American Indian writers today owe a great deal of thanks to N. Scott Momaday, who paved the way for literature about Indians written by Indians when he won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel House Made of Dawn. A Kiowa Indian born in 1934 in Lawton, Oklahoma, Momaday has written poetry, plays, fiction and nonfiction and has appeared as a talking head in several documentaries, including the eight-part 1996 PBS special The West, directed by Stephen Ives and produced by Ken Burns. Momaday was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2007, and in June 2010, Western Writers of America (WWA) presented him with the Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement. Next spring the University of New Mexico Press is scheduled to publish Momaday’s new poetry collection, Beyond the Silence of Sorrow, as well as a collection by his late wife, Barbara Glenn, Poems Before Easter. Momaday recently spoke with Wild West from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, about his career and his views on history.
First, congratulations on the Owen Wister Award!
Thank you. I’m delighted.
Did growing up on the reservations influence your writings?
I’m sure it did. … My association with my grandmother and other members of my Kiowa family were, I’m sure, influential.
‘I think we have a fascination with the Wild West. It’s very much a part of the American imagination, and it’s easy to understand that if you consider there is this part of the country, a very large part of it, which really has to be seen to be believed. Best of all, it has to be imagined’
What was it like growing up on the reservation?
I was with the Kiowa people for a very short time. My parents and I moved to the Navajo reservation in New Mexico and Arizona, and I grew up on the Navajo, two of the Apache and one of the Pueblo reservations until I was about 17 years old, and so it was a wonderful kind of growing up. I had the knowledge of several different cultures and a good slice of the Indian world, and I’m sure that influenced my writing. Many of my subjects, of course, are based on the Indian world. So that kind of experience was invaluable to me when I was growing up.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Pretty early on. My mother was a writer, and I wanted to do what she was doing. I followed in her footsteps first. My father was a painter. I came to painting very late—that is, much later. I was always in the presence of books, good writing, so my mother was my primary influence.
Who were some of your favorite writers?
Well, over the years I have become very fond of certain poets. I’m a poet more than anything else, and I think Emily Dickinson was probably the greatest of American poets, and Wallace Stevens, who was probably the next best. And a whole scattering of poets— Robert Frost, and then more modern ones.
Are there similarities between writing and art?
There are similarities. They’re both expressions of the spirit, and you need to be inspired to do either. Writing requires more concentration. You have to put all of yourself into writing. Therefore, you can only do it for a certain period of time. Four hours or so is about as much as I can put into writing in a given day. Painting is much less concentrated. I can listen to a ball game and paint. Can’t do that with writing.
What inspired you to write House Made of Dawn?
I lived in the Pueblo Jemez [New Mexico] for a number of years during my teens, and I got to know the place and the people very well. When it came to writing, I had a given subject, the Second World War, and the story about a young Pueblo man who is drafted and picked up and set down in a condition of war and uprooted from his traditional world. He returns, but he finds himself unable to resume his former way of life. So it’s a story about the loss of cultural identity and the fight to regain it, and the question of whether or not he does. All of that is based on my time at Jemez and the people I’d known there.
How much of N. Scott Momaday is in your fiction?
Certainly, some, but I wouldn’t know how to measure it. I think every writer puts himself into his work, some more than others. I guess that’s probably impossible to answer, but when I look back into what I have written, I see my own ideas coming forth in the mouths of some of the characters. That sort of thing is inevitable.
Billy the Kid is featured in your 1989 novel, The Ancient Child. What is your interest in the Kid?
I grew up in New Mexico, and everybody in New Mexico knows of Billy the Kid, maybe mostly the people of my generation. He’s a fascinating character, and you’re reminded of him very frequently in New Mexico. When I was a kid of, say, 8 or 10 years, I came to be fascinated with his story. I’d see him in movies, and I’d read books about him. He became a kind of imaginary friend of mine through very impressionable years. I’ve written about him in both poetry and prose, and he remains a legendary figure.
How did your job as a commentator on The West come about?
I was invited to participate in that series by Stephen Ives. We became good friends. I was in quite a lot of it and enjoyed that work very much. I thought that was a wonderful series.
Do you consider yourself a historian?
Hmmm. In an amateur sort of way. I’m not a professional historian, but I love history, and I read a lot of it.
How did you get involved with the PBS American Experience documentary Last Stand at Little Bighorn?
I know something about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It’s one of the fascinating events in the history of the West. So I knew something about it and learned more in the process. It was a good experience.
Why are we drawn to that battle, whether we’re white or Indian?
I think we have a fascination with the Wild West. It’s very much a part of the American imagination, and it’s easy to understand that if you consider there is this part of the country, a very large part of it, which really has to be seen to be believed. Best of all, it has to be imagined. People who come from Europe, they don’t have the same opportunity to confront wild country, wilderness, so it’s a fascination to people across the world, and I think it’s indispensable to the American imagination. It is a very much a part of our lives, and we would not be who we are without it. We should be pleased that we have the West and all of its grandeur.
Do you consider yourself a Western writer?
Yeah, in a sense that much of what I write is focused on the West. But I don’t know about identifying people in that way. I don’t know what a “Western writer” is, say, opposed to a Jewish writer or a European writer or what have you. Writing is writing.
What is the status of Native American writing today?
It’s pretty healthy and becoming more so all of the time. When I started publishing, it was not nearly as widespread as it is now. We have kids out there who are doing good things, writing well, and many more than ever. It is something that is on the incline, and we’ll hear from many more Native American writers in the future.
Critics have said House Made of Dawn led to the breakthrough of Indian literature. Do you agree?
You can argue that, yes. It won the first Pulitzer Prize [for an Indian author], and about the same time, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee , by Dee Brown, was published. Those two books did excite a lot of attention that took hold, and published Indian stories about and by Indians became much more visible than they had been before that point.
Can a white author write truthfully and accurately from an Indian perspective?
If he knows about it, sure. There have been some good examples of that. I think Dee Brown is one. Oliver La Farge is one. Why not? It’s not an isolated subject. One can write about it if one knows about it, researches it.
I have a major collection of poems coming out, and my late wife has a book of poetry coming out at the same time. That makes it a very important occasion for me. She knew about her manuscript being accepted before she passed away, so I’m very pleased about that.
And I keep thinking I’ve got another novel or another novella in me. I have subjects I’d love to write about. It just depends on how much time and energy I can muster.