PORTLAND, Ore. - Stage presence is what N. Scott Momaday has. From the
carved oak chair on the dais in Portland's historic Baptist church, he
growled low and guttural and slow like a bear at one point. But mostly, he
boomed forth with stentorian sonority, and shook his white mane of hair.
Still, while Dr. Momaday's personae might be fierce and commanding, his
words - on behalf of Lewis and Clark College's bicentennial symposium
entitled "Encounters" - were tame.
"Encounter with wilderness. It's important because so much of our
imagination has to do with wilderness. The West. Moving West. Encountering
the wilderness. It has always been a central theme in our imagination,"
Momaday said. "And it goes on, doesn't it? It goes on. We talk about the
Wild West, and it is no longer. But it exists in the American mind. We
can't do without it ... We must have a sense of westward movements. We
always must think of our destiny in terms of encounter."
The revered scholar, who earned his bachelor's degree from the University
of New Mexico and his master's and doctoral degrees from Stanford
University, went on: "Lewis and Clark remains in my mind one of the great
epic odysseys in American history," Momaday said. "And of all time. There
are such moments. We must stand in awe of them. Appreciate them. Give
thanks for them. These encounters."
Where was the militancy? Where was careful circumscription about how the
Lewis Clark Bicentennial is, after all, a commemoration not a celebration,
and the rhetoric about how the coming of Lewis and Clark spelled the demise
of traditional tribal life and thus Indian people have no reason to laud
Largely absent. If Momaday touched on the dislocation Indian people
suffered after Lewis and Clark opened the West for subsequent invasion, he
did so only with sad, gentle strokes full of a weighty pathos. Indeed, the
modern-day bard presented a different drama. A soliloquy in which the easy
answers diminished and the larger themes of human history emerged.
There N. Scott Momaday was. His hands politely folded over his modest
paunch, regaling the crowd about his perceptions of the Lewis and Clark
experience "through intersections of sorrow" and "geometries of time and
"What a great experience that was for all of us," he pronounced. To make
his point, Momaday held his large hands out to the well-heeled crowd of 200
plus seated on the church's padded pews. "Isn't it wonderful that 200 years
later we can look back."
The scrolled wood panels behind Momaday were honey-colored in the light
shining down from the high dome of the sanctuary and gave "the dean of
American Indian writers" - as the New York Times termed him - a regal,
bear-like poise. A commanding presence that the man whose Indian name means
Rock Tree Boy, and connotes "bear power," is clearly entitled.
Why is he not more like the outspoken radical Vine Deloria Jr? Momaday
allows a benign smile to light his face. "My temperament has it," he said,
with great gravitas, "that I'm more interested in story than politics. And
so I think of Lewis and Clark as a kind of mythology, beyond the actual
physical accomplishment of the expedition."
Myths. Whether they come from the Greeks or the Norse or American Indians,
students know the language of myths is poetry. And it was with poetry and
poetic phrasing that Momaday translated his thoughts about Lewis and Clark
and their "encounter" with those present.
"We welcomed them to our world," he intoned. "We gave them melons."
And from poetry, the essayist and novelist who currently holds the post of
Regent's Professor of Humanities at the University of Arizona and who in
1969 won a Pulitzer Prize for his "House Made of Dawn", went to history -
the history of survival.
Momaday, Kiowa, told a story about his tribe and their beaded cradleboards.
How when in the first part of the 1800s, a time when the Kiowa population
was in such severe decline the people wondered if they'd make it, if they'd
"It was the women. The women who made these lovely objects. Works of art,
really. These beaded cradleboards. It was their gift to those yet to come.
To those they hoped would come. It was an elegant, beautiful offering to
the survival of their people. It was a story informed by nobility, dignity,
glory. Glory," Momday said, his deep voice caressing the word. His voice
reluctant to let go of the word. "Glory. A kind of glory"
Momaday's generous spirit informs not only his perception of history, but
also his contemporary pen. When he read from his new unpublished work that
describes how the Indians might have viewed Lewis and Clark, all eyes in
the mostly non-Indian audience were upon him. "We watched them day by day
as they moved against the wind and the rains. There were few, but they
moved on, and we watched them. They must have had good medicine and must
have been looking for more. This we could understand, for we too moved
against hunger. We too quested ...," Momaday read before concluding. "We
believe they were on a vision quest."
Momaday also surmised what the thoughts of Sacagewea - the Shoshone woman
who along with her French husband, Charboneau, traveled with Lewis and
Clark - might have been. "There were 30 white men. My husband was a white
man. I was glad and afraid," Momaday read, dark eyes from behind black wire
rim glasses. "There was a baby in my belly. Even my baby was half a white
man. I was glad and afraid."
So it was that in Portland, Ore. 200 years after the Lewis and Clark
expedition, survivor N. Scott Momaday spoke to those gathered. And by
choosing neither extreme, he led those who listened into the moderate
ground where only a sophisticated sense of life and an appreciation for
complexity serve as guides. Thus Momday did not shy away from his position
that yes, the Lewis and Clark expedition was a great American odyssey. Yes,
there was much sorrow for Indian people in its aftermath. Yes, vision
quests can be had by many peoples. And yes, there have been survivors.
Put another way by the writer of American letters, "The words rose and spun
like leaves in the sky. The silences were there forever."