Honoring N. Scott Momaday, Honoring Our Ancestors

NEW YORK, NY — Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, poet, playwright, and professor N. Scott Momaday, Ph.D., accepted the 2019 Ken BurnsAmerican Heritage Prize at an event held at the American Museum of Natural History. May 2019. 

Last week my daughter Sarah, visiting from Oklahoma, took home with her a chest filled with her great-grandmother’s antique grape-patterned silverware, and a portrait of her great-grandmother taken when she was a young newlywed. An antique pewter broach from this same great-grandmother had been the center piece of my daughter’s wedding bouquet.

While organizing the silver, I shared a few family stories with Sarah. “Could you write them down, Mom?” she asked. She wanted to share the stories with her daughters when they were older. I printed out a chapter I had written for The Light Shines from the West, a book on the rural American West, which included this story:

"As a young woman, my Missouri-born grandmother knew both physical isolation and sensory deprivation. Tragically orphaned at the age of twelve, around 1899 she was sent by train from Bolivar, Missouri to California to live with a distant aunt. According to family history, six years later (deafened by a careless doctor who accidentally poured acid in her ears), she was married off to the 'black sheep' of two brothers who lived in the Los Angeles basin. She found herself living as a young, deaf bride in one of the most rural and isolated places in the West—California’s Mojave Desert."

My grandmother died before my daughter was born. Sarah has no memories to call her own, but the young woman in the portrait, her great-grandmother, bears a striking resemblance to Sarah's own daughter, my grandchild. When I was wrapping the portrait for Sarah to take back to Oklahoma, I remembered the day when my mother had given me the portrait, and the grape-patterned silver, to take with me to my new ranch home in Wyoming.

A few days after Sarah returned to Oklahoma, I sat down with a copy of N. Scott Momaday’s classic book, The Way to Rainy Mountain. The small family ranch in Wyoming where Sarah grew up is only 27 miles from Devils Tower National Monument, a place sacred to Dr. Momaday and his Kiowa people. In the book, he refers to his ancestors’ migration (from the headwaters of the Yellowstone River in Montana, to Wyoming and Devils Tower, and then eastward through the Black Hills and eventually to Oklahoma), as a great “going forth into the heart of the continent.”

In the Introduction of The Way to Rainy Mountain, Dr. Momaday tells the story of being at his grandmother’s grave. “When she was born,” he writes, “… the Kiowa and the Comanche ruled the southern Plains.” Their migration in the late seventeenth century “was a journey toward the dawn.” But he also writes of their decline, of his people’s fragile living memory.

The last time my husband John and I saw Dr. Momaday, and his daughter Jill Momaday Gray, was last year  during Indian Market in Santa Fe. They were both featured speakers, the outdoor event was standing room only, and a storm was brewing. Rain clouds passed overhead and when Dr. Momaday spoke, his sonorous voice was thunderous and awe-inspiring. His daughter Jill was beautiful, gracious and engaging. She spoke briefly about directing the feature length documentary, Return to Rainy Mountain, a film which tells about a journey she and her father took to retrace the sacred journey of the Kiowa people, and the 1500-mile pilgrimage her father had taken as a young man.

When Dr. Momaday arrived in Wyoming as their ancestors had more than two hundred years earlier, he wrote, “A dark mist lay over the Black Hills, and the land was like iron. At the top of a ridge I caught sight of Devil’s Tower upthrust against the gray sky as if in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through its crust and the motion of the world was begun. There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devil’sTower is one of them.”

If you have ever been in the powerful presence of N. Scott Momaday, then you understand that he also engenders an awe inspiring quiet in the heart.

Reading the stories of his grandmother cracked open my own memories. His sonorous voice seemed to fill every page, and stories of my grandmother came alive. I remembered her telling me that life in the Mojave Desert where she lived as a young deaf bride was not lonely because she had the company of a few Mojave women, “those who had refused to go to the reservation.”

“I knew when I saw dust in the distance,” she wrote, “that it was someone coming to our place, for there was no place else to go.”

Mr. Momaday tells us that his memories of his grandmother are visual - he envisions her standing at the wood stove on a winter morning, or he pictures her dark hands folded in prayer, or her long black hair at night, “always drawn and braided in the day, laying upon her shoulders and against her breasts like a shawl.”

I remember my grandmother’s pewter broach laying on a mirrored tray on her vanity. I remember the pewter handled, boar’s bristle hairbrush she used every night, how she would undo the pins holding her coiled bun, and her silver hair would cascade over her shoulders. I remember how she would kiss me goodnight before laying her hearing aids on the tray next to the brush, retreating into the silence of her world.

These stories—the stories of our ancestors—wait patiently for us in their own silent realm. The veil that separates us is a thin one, easily lifted away by our curious yearning to know more. Whenever I am tempted to look elsewhere toward someone else's legends, I remember that the stories bequeathed to me have their own sacred mythology. 

I am grateful to Dr. Momaday and Jill for sharing their own journeys, and for the wise reminder that all ancestors have journeys to share.

NOTES:  A few days ago, Jill Momaday emailed me with the news that this August, during Indian Market in Santa Fe, the National Museum of the American Indian will be hosting the film N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear. In October, Jill Momaday’s production Return to Rainy Mountain will be featured during the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. “I am so happy that both films will be broadcast on PBS in November,” Jill said. Click the link to watch the trailer. 


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