The Vibrant Career of N. Scott Momaday

Author N. Scott Momaday recently passed away at the age of 89. Read on to learn more about his legacy and impact on Native American Literature.

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Book covers of "The Way to Rainy Mountain," "House Made of Dawn" and "Earth Keeper" on desert background

On January 24th, writer N. Scott Momaday passed away at the age of 89 due to undisclosed causes. Momaday was one of the most prolific Native American authors in history. His work helped start a renaissance of Native American literature. Specifically, his book House Made of Dawn served as an influential source in the writing community. His books, short stories, and poems had elements of folklore along with details of personal experience. His death is a great loss to the Native American writing community, as his work has left an important mark.

Momaday’s Beginnings as a Writer

"The Journey of Tai Me" cover, with a simple drawing of a bird on what could be leaves.

Momaday, born Navarre Scot Momaday, grew up in Arizona where he practiced the traditions of his father’s Kiowa tribe, as well as the tribes around him. He had a love of reading ever since he was young, which led to him getting a Bachelor’s Degree in English from the University of New Mexico and a Ph.D. in English Literature from Stanford. Most of Momaday’s original work was based in poetry, which he ended up getting back into later in life. In fact, some of his earliest novels started out as poems before he developed them. That is what led to House Made of Dawn.

House Made of Dawn

"House Made of Dawn" book cover with silhouettes of people holding weapons at the bottom and a city skyline at the top.

Momaday’s most famous work, House Made of Dawn, came out in 1968. While not a memoir, this book has taken some inspiration from Momaday’s life and what he has witnessed. It also takes inspiration from some folklore that has been a part of Momaday’s cultural upbringing. The book takes place just after World War II, with the main character Abel returning home after fighting. He is getting readjusted to his life on the reservation, but soon going through some dark and violent situations.

The novel also shows situations related to racism that Abel faces and how those shape his life experiences. Abel’s life on and off the reservation has not been easy, but he has found ways to power through.

Momaday’s Impact

"the Way to Rainy Mountain" book cover with long stretching land and bison drinking from the water.

House Made of Dawn was seen as an introduction to Native American culture to mainstream white audiences. Before this book, there were not many notable Native American authors or stories. They existed, but they did not gain that much public notoriety. There have been claims that this novel was the beginning of a Native American Renaissance in the mid to late 20th century.

The success of House Made of Dawn led to other Native American authors pushing their books to the general public, which led to more education on Native American culture. Popular Native American authors like James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Eldrich are said to have gotten inspiration from Momaday. Through this novel and some of his subsequent writing, Momaday was still highly regarded and seen as one of the most influential Native American authors.

The Recognition

"Earth Keeper" book cover with triangular designs.

For House Made of Dawn, Momaday received the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Because of this, he was the first Native American to win any Pulitzer Prize. In 2007, Momaday was awarded a National Medal of the Arts under President George Bush. Other accolades include the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of America and an Oklahoma Centennial Poet Laureate.

In addition, due to Momaday’s many years of being an English professor, he has received tenure at four colleges and also has honorary degrees from over twenty colleges due to speaking engagements. His name has been immortalized in many places, showing how his work has affected people.

Momoday was able to use his words and his art to bring an unrecognized culture to the masses. Even when he was not writing books, he preserved his culture and kept it alive through his work and various engagements. Momaday shaped Native American literature, and that is why we are continuing to honor what he has accomplished.

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