The Way to Rainy Mountain
N. Scott Momaday
So I went hunting in the unread stash I keep in my basement, the acquired-but-unread treasures of a life-long booklover. And I found exactly what I was looking for.
Look this book up–on Wikipedia, say, or on a bookseller’s website–and you’ll find a synopsis. Perhaps it will speak of founding legends. Or it might speak of the journey of the Kiowa nation from its ancestral home in the forests of Montana to the South Central Plains. Maybe it will speak of the author’s personal journey of discovery about his own Kiowa past.
In truth it would be all of those things, and none of them at all.
If that last sentence seems hopelessly vague then I’ve failed, because what I want to convey is a sense that a synopsis, as typically rendered, fails this book.
Years ago I attended Yom Kippur services for a period and the rabbi had standing remarks prepared for different portions of the day. As I recall, one of those set pieces spoke to our ability to understand loss being incommensurate with its reality. A similar inadequacy applies to describing this short, beautiful volume.
When N. Scott Momaday published this book, in 1969, he was fresh off the success of his novel, House Made of Dawn. I’ve not read that book, for which Momaday was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, but it is credited with launching what is known as the Native American Renaissance.
I remember the period, though. At the tail end of the 1960s movements were everywhere. In my juvenile mind their energies were all intertwined–Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, the National Council of La Raza, and the American Indian Movement among them. Not too much earlier, there had been a week when eight of the top 10 network television shows were Westerns, a genre in which Indians were rarely the goods guys and most certainly were never called Native Americans.
So being the guy who kicked off a cultural movement is a big deal.
You wouldn’t know it from this book, though. The authorial presence here is liminal, a conscious choice I am sure. The words, the tales, the book even, are merely a channel for the reader to sense what it means to be Kiowa.
Momaday himself is a member of the Kiowa nation, his father being full-blooded and his mother of Cherokee and mixed extraction. Momaday was born in Oklahoma, where this book is set, but grew up in Arizona where his father was a teacher on the reservation. As a result Momaday was immersed not just in the ways of the Kiowa but in a number of Southwestern tribal nations.
In a prologue, Momaday tells us he was drawn to this subject by the death of his grandmother. Her passing, I suppose, made clear the limits of living connections to cultural history. But I also think that it probably brought with it the realization that the only thing permanent is loss.
It’s not polite to speak for other people, but I’ve no other explanation for the sense of loss which permeates these tales. And the book contains many tales. In fact, along with the prologue, an equally short epilogue is the only other thing recognizable as more or less standard prose. A PhD, Momaday surely knows how to do that, so again it’s a conscious choice.
What the book contains is a number of voices. Some are drawn from the existing first-hand recollections of writers who came with or on the heels of the Army. These are, more or less, intellectual contemporaries of Francis Parkman and the voice is familair.
We also read the tale of the Kiowa people’s emergence into the world and another that originated during the Kiowa’s long migration from Montana to Oklahoma. Once Devil’s Tower is explained to you this way you’ll never watch Close Encounters the same way again. The voice, though, carries the flat tones anthropologists use when retelling tales– a manner that doesn’t impose meaning from without.
Lastly, there are the deeply personal parts. The memories of grandparents and Momaday’s personal encounters with the landscape. The moments when he connects personal experience with the still-living experience of his tribesmen. The parallels between the loss that comes with natural death and the loss that results from having your cultural existence obliterated by men on horses with guns.
Momaday was around 35 when he published this book, which contains lovely illustrations by his father. For me that was a turning point. Youth was most surely gone and the dawning realization that time is not limitless began to itch. There are hints of that in this book.
Mostly, though, I think the book offers an opportunity. Slow down. Read a few pages at a time; there are few places in the book where the text spans more than a page or two. Think about that which persists and that which does not and accept them as you can.
In such a way, I think, we make our peace.