THE FUNCTION OF THE
HOUSE MADE OF DAWN
The events of one's life take place, take place. How often have I used this expression, and how often have I stopped to think what it means? Events do indeed take place; they have meaning in relation to the things around them. And a part of my life happened to take place at Jemez. I existed in that landscape, and then my existence was indivisible with it.
--N. Scott Momaday1
Awarded the Pulitzer in 1969
for his first novel, House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday
almost inevitably became regarded as a spokesman for American Indian literary concerns.
Repeatedly and emphatically in essays, interviews, and addresses, Momaday has held that
what distinguishes American Indian from Euroamerican moral and spiritual vision is a
deep-rooted identity with, and sense of responsibility to, the natural environment.2
Momaday's claim in The Names that his existence was indivisible with the place
reflects this characteristic Native sensitivity about the interdependence of place and personal
vision. In House Made of Dawn as in Ceremony, place functions not
only as "setting" but
also as "character"; the landscape of Jemez not only contextualizes but also provides criteria
for evaluating human events occurring--"taking place"--there. Several critics before me
(including Dickinson-Brown, Espey, Evers, Hylton, Jahner, Oleson, Schubnell, Trimmer, and
Watkins) have acknowledged the fundamental importance of the landscape in the novel ("The
landscape is of central importance, holy in itself"; Oleson 59) or remarked how Abel's
identity depends upon that landscape ("Abel was the land and he was of the land"; Hylton
60). I want to try to go beyond these statements to show how Abel's identity derives
In the pretextual principle of Momaday's statement, a human being's life is, or ought to be, an event "indivisible" from the landscape in which it "takes place." One corollary of this proposition is that separation from the land leads to disease--spiritual illness, alienation, and uncertainty. Such separation can be brought about by outside forces (as, for instance, the infamous Relocation Acts); it may also come about through a failure of vision, an individual's inability or unwillingness to remain one with the land and the spirit or life of the land. Abel, the protagonist of Momaday's novel, suffers both of these kinds of separation, but it is the second sort (the one most often slighted by critics of the novel) that I wish to treat in this chapter.
Properly, the relationship between the life of the individual and the life of the land is one of intimate and "indivisible" reciprocity: the land holds and is held by the People living there, and the People hold and are held by the land, and the terms of engagement become encoded over time as the characteristic cultural traditions of the People. As Momaday casts it and as Abel sees it, both the snake and the eagle are avatars of place, manifestations of the life of the land itself that function in much the same way the four genetrix figures do in Ceremony. At Walatowa (Jemez) the hold of the land (and the reciprocal human willingness to be thus held) manifests as the "snake spirit" of the land, while the human ability to hold the land (and the reciprocal willingness of the living land to be thus held) manifests as the "eagle spirit" informing Abel's vision for much of the novel. In large measure, the plot of House Made of Dawn is shaped by the conflict between Abel's willingnesss to hold the land in his vision on the one hand and his resistance to being held by the land on the other. Throughout the novel but particularly in Part 1 and Part 4 (both set at Walatowa), the eagle and snake motifs point the way not only to an understanding of the life of the land but also to an understanding of Abel's own separation from that life and his consequent spiritual sickness. To be whole in his life at this place, Abel must become willing to be held by the land, which is to say "possessed" by it as much as he would possess it. The eagle holds the land whole and entire in its vision: eagle medicine is about possessing the land, and this Abel is willing to do from the outset. Snake medicine, however, is about being possessed by the land, and Abel needs a good dose of this medicine to make his spirit whole. A return to wholeness and healing, for Abel, depends on his ability to accept both of these aspects of place by making room in his vision of his own identity for both avatars of holding--both eagle and snake. In the structure of the novel, Angela, the albino, and Martinez all function as agents of the snake spirit of the land, and Abel's several encounters with these figures prepare him to surrender to the hold of the land in Part 4.
In addition to presenting Abel's own ceremony of recovery, House Made of Dawn also offers the characters of Francisco, Tosamah, and Ben Benally to model three other strategies for coming to terms with the disease of separation. These strategies are useful insofar as they preserve a vision of wholeness (of constellated harmony between individual identity, cultural identity, and landscape); however, when such visions are grounded in human memory but not in the immediate experience of place, they lack the land's power to heal and make the individual whole. Within this context, Abel's function as the protagonist of this novel is to redeem the faith of the People (as represented by these Jemez, Kiowa, and Navajo "visionaries") in their native land as a source of well-being and healing. To carry out this function, Abel must reunite himself with the landscape that happens to be, for him, the source of life, and there become willing as well as able to cease imposing some prefabricated vision upon the land and derive, instead, an appropriate vision and identity from the land.
Prologue: The Beginning Place
In that most fundamental sense of the term used in
Momaday's epigraphic statement, an event
(and the story of that event) "takes place" in the prologue to the novel. This event--Abel's
running in the Winter Race, and in so doing becoming the "Dawn Runner" of the
end of the
novel--"takes place" in a universe where mythic time and ordinary time are not so much
separate as versions of one another. Even so, we can distinguish, at least provisionally,
between two kinds of "place" implied by the formal structure of the prologue, and in so
doing can identify two contexts, or "places," that function as referents for the "There"
designated by the first word of the prologue.
The first (as well as the final, in the overall structure of the novel) of these contexts is the spirit world celebrated in the broad Native American tradition of dawn or emergence stories.3 The first and last words of the novel, dypaloh and qtsedaba, announce that the story being framed is a specifically Towan or Jemez story (see Momaday's "Glossary" to The Names, 168-69; see also Parsons 136 and Wiget, Native American Literature 82), while the first and last sentences of the story so framed ("There was a house made of dawn"; "House made of pollen, house made of dawn") paraphrase the opening lines of a traditional Navajo chant.4 Taken together, these two framing devices identify the spirit of the land as a reality that precedes, and with the event of dawn comes to inform, the landscape (or Fifth World, by Pueblo reckoning) of the contained story.
The second context (which needn't be too strictly differentiated from the first) is the literal (in the sense of geographically physical) place in which the event occurs. In this sense, "There" is that tract of the earth, "the land [that] was very old and everlasting" and "still and strong,"5 becoming apprehensible to Abel with the coming of the dawn and to the reader in this story about that dawn event. A page later, in the subtitle to Part 1, we learn that this place is called "Walatowa, Cañon de San Diego."6 At this place, "Abel was running," his own personal existence looking "very little and alone" (2) when contextualized within the place, and the immense life force of the place, in which he runs.
In the opening paragraphs of the novel, the initial (spiritual) context implies that the power to heal dwells immanent in this physical landscape. At the particular time this event (Abel's running) begins to occur, however, the healing power inherent in the landscape remains to be seen: Abel's experience of this place at this time, as Momaday records it, is focused initially on his own pain and on the other runners rather than directly and exclusively upon the land itself. Not until he is well in motion, not until "Pure exhaustion laid hold of his mind" can he "see at last without having to think"; what he comes then to see, finally, is himself running within the context of the land: "The road curved out in front of him and rose away in the distance. He could not see the town. . . . The road curved out and lay into the bank of rain beyond, and Abel was running . . ." (1-2); "He could see the canyon and the mountains and the sky. He could see the rain and the river and the fields beyond. He could see the dark hills at dawn. He was running . . ." (212). Structurally, then, the prologue, with its wintertime setting and the Winter Race being run, functions chronologically and spatially both to fix a point that the novel will cycle around to meet again at the very end and also to fix, at the center of this structural circumference, the image of Abel in motion, his vision clearing and finally becoming acute with this ageless dawn (first light of this day, first light also of this new season by Jemez reckoning). The rest of the novel can be understood to constitute the story of Abel's preparation for participation in this landscape and in the race; the race itself, like the pattern of Tayo's motion in Ceremony subsequent to his encounter with Betonie, can then be understood as a ceremony being enacted within that landscape and on that landscape's own terms.
The "Longhair" Model of Correct Vision
The formal structure of Part 1 of the novel reiterates
the idea established in the prologue that,
seen properly, the identity of the land precedes and informs human existence. Again in Part 1,
the landscape of Walatowa is introduced prior to any mention of the people who live or have
lived there. Momaday is doing much more here than providing the conventional element of
"setting" for his novel: the landscape, as it is described, has a life of its own that precedes and
also contextualizes the other, secondary forms of life, including human lives, that have
learned to coexist with the nature of this place over the centuries. To accentuate the relative
permanence of the life of the land, as distinct from the lives of the more mortal creatures
living on and with the land, the narrative component of Part 1 takes form in the past tense,
while the component dealing with the landscape is presented in the present tense. These
present-tensed descriptive passages, placed strategically at the beginning (5-6) and at the
center (55-58) of the structure of Part 1, establish a vision of the land's permanence and
eternality that in turn serves as a benchmark for measuring the plot it both frames and
centers: the serenity--and the disease--of Abel and other characters correlates with their
acceptance of (or resistance to) the landscape and its spirit.
At Walatowa, Cañon de San Diego, on 20 July as on all days of the year, be that year 1945 or any other within the span of the last several centuries, "The river lies in a valley of hills and fields," and "The seasons lie hard upon the land." Within and (by implication) subject to these geographical and climatic parameters, we are then introduced to "a town in the valley" with its cultivated fields, the latest successor to those "ruins of other towns in the canyon," clinging tenuously to its existence in this place (5). Momaday's use of the present tense to describe the face of the land continues on through the second paragraph, devoted to describing the age-old but humanized aspects of the place--the fields, the work that the townsmen have done there, the crops that, "if the weather is good and the water plentiful," are (have been and continue to be) grown there: "corn and chilies and alfalfa" and "a few orchards and patches of melons and grapes and squash" (5-6). The first sentence of the third paragraph sustains the story of the place itself, the story that is always true: as was the case in the first paragraph ("In summer the valley is hot"), so it is the case in paragraph 3 ("It is hot in the end of July").
As the chapter heading implies clearly enough, the subject (and mode of vision) of this section of the story is the "Longhair" Way, an implied strategy of coexisting with the land that is approximately as old as human history is at this place. The mode of the Longhair, to be understood as the traditional modus vivendi of Jemez culture, is embodied in the figure of Francisco, who is a "grandfather" both literally and (perhaps as importantly) figuratively to Abel. Francisco functions to transmit to Abel the kind of knowledge of this place that has for centuries enabled human beings to live gracefully here.
Francisco's existence conforms rather closely to the shape and spirit of Walatowa, and perhaps this is why his is the first human form Momaday presents in the post-prologue body of the novel. Although the casting of descriptions of Francisco in the past tense separates him syntactically from the land and, further, our first glimpse of him finds him riding in a wagon (that is, slightly removed figuratively from direct contact with the land), the path he is on early in the novel is called "the old road to San Ysidro" (7; italics mine) and it follows the natural contours of the river. Confirming Francisco's status as a Longhair, we are told that this is a path less traveled by people now in 1945 than previously:
He was alone on the wagon road. The pavement lay on a higher parallel at the base of the hills to the east. The trucks of the town--and those of the lumber camps at Paliza and Vallecitos--made an endless parade on the highway, but the wagon road was used now only by the herdsmen and planters whose fields lay to the south and west. (7)
We learn that as a younger man Francisco ran the
Winter Race on this same road, the most
traditional path connecting the spirit of Seytokwa (an earlier Jemez settlement site) to the
more contemporary Middle at Walatowa, even having once won the race by outrunning
"Mariano, who was everywhere supposed to be the best of the long-race runners" (7), in the
year 1889.7 Further confirming
Francisco's status within the novel as a well-acclimated native
(in all senses) of Jemez, he appears to have Bahkyush as well as Jemez blood in his
has served both the Catholic Church and the Squash Kiva in important capacities, and he has
been honored formally as a hunter, as a ceremonial drummer, and as a runner. Further,
Francisco's presence in the structure of Part 1 brackets Abel's in much the same way as the
Winter Race at sunrise brackets the story of life at Walatowa, once again suggesting that the
Longhair Way precedes and contextualizes Abel's own. In the first section of Part 1, "July
20," Abel appears only in the final sentences, too drunk even to recognize Francisco, and we
are told in the next section that Abel sleeps all that day and rises only "With the first light of
dawn" of July 21 (10). In the final section, "August 2," the "sound of the censer and the
drum" replace the two-paragraph description of the land that introduces the first section,
while the dancers who come out of the kiva in the afternoon of this day fulfill the promise of
human harmony with the land contained in the first section's second paragraph: "Their feet
fell upon the earth in perfect time" and "the single deep voice of the singers lay upon the
dance, lay even upon the valley and the earth, whole and inscrutable, everlasting" (85). Just
as Francisco's trip to fetch Abel in the first section separates him from the wholeness of the
land, so his preoccupation with Abel in the last section separates him from the living harmony
of the ceremony being conducted in the village ("Never before had he been away from the
dance" ). Presumably, Abel is no longer at Jemez on August 2, since Francisco has Abel
("Abelito") in mind but also has in mind that he is "alone again" (86).
Since one of Francisco's functions in the novel is to teach Abel the Jemez "Longhair" Way of living in harmony with the land, perhaps one of the signs of Abel's sickness early in Part 1 is that none of the six episodes he recalls of his life at Jemez prior to World War II is a memory of being in psychological harmony with the land. As revealed later, however, Francisco has taught his grandson much of what he needs to know; as Francisco lies dying at the end of Part 4, he (like Abel previously in Part 1) recalls six episodes from his life at Jemez, two of which deal specifically with showing Abel how the People have come to relate to the land in this place. The first episode recalls how Francisco took Abel and Vidal out when "they were old enough" to learn how to live their lives according to the "house of the sun," to learn "where they were, where all things were, in time" (197); the other recalls the time he took only Abel north of the village to the "round red rock" to hear the sound of ancestors still running "the race of the dead" (206). In both episodes, Francisco is teaching Abel old truths of the tribe, truths that are anchored at very specific places on the land. These are places Abel will return to and become part of by becoming the "Dawn Runner" at the end of the novel. First, however, Abel must correct his vision of the spirit of these two places and, by extension, of the spirit of the land bounded by these two sites.
Abel's Faulty Vision
Early reviewers of the novel, as well as some later critics, propose that Abel's exposure to White culture during World War II is the cause of his felt dislocation and disease.9 But Momaday clearly establishes early in Part 1 (10-23) that Abel's disease--his unwillingness to be held by the land, that is, his resistance to the snake spirit of the place-- predates any of his recorded encounters with either corrupting Anglos or the horrors of the war. During the first sunrise of his return to Jemez after the war, we are told, Abel "climb[s] the steep escarpment of the hill" across the highway to the east of the village to re-establish in his experience the reality of the place called Walatowa and (if we take literally Momaday's own words regarding the identity of self with its landscape) his own life. This thumbnail sketch of "everything in advance of his going" (23) is composed of six recalled incidents, each of which involves some loss, uncertainty, or other source of pain. The fifth segment, which deals with a vision of eagles and takes up a full eight pages, is by far the most completely developed of the series. Coming back from breaking a horse at a ranch in the Jemez Mountains, Abel was arrested by a vision of two eagles, a male and a larger female, metaphorically dancing with a snake. The episode is recounted as though it were to be understood as a personal power vision.10 This particular vision sets the context for Abel's own felt identity prior to World War II, as well as how Abel sees himself in relation to others for most of the rest of the novel. As Abel recalls it,
They were golden eagles, a male and a female, in their mating flight. They were cavorting, spinning and spiralling on the cold, clear columns of air, and they were beautiful. They swooped and hovered, leaning on the air, and swung close together, feinting and screaming with delight. The female was full-grown, and the span of her broad wings was greater than any man's height. . . . She carried a rattlesnake; it hung shining from her feet, limp and curving out in the trail of her flight. (17-18)
The dance of the eagles, staged in the sky above the
Valle Grande (also called the "right eye
of the earth" on page 17), takes on the ritualized motion of some exotic ka't'sina performance
in Abel's eyes, the comings and goings of the two eagles linked to the image of the helpless
snake. He sees the female eagle rise until she is "small in the sky," and he sees her "let go of
the snake," which falls "slowly, writhing and rolling, floating out like a bit of silver thread
against the wide backdrop of the land." He then sees the male take up the ritual by "sliding
down in a blur of motion to the strike," hitting the snake and "cracking its long body like a
whip," then repeating the motion of the female by rising and "let[ting] go of the snake in
turn." As the eagles end their dance and the snake falls back to the earth, "Abel watched
them go, straining to see, saw them veer once, dip and disappear" (18).
Abel finds this vision "an awful, holy sight, full of magic and meaning" (15). What makes it so is not that he sees eagles (which are in fact a common sight at Valle Grande), but rather that he sees them moving in a special relationship to culebra, the snake. As Abel sees them, eagle and snake are antithetical creatures; it is the conjunction of these antitheses in a single dance that accounts for the "awful, holy" quality of the event. But the sight of eagles so intimately involved with a snake clearly makes Abel feel uneasy, and Abel's own participation in the event--the quality of his witness--privileges the role of the eagles. As Abel understands it, the aerial dance of the eagles is about showing off their mutual superiority over the snake; when the male eagle lets go of the snake in the air, Abel's attention locks exclusively onto the eagles until they disappear from view, as though the rattlesnake were of no concern or consequence anymore; and when later (after he has "brooded for a time, full of a strange longing" ) he finally decides to tell what he has seen, he seeks out old Patiestwea, head of the Eagle Watchers Society, rather than an elder of the Snake Society.
It probably comes as no surprise to most readers that the protagonist of a novel devoted to recovering Native American identity should identify provisionally with the eagle rather than the snake. Within the broad, pan-Indian cultural context of the novel, the eagle is a conventional metaphor for Native American vision in general, and certainly Momaday's eagle functions that way in this novel: "The eagle ranges far and wide over the land, farther than any other creature, and all things there are related simply by having existence in the perfect vision of a bird" (57). Such a holistic vision of place--combined with a vision of his own place in the pattern of the land--is precisely what Abel lacks, and this lack is what accounts for the "longing" and alienation he so frequently feels. Abel's identification with the eagle is also consistent with Jemez historical and cultural tradition: according to Joe Sando, "Jemez still uses the eagle as its symbol or logo" and as a sign of ownership (98); and while the Jemez People currently abide at the place they call Walatowa, other important places where they have lived include Seyshokwa, "eagle living place," and Seytokwa, "eagle cage place" (Sando 13). Seytokwa is mentioned by name early in the novel (7), when Francisco associates this place with "the race for good hunting and harvests"--the long Winter Race that frames the rest of the novel. The starting point for the Winter Race is, in fact, located at the place called Seytokwa (Parsons 119), a mile or two south of Walatowa's Middle.
Perhaps the most obvious flaw in Abel's vision for most of the novel, a flaw manifest in his initial response to the Valle Grande experience, is that Abel is willing to identify with only part of the ceremony he sees being enacted in the air above "the right eye of the earth." Beginning with his earliest memories and continuing throughout the novel, Abel perceives the snake spirit or culebra as a spirit enemy rather than as a potential ally; instead of trying to make a place for this figure or the spirit it represents in his concept of himself or the place he wishes to identify with, Abel attempts to avoid or destroy snake medicine and its avatars whenever he encounters them. Insofar as Abel's disease arises out of his separation from the land, then, it would seem that his disease is caused even more specifically by his own continued alienation from the snake spirit of the land. The fragments of memory preceding the eagle vision in Abel's sunrise meditation, all of which encode experiences of fear and of alienation, bear out this contention. A recurring presence in this ensemble of dis-easing memories of Abel's life at Jemez--an ensemble that includes memories of some of his most intimate encounters with the living land of Jemez--is the figure of snake.
The first fragment records Abel's experience, at the age of five, of detouring on the way to the cacique's fields to explore "a narrow box canyon . . . he had never seen before" situated in "the face of the red mesa" (one such box canyon in a red mesa lies about a mile north and east of Jemez Pueblo, visible from Route 4; perhaps this is the one Momaday had in mind). Moving up into this canyon, young Abel perceives the walls of the canyon "clos[ing] over him" as the surrounding red earth becomes "dark and cool as a cave." The "crooked line of the sky" as seen from this place, combined with the sense that the "great leaning walls themselves" are alive and moving, terrifies Abel. The "crooked line" imagery both prefigures the image of the rattlesnake "writhing and rolling, floating out like a bit of silver thread against the broad backdrop of the land" (18) and recalls the shape and motion of the Jemez River, which in the opening sentences of Part 1 sets the course for human life at Walatowa. Momaday quickly establishes a connection between Abel's experience here and the irrigation ceremony being conducted simultaneously by the men of the Pueblo (in the next sentences Abel returns to the fields to watch "the foaming brown water creep among the furrows and go into the broken earth" ), but Abel seems to recognize, in the sinuous shape of the sky and the dark, cool closeness of the earth experienced at this place, not the return of life for the People but only the impending death of his mother (whose voice, Abel recalls after her death, "had been as soft as water" ). Perhaps we are to understand from this that, long before Abel ever obtains his eagle vision, he has seen as the snake sees; if so, we are also to understand that Abel, focused as he is on his "foreign and strange" (11) status and of his imminent aloneness, does not recognize the blessing of this early vision.
In the second fragment, Abel's capacity for fear becomes grounded in the image of a sipapu-like "hole in the rock where the wind dipped, struck, and rose," an opening into the underworld. Moving across this gateway between the earth-surface world and what lies below, the wind makes a sound, "a stranger sound than any he had ever known," and "for the rest of his life it would be for him the particular sound of anguish" (12). The particular fear Abel brings to this place is his fear of the old Bahkyush woman Nicolás teah-whau and the "unintelligible curse" she has cast his way, and no doubt we are to understand that the sound and spirit of her curse--its texture rather than its text--is the "Something [that] frightened him." In this episode, Abel fixes the source of "the thing itself," the ineffable texture or spirit informing his fears, as being the land itself. As Abel experiences it, the spirit that both emanates from and returns to this hole in the earth is so big (the hole itself is described as being "larger than a rabbit hole") and so potent that even the "snake-killer dog," trained to respond aggressively to ordinary snakes, quivers and lays back its ears in its presence.
In the third fragment of memory, this sound resurfaces as "the low sound itself, rising and falling far away in his mind, unmistakable and unbroken," associated with the death of his brother, Vidal. Though he knows even as a child that this time the words accompanying the sound are the words of a "prayer," still the sound (and perhaps, by association, the Old Words of the old men in general) becomes grounded in Abel's sense of his own growing aloneness and fear. Presumably Abel has heard this sound of the old men praying this prayer before, at the time his mother died; hence, hearing this sound again, "he knew what it was he was waiting for" (13): he is waiting to be left alone with the corpse of one of his limited family, to know again the feeling of being left increasingly alone in a world he does not quite feel a part of.
These important passages are crucial to an understanding of the disease Abel suffers from--and, it should be noted, suffers from long before leaving Jemez for World War II. His disease lies in his fear of the hold the land has on him (and on his dying family), his fear of his own (and others'--his mother's, his brother's, his aging grandfather's, even his snake-killer dog's) powerlessness to resist the underground forces that influence and perhaps ultimately control human life at this place. I think this fear of powerlessness accounts for Abel's attitude towards the eagle as well: initially, he admires the eagles precisely because they seem so unbound by place, aloof from and in control of the underground force represented by the rattlesnake; but later, seeing his eagle "Bound and helpless" in the moonlight--grounded, as it were-- Abel feels only "shame and disgust" (22).
Because these incidents are so clearly imprinted in his memory, Abel accepts them despite his fears as important parts of his own life and so accepts the reality that the snake spirit is part of the life of the land as well as part of the life of the people of Jemez as he has come to know it, and them. However, his vision of this elemental power holds it to be both the source of disease (in the cases of his mother and brother, fatal disease) and a power antithetical to human freedom and control and consequently a thing to be feared. Given this bias in his vision, Abel understandably fails to see how this elemental power of the land, identified in Abel's thinking with snake, is essential to the life of this place--and, by extension, is an essential component of his own identity.
Precisely what function snake energy does have in the overall welfare of the place called Walatowa is hard to see, not only for Abel but also for most critics of the novel. Many critics are quick to spot the association of the snake spirit with the albino in the "Longhair" chapter, and several of them point to the further relationship between the albino and Martinez, both of whom Abel identifies as "culebras." According to Tosamah later in the novel, during his trial Abel identifies the albino as a snake (149); according to Ben, Martinez is commonly known among the Native American community in Los Angeles as "culebra" (141). Culebra is Spanish for "snake." Most of these critics, however, go on to classify these two culebras as genuine enemies of both Abel as an individual Indian and Jemez as a representative Indian group, arguing that both the albino and Martinez represent the intrusions of a white-- that is, Euroamerican--spirit that has invaded, and diseased, Abel's consciousness as well as Jemez culture.11 Other critics, recognizing Momaday's own documented appreciation of Melville's Moby-Dick, treat both the albino and Martinez (on the basis of their whiteness--even though given his surname Martinez is presumably Chicano) as embodiments of some perhaps less specifically Anglo but nonetheless genuinely malignant spirit of evil and treat Abel's conflict with the albino (and, later, Martinez) accordingly.12 In either case, the conclusion is that culebra, whether in the form of the albino or in the form of Martinez, is an evil force (probably aligned with witchery) loose in the world, and Abel is tragically correct to act on his conviction that "A man kills such an enemy if he can" (103).13
The flaw in both these lines of argument is that they identify snake energy as a force originating from outside rather than from within the landscape that gives rise to Abel's life and the life of the culture of Jemez. The problem here is that snake is, and perhaps always has been, an integral part of the life of the place now called Jemez--as integral as the river, which, moving south from the Jemez Mountains above Walatowa, shapes and nurtures the valley where the People live their day-to-day lives. In the much-admired passage describing the life of the land in the middle of Part 1 ("The canyon is a ladder to the plain . . ."), "rattlesnakes" are the fourth-mentioned "kind of life that is peculiar to the land in summer" (55); like the "Great golden eagles" (the twelfth-named species of animal life in this passage), "these . . . have tenure in the land" and suffer no "poverty of vision and instinct" (57). Snake medicine, like eagle medicine, is institutionalized within the overall structure of Jemez religious and ceremonial life: the Snake Society plays a crucial role (as it does at, for instance, Hopi) in rainmaking and curing ceremonies.14 Not only a Snake Society but also a Snake Clan exists at Jemez.15 Further, associations of albinism with snake energy in the novel, far from making either snake medicine or albinism into outside forces, merely identify them both as intracultural ones: Parsons and others have all pointed out that the frequency of albinism is relatively high at Jemez, high enough in fact to perhaps be considered a genetic characteristic of the Jemez people as a group.16 We should probably conclude, then, that Abel's habit of contending with snake medicine, rather than moving with it, indicates how estranged his own vision is both from the realities of this place and from the cultural traditions originating in those realities.
Here, I mean "moving" with snake literally as well as figuratively. As mentioned previously, the Winter Race that frames the narrative commences at the place called Seytokwa, "eagle caged place," and hence Abel's persona becomes reassociated with the eagle spirit of this place when he runs the Winter Race; but the Winter Race is also intimately associated with snake medicine. Describing the race in The Names, Momaday asserts that the participants in this "kick race" run "not in a straight line along the [old San Ysidro wagon] road, but in zigzag lines across the road, back and forth; it is the way water rushes and dips, swirling along in the channels" (143). Significantly, Momaday's description here recalls the motion Abel attributes to the wind in the vicinity of the snakehole ("the wind dipped, struck and rose" ): the "zigzag" figure is used interchangeably to represent both water and snake in Hemish mythography as in the mythography of Southwestern tribes generally. Describing the same race in "The Morality of Indian Hating," Momaday claims that "the runners imitate the Cloud People who fill the arroyos with life-giving rain" and that "to watch those runners is to know that they draw with every step some elemental power which resides at the core of the earth" (40; see also Gretchen Bataille, "An Interview with N. Scott Momaday" 30). I'm suggesting that the "elemental power" Momaday refers to in this passage is identical with the power Abel comes to know in his youth as the snake spirit of the land itself.17
In Abel's recorded experience, avatars of the snake spirit of the land fail to cooperate with his will the way the snake in his vision was made to cooperate with the animal embodiment of perfect vision and spiritual mobility, the eagle. Unlike either of the two eagles he sees sporting with their snake in the sky over the Valle Grande, throughout the novel Abel lacks the ability to exercise casual control over culebra (perhaps because he is not an eagle but a human being, perhaps because he seeks, but does not possess, the quality of "perfect vision" that makes eagles so special in his model of How Things Work). Rather, the pattern of Abel's confrontations with culebras--and, more importantly, with the energy or spirit of place that is embodied in the figures of snakes and their allies in the novel--is, until the final movements of the novel, the pattern of Abel's failures to live gracefully and in harmony with the land, its spirit, and the manifestations of that spirit he encounters in the course of the novel.
Images of Abel's faulty vision (both physiological and spiritual) abound in the novel (see, for instance, Hylton, "On a Trail of Pollen" 66), and the relationship between faulty vision and illness is established in the novel's opening portrait of Abel returning from the war: getting off the bus stuporously drunk, "he fell against his grandfather and did not know him. His wet lips hung loose and his eyes were half closed and rolling" (9). Another major indication of Abel's faulty vision, both before and after his time in the Armed Forces, is his lack of speech. The following passage, for instance, has become something of a locus classicus of Momaday critical study:
He had tried in the days that followed to speak to his grandfather, but he could not say the things he wanted; he had tried to pray, to sing, to enter into the old rhythm of the tongue, but he was no longer attuned to it. And yet it was still there, like memory, in the reach of his hearing, as if Francisco or his mother or Vidal had spoken out of the past and the words had taken hold of the moment and made it eternal. Had he been able to say it, anything of his own language--even the commonplace formula of greeting "Where are you going?"-- which had no being beyond sound, no visible substance, would once again have shown him whole to himself; but he was dumb. Not dumb--silence was the older and better part of custom still--but inarticulate. (58)
Many critics have taken this passage to mean that Abel is sick because he is "inarticulate," as though words in themselves might heal him18-- an interpretation that, on the surface of it, seems generally in line with Momaday's own frequent pronouncements regarding the generative power of language. My contention, however, is that Abel's inarticulacy is symptomatic of his disease: his sickness lies in his fear of being possessed by the land (such possession equated in his thinking with disease and death, as in the cases of his mother and Vidal, or with crippling, as in the case of Francisco) and in his consequent desire to escape or resist the hold the land has on his own existence; for Abel to enter fully into the life of this place (including the Tanoan verbal community of this place) would be to accede to such possession. Before Abel can "show him [or anyone else] whole to himself" in language, he must become "whole," must have a whole self to show (articulate). But he will never be "whole" at this place until he surrenders to being held by the land, "possessed" by it as fully as he would possess it. The eagle holds the land whole and entire in its vision: eagle medicine is about possessing the land. Snake medicine is about being possessed by it, and Abel needs a good dose of this medicine to make his spirit whole.
Abel and the Albino
Bracketed by images of Francisco living in the Longhair way, the seven sections of Part 1 record Abel's unsuccessful attempt to "return" to the life of Jemez Pueblo immediately following World War II. After recalling his six prewar memories, Abel continues to stand at this high place on the land "for a long time, the land still yielding to the light," without thinking or moving--waiting, it appears, for some vision that will tell him he belongs here ("his eyes roved after something ... something" ). By evening, even though Abel still has established no human connection with his grandfather or with any other human ("Nothing had yet passed between them, no word, no sign of recognition" ), he finds himself beginning to feel "at home," a feeling he gets from merely seeing the land and people living there:
He made his way along the incline at the edge of the cultivated fields to the long row of foothills at the base of the red mesa. When the first breeze of the evening rose up in the shadow that fell across the hills, he sat down and looked out over the green and yellow blocks of farmland. He could see his grandfather, others, working below in the sunlit fields. The breeze was very faint, and it bore a scent of earth and grain: and for a moment everything was all right with him. He was at home. (30)
At this place, Abel's view of the land, and of the life of the land, is the view an eagle might have; and while reattaining this perspective on life goes far towards calming Abel's spirit, the calm he feels is significantly provisional and qualified. What is missing from this vision of harmony is the figure of Abel in it, part of it rather than detached from it--part of it in the way that Francisco and "others" appear to be part of the source of that "scent of earth and grain" that alleviates, temporarily, Abel's feeling of disease. Even Abel's calmest moments, we see, are qualified by an element of dangerous self-detachment from the land, Abel's response to his sense of the terrifying "hold" of the land that is the common tenor of his pre-war memories of life at Jemez. Abel's struggle with the albino dramatizes both this flaw in his vision of place and the concomitant futility of his strategy to possess his life by resisting (or else proving himself superior to) the pull of the life in the land--the snake spirit--that he fears.
Appropriately, the setting for Abel's attempt to work his way back into the rhythms of Walatowa (by participating in the annual gallo or "rooster pull") is "the Middle" or central plaza of the village, an "ancient place" where the earth and the dwelling places built around it seem to blend into one another:
The smooth, packed earth was not level, as it appeared at first to be, but rolling and concave, rising slightly to the walls around it so that there were no edges or angles in the dry clay of the ground and the houses; there were only the soft contours and depressions of things worn down and away in time. (40)
Abel, we are told, comes to the Middle "newly
sunburned" and sitting "too rigid in the
saddle, too careful of the gentle mare" borrowed from his grandfather, and when his turn
comes to try for the rooster he makes "a poor showing, full of caution and gesture" (42). He
is "not used to the game" (43) that ensues; throughout the event he is neither one with his
mount nor one with the seamless, undivided aspect of the place where the event occurs. The
albino, on the other hand, comes to this place easily mounted on a "dancing," "high-spirited,"
"fine black horse of good blood,"19 is "powerful and deliberate in his movements," and seems
to know exactly how "the game" is to be played (43).
So well does he play the game, in fact, that even Angela St. John begins to see the spirit of his role in this drama. Most obviously, the albino's mastery of the horse and the rooster aligns him with the spirit of Santiago/San Diego, the Catholic patron saint of Jemez whose day (July 25) this is and whose story Father Olguin provides as pretext (39-40). Just as importantly, the albino's performance (at least from Angela's point of view) aligns him with a spirit that predates Catholicism at this place. As though witnessing the transformation of a human being into a living ka't'sina, Angela watches the albino become an extension of the land itself (the now "bloodless" hand of the albino "was like marble or chert, equal in composure of stone to the awful frenzy of the bird") while the features of his face (hairless; the skin of his head tight everywhere except about the jowls and the "blue and violet" "thick, open lips"; the human eyes replaced by "the small, round black glasses [that] lay like pennies close together and flat against the enormous face" ) become those of the snake who lives within and with that land. Perhaps moved by that "wonder and regard" with which Abel only later comes to see this figure, "the townspeople gave him room" and the other riders, "too, parted for him, . . . respectful, wary, and on edge" (44). Like the Longhair figure whom Father Olguin and Angela pass on their way to the Middle (39-40), the albino is both a natural and indispensable part of the ancient drama that the Feast of Santiago commemorates and perpetuates within the context of the Jemez ritual calendar. Like the "certain, rare downfall of rain" that even Angela can hear in the sound of the drums preceding the gallo, on this occasion the albino (and the particular life-giving spirit he comes to personify when he wins the rooster pull) comes to hold "sway in the valley, like the breaking of thunder far away, echoing on and on in a region out of time" (41). While such moments of snake spirit preeminence are perhaps "rare" in the overall pattern of life or ceremony at Jemez, they are also "certain."
Seen as part of a ceremony designed to reactivate dormant life-energy by calling in the blessing of rain for the Pueblo, the rooster pull in which the albino figures so prominently is clearly efficacious: the snake spirit comes to carry the prayers of the Pueblo to the dyasa, and the rains that have been withheld from this place for months return.20 By August 1, a week to the day after the performance of the albino in the Pueblo (and prior to Abel's evening showdown with the albino at Paco's),
The immense embankment of the storm had blackened out the whole horizon to the north. The compressed density of its core, like a great black snake writhing, drew out of the mouth of the canyon, recoiled upon the warm expanse of the valley, and resumed the slow, sure approach upon the intervening gullies and hills and fields above the town. (76)
More immediately, though, the albino's
gallo performance functions as an invitation to Abel,
an invitation to re-become part of the life of the People. According to Floyd Watkins, "In the
usual gallo . . . whatever man can get the rooster flails whatever man he can hit," and
Watkins reads the albino's singling out of Abel as a sign of personal antagonism (154).
Perhaps a better interpretation is that the albino, in his ceremonial capacity as the
personification of culturally integrated life of Walatowa (Catholic San Diego, Pecos dancing
horse, and Jemez snake spirit), singles Abel out as being the one most ill and therefore the
one most needful of participation in a reintegrative ceremony. In refusing to engage the
albino (by actively helping to dismember the rooster), then, Abel in effect perpetuates his
own disease, prolonging his separation from the regenerating life at Walatowa.
Although Abel's vision apparently undergoes no change as a result of his first contest with the albino, the performance does play a part in transforming Angela's vision of how life should be lived at this place (and consequently her role in the novel with respect to Abel). Abel is thus provided with two versions of snake energy to contend with in sections 5 and 6, "July 28" and "August 1," of Part 1.
Abel and the Culebra Angela
Section 5 of Part 1, "July 28," opens with a
six-paragraph synopsis of the life of the land that
echoes both the prologue and the opening paragraphs of Section 1 in the way it privileges the
land as the relevant context for events taking place there. This description, cast in the present
tense, culminates in the frequently quoted passage about how the "people of the town" have
managed to preserve a twenty-five-thousand-year-old tradition of maintaining their "tenure in
the land" in part by maintaining allegiance to the "old deities of the earth and sky" and in part
by resisting the external forces of social and cultural assimilation. The final paragraph of this
passage deals exclusively with the ongoing relationship between the Tanoan people living in
Cañon de San Diego and "their invaders": we are told that the People "have never changed
their essential way of life" to accommodate such invasions, but rather "they have assumed the
names and gestures of their enemies, but have held on to their own, secret souls; and in this
there is a resistance and an overcoming, a long outwaiting" (58).
Given this framework, one is tempted to read the subsequent encounter between Abel and Angela as a showdown, pitting Abel, representing the spirit of Walatowa and its inhabitants, against Angela, a personification of the "invader," its "enemy," and indeed some critics have done just that.21 After all, Angela earlier in the novel is explicitly aligned with the Catholic presence at Jemez (if her name were not enough to suggest such alignment, one need point out only that her first human contact upon arriving in the area is Father Olguin); she comes from Los Angeles; she lives "above" the Pueblo in a "large white house"; she is constantly described as being "pale"--not in the sense of being ill (unless pregnancy can be accounted ill health) but in the sense of being strikingly Caucasian; and during their first encounter in Section 3 her attitude toward Abel, a mixture of social contempt and sexual fascination, encodes stereotypical, culturally supremacist assumptions.
While such a reading is perfectly consistent with the Angela who arrives at Walatowa in Section 2 ("July 21") and whom Abel first encounters in Section 3 ("July 24"), it does not acknowledge the very important transformation that occurs in the quality of Angela's vision prior to Section 5 ("July 28"). Between Section 3 and Section 5 of Part 1, Angela's vision of her own essential significance undergoes a radical shift, attributable in large measure to the public ceremony she witnesses --and responds to both emotionally and viscerally--in Section 4.
Prior to witnessing the albino's performance, we are told, Angela imagines spiritual fulfillment (her own and humanity's in general) will be manifested, if ever, in some quality of perfect, far-ranging vision:
That was to be free and finished, complete, spiritual. To see nothing slowly and by degrees, at last; to see first the pure, bright colors of near things, then all pollutions of color, all things blended and vague and dim in the distance, to see finally beyond the clouds and the pale wash of the sky--the none and nothing beyond that. . . . Somewhere, if only she could see it, there was neither nothing nor anything. And there, just there, that was the last reality. (37)
Though the framing texture of her vision is
conventional postwar philosophical nihilism, still
she is cast as committed intellectually to the same quality of vision Abel associates with
spiritual freedom: the lofty, unfettered, far-ranging visual capability attributed by Abel (and
by Native American tradition generally) to the eagle.
After witnessing the albino's performance in Section 4, however, the quality of Angela's vision seems significantly altered. Returning to the Benevides house the night after the gallo, she has become "alive to the black silent world of the canyon" (55) and so comes to see the house itself as a vital extension of the living land and herself as an occupant or inhabitant of both:
there was no longer a high white house of stucco and stone, looming out against the leaves of the orchard, but a black organic mass the night had heaved up, even as long ago the canyon itself had been wrenched out of time. . . . It was no longer the chance place of her visitation, or the tenth day, but now the dominion of her next day and the day after, as far ahead as she cared to see. . . . In fact it was secret like herself, the Benevides house. (54)
This vision of herself dwelling in the land, of her will being but an extension of the earth, aligns Angela with the albino as a figure of earthbound energy. When she determines to invest this energy in contest with Abel--"this house," she decides at the end of Section 4, "would be the wings and the stage of a reckoning" (54)--Angela becomes in the novel a second, female avatar of the snake spirit informing also the figure of the albino. By this time also, Angela's sense of her own detached superiority, reflected in her earlier impatience with Abel's refusal to cooperate with her will, has given over to the strategy of "a long outwaiting"--the way of the Longhair, as it is the way of the land itself. This new quality of quiet self-composure derives in turn from her new sense of dwelling not in a "big white house" but rather in the "black organic mass" of the landscape. Her existence now has become fully and surely defined within the context not of her earlier Christian/Apollonian ideals, but of the land itself. Momaday shows her "seeing" this new mode of existence at the end of Section 4; we see her living this new composure in Section 5. We are told that Angela "sat in the downstairs and waited for him to come. She had waited for days, without caring how many . . ." (60). When Abel finally does arrive, Angela knows it, but significantly she no longer seems to need visual confirmation of what she knows to be reality: "Then she heard the sudden swing of the gate, and she knew that it was he. Just then she had no need to see him, and she sat still, listening" (60). During the daylight hours she moves only to go to the baths, and there goes "limp" in the warm water, sighing "all her strength away" for several hours; she continues in this curious state of suspended life until "The last line of light had risen to the rim of the canyon wall, and even then it was dying out upon the blood-red rock above the trees," until "The enormous dark that filled the canyon was strangely cold, colder by far than the night would be" (61). These and myriad other details in this section insist that at this point in the novel Angela's behavior and the quality of her vision are as characteristically reptilian as they are human. The discomfort she initially feels in Abel's presence is the coiled caution not merely of Angela in the presence of Abel, but also of a snake in the presence of an eagle:
She was not herself, her own idea of herself, disseminating and at ease. She had no will to shrug him off. He sat looking at her, not waiting, still and easy upon some instinct, some sense or other of domination and desire. She hovered about the hard flame of it. (62)
For his part, Abel comes to this encounter with ambivalent feelings about the land and his identity relative to it. As he moves up the valley from Jemez Pueblo towards the Benevides house at Los Ojos (Jemez Springs on today's maps), he reflects on his "failure" to become fully reintegrated into the life of this place, a failure attributed at least in part to his inability to "enter into the old rhythm of the tongue" (58). He then remembers the sound of that language: "it was still there, like memory, in the reach of his hearing, as if Francisco or his mother or Vidal had spoken out of the past" (58). Thinking about language thus steers Abel towards thinking about those who, as he sees it, have been possessed by--and in the process, destroyed or crippled by--the land. Not surprisingly, his response to this brush with the idea of poisoning possession is to "quit the pavement" and to seek the solace of his eagle vision:
suddenly [he was] very much relieved to be alone in the sunlit canyon, going on in his long easy stride by the slow, shining river, the water cool and shallow and clear in the sand. He followed with his eyes the converging parallel rims of the canyon walls, deepening in the color of distance until they gave way to the wooded mountains looming in the sky. There were huge clouds flaring out and sailing low with water above the Valle Grande. And, stopping once to drink from the river, he turned around and saw the valley below, a great pool of the sunlit sky, and red and purple hills; and here and upward from this height to the top of the continent the air was distilled to the essence of summer and noon, and nothing lay between the object and the eye.
He began almost to be at peace. . . . (59)
Once again, as at the end of Section 2, such a
panoramic vision of the land is accompanied by
a sense of relative peace and harmony: seeing this place in the eagle way, without feeling
owned by it, Abel can feel the desire "to make a [creation] song out of the colored canyon"
A few hours later, though, Abel encounters the other, snake, aspect of the land. Passing "an old copper mine, a ghost, too, like the ancient towns that lay upon the ridge above and behind him" (59), Abel sees images of decay and death in the face of the land--"broken implements, red and eaten through with rust; charred and rotting wood; a thousand pieces of clear and green and amber glass upon the swollen ground, as if untold legions of ants had come to raise a siegeworks at Alesia."22 Above it all, the centerpiece of the scarred landscape here, Abel sees "the black face of the shaft, . . . [which] reminded him of something. It was deeper than shade, and he knew without looking that no cave or crevice in the opposite wall was like it, no other thing in the canyon was so sharply defined" (60). What this large, artificial hole in the face of the canyon suggests to him, of course, is that "hole in the rock" Abel fixed in childhood as a source, or a destination, of the "particular sound of anguish" associated with the power of the land to bring death to his family and to evoke fear even in his snake-killer dog. Understandably, Abel "turn[s] his eyes away from" the shaft, focusing his attention instead on the riverbed with its "running water and the light upon it and here and there bits of drift that bobbed and hung among the stones" (60). Though Abel attempts to remove from his vision these reminders of the snake spirit of the land, his brush with them at the mineshaft is premonitory in the pattern of the novel: following this watercourse northward (the direction of its source) brings Abel--his own pattern of motion replicating the traditional shape of the spirit he eschews--directly to the "settlement at the springs" and hence to the figure, "wait[ing] for him to come" in the "enormous dark that filled the canyon" (60-61), of Angela as culebra.
In several important respects, the pattern of Abel's confrontation with Angela at the Benevides house recapitulates the pattern of his own earlier power vision. Like the eagles in his vision, Abel uses Angela to test and prove the ability of his own life to dominate hers; and as though confirming Abel's and eagle's superiority, Angela (like the snake in his vision) submits to his will, moves apparently helplessly to the rhythms Abel imposes upon their sexual dance. The crucial point here is that Abel imposes this pattern upon the event: "he knew what he was doing" (65), and "she had no will to shrug him off" (62). Consequently, whatever he might have learned about the spirit of the land informing Angela's being at this time, and whatever modification of his vision of himself in relation to the spirit of the land might have resulted from such insight, go unrevealed to Abel, precisely because he wills the event to unfold so as to validate and confirm his preconviction that life is to be sustained only "above," not "within," the ground.
From Abel's perspective, perhaps Angela's surrender during their sexual encounter redeems, at least partly, his felt humiliation at the hands of the culebra albino; at any rate, he succeeds in his own eyes in making Angela the personification of defeat and loss of will, so that his triumph of will over her thus constitutes a personal triumph over his old antagonist, the snake spirit of the land. Thus encouraged and empowered, Abel finds himself ready, in the next section of Part 1, to reconfront the albino.
Abel and the Culebra Albino
As though to preface Abel's re-encounter with the
albino, the fifth section of Part 1 ends
with a reminder that Abel's strategy for dealing with culebra energy is incompatible
traditional Jemez way. At dusk, the same time that Abel is testing his will against Angela,
Francisco is visited in the fields by the "whispers" of "some alien presence close at hand"
(65-66). Significantly, just as Angela registers Abel's presence without having to see him,
Francisco knows without seeing what is there, even though he has no name for it, and this
presence arouses in him none of the fear that characterizes Abel's remembered response to
images of darkness, whisperings in the air, and felt but unseen presences. In contrast to
Abel's characteristic fight-or-flight response to manifestations of the underworld spirit of the
land, Francisco's response to this presence (which takes on the dimly-apprehensible form of
the albino in the last sentence of the passage) is to "set a blessing upon the corn" (66) he has
been irrigating and to continue in the rhythms of his usual working day, rhythms that call for
leaving the fields at sundown.
From a Longhair point of view, what Francisco is doing in the first place in this passage--irrigating the land--is, in part, "snakework." Further, as Momaday describes in this passage, the motion of water upon the earth seems to nourish not only the corn but also the snake spirit immanent in the land. At the precise spot where Francisco has left off hoeing for the day, and where consequently "the water back[s] up and spill[s] over the edge," just "there the breathing resumed, rapid and uneven with excitement" to become "the open mouth, the nearly sightless eyes" of the snake-albino (66-67; italics added).
In Section 6, the images of the river and the irrigation ditch as earthborne sources of water are replaced by the image of the "certain, rare downfall of rain," the source of them both, anticipated in Section 4 (41). In the formal patterning of Section 6, both Angela and the albino respond powerfully to the rainstorm that comes (as does the Jemez River) out of the north, "like a great black snake writhing" (76), to touch--and bless those who open themselves to its coming--first Jemez Springs and Angela, then the Pueblo and the celebrants there, including the dancing Pecos horse and Francisco, and finally on south to "the junction" (at San Ysidro) and the albino. The motion of the rain over the landscape in this section thus integrates the central ceremonial activity of the Pueblo (where the holy men, we are told, descend into the kiva to re-emerge as though called forth by the interchangeable "sound of thunder and drums" ) with the spirit manifested north of the Pueblo in Angela and south of the Pueblo in the albino.
The first to be touched by the rain, north of the Pueblo, is Angela. The attitude of passive expectation that in Section 5 characterizes Angela's anticipation of Abel's approach comes, in Section 6, to characterize her anticipation of the rain. So caught up is she in her identification with the land that she treats Father Olguin's presence (along with his interpretations of the raincalling ceremonies being conducted in the village, colored as they are by his "prejudices . . . for Aesop and the ring of Genesis") as an irrelevancy: "She listened. She listened through him to the sound of thunder and of rain that fell upon the mountain miles away . . . " (71). When the storm finally touches the Benevides house (74-75), Angela receives it with much the same attitude of "wonder and regard" as earlier she received Abel, first "cower[ing] instinctively" at the sound of its power, then opening herself (and the house) to its touch, and finally experiencing a sense of benevolent self-oblivion in its possession of her:
And in the cold and denser dark, with the sound and sight of the fury [of the rainstorm] all around, Angela stood transfixed in the open door and breathed deep into her lungs the purest electric scent of the air. She closed her eyes, and the clear aftervision of the rain, which she could still hear and feel so perfectly as to conceive of nothing else, obliterated all the mean and myriad fears that had laid hold of her in the past. (75)23
This movement of the rain across the land and of
human responses to it also implies a context
for evaluating Abel's subsequent confrontation with the albino. Whereas both Angela and
those participating in the ceremony in the village welcome the rain and draw strength from it
(and indeed identify with the underground spirit by enacting its re-emergence from within the
earth), Abel confronts the spirit associated with the rainstorm (as manifested in the albino)
with the intention of destroying it rather than identifying with it.
The episode describing Abel's encounter with the albino at Paco's (four miles south of the Pueblo) has attracted about as much or more critical attention as any other episode in the novel. It has been variously explicated as a showdown between Abel and the spirit of the "invaders," understood either as The White Man or as Catholicism; as a confrontation between Abel and Jemez witchery; and as an encounter between Abel and some projected part of himself, a reading that goes far towards explaining a certain homoerotic dimension of the encounter.24 Each of these readings is consistent, I think, with some of the details of the episode; however, in identifying the albino (and hence Abel's notion of culebra) as a basically social or else psychological force, these interpretations of the albino figure tend to overlook the real power--and the source of that power--that Abel appears finally to recognize in the albino's form. Whatever private motives we might assign Abel to explain his desire to destroy the albino, what he comes to see in the event, at "nightfall" and in "the aftermath of the storm" (81), is his adversary culebra revealed to be informed and empowered by a spirit worthy not of contempt but rather of "wonder and regard" (83). I have suggested already that the final passage of Section 5 ("July 28") is designed to establish a connection between the animacy of the albino and the return of water (life) to the land. We are told earlier in that section that the Longhairs of Jemez "have never changed their essential way of life," that they "still pray in Tanoan to the old deities of the earth and sky" (58). In this respect Abel is a spiritual as well as biological "half-breed": his identification with the eagle acknowledges the power and holiness of the "sky" spirit, but he regards the snake, perhaps the oldest of the "deities of the earth," as his life's enemy rather than as its ally--a power to be resisted, or bested (as in his encounter with Angela), or destroyed, as in his coming encounter with the albino.
Like his previous power contest with Angela, Abel's final confrontation with the albino occurs outside Jemez Pueblo at nightfall, his own motives hidden behind a composed mask.25 Key elements of that same earthbound spirit Abel learned to fear as a child become, in this encounter, re-anchored in the image of the albino: in the sound of the albino's voice, Abel hears echoes both of the voice of Nicolás teah-whau ("it was an old woman's laugh, thin and weak as water") and of that "particular sound of anguish" associated earlier with the hole in the ground ("it carried too high on the scale and ended in a strange, inhuman cry--as of pain"). Then, once they have gone "out into the darkness and the rain" and have "crossed the highway and walked out among the dunes" (82), the albino begins to change before Abel's eyes into the animal representative of the life within the land. As before during the gallo, Abel's own panic at the moment of confrontation renders his will to grace ineffectual before the power of his adversary, and what begins as perhaps a ceremonialized26 assertion of the superiority of eagle medicine disintegrates into crude butchery. The "terrible strength" (83) of the albino's hold has its origins not only in the land itself but also in the peculiarly earth-bound vision associated with snake energy: the albino "seemed to look not at Abel but beyond, off into the darkness and the rain, the black infinity of sound and silence" (82), out of which all life first emerges and to which all life finally returns. Transformed by his vision, the "translucent pallor" of the albino's face takes on unmistakably snakelike features, so that at the moment of their closest encounter Abel feels "the scales of the lips and the hot slippery point of the tongue, writhing" (82). Despite Abel's terror and resulting loss of self-control, once he has cut his way free of culebra's grip he cannot help adopting a pose of worship before the "old deity of the earth" that has here touched him and that informs, even in death, its human avatar:
In the instant before [the albino] fell, his great white body grew erect and seemed to cast off its age and weight; it grew supple and sank slowly to the ground, as if the bones were dissolving within it. And Abel was no longer terrified, but strangely cautious and intent, full of wonder and regard. He could not think; there was nothing left inside him but a cold, instinctive will to wonder and regard. (83)
Despite the awe with which Abel comes to regard the snake spirit in this episode, he continues to see both that spirit and its avatars as inimical to human life. Abel's early vision of freedom, conceived in terms of independence (and hence separation) from both the land where his life "takes place" and the Jemez culture that has evolved there, thus continues to preframe his modus vivendi for a period of six years following his confrontation with the culebra albino. As he thinks during his trial, and re-thinks just prior to acquiring the vision that will re-shape his life,
it was very simple. It was the most natural thing in the world. Surely they could see that, these men who meant to dispose of him in words. They must know that he would kill the white man again, if he had the chance, that there could be no hesitation whatsoever. For he would know what the white man was, and he would kill him if he could. A man kills such an enemy if he can. (102-03)
Nowhere in the novel, I think, is Abel's blindness (and
consequent disease) presented more
concisely than in this passage. "What the white man was" is an incarnation of the snake spirit
and, as such, an embodiment of that crucial connection between the power inherent within
the land to generate life and the return of rain to sustain that life from above. To regard that
messenger spirit as an enemy and then to "kill such an enemy" would be to interfere with the
cycle of life itself. Fortunately, destroying the albino does not destroy the spirit informing him
(the collapse of the albino's physical form implies the return of his spirit back into the earth);
still, it remains for Abel to discover or invent a better, less diseasing way of coming to terms
with the life of the land.
Part 4 of the novel records his final capitulation to such a new vision; Parts 2 and 3, both set in Los Angeles, record the story of Abel's unsuccessful attempt to sustain his eagle vision on foreign ground, a process framed and counterpointed by two other time-tested Native strategies for dealing with life's dependence on the land: John "Big Bluff" Tosamah's Kiowa vision and Ben Benally's Navajo vision. Like Abel, Tosamah and Ben find themselves "reeling on the edge of the void" (96), removed from the landscapes of their origin and thus cut off physically from the life spirit that, as Momaday sees it, both generates and sustains individual as well as cultural identity. The overall picture produced in these two sections is of three representative "relocated" Indians trying their best to adapt to a foreign culture, a culture itself removed from the land and hence inimical to the life of the spirit. Portraying the struggles of Tosamah and Ben allows Momaday to drive home the point that might be lost had he focused exclusively on the character of Abel: the disease Abel suffers from, though it manifests in a variety of symptoms, is a common disease that can be cured only by recovering an experience of place and of identity with and within that place. In the cases of Tosamah, Ben, and finally Abel, the common prerequisite to healing is a clear vision of a landscape, followed by a willingness to make the contours of that landscape the contours of one's own identity. In both Tosamah's and Ben's visions, felt wholeness of self, whether remembered or immediately experienced, depends on the ability and willingness to see the land whole, to hold to oneself--and, just as importantly in Abel's case, to be held by--that place from which vision derives.
Rainy Mountain and Kiowa Vision
"Tosamah, orator, physician, Priest of the Sun, son of
hummingbird" (109, 127): as the
several appellations suggest, the figure of Tosamah fulfills a variety of roles in Part 2 of the
novel. His two sermons, strategically framing Abel's stranded agony, serve to gloss Abel's
otherwise solitary effort to "think where the trouble had begun, what the trouble was" (105).
In his capacities as "orator" and "physician," Tosamah offers in his Saturday sermon an
eloquent, ideologically grounded diagnosis of the contagious disease afflicting those who live
in the "white man's world"; in his capacities as "Priest of the Sun" and "son of hummingbird,"
he points in his Sunday sermon, by the example of his personal re-emergence story, a way
out of the diseasing and eternally shadowy nighttime of the "white man's world" back into the
naturally illuminated sacred Fifth World, where clear vision (and consequently spiritual
wholeness) is possible.27
As most critics have already acknowledged, Tosamah stands out in the novel for the complexity of his character and thought. While some of this complexity doubtlessly arises from the autobiographical nature of his persona (the text of his Sunday sermon, for instance, reappears verbatim as a statement of cultural autobiography in The Way to Rainy Mountain), part of it can also be understood as a consequence of his role as a spokesman for collective Native American concerns. Momaday characterizes Tosamah's public persona (as head of the "Los Angeles Holiness Pan-Indian Rescue Mission," a chapter of the then-illegitimate Native American Church) as a melange of "arrogance and agony" (91), of "Conviction, caricature, [and] callousness" (92); such psychological ambivalence is an almost inevitable byproduct of ideological cultural dualism. Within its specific historical context, the figure of Tosamah also functions in part to personify the nationalistic and Pan-Indian spirit of AIM, the American Indian Movement, which took root in urban soils during the early 1950s (when unprecedented numbers of Native Americans from many different tribes, especially returning war veterans, were forced into cooperation by the Relocation Acts) and which was flourishing in the late 1960s when the novel was written and published.28 Despite all such complexities, or perhaps because of them, Tosamah's initial function in the novel is to provide us with an additional context for understanding Abel's disease, a context that relates Abel's individual failure of vision to the more familiar (for most readers) issue of the spiritual malaise of Western culture generally.
As Tosamah, preacher and physician, paints the picture in his Saturday sermon, the spiritual sickness affecting most of Western culture is caused by separation, not just from the land, but more generally from "the Truth." His portrait of St. John is of a man who once had a dawn vision ("`Old John, see, he got up one morning and caught sight of the Truth'" ), who labelled what he saw "the Word," and who went on to value words about the Truth more highly than the Truth itself: "`The perfect vision faded from his mind, and he went on. The instant passed, and then he had nothing but a memory'" (93). As Tosamah puts it, the sole purpose of the institution of Christianity is to preserve and propagate the Word (as opposed to the Truth, which, originally, preceded the Word and all the subsequent words that "`tried to make [the Truth] bigger and better than it was, but instead . . . only demeaned and encumbered it [and] made it soft and big with fat'" ); as Tosamah goes on to assert, "the white man's world," the institutionalized byproduct of John's misguided substitution of a world of words for the world of realities preceding all words, is but a very dangerous mass illusion. Seen this way, the whole of "the white man's world"--the Judeo-Christian cultural tradition--is predicated on an act of separation from "the Truth," a term that encompasses the empirical reality of place: Christianity (at least in Tosamah's version of it) has substituted the dreamed-up "landscape" of John's ideology, an articulated memory of a vision of wholeness, for whatever vision-inspiring landscape lay before it and perhaps endures despite it.
One important corollary of Tosamah's compelling diagnosis is that, "true" or not, John's articulated memory of his dawn vision (and by implication any remembered moment of wholeness, including Tosamah's own memory of daybreak at Rainy Mountain and Ben's memories of the landscape of diné bikeyeh, the Navajo homeland) has power, the power to blind one to the fact of one's own separation and disease. Such memories balm the suffering that accompanies separation from "the Truth": they do not, however, cure the disease.
A second corollary becomes more apparent when we stop to consider the immediate context of Tosamah's Saturday sermon. Like Abel's own agonized attempt to diagnose for himself "what the trouble was" (97), Tosamah's attempt to do so for his congregation of the Relocated seems to be related by juxtaposition to the image set up in the first paragraph of Part 2 of the novel. The "small silversided fishes," we are told, are rendered "helpless" (89) by their own innate susceptibility to irresistible natural forces such as the pull of the moon, the tides, and their own seasonal reproductive cycles. A sentence later the image of stranded grunion is replaced by the image of Tosamah, along with Cruz and eventually the whole congregation, stranded in a rundown, poorly illuminated basement church in downtown Los Angeles; immediately following Tosamah's sermon, the same image of beached and suffering fish comes to function as the lodestar image for Abel's revised vision of his own condition and of his subsequent identity with Ben and Milly. This important metaphor points to a power, analogous to the power of the moon over the fate of the fish, that lies at the very heart of the creative vision informing the novel as a whole, one that derives, like vision itself, from the human need to know one's "indivisibility" with the world in which the "event" of one's life "takes place." The corollary thus implicit in Tosamah's sermon on "The Gospel According to John" is that while words do indeed have power, the power they have is healing power only when the words direct attention back to the human need to experience the event of indivisibility with the world. Words used to any other purpose merely sustain the disease of separation.
Whereas Tosamah's Saturday sermon serves to diagnose the potential for disease in flawed vision (and suffers from the disease in analyzing it) and to set the stage for Abel's night journey towards a new vision, his Sunday sermon, anticipating Abel's motion in the direction that will eventually return him to Walatowa, focuses on the healing power inherent in the land's capacity to satisfy the human need for identity. The rhetorical quality of Sunday's "The Way to Rainy Mountain," so different in its consistent equipoise from the ambivalence of Saturday's "The Gospel According to John," depends in large part upon Tosamah's use of place as a ground for his vision. Two sites in particular work to locate and validate Tosamah's vision: the landscape of the extreme northeast corner of Wyoming, where the butte called Devils Tower lies, and the spot in southwest Oklahoma (appropriately, in present-day Kiowa County) where lies the place called Rainy Mountain. Between these two locations on the land, according to Tosamah, the event he refers to as the "golden age" of the Kiowa culture transpired as the people pursued their "journey toward the dawn." According to Momaday and others, Kiowa translates as "the coming out people," and this association of particular place with the "dawn" of Kiowa life makes Devils Tower (called "Tsoai" or Rock Tree in Kiowa), like the Navajo "Tsegi" and Black Mesa at Jemez, a place associated with spiritual transformation.
Like much of the structure of the novel, Tosamah's Sunday sermon forms a narrative circle, beginning and ending at Rainy Mountain, where the journey of the Kiowa people concluded about a hundred years ago. According to Tosamah, "`Loneliness is there an aspect of the land. All things in the plain are isolate; there is no confusion of objects in the eye, but one hill or one tree or one man. At the slightest elevation you can see to the end of the world'" (127). It seems a place where Abel in Part 1 might have become at home without changing his eagle vision, and Tosamah's identification with this place, where loneliness and panoramic vision are gifts of the land's own contour, goes far towards explaining many of Tosamah's affinities with Abel. The sermon then goes on to reproduce the journey Tosamah says he took in order to become a part of the landscape of Kiowa culture. Within the framework of the vision of Rainy Mountain, the first clear reference to the medicine power of particular place occurs in reference to Devils Tower, the landmark marking the place where the Kiowa "paused on their way" to make the transition from a mountain people to a plains people. Acknowledging the shaping role of a landscape in an entire culture's evolving sense of identity, Tosamah tells us that "`There are things in nature which engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devils Tower is one of them. Man must account for it. He must never fail to explain such a thing to himself, or else he is estranged forever from the universe'" (131). While this passage clearly serves in the novel to confirm the power of language as a preserver of cultural identity,29 it is important to recognize that the power of the legend created by the Kiowas "at the base of the rock" becomes, in the story thus created, inseparable from the power of the landscape itself. The need expressed in the story is the need to hold this place, and be held by it. According to Tosamah, the act of identification with Devils Tower changed the identity of the Kiowa forever: "`Whatever they were in the mountains, they could be no more'" (131). Here, we see happening a shaping of human (individual or collective) identity and the "vision" of that identity being changed by (being reshaped to) the physical landscape: as Tosamah describes the event, the land imposes itself upon the observer, and the People's willingness to acknowledge and shape to that presence accounts for the subsequent cultural "golden age" of the Kiowas.
As a gloss on Abel's condition in Part 2, Tosamah's Sunday sermon serves to remind us that life takes shape in particular landscapes, and that the alternatives to accepting the shaping power of the land are to live only in memory or live "estranged forever from the universe." But estrangement is synonymous with disease, and memory implies separation from immediate circumstance, less than "perfect vision" (93). At the conclusion of his sermon, Tosamah recalls a moment of perfect vision, when the elements of "awful quiet" and panoramic perspective (the two elements Abel separates in his old eagle vision) are both acknowledged:
"The next morning I awoke at dawn and went out of my grandmother's house to the scaffold of the well that stands near the arbor. There was a stillness all around, and night lay still upon the pecan groves away by the river. The sun rose out of the ground, powerless for a long time to burn the air away, dim and nearly cold like the moon. The orange arc grew upon the land, curving out and downward to an impossible diameter. It must not go on, I thought, and I began to be afraid; then the air dissolved and the sun backed away. But for a moment I had seen to the center of the world's being. . . .
"I went out on the dirt road to Rainy Mountain." (136)
At the end of Part 2, Tosamah is still in Los Angeles, a thousand miles from the physical landscape he identifies with spiritually. His memory of that landscape is a temporary analgesic for the disease of separation from the land that he and his congregation suffer but no cure for it; though he may well function as a holy trickster, as a "physician" he leaves something to be desired. Even so, true to his role as "son of hummingbird," Tosamah in his sermon prepares the way for Abel, pointing as he does to a return to the landscape of one's origin, a landscape revealed, at sunrise, to be the "center of the world's being" as well as one's own.
Tségihi and Navajo Vision
Structurally, the openhearted sympathy of Ben's
personality in Part 3 complements and
balances Tosamah's cynical detachment in Part 2, just as the connotations of Part 3's title,
"The Night Chanter," complement those of Part 2, "The Priest of the Sun." Ben more than
Tosamah seems to have learned how to accede to his status as a "grunion," subject to the
vast tidal forces of Los Angeles, and his point of view appears more susceptible to--and
adaptive to--those alien forces. Insofar as Abel's sickness lies in his one-sided identification
with eagle medicine and his cure lies in the direction of increased tolerance for snake
medicine, in wholeness ans integration, Ben's voice and perspective appropriately succeed
Tosamah's as privileged frames of reference in the novel.
Whereas Tosamah's identity as a Native American seems to be as much a product of articulation as of nature (recalling, perhaps, the figure of "The Man Made of Words"), Ben is presented as having been born (like Abel) into the landscape. Unlike Tosamah, whose public persona oscillates between "conviction, caricature, [and] callousness" in concert with his alternating conceptual frameworks, Ben's constancy of character and voice reflect the constancy of his faith in the power of the land as a source of life and identity. As misplaced as this faith may be geographically in a city like Los Angeles, this attribute of his character qualifies him to become the closest thing we have in the novel to a spokesman for Abel's own unarticulated hopes and fears.30
Comprising the whole of Part 3, Ben's monolog (interspersed with soliloquy) recounts Abel's history from the time Abel is brought to the factory to work alongside Ben until the night of the day ("February 20," 1952 ) Abel leaves Los Angeles on a train to return to Walatowa. Early in his monolog, Ben recalls for us "last night," when he and Abel "went up there on the hill" to attend a makeshift powwow: "there were a lot of Indians up there, and we really got going after awhile" (144). Surrounded by the city of Los Angeles but temporarily up above it, out of earshot of its sounds, Ben and Abel become part of a congregation of the Relocated, bent on trying to recreate from memory the sound and motion of the old sacred way: "All we could hear was the drums and the singing. There were some stars, and it was like we were way out in the desert someplace, and there was a squaw dance or a sing going on, and everybody was getting good and drunk and happy" (145). Within this context, says Ben, "I guess we were thinking the same thing"; Ben thinks, on Abel's behalf as well as on his own:
He was going home, and he was going to be all right again. And someday I was going home, too, and we were going to meet someplace out there on the reservation and get drunk together. It was going to be the last time, and it was something we had to do. We were going out into the hills on horses and alone. It was going to be early in the morning, and we were going to see the sun coming up. It was going to be good again, you know? We were going to get drunk for the last time, and we were going to sing the old songs. We were going to sing about the way it used to be, how there was nothing all around but the hills and the sunrise and the clouds. We were going to be drunk and, you know, peaceful--beautiful. We had to do it a certain way, just right, because it was going to be the last time. (145-46)
This passage is echoed in the final paragraph of Ben's
monolog: just as the vision of the
landscape of Jemez frames Part 1 of the novel (and as the landscape of the Winter Race
frames the whole novel), Ben's vision of a return to the reservation landscape frames his
narrative account of Abel's failure to adapt to Los Angeles and its alien rhythms. Whatever
qualified power Ben has in the structure of the novel as a "Night Chanter," a healer in the
Navajo hataalii or "singer" tradition, derives from this ultimate faith in the healing
the land itself.
A more traditional, ceremonialized version of the dream Ben and Abel share here, a dream of being "all right again" at sunrise, in the Old Way, is the chantway episode Ben then sings, solo, for Abel and himself.31 As Ben explains to us, the chant is not compatible with "having a good time," not appropriate to the spirit of a stompdance or a Fortynine. "I wanted to pray" (146), he says, and his song is just that: a traditional prayer, a verbal formula expressing a human need. Neither Ben nor Abel has the calm or the peace that this chant is designed to evoke and sustain. This is because the power of this chant depends for its efficacy on the immediate reality of the landscape it invokes as the context for the rest of the prayer, but Tségihi, the specific and particular "place among the rocks" that is the source of this chant's healing power, is about a thousand miles away from Los Angeles.32 No matter how well Ben might remember that place, and no matter how well Abel might imagine such a place, the chant cannot of itself make Abel whole. Even so, the Night Chant, like Tosamah's Sunday sermon, points the way to healing for Abel, and it is a measure of Ben's openhearted sympathy for Abel that he offers Abel not only his best coat but also his best song to help him on his way.
Ben's sympathy for Abel springs in part from his recognition of similarities in their ethnic rather than geographical backgrounds, and Ben's disagreement with Tosamah's version of Abel's motives for killing the albino grows out of this basis of sympathy. As Ben points out, Tosamah's specifically Kiowa cultural background precludes his being able to understand important elements of Abel's Jemez-grounded vision, in particular Abel's vision of the powers inherent in the land that, improperly manipulated, give witchery its power at places like Jemez or Wide Ruins:
[Tosamah] doesn't come from the reservation. He doesn't know how it is when you grow up out there someplace. You grow up out there, you know, someplace like Kayenta or Lukachukai. You grow up in the night, and there are a lot of funny things going on, things you don't know how to talk about. A baby dies, or a good horse. You get sick, or the corn dries up for no good reason. Then you remember something that happened the week before, something that wasn't right. . . . And then you know. You just know. . . . You just know, and can't help being scared. It was like that with him, I guess. It might have been like that. (150)
The kind of knowing Ben talks about here is the kind illustrated in, for instance, Francisco's encounter with the albino at the end of Section 5 of Part 1 (64-67), the same kind of knowing encoded in Abel's memories of his mother's death, of his brother's death, and of that hole in the ground where gathers "the particular sound of anguish." To Ben (and as Momaday probably concurs), shared vision derives in part from such shared experience and shared cultural background. But as Ben also seems to understand, these similarities in culture derive in turn from similarities in the landscapes out of which the cultures emerged. Thinking about how characteristically reticent Indians in Los Angeles are towards one another, Ben speculates: "I guess if we all came from the same place it would be different; we could talk about it, you know, and we could understand" (153). Then, Ben accounts for his own ability to get along with Abel: "We were kind of alike, though, him and me. After a while he told me where he was from, and right away I knew we were going to be friends" (153). At first, Ben's sense of similarity reflects a perceived cultural homology ("We're related somehow, I think. The Navajos have a clan they call by the name of that place"); but the deeper, more fundamental sympathy grows out of a perceived homology of landscape:
I was there once, too. . . . It's a pretty good place; there are mountains and canyons around there, and there's a lot of red in the rocks. Except for the mountains, it's like the land south of Wide Ruins, where I came from, full of gullies and brush and red rocks. (153-54)
In the pattern of Ben's monolog, this memory of a familiar landscape triggers in him the four-page passage, at once an imaginative escape from the rain-streaked streets of Los Angeles and an evocation of a time and place of hozhojii, in which he recalls his personal experience of the healing power of the land celebrated in the Night Chant he later shares with Abel. In "the land south of Wide Ruins" where the event of Ben's childhood took place,
It was bright and beautiful all around, and you felt like yelling and running and jumping up and down. . . . You were little and there was a lot to see, and all of it was new and beautiful. . . . And you were little and right there in the center of everything, the sacred mountains, the snow-covered mountains and the hills, the gullies and the flats, the sundown and the night, everything--where you were little, where you were and had to be. (155-57)
ven though Ben's vision of the healing power of the
land provides him with temporary relief
from his own spiritual disease here (as elsewhere in his monolog), such a vision of
harmony, is out of place in Los Angeles: concrete is not sandstone, the red taillights of cars
outside his shabby apartment window aren't the same color as the red rocks of the
reservation, the work routine at the factory isn't the sheepherding routine he associates with
the beauty of the landscape of diné bikeyeh. His vision of harmony, of
oneness with the land,
has been reduced to a memory, and while this memory is good for balming the constant
dis-ease that comes of trying to live in Los Angeles, it lacks the power to heal because it is
dissociated in physical space from its empowering landscape. As Ben realizes full well, his
vision has become a prayer, and the prayer associates healing with some eventual return to
the part of Mother Earth where, and only where, healing can occur. Healing, understood as a
potential event, is an event that can occur only if it "takes place" at
tségihi--for Ben, the
"place among the rocks" located at the northern edge of Arizona's Painted Desert, but for
Abel the "place among the rocks" called Walatowa in Towan.
The dependence of healing on place becomes even more apparent when Ben tries to imagine Abel "awake and all right" (169): even to imagine Abel thus, Ben places him, in his mind's eye, not in a hospital but rather "way out there someplace by now" on a train in the mountains near Williams or Flagstaff, heading in the direction not only of Walatowa but also of the Navajo Reservation, diné bikeyeh, where "you can see the sun coming up on the Painted Desert and the dark gullies and the red and purple earth in the early morning, all beautiful and still, and the land reaching out toward Wide Ruins and Klagetoh and Cornfields" (169). In the passage that follows, the act of imagining Abel's return to the land recalls to Ben his own experience of returning to the land after having been away from it for a few years. Here, the event of sunrise brings with it the clear vision of identity with the landscape, a vision that makes time itself part of the landscape and portrays the miracle of identity as an event preceding both language and the need for language:
And at first light you went out and knew where you were. And it was the same, the way you remembered it, the way you knew it had to be; and nothing had changed. The first light, you thought, that little while before sunup; it would always be the same out there. That was the way it was, that's all. It was that way on the day you were born, and it would be that way on the day you died. . . . There was no sound, nothing. . . . At first light the land was alone and very still. And you were there where you wanted to be, and alone. You didn't want to see anyone, or hear anyone speak. There was nothing to say. (169-70)
Clearly, as with Tosamah, Ben's ability to live at all gracefully in the alien "sea" of Los Angeles depends on his keeping in mind such memories. Just as clearly, though, such memories (as well as the words encoding them) are not in themselves cures for the disease of alienation. Their healing power comes from a specific place and a felt identity with that landscape. In order to cure, such memories and words must be revalidated by (and within) the landscape--the original "Truth"--of which the words, and the memories, are but imperfect versions.
Los Angeles: Abel and Martinez
Without the landscape of Jemez to teach and sustain
him, Abel (like Tosamah, like Ben) has
only memory to refer to as a source of identity in Los Angeles, and with his memory
grounded as it is in his felt need to conquer the culebra within and without himself,
finds himself compelled to re-enact his old life on alien ground. The pattern of his power
struggle with the forces operating in Part 1 of the novel is reiterated in the pattern of his
experience of Los Angeles, where Martinez replaces the albino, Milly replaces Angela, and
Ben Benally replaces Francisco as avatars of the power-allies Abel found himself wrestling
with six years earlier. Abel's failure to control or adapt gracefully to these co-actors in his
drama shows once again the potentially self-destructive limitations of his eagle vision and his
need for a better vision in which to frame his own hopes and fears.
Alhough Ben says that he and Abel "talked a whole lot, him and me" (153), nothing Ben tells us of Abel or himself suggests that Ben knows of Abel's vision of himself as in identity with the eagle, and consequently Ben's analysis of Abel's failure to adjust to life in Los Angeles, while perhaps sociologically revealing, is more Ben's story than Abel's. Understood in terms of his own eagle vision of himself, however, Abel's life in Los Angeles must seem, simply, as pitiful and shameful to him as that of the eagle he captured in his youth. Like that eagle, Abel is at least metaphorically "bound and helpless" in this place, "drab and shapeless in the moonlight, too large and ungainly for flight," a condition that surely "fill[s] him with shame and disgust" (22).
What holds Abel's spirit in bondage this time is neither the hold of the land nor his fear of that hold; rather, Abel suffers his dependence upon the whim and will of strangers. The parole officers, "Relocation people," rehabilitation counselors, and welfare workers assigned to Abel's case, even as depicted through the relatively acquiescent and forgiving lens of Ben's narrative, are a persistent burden on Abel's spirit; their impersonal yet intimate questions threaten to turn Abel's life into words, while their plan for Abel is to reduce him to a stapler on a factory assembly line. Even in Ben's eyes these figures represent and acquire their own power from a force as powerful and as blindly unremitting as any force Abel ever encountered within the landscape of Walatowa, and, as Abel must believe, it is a force as bent on subordinating his energy to its own as the culebra spirit was at Jemez. Hence, Abel not very surprisingly responds to Los Angeles, and to those who claim identity with this place, in much the same he earlier responds to personifications of the snake spirit of Walatowa--first by attempting to resist, then by attempting to subordinate or destroy the agents of the force he fears.
Substituting Martinez for the albino and Milly for Angela, we can begin to see how the pattern of Abel's failure in Los Angeles replicates almost exactly the pattern of his earlier failure in Jemez. In both cases, Abel is in a spiritually weakened state (from his tour in the Army, from his six-year incarceration), attempting to re-enter the life of the people around him (the Pueblo, the Native American population of Los Angeles) when he first encounters his antagonist. In both cases, his antagonist is at home on the ground where Abel first encounters him (the albino proving himself at the gallo, Martinez depicted by Ben early in his narrative as "The Man" who is not to be messed with), and in both cases Abel finds himself taken by surprise in the first encounter and "beaten," metaphorically or literally, by his opponent. In both cases, Abel broods for a time over his "failure," then (after first affirming his power in his own eyes by sexually subduing a "spirit-robbing" woman) he determines to seek out and destroy his antagonist. One is further tempted to see the dark, "dead end and empty" alley in which Martinez does his work (173) as analogous to the canyons and "holes" in which Abel feels the prevailing power of the culebra spirit in Part 1 and to note that the sound Martinez makes ("the light went out and Martinez went by me in the dark, and I could hear him breathe, short and quick, like he was laughing, you know" ) echoes the sound attributed in Part 1 to the albino (67, 81). Seen as an event taking place, the confrontation in Los Angeles duplicates structurally the earlier event in Jemez, and the outcome for Abel is substantially the same. Even transplanted to Los Angeles, Abel's strategy for coming to terms with culebra energy is a strategy desperately in need of revision; insofar as this strategy devolves rather straightforwardly from Abel's eagle vision, implied is that the vision itself is out of balance. Abel's near-disastrous encounter with Martinez, bringing home to Abel once and for all the inefficacy of his one-sided allegiance to eagle vision, is an important step towards reacquiring such a balance.
Abel's "Vision Quest"
Formally, the narrative line of the novel leaps almost
immediately from the moment of Abel's
last encounter with the albino at the end of Part 1 to the moment we find Abel lying in the
night, at the beginning of Part 2, physically broken, semi-conscious, "among the most
helpless creatures on the face of the earth," the proverbial fish out of water on the coast of
Southern California subsequent to his final encounter with the sadistic cop Martinez.
Understood as a structural device, this narrative leap conflates the two events, and thus the
figures of the albino and Martinez, as though insisting that these two encounters are both
versions of some more essential encounter (and that these two figures are both
manifestations of some common entity). Time and space collapsed, Abel finds himself on
"January 26," 1952, confronting the same mystery he faced on "August 1," 1945 (the
mystery of the life-force or spirit he has come to see as the informing spirit of
again, or perhaps still, astonished by his own inability to release himself from its power. Just
as at Walatowa the land is forever, here at the edge of the land "forever is the sea" (101).
What follows, in the content of Part 2 framed by Tosamah's two sermons, can be seen as a
second "vision quest" for Abel,33 an event lasting three nights during which Abel's old fears
and feelings of "sadness and longing," as well as his old need for some strategy for
controlling those feelings, become attached to new images and reconstellated into a new,
more viable vision of life and his role in that life.
Understood as an event, Abel's acquisition of this new vision probably begins on the night when Abel, "crazy drunk and ugly," determines to seek out a final showdown with Martinez; as Ben tells us, "He was going out to look for culebra, he said; he was going to get even with culebra" (183). Apparently the spirit he seeks to destroy is even less cooperative in the form of Martinez than it was in the form of the albino, for our next view of Abel finds him, two nights later, fainting in and out of consciousness and numb with cold and pain (99). Though "he could not place the center of his pain [a]nd he could not see," already in his mind is the animal image that, like the image of the eagles in dancing flight over the Valle Grande previously, comes to function as the center of his new vision of himself in relation to the forces around him:
Why should Abel think of the fishes? He could not understand the sea; it was not of his world. It was an enchanted thing, too, for it lay under the spell of the moon. . . . The sea . . . and small silver-sided fishes spawned mindlessly in correlation to the phase of the moon and the rise and fall of the tides. The thought of it made him sad, filled him with sad, unnamable longing and wonder. (98)
The first thing to note about this fragment of Abel's
evolving new vision is that it is a vision,
in the imaginative rather than physiological sense of the term: as we are told, the grunions
spawn not in January but rather in "spring and summer" (89), and besides, at this point in the
event, "he could not see. He could not open his eyes to see" (99). Throughout the night of
his ordeal recorded in Part 2, Abel's point of view (in the physiologically visual sense) is
significantly not that of eagle but rather that of some "lower," more earthbound and
creature--a quality of vision recalling the albino's apparently weak eyesight, necessitating the
"little black glasses" he wears even at night (83). For Abel during this event, night and sea
fog combine to obliterate any possibility of panoramic perspective, while the beating he has
sustained further impairs his eyesight: even after 20 pages of his 25-page ordeal, Abel cannot
get more than one of his eyes to open (120). The point, of course, is that this time around
Abel's review of his life, framed within the perspective a grunion or a culebra might
also unmistakably his vision too; this is the "dose of snake medicine" I referred to
earlier as a
thing Abel needs in order to reestablish balance (and the possibility of healing) in his life.
A second important element of this moment is that the "sad, unnamable longing and wonder" associated earlier with the deaths of Vidal and his mother (along with his anticipation of the inevitable loss of Francisco) get re-anchored here to the image of the grunion, "among the most helpless creatures on the face of the earth" (89). By the end of this event, Abel imagines Ben and Milly replacing the grunion, presumably as recipients of his own capacity for longing and wonder, and finally Abel can "see" himself there too:
. . . in his pain and weariness he saw Milly and Ben running on the beach and he was there on the beach with Milly and Ben and the moon was high and bright and the fishes were far away in the depths and there was nothing but the moonlight and the long white margin of the sea on the beach. (126)
By the end of this event, Abel has finally become
capable of seeing himself in the landscape
of his vision rather than "above" it and, further, has come to identify with the "victim" rather
than with the "raptor" element of his previous eagle vision. Perhaps just as importantly, he
comes to see this image of his own "sad, unnamable longing and wonder" not as the cause of
that longing and wonder (as earlier he identified culebra) but rather as a (fellow)
experiencer of it.
Indeed, the image of the small fish, with which Abel comes to identify both himself and most of those people he has ever cared about,34 has much more in common with the snake of Abel's earlier vision than with its eagles. Like the snake in the talons of the eagle, the grunions, we are told, "writhe" (89) helplessly; as Abel sees them, they are, like the sea, "enchanted" by the "spell of the moon" (98); in the moonlight the scales on their bodies shimmer, like the surface of the sea itself, a bright silver, an image recalling the "silver thread" (18) of the snake's body in Abel's Valle Grande vision. Further, as Carole Oleson has pointed out, the rhythm of the language Momaday uses to describe the fish, echoing as it does lines from "The Owl and the Pussycat" (they "writhe in the light of the moon, the moon, the moon; they writhe in the light of the moon"), relates their motion punningly to the motion of dance; she goes on to contend that the fish come to represent "Native Americans writhing in Anglo rhythms" (67). My own sense is that the "tune" of the dance as Abel sees it is being called by the moon rather than by Anglos. The substitution of "writhe" for "dance" signals, I suspect, Abel's dawning awareness that the motion of the fishes--and also of that other "writher," culebra--is as ceremonially sacred a motion as the dance his eagles ritualistically perform with the snake in his vision: in both cases, a dance whose movements are finally responsible to some natural force (in the case of eagle, no doubt the power of the sun; in the case of grunion or snake, clearly the power of the moon) that precedes and shapes the individual will of the dancer (soarer, writher).
As though to seal the connection between the fish in his vision and the culebra he carries with him in memory, a few pages later Abel recalls to mind his own history of sickness, along with the memory of "the disease which killed his mother and Vidal" (100); this fragment is followed immediately by an image recalling the pale flesh of Angela (101) and finally the image of the albino. Though six years separate the Abel on the beach from the Abel who bowed in the rain in "wonder and regard" to stare at the albino's "white, hairless arm [that] shone like the underside of a fish" (84), Abel finds himself remembering that image of culebra clearly now: "After six years he could remember the white man's body, how it lay limp and lifeless in the night rain, bright like phosphorous almost; the angle of the body and its limb; the white shining hand, open and obscene" (101). This vision of the dead albino, once juxtaposed with both the images of the phosphorescent grunions and of Angela's touch, combines with them to yield for Abel a new vision of the life-force he has come to know as culebra.
This comprehensive readjustment of Abel's understanding begins to manifest immediately in his awareness that "something was going on" both within and without his consciousness, something demanding of him that same attentive "wonder and regard" he felt six years earlier watching the transformation of the albino in the rainy night. "Reeling on the edge of the void," a void symbolized both by his remembered self-destructive conviction that "a man kills such an enemy if he can" and also by the owl that hovers on the perimeter of his vision, Abel awakes to "a faint vibration under him" (103), a message from the earth itself. What he sees, "delirious now and gasping for breath," is a vision of an alternative strategy for coming to terms with the spirit informing Angela, the albino, the grunion, and (as he has begun to know now) himself:
. . . soon he could see them in the distance, the old men running after evil, their white leggings holding in motion like smoke above the ground. They passed in the night, full of tranquillity, certitude. There was no sound of breathing or sign of effort about them. They ran as water runs. . . . They ran with great dignity and calm, not in the hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect. (103-04)
Abel's immediate reaction to this vision is to be
"overcome with longing and loneliness,"
which is to say reminded of his dis-ease. He can "see" how unlike these graceful figures he
has become, how unnatural his destructive (and self-destructive) desire to avoid or annihilate
culebra is. In his vision, too, the "old men" run "as water runs," as
culebra moves, a motion
unblemished by resistance or desire, let alone by the fear that has shaped Abel's responses to
the "something" that moves "Forever at the margin of his mind there," the something "always
there, real, imminent, unimaginable" (116), to which the runners' motion is attuned.
Abel's vision in this episode, then, derives from his experience of a return to the source of life, and his perception of existence takes shape at the interface where the sea yields life up upon the land, where "shadowy shapes [begin to form] in the swirling fog" (116) and where life moves on both sides of the fog as well as in it. What remains for Abel is to choose which side--the "night" side or the "day" side, the Fourth World or the Fifth World--he will live in. In this context, Abel's vision of the old men running is of how to harmonize one's willed motions in the Fifth World with the spirit motions of life in the Fourth World--of how to live in harmony on the land with the life in, and of, the land.
What follows for Abel constitutes, as Larry Evers has pointed out, his "re-emergence." Moved not only by memories of his own failure to live gracefully but also by Milly's story of her father's futile war with the land on the one hand and the pain of her daughter's surrender to it on the other, Abel chooses to "get up" and move, out of the fog and back into both consciousness and the world. Roughly speaking, the pattern of Abel's re-emergence--his journey from the edge back to the center--retraces the steps that brought him to the "edge of the void" and the vision awaiting him there. There is "a long and tortuous journey through dark alleys and streets" (125) back to Ben's flat, perhaps tracing in reverse the route he took three nights earlier in search of the culebra Martinez. There is then his stay in the hospital, which like the prison following his trial for murder functions as a figurative doorway connecting Abel's world with the white world. Both are institutionalized "places" through which Abel must pass either to get from Walatowa to Los Angeles or vice-versa, and the hospital (like the prison) requires answers to a lot of "silly questions, all about his family and his medical record and insurance and everything like that" (185; see also 104-05)-- both confirming and illustrating, perhaps, Tosamah's Saturday sermon on the white world's abuse of words. There is, finally, his return to Walatowa: "He left today" (139).
Not to be overlooked in this process of return is the episode, recounted by Ben in Part 3 (186-87), of the final encounter in the novel between Abel and Angela during Abel's stay in the hospital. Seen as part of a re-emergence pattern, Angela's visit, like the courtroom episode that precedes Abel's imprisonment earlier, puts Abel's eagle-vision-inspired life "on trial" once again, and once again Abel is made to suffer someone else's version of his life. Here in her namesake city of Los Angeles, using the strategy of a St. John, Angela uses words to finish what Martinez set in motion with his nightstick, forcing Abel once again to accept that life informed by the spirit of culebra is more powerful than the life he has lived inspired solely by his eagle vision. By specifically requesting Ben to stay to hear what she tells Abel (186), Angela (like the albino during the gallo episode in Part 1) makes a public demonstration of the personal power she has acquired from her previous identification with the culebra spirit of Walatowa. Rather than using a rooster or a nightstick to chastise Abel's spirit, Angela inflicts upon Abel the story she has made out of their earlier sexual encounter. Not only does her story cast Abel as bear rather than as eagle, but it also makes the bear seem a marginal element of the story (in much the same way that, in Abel's earlier vision, the rattlesnake seems to exist solely to prove the power of the eagles).35 Though "it was real nice the way she said it, like she thought a whole lot of him" (187), and though her story may even merit the respect Ben accords it,36 Angela uses it here as a means of imposing her (culebra-informed) will, her words, upon Abel. During his trial for murder, Abel's attitude towards the words of prosecutors and defenders alike was one of eagle-like self-detachment. In the vision he has since acquired, he sees himself, like the fish and like culebra and like his own dead kinsmen, personally susceptible to powers independent of his own will. His response to Angela's story confirms his identity with his new vision: as Ben observes, Abel neither ignores nor attacks Angela or her words, but rather "turn[s] his head away, like maybe the pain was coming back, you know" (187). Whatever else we wish to make of the episode, it shows Abel to be "cured" of his flawed eagle vision and hence prepared spiritually (if not yet physically) to continue his re-emergence journey into its final phase--the return of his life to the landscape of Walatowa.
Black Mesa: Jemez Vision
Part 4, "The Dawn Runner," returns us (and Abel) to
where the novel began, at Walatowa.
Though nearly seven years have passed and the season is late winter rather than summer, the
landscape as depicted in the opening paragraph of Part 4 (193) unfolds exactly as it does in
the first paragraph of Part 1: first there is the river, then the valley around it, then the
mountains framing the valley, and finally the fields in the valley and the town there. However,
now the land appears nearly lifeless: the river is "dark," the valley "gray and cold," the
mountains "dark and dim," the sky a "great, gray motionless cloud of snow and mist," the
fields "bare and colorless," the streets of the town "empty." The time of year suggests a
moment of fragile equilibrium, a moment in the life of the land when its animating spirit could
go either way, leaving the land forever in one direction or reappearing in the other. The time
of day is just past sundown (Father Olguin is settling down for his evening reading of Fray
Nicolás' journal, while for Abel "evening was coming on" ); the quality of light
absolutely precludes the making of any clear distinctions among natural features of the
landscape: "There was no telling of the sun, save for the one cold, dim, and even light that
lay on every corner of the land and made no shadow" (193). Like the time of the year, this
quality of light suggests a special moment when one's vision of the land could go
any more light and the land might take on distinct shape and contour, as it did for Abel
during his sunrise meditation in Part 1; any less and the land might appear as formless and
amorphous as the sea does to Abel in Part 2. For human beings living in this place, it is a
moment of transitional equipoise, a moment for choosing.
As though to emphasize this point in the structure of the first section of Part 4 ("February 27"), Momaday positions the figure of Abel between two human models of choice, Father Olguin and Francisco, either of whom Abel is free to emulate at this point in his re-emergence journey. Interestingly, though these two men represent radically different cultural traditions, they are both Longhairs in the senses of being traditionalists and of being long-time inhabitants of Jemez. The fundamental difference between them (and the traditions they come to personify) is how they choose to relate to this landscape and the cultural traditions grounded here.
By the time of Abel's return to Walatowa, an act of vision has enabled Father Olguin, after seven years, to give up the struggle to make his existence indivisible from the place in it takes shape. His "central point of view" and "the sense of all his [religious] vows" have become framed within a vision of "safe and sacred solitude" (194)--a vision much like Abel's old eagle vision of self-preserving detachment from the world. As Olguin is aware, the price of sustaining this vision of his own spiritual inviolability is separation from the life of Walatowa, including its collective human aspect: "To be sure, there was the matter of some old and final cleavage, of certain exclusion, the whole and subtle politics of estrangement" (194). What makes possible his acceptance of this spiritual estrangement is his conviction that "it had been brought about by his own design, his act of renunciation, not the town's." Clearly, as Olguin here illustrates, one can choose to impose one's vision, and thereby whatever a priori values the vision encodes, upon the "event" of existence; just as clearly, the inevitable consequence of such imposition is spiritual separation and consequent disease (a disease Olguin experiences as "a cold and sudden gust among his ordinary thoughts"). Having thus chosen, Father Olguin reduces himself to a solipsistic irrelevancy within the living world of the novel, a figure whose final words ("`I understand! Oh God I understand--I understand!'" ) elicit no response from either the living or the dead.
In contrast to Father Olguin's willed separation from the land and consequent poverty of vision, Francisco continues in Part 4 to represent the Jemez Longhair tradition of deriving vision from the landscape rather than imposing vision on it. Though he is (like Olguin) all but blind physiologically, Francisco's eyes continue to the end to remain "open and roving and straining to see" (196), and when the quality of light without and impending death within combine to preclude any further perception, Francisco resorts to "seeing," in the form of his memories, the shape and seasons of the land and by extension the life he has created, and continues to create, out of his participation in that landscape. In Francisco's vision of his identity, his humanity is at every point indivisible from the land. In order to be able to "reckon where they were, where all things were in time," he and his grandsons "must learn the whole contour of the black mesa" ("Mesa Chamisa" on today's topographical maps) lying to the south and east of the town, must "know it as they knew the shape of their hands, always and by heart" (197). To become one with the spirit of the bear, Francisco must come to know, intimately, the landscape of the mesas and mountains to the north and west of the village (198-204). To recall accurately the sound of the "race of the dead," Francisco must first reimagine how the land lies "a little way north from the town": "They crossed the broad Arroyo Bajo which ran south and east from Vallecitos and came to the cinch of the valley. There in the plain, between the blue hills and the low line of the red cliffs, was the round red rock" (206). (This race should not be confused with the "Winter Race" Francisco later recalls running, the race in which he beats Mariano. The "race of the dead" begins several miles north of the village, bringing back to the Middle the spirits of ancestors from that direction. The Winter Race begins a mile or two south of the Middle at Seytokwa, within sight of the "black mesa.") To play the ceremonial drum perfectly on behalf of the squash clan, he has only to give his life's motions over entirely to the life rhythm of the land itself as the dancers do, so that "their feet fell upon the earth and his hand struck thunder to the drum, and it was the same thing, one motion made of sound" (207-08). And finally, to win the dawn race, the Winter Race, he must learn to stop trying to run it "at the wrong pace, another and better man's pace" and instead to draw his strength from the earth he runs on, come to be "running still" (208).
The final section of the novel, "February 28," opens with Abel coming "suddenly awake, wide awake and listening" (209). The quality of Abel's awareness here should remind us of his attitude just before he "sees" the old men in white leggings in Part 2: spirits are moving in the shadow state between the Fourth and Fifth worlds. Presumably, Francisco's spirit is now among them, having finally become one with the "dark shape . . . like a motionless shadow" (208) he was running to become in the final motions of his dying vision. His last kinsman dead, Abel once again finds himself stranded in the night, but now he "knew what had to be done." After attending to the corpse of his grandfather, he does "what had to be done" in order to complete the reintegrative ceremony set in motion by his vision in Part 2: he re-enters the human race at Walatowa that, in the Fifth World, shapes itself, willingly, to the motions of the spirits of the Fourth World--spirits whose motion draws darkness into dawn and winter into spring at this time of the year in this place called Walatowa.
To participate in this race, Abel must leave Francisco's house and walk in the dark to the place where an indeterminate number of others, as though replacing the image of the grunions in Abel's new vision of the human condition, have gathered and stand "huddled in the cold together, waiting" at the site of that earlier Jemez settlement called "Seytokwa," a place associated in both Abel's and Francisco's memories with the idea of knowing, with certainty, "where they were, where all things were, in time" (197). From the spot where the runners stand, at this time of year the sun appears to rise out of--that is, emerge from--the saddle of the "black mesa" to the east and in so doing appears to confirm just how life emerges from the land itself. Black Mesa of Walatowa thus functions as an analog to the Kiowa Rainy Mountain of Tosamah's (and, in The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday's) vision and the Navajo Tségihi of Ben's. In all three cases, the "place among the rocks" functions as the locus where the possibilities of renewed vision ("dawn"), renewed physical motion, and spiritual healing may become constellated in and by an act that confirms one's identity with the landscape. Abel's participation in the dawn race not only confirms the healing power of identity with the land (the common tenor of Tosamah's, Ben's, and Francisco's healing visions), but more importantly also grounds the possibility of healing in a specific place, thereby turning the vision of healing into an act of healing and the idea of regenerative motion into a ceremony of regenerative motion, in this case the running of the Winter Race.
The surest indication that Abel has re-entered the life of this particular landscape (and that this reintegration is curative) is that in his act of running he confirms the wholeness of the life of this place--a wholeness he earlier violated by dividing it into its eagle and snake aspects, choosing to celebrate only the former and to resist or destroy the latter. In one sense, Abel's run takes on aspects of a surrender to the land and thus a concession to the snake spirit in the land, in the culture, and in himself. We see him opening himself to the elements, shirtless in the icy winter darkness, his body covered with ashes, once again (as in Part 2) "numb" and "ach[ing]"; when he starts running we are told that "his body crack[s] open with pain" (211). The very act of surrender, however, results in a transformation of his condition: the rain gradually washes the ashes from his body, returning them to the earth, as his motion gradually moves him closer to the Middle that lies at the end of the road he runs on. Further, his willing surrender to the natural forces at work here results in a gradual clearing of vision, an ability to see clearly (as eagle sees) where he is, where all things are, in space. Thus, both the quality of perception earlier attributed to snake spirit possession and the quality earlier attributed to eagle vision become (re-)integrated in Abel's experience, so that the act of running becomes a ceremonial motion that weaves both eagle motion and snake motion into a single, and more human, dance.
Of crucial importance in this event, as Momaday depicts it, is that Abel's vision, as he runs, is informed solely by the landscape itself: "he could see at last without having to think. He could see the canyon and the mountains and the sky. He could see the rain and the river and the fields beyond. He could see the dark hills at dawn" (212). At this moment Abel's vision is, like the vision attributed by Tosamah to John prior to his over-verbalization, a vision of "the Truth" of the innate wholeness of the land that, seen, has the power to heal. Such moments are the seeds of powerful songs and stories, and Abel's final gesture in the novel is to prepare in his mind "the words of a song," perhaps composed of the same words as Ben's Night Chant--not a song about eagles, or a song about snakes or grunions, or even a song about men running at dawn, but rather a song designed to celebrate the source of all forms of life, about the land made visible, the "house made of dawn."
Almost uniformly, critics of the novel have Abel "singing" as he runs at the end of the novel, but Momaday explicitly states that "there was no sound, and he had no voice" (212). At the end of the novel Abel is as "inarticulate" as he is at its beginning. The difference (and a crucial difference to be sure) is that Abel at the novel's end has recovered an identity with the land worth singing about, and he sees (both literally and figuratively) life--his and the land's--as, at this moment at least, indivisible. By analogy, Abel at the end of House Made of Dawn is where Tayo is in Ceremony when he crosses the river at sunrise on the way to re-entering Laguna Pueblo. Perhaps Abel will (to extend the analogy) continue on into the village (it lies around the bend of the road on which Abel is running when last we see him), and perhaps he will "publicize" what he has seen (as Tayo formalizes in language, for the old men of the kiva, the story of his encounter with the spirit of Laguna); if so, he will succeed in converting healing vision into a verbal version of it. The structure of Momaday's novel, however, beginning and ending as it does with the moment of Abel's recovery of identity with the landscape of "Walatowa, Cañon de San Diego," seems to emphasize less the healing power of storytelling than it does the healing power of the land itself.
1The Names 142; for an earlier, slightly differently worded version of this statement, see "What Will Happen to the Land?" [back]
2He says, for instance, in an interview with Bruchac: "The Indians of the Southwest, and the Pueblo people, for example, and the Navajos with whom I grew up, they don't live on the land; they live in it, in a real sense. And that is very important to me, and I like to evoke as best I can that sense of belonging to the earth" (14). See also the interviews published in Sun Tracks (Evers 19) and Puerto del Sol (Abbott 22); as well as Momaday's "The Man Made of Words" 52; "A First American Views His Land" 18; and "Native American Attitudes to the Environment" 84. [back]
3For a good analysis of the emergence motif as it relates to the novel, see Larry Evers' "Words and Place." Recall, too, that the dawn/ emergence motif, encoded in the word "Sunrise," functions as the most immediate frame for the narrative text in Ceremony (4, 262). [back]
4The lines are from the so-called "Night Chant," part of a Navajo curing ceremony first transcribed and published by Washington Matthews in 1902. (On Momaday's adaptation of Matthews' translation, see Watkins 167-70.) This is, of course, the chantway that Ben uses in his sing for Abel in Part 3, "The Night Chanter," and so its use here in the prologue foreshadows the important role to be played in this novel by non-Jemez but still Native American visions of the function of landscapes in healing ceremonies. [back]
5N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 1. Citations are to the Harper & Row-Perennial (paperback) edition, which carries the same pagination. [back]
6"Walatowa" is the Native (Towan) word for the village called "Jemez Pueblo" on most maps today. The word walatowa has been translated variously as "village of the bear" (Evers, "Words and Place" n. 18, citing Frederick W. Hodge, ed., Handbook of American Indians), "the people in the canyon" (Schubnell 106, citing Tom Bahti, Southwestern Indian Tribes), and "at the pueblo in the canyon" (Dutton 7). [back]
7Running has long been a highly regarded activity at Jemez. According to Sando, some of the "favorite topics" of winter stories at Jemez (prior to the advent of television) were "the victories and heroics of the outstanding runners" of Jemez; Sando devotes an entire chapter of his book Nee Hemish to the topic (Chapter 11, "Track Town U.S.A." 181-95). For Sando on the two annual ceremonial races at Jemez, see p. 193. [back]
8Relying on tenuous internal evidence in the novel, Evers contends that "through Francisco, Abel is a direct descendant of the Bahkyush" ("Words and Place" 215); Evers appears to believe Francisco is the product of Fray Nicolás and a Bahkyush woman, perhaps the mother of the "Pecos witch" Porcingula with whom Francisco later has an affair. See also Kerr 175, and McAllister, "Be a Man, Be a Woman" 21. Both Evers and Kerr cite Porcingula's taunt ("Francisco was his name, and had he not been sired by the old consumptive priest?" ). I find the suggestion that Francisco is the illegitimate son of the old priest hard to swallow (since I assume that Porcingula is merely teasing Francisco here); my own sense of Francisco's heritage derives, rather, from evidence external to the novel. In The Names, Momaday talks autobiographically about the Tosa family, who lived across the road to the north of the day school where his mother and father taught, and in particular about "the old man Francisco Tosa" who herded sheep and greeted Momaday daily in Spanish, a "medicine man" who, says Momaday, "personified some old, preeminent ethic of pueblo life" (127). If "Tosa" is derived from "Toya," it is, according to Sando, genealogically a Pecos surname (150). Regardless of etymologies, I think that the figure of Francisco could very well be modelled on the grandfather Francisco Tosa, and that Francisco is designed expressly to "personif[y] some old, preeminent ethic of pueblo life," specifically life at Walatowa. [back]
9See, for instance, Aithal 161, Billingsley 81, and Trimmer 79. [back]
10In an interview with Bruchac, Momaday acknowledges his long-standing interest in the "vision quest" motif common among Plains cultures (17). One of the usual outcomes of a traditional vision quest is the acquisition of an animal or spirit helper (see my discussion of this motif in the following chapter). That Abel, raised at Jemez, should acquire such a vision suggests the strong pan-Indian cast of Momaday's creative vision. [back]
11See, for instance, Oleson, Bernard A. Hirsch, Wiget, Native American Literature 85, and Trimmer. [back]
12Barry (285) and Velie ("Cain and Abel"), among others, maintain this position. McAllister ("Incarnate Grace and the Paths of Salvation in House Made of Dawn") sees them both as representatives of spiritual sterility. Like Hylton, who sees the figure of the albino as a "figure of evil" (62), Billingsley concludes from this identification of the albino that "the killing of the albino is a proper and healthy act. It restores harmony to the community and fecundity to the earth; the essential balance between good and evil has been preserved" (86); the error of thus accounting the albino as a purely evil force is that, in the novel, both Abel and Francisco are excluded from the harmony of the village subsequent to the albino's death at Abel's hands. According to Momaday, from Abel's point of view the albino "is neither white [that is, Anglo] nor a man in the usual sense of those words. He is an embodiment of evil like Moby Dick, an intelligent malignity" (quoted by Schubnell 97); as I've tried to emphasize, though, Abel's vision of the albino (and the land more broadly speaking) is flawed, and his healing depends on his coming to understand the snake spirit as it should be understood in the broader context of the life of the land itself. [back]
13Several critics of the novel who have dealt with the albino's role identify Abel's albino antagonist with the albino mentioned in the journal of Fray Nicolás V. and named there Juan Reyes Fragua (see, for instance, Velie ["Cain and Abel"], Larry Evers ["Words and Place"], Raymond, and Trimmer). Some of these critics gloss over the problem this reading creates (viz., that a man born in early 1875 appears "large, lithe," "thickset, powerful and deliberate in his movements" 70 years later and effortlessly bests "seven or eight men and as many boys" at the rooster pull); others invoke the Jemez tradition of witchcraft to explain the albino's power. Oleson suggests that perhaps Abel's antagonist is a son of Juan Reyes Fragua (78, n. 6). Though Velie discounts it in "Nobody's Protest Novel" (56), I tend to hold with McAllister's thesis, which contends that the albino is, along with Fray Nicolás and Nicolás teah-whau, one in a succession of "witches" recurring throughout the implied chronology of the novel ("Be a Man, Be a Woman"); however, McAllister seems to be arguing that the "evil" manifested in these three figures originates in Fray Nicolás's moral corruption, whereas I would argue that what "possesses" all three of these figures is best understood as a spirit indigenous to the place called Walatowa (the "Snake Spirit" referred to in Ellis, et al.). I also reject the notion that this spirit is rightly understood as "evil": it appears evil to Abel (as it does to Father Olguin), but that appearance is a measure of the failure of their vision rather than an attribute of the spirit itself. [back]
argue that finally we can (and should) look to the land, rather than to Jemez
cultural tradition, to validate Abel's experience in this novel, still I think it worth noting that
Abel's rejection of snake energy would be incompatible with Jemez traditionalism. Apropos
of the latter, Ellis lists 21 religious societies at Jemez, seven of which are "concerned with
war, protection, and hunting" and the other fourteen of which are "directed primarily at
curing, rainmaking, weather control, and fertility"; included in the latter group are the "Jemez
Eagle Watchers," "Pecos Eagle Catchers," and "Snake" societies (14). Ellis speculates that
the Snake Society at Jemez may have been acquired from Hopi around the turn of the
Eighteenth Century. In 1694, during the drought- and invasion-plagued period of reconquest
after the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680, "the Tsuntash Society, carefully carrying their eagle
plume fetish, left New Mexico to live with the First Mesa Hopi"; a decade later "some of the
Jemez refugees in Hopi . . . returned to reestablish their own village in Jemez Canyon," while
"sixteen families remained longer with the Hopis, the other 113 Jemez at Hopi returning,
slowly, in 1716" (13-14), bringing with them a body of Snake Society ceremonies adapted
from Hopi snakework. If Ellis is correct, then the Snake Society's tenure at Jemez predates
by about a century the advent of the Bahkyush (Pecos) Eagle Watchers Society at Jemez.
Again according to Ellis, "The Snake cult is widespread among the Keres. The respect in
which the society is held is reflected in two Snake men of Jemez necessarily being members
of the Cacique Society (to the ire of some conservatives) and in the Snake leader taking
charge of the major ceremony of installing officers for all the Jemez societies when the War
Priest, who customarily officiates, has died and himself must be replaced" (27-28).
(Elsewhere, Ellis explains that the Cacique Society is one of three that "concentrate primarily
on matters of fertility" .)
As possibly further evidence of the indigenousness of the snake spirit to the life of Jemez culture, several critics have pointed to a passage in Fray Nicolás's diary that would seem to implicate Francisco, the Jemez Longhair figure in the novel, as a member of the Snake Society (the entry so cited is the one dated "17th. October. 1888": "He [Francisco] is one of them & goes often in the kiva & puts on their horns & hides & does worship that Serpent which even is the One our most ancient enemy" ). My own sense of this passage is that a character like Fray Nicolás might well use a term like "Serpent" metonymically to conjure the idea of "evil," and thus I think it farfetched to take this passage as strong evidence that Francisco is being cast by Momaday as a literal Snake Society priest. Even so, it would appear from all this that Abel's bias towards eagle over snake is as incompatible with Jemez cultural tradition as it is with the life of the land itself. [back]
15These are facts of which Momaday was aware. In a paragraph in The Names designed to specify the geographical situs of Jemez, Momaday mentions the San Diego Canyon; San Ysidro and the S.R. 44 turnoff there; the "long blue mesa" demarcating the east side of the Jemez Valley; and, to the west (along with a red mesa containing "the ancient ruins of Zia" and "the lone blue mountain in the northwest" where Francisco's bearhunt is set), "the white sandstone cliffs in which is carved the old sacred cave of the Jemez Snake Clan" (121-22). Eagles are mentioned nowhere in this passage; they are, however, mentioned in the very next paragraph of that book, in association with both clear vision and the Valle Grande:
You see things in the high air that you do not see farther down in the lowlands. . . . in the high country all objects bear upon you, and you touch hard upon the earth. The air of the mountains is itself an element in which vision is made acute; eagles bear me out. From my home of Jemez I could see the huge, billowing clouds above the Valle Grande, how, even motionless, they drew close upon me and merged with my life. (122) [back]
16In 1921 Parsons recorded three living albinos and one recently deceased albino infant at Jemez (49-50). According to Watkins, "for some reason the incidence of albinism [at Jemez] is extraordinarily high" (141). See also Dickinson-Brown 32. [back]
17In Parsons (18, Plate 5) there is a drawing of the altar of the Eagle Society (not to be confused with either the Pecos or the Jemez Eagle Watchers Societies); it features, in addition to figures of the sun and moon below and eagle feathers above, two large horned (water) serpents, and I think it offers strong graphic evidence of the conceptual interdependence of eagle and snake energies in traditional Jemez ceremonialism. [back]
18See, for instance, Evers, "Words and Place" 217; Hogan 169; Velie, "Cain and Abel" 61; Waniek; and Billingsley. [back]
19One is tempted to draw a connection between the albino's fine black horse and the dancing holy black horse that appears later in the "August 1" and "August 2" sections, one of two (along with the Bull) masks of the spirit of the Pecos/Bahkyush people; Momaday uses similar and often identical terms in describing the two. It is probably worth noting that the Longhair Francisco greatly admires "the little horse" (79) and has himself danced the horse's counterpart, the Pecos bull (associated with the spirit of the Spanish invaders), "twice or three times, perhaps" (80). In Francisco's eyes, whoever dances the horse well brings honor to himself and to the people, and the albino (like the mask dancer) is clearly one with his horse during the gallo. [back]
20According to Parsons, in Jemez belief the "cloud people," or dyasa, live among the k'ats'ana (compare Keresan ka't'sina and Hopi kachina); the k'ats'ana, in turn,
live at alawanatöta (ala, towards the north), on the mountaintops, and under springs. And the k'ats'ana are identifiable with the dead. The dead live also at wanatöta (translated as "forever"), which is in the north, underground, the place from whence the people came, and whence the newborn still come. "It is the place where we come from and go back to when we die." It is identified with the Keresan term shipapu. . . . (125)
Evers, in his brilliant and seminal article "Words and Place," is (as far as I know) the only student of the novel to have recognized the connection between the albino's performance at the gallo and the blessing of rain that attends his performance. [back]
21See, for example, Aithal, Trimmer, and Oleson ("The episode with Angela is an exquisitely-drawn picture of war between the sexes, and also between the races . . ." ). McAllister, on the other hand, makes Angela out to be a type of the Virgin Mary who "shows Abel the path of salvation" ("Incarnate Grace" 117). For an intriguing interpretation of Angela as a transmitter of disease to Abel, see Hylton. [back]
22Compare Silko's use of the Jackpile Mine, as a manifestation of the Ck'o'yo spirit, in the landscape of Ceremony. The reference here, both within and without the novel, is to the abandoned Spanish Queen copper mine, situated about three-fourths of the way from Jemez Pueblo to Jemez Springs and maybe 300 yards east of the Jemez River and the present Route 4. There are, in fact, several ruins of "ancient towns" up on the southeastern rim of the mesa "above and behind" the site of the Spanish Queen. See U.S. Geological Survey's "Ponderosa Quadrangle (7.5 Minute Series)" topographical map. [back]
23As Robinson observes in "Angles of Vision in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn," such passages as these suggest that Angela's "nature is peculiarly open to contact and empathy with spiritual force" (133). [back]
24Zachrau, for instance, says the albino "stands for the frightening white man" (42), and Trimmer sees the albino as tied symbolically to brutalizing "white culture" (82), while Watkins and McAllister ("Be a Man, Be a Woman") see the albino as representative of witchery. Evers contends that the albino "is the White Man in the Indian; perhaps even the White Man in Abel himself. When Abel kills the Albino, in a real sense he kills a part of himself and his culture which he can no longer recognize and control" ("Words and Place" 219-20; italics mine). Schubnell has it all three ways ("The fear of witchcraft is Abel's conscious motive for killing the albino" ; "It is possible that Abel recognizes himself in the figure of the albino, a mixture of Indian and white" ; and slaying the albino can be read "not only as an act of self-defense against an assault by a witch but also against the corrupting forces of Anglo-American culture" ). [back]
25Throughout the conversation with the albino at Paco's prior to their showdown outside, we are told, "Abel smiled; he nodded and grew silent at length; and the smile was thin and instinctive, a hard, transparent mask upon his mouth and eyes" (82); compare Abel's equally thin and instinctive wooden-Indian act prior to his lovemaking with Angela, 61-63. [back]
26Or at least premeditated. Note that Abel is depicted as waiting-- as earlier he is depicted as awaiting Angela's conformance to his will-- for "the white man [to raise] his arms, as if to embrace him, and c[o]me forward" (82). The use of the definite article in the next sentence ("But Abel had already taken hold of the knife, and he drew it") further emphasizes the apparent prearrangement, as well as perhaps the ritualistic dimension, of this event, signalled earlier with the sentence, "And then they were ready, the two of them." [back]
27In Pueblo as in Kiowa myth, the hummingbird is a conventional (rain-) messenger figure: see, for instance, Tyler 117-24. The word "Tosamah," according to Velie, "sounds very much like the Kiowa word for `woman of the house': to.so.a.mah" ("Cain and Abel" 61); though Velie hears mockery in this word play, I think the pun suggests an element of the "grandmother" in Tosamah's character, thus further aligning him with the traditional preservers of visions of Native American identity (compare the role of Tosamah's own grandmother Aho in his Sunday sermon). As in Silko's Ceremony, both the hummingbird and the grandmother motifs strongly suggest that Tosamah plays a role in an "emergence" story. [back]
28For a fair analogy to this collective attempt to discover or invent a politically and ideologically united ethnic identity, consider the "Harlem Renaissance" movement of the early 1900s. In terms of this analogy, Tosamah would seem to be, ideologically, in the uneasy position of advocating both a variety of B. T. Washington's policy of submission to the dominant culture (as implied in his characterization of Indians as "mere babes in the woods" of Anglo power ) and a sort of Garveyesque nationalism (pan-Indian rather than pan-African) and militancy (manifested in his self-characterization as a "renegade" and "diehard," and his fantasy of some day "find[ing] us a wagon train full of women and children" [149-50]). [back]
example of how language (and, in this case, the landscape to which language
refers) can serve as a source of identity as well, Momaday tells us in The Names
that his own
first Kiowa name, a potential identity given him by his paternal [step-]great-grandfather, is
"Tsoai-talee," "Rock-Tree Boy" (170). Momaday develops this particular motif more fully in
his latest novel, The Ancient Child (1989).
The temptation to identify an author with his invented persona is always strong, and even though Momaday arguably invites us to equate "N. Scott Momaday" with "John Big Bluff Tosamah" throughout Part 2 of House Made of Dawn, I think it wiser to read the Momaday of The Names, Tosamah in House Made of Dawn, and Set of The Ancient Child as three different personalizations, three voicings, of some more fundamental spirit anchored in the landscape they share in common. [back]
30According to Robinson, "It is [Ben] who, despite his acceptance of and preference for the glitter of the city, provides the reader with the best `window' or angle of vision for seeing why Abel must do what he ultimately chooses to do, and why his choice is right" (137). Robinson's analysis of Ben's "angle of vision" comes very close, I think, to allowing just how much of Ben's sympathy for Abel is based on a shared vision of a landscape's potential for healing. [back]
31See n. 4. For a fine analysis of how some Navajo myths and chantways can be understood as pretexts for the novel generally and Ben's songs in particular (esp. the Stricken Twins motif of the Nightway and the Older Sister motif of Mountainway), see Scarberry-García's Landmarks of Healing. Her analysis emphasizes the healing power of Bear energy accessed by Mountainway song and story, but I think that the energy associated with Beautyway would be more pertinent to Abel's disease of vision: early in his monolog Ben says "I used to tell [Abel] about those old ways, the stories and songs, Beautyway and Night Chant" (146); and though Scarberry-García doesn't make much of it, I think it significant that "the chief etiological factor associated with Beautyway are snakes of every description. Indeed, English-speaking Navajos sometimes refer to it as `the snake chant'" (Wyman 16). [back]
("Words and Place") makes much this same case when he points out that Ben's
Night Chant "begins with the culturally significant geographical reference:
Tségihi" and goes
on to imply that, as a healing song, the Night Chant (or any other healing chant) would be
less efficacious were it not grounded in a particular landscape: "ceremonial words are bound
efficaciously to place" (225). In The Names, Momaday translates "Tsegi" as "`place
the rocks,' sacred ground (Navajo)" (170); a better translation, perhaps, would be "canyon."
The suffix -hi, in the Navajo language, is a particularizing and noun-forming
Among Navajos today, I'm told, the word "tsegi" is commonly used to refer to the canyon country around Kayenta (the place Ben thinks of as "home"); a few generations ago it would probably have more commonly denoted the place named by the Spanish "Cañon de Chelly." In Landmarks of Healing Scarberry-García says that Tségihi is "the name of a canyon north of the San Juan River in Navajo country" (7) and that Tségihi is the name given to Canyon de Chelly in the story informing the Night Chant (78). [back]
33Though I use the term "vision quest" here (recall Momaday's own interest in the Plains Indian vision quest ceremony, already cited in connection with Abel's Valle Grande experience; see also Schubnell, who likens Abel's experience here to a vision quest ), I use the term loosely. In the traditional Plains vision quest, one seeks out a relatively high place at which to receive one's vision (compare Abel earlier on the rim of the Valle Grande); here in Part 2, images of darkness, blindness, enclosing fog, and Abel's location between the sea and a high wire fence combine to create a sense of spatial entrapment. Further, the perspective Abel has (during the few moments when he can see at all) is constantly ground level at best. Bataille's provocative suggestion (in her April 16, 1977 interview with Momaday) that Abel's ordeal be seen as analogous to a Pueblo kiva initiation ceremony deserves serious consideration. [back]
includes, in addition to the image substitution mentioned above, other
indications that Abel is coming to accept his spirit kinship with the fish and, by extension,
with the snake. For instance, a little more than halfway through the episode we are told that
Abel "had the sense that his whole body was shaking violently, tossing and whipping,
flopping like a fish. Then he realized that beyond the pain of his broken body he was cold,
colder than he had ever been before. He tried to cry out, but only a hoarse rattle and
wheezing came from his throat" (115). The sound he emits here should probably remind us of
the irregular breathing that characterizes the albino in Part 1 as well as the "short and quick"
sound of Martinez's breath (175), while the word "rattle" here is also suggestive of the
culebra of his Valle Grande vision (specified as a "rattlesnake" ).
Several critics have explored the grunion/Abel metaphor (a good representative example is McDonald 57); none that I know of, however, sees that Abel's acceptance of his identity with the helpless fish results in a new attitude towards (including a temporary felt identity with) snake energy. [back]
35Even though Ben is predisposed to think well of Angela (not only because he seems predisposed to see beauty everywhere but also because Abel earlier pointed her out to Ben as a "friend"), his account of her visit reveals Angela's desire to possess or else break Abel's spirit. "Talking kind of fast, like she knew just what she wanted to say," Angela "started telling him about her son, Peter" (who, she says, was too "busy with his friends" to come visit himself) and of Peter's fascination with "the Indians." The "story Peter liked best of all," the one Ben can tell is also "kind of secret and important to her," is the story of a "young Indian brave" who was "born of a bear and a maiden" (187). Several critics (including Barry, Raymond, and Zachrau) apparently identify Abel with the "young Indian brave" of Angela's story and so miss the point of the story; McDonald, who identifies Abel's role in Angela's creation story correctly, nevertheless goes on to conclude that her story has an "inspiring effect" on Abel (60), thus missing the point in a different way (see also Hylton 67-68; McAllister, "Incarnate Grace" 122-23; and Waniek, 25). Recall that in Angela's version of their liaison at Walatowa during Part 1, Abel replaces "the great bear, blue-black and blowing" of her own recurring sexual fantasy (32-33, 64). In the story she tells for Ben and Abel, the mythical child of just such a union, who "was noble and wise," "had many adventures," and "became a great leader and saved his people" (187), is for Peter, not Abel, to identify with. As Abel no doubt senses from her telling, the sole function of the bear--of Abel--in Angela's story is to inseminate (= inspire?) the "maiden" Angela, after which he is dropped out of the picture. Whichever people are "saved" in Angela's story, Abel is not among them. [back]
36Then again, Ben's respect may be more attributable to the Mountain Chant legend her story puts him in mind of than to Angela's story per se; Evers, for one, finds her tale "as rootless as a Disney cartoon," tied as it is to no particular geographical place and to no particular "cultural landscape" ("Words and Place" 225). Scarberry-García, on the other hand, proposes that Ben and Angela "appear to work together as storytelling healers to help Abel" (Landmarks of Healing 57) and relates Angela's story to the Older Sister origin myth informing Mountainway. [back]