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Momaday, Ph.D. - Interview
N. Scott Momaday, Ph.D.
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
June 28, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho
Did you know what you wanted to do with your life, or did it just happen, serendipity?
I knew that I wanted to be a writer from a very early age, because my mother was a writer, and encouraged me to write. I accepted that. I got it in my head. "Yeah, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to be a writer." But then there was a lot of serendipity after that too, moving into different settings that inspired the writing. A lot of things happened that I could not have expected.
How about your father? Did they both encourage you, or challenge you in these pursuits?
They definitely encouraged me. Challenge is too strong a word. I don't think they applied pressure to me. My mother certainly tried to interest me in good books, and she did. She gave me an incentive to write. My father was a very gentle man and he never told me he expected this or that of me, but he encouraged me. I learned a lot about painting by osmosis, by watching him. I didn't follow in his footsteps for a long time, but now I'm a painter, and a printmaker, and it all comes from him. It was a kind of silent encouragement, but always there.
As you developed in your writing career, how did your parents react? What did they have to say about that to you?
In a kind of quiet way, they gave me praise. They were pleased when I published something, they were pleased when I was recognized. They didn't throw parties, but nonetheless, I could tell it was a good thing as far as they were concerned.
Was there any specific event or experience that you can point to that inspired you as a young man, as a boy?
Not a specific thing, but an accumulation of things. I was born at the Kiowa Indian Hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma, then taken to my grandmother's place. They lived in conditions of dire poverty. I didn't know it at the time. We didn't have any electricity or plumbing. This was during the Depression. My parents were looking for work, they found it with what was then called the Indian Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I grew up on Indian reservations.
I lived on the Navajo reservation when I was little, and I lived on two of the Apache reservations, and lived at the Pueblo of Jemez for the longest period of time.
So I had a Pan-Indian experience before I knew what that term meant.
And it turned out to be fortunate, I think, in terms of writing, because I had an unusual experience -- and a very rich one -- of the southwestern landscape, the Indian world. And that become for me a very important subject.
Were there ideas, values, experiences that you brought from the tribal reservations and your early education that helped you in the world outside the reservation?
Yes, I think so. I might have a hard time cataloguing all of the things that made a difference. 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.
The Indian world is full of aesthetic values, art. My father was an artist, a painter, and he taught painting to the children at Jemez Pueblo. They exhibited all over the world. They became famous for their art. He once said to me, "You know, Scott, I have never known an Indian child who couldn't draw." I believe that. I haven't either. That seems intrinsic somehow. That's a real part of the Indian world, this love of symmetry and composition. It's a great thing. That has been important to me as well. Indian people have a strong sense of humor. It's not easily understood by other people, but it's there and I love that. That's been a part of my life too.
I read that when you were a kid, you wanted to be a cowboy when you grew up.
Of course. That comes with the territory. I grew up on the range. Every boy who grows up in New Mexico, especially southern New Mexico, knows about Billy The Kid. He's a real presence, an authentic legend. When I was growing up I spent a lot of time with Billy The Kid. We rode the range together.
My imagination ran wild with cowboys and Indians. I discovered a book by Will James called Smokey, the Story of a Cow Horse. That was my first great literary experience. I could not put that book down, literally could not put it down. When I had finished it, I read everything I could get my hands on by Will James. Sun Up, all kinds of cowboy stuff. The writing was terrible, but the books were wonderful. It made a great difference in my life.
When I was 12-years-old I was, like Alexander, given a horse. There the comparison ends, but that horse meant everything to me. It was one of my great glories. I must have ridden several thousands of miles on the back of that horse in a period of about five years. That was a great time in my life. You know, being the descendent of centaurs, I have always understood the value of a horse, from the time my father began telling me stories. A lot of them were about horses. Horses have always been very important to me.
Who most inspired you as a young man?
I was interested in sports when I was a boy, too. I was inspired by Joe Louis. I still think he could beat Muhammad Ali. I had heroes like that when I was growing up. I was inspired.by those Will James stories -- what they meant, and how they were put together. I think I learned a lot about storytelling, not only from the Kiowa oral tradition, which my father passed on to me, but also in things that I read, including Classic Comics and things like that. They were all important.
What about teachers? Is there a teacher that stands out in your memory as challenging you, or opening up new possibilities for you, inspiring you in some way?
Not in the early years, but in college and in graduate school I had several teachers who were very important to me. When I was an undergraduate I took a course in South American history, from a woman named Dorothy Woodward. It was the hardest course I've ever taken. She was so demanding! But at the end of the term I realized that I had really learned something, and that was exciting to me. And then, of course, Yvor Winters at Stanford was not only a man who was inspiring, but turned out to be a great friend.
"I sometimes think the contemporary white American is more culturally deprived than the Indian."
The American literary world offers no greater award than the Pulitzer Prize. In 1969 the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to House Made of Dawn, a first novel from an unknown author. This was unusual enough; even more surprisingly, to some observers, the winner was a Kiowa Indian who had grown up largely in the reservations and pueblos of the Southwest, far from supposed centers of learning and letters.
As a whole world of readers and critics were soon to learn, there are no limits to N. Scott Momaday's talents or his vision. As novelist, scholar, painter, printmaker and -- above all -- poet, Momaday's work has encompassed a panorama as wide as the western landscapes he celebrates. In Momaday's work and career, we see an extraordinary fusion of modern Anglo-American literary methods and classical prosody, with Native American traditions of poetry and story-telling.
Through his novels, poems, plays, books of folk tales and memoirs, essays and speeches, he has won international respect, not only for himself, but for the Native traditions that inform his work. At the same time, he has helped to reacquaint the modern world with an ancient understanding of the intimate connection between humankind and the natural world.