On April 12, The Paris Review announced N. Scott Momaday as the recipient of the 2021 Hadada Award, presented each year to a “distinguished member of the writing community who has made a strong and unique contribution to literature.” Over the past few months, the Daily has published a series of short essays devoted to his work. Today, in the final piece of the series, Terry Tempest Williams writes about her decades-long friendship with Momaday, the power of his work, and what can be done to atone for ecological destruction.
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 about what it means? Events do indeed take place, they have meaning in relation to things around them.
—N. Scott Momaday, The Names
We were gathered at the Teton Theater in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a historic cinema built in 1942, a testament to taxidermy where faux ledges of local mammals appeared on the north and south walls. A grizzly bear, black bear, coyote, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and mountain lion perched above rows of red velvet seats and, on a typical evening, watched the audience as the audience watched the movies. But on this night in 1977, several hundred of us were waiting in our seats not to see a film but to hear the great N. Scott Momaday read from his book The Way to Rainy Mountain, which had just been published in paperback.
The writer, whose Kiowa name is Tsoai-talee, or “Rock Tree Boy,” walked confidently onto the humble stage in a three-piece suit. He was large in stature and reputation: eight years earlier, his debut novel, House Made of Dawn, had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. “Good evening,” he said, in a strong, booming voice, deep with resonance.
The audience gasped.
“You were expecting feathers?” he replied.
Momaday has been surprising readers from the beginning. He is a writer of uncommon versatility, equally comfortable in the roles of novelist, essayist, memoirist, poet, and playwright. He is also an accomplished visual artist. His paintings are bold, haunting portraits of people and animals, alive with impressionist sweeps of energy that you feel first and identify later. They are not only paintings of place; they register as moments in place. There is an interiority to Momaday’s art that belongs to the lineage of his ancestors. “The Kiowas reckoned their stature by the distance they could see,” Momaday writes in The Way to Rainy Mountain. And it could be said that their stature comes from the vantage point of their elders across the generations.
I know Scott as a friend who has mentored me for more than four decades. We met that night at his reading and again shortly thereafter, by chance, in New York City, where we broke bread together. Our shared concerns over landscape and story in the American Southwest have kept us close through the years. So has our joint commitment to sacred land protection, such as the Bears Ears National Monument. The voice of the land is the voice I hear when Momaday speaks.
Momaday doesn’t have to explain what it means to have a voice; he speaks and you feel it as an echo of truth. He writes and you enter his words as a lived landscape complete with familial bonds that reach back through time. He calls forth his ancestors and, in so doing, pushes you to reflect on your own. In my case, his stories were a sharp invitation to examine my connection to a religion that relegates race to the curse of Cain and denounces “the sins” of Momaday’s people. It was only after reading The Way to Rainy Mountain that I saw the Book of Mormon as a white supremacist fantasy that turns colonizers into prophets, legitimizing murder in the name of securing a place called Zion. The Mountain Meadows Massacre—which occurred right outside Saint George, Utah, in 1857—was just such an incident. Mormon settlers wanted to discourage “outsiders” from infiltrating their territory, so they dressed up as Indians and persuaded members of the Southern Paiute Nation to join them in the mass murder of one hundred and twenty white emigrants to give the appearance of hostile territory.
In his work, Momaday reaches across worlds where traditional knowledge both haunts the present and heals the wounds of the past. Consider this passage from his prose poem “The Colors of the Night,” originally published in the 1976 collection The Gourd Dancer:
There was a man who killed a buffalo bull to no purpose, only he wanted its blood on his hands. It was a great, old, noble beast, and it was a long time blowing its life away. On the edge of the night the people gathered themselves up in their grief and shame.
Away in the west they could see the hump and spine of the huge beast which lay dying on the edge of the world. They could see its bright blood run into the sky, where it dried, darkening and was at last flecked with flakes of light.
Through this story, we hear the echo of an Army colonel’s voice: “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” His statement is now an archaeological fact buried in mountains made of bison bones. Thirty million bison roamed the American plains. By the end of the nineteenth century, a few hundred remained alongside reservations. The conscious ecocide of the American bison mirrored the cultural genocide of tribal nations.
Momaday, with his sharp-edged intelligence as a storyteller and his roots deep in the native soil of his Kiowa people, found his place also in the American academy. He attended Stanford University and earned a Ph.D. in English; he later became a tenured professor there. He holds twenty honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the world. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship to research, study, and write at Harvard. And in 2007, President George W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Arts. Momaday is a trickster in the best sense of the word. He infiltrated the colonizers’ ivory tower and built his own house made of dawn.
“The native voice in American literature is indispensable,” Momaday writes. “There is no true literary history of the United States without it, and yet it has not been clearly delineated in our scholarship. The reason for this neglect is not hard to find. The subject is formidable: the body of songs, prayers, spells, charms, omens, riddles, and stories in Native American oral tradition … is large, so large as to discourage investigation.”
Momaday’s work deserves our investigation because his words, those he speaks and those he writes, belong to the storyteller, who, by Momaday’s definition, “orders his words.” The very act of telling a story “is an act of sheer transcendence.” Momaday goes on to say in his essay “To Save A Great Vision” that the storyteller “assumes responsibility for his words … It is not a personal story, not essentially autobiographical; essentially, it is a testament. The telling of the story is a spiritual act, and the storyteller has a profound conviction of the religious dimension in which the act is accomplished … The motion of the voice is the motion of the earth itself.”
Those who deny the spirit of the earth, who do not see that the earth is alive and sacred, who poison the earth and inflict wounds upon it have no shame and are without the basic virtues of humanity. And they bring ridicule upon themselves.
I am ashamed before the earth.
I am ashamed before the heavens.
I am ashamed before the dawn.
I am ashamed before the evening light.
I am ashamed before the dawn.
I am ashamed before the sun.
This pronouncement from the Navajo has increasing relevance in our time. Daw-kee, let me not be ashamed before the earth.
—N. Scott Momaday, Earth Keeper
On an afternoon early this past June, the rain clouds over Santa Fe were brushstrokes of purple shadow in silver light. I saw Yei dancers moving across the sky beneath the thunderheads boiling upward. The smell of petrichor was strong. And I heard Scott speaking, his voice as powerful yet restrained as ever, as lightning struck the arid landscape of piñons and junipers outside his home.
In the blessing of an afternoon, I sat and talked with Scott, his daughter Jill, and my husband, Brooke. We toasted the joy of our reunion with sparkling cider and a meal of apricots, apples, pears, and berries—blue, red, and black—with goat cheese and crackers. At the center of the table stood a bouquet of tall sunflowers that Jill had arranged.
Scott sat in his open living room surrounded by the presence of his paintings and spoke of Mother Earth. “She is feeling things,” he said, “and she is expressing her anger, that she is not happy.” He spoke about our being “on this side of the nick of time.” I paused at the slight shift of a familiar phrase—not in the nick of time but the nick of time, as if it would be seen by future generations as a conscious notch made on the trunk of a millennial tree.
“Perhaps what is needed now is our atonement,” Scott said. “For us to atone for the damage we have done to the Earth.”
This, too, caught me off guard—Jill and I exchanged a loving glance with raised eyebrows, and I could feel Brooke’s mind being moved.
“What do you mean?” Brooke asked.
“What I mean is that we may have to go back before the Indian Wars, before the buffalo were killed, to remember our relationship to the Earth.” He paused. “I am thinking about these things, what gestures could arise.”
Scott then turned to me and asked about the headless ghost at the Teton Science Schools. We had spent some time together there, and rumors had circulated of a supernatural sighting in the main ranch house.
“Remember the man who had lost his head in a timber accident? People thought he was that particular ghost who haunted the ranch. Do you remember this, Terry?”
I did remember, and we recalled the disturbance of the ghost and the exorcism that followed. We spoke about how ghosts haunt us, but maybe we’ve gotten it all wrong. Maybe they are haunted by their past actions, caught between worlds by their remorse. They cannot move forward until they make amends for what they have done. Scott went back to the notion of atonement, atoning for our sins against the Earth.
“So what might acts of atonement look like?” I asked.
Scott told a story about Dragonfly, a man “with war paint on his face” known by his father. “We must live as Dragonfly,” he said. I thought about a passage from his latest book, Earth Keeper:
How are we to ward off the immorality of ignorance and greed, the disease and indifference to the earth? Perhaps the answer lies in the expression of the spirit, in words of a sacred nature. The efficacy of Dragonfly’s prayer to the sun is realized in the miracle of dawn. We must not doubt that it is so.
Great Mystery, give us one more day and one more and then, one more. I lift my arms in bold entreaty … I make a prayer for words. Let me say my heart.
I asked again about acts of atonement. Scott was patient with my queries. He mentioned visiting a Yei ceremony among the Diné and asked if I had ever been to one. I had.
“Then you felt that alignment, the chanting, the Spirit Voices,” he said. “That touched me.”
I understood a glimmer of what he was saying, that feeling of being part of something larger than oneself, of being at one with—and suddenly, the word atonement, “at-one-ment,” took on a deeper cast. I had been clinging to a religious definition based in Christianity: “reparation for a wrong or injury; expiation for sin; an annual ceremony of confession and repentance for sin.” But what if Scott was advocating for acts of coming together to remember that we are one with the Earth, that the Earth is not indifferent to us but is a responsive entity in a responsive universe? If this is so, and I believe it to be, then we can no longer afford to be indifferent to her. What if we understood that the heartbeats of all creatures can be heard in our own heartbeats, that this drumming is an echo of the Earth’s pulse, which runs through all of our veins, plants and animals included? I began to imagine our acts of atonement, the reparations we might make to the Earth as not only an acknowledgement of our cruelties but a remembrance of the moments of separation. In this remembering, we recommit to returning to the source of our lives, elemental. We are Earth. We are Fire. We are Water. We are Air. No separation. We are earth keepers.
Scott said that understanding atonement might require going back to the time before the buffalo were slaughtered and remembering what followed. In Earth Keeper, he writes:
When the great herds of buffalo drifted like a vast tide of rainwater over the green plains, it was a wonderful thing to see. But there came a day when the land was strewn with the flaying and rotting remains of those innumerable animals slain for sport or for nothing but their hides. The Kiowas grieved and went hungry, and it was the human spirit that hungered most. It was a time of profound shame, and the worst of all was that the killers knew no shame. They moved on, careless, having left a deep wound on the earth. We were ashamed. But the earth does not want shame. It wants love.
Could it be that Scott was calling for acts of love paired with acts of remembrance, because we, the children of colonizers, “moved on, careless, having left a deep wound” that has never closed?
My mind was racing through the maze of words, maize as corn, corn as pollen, a blessing on these words spoken over lunch. I wanted to atone.
To atone is to remember what we have done.
To atone is to grieve.
To atone is lift up our arms “in bold entreaty”—by definition, to utter an earnest or humble plea; to cry out; to petition for our forgiveness and call for a change of heart.
To atone is to love, to gather together in ceremony and become one with Earth. To purify ourselves from our destructive deeds.
These acts of atonement individually imagined and collectively rendered can become gestures toward peace and can now, in this moment of climate collapse, “take place.” Perhaps only then can we begin the work of healing ourselves and the Earth.
Scott leaned forward and told us another story, “The Woman Who Lives in the Ground.” “The woman in the ground rises from fresh earth to dance.” It felt like we had been taken into a dream.
Scott the storyteller, his voice rising from the Earth and in alignment with his ancestors and all he knows, his feet on the ground, was touching our hearts through the spiritual cords of story, which bind us together as human beings.
“I wish we had spent more time together,” he said to me.
“So do I,” I replied.
When we walked outside, it was raining in the desert.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of twenty books of creative nonfiction, including Erosion and, most recently, The Moon Is Behind Us, a collaboration with the photographer Fazal Sheikh. She is the writer-in-residence at the Harvard Divinity School.
All images courtesy of N. Scott Momaday.
Register today for a free virtual screening of Return to Rainy Mountain, on September 21, 2021, at 6:30 P.M. The documentary celebrates N. Scott Momaday and was directed by his daughter, filmmaker Jill Scott Momaday. This screening is part of the Brooklyn Public Library’s writer-focused festival LitFilm. Discover more about LitFilm here.