Sunday, January 22, 2017

N. Scott Momaday: In the Bear's House, an overview

N. Scott Momaday
In the Bear's House

In the Bear's House is a rather unusual work, as will be seen from the Table of Contents I will provide shortly.  To be honest, I have only the briefest glimpse of what Momaday is doing here, but I find that what little I do see absorbing, as well as perplexing.  Rather than stumble about, confusing you and me even more, I will Momaday tell you in his own words what this book is all about.


Let me say at the outset that this is not a book about Bear (he would be spoken of in the singular and masculine, capitalized and without an article), or it is only incidentally about him.  I am less interested in defining the being of Bear than in trying to understand something about the spirit of wilderness, of which Bear is a very particular expression.  Even Urset, who is the original bear and comes directly from the hand of God, is symbolic and transparent, more transparent than real, if you will.  He is an imitation of himself, a mask.  If you look at him very closely and long enough, you will see the mountains on the other side.  Bear is a template of the wilderness.

I am acquainted with Bear,  indeed more than acquainted.  Bear and I are one, in one and the same story.  My Indian name is Tsoai-talee, which in Kiowa means 'Rock-tree boy.'  Tsoai, "Rock tree,' is Devils Tower in Wyoming.  That is where, long ago, a Kiowa boy turned into a bear and where his sisters were borne into the sky and became the stars of the Big Dipper.  Through the power of stories and names, I am the reincarnation of that boy.  From the time the name Tsoai-talee was conferred on me as an infant, I have been possessed of Bear's spirit.  The Kiowas--whose principal religious expression was the Sun Dance and whose most ancient blood memory was of the mythic darkness of a hollow log from which they emerged into the world--believe that the buffalo is the animal representation of the sun.  Bear is the animal representation of the wilderness.

.   .   .   .   .

Something in me hungers for wild mountains and rivers and plains.  I love to be on Bear's ground, to listen for that old guttural music under his breath, to know only that he is near.  And Bear is welcome in my dreams, for in that cave of sleep I am at home to Bear."

N. Scott Momaday

One comment:  Momaday does not mention that the Big Dipper is found in the Ursa Major or Great Bear Constellation.

Below is the table of Contents that follow the Introduction:

The Bear-God Dialogues
There are ten dialogues.  Some of the titles are  "You are, Urset. I am, Yahweh," "Berries," "Prayer,"
"Dreams," and "Baseball." 

The baseball dialogue is especially interesting for Cub fans.  Urset is the Bear and Yahweh is Yahweh.  Urset begins by telling Yahweh that his children want to play baseball.

Baseball. . .Baseball?

Baseball.  You know, played with bats, a ball, gloves. . .

Oh, for heaven's sake!  OF COURSE I know what baseball is.   I was a pretty fair shortstop in my day.  I taught Ernie Banks everything he knew, if I do say so myself.

My children, my little brood of bears, they are forming a team. Their enthusiasm is boundless.  Why, they even have a name for themselves.

Don't tell me.  .  .the "Cubs."

I really don't know why they can't be a football team.  They are bears, after all.  They are thick and furry.  And they are already accomplished at assault and battery.  It is their nature.  It is what they do.  But baseball!  Baseball is a game of swat, catch, and tag--better played by housecats."


This sections contains nineteen poems, and I will post some of them in the future. 

Only two passages are included in this section:  "The Bear Hunt" and "The Transformation."

As you can see from the Introduction, In the Bear's House is a very unique work.  One of the major themes that I've managed to grasp is the relationship Momaday has with wilderness and his thoughts on the significance of wilderness for all of us.   

This is one of those works that I think requires at least another reading, and probably a couple of rereadings.  

The NFL team in Chicago is the Chicago Bears.
The following link will lead you to the Wiki article on Ernie Banks, probably the most popular Cub player of all time..


  1. Of everything you have included from Momaday, I am most surprised by the inclusion of Yahweh; mixing Yahweh with aborigine American myth figures is a mind-blowing event.

    1. R.T.,

      It is Momaday's ability to surprise me that attracts me to his writings. I never know what to expect when I turn the first page of one of his books.

    2. Fred, if I had your email, I would send this to you in that way, but I must rely upon this venue; you might be interested in what I have just posted about a poet who has an uncanny "ability to surprise me" -- Robert Frost:

      All the best . . . Tim

    3. R.T.,

      Agreed. Frost frequently is enigmatic, especially at the end of some of his poems when he seems to question everything that went before.

    4. Fred, "The Road Not Taken" remains a great puzzle to me; the syntax and logic subtly undermine the widely assumed "meaning" of the poem, but I guess I will tackle that one some time in the future.

    5. R.T.,

      Yes, and so much depends upon how that "sigh" is interpreted.

  2. i guess Momaday is taking off on kiowa spiritual beliefs... if he is very committed to them, which it sounds like he is, then logical extrapolation would lead to the inclusion of all references to ursus within his purview, regardless of temporal constraints; more, that might explain why he includes allusions to bears in his present discussion, regardless of when the knowledge became available to him... if that makes any sense... interesting guy, Momaday; it's always intriguing to visit different points of view; there's so much more around us physically and spiritually that we'll ever be aware of...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      His Kiowa heritage plays a strong and ever-present role in all of his writings. Have you seen my brief commentary on his "The Way to Rainy Mountain"? It's my favorite work by Momaday, so far.

      This is a link to that commentary:

    2. tx for the reference, but whati got was "this page does not exist"

    3. Mudpuddle,

      Sorry about that.

      Try this. Scroll down the page and watch the right sidebar. When you reach the section titled "Labels", move down and click on either "Momaday" which will bring up all the posts for Momaday or continue down until you reach "The Way to Rainy Mountain" and click on that.

    4. oh tx i should have figured that out myself... i'm a bit handicapped when it comes to computer stuff...

  3. This one sounds interesting.

    I tend to enjoy trying to crack books like this. They can be frustrating but they often yield delicious fruit when one is persistent. Though I tend to try to get through them without too much outside help sometimes Google can be of assistance if all else fails.

    1. Brian Joseph,

      Agreed. It's also on my "must reread list."

  4. Intriguing post, as always, Fred. Hadn't heard of this book or this author. Speaking of Yahweh and baseball and aboriginal Indian events, have you read SUMMERLAND by Michael Chabon? I think you might want to take a look. :) It's not the sort of book I would normally read but a friend highly recommended it and I was hooked.

    1. Yvette,

      No, I haven't read it. What's it about?

      I've read several by him, but nothing recently.