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N. Scott Momaday Brings a Native American Perspective to a Time of Chaos

2018 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner N. Scott Momaday helped reshape the perception of Native American culture over the course of a 50-year career.  His first novel, “House Made of Dawn” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969, making him one of the first indigenous writers to break into mainstream literature. 

Momaday said there’s a certain satisfaction in telling a story, but that’s not what really motivates his writing.

“I think more than anything else, it’s a celebration of language,” he said.  “I have a deep regard for the power and beauty of words.”

He said his mother nurtured that in him.  She was also a writer and encouraged her son to “live among books.”

Over the course of his 84 years, Momaday’s also lived among the prairies, mountains and canyons of the American West.  That landscape plays a big part in his poems and novels.  He spends pages describing the geography like it’s another character in his stories.  He even takes comfort when he sees the ruins of an old pueblo or ghost town.

“It is beneficial to us to know that we are not alone, we’re not the only people to have lived in the landscape,” he said.

The eternal nature of that landscape is a source of solace that he wishes more people had. 

“I probably have gained something like wisdom,” he said.  “I think I’m more at terms with the world than ever before.  But, I’m also concerned that we live in a period of stress and even chaos, and that saddens me.”

Fifty years ago, in “House Made of Dawn”, Momaday wrote about the conflict between the steady rhythms of a young man’s native culture and the dissonance he finds in the modern world outside the reservation.  The writer thinks we lose touch with the spiritual reality of the land at our own peril.

“We live in a very fast-paced environment and we don’t have time - we don’t give ourselves enough time - to observe and commune with the natural world,” he said.

N. Scott Momaday’s coping mechanism is a mantra he composed years ago:

“Be still.  Gather yourself.  The thunder rolls away and there comes a clear dawn.”

Momaday further discusses the modern detachment from nature and he weighs-in on Chief Wahoo:


N. Scott Momaday receives a Lifetime Achievement award at the 83rd annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The ceremony takes place Thursday, September 27, at 6 p.m. in Playhouse Square’s State Theatre.  The event is sold out.  A live stream of the ceremony will be available at  ideastream.org/aw.

david.barnett@ideastream.org | 216-916-6242