Grounded in Place:
The Houses Made of Dawn in 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 Momaday, The Names1
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 called Jemez
(Walatowa, in the local Towan language and also in the novel) reflects this characteristic
Native sensitivity about the interdependence of place and personal vision. 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 (e.g., "The landscape is of central importance, holy in itself"--Oleson 59) or
remarked how Abel's identity depends upon that landscape (e.g., "Abel was the land and he
was of the land"--Hylton 60). I want to go a step further and show how characters
representing a broad spectrum of Native cultural traditions in the novel not only depend
upon, but also derive Native identity from, particular landscapes.
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 by extension 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 draw attention to in this essay.
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 I have argued elsewhere,3 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. Within this context, House Made of Dawn is largely the story of how Abel comes, finally, to be willing to be held by the place of his origin--how he overcomes his antipathy towards the snake spirit of Jemez and learns to move with, not against, this aspect of himself and of the land.
In addition to presenting Abel's own Jemez-based ceremony of recovery, House Made of Dawn also offers the characters of Tosamah and Ben Benally to represent two other Native strategies for coming to terms with the disease of separation. These strategies are useful insofar as they preserve a vision of wholeness (of harmony or even identity between individual, culture, and landscape). However, when such visions are grounded in human memory instead of in the immediate experience of place, they lack the land's power to heal and make the individual whole. Within this context, one of Abel's functions as the protagonist of the novel is to redeem the faith of Indians like Tosamah and Ben Benally, spokespersons for two very different Native American cultural traditions, by showing that their natal land is in fact a source of well-being and healing. To carry out this function, Abel must reunite himself with the landscape that happens to be his 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.
Part 4 of the novel records Abel's 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 life 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 in Part 2 and Ben Benally's Navajo vision in Part 3. 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 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 determinors of one's own motion and 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.4
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 and flourished in the late 1960s when the novel was written and published.5 Despite all such complexities, or perhaps because of them, Tosamah's initial function in the novel is to relate Abel's individual failure of vision to the more familiar (for most readers) issue of the general spiritual malaise of Western culture.
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 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. As Tosamah tells it, Christianity has substituted the dreamed-up "landscape" of John's ideology, an articulated memory of a vision of wholeness, for the vision-inspiring landscape (a "house" being "made of" dawn) that existed before any ideology 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 indivisibility with the world. Words used to any other purpose merely sustain the disease of separation.
Whereas Tosamah's Saturday sermon diagnoses 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, more specifically 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 narrative. 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 the event Tosamah calls 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 felt right at home, 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. In this part of Tosamah's narrative, 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,6 it is important to recognize that the power of the legend created by the Kiowas "at the base of the rock" becomes 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, both human (individual or collective) identity and the "vision" of that identity become changed by, and reshaped to conform 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 reminds 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 (two elements Abel struggles to keep separate throughout Part 1) 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 impossi ble 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 derives from his resistance to being held by the land and his cure thus lies in the direction of accession to the hold of the land, 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.7
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 sing ing. 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 a vision of the
landscape of Jemez frames Part 1 of the 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 power of 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.8 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 Forty-nine. "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.9 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 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" (12). 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)
Even though Ben's vision of the healing power of the land, at this point as elsewhere in
his monolog, provides him with temporary relief from his own spiritual disease, such a vision
of hozho or 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
separated by too much 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 for him.
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. For Abel, though, healing can occur only at 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 actual landscape--the original "Truth"--of which the words, and the memories, are but imperfect versions.
Black Mesa: Jemez Vision
Part 4, "The Dawn Runner," returns 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 either way: 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 in this phase of 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 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 which 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); 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).10 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 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 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.
Of crucial importance in this event 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.
1142; 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]
3See Nelson, "Snake and Eagle." [back]
4In 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]
5For 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]
6As an 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]
7According 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]
8The 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.) 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]
9Evers ("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 among
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 inflitic.
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]
10This race should not be confused with the "Winter Race" Francisco later recalls running, the same race he remembers at the beginning of the novel, the race in which he beats Mariano. The Winter Race begins a mile or two south of the Middle at Seytokwa, within sight of the "black mesa," also called the "house of the sun"; the "race of the dead," however, begins several miles north of the village, bringing back to the Middle the spirits of ancestors from that direction. [back]
Abbott, Lee. "An Interview with N. Scott Momaday." Puerto del Sol 12.2 (March 1973): 21-38.
Bruchac, Joseph W., III. "N. Scott Momaday: An Interview by Joseph Bruchac." American Poetry Review 13.4 (1984): 13-18.
Dickinson-Brown, Roger. "The Art and Importance of N. Scott Momaday." The Southern Review ns 14.1 (January 1978): 31-45.
Espey, David B. "Endings in Contemporary American Indian Fiction." Western American Literature 13 (1978): 133-39.
Evers, Larry. "A Conversation with N. Scott Momaday." Sun Tracks 2.2 (Spring 1976): 18-21.
---. "Words and Place: A Reading of House Made of Dawn." Western American Literature 11 (February 1977); rpt. in Andrew Wiget, ed., Critical Essays on Native American Literature. Boston: Hall, 1985. 211-29.
Hylton, Marion W. "On a Trail of Pollen: Momaday's House Made of Dawn." Critique 14.2 (1972): 60-69.
Jahner, Elaine. "A Critical Approach to American Indian Literature." Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs. Ed. Paula Gunn Allen. New York: MLA, 1983. 211-24.
Momaday, N. Scott. The Ancient Child. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
---. "A First American Views His Land." National Geographic 150.1 (1976): 13-18.
---. House Made of Dawn. New York: Harper, 1968.
---. "The Man Made of Words." The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary American Indian Literature. Ed. Geary Hobson. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1980. 162-73.
---. The Names. New York: Harper, 1976.
---. "Native American Attitudes to the Environment." Seeing with a Native Eye: Essays on Native American Religion. Ed. Walter H. Capps. New York: Harper, 1976. 79-85.
---. The Way to Rainy Mountain.
---. "What Will Happen to the Land?" Viva: Northern New Mexico's Sunday Magazine 30 July 1972: 2.
Nelson, Robert M. "Snake and Eagle: Abel's Disease and the Landscape of House Made of Dawn." Studies in American Indian Literatures 1.2 (Fall 1989): 1-25.
Oleson, Carole. "The Remembered Earth: Momaday's House Made of Dawn." South Dakota Review 11.1 (Spring 1973): 59-78.
Robinson, David. "Angles of Vision in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn." Selected Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference on Minority Studies. Ed. George E. Carter and James R. Parker. LaCrosse WI: Institute for Minority Studies, 1976. 129-41.
Scarberry-García, Susan. Landmarks of Healing: A Study of House Made of Dawn. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1990.
Schubnell, Matthias. N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1985.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Viking, 1977.
Trimmer, Joseph F. "Native Americans and the American Mix: N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn." Indiana Social Studies Quarterly 28.2 (1975): 75-91.
Tyler, Hamilton A. Pueblo Birds and Myth. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1979.
Velie, Alan R. "Cain and Abel in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn." Journal of the West 17.2 (April 1978): 5562; rpt. as "House Made of Dawn: Nobody's Protest Novel." Four American Literary Masters. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1982. 51-64.
Watkins, Floyd C. In Time and Place: Some Origins of American Fiction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1977.
Wyman, Leland C. Beautyway: A Navajo Ceremonial. Bollingen Series 53. New York: Pantheon, 1957.