WASHINGTON - It begins beautifully with Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa.
Starting with the famed author of ''House Made of Dawn'' is, of course, a great way to begin anything, but especially what is probably the largest gathering of contemporary Native writers on one compact disc.
''Pulling Down the Clouds: Contemporary Native Writers Read Their Work'' is an anthology of works by various writers read by the authors themselves. It pulls together a portion of the Native Writers Series undertaken for nine nights during each of the last four years at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Tanya Thrasher, Cherokee and editor of the CD project, said that after four years of invitations to writers to read their work, ''we have this amazing collection of audio recordings ... just the magnitude, just the power of every author and the talent they have.''
The result is a satisfying mixture of familiar universal stories with personal insights, a smattering of humor and even one song. The stories are told through the eyes of the authors or through their characters, like Momaday's empathetic envisioning of Sacagawea's thoughts as she traveled with Lewis and Clark; or the examination by Louise Erdrich, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, of the wisdom told by wolves to a once-suicidal old man from her Anishinaabe heritage: '''We live because we live.' ... The wolves accept the life
they are given.''
Even the simple relating of a baked river salmon ''recipe'' becomes an expression of culture in the masterful - and mouthwatering - description by Nora Marks Dauenhauer, Tlingit.
Many of the authors intersperse their traditional languages, adding a blessing of texture, depth and subtle hues.
The title of the CD is taken from the title of one of the pieces, ''Pulling Down the Clouds'' by Ofelia Zepeda. Speaking partially in the language of the Tohono O'odham people, she tells the story of a dream and an end to drought. The title rings appropriately for this anthology as a whole, bringing the fresh rain of words from so many rich sources.
Because these are live performances in a theater, the acoustics take on a more intimate resonant tone than usually found with authors reading from their work on a studio production.
''We've worked very hard on the sound quality. That was certainly one of the toughest parts of the project,'' said Thrasher.
The work has paid off, and in some unexpected ways. While these are artists with the written word, the oral reading adds a compelling element to this anthology.
''I think that's what makes the CD so special. In my listening over and over to their voices, just the passion and the intensity ... their life experience just came out,'' Thrasher said.
The experiences are as broad as the variety of nations represented and as universal as the experience of many Indians in the United States and Canada. In addition to the writers already mentioned, found on this CD are Simon Ortiz, Acoma Pueblo; Jim Northrup, Anishinaabe; Debra Magpie Earling, Confederated Salish and Kootenai; Tomson Highway, Cree; LeAnne Howe, Choctaw; Sherwin Bitsui, Dine'; Duncan Primeaux, Ponca; M.L. Smoker, Fort Peck Assiniboine/Sioux; Karenne Wood, Monacan; and Susan Power, Standing Rock Sioux. Joy Harjo, Muskogee/Creek, performs her ''Eagle Song.''
Thrasher said to think of this as the first CD from the Native Writers Series. Not included on this CD, but also providing a wealth of materials, are the conversations between many of the writers and series host Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee. In fact, the first event in the series was just such a conversation with Vine Deloria Jr., to whom the CD is dedicated. The live series will continue and more CDs may follow.
''Pulling Down the Clouds'' is available through the museum at www.americanindian.si.edu; click on the ''Native Writers Series'' for information on how to order.