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Home / Articles / News / Interviews /  Writing His World
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Writing His World

Literary pioneer N Scott Momaday discusses culture, history and the writing life

January 20, 2010, 12:00 am

One wall in the front room of N Scott Momaday’s modest house on the northwest side of Santa Fe is stacked floor to ceiling with bookshelves—the kind with a built-in ladder to reach the books closest to the top. Original paintings and ledger-book drawings hang on the walls.

Though temporarily using a wheelchair, Momaday’s posture is straight and stately. He absently rubs his thumb on his forefinger while listening to questions, and crosses and recrosses his ankles as he composes his responses. In his measured speech, he seems to consider each word carefully, as if he has written each sentence in his mind before speaking it.

Perhaps he is—or maybe it’s just Momaday’s legacy that imbues his statements with such resonance.

Arguably, Native American literature would not be what it is today without his works. The Kiowa author’s first novel, House Made of Dawn, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969. It is an unflinching examination of Native Americans’ alienation and sadness, as unapologetic in its honesty as it is unconventional in its literary format.

Since then, Momaday, 75, has expanded his writing career from fiction to nonfiction, poetry, playwriting and painting. He also is a founding trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, as well as the founder and chairman of The Buffalo Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of Native American traditions.

Last year, his prose and poetry collection, In The Presence of the Sun, was re-released by UNM Press, which also will re-release Momaday’s In the Bear’s House this June. Right now, Momaday is at work on a new book of poetry, slated for release in the fall; he also has in the works a children’s book and a memoir.

This week, SFR talks to the author about Native American culture, his career as a writer and what comes next.

I remember isolated images…which are mine alone and which are especially vivid to me. They involve me wholly and immediately, even though they are the disintegrated impressions of a young child…It is in their nature to be believed; it is not necessarily in them to be understood. Of all that must have happened to and about me in those my earliest days, why should these odd particulars alone be fixed in my mind? If I were to remember other things, I should be someone else.—The Names

SFR: Given the option to describe yourself as a poet, a novelist, a playwright or a painter, which one do you choose first?
NSM: Oh, I’m a poet. Yeah. I think poetry is the queen of literature. I’d rather be a poet than anything else.

Did you begin writing poetry first in life?
I guess so, yeah…I wanted to be a writer when I was a boy because my mother was a writer and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be.’…I started writing poetry as an undergraduate in college, and I’ve been writing it ever since. Poetry remains, in my mind, the best use you can make of words.

Indian culture emphasizes oral tradition. Did you hesitate or encounter resistance when you began writing it down?
No. I’m a writer and, if you want to build a reputation as a writer, you have to write…Oral tradition is a great, great institution in itself. In some ways, it’s superior to writing. But it would be a mistake to try to live without writing as a writer [laughs]…My poetry, a lot of it…is from oral tradition. It deals with the Native concept of time and space…The Indian people do not have poetry; poetry is verse, and verse is not something that is common to the Native world. But rhythm is, and repetition is very important. And so a lot of my poetry, I think, stems from stories, songs, in the Native American tradition.

You made a name for yourself writing fiction, but you also have written a great deal of nonfiction, including the autobiographical element of The Names. What was that experience like?
The [act of] writing an autobiographical narrative is hard…You’re always turning the vision within. And that really restricts you—you give up the breadth of fiction; you can’t simply go from the self to something outside the self; you’re really confined to the self. Everything depends upon your memory of things. And clearly you can be wrong, you can have a false memory, but that’s beside the point. What you’re doing is writing out of your experience as you understand it…That’s the burden of writing in that first person.

Some say your writing has had a large impact on the change in perception of Native culture in America. What’s your response?
I would say I hope so. I’m not a political writer, so I wasn’t trying to work any change through my writing, but I wanted to give a fair picture of the Indian world as I knew it. That’s largely what my work has been about. Even in my poetry, though I write a lot of poems that do not focus upon the Indian world, I do focus on that world in many poems, and the ideas that this is how it was, this is the song, the tradition of song that informs that world—this is the way of looking.

Have you ever had writer’s block?
I don’t know. I guess maybe one could say that when I was given the Pulitzer Prize there was a period in which I didn’t know what to do as a follow-up on that. But on the other hand, I don’t believe in writing blocks. I don’t think there is such a thing. It’s an excuse.

Was it daunting to receive such a prestigious prize so early in your career?
A little daunting, yeah. I was too young to receive it. It was a good thing, all in all. The benefits were very great and continue to be, but I don’t know, I think that if I had won it at 45 instead of 35 or whatever I was, it would have been somehow more appropriate.

But you’re not ready to give it back.
No, no, I’ll keep it.

You also received the National Medal of Arts in 2007. What was your reaction to that?
I was gratified to receive it. I didn’t know I was in the running until pretty late in the game. I was very happy. I think that’s a classy award. The medal is about like this [makes circle with two hands].

Where is it?
It’s in my bedroom. It’s in the closet [laughs].

Why is it in the closet?
I didn’t know what else to do with it. I’m in the process of selling my papers, and I imagine that, when and if that happens, I will include all the medals and certificates and so on. They’ll go to a repository, which is good because I’ll be relieved of them and I won’t have to worry about them.

How does that feel, to be selling your papers?
It’s a good thing. I see it as a means of protection and preservation. If I kept everything to myself, it would be a burden; it would be a real burden. I would not like to be responsible for all those things. So to put them where the public has access to them, and graduate students down the line, to have them fully secure, that seems to be what should happen to such things.

Does it humble you or does it make your head swell?
Those are the two choices?

Yes. Those are the only two ways it could go.
[Laughs] Well, I don’t know. I suppose there is a humbling aspect to it. And maybe there is a sense of a swelling of the head, too, because it’s a nice thing to have your work wanted for preservation. Yeah, it’s something that I could not have imagined at one time.

“A man—his name is of no importance—owned a shield. The shield came down in the man’s family. The man’s grandson carried the shield into a fight at Stinking Creek, and he was killed. Soldiers took away the shield. Some years ago old man Red Horn bought the shield in a white man’s store at Clinton, Oklahoma, for seventeen dollars. The shield was worth seventeen dollars, more or less.”
—“The Shield of Which the Less Said the Better,” In the Presence of the Sun

Some critics suggest that House Made of Dawn made such an impact when it was released in 1968 because it doesn’t tell the traditional Native American story of environmental harmony and a rich culture—it was about
alienation and disenfranchisement. It was the unexpected subject matter that made it important. Do you agree with that assessment?

It could be, it could be. You have to realize that I grew up in the Indian world—I lived on a number of reservations, so I knew that world very well. Another thing is that I was separated from my tribe from a young age, so I grew up with a kind of pan-Indian experience before I knew what that term meant, and I think that was good for the imagination. I could write about Indian life here and there and I could make an amalgam out of it too…You want to write about your experience, and most Indian people, I think, have the experience of growing up in one context, and they write out of that context. I, on the other hand, had several contexts, so it gave me a broader view of things, I think.

What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in Indian culture?
I think the Indian people have become more equal, if I can put it that way, more competitive with people outside the Indian world. And that’s all to the good. We want them to give a good account of themselves, to be responsible citizens of the world. And they are certainly moving in that direction. Things are moving so quickly. I remember when I first went to Jemez Pueblo, where I spent some of my most impressionable years, there was no electricity, no plumbing, no automobiles in the village; and all of that changed during my time there, and it changed very quickly. I saw things that no one would ever see again. I was there at the right time. I saw the old world of the pueblo, and then I saw it change, and it became another world. The fact that it happened successfully, that people did adjust to that kind of revolution, was very inspiring. It’s still going on. I’m pretty excited about the future of Native American people.

Have you had a sense of a shift in the way in which American history is taught and perceived?
We’ve changed a lot in our view of American history. For the better. Books like…Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee [by Dee Brown] really gave us a new perspective on American history, and we’ve been moving in that direction ever since. We’ve become aware that our idea of history has been largely misrepresented in early histories of the country, and it hasn’t been so long ago that that change really began to take place. I would say in the 1950s, maybe.

In In the Presence of the Sun, there is a poem called ‘The Shield of Which the Less Said the Better.’ It describes a historic Native American shield that, after an unremarkable lifespan, was bought and sold for $17 in ‘a white man’s store.’ Your poetry rarely mentions the tension between white and Native. It sticks out because none of the other poetry really expresses that sort of sentiment.
Ah. There are, in my poems, a lot of things that are something like that…Maybe most of the ones I have in mind are not yet published, are about to be. But I do think a lot about history and confrontation, but again, it’s not that I’m trying to make a political statement.

These kinds of rare, yet interesting, references to this confrontation—you say it’s not political, but do you view it as inevitable in your work?
To the extent that it is inevitable in anybody’s look at the history of white-Indian confrontation. You can’t get away from it. There are many sad things in American history, and sometimes they are covered up. Now it seems that we have a fresher and more truthful view of that history, and it’s getting into the books, and that’s all to the good.

You just used the word ‘sad,’ and that brings me to a couplet from your poem ‘Plainview: 2’: ‘An old horse is old / An old Indian is sad.’ Is that true?
I think it’s true, yeah. I think, with the loss of the culture, that’s a sad, sad thing. I think a lot of Indian people, when it happened, when the culture fell, they had to be terribly sad and demoralized. I can’t imagine coming out of that, surviving it. But they did. And that’s a wonderful thing. It shows the strength of the culture, somehow.

Do you think there’s still sadness in Indian culture?
I think it’s fading but, yeah, certainly there is a kind of sadness. I was talking to a man at the Kiowa Gourd Dance…He said, ‘We must be protective of this society; it’s all we have left.’ And I found that statement sad. And I think it’s more widespread than most people realize, but I do think it’s fading. The kind of sadness that I’m talking about is going farther and farther into the past and becoming dimmer and dimmer to the view. I have mixed feelings: Should that be? Is that sadness worth something to us in a cultural sense or is it not? And I don’t know the answer to that.

Do you think it’s important to you, as a writer?
I think it’s important to me to understand as much as I can about the history. There’s a lot of sadness in American history, whether you’re talking about whites and Indians or not. The Civil War was such a sad thing. There was a lot of that. And it is important. I suppose that’s why we build museums and walls with names on them. It’s worth something—it’s sacrifice, and it’s therefore sacred.

    “Tonight they will dance near Chinle
        by the seven elms
    There your loom whispered beauty
        They will eat mutton
    and drink coffee till morning
    You and I will not be there

    I saw a crow by Red Rock
        standing on one leg
    It was the black of your hair
        The years are heavy
    I will ride the swiftest horse
    You will hear the drumming of hooves.”
—“Earth and I Gave You Turquoise,”In the Presence of the Sun

In your 1976 memoir The Names, you write that your mother, who was of mixed blood (both white and Indian), chose to ‘create herself’ as an Indian. Do you believe you have created yourself?
I think everybody—and especially writers—creates themselves, sure. Invents themselves. That’s what we do; that’s the power of the imagination. We have to have an idea of ourselves or we don’t exist. So yes, I’ve created myself. I’m a writer, a painter, a thinker. In this period when my body seems to have grown weaker for the time being, my mind remains strong. Maybe even stronger because of that. I’m curious about that equation. I live, I guess, a life of the mind—I really come alive when I go to my computer and start to use myself.

In The Names, you call your familial memories ‘the real burden of blood.’ Why do you use the word ‘burden?’
We have the burden of memory. It is our lot, our destiny to build our lives on memories. We remember things, we remember our youth, we even have something called genetic memory, in which we remember things that happened before we were born. Memory is crucial, memory is very important and it is a burden…The Names is an example, a paradigm, of the burden of memory.

Looking at your lineage as you describe it in The Names, it has been a multigenerational trend for your family to go against the grain and do the unexpected. Do you think you are continuing the tradition?
I have had a lot of opportunities to depart from the norm and I’ve taken advantage of those. Going to school and going as far as I did go in school, that was certainly a departure from the norm for my people. Writing, becoming a writer—God knows that’s abnormal [laughs].

What inspired you to pursue education?
When I went to schools on the reservations, they were very poor schools and I didn’t have much of an education there. Frequently, because of my background, I was the only student in the class who could speak unbroken English. I realized, after a time, that this is not good—I’m not being challenged as I ought to be. And I knew from the very outset that I wanted to go to college, and the question became, at a certain point, ‘Are you prepared to go to college?’ So I had the opportunity to go to a prep school in my senior year of high school, so I took advantage of that. I had the opportunity to go to college, and I took advantage of it. And I had the opportunity to go to graduate school. I won a fellowship that enabled me to go to Stanford, and I did. One thing after another, one opportunity after another came my way, and I had the good senses to take advantage of them.


“In my earliest years I traveled a number of times from Oklahoma to the Navajo reservation in New Mexico and Arizona and back again. The two landscapes are fixed in my mind. They are separate realities, but they are sometimes confused in my memory. I place my feet in the plain, but my prints are made on the mountain.”
—The Names

You call yourself Kiowa, which is a nomadic culture of the Great Plains, but you call the Southwest your home, having grown up among the more stationary tribes.
I grew up in the Southwest. I lived among the Apaches, the Navajos and the Pueblos, and not so much among the Kiowas, but the Kiowas are my blood. So I really identify with that heritage; my father was a full-blood Kiowa. He told me a lot of
stories out of the Kiowa oral tradition while I was growing up, so I identify with that very easily. Yet I have the practical experience of having lived outside that world. I was aware of the differences, and of the common denominators.

What are those common denominators?
Being Indian. Having blood that existed on this continent for 30,000 years. Having a way of looking at nature, an aesthetic that is peculiar to Indian people. A sense of humor. You could construct a whole catalog. There are many things that Indian people have in common, regardless of their tribal affiliation…The Indian has a regard for nature that Western man doesn’t have. We think of the earth as living, as possessed of Spirit. And that’s foreign to most people in our society and most people around the world, I suppose. That’s just one example. The way that Indian people think of time is peculiar to them. Most Western people think of time as passing…The Indian doesn’t think of time in that way. Time is static. Time is going through the Grand Canyon and looking at the cliffs—they’re there, they’ve been there. We pass through time.

Which place or period has done the most to shape you creatively?
…There have been places where I have lived, even very briefly, that have made a profound impression and changed me in some way. In the ’70s, I went to Russia and taught there for six months. There was something about that experience that really generated my creativity. I wrote a lot of poetry there, and I also started…drawing, and that became painting and printmaking. So that was a wonderfully productive and inspirational experience for me. I’ve gone places where I’ve stayed only a very brief period of time, but it’s been exciting and has excited my imagination…How wonderful has been my experience of different places—I’ve been a very fortunate man to have traveled a lot and seen much of the world. And it’s all been a kind of inspiration for me and a fund of knowledge that I’ve been able to use creatively.

Do you think it’s a coincidence that the place you mentioned is on the other side of the world?
No, I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental. In Russia, in central Asia, for example, I discovered—we were talking about the blood memory before—I discovered some of that there. I think my origins go back to Asia. So it was, in a way, like seeing a part of my experience, even my subconscious experience, that I had not seen before. I found it very exciting.

Can you speak more on that?
I think there is such a thing as blood memory or genetic memory…No one knows how deep the psyche is and what we might understand if we could use our brains more than we do. But you know, I’ve had the experience a number of times of going somewhere and seeing something that I’ve seen before, though I haven’t. And I had a lot of experiences of that kind in Russia, in Asia and even in Europe, so I’m prepared to say that the whole scope of the world is mine. It’s not foreign to me. I can adapt to it. And I have something that aids the adaptation, something deep in the psyche…I’ve been at home in various places.

And now you’re at home in Santa Fe.
It’s the landscape in which I grew up. The Southwest as a whole is my home because I’ve spent many years of my life in this landscape. I’m comfortable in it. I think of it as home.  SFR

 

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