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Native American Literature - An Analysis of Navaree Scott Momaday’s "House Made of Dawn"

Hausarbeit 2001 22 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde



1. Introduction

2. Analysis

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The novel House Made of Dawn, first published in 1968, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1969. With the incorporation of Native materials into the Anglo-American novel Momaday introduced the Native American Renaissance at the end of the 1960s. And, indeed, as one of the first contemporary Native American writers Momaday employs on the one hand traditional oral tales, fragments of poetry and historical documents. On the other hand House Made of Dawn illustrates his “Western” fascination with structure, a literary device almost absent in oral storytelling or traditional Native American literature. The novel makes use of multiple points of view, stream-of-consciousness techniques, sudden changes of time and chronology, which are primarily achieved by flashbacks and flashforwards.[1] Momaday’s delight in imagery, especially of nature, reflect his study of Romantics’ and Symbolists’ work.

The book’s content, as well as that of other works by the author, is a reflection of Momaday’s personal identity and the various cultural traditions that shaped it. The following literary analysis will therefore focus on the embedding of aspects of Momaday’s identity and try to explain some of the cultural elements interwoven in the story. As the author repeatedly employs autobiographical materials, a short representation of his past seems indispensable.

Due to the designated size of this paper, a detailed analysis of all interesting and noteworthy aspects seems impossible. Also, with regard to the interrelatedness of form and content, there won’t be subdivisions separated by headlines within the analysis.

2. Analysis

The action of the novel House Made of Dawn takes place between July 20, 1945 and February 28, 1952. The narration begins with a brief undated prologue which is an anticipation of the final scene. It describes a man named Abel running in the countryside of the Southwest. The narration further comprises four dated sections set in the pueblo of Walatowa, New Mexico, and the Los Angeles area.

The prologue turns the novel into a very complex, four-part flashback[2]. It opens with the word Dypaloh, a Jemez Pueblo conventional form for beginning a story. The word suggests that Momaday wants the reader to regard this novel as a traditional story, possibly aiming at teaching a moral[3]. The Jemez opening formula as well as the following paragraph beginning with “There was a house made of dawn.[4] are an indication of Momaday’s intention to design the text and tell his story “[…] after the fashion of nonliterate, oral Indian storytellers.”[5] At the same time the language used in the prologue, but also in the further course of the novel, is often highly descriptive and carefully selected - an indication of Momaday’s formal training in literature and his appreciation for language and writing, but also his belief in the power of the word.

Already here, the author incorporates many aspects of his identity. With N. S. Momaday himself several ways, cultures and pasts merge.[6] The author was born on February 27, 1934, in Lawton, Oklahoma. His father, Alfred M. Momaday, was a Kiowa artist of the traditional style, his mother, Natachee Scott, was of white and Cherokee descent. The Office of Indian Affairs registered N.S. Momaday as 7/8 degree Indian blood and declared him an American citizen.[7] Both of his parents received a formal education and worked as teachers for most of their lives. When Momaday was six months old his parents took him to a naming ceremony to the sacred Devil’s Tower, or Tsoai as it is called by the Kiowa. There, Momaday was named Tsoai-talee (“Rocktree Boy”). Although Momaday did not grow up among the Kiowa and has not learned to speak their language, the name, according to Alan Velie, contributed strongly to Momaday’s sense of identity as a Kiowa.[8] In The Way to Rainy Mountain Momaday deals with this Kiowa identity.

Early during Navaree Scott’s childhood the family moved to the Southwest where they lived on Navajo reservations in Arizona and New Mexico. There, Velie points out, he always felt great admiration for the Navajos and their ways. Nevertheless, from an early age on Momaday was aware that he is not one of them.[9] Later, in Hobbs, New Mexico, the family lived among whites, which further contributed to Momaday’s ideas about himself and Indian identity in general.

In 1946 the Momadays moved to Jemez Pueblo in central New Mexico, the setting for House Made of Dawn. Today, Momaday still feels extremely attached to this stretch of land in and around Jemez Pueblo[10], which is called Walatowa[11] in the novel. The author considers Jemez, and New Mexico in general, the place where he is from. He poetically describes his time at Jemez and the feelings connected with this place in The Names:

I existed in that landscape, and then my existence was indivisible with it. I placed my shadows there in the hills, my voice in the wind that ran there, in those old mornings and afternoons and evenings.[12]

When further analyzing the novel these facts need to be taken in consideration. His relation to the New Mexico landscape as well as this complex and controversial picture of his (Indian) identity are repeatedly reflected in the novel and its characters.

House Made of Dawn is, on the one hand, a blending of Navajo, Jemez and Kiowa traditions but on the other hand it reflects Momaday’s Euro-American background as well as his formal training as a writer. Elaine Jahner notes that the novel “[…] suggests contrasts between the tribal way of life with its accompanying aesthetic modes and the non-Indian way, which is so deeply linked with European tradition.”[13]

As was already mentioned, the prologue’s opening formula Dypaloh is Jemez whereas the phrases “There was a house made of dawn. It was made of pollen and of rain, and the land was very old and everlasting. […]. It was beautiful all around.” are part of the English version of a Navajo Night Chant, first translated and described by the nineteenth-century scholar Washington Matthews.[14] Momaday uses Italics for the beginning of this Navajo Night Chant but then changes to a normal typeface possibly indicating the “quotation” from Navajo storytelling. The change to the standard typeface could additionally be an optical presentation of the blend of cultures. The Navajo tradition has become as much a part of his identity as the Jemez way of telling a story. Although, there should not be an overemphasis on this theory since Momaday employs the same technique at the beginning of other sections without the content obviously being a blend of different cultural elements. Possibly, the author uses Italics to repeatedly give the impression of a “told” story within the written text.

The prologue begins and ends with a reference to the Navajo Night Chant; the title of the novel as well as the structure are derived from it. According to Navajo beliefs the chant has “[…] the purpose of restoring the well-being and vitality of a patient or subject, and beyond this, the reaffirmation of the fundamental unity and balance of life according to the […] Navajo scheme of things. Everything is seen as interconnected and inter-

dependent, part of the great hoop of life […].”[15] The specific therapeutic purpose of the chant is to restore to health a person who is suffering from a disorder connecting both the body and the mind, as no radical distinction is made between physical and mental illnesses. Illness is believed to indicate that things have gotten out of their proper balance because, for instance, the afflicted has in some way acted in excess, violated a taboo, or fallen victim to witchcraft.[16] The protagonist of the novel, as we will later learn, is facing similar circumstances which make the realization of the Night Chant ceremony necessary for his existence.


[1] cf. LARSON 1979, p. 78

[2] cf. WIGET 1985, p. 82

[3] cf. LARSON 1979, p. 79

[4] MOMADAY 1999, p. 1

[5] BRUMBLE 1988, p. 166

[6] cf. LINCOLN 1983, p. 102

[7] VELIE 1982, p. 17

[8] cf. VELIE 1982, p. 17-20

[9] cf. VELIE 1982, p. 18

[10] cf. VELIE 1982, p. 20-21

[11] In books dealing with House Made of Dawn there is no agreement on whether Walatowa is another name for Jemez pueblo or only a fictionalized Jemez.

[12] MOMADAY 1976, p. 142

[13] JAHNER 1983, p. 218

[14] cf. RAMSEY 1999, p. 57

[15] RAMSEY 1999, p. 47-48 The mentioned hoop, a well-known traditional Indian figure, is symbolically presented by the novel’s circular structure.

[16] cf. JAHNER 1983, p. 219 RAMSEY 1999, p. 57-58


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Universität Potsdam – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Native American Literature Analysis Navaree Scott Momaday’s House Made Dawn Race Lived America



Titel: Native American Literature - An Analysis of Navaree Scott Momaday’s "House Made of Dawn"