Tuesday, March 23, 2010

N. Scott Momaday: The Way To Rainy Mountain

N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain is a slim volume, less than 100 pages in length. It's a very unusual work, and one that has stayed with me for many years now. My first copy, a paperback edition, disintegrated in the Tucson heat, and I was forced to replace it several times, until I discovered a hardbound copy. I guess I can stop buying replacement copies now.


Noon in the intermountain plain:
There is scant telling of the marsh--
A log, hollow and weather-stained,
An insect at the mouth, and moss--
Yet waters rise against the roots,
Stand brimming to the stalks. What moves?
What moves on this archaic force
Was wild and welling at the source.

The book begins with the poem given above. Next is the "Prologue" and the "Introduction." This is followed by three sections: "The Setting Out," "The Going On," and sadly, "The Closing In." A brief epilogue concludes the work. I find it difficult to explain the attraction of the work, so I think I will just let the book talk for itself.

The Prologue begins:

The journey began one day long ago on the edge of the northern Plains. It was carried on over a course of many generations and many hundreds of miles. In the end there were many things to remember, to dwell upon and talk about.

. . .

For the Kiowas the beginning was a struggle for existence in the bleak northern mountains. It was there, they say, that they entered the world through a hollow log. The end, too, was a struggle, and it was lost. The young Plains culture of the Kiowas withered and died like grass that is burned in the prairie wind. . . But these are idle recollections, the mean and ordinary agonies of human history. The interim was a time of great adventure and nobility and fulfillment

Prior to reading the book, I had imagined that the title referred to some sort of Edenic spot, perhaps even a mythic Garden of Eden, but Momaday in the "Introduction" soon corrected me. The first paragraph of the "Introduction" begins--

A single knoll rises out of the plain in Oklahoma, north and west of the Wichita Range. For my people, the Kiowas, it is an old landmark, and they gave it the name Rainy Mountain. The hardest weather in the world is there. Winter brings blizzards, hot tornadic winds arise in the spring, and in summer the prairie is an anvil's edge. The grass turns brittle and brown, and it cracks beneath your feet. . . Loneliness is an aspect of the land. All things in the plain are isolate; there is no confusion or objects in the eye, but one hill or one tree or one man. To look upon that landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun."

The three middle sections are unique in that each section consists of a number of short chapters which are two pages long, and each chapter is comprised of three passages. Each of the three passages presents a different perspective. The first passage is a myth or a legend or a tale of the Kiowa people. The second passage is a fact or an observation that relates to the myth or legend or story in some way. The third and final passage is a reminiscence by Momaday, either of his own experience or one that relates to his family, and which links up the two previous passages. The three perspectives, then, present a picture, that like a hologram, is three-dimensional and can be viewed from several points.

For example, Chapter II of the first section tells of the time the Kiowas went hunting and killed an antelope. One of the 'big chiefs" came up and claimed the udders (a delicacy) for himself. At this another "big chief" insisted on having the udders for himself. An argument ensued and one of the chiefs "gathered all of his follows together and went away." They were never heard of again.

In the second passage of Chapter II, Momaday tells us that "[t]his is one of the oldest memories of the tribe. There have been reports of a people in the Northwest who speak a language that similar to the Kiowa."

The third passage is a personal memory of Momaday's when he "remembered once having seen a frightened buck on the run, how the white rosette of its rump seemed to hang for the smallest fraction of time at the top of each frantic bound--like a succession of sunbursts against the purple hills."

And again, in Chapter III, in the first passage we learn the story of how the Kiowas first got the dog, long before the horse. In the second passage, we get a stronger sense of the importance of the dog when we learn that the "principal warrior society of the Kiowas was the Ka-itsenko, 'Real Dogs,' and it was made up of ten men only, the ten most brave" in the tribe.

In the third passage, Momaday writes

There were always dogs about my grandmother's house. Some of them were nameless and lived a life of their own. They belonged there in a sense that the word "ownership" does not include. The old people paid them scarcely any attention, but they should have been sad, I think, to see them go.

But the horse was also extremely important to the Kiowa for it gave them the freedom to move that they had never had before. In one of the last chapters of the book, we read

Once there was a man who owned a fine hunting horse. It was black and fast and afraid of nothing. When it was turned upon an enemy it charged in a straight line and struck at full speed. . .But, you know, that man knew fear. Once during a charge he turned that animal from its course. That was a bad thing. The hunting horse died of shame.

In the second passage, Momaday tells us of Gaapiatan, his grandfather, who sacrificed a fine horse as a offering in hopes that he and his family might escape a smallpox epidemic.

Momaday, in the third passage, then sums up by saying he thinks he knows what was in Gaapiatan mind--that he will give up something he values highly if his family might be spared.

As you can see, it does have a beginning, middle, and end and can be read that way, but I also open it up randomly and enjoy. One more point, interspersed throughout are stark, spare, and striking black-and-white illustrations by Momaday's father, Al Momaday.

In the epilogue, the Kiowa golden age, according to Momaday, lasted little more than 90 years. "The culture would persist for a while in decline, until about 1875, but then it would be gone, and there would be very little material evidence that it had ever been." Momaday writes that there were still a few who remembered, but he wrote this in the late 1960s, over 40 years ago. I doubt if there are any who are now still alive. Perhaps today Momaday himself is a significant resource of information for he has known some who had direct experience of the Kiowa culture in its last days.

The book concludes with the following poem:


Most is your name of this dark stone.
Deranged in death, the mind to be inheres
Forever in the nominal unknown,
The wake of nothing audible he hears
Who listens here and now to hear your name.

The early sun, red as a hunter's moon,
Runs in the plain. The mountain burns and shines;
And silence is the long approach of noon
Upon the shadow that your name defines--
And death this cold, black density of stone.

The Way to Rainy Mountain is a remarkable book, but the only way to experience it is to read it. I hope some will sit down and take it up some time. It's well worth the hour or so.


  1. You've talked me into it. I read Momaday's book quite a few years ago, and I remember it fondly; I look forward to revisiting it.

  2. R. T.,

    Enjoy. I would appreciate hearing your comments after having reread it.

  3. That's a haunting thought, that a Glden Age can be so short, that a short book can preserve a cultre that left few physical remains ... and be an elegy for that culture.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  4. Peter,

    "an elegy" I never thought of it that way. But, you are right--that's what Momaday has written, a prose elegy for the Kiowa people--something far more than a cultural anthropological paper.