Place Determines Who We Are

On April 12, The Paris Review announced N. Scott Momaday as the recipient of the 2021 Hadada Award, presented each year to a “distinguished member of the writing community who has made a strong and unique contribution to literature.” To honor the multifariousness of Momaday’s achievements, the Daily is publishing a series of short essays devoted to his work. Today, Julian Brave NoiseCat places Momaday’s work in conversation with the past half century of Indigenous activism it has paralleled.

Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday at his Santa Fe studio with old family photos. Photographed on Thursday, February 6, 2020. Photo: Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News.

The year was 1968, it was finals season at UC Berkeley, and LaNada War Jack (neé Means) sat in the way back of the auditorium, about two hundred or so students perched between her and her professor, N. Scott Momaday. Momaday was just wrapping one of the last lectures of the quarter in that voice-of-God baritone that could give Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones a run for their money.

War Jack always made sure she attended Momaday’s class. A member of the Bannock Nation from Fort Hall, Idaho, she had moved to San Francisco’s Mission District through the Indian Relocation Act and got into UC Berkeley via an economic opportunity program designed for Black students, becoming the school’s first Native American undergraduate in 1968. It was incredibly meaningful to her to have a Native professor in her first year of college.

At the end of this particular lecture, Momaday turned his focus to one of the most exemplary final papers of the quarter. Without asking War Jack to stand or otherwise identify herself—Momaday knew she was a shy one—he started reading her essay.

“I wrote about our people and the kind of struggle that we had to go through,” War Jack told me this past May. “I ended it really positive but in a Native way. I said something like, ‘As the Sun rises in the morning, we give our morning prayers, and we pray that we continue to exist and survive and to learn and know our cultural ways.’ It was something like that.” After class, Momaday approached his star student. He told War Jack to let him know if she ever decided to write a book.

War Jack didn’t get around to writing that book, at least not for a long while. Instead, like so many other Native students and people in the Bay Area in the waning years of the sixties, she turned her attention to activism. In January 1969, War Jack joined the Third World Strike at UC Berkeley, which in three months secured the first ethnic studies department in the United States. That fall, she teamed up with Native students across the Bay Area, including former Mohawk ironworker and San Francisco State University student Richard Oakes, to form a group called the Indians of All Tribes, which instigated the Occupation of Alcatraz. War Jack stayed on the island for the duration of the nineteen-month protest, bringing national attention to Native American treaty rights and provoking a shift in federal Indian policy from termination to self-determination.

Back in Berkeley, Momaday didn’t make many explicit statements about the political questions Native Americans and the nation were grappling with at the time. He has since revealed that he opposed the Vietnam War and was tear-gassed during a protest on the UC Berkeley campus. But unlike his contemporary Vine Deloria Jr., the Standing Rock Sioux nonfiction writer, Momaday never said much about the Occupation of Alcatraz and the era of Native protest and empowerment that followed. “That is not my temperament. I’m not a political person,” Momaday explained in the 2019 PBS documentary N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear. “I follow politics on the television—especially these days when it’s so colorful. But I myself have no interest in writing about government. I much prefer literary and romantic matters.”

Matters of voice and the written word cannot be easily separated from questions of agency, power, and politics, however. Not long after he finished teaching War Jack’s course, Momaday published his pathbreaking first novel, House Made of Dawn, which won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and helped Native authors break into the mainstream—the beginning of a literary renaissance that paralleled our political resurgence.

I have long thought that Momaday’s seeming absence from the political scene was curious, especially after I learned that he was War Jack’s professor—just offstage as one of the defining Indigenous political dramas of the twentieth century played out on Alcatraz Island, which can be seen from Berkeley. But after revisiting his books, I realized that Momaday is apolitical only if one takes a limited view of politics. His work gestures toward an Indigenous, spiritual, culturally rooted, and place-based ethic that resonates with the thrust of Native activism from Alcatraz to Standing Rock and beyond.

Consider Abel, the protagonist of House Made of Dawn, a World War II veteran who returns, shell-shocked and suffering from alcoholism, to his grandfather Francisco’s house on the Jemez Pueblo. After stabbing an albino named Juan Reyes to death because he believes him to be a witch, Abel is convicted of homicide and incarcerated. Upon his release, he’s sent to Los Angeles on the relocation program—the same one that shipped War Jack and so many other Native people from reservations to cities across the United States. In Los Angeles he befriends a Navajo guy named Ben Benally, joins a Native American Church group, and finds work on an assembly line. But he struggles to get by, and slips back into drink. After a particularly bad night on the bottle, Ben puts Abel on a train back to Jemez, where he returns to his relations and his place among his people by performing the traditional funerary rites for his grandfather.

Two things struck me about Abel in this rereading: how close he cuts the profile of a relocated Indian who could have easily been swept up into the Indians of All Tribes or the American Indian Movement, and how small he feels amid the awesome landscapes of the Walatowa village and Cañon de San Diego, as written by Momaday. Indeed, for me, the most striking passages of House Made of Dawn depict Abel moving through the great mystery of his ancestral homelands. The book begins:

Dypaloh. There was a house made of dawn. It was made of pollen and of rain, and the land was very old and everlasting. There were many colors on the hills, and the plain was bright with different-colored clays and sands. Red and blue and spotted horses grazed in the plain, and there was a dark wilderness on the mountains beyond. The land was still and strong. It was beautiful all around.

Abel was running. He was alone and running, hard at first, heavily, but then easily and well. The road curved out in front of him and rose away in the distance. He could not see the town. The valley was gray with rain, and snow lay out upon the dunes. It was dawn. The first light had been deep and vague in the mist, and then the sun flashed and a great yellow glare fell under the cloud. The road verged upon clusters of juniper and mesquite, and he could see the black angles and twists of wood beneath the hard white crust; there was a shine and glitter on the ice. He was running, running. He could see the horses in the fields and the crooked line of the river below.

And it’s in this decision—to put man in his place from the start, and to hold space to revere the earth, creation, and the ceremonies that honor them—that you can see Momaday pointing to something profound. “Both consciously and subconsciously, my writing has been deeply informed by the land with a sense of place,” Momaday writes in a postscript to the 2010 edition of the book. “In some important way, place determines who and what we are. The land-person equation is essential to writing, to all of literature.”

Momaday homes in on this idea in his most recent book, Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land, which he describes as a “declaration of belonging” and an “offering to the earth.” In this lyrical seventy-seven-page ode to the American West, Momaday revisits stories he has turned over throughout his career: the origin of the Kiowa, the meaning of his name, and the pueblo village of Walatowa, where House Made of Dawn is set. Earth Keeper never mentions the Water Protectors or Land Defenders at the vanguard of the Indigenous rights and climate justice movements today. But it doesn’t need to in order to render a blistering critique of colonial and capitalist relationships to the other-than-human world and to sing with the power of Indigenous environmental epistemologies and ontologies.

“Ours is a damaged world,” Momaday writes. “We humans have done the damage, and we must be held to account. We have suffered a poverty of the imagination, a loss of innocence. There was a time when ‘man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent,’ this New World, ‘commensurate to his capacity for wonder.’ I would strive with all my strength to give that sense of wonder to those who will come after me.”

Putting Momaday’s work in conversation with the past half century of Indigenous activism it has paralleled is, I think, an illuminating way to consider both his books and the ideas undergirding Native movements. Voice is a fundamental building block for change, and ideas often have roots that run deeper than their political valence. If Momaday can speak so authentically to the Indigenous experience—our long odyssey through an imperial apocalypse, and the enduring power of our ceremonies and cultures, rooted in land and place, as organizing and governing principles—without saying a word about a political party, politician, or even an act of protest, then that just illustrates how fundamental the things he depicts are to our people. Epistemology, grounded in who we are and where we come from—our very being—becomes ontology. It’s from that starting place, that hearth, that you get the Alcatrazes, Standing Rocks, and Lanada War Jacks.

Despite being one of the most significant Native organizers in U.S. history, War Jack rarely describes herself as an activist. “My sons tease me and tell me that I’m a Berkeley radical and all that,” she says. “I’ve had to force myself to speak and say things because if nobody is going to say it, then I wind up having to say it or do it.” At heart, she still is the young woman in the back of the lecture hall. I see a little Abel in that.

But in a small way, Momaday inspired War Jack to use her voice. She’d never considered writing a book until he planted that seed all those years back. And life kept her from it for many decades. But in 2019, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the Alcatraz Occupation, she self-published Native Resistance: An Intergenerational Fight for Survival and Life, which traces our long struggle for self-determination on stolen land back across centuries.

I asked if she planned on sending her old professor a copy.

“I don’t know if he’ll remember me,” she said. “But I’ll have to do that.”

 

Julian Brave NoiseCat (Secwepemc/St’at’imc) is a fellow of the Type Media Center, columnist for Canada’s National Observer, and contributing editor with Canadian Geographic. He’s currently working on his first book, We Survived the Night, which will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in North America.

Read more: theparisreview.org

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