Last month, N. Scott Momaday was among nine Americans awarded the National Medal of the Arts, the highest honor bestowed by the government for artistic excellence. VOA's Susan Logue has more on the man who is known today as the dean of American Indian literature.
At the National Medal of Arts ceremony, N. Scott Momaday was cited for "his writings and his work that celebrate and preserve Native American Art and oral tradition" and for introducing "millions nationwide to the essence of Native American culture."
Momaday is credited with helping launch a Native American renaissance in arts and letters in 1968 with his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn. "It was a marvelous occasion when I think we knew there was a different day that was beginning, I think, in recognition of Native peoples and native artists," says Rick West, founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian, where Momaday recently spoke.
West recalls hearing the author read from the book shortly after winning the Pulitzer in 1969. "It's hard to tell you what an impact that event had on a young Indian law student at Stanford University."
House Made of Dawn is the story of a Jemez Pueblo man named Abel who struggles to readjust to life in the Pueblo when he returns from the Second World War.
"That generation of which I wrote was particularly hard hit by exposure to the world outside," Momaday says. "There had to be terrible adjustments and many people could not make those adjustments."
Abel ends up in prison after murdering a man, and upon his release is "relocated" to Los Angeles. His effort to survive in the city and integrate into mainstream culture resonated with many American Indians who had also been relocated by the U.S. government in the late 1960's and were struggling to reconcile two very distinct cultures.
Momaday says that struggle is still going on. "The situation is better than it was during that time, but a lot of Indian children, Indian youth particularly, have problems with identity," he says. "They want to be one thing and the world conspires to tell them they are something else, and so they have this internal battle."
Momaday, who was born in 1934 in Oklahoma, credits his parents with helping him avoid that struggle. His mother, a children's book author, was of European and Cherokee ancestry. His father, an artist, was a full blood Kiowa.
They left Oklahoma to teach in schools in other Indian communities, taking their young son with them.
"I think I had a wonderful childhood, much of it was spent in rural areas, reservations with magnificent landscapes," Momaday recalls. "I'm fond of saying I had a pan Indian experience before I knew what the term meant. I lived on the Navajo (reservation) when I was very young, and I still have an ear for the language. And the same with Apache, which is related to Navajo, and Jemez. I picked up a lot of the Jemez language when I lived there."
But English was the primary language in his household, and it was a love of language that led him to writing.
Momaday has written in every form: novels, essays, short stories, plays, children's literature and poetry. But no matter what the style, he writes for the ear as well as the eye.
"That's something that is very important to me, the lyrical aspect of the language," Momaday says. "I'm very much aware of the sound of the language, and I have to hear it. And it has to sound right to me or I go back and make it sound right."
Momaday says he has given a lot of thought to the rich oral tradition, shared by many American Indian cultures, that infuses his work. "My father would tell me stories from Kiowa tradition and I loved them," he recalls.
The author acknowledges that as a child he took those stories for granted. "I didn't really think about what they were until I was an adult. And then it occurred to me these are fragile. They've never been written down and they stand a good chance of being lost. So I set about doing something about that."The result was The Way to Rainy Mountain, published in 1969 with illustrations by his father, Al Momaday. Today, N. Scott Momaday also paints. He did his own illustrations for Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story, a children's book published in 1993. Momaday says both his parents were strong role models for him. Today, he serves as a role model for many young American Indians.