Okie Rebels

The Moral Landscapes of N. Scott Momaday

Okie Rebels With A Cause, Part Eight

In his introduction to The Way to Rainy Mountain, Oklahoma native N. Scott Momaday describes the harshness of southwestern Oklahoma’s climate.

“A single knoll rises out of the plain in Oklahoma, north and west of the Wichita Range. For my people, the Kiowas, it is an old landmark, and they gave it the name Rainy Mountain. The hardest weather in the world is there.  Photograph of N. Scott Momaday Winter brings blizzards, hot tornadic winds arise in the spring, and in summer the prairie is an anvil's edge. The grass turns brittle and brown, and it cracks beneath your feet.”

Yet the landscape created by these harsh conditions is surprisingly creative and productive.

“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. To look upon that landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun.”

This tension between the bittersweet roughness of Oklahoma geography and its ability to generate and regenerate art, creativity, and life is the foundation of Momaday’s moral landscapes. In Rainy Mountain and his other work, Momaday transcends narrow cultural definitions to show that the essence of one’s relationship to land, to geography, is much more than an aesthetic or a slight gesture. It becomes an ethic, too, or a powerful value, one lost to many people in the current Oil Age’s last belch of hubris and under the Bush-era, anti-environment crusade.

In an Academy of Achievement interview, when asked about his early influences his life, Momaday said, “I certainly can point to an understanding of the relationship between man and the landscape, for example. I grew up with that, and that's such an important equation in the Indian world. That has been of great value to me all my life.”

These moral landscapes in Momaday’s work teach us the importance of grounding ourselves in nature and our bodies. Once detached from the physical world, we lose the essence of human existence to artifice and the fraudulent. This world of artifice, then, is filled will corruption and lies without actual physical centers or foundations. Momaday’s work argues for natural rhythms, art, and the spiritual or existential acceptance of the universal human condition filled with both tremendous pain and ecstatic, life affirmation.

Momaday, a Kiowa Indian, echoes other great progressive Oklahoma moralists such as Woody Guthrie and Will Rogers. He stands in stark contrast to the state’s right-wing power structure, which has been instrumental in promoting institutionalized racist attitudes towards the state’s American Indians for decades. Writing in the moral tradition of Guthrie, Rogers, John Steinbeck and Ralph Ellison, Momaday remains a significant voice for valid and enduring Oklahoma culture and values.

In 1934, Navarro Scott Mammedaty was born in Lawton, Oklahoma. He then lived on the Kiowa Indian Reservation for a year until he moved to Arizona. He later earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, and his first novel, House Made of Dawn earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969. Rainy Mountain, a collection of Kiowa tales, was published in 1976. Rainy Mountain, of course, is located in Oklahoma.

In his academic career, Momaday has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University, and the University of Arizona.

In addition to his fiction, Momaday published a 1971 article, “The American Land Ethic,” that helped create the contemporary environmentalist movement. In the article, Momaday argues for the importance of respecting nature.

Of course, the right-wing power structure in Oklahoma, represented by the CEO’s of the state energy companies and The Daily Oklahoman has been late to recognize the importance of American Indian culture here. It has ignored or marginalized some of the state’s and world’s greatest moral voices because of its hateful polices to enrich itself at any cost, even if that means fueling and condoning racist attitudes.

Here what Momaday has to say about such oppression in a 1996 Academy of Achievement interview:

“I belong to a race of people, a society, that has been oppressed. We, the Indians, have had a hard time, for a long time. We have had to endure a great deal, but the dream means as much to us as it does to anyone. You'll never find a greater patriot than an American Indian. It's not by accident that I, a member of the Gourd Dance society, go to Oklahoma to dance on the 4th of July, you know. It is not an accident that the greatest honor that can come to an American Indian in my generation is to serve in the Armed Forces. And the veterans who have given their lives are greatly honored by the Native people. So, the dream is very important to me, and it is, I think, to Native Americans in general.”

Just as Guthrie sang the pain of his people victimized by the Dust Bowl era and just as Rogers attacked the elite wealthy who failed to help starving people during The Great Depression, so, too, does Momaday present a clear, moral vision transcending culture and politics. Momaday, like Guthrie and Rogers, creates and augments a twentieth-century moral Oklahoma tradition that remains vibrant and real. These are the people who make our local culture unique in the world, not filthy-rich oil company executives or newspaper owners.

In one Rainy Mountain tale, “The Earth as it Really Was,” Momaday’s vision is clear:

“I remember coming out upon the northern Great Plain in the late spring. There were meadows of blue and yellow wildflowers on the slopes, and I could see the still, sunlit plain below, reaching away out of sight. At first there is no discrimination in the eye, nothing but the land itself, whole and impenetrable. But then smallest things begin to stand out of the depths--herds and rivers and groves--and each of these has perfect being in terms of distance and of silence and of age. Yes, I thought, now I see the earth as it really is; never again will I see things as I saw them yesterday or the day before.”

The enlightened, moral vision will always have its roots in the physical and artistic world. Momaday’s work will live on for centuries to come.