Author and poet N. Scott Momaday returned to the state Nov. 2 to speak at Oklahoma City University. The Lawton native, whose novel "House Made of Dawn" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, appeared as part of OCU's Distinguished Speakers Series.
His topic for the evening was storytelling, specifically the American Indian tradition. Momaday retired from the University of Arizona a few years ago, but continues to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. The preservation and restoration of American Indian culture and heritage led him to found the Buffalo Trust nonprofit.
Prior to his speaking engagement, Momaday said he was not concerned to "state a message" at OCU.
"I'm here to demonstrate storytelling," he said. "I don't think in terms of goals; I mean to illustrate the power and beauty of language."
The Kiowa tribal member has spent his career illustrating just that,. attributing his love of learning and language to his parents; both were reservation schoolteachers, and his father also was a writer.
Mindie Dieu, professor of English at East Central University in Ada, said Momaday's place in the pantheon of American literature is hard to overestimate.
"You cannot study American literature and consider yourself well-versed without an examination of Momaday's oeuvre," she said.
As an educator, Momaday has seen the redemptive nature of education and the near despair that infects reservation students.
"The Native American has a disadvantage," he said. "Their preparation is less formalized; they have language and culture barriers, and, in many cases, the quality of their education is inferior. On the reservation, premature death and suicide rates are higher."
Still, he believes the tendency toward despair must be outlasted.
"I'm not sure whom to credit for this line, but I heard it the other day: 'The cellular memory of hopelessness has plagued the Indian since the time of contact.' I think that's a powerful phrase," he said. "The despair is down to the cellular level, but I think it takes care of itself, given enough time. It's still very prevalent, but I think we've come a long way."
Assimilation into the dominant culture is part of Momaday's gospel. He speaks frankly about the need to compete in a wider culture without abandoning one's native culture.
"I say to students, 'You have to exist in a world your parents did not know. You must compete. To do so, you must be educated, and you must keep your culture alive. To do that, you must define yourself; insist on who you are and what you are. Do not give in to the stereotypes, and do not let others define you,'" he said.
The American culture is a cipher to Momaday. He doesn't believe there is one as much as there is a particular imagination. He stresses the need for American Indians to maintain their own narrative tradition and spirituality over that false imagination.
"There are links between Native Americans and the landscape," he said. "We have developed a spiritual attitude toward the landscape. Our relationship to the land is based on an understanding that it is living and vital, possessing a living spirit."
The spiritual theme runs through Momaday's poetry and novels. His newest collection of poems, "Again, the Far Morning: New and Selected Poems," will be published in April 2011. "Greg Horton