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Momaday, Ph.D. - Keeper of the Flame
"My father was a great storyteller and he knew many stories from the Kiowa oral tradition," says N. Scott Momaday, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Regents Professor of English at the University of Arizona. "He told me many of these stories over and over because I loved them. But it was only after I became an adult that I understood how fragile they are, because they exist only by word of mouth, always just one generation away from extinction. Thatís when I began to write down the tales my father and others had told me." As a writer, teacher, artist and storyteller, Momaday has devoted much of his life to safeguarding oral tradition and other aspects of Indian culture. His keen interest and erudition flavor his frequent on-screen commentary in THE WEST.
One of THE WESTís most important ingredients is the wealth of information it provides about the native peoples who lived in the vast and varied territory of the West for a thousand generations before encountering explorers from other parts of the world. As the series explains, there were literally dozens of different tribes, each with its own language, culture and traditions — often as different from one another as they were from the diverse peoples who would later converge on the West.
To help provide on-screen context for these differences, as well as the fundamental element of common ground, Stephen Ives sought out N. Scott Momaday, who had previously lent his rich bass voice and broad expertise to the This I Believe series on The Disney Channel; Charles Kuraltís and the "Last Stand at Little Big Horn" episode of The American Experience. Momadayís is also the voice of many exhibits at the Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution, and he is a frequent National Public Radio commentator.
"Scott is an astonishing presence on camera," says Ives, who met with Momaday before the series got underway. "He combines an extraordinary personal and professional background with a deep appreciation for history. And he is a vivid storyteller. It all worked very effectively for what we wanted to do."
For Momaday, the experience of helping to shepherd the series by steering the producers to research sources and interview subjects, as well as sharing his knowledge of the Plains Indians and historic events, was gratifying. "Iím grateful for this series and proud to be a part of it," he says. "I think its approach is wonderful and Iím completely satisfied with what everyone has done. I, who have spent much of my life in the West and studying the West, learned a great deal from this project. I think the public will have to come away from this series with a more accurate impression of the West and its history, a much better understanding of who we are and what happened."
A Western Man
Momaday has always understood who he is. "I am an Indian and I believe Iím fortunate to have the heritage I have, " he says, speaking as a Kiowa Indian who defines himself as a Western Man. But that sense of identity didnít evolve without difficulty. "I grew up in two worlds and straddle both those worlds even now," Momaday says. "It has made for confusion and a richness in my life. Iíve been able to deal with it reasonably well, I think, and I value it."
Momaday was born in 1934 and spent his childhood on the Navajo, Apache and Pueblo reservations of the Southwest. "I had a Pan-Indian experience as a child, even before I knew what that term meant," he recalls. Eventually, after enduring the job-scarce rigors of the Depression, the family settled in New Mexico, where Momadayís parents, both teachers, taught for 25 years in a two-teacher Indian day school. Momadayís father was also a painter and his mother a writer. "I grew up in a creative household and followed in my motherís footsteps, to begin with," says Momaday, who later became a painter, as well, and has extensively exhibited his work here and abroad. "I was interested in reading and writing early on."
Those literary interests led to a lifelong love affair with American and English literature. After getting his BA at the University of New Mexico, Momaday earned an MA and Ph. D. at Stanford University. During the 35-plus years of his academic career, Momadayís reputation as a scholar who specializes in the work of Emily Dickinson and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, as well as in Indian oral tradition and concepts of the sacred, has resulted in his receiving numerous awards. These include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and the Premio Letterario Internationale Mondello, Italyís highest literary award.
Momaday has also had tenured appointments at the Santa Barbara and Berkeley campuses of the University of California, Stanford University and the University of Arizona. He developed his first course in Indian oral tradition in 1969 while he was at Berkeley and "Iíve been teaching it every year since." In addition, Momaday has been a visiting professor at Columbia and Princeton; was the first professor to teach American literature at the University of Moscow in Russia; and holds 12 honorary degrees from various American universities, including Yale.
Momaday is the author of 13 books, including novels, poetry collections, literary criticism, and works on Native American culture. His first novel, House Made of Dawn, won the Pulitzer Prize, but his favorites are The Ancient Child, his most recent novel, because "it is a greater act of the imagination," and The Way to Rainy Mountain, because " it presents a good, accurate picture of Kiowa culture in its heyday."
Indeed, it is a visceral sense of his culture that Momaday brings to his storytelling in THE WEST. "The West is a dream landscape that for the Native American is full of sacred realities," he says. These are realities he knows first-hand. "From birth, I grew up being in touch with sacred matters," he explains. "I am a member of the Kiowa Gourd Dance Society; I visit sacred places such as Devilís Tower and the Medicine Wheel. These places are important to me, because theyíve been made sacred by sacrifice, by the investment of blood and experience and story. So I have a keen sense of that and a great appreciation of it. And I think that the greatest deprivation that the Native American suffers today is the theft of the sacred, that it is not reaching down to the children as it always has."
But with time, teaching and projects such as THE WEST, Momaday is willing to be hopeful about the future for Native Americans. "The turn of the century was the lowest point for the devastation of Indian culture by disease and persecution, and itís a wonder to me that they survived it and have not only maintained their identity, but are actually growing stronger in some ways. The situation is still very bad, especially in certain geographical areas, but there are more Indians going to school, more Indians becoming professional people, more Indians assuming full responsibility in our society. We have a long way to go, but weíre making great strides."
[Write to N. Scott Momaday at 1041 W. Roller Coaster Road, Tuscon, Arizona 85704]