At four o'clock in the morning of February 27, 1934, in the Kiowa and Comanche Indian Hospital at Lawton, Oklahoma, near the old stone corral at Fort Sill, where my ancestors were imprisoned in 1873 for having fled to the last buffalo range in the Staked Plains, I was delivered into the world by an elderly Indian Service doctor who entered my name on the Standard Certificate of Birth as Novarro Scotte Mammedaty ("Momaday" having first been entered, then crossed out).
Momaday quotes the wording of his birth certificate, which duly observes that he is "of 7/8 degree Indian blood", and which cites the 1924 Act by which the US Congress generously extended American citizenship to the descendents of the country's early inhabitants.
Momaday is interviewed in the current issue of The Seattle Review. The interview was conducted in 2003, at the poet's family home in New Mexico. Momaday recalls that he wanted to be a writer from childhood: "I said, 'Mom, I'm going to be "a writer"'". As a young adult he hung out with other literary people and admired Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, D. H. Lawrence, and Wallace Stevens.
In the interview he doesn't express a lot of political anger as an Indian, but he is
alarmed by the loss of that cultural identity. The loss of language, the loss of ceremonies, the loss of relationship with elders. All of that is happening very suddenly, and the move to urban centers, all of that is costing the Indian his cultural identity. So the Buffalo Trust was created to do something about that, to reverse that trend.
Momaday speaks of his visit to the Athabascan communities near the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge:
Small village, subsisting ... 80 percent of their diet is caribou. And what we're doing up there is upsetting the balance of nature, and interfering with the migrations of the caribou, so things are changing.
Momaday's shorter poems are collected in volumes like In the Presence of the Sun, which is also illustrated by the poet. (NSM is also - like his father Al Momaday - an artist.) Some of my favorites include "New World" (written entirely in disyllabic lines), "The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee" (a reference to NSM's Kiowa name), "Nous Avons Vu la Mer", "Rainy Mountain Cemetery", and "Prayer" (which invokes the name of his grandmother, Aho). The book also includes a series on Billy the Kid, and some delightful light poems and epigrams.
The Way to Rainy Mountain was first published in 1967-1969. Inspired by NSM's own pilgrimage, it tells the story of the Kiowas' historic migration from their original homeland in western Montana to the southern Plains. The Introduction recounts a legend surrounding Devil's Tower, Wyoming; it explains why "the Kiowas have kinsmen in the night sky" and is, I think, rather more compelling than "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". The poem itself consists of a braid of three interwoven strands of mythical, historical, and personal narrative, which gradually converge on the burial of the poet's grandmother. "If you stand on the front porch of the house and look eastward towards Carnegie, you know that the woman is buried somewhere within the range of your vision. But her grave is unmarked."
When my mother passed away almost two years ago, I went back to Connecticut to pay a last visit to the green suburban house that I grew up in. I read the first, sixteenth, and twenty-fourth cantos of The Way to Rainy Mountain aloud as a tribute to her. One of the things I love about literature is its power to remind us of the parts of our own lives, of our own selves, that we must keep alive - the almost-forgotten places, the hidden landscapes,
the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.