N. Scott Momaday: Words From a Bear
Delve into the enigmatic life and mind of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet N. Scott Momaday, best known for “House Made of Dawn” and a formative voice of the Native American Renaissance in art and literature.
[ Birds chirping ]
Momaday: "What ruse of vision
escarping the wall of leaves...
...rending incision into countless surfaces...
...would cull and color his somnolence,
whose old age has outworn valor,
all but the fact of courage?
Seen, he does not come, move,
but seems forever there,
in the windless noon's hot glare.
More scarred than others
these years since the trap maimed him,
pain slants his withers,
drawing up the crooked limb.
Then he is gone, whole,
without urgency, from sight...
...as buzzards control imperceptibly their flight."
Woman: You good?
Okay, so we'll do some of this to reflect.
So, you can look at me.
Momaday: Okay. Woman: And then --
[ Indistinct conversations ]
Now that. One, two, three.
[ Camera shutter clicks ]
Man, I love that red on the black.
One, two, three.
One, two, three.
Should they all be serious, or you want something --
Momaday: I'm grumpy today. I'm very grumpy.
Woman: I'm trying to make this --
Momaday: What do you want, a smile,
a fake smile?
Woman: A fake -- Definitely cannot be fake.
I will detect it in a second.
Momaday: [ Chuckles ]
Woman: One, two, three.
I like the smirk.
At least I'm not growling.
Woman: Yeah. Man: [ Laughs ]
[ Camera shutter clicks ]
[ Birds chirping ]
[ Keyboard clacking ]
Momaday: I always determine very early in the day
what I'm going to do --
that is, whether I'm going to paint or write.
But once I've made that decision,
it has to take a life of its own, you know?
[ Keyboard continues clacking ]
The Pulitzer Prize was a complete surprise.
People don't believe that, but it's true.
I picked up the phone one day, and my editor at Harper & Row,
Fran McCullough, said, "Scott, are you sitting down?"
And I wasn't, but I should have been.
She said, "You've been awarded the Pulitzer Prize,"
and I thought she was kidding.
Palmer: "House Made of Dawn" was a whole different world.
It changed everything about literature.
We all felt like we had some part in it, some stake in it,
because here was an Indian who had won a great award,
and it was very public.
Momaday: Aho. [ Applause ]
Chambers: When Scott won the Pulitzer,
it was electrifying
for a whole generation of Native Americans.
Redford: I am so honored to present
this lifetime-achievement award to my friend and colleague,
N. Scott Momaday.
[ Cheers and applause ]
When I look at the Native American culture
and how they pass on information to generations to come,
it's through stories.
And what Scott has done,
without losing the value of oral storytelling,
he's been able to move it into writing,
and that's what got me, because I thought his voice
was that of a storyteller.
But because he had this poetic ring to it,
it took on a whole different tone,
and I think that's why I got hooked on Scott.
Momaday: "I am a feather on the bright sky.
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain.
I am the fish that rolls shining in the water.
I am the shadow that follows a child.
I am the evening light,
the luster of meadows."
Beau: Scott, he's the real deal.
He can paint with words.
I mean, he's a poet, an artist.
Momaday: "I am an eagle playing with the wind.
I am a cluster of bright beads."
Jeff: I met him at my brother's house,
and immediately I got a --
such a warmth from him.
His smile, his essence
was just, you know, kind of filled the room,
and then, of course, when he opened his mouth, that voice.
Momaday: "I am the farthest star.
I am the cold of the dawn."
Jeff: And, you know, I got a wonderful,
wonderful hit off the guy.
Momaday: "I am the roaring of the rain.
I am the glitter on the crust of the snow."
Harjo: The spirit lives in the voice,
so everybody could hear
that he was carrying something very profound
and very important.
Jones: I love it because of the simplicity.
I mean, he's telling a cosmically complex story,
but he does it in the simplest terms.
Askew: He joins history to myth again and again and again.
He joins his own personal witness,
his own personal experience of all that,
to the landscape, to the trauma, to the pain.
Momaday: "I am a deer standing away in the dusk.
I am a field of sumac and the pomme blanche."
West: Scott was the pathfinder, drawing upon past traditions
but looking always in a prospective way
at Native peoples and getting beyond this notion
of our being only some kind of ethnographic past
rather than being a vibrant collection and aggregation
of contemporary Native communities and peoples.
Momaday: "I am an angle of geese in the winter sky.
I am the hunger of a young wolf."
Little: Joining us, we have Ken Kesey, N. Scott Momaday,
Wendell Berry, and Alice Walker.
Momaday: "I am the dream of these things.
You see, I am alive.
I am alive."
I was born in Oklahoma
in the middle of the Depression and between two World Wars.
And, of course, the Dust Bowl.
The Dust Bowl was terribly devastating.
The land just was blown away.
People died in the dust,
and there was a mass exodus of people from Oklahoma
because of the Dust Bowl.
But the Indian people remained on their allotments,
including my grandfather.
The reason they remained
is that they had always been moored to the land.
You know, for 30,000 years,
they had developed an attitude towards the land
and a reverence for it
and a loyalty to it.
They were on their land,
and they were going to stay on their land
because it was theirs,
and sadly, it was what they were allowed to have.
[ Wind chimes jingle ]
The homestead on Rainy Mountain Creek was my first home,
which had no electricity, no plumbing.
We would be considered at the very bottom of the scale
in terms of poverty.
I think of my grandparents as being very poor
but rich in their lives.
Jill: John Mammedaty is my great grandfather,
and he married a beautiful Kiowa woman,
whose name is Aho,
and in 1913,
he went about building the homestead.
[ Hammer pounding ]
They pitched a tepee,
and that's where they stayed as he was building the home.
[ Insects chirping ]
[ Animal hoots in distance ]
I love going to the old homestead.
It's a sacred thing for me.
It's going home.
And when I drive from Santa Fe, New Mexico,
I can feel when the landscape changes.
The lush greenness of Oklahoma
and how you can just see out across the plain.
I get close, and my heart starts beating,
and I just --
I feel excitement,
and I feel a kind of sadness,
because, you know, the old people are gone,
and the house is falling into ruin.
[ Birds chirping ]
But it's such a magical and sacred place,
to stand on that ground
and then to look out across the plain
and have that sort of warm wind
and the sounds, the crickets.
And then I walk into the arbor.
I open the old, rickety screen door,
and I walk into this beautiful, sacred place
with the earth floor, and the benches are still there,
as they always were in the old kitchen area.
I love that place,
and my daughters love that place,
and my dad loves that place.
Momaday: I have very fond memories of my time there.
People would come at night,
and there would be kerosene lamps in the arbor
casting a glow on the grass outside,
and I played there with my cousins.
[ People singing in native language ]
A lot of happiness there,
laughter and good talk and music.
[ Singing continues ]
It is incumbent upon every human being
to invest himself in his landscape.
It is significant and a means of identifying himself.
I suppose the most important question
anyone can ask of himself is, "Who am I?"
Jill: My grandmother, Natachee,
was the most flamboyant,
beautiful, intelligent, strong, stubborn --
People called her a hellion.
You know, she was going to have her way no matter what,
and she did.
But she delighted in life.
She was Cherokee and Choctaw.
The name Natachee means "Little moon" in Choctaw.
And she really identified with her Native being,
and she decided that she wanted to go to Haskell.
All kinds of Native people from all over
went to Haskell,
and it turns out that her roommate
was a Kiowa woman named Lila Were.
Momaday: Lila one day said,
"Listen. I want you to come home with me.
I want you to visit,
and I want you to meet Al Momaday."
Jill: "I want you to come home to Mountain View
and spend the summer with me,
and you're going to marry my cousin,
Momaday: My mother went home to visit Lila.
Jill: Lila said, "Okay. Today's the day.
We're going to go across the creek,
and we're going to go meet Al."
Momaday: He and his younger brother, Ralph,
were shooting marbles outside.
Jill: They were shirtless, but they had on overalls,
and they were kneeling down in the dirt,
and they were playing marbles.
Momaday: My mother said she looked at them,
and she said,
"Those are the two best-looking men I've ever seen."
Jill: They saw each other, and that was it.
Having Natachee and Al come together was destiny.
[ Keyboard clacking ]
Momaday: Writing came to me more or less naturally
because of my mother.
She was a writer, and there were always books in the house,
so I was introduced to literature
at a fairly early age.
And I announced that I was going to be a writer
when I was maybe 8 years old.
My father told me stories at night.
He knew a great deal about the oral tradition of the Kiowas.
I made him tell them to me again and again
until they were embedded in my consciousness.
There is a story in Kiowa oral tradition
about the formation of Devils Tower, Wyoming,
which the Kiowas call Tsoai, "Rock Tree."
"Eight children were there at play,
seven sisters and their brother.
Suddenly, the boy was struck dumb.
He trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet.
His fingers became claws,
and his body was covered with fur.
There was a bear where the boy had been.
[ Girls speaking Kiowa, bear roaring ]
His sisters were terrified.
They ran, and the bear after them.
They came to the stump of a great tree,
and the tree spoke to them.
It bade them climb upon it,
and as they did so, it began to rise into the air.
[ Bear roars ]
The bear came to kill them,
but they were just beyond its reach.
[ Bear roaring ]
It reared against the tree
and scored the bark all around with its claws.
[ Bear roaring ]
The seven sisters were borne into the sky,
and they became the stars of the Big Dipper."
When I was an infant, my parents took me
to Devils Tower.
And when I was taken to the homestead near Mountain View,
an old man whose name was Pohd-lohk
took me up in his hands
and began to talk.
[ Man speaking Kiowa ]
Momaday: And all of the other voices
in the arbor fell away, and his was the only one.
[ Man continues speaking Kiowa ]
And when he was finished,
he looked down at me, and he said,
"And now you are Tsoai-talee...
[ Man speaks Kiowa ]
...'Rock Tree Boy.'"
The boy, we don't know anything about him,
you know, what happened to the bear.
I think of myself as the reincarnation of that boy
because of my name, Tsoai-talee, "Rock Tree Boy."
So I have bear power, and I turn into a bear on occasion.
[ Typewriter clacking ]
Rainy Mountain is a -- It's a sacred land.
It's sort of the center of the Kiowa world now.
It was the destination of their migration.
Askew: It has a kind of aura that,
when you see it from a distance, you say,
"This is an ancient, ancient land."
It's like flying over the Black Hills,
and you look down, and you go, "Oh, that is --
That's sacred territory."
It has a power that's really impossible to speak of,
and yet that's exactly what Momaday writes about.
When he's writing about the land that was sacred to the Kiowa,
he speaks of it so completely truthfully,
and he touches that ineffable, unfathomable essence.
That yearning for home,
it's in the blood and soil here
because of how the Native tribes,
when this place was formed,
how they were forced here through ethnic cleansing,
so that this became a place of homesickness.
It became a place of yearning
from which the people who were forced here
yearned to return home.
And then eventually it became home,
and it began to be the place where they yearned to return.
Momaday: You know, they were a destitute people.
Their morale was at a low
that we probably cannot imagine.
But they have lived on this continent
for thousands of years.
And in that tenure,
they have developed a sense of moral strength and spirit
that is very great.
That enables them to survive.
Jill: The Kiowas would always camp there,
and it would always rain,
and so they called it Rainy Mountain.
And when you see it, it doesn't look very big,
but once you come upon it and you climb up to the top,
you're at the top of the world up there,
and you can see the most amazing panoramic view from all around.
And I remember when my dad and I climbed up there,
I think I must have been 8,
and the grasshoppers were everywhere, and it was hot.
[ Bird screeches ]
I started to cry.
I got up there, and...
[ Voice breaking ] Now I'm going to cry.
The tears, you know -- You think of...
and the people.
[ Sniffles ]
Momaday: "Forever are those days within my reach,
the days of devastation each by each.
My ghosts recount them in their broken speech."
My blood is deep in that soil.
I believe firmly in blood memory,
a capacity for remembering things
beyond our own corporeal existence.
My whole life has been a story of gathering myself
in terms of my ancestry.
The Kiowa part of it is crucial to me.
It's -- You know, I am a Kiowa.
I identify myself in that way,
and the Kiowas had such a colorful history.
Their mythology is very highly developed.
It's a whole oral tradition in itself.
Palmer: Kiowas are a bit mysterious.
So we say [speaks Kiowa]
[Speaks Kiowa] is essentially storytelling.
They describe adventures of the Kiowa
and their tribal history.
How stories grow up into the memory of oral tradition
and handed down.
Momaday: Indians are storytellers.
You know, those stories were passed on by word of mouth only,
and so they were always just one generation from being gone.
Ortiz: Well, the oral tradition was also about knowledge,
real knowledge, you know, within our hearts and minds
and what we did and the way we lived,
the way that we farmed, for example.
We gathered foods, but we also cultivated.
The land that we see around here is dry,
and you have to live ways in which
the rains are also supported by your ceremonies,
your dances, your songs, your prayers, your rituals.
This is what culture is.
The old people's knowledge is your knowledge.
Your knowledge is what the older people took care of.
Therefore, now you have that responsibility.
Momaday: Everything started out with the oral tradition.
It is a part of language
that makes the most of responsible telling,
careful listening, and memory.
"My grandmother was a storyteller.
She knew her way around words.
She never learned to read or write,
but somehow, she knew the good of reading and writing.
She had learned how to listen and delight.
She had learned that in words and in language,
and there only, she could have whole and consummate being.
You see, for her, words were medicine.
They were magic and invisible.
They came from nothing into sound and meaning.
They were beyond price.
They could neither be bought nor sold,
and she never threw words away.
She told me stories, and she taught me how to listen.
I was a child, and I listened."
Palmer: Tai-Me is an old term
that refers to the Sun Dance Spirit.
The Kiowa still revere Tai-Me.
They still talk about Tai-Me.
Tai-Me came into story,
and no one knows exactly how old that story is,
but I'm sure it's quite old.
Momaday: "Long ago, there were bad times.
The Kiowas were hungry, and there was no food.
There was a man who heard his children cry from hunger,
and he went out to look for food.
He walked four days and became very weak.
On the fourth day, he came to a great canyon.
Suddenly, there was thunder, lightning.
A voice spoke to him and said,
'Why are you following me? What do you want?'
The man was afraid.
The thing standing before him had the feet of a deer.
Its body was covered with feathers.
The man answered that the Kiowas were hungry.
'Take me with you,' the voice said,
'and I will give you whatever you want.'
From that day, Tai-Me has belonged to the Kiowas.
With Tai-Me came the Sun-Dance religion.
The Sun Dance was the great medicine dance of the Kiowas
and of all the tribes of the plains.
The institution of the Sun Dance
was a concerted expression of tribal integrity,
but the Sun Dance was preeminently an act of faith."
We are a Sun-Dance people.
The sun permeates the landscape.
You cannot overestimate the power of the sun.
It is regarded by the Sun-Dance tribes as a deity.
The sun is a god.
The Sun Dance was, therefore,
the most important expression of ceremony to the Kiowas
and to the other tribes on the plains.
"The Sun Dance died away because it was forbidden
to exist by the White man.
In 1889, a Sun Dance was planned,
but it was found out and prevented
by the soldiers at Fort Sill.
The loss of the Sun Dance was the blow
that killed the Native Kiowa culture.
The Kiowas might have endured every privation but that,
the desecration and loss of their faith.
They had become a people whose spirit was broken."
Askew: "She was 10 when the Kiowas came together
for the last time as a living Sun-Dance culture.
They could find no buffalo.
They had to hang an old hide from the sacred tree.
Before the dance could begin,
a company of soldiers rode out from Fort Sill
under orders to disperse the tribe.
Forbidden without cause,
the essential act of their faith.
Having seen the wild herds slaughtered
and left to rot upon the ground,
the Kiowas backed away forever from the medicine tree.
My grandmother was there.
Without bitterness and for as long as she lived,
she bore a vision of deicide."
These are the ways that I see
that Scott Momaday talks about the political.
He may not engage with the political moment,
but he writes about people who have lost not just their land
and their families
and their language and their culture
but their religion, their god.
Momaday: When the Kiowas were defeated in Palo Duro Canyon,
they were driven to Fort Sill
and imprisoned in the old stone corral.
It was a kind of trail of tears,
and their horses were killed outside, in their hearing.
[ Gunshot, horse neighs ]
They were stifled.
[ Gunshot ]
This was utter defeat.
Gus Palmer: Satank or Set-ankeah, Sitting Bear,
was a great, brave warrior.
He killed a soldier at Fort Sill
by extracting an eagle feather,
the wing tip of an eagle feather,
which is long and pointed like a dagger,
and plunged it into the heart of the soldier.
And so he began to sing his death song.
"Does the Sun exist always, forever?"
"Does the moon exist forever?
But me, I shall not live forever,
but I shall die."
He took his own life.
Momaday: I feel very close to that man.
I wanted to write a poem that expressed his spirit.
"You were riding in a wagon to the train.
A tree took shape in the distance.
You began to sing.
It was more than unseemly.
The words of your song were so powerful
that nothing less than death could contain them.
[ Horse neighing ]
At times, many years later,
I hear the song, not as it was but as it sounds across time.
Oh, my warrior,
I'd love you to see
the rattle of your breath rising to the Sun
I hear among the screams of the hunting horses."
Palmer: Yeah, this is really good.
[ Speaks indistinctly ]
Momaday: What's on the program today, Gus?
Palmer: We could just go through and talk about them
and whatever comes to your mind. Momaday: Yeah.
Sure. Palmer: Okay.
These are lovely.
Momaday: Painting is the other half of my spiritual expression.
This is -- I don't do many historical figures,
but here's Custer.
Custer is a very important figure, as you know,
in the white-Indian contact story.
He was an ambitious man.
I don't like him, but there he is.
He's to be -- He has to be dealt with.
Palmer: Talk about this one here.
I like this.
That's kind of scary. [ Laughs ]
Momaday: I like scary. Palmer: Yeah. Me, too.
Momaday: A lot of my readings, I hope, are disturbing,
because I think that's important.
You know, Franz Kafka, in a letter to Oskar Pollak,
I think, in 1909, they had been talking about books,
and Pollak had said,
"We should read books that make us happy,"
and Kafka took umbrage of that, and he said, "That's --
Anybody can write that kind of book.
What we want is a book that disturbs us"...
Palmer: "Disturbs you."
Momaday: ..."comes like a blow to the head."
He said, "A book should be an ax for the frozen sea within us,"
and I kind of like applying that general sentiment
to my painting.
Just imagining, say, a face,
keep adding different colors to it,
makes it interesting.
The history of painting is so interesting,
because you start out with cave paintings,
for example, which are highly stylized.
They're not realistic.
And then you pass into another period
where realism is ultimate,
and so you get things that look like photographs,
they're so real. Palmer: Yes.
Momaday: And then you move into the Picasso era,
where abstract takes over.
Realism is, to me,
less interesting than something very stylized.
I started to say, "Realism is not what it's cracked up to be,"
but I would offend so many people,
you know, with that statement.
[ Both chuckle ]
My dad was a painter, and I used to watch him work.
I followed in my mother's footsteps first
by becoming a writer.
But in my adulthood,
I look back on the times I spent watching my father paint,
and by osmosis, I think I learned a lot from him,
so now I paint.
Palmer: Al Momaday's work was like the Kiowa Five,
a two-dimensional technique.
He painted village scenes.
He was good at human anatomy.
Momaday: This war dancer here is one of my father's.
Palmer: Oh, yeah.
Momaday: It's very much in the style of the Kiowa Five.
Palmer: The Kiowa Five are Kiowa painters
who studied at the University of Oklahoma in the 1930s.
They established a form of two-dimensional,
traditional Indian art.
It introduced Indian art to the world.
There's a simplicity,
and there's an honesty about those paintings.
They tell of a former time.
Those times live in the stories.
They live in the memory of Indians.
Momaday: Oklahoma used to be considered
a place within Tornado Alley.
Storms in the spring were violent.
But Kiowas had a name for the storm spirit -- Man-Ka-Ih.
The story in their oral tradition
is that the Kiowas were making a horse.
They were making it out of clay,
and it got out of hand.
Lightning issued from its mouth,
and it had the tail of a fish,
which whipped around and caused the tornadic winds.
[ Horse neighing ]
[ Thunder crashes ]
And the Kiowas spoke to it.
"Man-Ka-Ih, pass over us. Pass over us,"
and the storm spirit was kind to them
and did them no harm, passed over them.
My father was a believer in that story, that,
"The Man-Ka-Ih will not harm me because it speaks my language."
[ Thunder rumbles ]
But my mother was terribly afraid
of the storms in Oklahoma.
Beside the house at Mountain View,
there was a storm cellar.
When the air turned hot,
and the lightnings began to flash,
she would take me down into that subterranean room.
[ Thunder rumbling ]
My mother usually read by the light of the lamp,
and I slept.
I slept on a bench in that place.
My father was in the house
sleeping peacefully through the storm.
"Eh, no problem. Man-Ka-Ih speaks my language."
[ Laughs ]
"There in the hollows of the hills I see,
eleven magpies stand away from me.
Low light upon the rim,
a wind informs this distance
with a gathering of storms
and drifts in silver crescents on the grass,
configurations that appear and pass."
[ Typewriter clacking ]
[ Typewriter dings ]
My parents made money by teaching.
They virtually spent their whole careers on Indian reservations.
I was very young.
I was just beginning, I guess, third grade,
an age where everything in the world was fair game.
Billy Don Johnson was my best friend,
and he was my bodyguard, as well,
because in those days, my features were very Oriental,
and it was not good to look Oriental in 1941 or '42.
And so I'd get in fights at school every day.
But Billy Don was right here,
and we never lost a fight.
I think I owe my life to him.
[ Chuckles ]
Immediately after the war, we moved to Jemez Pueblo,
where my parents became teachers at the two-teacher day school.
And so I spent the next few years there,
and those were perhaps the most impressionable years of my life.
The pueblo life that I saw when I was a child was very rich
and deeply invested in the spiritual view of the world.
"300 years ago, the Kiowa and the horse
came simultaneously upon the Great Plains.
Then for 100 years and more,
the Kiowa and the horse were one.
The horse exerted a crucial influence
upon virtually every aspect of Kiowa culture.
It brought about the revolution.
It was given the means to prevail against distance.
For the first time, he could move beyond the limits
of his human strength, of his vision,
even of his former dreams.
With the horse, the Kiowa could acquire enough food in one day
to last him and his family many months.
But the greatest change of all was psychological.
Seated upon a horse,
elevated to a height from which the far world
was made a possession of the eye,
sensually conscious of an immense fund
of living power under him,
the Kiowa was greater than he was."
The Kiowas were a great horse people,
and I got to understand that
because I got to live it on my own horse.
On that horse, on the back of Pecos,
I was in another world.
I related myself to the Kiowas of an earlier time.
I could imagine that I was
a Kiowa of the 19th or 18th century
riding out on the plains buffalo hunting.
And I understood something about my ancestors.
The imagination is the power of seeing beyond reality,
and so I had the extension of my senses
into an imaginary world
and a very colorful and a very dramatic one.
The imagination was the thing that enabled me
to see into the farther world.
I ran out of schools at Jemez. There were two schools.
My parents taught at the day school,
which went through the sixth grade,
and then the Catholic mission school
went through the eighth grade,
so I had nowhere to go except away.
Then I went to four different high schools,
sometimes riding a school bus 28 miles in one direction.
And in my senior year,
I went away to military school in Virginia.
I wanted college preparation,
and I wasn't getting it on the reservation,
so my parents and I agreed
that I should go to a prep school,
a military school, and I did.
[ Typewriter clacking ]
[ Footsteps marching ]
[ Typewriter dings ]
Beau: The Carlisle Indian Industrial School
is quite unique.
It was the first off-reservation Indian school in America,
founded right after the Indian Wars,
by a calvary officer, Richard Henry Pratt.
And Pratt had a mantra, which he said,
"Kill the Indian and save the man."
Momaday: "Kill the Indian and save the man."
kind of equation, isn't it?
They were taken up out of their traditional world,
and placed in another world,
put in uniforms.
Their hair was cut off,
and they were forbidden to speak their native language.
Beau: At that time, there was, I think,
only 20,000 Indians left.
He felt the only way they were going to survive
is if they became as much like a white man as they could,
which meant giving up their culture, their language.
Jeff: Pratt considered himself a champion of the Indians,
became personal friends with different chiefs,
and he saw what he was doing
as a wonderful thing for them.
He went to each of the tribes
and talked with the chiefs and said, you know,
"You're going to be signing these treaties.
Don't you want to know what the treaty says
and not just write an X, but, you know,
learn the white man's ways and come into our culture?"
But the results of that
were quite devastating, you know?
Beau: I began to write the story of Carlisle,
and I wrote the first two or three scripts myself,
but I was having trouble putting my voice
into the mouths of Red Cloud,
you know, with Standing Bear,
Spotted Tail, these great Indian chiefs.
And then my brother, Jeff, said,
"You know, let me help you produce this."
He said, "I'd like to come in as a partner."
I said, "Oh, fine. That's great. Let's do it."
And he said, "And as your partner,"
he says, "My first question to you is,
you've always wanted this to be
from a Native American point of view.
Is that true?" and I said, "Yes," and he says,
"Well, I'd like to know what tribe you belong to."
[ Laughs ]
You know, only from your brother can you get stuff like that.
So, I said, "Yeah, you're right."
So then we went looking for someone
that could write the screenplay that was Native American,
and that led us to Scott Momaday.
Scott came up with the title,
"The Moon in Two Windows."
He got that title from a scene that actually happened,
where the Indian kids are on their way,
leaving the reservation, going to the school in Pennsylvania.
They'd never been on a train before, never seen one.
And they got into the car, and they thought,
"Oh, this is the school."
But then, suddenly, the school moved.
The train moved, and they freaked out,
'cause they looked out one side of the train and saw the moon,
and then because train tracks are twisting around,
then the moon appeared on the other side.
And to them, in their culture,
in the ends of the Earth was where the moon lived,
and so they thought they were going to have to fight a battle
when they got there.
Momaday: In "The Moon in Two Windows,"
I focus upon the football game of 1912
in which Army played Carlisle.
Beau: "The Moon in Two Windows" by N. Scott Momaday,
page one --
"West Point Football Stadium,
November 9, 1912, day --
Music and excitement fill the air.
Oom-pah, oom-pah --
an Army marching band stretch down the field.
Banners wave across the stands.
A man dressed in an old uniform
of Custer's 7th Cavalry brandishes a sword
and chases another man dressed as an Indian chief,
complete with war bonnet and tomahawk.
Interior visitors locker room, day.
We pan the faces of the fabulous red men of Carlisle,
their serious intent,
the faces of gifted young men going into battle.
Glenn 'Pop' Warner, their coach, paces before them.
Warner -- 'Pride, tradition, spirit,
the expectation of winning,
the absolute insistence upon victory --
That is Army.
Today, we have the honor of facing that pride,
that tradition, that spirit.
You Carlisle Indians have one thing in your favor --
You have a score to settle.
The gentlemen of Army are the sons of the soldiers
who fought your fathers at Sand Creek, the Washita,
But today, they have no superiority in weapons
or in numbers,
and they are not taking you by surprise.
Today, the Army meets you on a level field --
11 men against 11 men.'"
Momaday: Jim Thorpe was a student at Carlisle.
He was a magnificent athlete.
Dwight Eisenhower played for Army in that game.
He was knocked out and had to be taken off the field.
And Carlisle won, of course.
That's a great satisfaction to Indian people everywhere,
Indian children, you know, would get together in the play,
and they would talk about moments in history.
One of the things they talked about
was the Battle of the Washita
in which Custer went around
killing every Indian that they could run down,
and the horses, their horses, were killed.
[ Gunshots, horses neighing ]
Beau: This is the very end.
We're at the exterior Army field of West Point, 1912.
Momaday: Jim Thorpe is walking off the field,
and he walks beside an Army player,
and Thorpe looks at the Army player and says,
"We will not pursue you,
and we will not kill your horses."
West of Jemez, there is a mesa, red mesa,
which is very spectacular.
On top of it are the ruins of an old pueblo.
And I used to like to climb up there
and walk among those ruins.
And I used to just imagine the kind of life
that was lived there once upon a time.
When I was 17 and about to leave Jemez to go to school,
I wanted to climb that mesa one last time.
Then it was time for me to come down.
It was easy going at first, but finally,
I came to this funnel.
And I looked down, and there was a ledge at the bottom,
so I thought, "Well, if I get down to that,
I can probably go the rest of the way
without too much trouble."
When I got down in the funnel,
the ledge that had appeared at the bottom vanished.
It was an optical illusion of some kind.
I was looking down, and there were boulders down, way below,
and I thought, "Oh, I'm in trouble."
Some awareness of my mortality came to me at that point.
I thought, "I'm not going to get out of this.
I'm going to die here."
And then I looked out across the valley,
and I saw the cornfields and the squash field.
I saw the light golden sun on the pueblo walls
and the mountains beyond, and I thought,
"This is a beautiful world."
I see it as I never really saw it before.
And then I found myself sitting on the ground,
looking up at the funnel.
I have no idea how I got down.
It was a kind of religious experience and a mystery to me.
I think moments like that,
you find who you are and where you've been
and where you're going, you know?
One lives moment to moment,
and he gathers those that are -- that define him,
and he casts the others away,
and finally, he ends up being who he is,
whoever he is.
I write out of those moments.
They're important, and I want to preserve them as much as I can.
"The canyon is a ladder to the plain.
The valley is pale in the end of July,
when the corn and melons come of age,
and slowly the fields are made ready for the yield.
And the town lies out like a scattering of bones
in the heart of the land, low in the valley,
where the earth is a kiln,
and the soil is carried here and there in the wind,
and all harvests are a poor survival of the seed.
It's a remote place and divided from the rest of the world
by a great forked range of mountains on the north and west,
by wasteland on the south and east,
a region of dunes and thorns and burning columns of air
and, more than these, by time and silence."
I've always considered poetry the crown of literature.
I probably wrote some poetry or things that looked like poetry
when I was a child.
[ Men chanting, singing in native language ]
Momaday: There is no such thing as poetry in Indian tradition.
Song is important, and prayer,
and these are things that incorporate poetic elements.
And so it was easy for me to incorporate
traditional iambic pentameter poem in English
with native storytelling and song and prayer.
I went to Stanford to do my graduate work
as a creative writing fellow in poetry,
so I spent my whole time there writing poetry.
And when I went to teach at Santa Barbara,
which was my first post,
I had grown tired of writing poetry.
I had something in me that I wanted to express,
something deep within me, and it was important.
And when it came time to write "House Made of Dawn,"
I was writing it because it was there to write.
I once heard that William Gass was asked the question,
"Who do you write for?" and he said,
"Well, I don't write for myself. That would be self-serving.
I don't write for an audience. That would be pandering.
I write for the thing that is trying to be born."
There was a house made of dawn.
It was made of pollen and of rain.
And the land was very old and everlasting.
There were many colors on the hills,
and the plain was bright
with different colored clays and sands.
Red and blue and spotted horses grazed in the plain,
and there was a dark wilderness on the mountains beyond.
The land was still and strong.
It was beautiful all around."
The seeds of the book began at my life at Jemez.
And it was soon after the Second World War,
and some of the veterans were coming back to Jemez.
They had been in combat.
And they had been torn from their traditional world,
and they were trying to get back into it,
and some of them were having a terrible time.
They were wounded people.
Abel is an example of that.
Scarberry-Garcia: The main character, protagonist, Abel,
came back shell-shocked.
And through the course of the novel,
Abel has to find a way to re-imagine himself
into wholeness, and there's a lot of pain,
and there's a lot of suffering that goes with that.
Ortiz: Huge numbers of our uncles and fathers
went to serve in the US military
who were like Abel.
In that way, there was real connection,
you know, real identification with
and real example of ourselves.
Scarberry-Garcia: Scott Momaday in "House Made of Dawn"
was able to, for the first time,
really lay down the impact of World War II
upon warriors, young men from various tribal cultures,
and speak about the terrible toll that that took.
Chambers: He treats the search for identity
and the conflicts between traditional cultures
and Anglo society with great insight.
Scarberry-Garcia: Not only the story
of returning veterans from World War II
but the impact of the larger society,
the larger world, on young men
who had seldom ventured far from their home villages.
Harris: And then what happened?
The government during the Eisenhower administration
removed all these Indian people from the reservation
or from their home.
This was a federal policy, because, at that time,
there weren't any jobs on the reservation.
They told them, "This will really be good.
We'll pay for your way,"
but there was no program for them.
After they got them there, they just let them go.
We're a communal society.
All of our tribes are, and so to take you away
from that organization of community
and put you in major big cities and kind of isolate you --
They were having problems,
and Scott's book told about their issues.
We were always perceived to be a problem, and we always said,
"If you see us as a problem, we'll be a problem."
[ Chuckles ]
[ Thunder crashes ]
Harjo: "For a time, the Sun was whole beneath the cloud.
Then it rose into eclipse,
and a dark and certain shadow came upon the land,
and Abel was running.
He was naked to the waist, and his arms and shoulders
had been marked with burnt wood and ashes.
The road curved out and lay into the bank of rain beyond,
and Abel was running against the winter sky
and the long light landscape of the valley at dawn."
There's so much in that with the rain,
the dawn being the beginning, his name, Abel,
and that sunrise.
I've taught that books many times.
It's still one of my favorite books.
I've taught it as memoir
because I think this is what Native memoir,
indigenous memoir looks like.
Askew: Every bookstore I went into,
I would go immediately and begin to try to look for works
by Native American writers.
And I could find all kinds of works about Native Americans
mostly written by anthropologists
who are not Native American.
And so when I found "House Made of Dawn,"
it was a wonder to me.
I just said, "Yes."
Chambers: Too often, Native history
is written by non-Natives,
and that, in essence, denies the Native voice
in their own history,
and Scott's work was a real breakthrough
in the Native voice becoming the primary storyteller
for Native stories and Native history.
Harris: He helped to bring us out of the 18th century,
what Hollywood presented us in that,
you know, with war bonnets.
They were so overkill with stereotypes,
you know, this image of the savage,
and we weren't known for ourselves,
that we make a great contribution
to American society.
We were urban, sophisticated, contemporary people.
Ortiz: It was what we needed,
because it was a story of a Native American person,
but more than that, it was a story
of Native American people.
Palmer: When it was published, Vietnam was still going on.
Maybe that's why we were all alert.
We were all at that draft age.
We were in that era where we thought we were going to go
and never come back home.
But Abel was someone we looked at,
we read about, and we felt his anguish.
[ Indistinct conversations ]
Momaday: The decade of the '60s
was the most turbulent historical period.
[ All shouting angrily ]
Robert Kennedy: Martin Luther King was shot
and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
[ Crowd screaming ]
[ Man shouting indistinctly ] Man #2: Oh, no!
Momaday: The assassinations of our leaders
and, you know, the war in Vietnam
reached a kind of intensity, and it polarized people.
You were either for the war or against it,
and I fell into a group of people
who were opposed to it, of course.
I was a young professor at the University of California.
And Berkeley was, at that time,
I think, the most intense community,
political and intellectual,
that I had ever been in.
And I remember being tear-gassed on the Berkeley campus.
I walked out into this no-man's land,
and the police were on one side and the students on the other,
and I was crossing between them,
and as I got about midway across, all hell broke loose,
and they started firing tear gas.
[ Weapon fires ]
[ Indistinct shouting ]
Boy, it was intense.
When you get into that,
you take sides. [ Chuckles ]
You start understanding who your friends are
and who your enemies are.
Askew: Think about what was happening
in the United States in 1968
when "House Made of Dawn" was published.
[ Indistinct shouting ]
We had soldiers coming home wounded
in the same way that Abel is wounded.
Here comes this novel that says,
"Here's a whole other way of understanding
who we are as Americans."
So he's not just writing to Indian people saying,
"This is our story."
It's the story of America.
[ Typewriter clacking ]
Momaday: "The river lies in a valley of hills and fields.
The north end of the valley is narrow,
and the river runs down from the mountains through a canyon.
The sun strikes the canyon floor only a few hours each day,
and in winter, the snow remains for a long time
in the crevices of the walls."
Redford: I read that before he received the prize,
and something hit me hard.
His voice had a spiritual connection to the land,
and it was poetic.
[ Typewriter dings ]
Momaday: "May it be beautiful before me.
[ Typewriter dings ]
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty, it is finished."
West: It was so utterly groundbreaking.
It was not only a dazzling piece of literature,
but it also had so much in the way of insight to it.
It was not only a significant Native voice that was speaking,
but it was a significant Native voice
that other people were listening to.
Harjo: To be a Native person and to win that was astounding.
It still is.
So, yes, it opens doors, because it was --
We were recognized as being literary
versus having our work put under folk category or --
You know, orality is just as --
And that's what I've been trying to say everywhere
is, like, orality, it's all --
It's literature, and it has a standing.
Askew: I don't know who read "House Made of Dawn" and said,
"This is the novel that has the artistic representation,
the literary representation, and the social and cultural
and heart representation
of who we are as America here in 1969,"
but whoever they were, they had their finger
on the pulse of the truth of that.
Crowd: ♪ I can do whatever I want to ♪
♪ I don't give, I don't give a ♪
[ Chanting ]
Man #3: American Indians have secured the island of Alcatraz.
Momaday: After "House Made of Dawn" was published,
there was a lot of activity,
things like the takeover of Alcatraz, for example.
I took part in that. I went out there.
At a good time, an important time,
we, the Indian people, called attention
to things that needed attention.
Jeffrey Palmer: You lived in such interesting times.
Why didn't you try to grapple
with these issues through poetry and prose?
Momaday: That is not in my temperament.
I'm not a political person.
I follow politics on the television,
especially these days when it's so colorful,
but I myself have no interest in running for office
or in writing about government, that sort of thing.
I much prefer literary and romantic matters
and descriptions of landscape and the land in general
as being a part of Native experience
for all those hundreds of years,
and that means more to me, so I concentrate on that.
[ Typewriter clacking ]
[ Typewriter dings ]
[ Typewriter carriage slides ]
[ Wind whistling ]
"There is great good in returning to a landscape
that has had extraordinary meaning in one's life.
There are certain villages and towns,
mountains and plains
that, having seen them, walked in them,
lived in them even for a day,
we keep forever in the mind's eye.
They become indispensable to our well-being.
They define us. They say,
'I am who I am because I have been there.'"
We're in trouble.
Terrible things are happening to the planet.
We don't have the same respect and reverence for it
that we once had.
Now, the Native American, of course,
has a vested interest in nature
and the creatures in nature.
You cannot separate the Native American from the landscape.
It is in his blood, and it is his spirit.
So of course, over a period of 30,000 years,
he's become what I like to call a multiple-use conservationist.
It is in the interest of his spirit to protect wildlife,
the forest, and the rivers.
Jeff: This little blue speck that we all live on is finite.
The sky, the sun, all of these things are so important
to our survival and our thriving as a species.
You know, we call the Indian ways more primitive,
but if we look at them today,
that same so-called primitive quality
of feeling one with the earth and the sky and the sun
and realizing that we're all part of this,
part of Mother Nature, we've got to listen to that
and not be so ego-driven,
and those are all things that really would behoove us today.
Redford: I think there's more education that's needed
about the value of the only planet we have.
Are we really taking care of this planet?
Are we taking care of this Earth,
or are we developing it to death?
Chambers: I don't really see Scott's work as political,
but certainly, his insights
have political implications.
It is meaningful.
The humanity of his stories
and the beauty of his language is universal.
Momaday: We're all facing a kind of crisis,
it seems to me, at this point in time.
We're threatened with warfare, general poverty
that is decimating populations in the world.
You know, in another 50 or 100 years,
we're going to look back on this period of time
as ancient history.
It's going to be a different world, and the question is,
how are we going to accommodate ourselves to it?
How can we adjust to it? I think we can.
I have that much faith in humanity.
It's the spirit that counts, and the spirit is indomitable.
I think that storytelling
is one of the great inventions of man.
When somebody calls me a storyteller,
I am just delighted.
I can think of no greater name,
you know, than that, storyteller.
I am fond of telling stories.
Let me tell you a story.
"Story is the farthest reach of the imagination.
It is the breath of God."
"Here is the wind bending the reeds westward,
the patchwork of morning on gray moraine.
Had I words, I could tell of origin,
of God's hands bloody with birth at first light.
I could tell of the splintered sun.
I could articulate the night sky,
had I words."
"In Native American oral tradition,
the reverence which humans have for the Earth
is a story told many times in many places
in many languages.
If you would know the Earth for what it really is,
learn it through its sacred places."
That is what they say, the sight and sound of origin,
the north and night of origin
and all became, they say,
and it was made sacred in the saying, they say.
We have always had words, they say,
always, always words, they say."
I found a way to deal with the deadly boredom of swimming laps.
I compose epitaphs as I swim.
[ Laughter ]
I have two-lap epitaphs,
four-lap epitaphs, six laps,
and so I have included a couple of them
in this collection,
and I would like to share them with you, just two or three.
Here is one called "The Death of Beauty."
It's a two-lapper, and you must bear in mind
that I compose these without benefit of paper and pencil
and while completely wet. [ Laughter ]
Okay. "The Death of Beauty."
"She died a beauty of repute,
her other virtues in dispute."
[ Laughter ]
One day, I was driving up Fillmore Street.
Suddenly, my imagination went wild,
and I thought,
"Isn't this a great place for a buffalo drive?"
[ Laughter ]
And I imagined that, one morning, one morning,
the good people of San Francisco
should be awakened by a clamor outside.
They come out, look down the peninsula.
There's a huge cloud of dust,
and this is a remnant of the southern herd
marching into San Francisco.
They reach Broadway and hang a left,
and they go up Broadway to the top of Pacific Heights
to the intersection of Broadway and Fillmore Street,
and there on the southwest corner of that intersection
is an old man on an old horse
waving a red chief's blanket,
driving the herd down Fillmore Street into the bay.
Now, how is that for an act of the imagination?
"To An Aged Bear,"
so you can see it's quite autobiographical.
[ Laughter ]
"Hold hard this infirmity.
It defines you.
You are old."
"Now fix yourself in summer in thickets of ripe berries
and venture towards the ridge where you were born.
Await there the setting sun."
"Be alive to that old conflagration one more time.
Mortality is your shadow and your shade.
Translate yourself to spirit.
Be present on your journey.
Keep to the trees and waters.
Be the singing of the soil."
Thank you for listening.
I want to thank you for listening.
Well, thank you for listening to me.
[ Applause ]
Bridges: "I stand in good relation to the Earth.
I stand in good relation to the gods.
I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful."
Harjo: "The first light had been deep and vague in the mist,
and then the sun flashed,
and a great yellow glare fell under the cloud."
Redford: "And a great gray motionless cloud of snow or mist
lay out in the depth of the canyon."
Askew: "It was itself genesis, he thought.
Not genesis in the public domain,
not an Old Testament tale, but his genesis."
Jones: "The word love drops me to my knees,
and yet silence resonates among all these words,
and silence disturbs me most of all."
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