In his new book Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land, N. Scott Momaday relays stories from his childhood, recounts Kiowa folktales, and entreats readers to take a deep interest in protecting and revering the natural world. An excerpt appears below.
I am an elder, and I keep the earth. When I was a boy I first became aware of the beautiful world in which I lived. It was a world of rich colors—red canyons and blue mesas, green fields and yellow-ocher sands, silver clouds, and mountains that changed from black to charcoal to purple and iron. It was a world of great distances. The sky was so deep that it had no end, and the air was run through with sparkling light. It was a world in which I was wholly alive. I knew even then that it was mine and that I would keep it forever in my heart. It was essential to my being. I touch pollen to my face. I wave cedar smoke upon my body. I am a Kiowa man. My Kiowa name is Tsoai-talee, “Rock Tree Boy.” These are the words of Tsoai-talee.
Near Cornfields I saw a hawk. At first it was nothing but a speck, almost still in the sky. But as I watched, it swung diagonally down until it took shape against a dark ridge, and I could see the sheen of its hackles and the pale underside of its wings. Its motion seemed slow as it leveled off and sailed in a straight line. I caught my breath and waited to see what I thought would be its steep ascent away from the land. But instead it dived down in a blur, a vertical streak like a bolt of lightning, to the ground. It struck down in a creosote bush. After a long moment in which there was a burst of commotion, the great bird beat upward, bearing the limp body of a rabbit in its talons. And it was again a mote that receded into nothing. I had seen a wild performance, I thought, something of the earth that inspired wonder and fear. I hold tight this vision.
The night the old man Dragonfly came to my grandfather’s house the moon was full. It rose like a great red planet above the black trees on the crooked creek. Then there came a flood of pewter light on the plain, and I could see the light ebb toward me like water, and I thought of rivers I had never seen, rising like ribbons of rain. And in the morning Dragonfly came from the house, his hair in braids and his face painted. He stood on a little mound of earth and faced east. Then he raised his arms and began to pray. His voice seemed to reach beyond itself, a long way on the land, and he prayed the sun up. The grasses glistened with dew, and a bird sang from the dawn. This happened a long time ago. I was not there. My father was there when he was a boy. He told me of it. And I was there.
On the short-grass prairie where I was born, and where generations of my family were born before me, grasshoppers are innumerable in the summer. In the shimmering waves of August heat they make a dense green and yellow cloud above the red earth. It is slow in motion, and sometimes hesitant, like an ascending swarm, and it is irresistible. You walk along, and you are constantly struck by these bounding creatures. If you catch one and hold it close to your eyes, you see that it appears to be very old, as old as the earth itself, perhaps, and that its tenure is as original as your own.
I dream of Dragonfly, and always in my dreams I am young and he is old. When I see his face it is drawn and wrinkled, the face of a holy man, and there are faint stains of red and yellow paint on his cheeks and about the mouth, made from powdered berries and pollen. His hands have pronounced veins, and the fingers are long and bent from a lifetime of use. He is thin, and his skin is weathered, burned by the sun and wind. His voice, too, is thin, and his speech is carefully measured. He speaks of things that are the most important to him, spiritual things. He keeps the earth, and he has belonging in my dreams.
There was a tree at Rainy Mountain. It was Dragonfly’s tree. Beneath this tree Dragonfly spoke to Daw-kee, the Great Mystery. There the holy man was made holy. He was told that every day he must pray not only to witness the sun’s appearance, but indeed to raise the sun, to see to it that the sun was borne into the sky, that each day was made by the grace of Dragonfly’s words. This was a great responsibility, and Dragonfly carried it well. And at the holy tree he was told of the earth.
We humans must revere the earth, for it is our well-being. Always the earth grants us what we need. If we treat the earth with kindness, it will treat us kindly. If we give our belief to the earth, it will believe in us. There is no better blessing than to be believed in. There are those who believe that the earth is dead. They are deceived. The earth is alive, and it is possessed of spirit. Consider the holy tree. It can be allowed to thirst. It can be cut down. Worst of all, it can be denied our faith in it, our belief. But if we speak to it, if we pray, it will thrive.
When we dance the earth trembles. When our steps fall on the earth we feel the shudder of life beneath us, and the earth feels the beating of our hearts, and we become one with the earth. We shall not sever ourselves from the earth. We must chant our being, and we must dance in time with the rhythms of the earth. We must keep the earth.
I am an elder, and I keep the earth. I am an elder, and I am a bear. When I was a child I was given a name, and in that name is the medicine of a bear. I speak to the bear in me:
Hold hard this infirmity.
It defines you. You are old.
Now fix yourself in summer,
In thickets of ripe berries,
And venture toward the ridge
Where you were born. Await there
The setting sun. Be alive
To that old conflagration
One more time. Mortality
Is your shadow and your shade.
Translate yourself to spirit;
Be present on your journey.
Keep to the trees and waters.
Be the singing of the soil.
The story from which my name comes is also the story of my seven sisters, who were borne into the sky and became the stars of the Big Dipper. The story is very important, for it relates us to the stars. It is a bridge between the earth and the heavens. There is no earth without the sun and moon. There is no earth without the stars. When we die, Dragonfly says, we go to the farther camps. Death is not the end of life. There is life in the farther camps. The stars are fires in the farther camps.
In the making of my song
There is a crystal wind
And the burnished dark of dusk
There is the memory of elders dancing
In firelight at Two Meadows
Where the reeds whisper
I sing and there is gladness in it
And laughter like the play of spinning leaves
I sing and I am gone from sorrow
To the farther camps
The waters tell of time. Always rivers run upon the earth and quench its thirst. Bright water carries our burdens across long distances. Without water we, and all that we know, would wither and die. We measure time by the flow of water as it passes us by. But in truth it is we who pass through time. Once I traveled on a great river though a canyon. The walls of the canyon were so old as to be timeless. There came a sunlit rain, and a double rainbow arched the river. There was mystery and meaning in my passage. I beheld things that others had beheld thousands of years ago. The earth is a place of wonder and beauty.
N. Scott Momaday was born in 1934 in Lawton, Oklahoma. A poet, novelist, playwright, teacher, and painter, his accomplishments in literature, scholarship, and the arts have established him as an enduring American master. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn, a National Medal of Arts, the Academy of American Poets Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award.
From Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land, by N. Scott Momaday, published this week by Harper. © 2020 by N. Scott Momaday.