Poet Writes 2nd Novel 20 Years After a Pulitzer : Books: In ‘The Ancient Child,’ Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday uses dreams and visions to find pathways to blood ancestry and racial memory.

<i> Iwata is a free-lance journalist based in San Francisco. </i>

In 1969, the year man took his first steps on the moon, a young Kiowa poet named N. Scott Momaday stunned the literary world when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a novel called “House Made of Dawn.”

Momaday, then an English professor at UC Santa Barbara, was so shocked he thought someone was playing a joke on him. His own publisher couldn’t recall the obscure book.

But some American Indians weren’t too surprised. They knew the poet was destined for glory. His last name in the Kiowa language, Mammedate , means Skywalker, or One Who Walks Above.

Two decades later, Momaday has written a second novel, “The Ancient Child” (published Oct. 25 by Doubleday), about the spiritual journey of an American Indian artist exploring his heritage and the mythology of his people.


The early reviews have praised the book as a dazzling new work. And demand for the literary novel has been surprisingly high, considering the author has been out of the national spotlight. “The Ancient Child” is already in its third printing with more than 20,000 copies published.

“We’re very pleased with the sales--we can’t go back to the printer fast enough,” said Lisa Eskow, publicist for Doubleday. “We expect the book to continue selling quite strongly.”

Why has the 55-year-old Momaday, an important voice in American letters, been silent for so long? “I don’t think of myself as a novelist. I’m a poet,” said Momaday, relaxing in the living room of his large adobe house during a break in his book promotional tour. “It’s been 20 years since I wrote ‘House Made of Dawn,’ and I think of it as an aberration. I still feel poetry is the highest form of literature.”

After his dazzling debut, Momaday wrote two books of poetry and two memoirs. None won the same widespread praise nor attention as “House Made of Dawn.” Momaday admitted he struggled to match the artistic power of his first work.

“I was in a state of disbelief when I heard about the Pulitzer,” said Momaday. “It also put extra pressure on me. I had a hard time getting on with the next book. What could I have possibly done that would have topped it?”

Most critics wrote highly of “House Made of Dawn.” Although he thought the novel’s narrative was flawed, Baine Kerr in the Southwest Review called it “a brave book” in which Momaday “mythicized Indian consciousness into a modern novel.”


Others condescended to it, suggesting that the fiery politics of the ‘60s swayed the Pulitzer Prize judges to select a nonwhite author. In the New York Times Book Review, John Leonard wrote that Momaday’s book was honored because it was a “safe” choice, “a pet instead of a work of art.”

Momaday’s friends scoff at the criticism his early work received.

“Scott was obviously a person of great capacity and promise,” said novelist Wallace Stegner, who taught Momaday in the 1960s when the poet was a creative-writing fellow at Stanford University. “It was clear he could more than hold his own among any writers--minority or non-minority.”

Momaday believes the poor reviews and doubts about his novel’s artistry arose from an ignorance of his American Indian background, a mystical culture of animal spirits, gourd dances and creation rituals.

“A lot of the reviews were perceptive and responsible; some were not,” said Momaday. “ ‘House Made of Dawn’ must have been very difficult to understand for writers from a more privileged experience. The Indian world is one of which most people know nothing.”

Like authors from James Joyce to Ralph Ellison, Momaday wrestles with questions of language, identity and racial ancestry in a civilization that seems to destroy cultural tradition rather than preserve it.

His themes from old Indian tales and his haunting lyrical style reflect the cadences of Kiowa and Navajo prayers and chants. His dreamy stories and characters jump back and forth across time.


Some feel Momaday’s strongest writing is not in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, but in his memoirs, “The Way to Rainy Mountain” (1969) and “The Names” (1976). In those meditative works, Momaday makes a pilgrimage to the Devil’s Tower rock in Wyoming, a great landmark in Kiowa myth.

Momaday’s new novel continues his journey across a magical landscape. Its hero, an Indian artist named Set, discovers he is the reincarnation of a Kiowa child of legend who turns into a bear. The bear chases seven sisters and a brother up Devil’s Tower, but the siblings escape into the sky, forming the stars of the Big Dipper.

“Yes, it’s an unusual novel--much different from ‘House Made of Dawn,’ ” said Momaday. “It’s a love story, a mythic tale. . . . It even has dime novel elements. And it has the old, old idea of a man searching for his identity.”

“The Ancient Child” is a largely autobiographical novel. Like Set, his character, Momaday is a painter who has had shows in several galleries in the Southwest (“I didn’t make Set a brain surgeon for a reason,” said Momaday, laughing). Like Set, Momaday believes that dreams and visions are pathways to one’s blood ancestry and racial memory. And like Set, Momaday believes the violent power of the “bear spirit” dwells inside him.

“With certain animals in the Indian cosmology, you can acquire power and benefit from knowing them,” said Momaday. “But the bear is hostile, a confrontation that can only be expressed as a struggle.”

Usually the bear is dormant, said Momaday. But it often surfaces in bursts of anger and destructiveness, he said. Or it may flood him with a new artistic vitality.


Animal spirits aside, Momaday and his publisher are pushing “The Ancient Child” as a quintessential American work.

“I can’t imagine it being written in any other country,” he said. “No other country has Indians, Wild West legends, Western landscapes . . .”

Momaday’s red adobe home is pure Americana. It squats amid sagebrush and cacti in a gently rolling desert area of Tucson, a short drive from the University of Arizona where Momaday teaches classes in literature and oral tradition.

His cream-colored Airedale, Sabadotarde (Saturday afternoon) gallops across the tiled floor to greet visitors. Momaday is a tall man with slow, graceful movements. He wears jeans and a black shirt like Marlon Brando to hide his large belly.

“Make me look a lot lighter,” he said, joking with a photographer.

The living room and den resemble a private gallery of Indian and Western artifacts and Momaday’s own etchings and paintings. On one wall hangs an old Apache shield made of dried horsehide, human hair and a yellowed bear tooth. It looks dull and faded.

“These things are full of power,” said Momaday. “I think of them as personal flags, coats of armor belonging to one man, representing one man, and he must be true to it.


“I suppose I hold onto these things because I’m a writer, and the imagination and the culture are so important to me,” he said. “Somehow, I manage to keep one foot in those worlds.”

Momaday’s facial features are clearly American Indian. But his deep, resonant voice--sounding theatrical and Anglo upper-crust--clashes with his appearance. He and his German wife, Regina Heitzer, have a 9-year-old daughter, Lore.

“This bicultural identity came naturally to me,” he said, sipping a soda water. “I was born into two cultures and brought up in two. I learned to exist in both worlds fairly early. Even though, at times, I was the only Indian in school, I was proud of my identity. And I got into a lot of fights with kids because of it.”

His father, a full-blooded Kiowa, and his mother, part-Cherokee, were educators, artists and writers who taught their son about the gifts of language and culture--white and Indian. The family lived on and off Navajo and Kiowa reservations in Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Momaday attended reservation and Catholic schools and then college at the now-defunct Augusta Military Academy in Virginia. The student Momaday was well-prepared when he arrived at Stanford in 1959.

People soon noticed the young writer from New Mexico. The late critic and poet Yvor Winters took Momaday under his wing. Francis McCullough, a classmate and editor of the school’s literary journal, The Sequoia, would later publish Momaday’s first novel as an editor of Harper & Row.

Today, Momaday’s supporters believe his writing and celebration of the Indian oral tradition is a beacon to Anglo writers and readers lost in a soulless world.


“The trouble with most Americans is we don’t speak from within a tradition; we all speak from outside and try to trample tradition,” said novelist Stegner, who lives in the Los Altos Hills near Stanford. “Scott has managed to find a mythological foundation for his writing, and it’s served him well.”

In the world according to Momaday, his life reflects his art over and over, like the seasons. Each summer, he tries to make it to Oklahoma City to join the few living Kiowa for the gourd dance, the tribe’s celebration of creation and mythology.

“When the drums start rolling and the eagle-feather fan is in my hand, it’s as if I’m going back 200, 300 years, and my father and grandfather and great-grandfather are dancing next to me,” said Momaday. “It takes hold of you. It’s intense and mystical, a kind of restoration.

“I sense I am where I ought to be, and where I have always been.”