N Scott Momaday, a Native American novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize, has passed away at the age of 89.
N Scott Momaday, an acclaimed writer, poet, teacher, and folklorist who received a Pulitzer Prize for his work, passed away at the age of 89. His first novel, House Made of Dawn, is often recognized as the catalyst for modern Native American literature.
According to publisher HarperCollins, Momaday passed away on Wednesday at his residence in Santa Fe, New Mexico after experiencing declining health.
“Jennifer Civiletto, Momaday’s editor, expressed that Scott was not only an exceptional individual but also a remarkable poet and writer. His contributions to American literature were unmatched and it was a great privilege to collaborate with him. As a member of the Kiowa tribe, his heritage held a special significance to him and he dedicated a significant portion of his life to honoring and safeguarding Native American customs, particularly the oral tradition.”
In 1968, the novel House Made of Dawn was released, depicting the challenges faced by a World War II veteran as he tries to readjust to life at home. This timeless tale explores the struggles that come with war, particularly in the context of a Native community in rural New Mexico. The author, Momaday, draws heavily from his own upbringing in Jemez Pueblo and his personal journey of reconciling his traditional roots with the opportunities and challenges presented by the modern world.
“I have experienced both worlds during my upbringing and continue to navigate between them,” stated Momaday in a 2019 PBS documentary. “This has resulted in both confusion and a sense of depth in my life.”
Momaday’s novel, similar to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, told a story set during World War II that struck a chord with the generation that opposed the Vietnam War. In 1969, Momaday made history as the first Native American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and his book played a significant role in paving the way for other Native American authors such as Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, and Louise Erdrich. He gained admiration from a range of individuals, including poet Joy Harjo, who became the first Native American to be named poet laureate, and actors Robert Redford and Jeff Bridges.
During a phone conversation on Monday, Harjo stated that “He” served as a literary mentor to many of us. She emphasized the profound impact of language and words on our existence.
In the years that followed, he instructed at prestigious institutions such as Stanford, Princeton, and Columbia, while also serving as a commentator for NPR and giving lectures around the world. He wrote over twelve books, including Angle of Geese and Other Poems, The Way to Rainy Mountain, and The Ancient Child, and emerged as a prominent supporter of preserving the richness and energy of indigenous cultures.
In 1970, Momaday spoke to a group of Native American intellectuals and stated that our identity is shaped by our own imagination. He praised the Native American community’s respect for the environment, emphasizing that they have a special connection to the American landscape. In his writing, he shared the tales passed down to him by his elders. He believed that oral traditions were the foundation of language and storytelling, and he traced the roots of American culture back to ancient civilizations, such as the procession of deities depicted in the rock art at Utah’s Barrier Canyon.
In his essay “The Native Voice in American Literature,” the author expressed that while he may not fully understand the meaning behind their words, he is a part of their significance.
In 2007, former US President George W. Bush awarded Momaday with a National Medal of Arts in recognition of his written works and efforts in promoting and safeguarding Native American art and verbal customs. In addition to his Pulitzer Prize, he has also received accolades such as the Academy of American Poets prize and, most recently in 2019, the Dayton literary peace prize.
Momaday had been married on three occasions, with his most recent marriage being to Barbara Glenn, who passed away in 2008. He was a father to four daughters, among them Cael, who passed away in 2017.
He was originally known as Navarre Scott Mammedaty, and he was born in Lawton, Oklahoma. He was also a member of the Kiowa Tribe. His mother was a writer and his father was an artist. One day, his father told him: “I have never met an Indian child who couldn’t draw.” It was clear that Momaday had inherited his father’s talent. His artwork, ranging from charcoal sketches to oil paintings, was featured in his books and displayed in museums in Arizona, New Mexico, and North Dakota. Momaday’s warm and friendly voice was also used for audio guides during tours of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the American Indian.
He spent his teenage years in New Mexico and went on to pursue a degree in political science at the University of Mexico. Later, he obtained a master’s and PhD in English from Stanford. Momaday’s primary passion was poetry, which led to the accidental publication of House Made of Dawn due to his early renown.
A large portion of his writing focused on the western and southwestern regions of America, whether it was in homage to bears – the animals he felt most connected to – or a series of poems dedicated to the life of Billy the Kid, a fascination from his youth. He viewed writing as a means of connecting the present with the distant past, and captured this sentiment in his poem “If I Could Ascend.”
There is a leaf inside of me that remains still, without wavering. It exists in darkness and will eventually decay. If it could survive for a thousand years and reach my mouth, I would finally give it a voice and speak it into the quietness of the sun.
In 2019, a PBS American Masters documentary featured him and his belief that he was a reincarnation of a bear tied to the Native American legend of Devils Tower in Wyoming. In a rare interview with the Associated Press, he expressed how the documentary made him reflect on his life and felt grateful that writers still credit his work as influential.
Momaday expressed gratitude for the recognition, but also noted that it always catches him off guard. He believes he has had an impact, but humbly does not take full credit for it.