In 1969, Kiowa writer and literary icon of Indian Country N. Scott Momaday won the highly-sought Pulitzer Prize for his novel “House Made of Dawn.” In the more than five decades since his award, Momaday continued to contribute his writings and poetry to an extremely appreciative fan base.
Momaday was named the Frost Medalist, an award whose legacy goes all the way back to the 1930s, and was named in honor of the literary notable Robert Frost.
One of the pinnacles of his lifetime of honors was in 2007, when President George Bush presented the 2007 National Medal of Arts to Momaday in the East Room of the White House.
Momaday took a recent morning out of his busy day to speak and share a few lighthearted laughter with Indian Country Today. He shared his reflections on his long career, offering words of why he has always been compelled to write, as well as offered advice to young aspiring Native writers.
Vincent Schilling: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me this morning and to share your words with our readers of Indian Country Today. The first question I'd like to ask of course is how you feel about being named this year's Frost Medalist?
N. Scott Momaday: I'm delighted to have received that award. It is an important one and I am gratified, of course. I'm looking forward to receiving the medal and I am hoping it is larger than a dime, who knows (laughs).
Vincent Schilling: You won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 and have spent years writing for the benefit of Indian Country. What do you think as you reflect back?
N. Scott Momaday: I've grown wiser and I have the benefit of a considerable age now and experience, and I find that very valuable to me. I have seen much of the world and I'm able to appreciate it in a way that I couldn't in former times. So I think I've grown and I've become more productive as a matter of fact, I think now that I'm retired and that I no longer teach, I've been able to write at a greater rate and I'm paid as well. And I've earned that right.
Vincent Schilling: You remind me of a story where this contractor in the last 10 years of his career, made 10 times more money because he had that freedom. It's kind of interesting when you clear everything else away. You say that you've been able to write even more. That's exciting to me.
N. Scott Momaday: I had a couple of books out in the past year, so I'm doing great, doing pretty well now. And I have two more in the works, so I'm being productive and it feels good. I'm becoming more and more interested in my Kiowa heritage. I'm writing about that and other things in general, I write both poetry and prose. I find that my prose tends to focus on the Indian world and my poetry is all over the place. I write about everything in poetry, everything that comes to mind and inspires me.
Vincent Schilling: They always say, write what you know. So, I appreciate that. As a writer, I think of myself going out there to write books as a Native author and many people have said, ‘Who are you?’ I'm curious how you were first received as a writer and if being Native had hurt or helped your endeavors?
N. Scott Momaday: I think it helped in the sense that my father was a full-blood Kiowa and he was, he was in possession of much of the oral tradition of the Kiowas. So he told me stories when I was first able to understand language. And so I took that into my mind, and the stories have stayed there I'd memorized many of them. And so I had a real grasp of the oral tradition at a young age and I've kept that tradition in my writing. When I was an undergraduate, I wrote poetry. I entered poetry contests and I won several of those contests. So that was a good incentive and indicates that I was fairly well-received early. And then when I started writing seriously after my graduate career, I won the Pulitzer Prize. And so I was certainly well received. That changed my life in certain ways and certainly put me on the road to further success.
Vincent Schilling: That was certainly no small accomplishment. (Laughs)
N. Scott Momaday: (Laughs) Well, it was. It was a strange, unfortunate thing and it came as a complete surprise. People don't generally believe that. They have asked, 'How long of an advanced surprise did you know you were in the running? And I say, 'I didn't know I was in the running at all.' And one day I got a phone call telling me that I got awarded the prize and it came as a complete surprise. A very welcome one of course, but I wasn't expecting it.
Vincent Schilling: Wow. I didn't know that it was a surprise. That's amazing. So as a literary artist what compels you in your life that you just have to write? Much as a painter must immerse themself in needed to create a painted image or a sculptor must create something from the earth, why do you, as a literary artist, have to write?
N. Scott Momaday: I think you have the compulsion to write if you are a writer. You fall in love with words and language, and you're inspired by language. I find much inspiration in reading other people's writing. I got to know most of myself in their work. I was inspired by Emily Dickinson in particular, I think the greatest of American poets. She was clearly in love with language. I have the same kind of inspiration when I come into contact with language and things that are said and written in an exemplary way.
Vincent Schilling: I must acknowledge the way through your career and accolades as to how you have represented Native people. You were Oklahoma Poet Laureate. Additionally, look at Joy Harjo who was named the national Poet Laureate. When we as a nation have Native people as poet laureates, what this says for Native literary artists is incredible.
N. Scott Momaday: Yeah, it was a great thing. I was pleased to have been honored by the Oklahoma Centennial. I was named the Oklahoma Centennial Poet Laureate of the Kiowa tribe some years ago. So they told me that I would hold that position until someone else won the Pulitzer Prize. I am still holding that office. I'm grateful for that. I have a number of awards that I'm very pleased to have and I've been grateful. I think one of the great virtues of humanity is gratitude. And I certainly have had a life that has called upon my gratitude. I like that very much.
Vincent Schilling: That is fantastic. Gratitude is something that is missing in many things. When you look at some of the chaotic things that are going on around us, many times it is the absence of genuine gratitude.
N. Scott Momaday: And at this time in our experience, particularly, I think when we had such a trying 2020 there's still much that remains to be grateful for. And our gratitude is something that may save us in the long run.
Return to Rainy Mountain is a "Living Story" focusing on Pulitzer Prize winning Native American poet and writer N. Scott Momaday and his daughter Jill.
Vincent Schilling: So looking at the impressive list of things you've done in your body of work, one of your latest is "Earth Keeper: Reflections on American Land." Robert Redford gave a review on it. And he wrote, “N. Scott Momaday skillfully continues a tradition in Earth Keeper from which we can all learn and benefit."
N. Scott Momaday: I'm very pleased to have written "Earth Keeper." I think that a crisis at even a greater magnitude than COVID-19 is global warming. I'm very concerned to do something about that. "Earth Keeper" is an appreciation of the spirit of the earth, which is something that I think we need to know and appreciate. We're concerned with doing many things to save the environment, but too few of us are concerned with the spiritual quality of the environment of the earth. So I'm trying to indicate more about that. "Earth Keeper" is a kind of handbook for that sort of thing.
Vincent Schilling: If a writer is trying to publish a book and is in the midst of the publishing industry, dealing with agents, publishers and more, how much does a writer need to stick to his guns? And how much should he or she listen to the words of industry literary professionals?
N. Scott Momaday: I would say that you're better off by sticking to your guns. I have not encountered many instances in which an editor has wanted me to change something. However, if the suggestion comes, I certainly think you should listen to any observations or advice that comes from the people who read your work.
Vincent Schilling: I'd love to know what advice you have for aspiring authors, poets and other artists. Especially those in Indian Country.
N. Scott Momaday: I think that I would say, and I have said to my students for many years, is “write what you know about.” American Indian people have a great tradition of oral literature. They can make use of that. I think they must and I think it's mandatory that they write out of the oral tradition, because it is a great instrument of language. There are few, if any written Indian languages, so the storytelling tradition becomes more important for that reason. People have a great investment in language and I think it's incumbent upon young people, especially to make use of that. Many people have heard stories from their parents and grandparents and so on. They've not been written down and they probably should be, or at least the tenor of their expression should be preserved by young writers. And I think if Indian people think about 'Who am I as a person? What is my tradition? What is my investment in an expression of what I write? What shall I write about? How shall I write about it?' They have a ready-made kind of tradition of storytelling that is greatly valuable, and they should make the most of it. So tell my Indian students, 'You have something to write about? Write about it.'
Vincent Schilling: Wow. That's beautiful. Well, Mr. Momaday, I appreciate your time very much.
N. Scott Momaday: Well, I appreciate your calling and talking to you. It's been fine and I wish you good luck.