included an Academy of American Poets prize and, in 2019, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
In his book of poetry, “Death of Sitting Bear: New and Selected Poems,” Momaday wrote:
Oh, my holy and unholy thoughts
Will lie scattered on these pages.
They will do to make a modest book,
Not something for the ages,
But leavings for a lonely child, perhaps,
Or for an old man dreaming.
In his poem “Death of Sitting Bear,” he also wrote of Sitting Bear:
O Sun, you remain forever but we Kaitsenko [elite warriors] must die
O earth, you remain forever but we Kaitsenko must die.
Momaday was married twice, most recently to Regina Heitzer. He had four daughters, one of whom, Cael, died in 2017.
Lead image: Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his groundbreaking novel "House Made of Dawn," appears at his home in Santa Fe, N.M., on Nov. 13, 2019. Momaday died Jan. 24 at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, publisher HarperCollins announced. He had been in failing health. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras, File)