undefinedMomaday in his cadet uniform, with his mother, Natachee, in Jemez Pueblo, ca. 1952. Courtesy of N. Scott Momaday.


Driving from Santa Fe’s center to its outskirts, you pass through a wide expanse made vibrant by that particular slant of light Georgia O’Keeffe coveted. Somehow, the sky is more immense here. Hawks circle over dusty fields strewn with yellow-flowering rabbitbrush. Beyond this plain is the quiet suburb where N. Scott Momaday lives, in a square adobe house. The walls of the living room are lined with prints of Native Americans by Leonard Baskin, which Momaday, a painter and printmaker himself, has collected for decades. On the coffee table sits a bronze sculpture of the Wyoming rock formation known as Devils Tower, with a bear at its base; as an infant, Momaday was taken to this sacred site and given his Kiowa name, Tsoai-talee, or “Rock-Tree Boy,” after the story of a boy who turned into a bear, chasing his sisters up the “rock-tree” and into the stars. 

N. Scott Momaday was born in 1934 in Lawton, Oklahoma. During the Depression, his parents, Alfred Morris and Mayme “Natachee” Scott Momaday, found work on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, and, during the war, in Hobbs, around the nearby military base. In 1946, the family moved to another Native community, Jemez Pueblo, where for many years his father taught painting and his mother English. At seventeen, Momaday attended military school in Virginia for a year, and he then enrolled at the University of New Mexico, where he met his first wife, Gaye Mangold, the mother of three of his four daughters. He entered Stanford University’s fellowship program in writing, which led to a doctorate and a series of posts at schools including Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Arizona, where for many years he taught poetry and a class on the oral tradition.

Before Momaday began to publish, there was little widespread consciousness of a Native American literature. House Made of Dawn, his first novel, appeared in 1968, and won the Pulitzer Prize. The story of a traumatized Second World War veteran who struggles to resume his life on the pueblo, it shrewdly combines Modernist techniques and Native traditions. Momaday’s exploration of genre continued in The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), a hybrid of Kiowa folklore, historical commentary, and memoir; The Names (1976), a family history that glides through streams of consciousness; and his second novel, The Ancient Child (1989), a swirl of fragments that features Billy the Kid, abstract painting, and “bear medicine.” 

But Momaday thinks of himself first as a poet, and his early collections Angle of Geese (1974) and The Gourd Dancer (1976) demonstrate a restless sensibility, the poems moving between metrical verse and incantatory repetition, landscape and legend. He frequently includes his older poems in new collections, encompassing them, like the rings of a tree, in fresh material. Since retiring from professorship, Momaday has become only more productive, publishing three books in the past three years. The Death of Sitting Bear (2020) contains some of his most complex poetry, and is characterized by a wintry, Stevensian reserve. Earth Keeper (2020), a taut book of prose poems, urges a greater stewardship of the environment.

Momaday is a big man with a wry sense of humor, his large frame matching his deep and sonorous voice. In the conversations for this interview, which Layli Long Soldier began on the phone in 2021 and which I continued over several clear-skied afternoons earlier this year, he was gregarious and generous, though he felt no need to answer a question he considered inapt. His daughters Jill and Brit sometimes sat in—Jill taking pleasure in pushing him to clarify his version of events—and Quanah, a tabby cat named after a famous peyote priest, occasionally jumped up to demand his affection. Momaday was as willing to perform the stories he has told many times as he was to consider them anew. This continual redescription of his experience, in person and on the page, seems to reflect a lasting passion for being on earth. As he writes in “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee,” 

 

I am an angle of geese in the winter sky
I am the hunger of a young wolf
I am the whole dream of these things

You see, I am alive, I am alive

 

INTERVIEWER

The Way to Rainy Mountain is full of Kiowa stories. How did you learn them?

N. SCOTT MOMADAY

My father used to tell them to me at night, and I latched on to them and memorized them. 

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell me one now? 

MOMADAY

The story of the arrow maker may be the one I like best. It goes like this. There was an old man and his wife. They lived alone. The old man was an arrow maker, and one night, by the light of a fire, he was making arrows, taking shafts and straightening them in his teeth—that’s the way they did it. He would straighten each arrow and fit it to the bow, and if it pleased him, he placed it in a bundle. His wife was across the way cooking meat. As he worked, he became aware of something outside—there was an opening in the tepee where two hides had been sewn together, and he saw, for a moment, someone looking in. He was wary, of course, so he began speaking very casually, as though to his wife. This is what he said. “I know you are there. I can feel your eyes upon me. If you’re a Kiowa, you will understand what I’m saying, and you will speak your name.” There was no response, so the arrow maker knew that it was an enemy outside the tepee. He went on with his work, taking a shaft and straightening it in his teeth, fitting it to the bow, aiming here and there. Finally, his aim fell upon the place where his enemy stood, and he let go of the string. The arrow went straight to the enemy’s heart. 


undefinedAt the Petrified Forest National Park in Navajo and Apache counties, Arizona, ca. 1938. Courtesy of N. Scott Momaday.

INTERVIEWER

Great story.

MOMADAY

I like that he saves himself through language. A colleague of mine at Stanford once said to me, “But we don’t know that the presence outside the tepee is an enemy!” The short answer is that we do know, because the storyteller tells us it’s an enemy. The story is perfectly whole in itself. Even if it’s a fragment, it’s a whole fragment.

INTERVIEWER

Are all the stories in Rainy Mountain from your father?

MOMADAY

In 1966, he and I went on a trip to collect more for the book, along the Kiowas’ migration route from Yellowstone to Oklahoma’s southern plains, stopping by the Medicine Wheel and Devils Tower. The oral tradition is inestimably older than writing, but fragile—I thought I’d better write down whatever stories I could find or they’d be lost. Somebody told us that if we really wanted to know about the Kiowa, we should talk to a woman named Ko-sahn. She lived with her daughter way out in the sticks. My dad got directions, and we went. She was a wonderful hundred-year-old woman. 

We prepared a feast for her—a kind of ceremonial—at the arbor of our family homestead near Rainy Mountain. My father was essential as an interpreter. She would sit hunched over on a bench and I would ask her a question, and she would think for a moment and say, “Oh, that’s too far back—no one knows the answer to that.” Then, having made this protestation, she would answer the question in minute detail. She, like my grandmother, had been to the last Kiowa Sun Dance as a little girl, in 1887.

INTERVIEWER

You return to the Sun Dance throughout your work.

MOMADAY

I’ve tried to find out as much as I can about it. I once talked to a man named Parker McKenzie, who was at the time the oldest man in the Kiowa tribe, but sharp, and he explained to me my paternal grandfather’s name, Mammedaty, which means “walking above”—he said that my great-grandfather had likely had a special place in the Sun Dance Lodge. There would be an altar at the back where the ground was raised in a little mound that only certain people could stand on. I later learned from Ko-sahn that a woman would be assigned to gather this earth from a specific place for the occasion, and then the dancers would dance on that special earth. 

I’ve read in James Mooney’s book Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians, from 1898, about a fetish called the Gadómbítsoñhi that belonged to a band of the Kiowa—it was the likeness of a woman, about a foot high. The priest in charge of it would place it on the special earth and then perform some kind of magic, such that the fetish would rise up from the ground and begin to dance, her hair bouncing. At some point, the Gadómbítsoñhi was stolen, but then there were reports of hunters going into the woods and seeing a dwarf like figure, dancing. It makes my skin crawl to think of it.

INTERVIEWER

What are your memories of your father’s family? 

MOMADAY

When I was born, my parents lived with my father’s parents, near Mountain View, Oklahoma. It was a typical Indian home, built in 1913, the year my father was born. By then the Kiowas had lost the buffalo and the Sun Dance. My grandfather raised cotton although the Kiowa people had no agricultural tradition whatsoever—they had been forced off the prairies and put on reservations, forced to farm. 

When my parents and I were living in New Mexico, on the Navajo reservation and later in Jemez, we often went back to Oklahoma to visit Aho, my grandmother. She spoke no English but she made herself understood to me, gesturing. She and I slept in the same room, and before bed she would let loose her hair, which was very long and raven black, like a shawl around her shoulders. She prayed in Kiowa, but she prayed to Jesus. When I heard her, I knew that something sacred was in the universe. I think she lived in her mind, remembering things. There are still the ruins of the boarding school she went to as a young girl in Rainy Mountain, and it was always moving to think of her and of the Kiowas who would come to visit their children but were not allowed to go on the school grounds. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel that there should be reparations for what that generation suffered?

MOMADAY

I’m very much in favor of people being recompensed for lands they have been dispossessed of. Of course that is a great deal of land—but something is better than nothing. It’s also important that the Native be accepted, and that what he has to contribute, especially in his relationship to the land, be acknowledged. That’s crucial right now because we are destroying the earth. I had this in the back of my mind with Earth Keeper, I suppose—I wanted to celebrate the attitude of Dragonfly, an old man my father had met and told me about, who venerated the earth and did us all a big favor by bringing the sun up every day with his words and prayer. 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve taught courses in oral tradition. How did that work?

MOMADAY

Sometimes I would have a Native American storyteller come by and talk—that was always helpful. I incorporated different kinds of traditions into the classes for the sake of comparison—all stories come from one cell, one story, the original story that then creates a descendancy. Think of Beowulf, for instance. The surviving manuscript is probably from the tenth century, but the story may have been composed and told earlier—I like to think of a child in England, say, being woken by her parents because something is happening in the forest. They take her to a clearing, with a great throng of people, and a little man comes out of the trees, bent over, wearing a hood. He comes into the middle of the circle, and there’s a hush, and he begins to recite the poem. The child is enchanted. Nothing will ever be the same for her again. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel a nostalgia for a golden age? 

MOMADAY

On occasion I imagine myself in the moccasins of someone like Set-t’an, who was a calendar keeper, or Sitting Bear, who was a chief and a dangerous man. I think, I could’ve been a great figure in those days. Then I think, No, my eyesight is too bad. I couldn’t have seen enough buffalo. 

There was a time, in the late sixties, when I became much more interested in my Kiowa ancestry, and it meant a lot to me to be initiated into the Gourd Dance Society. I danced for several years. My father had been in the society, too, and my grandfather, whom I was thinking of while writing The Gourd Dancer. I’ve always dreamed of what Rainy Mountain must have been like in its heyday—1750 to 1850, I suppose. Fred Tsoodle—the man who initiated me into the society—told me about going there as a young man and seeing tepees all over the north side of the mountain. It must have been something. 

 

undefinedWith his grandmother Aho and the family dog, Chiquita, in Oklahoma, ca. 1947. Courtesy of N. Scott Momaday.

INTERVIEWER

Your father missed the heyday by a narrower margin.

MOMADAY

In his childhood, morale on the reservation was very low. It must have been hard to muster enough independence and determination to leave. I guess in part because of my mother, my father was able to break away from that imprisonment of the soul and make his way apart from the tribe, though it must have cost him a great deal. He was in two worlds. I once visited a doctor my father had also seen, in Santa Fe, and he said to me, “You have no idea how great a burden your father carries.” 

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about your mother. 

MOMADAY

She was born in Kentucky. Her family had fought on the Confederate side, and she had a great sympathy for those soldiers. Her father was a tobacco farmer and then a sheriff. His wife, my grandmother, died quite young in the flu pandemic of 1918, so he raised my mother, her sister, and her brother by himself. One of my mother’s ancestors was a Cherokee woman who married into the family, and, at a young age, my mother decided that she wanted to be an Indian. She simply declared that she was Cherokee—and she was, in very small measure. She made the most of that. Even after my father died, she was invested in the Indian world—collecting Navajo jewelry and so on. That was her identity. She wrote poetry, then children’s books—her best-known work is Owl in the Cedar Tree, about a Navajo boy who becomes an artist. 

INTERVIEWER

How did her family react to her new identity? 

MOMADAY

They wanted her to do what she wanted to do. She went to school at the Haskell Institute in Kansas. She lived with my father’s family in the Kiowa tribe for a time—they were mean at first, but she stood up to them until they accepted her. My parents both volunteered for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma and New Mexico, and she thought the Navajo were the most dignified people she had ever met. She was adaptable and made her way no matter where she was. Later, when we moved to Hobbs, during the war, she became very much interested in Catholicism, so we all converted, though we broke away in time.

INTERVIEWER

What was it like in New Mexico during the Second World War?

MOMADAY

In some ways Hobbs was insulated, but right by where my mother worked, in the provost marshal’s office, there was a B-17 base, where the bombers were taken to be repaired. I used to play inside the carcasses of some of those airplanes—it was the real thing. And we’d pretend to dig trenches, to take our backpacks filled with mustard sandwiches and Kool-Aid and go to war. 

INTERVIEWER

I assume America won? 

MOMADAY

Every time. It was like in the movies. There was always an American soldier who was captured and tortured, and came through nonetheless.

INTERVIEWER

You write in The Names about being misrecognized as Japanese.

MOMADAY

My features were more oriental back then, so I was frequently greeted at school with “Hiya, Jap.” Then the fight was on. 

INTERVIEWER

Were you lonely, as an only child?

MOMADAY

 I found ways to entertain myself. In Jemez, my parents gave me a horse—I think for my thirteenth birthday. Nobody taught me—it was just “Here’s a horse.” I spent the next few years riding all over, bareback and saddle. Pecos was gentle and fast—a small strawberry roan quarter horse.

I have often thought that Pecos was a good deal like Sitting Bear’s favorite horse, Guadal-tseyu, in that he would not allow himself to be bested in a race. I won so often that I started giving myself a handicap—starting from a standing position beside the horse and mounting during the race. It didn’t make any difference. I don’t have any recollection of ever being defeated. 


undefinedAt the corral in Jemez Pueblo with his horse, Pecos, ca. 1950. Courtesy of N. Scott Momaday.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever try to grab a match from the ground while riding, like Grey in The Ancient Child? 

MOMADAY

I may have tried it a couple of times. 

I remember, at the feast of Santiago on the pueblo, they had what they called a chicken pull. Riders go one by one into the plaza, trying to scoop up a chicken buried in the ground. It’s wonderful to watch—people actually fall off the horses. Once one of them grabs the chicken, he challenges another rider to seize the bird and it becomes a tug-of-war—brutal. I remember receiving a letter one day from an organization for the protection of chickens, wanting to know what I thought of the chicken pull.

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel like an outsider in Jemez?

MOMADAY

It was very different from the Plains culture—distinctive for its architecture and its sedentary nature—but I got along pretty well there. We lived on the road to San Ysidro, a village five miles away in a Spanish community, and on the day before the feast, there would be a caravan of covered wagons—Navajos coming in from Torreon with their horses and dogs, like something out of a John Wayne movie. I was privy to a lot on the pueblo—I would pal around with the kids. They would tell me about hidden dances and organizations, confidences I’ve never wanted to violate. There are certain aspects of Native American culture that should be kept secret. 

INTERVIEWER

What did you read as a child?

MOMADAY

When I was about twelve, I was bedridden with strep throat, and my dad went into Albuquerque and brought me back a copy of Will James’s Smoky the Cowhorse. It was my first real literary experience. I loved Cyrano de Bergerac, The Sword in the Stone, and reading about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I remember coming across The Saga of Billy the Kid by Walter Noble Burns—after that I started reading everything I could find on Billy. And Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. I found great consolation in one story in that book. The boy enters a horse race, rides, and wins. He wins again and starts accumulating this wealth. Finally a friend warns him that he will lose it all. Laughing Boy says, “Nothing is more beautiful than galloping as hard as you can. I do this thing, that I love, on this pony that I bought for pleasure, where many people  may see and speak well of me. If I win, I double my money, for doing what I enjoy. If I lose, it is only what I never had until yesterday.” Words to live by. 

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing?

MOMADAY

When I was eight, I told my mother that I wanted to be a writer like her. I would write little stories with drawings in the style of the Kiowa calendar makers who drew pictographs. Then, in Jemez, there was a famous priest, Fray Angélico Chávez, a renegade Franciscan, who was also the postmaster. I knew he was a poet and I would go visit him in the back of his little cubbyhole of a post office, where he sat and smoked. One of the things he told me was, “If you want to write, imitate people you admire. There’s nothing wrong with that. Eventually, you will find your own voice.” 

INTERVIEWER

Which writers did you imitate? 

MOMADAY

Him, to some degree. Probably Robert Frost. My mother and the poets in her book collection.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have anyone else to talk to about poetry?

MOMADAY

Later, at the University of New Mexico, I had a friend named Bobby Jack Nelson. We both wanted to be poets and loved to recite. I fell in love with Charles Laughton as an oral interpreter—he could read “The Fiery Furnace” like no one else. I would listen to his recordings and go around spouting off Julius Caesar and Psalm 104. I won a number of awards in oratory at UNM, and I had two poems published in New Mexico Quarterly—“Earth and I Gave You Turquoise,” about the Navajo reservation, and “Los Alamos,” a poem against war, I suppose. I was writing lines that looked like lines of poetry, recollecting my early days on the reservation, but I didn’t know the difference between a spondee and a dactyl. Still, the lines came, one after another.

Bobby was a soldier of fortune, and a great admirer of Ernest Hemingway. He believed that you couldn’t write about something without experiencing it, so he took off, fought bulls, flew planes, and went to Australia to write a book. I had a very spotted career as an undergraduate. I would be on probation one semester and the dean’s list the next. 

INTERVIEWER

“Los Alamos” has been compared to the work of Hart Crane. Were you reading him? 

MOMADAY

Yes. “To Brooklyn Bridge,” “Voyages II,” “Repose of Rivers”  Amazing poet. I was going to do my dissertation at Stanford on Crane, in fact, but then Yvor Winters, my adviser, introduced me to Frederick Tuckerman, a poet not much read then or now. Winters would say that “The Cricket” was the greatest American poem of the nineteenth century, and so my project became putting together a collection of Tuckerman’s poems. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you get to Stanford?

MOMADAY

After university, I was teaching in Dulce, and one day Bobby, who was in the naval air cadet program in Pensacola, sent me a flyer announcing the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, telling me that he was going to apply. I applied, too, and I got it. Bobby took it quite well. Winters wrote me a wonderful letter, which I’ve since lost, saying, “I have made the decision and it is final.” 

INTERVIEWER

What became of Bobby Jack Nelson?

MOMADAY

His life was cut short but he lived it hard, doing what he wanted to do.

INTERVIEWER

Was Winters an influence on your writing?

MOMADAY

Meeting Winters changed my life. When I first met him, I didn’t know his reputation, but he was very cordial. He invited me to come by the house for lunch. He had Airedale terriers, and I remember I was wearing white trousers and the Airedales greeted me with great enthusiasm and got my pants muddy as hell. Then he burned my steak. It was a great meeting. He said things like, “The less said about Emerson the better.” Winters had a very gruff manner but turned out to be a teddy bear. He’d taught boxing, by the Marquess of Queensberry rules, to the kids in Madrid, a little coal-mining town in New Mexico. We would bet on matches all the time. 

Stanford gave me a mooring in traditional forms, and there’s a lot to be said for writing in that strict and well-defined way. Winters taught a composition class, and he would sit back, observe, listen, and once in a while chip in. He placed value on what he called the plain style, which he admired in English poetry—he believed there should be no extraneous matter. He appreciated my poems inspired by the Native American oral tradition, too. It was for that class that I wrote my first really successful poem, “The Bear,” which is inspired by Old Ben in Faulkner’s story. Winters said that he wished he had written it, which meant a great deal to me, of course. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you get into syllabics?

MOMADAY

Thom Gunn, who had preceded me at Stanford, had been experimenting with syllabics. We talked, and I looked at some of his work and decided I would try that, too. “The Bear” is a syllabic poem, and so is “New World.” At one time I wanted to write a poem with only single syllables.

INTERVIEWER

Was “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee” also written at Stanford?

MOMADAY

No, I wrote that when I went back to Jemez to visit my parents at their home, which they called Stonehenge. I think of the poem as a personal statement. The repetition is purely Native American. It is a kind of song, an exercise of the power of language upon the world. When I was young, I was drawn to the Navajo Night Chant, which I invoke in House Made of Dawn—“House made of dawn, / House made of evening light, / House made of dark cloud, / House made of male rain, / House made of dark mist, / House made of female rain, / House made of pollen . . .” It’s otherworldly, a spiritual statement. It’s not poetry, but it is something like poetry.

 

undefinedMomaday and his parents signing editions of their lithographs in Albuquerque, in the mid-seventies. Courtesy of N. Scott Momaday.

INTERVIEWER

Did you like the scholarly life?

MOMADAY

At Stanford, I was competing with people from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, who knew far more about English poetry than I did. I remember getting a D on a paper for Winters’s class on the lyric poem—I was ready to drop out, but Gaye talked me out of it. By the time I graduated, I was able to keep up with the best of them. I say that in all humility. 

Later, I spent a Guggenheim year in Amherst, Massachusetts, reading Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts and comparing them with Thomas Johnson’s variorum edition, noting where I felt he wasn’t quite accurate to Dickinson’s punctuation. Dickinson and Tuckerman—and Herman Melville, for that matter—all lived in Western Massachusetts and had a real interest in science. They could look at nature with precision. Melville writes about cetology, Tuckerman writes about eclipses—he had a telescope—and Emily Dickinson writes about her herbarium, using the scientific names for flowers rather than their common names. I have held her herbarium in my hands. Now you’re not allowed to touch it because a little fragment of a leaf could fall out.

INTERVIEWER

Where were you when you wrote House Made of Dawn?

MOMADAY

I started it at Stanford, kept writing it when I was teaching at Santa Barbara, and finished it in Amherst. I had a strict routine at Santa Barbara, the best I’ve ever had. I made sure my mornings were free of teaching, and I’d get up around five or six o’clock and go to a twenty-four-hour diner for an hour. I would have coffee and four strips of bacon, read the Los Angeles Times. Then I would go back to my house and write for four or five hours. I guess I had already worked out a map in my head, because the book came quickly and naturally—it wasn’t a matter of going back and changing things around. 

INTERVIEWER

Had you known Indian veterans like the protagonist, Abel, in Jemez Pueblo?

MOMADAY

I knew Abel pretty well. 

INTERVIEWER

He’s a real person?

MOMADAY

There were two brothers, both veterans, and the older one was Abel. I followed him from the time he returned from the war to the time he ran the race of the dead. I felt strongly about those veterans—they were a lost generation. They had been displaced, and dislocated in their minds, too. They died of alcoholism and different things. They killed each other. 

INTERVIEWER

In the novel, you give Tosamah, the Priest of the Sun, many stories from your own life. Have you ever participated in a peyote ceremony like the one he leads? 


undefinedAt home with his mother, his daughters, and his ex-wife, Gaye Mangold, at right, Santa Fe, 1971. Courtesy of N. Scott Momaday.

MOMADAY

I’ve never been to a Kiowa peyote ceremony, but I did take peyote once, when a friend of mine—a woman I was interested in at the time—had abdominal pains. Doctors couldn’t give her any relief at all. I said, “Why don’t you go to a medicine man?” One thing led to another, and we went to a hogan in Lukachukai, Arizona. A woman whose son I knew from Stanford put together a healing ceremony for us. The medicine man she invited was Navajo, but he had learned, he said, from a Kiowa priest, and he had what he said was a Kiowa altar. I’ll take his word for it. He performed rites into the night, arranging crystals around a fire. My friend said she was seeing wonderful things like horses going through a crystal canyon. It barely affected me at all. The man would go over to the fire periodically with a buffalo-horn pipe and blow smoke onto her abdomen. Then he would inhale over her body into the pipe, and whatever was inside he put on a paper towel. At the end he said, “These are tumors, and your friend is cured.” 

JILL MOMADAY

And was she, Dad?

MOMADAY

Never had any trouble after that moment. I guess he knew what he was doing. 

INTERVIEWER

House Made of Dawn was one of the first published novels about Native Americans to be written by a Native American. Did you feel that it was something new?

MOMADAY

I was telling a story, a story worth telling. But I was surprised by the novel’s reception. One day the phone rang in Santa Barbara—it was my editor at Harper and Row, Fran McCullough, who said, “Scott, are you sitting down?” I said, “No, Fran, I’m not. What is it? I’m busy.” She said, “You’ve won the Pulitzer Prize.” I didn’t even know she had nominated me, and she later admitted that she hadn’t. It was the sixth-floor receptionist who’d decided to send them to the Pulitzer people. That’s how it happened. The next time I was in New York, I made a point of thanking the receptionist. 

INTERVIEWER

Did that success affect how you felt about your writing?

MOMADAY

It changed my schedule. I didn’t write seriously for a time. There was a lot of hubbub. I started getting invitations from magazines to contribute, invitations to speak at ladies’ garden clubs. 

INTERVIEWER

The book has been called the beginning of the Native American Renaissance.

MOMADAY

My friend Kenneth Lincoln coined that term much later. I don’t feel I belong to any particular school. I’m not a joiner. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel pressure to become an ambassador, to weigh in on the movement?

MOMADAY

I did go out to Alcatraz during the occupation—Alvin Josephy Jr., at American Heritage magazine, set up the expedition. We were on a fairly small boat and the seas were so rough that we were in danger of being driven into the rocks—but we got there. I’m trying to think of the reason the magazine wanted me to go 

JILL MOMADAY

They wanted you to get political, Dad. They wanted you to be the voice. 

MOMADAY

And there I sat on the boat being not political. But I did think that the demonstration at Alcatraz was important, and I said so at the time. It brought many people in the Bay Area to the side of the Indian. Standing Rock, in 2016, was a similar thing. Vine Deloria Jr., who was Standing Rock Sioux, was one of my good friends. He had a great sense of humor—he always had a joke, and the jokes were on Indians a lot of the time. He died before the demonstrations there, but he would have been pleased with them. 

JILL MOMADAY

But, if I may, why have you not been more political? What was it that kept you at a remove? 

MOMADAY

One of my colleagues at Berkeley asked me about that during the protests there in the sixties—he said, “Don’t you care?” I’d been fairly neutral—or at least I was until the police tear-gassed me on campus, and then they became my enemy, too. The thing is, there are different kinds of Indians, and I’m of the pacific kind. I’m more Chief Joseph than Geronimo. 


undefinedWith his granddaughters at the Momaday homestead in Jemez Springs, in the nineties. Courtesy of N. Scott Momaday.

INTERVIEWER

Have you had many encounters with the police?

MOMADAY

No, but I’ve had two encounters with the FBI. The first came after I was invited to the USSR to teach a class on American writers in 1973. As I was preparing to leave San Francisco, I found a little note in my mailbox, and it said, “Please contact Agent Hemingway of the FBI.” I thought it was a joke, but I called, and had a very illuminating exchange with this agent, who told me to let him know if I saw anything of interest. I’m pretty sure that my phone was tapped for a while after that, because it began making strange clicking sounds. 

The other time I got a call from the FBI was in the mid-seventies, when I was teaching at Stanford. An agent told me that my name had appeared on a list in the possession of Charles Manson, who was in prison. I could explain it, because one day, when I was keeping office hours, two people had shown up with crosses cut into their foreheads. Their eyes were slightly glazed, and they said, “Charles Manson sent us. He wants your permission to live on the land.” I realized that they were Squeaky Fromme and Sandra Good. I think he must have read The Way to Rainy Mountain and decided that I was the custodian of the land. I told them that he had my permission. 

INTERVIEWER

What were you working on in the Soviet Union?

MOMADAY

It was a fascinating time, though not particularly comfortable. I did not speak the language and people were suspicious. That created a state of isolation, which was in a way good for me, I think—it made me think of my homeland, I was lonely for it. I was finishing the poems in The Gourd Dancer there, and I started drawing, too—things that reminded me of my life in the New World. 

INTERVIEWER

Your father was an artist, wasn’t he?

MOMADAY

Yes, he made signs and then paintings—watercolors. He was influenced by Kiowa painters before him, especially the Kiowa Five, a group who studied at the University of Oklahoma in the twenties and were known for their two-dimensional Indian dancers and riders on horseback fighting cavalry and their hunting scenes and so on.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to use color less than your father did. 

MOMADAY

Well, black is a striking color. I like drawing with paint. I think about how art must have begun with charcoal. 

INTERVIEWER

How did the poem “Pigments” in The Death of Sitting Bear come about?


undefinedWith his daughter Jill at the Kiowa Gourd Dance Society camp, 2002. Courtesy of N. Scott Momaday.

MOMADAY

One of the great experiences of my life was seeing the cave paintings at Altamira and Lascaux, and in the Pyrenees, where there is a cave called Gargas in which you can see handprints with digits missing. I thought immediately of the Plains Indians who would cut off their fingers to signify grief, but I imagine the cave painters were purposefully folding in their fingers to make different types of impressions on the wall—maybe signals of some kind. 

INTERVIEWER

There was a fairly long interval between your memoir, The Names, and The Ancient Child’s publication in the late eighties. Had you given up writing for art? 

MOMADAY

I think a lot of writers feel a need to pause for a while, and that’s what happened to me.

JILL MOMADAY

Weren’t those your wild bachelor years, Dad?

MOMADAY

Well, I’d been traveling during my year in the USSR—through Central Asia to Samarqand, Tashkent, and Dushanbe. I’d spent two summers in Paris, and had some experiences there that I forced onto Set in The Ancient Child. There’s that story about the woman with the cigar—that really happened. I was staying at Le Scribe Paris Opéra hotel, and I got talking to a girl in line behind me at the bank. She was touring France with a backpack, staying in hostels. I thought, This girl needs a bit of luxury. I said, “You should take a bath. Just soaking in a sudsy bath would do you a world of good. I have these accommodations—please make use of them.” So she came to my room, and I took her to dinner at a seafood place. At the end of the meal a waiter offered us cigars, and to my surprise, she picked one up and smoked it. We were quite a sight. Then she went her way and I went mine. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a philosophy of writing about sex?

MOMADAY

I don’t think I describe it much, do I? I suppose there’s that scene in House Made of Dawn with Abel chopping the wood. And—this isn’t sexy, but it is sexual, in a sadistic way—there’s that scene in The Ancient Child in which Grey, who has been raped, gets her revenge with a pitchfork held to the man’s face. She inserts one tine into his left nostril, and the other rests at the corner of his eye, such that she could kill him in an instant. I wanted to know if it would really work, and I found a pitchfork that was not very long and had four curved tines, two of which would hit exactly at my nostril and my eye. 

INTERVIEWER

How did The Ancient Child emerge?

MOMADAY

I was drawing on my experience of feeling dislocated in my being somehow—looking back to my divorce and so on. Set is, like me, a painter and a Native—his name means “bear” in Kiowa. That’s a part of me, too. My naming ceremony—which I write about in The Names—took place at the rock-tree known as Devils Tower. From the time I was conscious of having been taken to this sacred place as an infant, I’ve thought of myself as the reincarnation of the boy who turned into a bear and chased his sisters. Through my name, I’ve lived with that story. When I was writing The Ancient Child, I was having trouble with the bear in me.

INTERVIEWER

There are a lot of bears in your poems, too.

MOMADAY

All of my poems about bears are autobiographical. “To an Aged Bear,” in In the Bear’s House (2010), is very personal—I’m defining the bear’s condition and my goodwill toward him. The earlier poem “The Bear” is very tightly controlled, whereas “To an Aged Bear” has a freer kind of expression. So do the dialogues in that book, between God and a bear. Over the years I’ve become more willing to depart from the rhyme and meter I learned as a student, and my poems have become more spontaneous. I go where the poem leads me. 

And there’s “The Death of Sitting Bear,” my attempt to get inside the man’s head, to use his voice to tell his own story. Sitting Bear captured my imagination because he gathered up the bones of his son, who died in a raid in Texas, and carried them with him wherever he went—I write about that in “The Colors of Night.” Then he died a very dramatic death, orchestrating it as the ultimate act of bravery. He was quite a leader, whether inspired or defective in his mind.

INTERVIEWER

Some of your poems are written in sequences—the Billy the Kid poems, the shield poems. How did those come together? 

MOMADAY

I can’t remember whether my drawings of shields or the shield poems came first—I think it might have worked both ways. I think of the shield sequence as a kind of meditation, something that one ought to read in order, thinking carefully about each one. The pieces in Dream Drawings are condensations, very short stories that just came to me. The Billy the Kid poems were just fun. I’d read so much about Billy. He’s said to have died at the age of twenty-one, which isn’t true, but it made me want to write twenty-one pieces about him, in chronological order, with a lullaby first and his death at the end. I enjoy going from one form to another, from lyric to prose poem, and I did that within the sequence. Those departures gave the whole a vitality. I’ve written a series of little epigrams, too, playing with meter and rhyme—like “Here lies a lady sweet and chaste. / Here lies the matter: chaste makes waste.” It’s funny, and well-made for what it is.

INTERVIEWER

It’s almost like a riddle.

MOMADAY

I’ve always thought of Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” as a riddle, too, and was thinking of it when I wrote my poem “A Presence in the Trees”—“What presence in the trees does not appear? / For nothing in the trees engenders fear. / A vagrant shadow in the trees draws near.” Everything hangs on that word nothing. There are two ways you could take that second line, and that’s what I like about it. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a particular feeling when a poem is done?

MOMADAY

There’s an elation when you finish a good poem, though there’s always the possibility that you’ll look at it later and find that it’s not as great as you’d thought. That has happened to me quite frequently. Part of the process is living with a poem for some time before you know what it is. It’s best to recognize that you’re not going to write many brilliant poems. If just one stands the test of time, that’s something that justifies your existence. I have written poems that I think are really worth keeping, but they’re very few—“The Bear,” “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion,” “Angle of Geese,” perhaps two or three more. I’ve written many poems that I have not come to a conclusion about. I reached the end of a poem today that I started yesterday. It’s very short, and I am not sure it’s finished, but now I am going to get back to my major commitment. 

INTERVIEWER

What is that?

MOMADAY

It’s autobiographical, like The Names. Writing that book, I had Out of Africa very much in mind, the way Isak Dinesen pulls all those disparate pieces together. It’s the same thing with this one, which is about the Kiowa migration, calendar keepers, and grandmothers. 

INTERVIEWER

Is your childhood still a source for your writing?

MOMADAY

Yes. I try to give my memories a new slant each time I write about them, but sometimes what emerges is pretty much the same. I think of my childhood with great pleasure and longing. Recently Jill and her daughter, Natachee, and I gave a reading at a bookstore in Santa Fe. I had forgotten to bring something to read, nor could I have read anything, because I couldn’t see very well—the lighting was poor. When the time came for me to speak, I talked about Jemez and my neighbor Francisco, who had sheep and who would greet me as I passed his corral on the way to school. He was an old man and didn’t know any English, but we managed to talk to each other. What I can see now are the wagons and the men going to the fields on the river road. If I rode out on a rainy day and saw the cliffs ascending, and if on the middle cliffs I saw old Francisco with his flock standing deep in the colors and patterns of the plain, it would be all my heart could hold. I recounted that, or tried to, but in the end I burst into tears. Thinking about that boy, that old man, that time, that place, was almost overwhelming because I loved it so much. There are all kinds of things that I remember. I wish I could live them again.