Momaday, Pulitzer Prize Winner and Giant of Native American Literature, Dead at 89

NEW YORK — N. Scott Momaday, a Pulitzer Prize-winning storyteller, poet, educator and folklorist whose debut novel “House Made of Dawn” is widely credited as the starting point for contemporary Native American literature, has died. He was 89.

Momaday died Wednesday at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, publisher HarperCollins announced. He had been in failing health.

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

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

Despite such works as John Joseph Mathews’ 1934 release “Sundown,” novels by American Indians weren’t widely recognized at the time of “House Made of Dawn.” A New York Times reviewer, Marshall Sprague, even contended in an otherwise favorable review that “American Indians do not write novels and poetry as a rule, or teach English in top-ranking universities, either. But we cannot be patronizing. 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 fiction Pulitzer, and his novel helped launch a generation of authors, including Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch and Louise Erdrich.

His other admirers would range from the poet Joy Harjo, the country’s first Native to be named poet laureate, to the film stars Robert Redford and Jeff Bridges.

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

Over the following decades, he taught at Stanford, Princeton and Columbia universities, among other top-ranking schools, was a commentator for NPR, and lectured worldwide.

He 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 became a leading advocate for the beauty and vitality of traditional Native life.

Addressing a gathering of American Indian scholars in 1970, Momaday said, “Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves.” He championed Natives’ reverence for nature, writing that “the American Indian has a unique investment in the American landscape.” He shared stories told to him by his parents and grandparents. He regarded oral culture as the wellspring of language and storytelling, and dated American culture back not to the early English settlers, but also to ancient times, noting the procession of gods depicted in the rock art at Utah’s Barrier Canyon.

“We do not know what they mean, but we know we are involved in their meaning,” he wrote in the essay “The Native Voice in American Literature.”

“They persist through time in the imagination, and we cannot doubt that they are invested with the very essence of language, the language of story and myth and primal song. They are 2,000 years old, more or less, and they remark as closely as anything can the origin of American literature.”

In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Momaday with a National Medal of Arts “for his writings and his work that celebrate and preserve Native American art and oral tradition.” Besides his Pulitzer, his honors included an Academy of American Poets prize 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 Nation. His mother was a writer, and his father an artist who once told his son, “I have never known an Indian child who couldn’t draw,” a talent Momaday demonstrably shared. His artwork, from charcoal sketches to oil paintings, were included in his books and exhibited in museums in Arizona, New Mexico and North Dakota. Audio guides to tours of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the American Indian featured Momaday’s avuncular baritone.

After spending his teens in New Mexico, he studied political science at the University of Mexico and received a master’s and 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 unintentional result of his early reputation. Editor Fran McCullough, of what is now HarperCollins, had met Momaday at Stanford and several years later contacted him and asked whether he would like to submit a book of poems.

Momaday did not 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 tributes to bears — the animals he most identified with — or a cycle of poems about the life of Billy the Kid, a childhood obsession. He saw writing as a way of bridging the present with the ancient past and summed up his quest in the poem “If I Could Ascend”: 

Something like a leaf lies here within me; / it wavers almost not at all, / and there is no light to see it by / that it withers upon a black field. / If it could ascend the thousand years into my mouth, / I would make a word of it at last, / and I would speak it into the silence of the sun.

In 2019, he was the subject of a PBS “American Masters” documentary in which he discussed his belief he was a 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 has influenced them.

“I’m greatly appreciative of that, but it comes a little bit of a surprise every time I hear it,” Momaday said. “I think I have been an influence. It’s not something I take a lot of credit for.” 

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