N. Scott Momaday

N. Scott Momaday

Barbara Roberts features Pulitzer Prize winning author and poet, N. Scott Momaday who shares narrative, storytelling and poetry. This program explores the landscape of Momaday’s childhood in Oklahoma which helped him develop a deep affinity for Kiowa sacred ground. Also, mention of the Kiowa Gourd Dance society and a reading of the Navajo Night Chant.

N. Scott Momaday:
There is a place, a round, trampled patch of the red earth near Carnegie, Oklahoma.

Arlie Neskahi:
This piece of earth is a sacred place for N Scott Momaday, Pulitzer prize winning author and scholar. As a member of the Kiowa Nation, Momaday spoke before the United Nations in 1992 about the land and culture he cherishes. We’ll hear from Barbara Roberts, with this profile.

Barbara Roberts:
Sacred…. that which is spiritual or holy. Ground.the earth and the soil beneath us. Pulitzer Prize winning poet and scholar, N. Scott Momaday, asserts there is a mysterious need to experience our closeness to the earth.

Devil's Tower

Momaday is a Native American from the Kiowa Tribe. Kiowa country is mainly in Southwestern Oklahoma, known for its soaring mountains and rippling streams. That landscape along with his father’s tribal heritage helped Momaday develop a deep affinity for sacred ground. Here he takes on the task of describing the indescribable.

Sacred grounds is ground that has been invested with belief. Belief, at its root, exists independent of meaning. That is, its expression and object may escape what we can perceive as definable meaning. The intrinsic power of sacred ground is often ineffable and abstract.

While Momaday maintains that sacredness is abstract, he also finds the power of Earth’s beauty both compelling and tangible. Momaday says so compelling that he can experience the beauty of earth no matter where he is.

Canon de Chelly, Edward S. Curtis, 1904.(click to enlarge)
The heart of Navaho country
in northeast Arizona.
Photo courtesy of The Curtis Collection.

To encounter the sacred is to be alive at the deepest center of human existence. Sacred places are the truest definitions of the earth. They stand for the earth immediately and forever. They are its flags and its shields. If you would know the earth for what it really is, learn it through its sacred places. At Devil’s Tower or Canyon de Chelly or the Cahokia Mounds, you touch the pulse of the living planet. You feel its breath upon you. You become one with a spirit that pervades geologic time, that indeed confounds time and space. When I stand on the edge of Monument Valley and behold the great red and blue and purple monoliths floating away in the distance, I have the certain sense that I see beyond time. There the earth lies in eternity.

Momaday sees sacred ground as a marriage between the spiritual and the material.

Acts of sacrifice make sacred the earth. Language and the sacred are indivisible. The earth and all its appearances and expressions exist in names and stories and prayers and spells. North American place names are a sacred music: Medicine Wheel, Bear Butte, Bobaquiveri, Chaco, Sleeping Ute, Lukachukai, Wounded Knee

Medicine Wheel. (click to enlarge)
Photo courtesy of Wyoming Travel and Tourism

Momaday says the sacred transcends culture. Here he quotes Romanian religious historian, Mircea Eliade. For Momaday, the late theologian nails the concept of sacredness from a cerebral perspective.

Mircea Eliade has said that the sacred, in all times, is “the revelation of the real, an encounter with that which saves us by giving meaning to our existence.” Yes! Yes! I want to say, here is a brilliant equation of the sacred with reality, salvation and meaning.

But there is more, for the sacred finally transcends definition. The mind does not comprehend it; it is at last to be recognized and acknowledged in the heart and soul. Those who seek to study or understand the sacred in academic terms are misled. The sacred is not a discipline. It is a dimension beyond the ordinary and beyond the mechanics of analysis.

Koomsa Tribal Singers
Kiowa Gourd Dance Songs, Vol. 2
Gourd Dance Starting Song & 2 Gourd Dance Songs
Canyon Records

For those who would come to the sacred, to sacred ground, it is a kind of mystical experience, a deep and singular encounter.

For many of the Kiowa Nation, the embodiment of the sacred is the gourd dance. The men gather and rhythmically lift up their heels to the beat of a drum. Their upper bodies correspond as they shake a rattle to the same beat. The rattles are made from actual gourds or sometimes tin cans and decorated with beads and feathers and horsehair. The dance style is slow and rhythmic. Not everyone can participate in the gourd dance. You have to be elected to a clan. It’s a distinct honor to take part in this ritual.

Momaday tells a story of how a place becomes sacred by using an example from his Kiowa homeland in Oklahoma. For Momaday, a sacred place ties family together and shows our oneness with the earth.

There is a place, a round, trampled patch of the red earth near Carnegie, Oklahoma, where the Kiowa Gourd Dances were held in the early years of the century. When my father was six or eight years old, my grandfather, who was a member of Tian-paye, or Gourd Dance Society, took him there. In one of the intervals of the dance where there was a giveaway, an ancient Plains tradition of giving gifts as a public expression of honor and esteem. My grandfather’s name was called, and he let go of my father’s hand and strode out upon the dance ground. Then a boy about my father’s age led a black hunting horse, prancing and blowing into the circle and placed the reigns in my grandfather’s hands, still warm with my father’s touch.

The great muscles of the horse rippled in light, and bright ribbons were fixed in its mane and tail. My father watched in wonder and delight, his heart bursting with excitement and pride. And when he told me of that moment, as he did a number of times because I craved to hear it, I could see it as vividly as if I had been there. The brilliant image of that moment remained in my father’s mind all his life and it remains in mine. It is a thing that related him and relates me to the sacred earth.

Perhaps Momaday best conveys that brilliant imagery in his poetry.

This afternoon is older than the giving of gifts
And the rhythmic scraping of the red earth.
My father’s father’s name is called,
And the gift horse stutters out, whole,
And the whole horizon in its eyes.
In the giveaway is beaded
The blood memories of fathers and sons.
Oh, there is nothing like this afternoon
In all the miles and years around,
And I am not here,
But, Grandfather, Father, I am here.

Momaday says, where there is the sacred, there is also sacrilege. He calls it “the theft of the sacred.”

When I was a small boy there was a box of bones in the barn of my Kiowa homestead on Rainy Mountain Creek, where I loved to go and visit my grandmother. They were the bones of a horse, a legendary hunter, a horse of exceptional speed and endurance. The horse belonged to my grandfather who owned many horses, and who died before I was born, just before I was born.

The bones were for me a tangible link to my heritage. They were sacred. Their very existence made of the barn a singular place, a sacred shrine. And then one day I went there and the box of bones was gone. They had been stolen. Even as a child I knew an unnamable sadness, a sense of loss that would from that moment adhere to my heart.

While that sadness remains affixed to his heart, N. Scott Momaday would grow up to know great satisfaction as a painter, a writer and a poet. But perhaps his most meaningful distinction would come in 1969. It was the same year he won the Pulitzer… the year he was elected to a Kiowa Dance clan.

Museum Cases
Mahk Jchi

The feature on N. Scott Momaday was produced by Barbara Roberts.