Obituary: Pulitzer Prize-winning Native American folklorist and novelist N. Scott Momaday

N. Scott Momaday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning storyteller, poet, educator and folklorist whose debut novel “House Made of Dawn” is widely considered the starting point of contemporary Native American literature, has died. He was 89 years old.

Momaday died Wednesday at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, publisher HarperCollins announced. His health was poor.

“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 director Jennifer Civiletto said in a statement. “His Kiowa heritage was deeply meaningful to him and he devoted much of his life to celebrate and preserve 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 reintegrate, a story as old as the war itself: in this case, the house is a Native community in the rural areas of New Mexico. Much of the book was based on Momaday’s childhood in Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, and his conflicts between the ways of his ancestors and the risks and possibilities of the outside world.

“I grew up in both worlds and I straddle those worlds even now,” Momaday said in a 2019 PBS documentary. “It has created confusion and richness in my life.”

Despite works like John Joseph Mathews’ 1934 “Sundown,” American Indian fiction was not widely recognized at the time of “House Made of Dawn.” One New York Times reviewer, Marshall Sprague, even argued in an otherwise favorable review that “American Indians as a rule do not write novels and poetry, nor do they teach English at top universities. But we cannot be condescending. 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 Pulitzer Prize, and his novel helped launch a generation of authors, including Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, and Louise Erdrich. His other admirers ranged from poet Joy Harjo, the country’s first native to be named poet laureate, to movie stars Robert Redford and Jeff Bridges.

“He was kind of a literary father to a lot of us,” Harjo told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday. “He showed how powerful and powerful language and words were in shaping our very existence.”

In the decades that followed, he taught at Stanford, Princeton, and Columbia universities, among other top-tier schools, was a commentator for NPR, and lectured around the world. He has 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 has become a leading advocate for the beauty and vitality of traditional life. of the natives.

Addressing a gathering of American Indian scholars in 1970, Momaday said, “Our very existence consists of our imagination of ourselves.” He advocated Native respect for nature, writing that “American Indians have a unique investment in the American landscape.” He shared stories told to him by his parents and grandparents. He viewed oral culture as the source of language and storytelling, and traced American culture not to the first English settlers but to ancient times, noting the procession of the gods depicted in the rock art of Barrier Canyon in Utah.

“We don’t know what they mean, but we know that we are implicated in their meaning,” he wrote in the essay “The Native Voice in American Literature.”

“They persist over time in the imagination, and we cannot doubt that they are invested with the very essence of language, the language of history, myth and primordial song. They are 2,000 years old, more or less, and bear witness more faithfully than anything else to the origins of American literature.”

In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Momaday a National Medal of the Arts “for his writings and work celebrating and preserving Native American art and oral tradition.” In addition to the Pulitzer, her honors include an Academy of American Poets award and, in 2019, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Momaday was married three times, most recently to Barbara Glenn, who died in 2008. He had four daughters, one of whom, Cael, died in 2017.

He was born Navarre Scott Mammedaty, in Lawton, Oklahoma, and was a member of the Kiowa tribe. His mother was a writer and his father an artist who once told her son, “I never met an Indian child who couldn’t draw,” a talent Momaday demonstrably shared. His artwork, from charcoal sketches to oil paintings, has been included in his books and exhibited in museums in Arizona, New Mexico and North Dakota. Audio guides for visits to the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the American Indian featured Momaday’s avuncular baritone.

After spending his adolescence in New Mexico, he studied political science at the University of Mexico and earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in English from Stanford. Momaday began as a poet, his favorite art form, and the publication of “House Made of Dawn” was an unintended result of his early reputation. Publisher Fran McCullough, of what is now HarperCollins, had met Momaday at Stanford and contacted him several years later asking if he would like to submit a book of poetry.

Momaday didn’t have enough for a book and instead gave her the first chapter of “House Made of Dawn.”

Much of his writing was set in the American West and Southwest, whether it was tributes to bears – the animals with which he most identified – or a cycle of poems about the life of Billy the Kid, a childhood obsession. He saw writing as a way to connect the present with the ancient past and summarized his quest in the poem “If I Could Ascend”:

Something like a leaf lies here inside me; / He hardly falters at all, / And there is no light to see him / Withering on a black field. / If the thousand years could rise in my mouth, / I would finally make a word of it, / and I would say it in the silence of the sun.

In 2019, he was the subject of a PBS documentary “American Masters” in which he discussed his belief that he was the reincarnation of a bear connected to the Native American origin story around Devils Tower in Wyoming. He told The Associated Press in a rare interview that the documentary allowed him to reflect on his life, saying he was humbled that writers continued to say his work influenced them.

“I really appreciate it, but it’s a little surprise every time I hear it,” Momaday said. “I think I had an influence. It’s not something I take a lot of credit for.


Former Associated Press writer Russell Contreras contributed to this report from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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