N. Scott Momaday, first Native American to win Pulitzer Prize, dies at 89

N. Scott Momaday, first Native American to win Pulitzer Prize, dies at 89

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N. Scott Momaday, an author, literature professor and member of the Kiowa Indian tribe who became the first Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize — for his 1968 debut novel, “House Made of Dawn” — and helped inspire a flowering of contemporary Native American literature, died Jan. 24 at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 89.

His daughter Jill Momaday confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.

Steeped in American Indian tradition, metaphor, imagery and reverence for nature, “House Made of Dawn” centers on a young man named Abel who struggles to adapt to life on a New Mexico reservation after fighting in World War II. Grappling with his identity, he suffers from depression and alcoholism, has an affair with a White woman, is sent to prison for murder and is beaten by a police officer. He yearns for spiritual healing and eventually returns to the reservation to find it.

“Abel’s story is that of one man of one generation,” Dr. Momaday later wrote. “It is otherwise a story of world war, of cultural conflict, and of psychic dislocation. And at last it is a story of the human condition.”

Dr. Momaday’s work was credited with opening doors for generations of Native American authors, including James Welch, Sherman Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko and Louise Erdrich, whose 2020 novel “The Night Watchman” won the Pulitzer in fiction.

“Momaday was the one we all looked up to,” poet Joy Harjo told the American Masters PBS documentary series. “His works were transcendent. There was always a point where despite the challenges and losses … there was some moment that imparted beauty.”

One of the first Native American writers to publish works of fiction, Dr. Momaday found himself in the vanguard of an American Indian literature that sought to incorporate traditional tribal ways while capturing contemporary experience.

“One of the things about [“House Made of Dawn”] that’s so important,” said Craig Womack, a retired professor of literature at Emory University in Atlanta, “is that Momaday takes this tribally specific approach that’s really rich and puts it in conversation with other tribal traditions and the outside world — in this case, Kiowa tradition in conversation with Jemez Pueblo tradition in conversation with the urban Indian diaspora in Los Angeles.”

Womack added: “A lot of critics have said the novel is about a return to reservation traditions, but it’s also an exploration of Natives adapting those traditions to urban life off the reservation and forming tribal alliances in places where Native people had settled or were relocated by the federal government after World War II.”

Dr. Momaday considered himself foremost a poet and said the mainstream success of “House Made of Dawn” came as a shock. “I had a hard time getting on with the next book,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. “What could I have possibly done that would have topped it?”

His second novel, “The Ancient Child” (1989), also touched on issues of identity and meaning for Native Americans who yearned to integrate a tribal spirit into their modern lives.

Unlike some of his fictional characters, Dr. Momaday said he had little difficulty assimilating. He described himself as a proud Kiowa who felt equally comfortable at tribal gourd dances and on the university campuses where he taught.

“This bicultural identity came naturally to me,” he told the Times. “I was born into two cultures and brought up in two. I learned to exist in both worlds fairly early. Even though, at times, I was the only Indian in school, I was proud of my identity. And I got into a lot of fights with kids because of it.”

As a writer and scholar, Dr. Momaday dedicated himself to preserving Kiowa oral traditions and legends by rendering them in print.

“An appalling amount has been lost, but a great deal still remains and has to be preserved,” he told the New York Times soon after receiving the Pulitzer. “This will require a determined effort by scholars and publishers to systematically record these tales before the tradition is completely lost as the young leave the reservations and become absorbed by the technological world.”

Dr. Momaday’s writing turned time and again to the image of Devils Tower, an imposing natural monolith in present-day Wyoming that figures prominently in Kiowa storytelling.

When the Kiowa encountered Devils Tower during their migration from the Yellowstone region to southwestern Oklahoma 300 to 400 years ago, they explained the existence of the colossal butte with a myth about a boy and his seven sisters. The siblings were playing when, suddenly, the boy turned into a bear. Terrified, the sisters climbed a tree and turned into the seven stars of the Big Dipper, and the tree turned into an immense stone formation, which the Kiowas called Tsoai (Rock Tree).

“Think about the person who told that story for the first time,” Dr. Momaday remarked to the Oklahoman newspaper in 2007. “It not only explained the Rock Tree, but also a feature in the heavens. Now that’s a story.”

Bears feature prominently in Dr. Momaday’s work, and not only because Kiowa oral tradition makes frequent use of them. When he was young, he was given the tribal name Tsoai-talee, or Rock Tree Boy, a reference to the boy who turned into a bear. “I think of myself as the boy reincarnated into a bear,” he told the Oklahoman. “I turn into a bear sometimes.”

Navarre Scott Mammedaty — the family later changed its name to Momaday — was born in Lawton, Okla., on Feb. 27, 1934, and he grew up on Navajo, Apache and Pueblo reservations in Arizona and New Mexico. His father, of Kiowa descent, was a painter, and his mother, whose background was English, French and Cherokee, was a writer.

Dr. Momaday spent most of his teen years with the Pueblo of Jemez, a tribal community in New Mexico where his parents became teachers. He rode on horseback while dreaming of being a writer. “My imagination ran wild with cowboys and Indians,” he recalled in a video interview with the Academy of Achievement.

In 1958, Dr. Momaday received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. The following year, while teaching on the Jicarilla Apache reservation in New Mexico, he won a poetry fellowship at Stanford University.

That year, some of Dr. Momaday’s poetry was published for the first time — three poems, one of which, “Los Alamos,” spoke to his concern for the environment and his alarm over its destruction by humankind.

Machinery is scattered over the earth like hurled coins.

I have heard the angry monotone

Retching into troughs the pins of war

When I walked in the wood to hear rain.

At Stanford, where he was mentored by poet Yvor Winters, he received a master’s degree in 1960 and a PhD in 1963, both in English literature. At the University of California at Santa Barbara, he wrote “House Made of Dawn” in the morning before teaching.

In 1969, Dr. Momaday joined the UC-Berkeley faculty as a professor of English and comparative literature. In 1981, he settled at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he retired in 2005. He received the National Medal of Arts in 2007.

Dr. Momaday’s marriages to Gaye Mangold and Regina Heitzer ended in divorce. He was predeceased by his third wife, Barbara Glenn. A daughter from his first marriage, Cael Momaday-Doran, died in 2017.

Survivors include two daughters from his first marriage, Jill Momaday of Santa Fe and Brit Momaday-Leight of Kauai, Hawaii; a daughter from his second marriage, Lore Denny of Tucson; eight grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Dr. Momaday’s books include “The Way to Rainy Mountain” (1969), a collection of Kiowa oral myths and legends combined with elements of poetic autobiography, and “Angle of Geese and Other Poems” (1974). He published two volumes in 2020, the poetry collection “The Death of Sitting Bear” and “Earth Keeper,” a set of short stories about the land.

Each summer, well into his senior years, he returned to Oklahoma City to join other Kiowas for the gourd dance, the tribe’s jubilant celebration of creation.

“When the drums start rolling and the eagle-feather fan is in my hand,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1989, “it’s as if I’m going back 200, 300 years, and my father and grandfather and great-grandfather are dancing next to me.”

“It takes hold of you,” he added. “It’s intense and mystical, a kind of restoration. I sense I am where I ought to be, and where I have always been.”

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