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NME Afterprint: Renowned Native American Storyteller and Pulitzer Prize Winner N Scott Momaday Passes Away at 89

Writer N Scott Momaday in a beige button down shirt and a red scarf and hat with black background
N Scott Momaday. Courtesy of American Masters / PBS

N Scott Momaday, a renowned storyteller, poet, educator, and folklorist, passed away at 89. Recognized as the starting point for contemporary Native American literature, his debut novel, House Made Of Dawn, is credited as a significant contribution to the genre. Momaday died at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and had been in failing health.

Momaday's editor, Jennifer Civiletto, expressed her admiration for him, stating that he was an extraordinary person and an extraordinary poet and writer. She also highlighted his dedication to celebrating and preserving Native American culture, particularly the oral tradition, which was deeply meaningful to him due to his Kiowa heritage.

House Made Of Dawn, published in 1968, tells the story of a Second World War soldier who struggles to reintegrate into the Native community in rural New Mexico. The novel draws heavily from Momaday's experiences growing up in Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico. It explores the conflicts between his ancestral ways and the opportunities and risks of the outside world.

During House Made Of Dawn's publication, novels written by Native American authors were few. However, Momaday's book received critical acclaim, with a New York Times reviewer acknowledging its excellence. It resonated with a generation protesting against the Vietnam War, much like Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

In 1969, Momaday became the first Native American to win the fiction Pulitzer Prize, and his novel played a significant role in launching the careers of other Native American authors, such as Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, and Louise Erdrich. His work garnered admiration from various individuals, including poet Joy Harjo, the country's first Native poet laureate, and film stars Robert Redford and Jeff Bridges.

Momaday taught at prestigious universities like Stanford, Princeton, and Columbia. He also worked as a commentator for NPR and delivered lectures worldwide. He published over a dozen books, ranging from poetry collections like Angle of Geese And Other Poems to novels like The Way To Rainy Mountain and The Ancient Child. Momaday became a prominent advocate for the beauty of traditional Native life and drew inspiration from the stories passed down to him by his parents and grandparents.

Momaday believed that oral culture was the foundation of language and storytelling, and he traced American culture back to the early English settlers to ancient times. He found significance in the rock art at Utah's Barrier Canyon, which depicted a procession of gods. In his essay "The Native Voice In American Literature," he emphasized the importance of these ancient stories and their connection to the origin of American literature.

In recognition of his contributions, Momaday received numerous honors, including a National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2007. He also received an Academy of American Poets prize and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2019.

Momaday was married twice, with his most recent marriage being to Regina Heitzer. He had four daughters, one of whom, Cael, passed away in 2017. Born Navarre Scott Mammedaty in Lawton, Oklahoma, Momaday was a member of the Kiowa Tribe. His mother was a writer, and his father was an artist.

Momaday initially began his career as a poet, his favorite art form. The publication of House Made Of Dawn was an unintended outcome of his early reputation as a poet. Editor Fran McCullough of HarperCollins had met Momaday at Stanford and later approached him to submit a book of poems. However, Momaday did not have enough material for a book and instead gave her the first chapter of House Made Of Dawn.

Even after more than half a century since the publication of his first novel, Momaday humbly acknowledged that writers continued to credit his work as an influence. He appreciated this recognition but did not take excessive credit for it.


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