N. Scott Momaday and the Kiowa People: Returning to Heritage


By Heather Fabritze ’25

Majors: English and Communications & Media Studies; Minor: Journalism, Editing, & Publishing


Brief Description: A culmination paper of my research on the Kiowa Tribe’s history, cultural practices, and myths, as well as an analysis of Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday’s works. I tie together his motivations as an author with the background of his people, and how his own journey to discover his identity influenced his works.


Contributor Biography: Heather Fabritze is a double major in English and Communications & Media Studies. She currently works as the Student Life Editor of the campus newspaper The Elm, and was a staff writer her freshman year. She is also involved in SGA, Zeta Tau Alpha, Peer Mentor, and the Washington College Honor Board. Heather plans to work as a journalist after graduation, and loves watching movies and TV shows and reading in her free time!


The following was written for ENG 341: Native American Literature


Photo by Ian Beckley on Pexels.com


Navarre Scott Momaday, a writer, poet, and artist, is perhaps best known for his role in the genesis of the Native American renaissance. Often described as the “pioneer of modern Native American literature,” Momaday led an entire generation of indigenous writers to discover their heritage through words (“N. Scott Momaday”). His mother is partially Cherokee and his father is full-blooded Kiowa. Much like the writers he encouraged, his “mestizo” identity is what “compels him on his creative, imagined journey” of self-discovery through writing (Elder 276). Momaday’s relationship with his own heritage is complex. His paternal grandfather Mammedaty lived through the golden age of the Kiowa and passed on his name to his descendants, but died before Momaday could find real connection with his experiences (“Writer, Artist, and Teacher”). Momaday’s childhood was spent on a reservation in Arizona, exposed to a mix of Kiowa, Navajo, Apache, and Pueblo traditions (“N. Scott Momaday”). He never learned to speak Kiowa and his knowledge of Kiowa traditions was heavily mixed with general Native experiences. Momaday’s background is a series of contradictions – he spent most of his life embroiled in indigenous traditions yet is simultaneously distant from the heritage specific to his family.

            Momaday attempts to bridge this cultural gap through his work. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn, is not only widely credited with “leading the way for the breakthrough of Native American literature into the mainstream,” it is based largely on Momaday’s own life (“N. Scott Momaday”). The novel’s protagonist, Abel, struggles to rediscover his identity following his return to his tribe after serving in the military. Like Abel, Momaday himself lived “inside and outside of mainstream society,” growing up on reservations while holding multiple university positions (“N. Scott Momaday”). His other book, The Way to Rainy Mountain, tracks Momaday’s realization of his heritage and his journey to connect with it on a conscious level for the first time. It is a tripartite collection of traditional Kiowa stories from his father, historical accounts, and his own reflective memoirs. In an interview with the Oklahoma Historical Society, Momaday admits that for most of his life he took his father’s stories “for granted,” until he realized their fragility and near state of extinction (“Writer, Artist, and Teacher”). It is only then that he began his efforts to preserve his Kiowa heritage, bridging the disconnect between himself and his tribe in order to further understand his ancestors and the perseverance of the Kiowa as a people.

            One of the central pieces of the Kiowa identity that Momaday first explores is their nomadic lifestyle. The Kiowa’s ancestral homelands were in the Upper Yellowstone and Missouri River basin, but by the 1700’s the Kiowa had drifted southeast to the Black Hills to pursue the migrating horse herds (Kracht, “Meet the Kiowa”). While their proximity to the horses was essential to the development of the Kiowa’s nomadic culture, this mountainous region was burdensome to a people who loved nothing more than to roam. In Momaday’s attempts to trace the migration path of the Kiowa, his “growing identification with his ancestors” causes him to reflect on their “need for space and the ability to move through it” (Elder 276). In his memoirs, he likens the cliffs of Yellowstone to “walls” keeping the Kiowa in; as horse nomads, they “reckoned their stature by the distance they could see, and they were bent and blind in the wilderness” (Mountain 13). Not only did Momaday experience a version of this nomadic lifestyle in his own childhood, he chooses to take this experience, which once disconnected him from his Kiowa identity, and uses it as a way to see through the eyes of his ancestors.

            Momaday continues to build this connection through his almost intrinsic love for the plains and his reverence for the sun. After their time in the Black Hills, the Kiowa were driven south past the Platte River basin and settled in a vast, open territory on the central and southern great plains (Kracht). Here is where the Kiowa found their connection to their most sacred figure, the sun. Like the Kiowa, the sun is “at home” out on the plains, and there, it possesses the “certain character of a god” (Mountain 13). The sun is one of the most central images in Kiowa histories and traditions, often acting as a symbol for the Kiowa themselves. When Momaday compares the sun to memory, “reced[ing] in time / into the hazy southern distances,” it implies that the Kiowa left their tribal identity behind there, in their home, as time moved on (“Gourd Dancer,” 152). While the Kiowa are at their core a nomadic people, they are still “grounded in an intrinsic relationship to a specific, open landscape;” leaving this landscape was detrimental to their way of life (Elder 276). Momaday himself relates to this feeling. Most of his life has been spent moving from place to place with no one location to settle in, yet he finds an immediate ancestral connection to the plains the moment he sees them: “And I could see the still, sunlit plain below, reaching away out of sight…Yes, I thought, now I see the earth as it really is; never again will I see things as I saw them yesterday or the day before” (Mountain 22). There is a monumental shift in Momaday’s journey to discover his identity in this moment, one which transcends time back to the love his ancestors felt when they settled on the plains.

            The Kiowa’s connection to the land was first severed by the Treaty of Medicine Lodge of 1867, which “signaled a new era” in the conflict between the Natives and settlers – not just disputes over land but a struggle for “cultural identity” (“Medicine Lodge”). By signing the treaty, the Kiowa agreed to settle on the Fort Sill Reservation with the Comanche in southwestern Oklahoma. It brought an end to their nomadic lifestyle, effectively cutting them off from the heart of their identity and their home. Pieces of their tribe that persevered in the reservation era, though, were artifacts and practices of the Peyote Way. Popularized on the Comanche and Kiowa reservation, worshippers of this ancient religion hold feather peyote fans made of wood, feathers, glass and copper alloy beads, hide, cotton cord, sinew thread, and dye (Our Universe). Peyote religious leaders would use the hallucinogenic peyote cactus to trigger a vision state during ceremonies (“Native American Church”). Momaday’s own grandfather was a peyote man who, through this hallucinogenic, “saw things that other men do not see” (Mountain 51). While Momaday was never able to build a relationship with his grandfather, Mammedaty passed his peyote knowledge onto his wife. She would pray, held in the light in such a way that she seemed “beyond the reach of time” (Mountain 16). It was a piece of his ancestral family that, at the time, Momaday could not understand. He knew then that he “should not see her again” (Mountain 16). He felt distanced from the Kiowa religious tradition, both physically and emotionally. But in his undertaking of The Way to Rainy Mountain, he begins to unpack these portions of his childhood through reflection, coming to realize that the religion was a form of perseverance for his ancestors after having their home stripped away.

            One of the most essential portions of Momaday’s journey toward rediscovering his identity came in the form of the Gourd Dance Society, an ancient fraternal organization of which he is a member. He and other dancers routinely gather to perform the Gourd Dance ritual, which features feather fans, gourd rattles, velvet sashes with gourd stitching, and bandoliers (“Gourd”). The dance itself originates from a Kiowa tale of the lone survivor of a battle attempting to find his way back to the tribe. A red wolf guides him home with the promise that he would return the Gourd Dance and its songs to his people (“Gourd”). The dance, from that point forward, honored the return of Kiowa tribal members and soldiers, and the steps are intentionally meant to “conjure old processions and returns” (“Gourd Dancer,” 153). Momaday had a strong, personal connection to this meaning, considering the distance that he felt from his tribe before becoming a member of the Gourd Society (Elder 286). Not only did it solidify him as a Kiowa in his own mind, it signaled the metaphorical return to his culture through a ritual meant to reflect the same concept.

            A significant theme that Momaday explored on his journey was the ways in which the Kiowa people persevered through their history. An example of this can be seen in the Kado. Also known as the Sun Dance, the Kado is considered to be their “most important ceremony” (Scott). It occurred near the summer solstice and Kiowa elders describe it as the worship of the sun in “his vernal splendor, as the creator and regenerator of the world” (Scott). This title originated from the sun’s relation to the summer, the plains, and the buffalo. The sun remaining in the sky for longer hours signaled the arrival of summer on the plains, and with it, the return of the buffalo and the renewal of life (Mayhall). The Kiowa, who “depended” on the buffalo to survive, would perform the dance to channel spiritual power into the taime, their provider and “most sacred object” (Scott, “Religious Societies”). While the actual artifact was a small doll with a small round stone for a head covered with deerskin, the Kiowa viewed it as the “object and symbol of their worship,” sharing in the “divinity of the sun” at the center of the Kado (Mountain 13). Momaday viewed the taime only once, but remained there for a long time; he understood its significance as a symbol of perseverance within one visit, even though he had not “grown up in the tribe” (Mountain 48, “Writer, Artist, and Teacher”). A traditional tale documented along his journey wasof the tai-me appearing to the Kiowas in the Black Hills, as they were trapped in an era of “suffering and despair” (Mountain 10). But tai-me became their provider and the Kiowa overcame, as they continued to do throughout their history:

The Kiowas came out of their, what I called somewhere the cellular memory of hopelessness. About the turn of the century, the Kiowas were defeated, depressed and hopeless. The death rate had begun to exceed the birth rate. Things couldn’t have been worse, but they changed. They brought about their own survival. That’s a big story. It’s not only the Kiowa story of course – it’s the Indian story (“Writer, Artist, and Teacher”).

Momaday reveals in this interview how essential his understanding of the Kiowa’s strength was to his journey; All that his ancestors had suffered and survived, and the fact that there would be “very little material evidence that it had ever been,” unless he built that legacy himself (“Writer, Artist, and Teacher”).

            Momaday took it upon himself to preserve records of traditional Kiowa tales. Their creation myth, for example, is included in The Way to Rainy Mountain. According to myth, the Kiowa emerged one by one from the ground through a hollow log. A pregnant female became lodged in the opening, though, trapping half of the Kiowa beneath the ground. Momaday writes that from a certain point of view, their “migration” was the result of an odd sort of prophecy or foreshadowing, as they “emerged from a sunless world” to one where the sun became the symbol of their worship (Mountain 13). Momaday adds this final part to bridge traditional tales with his research on the Kiowa’s religious connections to the sun. In addition, he includes a common Kiowa trope – “this is how it was” – at the beginning, demonstrative of his journey to reconnect with his heritage through use of his writing (Mountain 21). By learning pieces of Kiowa oral tradition in an effort to preserve them, particularly through the assistance of his father, he makes the conscious attempt to connect with both his greater heritage and his ancestors.

            The most significant story for Momaday to record, though, was the tale of the bear and the seven sisters. One of their most well-known myths, it tells the story of a Kiowa boy who transforms into a bear and chases his seven sisters up a tsoai, or rock tree (“Legends”). The rock tree raises them and they are “borne into the sky” to form the Big Dipper (Mountain 15). Momaday’s direct connection to this story is strong and deeply personal. His Kiowa name is Tsoai-Talee, or rock tree boy (“Writer, Artist, and Teacher”). Even through his physical and emotional distance from his tribe, he was always the “boy who turned into the bear, the incarnation of that;” the bear is in his “disposition” and genetic “makeup,” and is the “most important totem” in his life (“Writer, Artist, and Teacher”). His writing even reflects his deep attachment to the name. The Ancient Child, another book of his, follows a man attempting to reconnect to his tribe by embodying the bear spirit, much like Momaday. And attempts successfully, as it leads him to another realization of the Kiowa’s strength through the moral of the myth:

From that moment, and so long as the legend lives, the Kiowas have kinsmen in the night sky. Whatever they were in the mountains, they could be no more. However tenuous their well-being, however much they had suffered and would suffer again, they had found a way out of the wilderness (Mountain 15).

Momaday brings everything back to the perseverance of the Kiowa; the suffering they faced and overcame, and the support of their ancestors on this journey. He continuously returns to this idea in his own journey to rediscover his identity, relating to and fixating on it.

Over the course of his attempts to connect to his ancestry, Momaday’s perceived distance from his people is largely bridged by the respect and attention he pays to them. Honoring ancestors through the remembrance of their names is one of the greatest commitments of the Kiowa people. Momaday undertakes this task through the significance he gives to Mammedaty’s name in his works, in “which / his essence was and is” (“Gourd Dancer” 154). The Kiowa own their “sacred” names as identities; a man’s name is “his own” and he can “keep it or give it away as he likes” (Mountain 43). In Kiowa tradition, an ancestor like Mammedaty will be honored forever as long as there are those around who continue to “imagine him in his name” (“Gourd Dancer” 154). Momaday accomplishes this effort by memorializing Mammedaty’s name in his writing. The Way to Rainy Mountain and Momaday’s actual journey ends in their ancestral graveyard, with a poem about his grandfather’s name on his grave – “who listens here and now to hear your name” (Mountain 108). Not only is Mammedaty’s name passed down literally through their family name “Momaday,” his legacy is solidified through Momaday’s preservation efforts. Momaday’s adherence to Kiowa remembrance traditions, both in general and within his ancestry, is firm proof that his journey leads him to a place of greater understanding with his Kiowa heritage.

His attempts to reunite with his identity are his largest motivators for his writing. Not only does he preserve Kiowa traditions through these works, he contemplates his own connection to his ancestors and their struggles. Momaday “return[s]” to the Native American concept of reflecting on his own tribal experiences by “constructing an individual identity inextricably connected to the beliefs, memories, and experiences of his Kiowa ancestors and relatives” (Elder 275). He doesn’t just discover his lost identity through the modern day, he looks through the eyes of his people to their history, their perseverance, and makes an effort to understand them. While he finds other ways to return to his tribe on his journey – physical locations, preservation of oral traditions, and understanding important symbols of the Kiowa – it is through his ancestors that he is able to build his greatest connections.



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