is 70 today. The Writer’s Almanac has a nice profile.
It’s the birthday of Kiowa poet, novelist and memoirist N(avarro) Scott Momaday, born in Lawton, Oklahoma (1934). One of the first books Momaday published was a collection of traditional Kiowa narratives about the sacred Sun Dance doll of the Kiowa tribe. While working on the project, Momaday had a chance to view the doll, which is kept in a rawhide bundle and has not been displayed since the Sun Dance of 1888. Seeing it made him feel for the first time that he had a connection to his heritage. He said, “I became more keenly aware of myself as someone who had walked through time and in whose blood there is something inestimably old and undying. It was as if I had remembered something that had happened two hundred years ago.”
He tried to write a book of poems based on the experience, but Wallace Stegner helped him turn the poems into fiction, and the book became House Made of Dawn (1969), about an Indian veteran of World War II named Abel who doesn’t fit in with mainstream America or the Indian reservation where he lives. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and it helped spark an American Indian literary renaissance. Momaday has gone on to write many more books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. His most recent book is In the Bear’s House (1999).
Momaday was instrumental in the production of the PBS series The West, whose website includes this biographical background.
Momaday has always understood who he is. “I am an Indian and I believe I’m fortunate to have the heritage I have, ” he says, speaking as a Kiowa Indian who defines himself as a Western Man. But that sense of identity didn’t evolve without difficulty. “I grew up in two worlds and straddle both those worlds even now,” Momaday says. “It has made for confusion and a richness in my life. I’ve been able to deal with it reasonably well, I think, and I value it.”
Momaday was born in 1934 and spent his childhood on the Navajo, Apache and Pueblo reservations of the Southwest. “I had a Pan-Indian experience as a child, even before I knew what that term meant,” he recalls. Eventually, after enduring the job-scarce rigors of the Depression, the family settled in New Mexico, where Momaday’s parents, both teachers, taught for 25 years in a two-teacher Indian day school. Momaday’s father was also a painter and his mother a writer. “I grew up in a creative household and followed in my mother’s footsteps, to begin with,” says Momaday, who later became a painter, as well, and has extensively exhibited his work here and abroad. “I was interested in reading and writing early on.”
Those literary interests led to a lifelong love affair with American and English literature. After getting his BA at the University of New Mexico, Momaday earned an MA and Ph. D. at Stanford University. During the 35-plus years of his academic career, Momaday’s reputation as a scholar who specializes in the work of Emily Dickinson and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, as well as in Indian oral tradition and concepts of the sacred, has resulted in his receiving numerous awards. These include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and the Premio Letterario Internationale Mondello, Italy’s highest literary award.
Momaday has also had tenured appointments at the Santa Barbara and Berkeley campuses of the University of California, Stanford University and the University of Arizona. He developed his first course in Indian oral tradition in 1969 while he was at Berkeley and “I’ve been teaching it every year since.” In addition, Momaday has been a visiting professor at Columbia and Princeton; was the first professor to teach American literature at the University of Moscow in Russia; and holds 12 honorary degrees from various American universities, including Yale.
Momaday is the author of 13 books, including novels, poetry collections, literary criticism, and works on Native American culture. His first novel, House Made of Dawn, won the Pulitzer Prize, but his favorites are The Ancient Child, his most recent novel, because “it is a greater act of the imagination,” and The Way to Rainy Mountain, because “it presents a good, accurate picture of Kiowa culture in its heyday.”