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.

Dr. Collins On Will Rogers' Legacy

Okie Rebels With A Cause, Part Seven

Hi Professor:

I was trying to comment on your item "Will Rogers, Radical" but the computer would not let me have enough space. Perhaps this will reach you.

Soon I will be donating quite a lot of material to UCO that can be used to study Will Rogers in his own handwriting and his own voice. Will Rogers portrait And there is probably plenty there now to see him on film, in the newsreels, etc. He really should be studied more in classes. He had a lot to offer.

When I was working on my dissertation on "Will Rogers, Writer and Journalists" about 1964-5, my students kidded me about teaching "WR-101!" But I couldn't resist. He is such a breath of fresh air in the world of academics.

You will find a lot of different opinions about what WR said and meant. One of the worst comments --lies, actually--came from one book which called him an athiest. And the author--a good writer, but wrong in this case, used that statement to promote the book--it was repeated in headlines, etc., on the east coast.

Will Rogers was not an actual church member, far as we know. But he said more than once in more than one way, "I was never a non-believer." That's good enough for me! He helped raise money for several churches and for many individuals who were of different faiths--Jewish, protestant, etc. Not because of their religion, though, in most cases. He said however you want to worship, that's OK by him.

All of this is way, way too complicted to go into tonight. I am in the middle of moving. But please do some more research and give him credit where it's due. He can stand examination.

Once a few years ago one of our profs published a book that said Will never made the statement, "I never met a man I didn't like." Well, in a short time, I found six or seven places where Will put it in writing. And of course he said it many more times in speaking. And I believe he meant it.

(Will, Jr., and I used to argue this one! He knew his Dad could read about someone in the paper at the breakfast table, and holler about it. I argued that you could holler at your kids, too, or a friend. But that didn't mean you didn't like them!)

But what Will really meant, I believe, was that he never MET a man he didn't like. That means the same as not judging a man till you have walked all day in his moccasins. You don't "pre-judge" him. When you hear Will saying it on tape, he laughs when he says it, so he must have intended for the MET to be stressed and saw the joke in it. He said he was so proud of that saying, he wanted it carved on his tombstone so he could come back and sit on the fence and watch people reading it. . . . I had that done not long before I left the Memorial.

But don't sell him short on who he liked. He visited old John D. Rockefeller at his home in FLA. He said (I'm paraphrasing): "Isn't it too bad that old John D. with all the money in the world has to eat oat meal for breakfast!" John D. was famous for giving nickels to people. So Will--in front of the cameras--gave his friend John D. a dime! He liked the old man.

Will visited the Astors in NY, then wrote a funny column about tilting your soup bowl the right direction! And how the butler watched him. . . . He visited several presidents in the White House. And all the Congressmen wanted him to mention them in his columns--even it it was lambasting them.

The night before he sailed for Europe in 1926, he had dinner in NY with Mr. Ochs of the NY TIMES, Mr Kennedy (father of president K.), and other bigwigs. He was already doing a weekly column and had a contract to write some articles for SEP. Ochs asked Will if he would send him back a column once in a while if he came across something meaty. At that time, the TIMES didn't carry columns from those outside its own staff, but WR agreed.

That was the beginning of his Daily Telegram which he wrote from then till he was killed in 1935, and which appeared in over 400 newspapers--including the TIMES, the BOSTON GLOBE, etc. Everyone read it! And he had all the money from the columns sent directly to his wife, Betty. Her "household" money!

An irony that no one has been able to disprove: WR never registered and never voted. He said he wanted to stay neutral so he could blast the politicians from both sides! And he did.

When Hoover and Al Smith were battling it out--both were good friends of his over a long period of time--he left the country--went on a flying trip over the Andes....was angry when he got home and the election was not over! He thought all elections were on Nov 4--WR's birthday! Just because some of them were.

He didn't sweat the small stuff! But he didn't like his good friends fighting, either.

I was confused about his politics for some time, also. So were his kids and some of his friends. But I now know where he was coming from. His basic philosophy was based on "letting alone!" Let people do as they pleased as long as they were not hurting anyone else. But that didn't mean letting them starve.

There is a good book of his columns written while he was on a 5- or 7-state tour --of OK, TX, ARK, etc--during the depression to raise money to feed people. (Women's groups in each area sold tickets and distributed the money or the food from the money raised.) He had plenty to say. So did the papers of the day and his columns, too. Interesting stuff--and plenty academic for the classroom.

You will find an interesting comment from one of his columns along about then. . . He had been pestering the President to provide money to feed the hungry. You can't let them starve, he raved. But, he added, "I know you can't just give them money for doing nothing. They would never work again!" Again, that's paraphrased, but it shows you what the prevailing opinion was then . . . How wrong was he?

All I ask is that you spend some time studing Will Rogers' own writings. He will stand the test of time if you read him "whole."

Reba Neighbors Collins, Professor Emeritus, UCO

Dr. Reba N. Collins, Director Emeritus, Will Rogers Memorial

Ralph Ellison's Brilliant Moral Achievement

Okie Rebels With A Cause, Part Six

“So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled ‘file and forget,’ and I can neither file nor forget.”—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Another great state moralist who impacted the world is Oklahoma City native Ralph Ellison, whose novel Invisible Man was published in 1952. The novel received instant national and international acclaim. Ralph Ellison Photograph The novel’s brilliance and sophisticated narration is often compared and ranked against authors Franz Kafka and James Joyce.

The novel's status as a world classic is assured because, among other things, it brilliantly exposed this country’s institutionalized racism during the hysterical McCarthy years of the 1950s. It also helped set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It stands as a great, artistic achievement in the aesthetic tradition of the western novel.

Ellison’s novel will live on forever in our state’s and world’s historical legacy. It will only grow in stature. Ellison’s early years in Oklahoma City will be a subject matter for historians in centuries to come.

Invisible Man was Ellison’s first significant work. It tells the story of an unnamed African American narrator who tries to find his identity in a racist culture that refuses to really see him as a human.

At the beginning of the novel, the narrator says, "You wonder if you aren't simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re part of all the sounds and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful."

(The quotes from Invisible Man in this blog come from a 1995 Vintage Books, New York, edition of the initial text.)

After his haunting prologue, the narrator describes his participation in a Battle Royal when he had just graduated from high school. The Battle Royal is part of an annual "smoker" or party held by a town’s white male power structure. The booze flows, and there is a stripper. The Battle Royal, however, is the main event. African American teenagers are brought into the room, blindfolded, and forced to fight each until only one remains standing. The white men in the room toss the teenagers back into the ring if they try to leave. Drunk and out of control, the men shout out racial epithets as they demean the teenagers physically.

It is a horrifying scene, surreal and symbolic on one level, yet always literally real and grimly naturalistic in its specific details. It is an exhausting chapter to read. It raises serious questions about our existence. Why are people so cruel? What is behind the racism and hate of these men? Why is there so much hatred in the world? The questions are provoked by Ellison’s artistic brilliance, and the Battle Royal chapter is published in virtually every twentieth-century American anthology of literature.

"The room spun around me, a swirl of lights, smoke, sweating bodies surrounded by tense white faces. I bled from both nose and mouth, the blood spattering my chest."

The narrator earns a college scholarship, goes to a southern African American college (Ellison attended Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington), and then eventually ends up in New York where he is pulled apart by different aspects of the growing movement for equality for African Americans. After working at a series of jobs, the narrator gets involved briefly with a Brotherhood, which symbolizes the Communist Party at the time, and then with other activists, Throughout his life, he searches not for a "black" or "white" identity but for an individual identity, which the culture denies him again and again. The novel makes a lasting, powerful statement about individual human dignity and respect. These issues of “not seeing,” of coming to terms with America’s racist past and present, remain with us, and so the novel reverberates still.

After the novel was published, some critics contended Ellison’s novel was perhaps not loud or direct enough in terms of the day-to-day efforts to pass new laws guaranteeing equality for African Americans. (The white power structure here, of course, simply ignored it.) The years, however, have validated Ellison, who died in 1994. Invisible Man might not have been an “action” guide for a particular moment for a particular movement within the quest for equality, but it is an enormous, philosophical novel that shows how institutionalized racism destroys lives, and its impact passes from one generation to the next. The novel's brilliance and moral legacy cannot be overstated.

Ellison grew up in Oklahoma City and attended Douglas High School, which is named after the former slave and famous abolitionist Frederick Douglas. I visited the inner-city school a couple of years ago, and its dilapidated physical condition could not stop the energy and intellectual curiosity of his great teachers and students, but it tried and tried. (Douglas will soon have a new school because of the local MAPS project.)

His father, who was a small businessman selling ice and coal, died when Ellison was only three. His mother worked as a janitor, nurse, and housecleaner to make ends meet and she raised a son with lofty ambitions and a moral center that would help change the world. Ellison’s first interest, however, was in jazz music, not writing, and his novel is filled with language that has been compared to musical improvisation.

Like the great moralists Woody Guthrie, and Will Rogers, Ellison had to make his way outside of Oklahoma. What was here for someone of his intelligence during the time period in which he lived? Ellison was born just seven years after Oklahoma became a state. Yet it is interesting to consider how his unique Oklahoma experience shaped Ellison’s moral views of the world. His mother struggled so her son could succeed; it is a classic American story. Historians need to look here, not New York, for the reasons for Ellison’s genius.

That is happening now. Here is an excerpt from a forward to a recent biography of Ralph Ellison by Bob Burke and Denyvetta Davis:

"Intellectually, Ellison developed his ideas about the fluidity and complexity of American culture and personality from the range of his experience in Oklahoma. He more than held his own among American writers and thinkers by virtue of the ‘mammy-made’ pragmatism engendered by virtue of his faithfulness to what he called his ‘cold Oklahoma Negro eye.’ In the last few years of his life, he wrote long reminiscences in the form of letters to old friends from Oklahoma, and, when asked to account for the strain of optimism and patriotism in his reading of America, he cited early experiences in Oklahoma as sources of that ‘sanity-saving comedy’ and tragicomic sensibility he saw as the birthmark of American possibility." (The forward was written by John F. Callahan.).

Oklahoma City’s African American community has embraced Ellison's legacy. There is the Ralph Ellison Library in the city, and it recently celebrated the fifty-year anniversary of Invisible Man. The city’s African American community has a rich history of fighting for social equality here.

But Oklahoma’s right-wing power structure, of course, has done little to recognize Ellison’s genius or embrace his moral message. Like it has done with Guthrie, Rogers, and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of the Wrath, the right-wing distorts Ellison’s legacy. It does so by (1) ignoring Ellison’s great literary achievement then and now and (2) by continuing to sanction institutionalized racism in the state.

Edward L. Gaylord, the now-deceased publisher of the state’s largest newspaper The Daily Oklahoman, was always considered a racist by his critics. Former editors have told stories about the newspaper’s racist reporting that has continued to the present day. A 1999 series of articles in the Columbia Journalism Review about the newspaper revealed complaints about Gaylord’s racist newspaper policies.

Here is a quote from one of the articles: "Former staffers say it wasn't long ago that the complexion of the front page, not just the newsroom, was influenced by race. ‘When I was on the city desk in the late seventies,’ says former city editor Splaingard, ‘the rule was you didn't run pictures of blacks on the front page.’ And while everyone says the ‘rule’ is long dead, it's not always easy to tell."

The newspaper’s current editorial writers and new publisher, Christy Gaylord Everest, are more concerned today with making sure rich oil executives at Oklahoma City's Kerr McGee get richer than with correcting the type of social injustice Ellison fought against his entire life. It is difficult to determine what impact this obvious institutionalized racism has had on the state’s psyche.

In addition, it took until the 1990s before Oklahoma could even begin to come to terms with the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 because it was intentionally excluded from history textbooks. (This reawakening is an ongoing project.) Some experts estimate that close to 300 African Americans were killed by "truckloads of whites" and more than 1,400 homes and businesses were destroyed in the area known as black Wall Street in Tulsa after false rumors, published in a local newspaper, circulated that a local African American man had sexually assaulted a white woman.

This historical cover-up and what one might call the "softening" of horrific racial injustice is the legacy of Oklahoma’s right-wing, immoral propaganda machine that still thrives today.

At the end of Invisible Man, the narrator feels somewhat beaten down by events out of his control. Yet he tells us, "I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes and say no. I denounced because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love. In order to get some of it down I have to love. I sell you no phony forgiveness, I’m a desperate man—but too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much as through love as through hate."

So, ultimately, Ellison teaches us about the ability to love even in the face of great pain, such as racial injustice in the form of violent brutality and utter degradation. Like Steinbeck’s Okie Tom Joad, Ellison’s narrator leaves the novel pages enlightened and prepared to say something for the disenfranchised and the ordinary people of the world. His personal struggle is our struggle as a nation, as a world, as we promote human dignity and love in the face of obvious injustice.

Ellison’s narrator echoes the Oklahoma moral mythology that created a world moral view before and after World War II. This mythology brought about the New Deal and eventually the Civil Rights Movement. Oklahomans Ellison, Guthrie, and Rogers impacted the world, not just the country. For example, Europe, wrestling with its own demons in the mid-twentieth century, could once look to our country for the moral foundation created by these three great Oklahomans and the classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, which depicted heroic Okies fighting against right-wing injustice.

When one stops to consider, it is simply amazing that so many people from our relatively small state (and there are more) had such a major influence in constructing the most significant worldwide moral legacy of the twentieth-century. It is a legacy that lives on today and will live on forever in the annals of world history. Ellison makes me proud to be from Oklahoma, not the Kerr McGee Corporation, not The Daily Oklahoman, not The Tulsa World, not some morally-challenged politician like former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, not some country musician sellout like Toby Keith.

The next time someone from another state makes lighthearted fun of Oklahoma do not laugh it off so easily. Look them right in the eye and tell them about Ellison, Guthrie, Rogers, and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Tell them they still live in a democracy, and they are still free because the Oklahoma moral message and mythology that once swept the nation and world is still intact, if only precariously.

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