In keeping with Kiowa and other Native traditions which see each individual as part of a complex set of kinship, clan, and place relations, N. Scott Momaday opens his memoir, The Names, with a long exploration of his ancestry and genealogy. The forebears of his mother, Natachee Scott Momaday, include a Revolutionary War general and a governor of Kentucky, as well as a Cherokee great-grandmother. As a young woman, Natachee Scott determined to reclaim her Native heritage and enrolled at Haskell Institute, an Indian boarding school operated by the federal government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Her son, Navarre Scott Momaday, expresses profound admiration for his mother's decision to identify as Indian, calling it an act of imagination by which she claimed essential identity and meaning. This concept of self-definition is frequently expressed in Momaday's writings and speeches: A person defines himself, he maintains, by imagining himself, and Momaday opens his own memoir with the announcement that the book is an act of the imagination.
Momaday's father, Alfred Momaday, belonged to a distinguished Kiowa family in Oklahoma. One great-great-grandmother was descended from a young woman captured by the Kiowas. Momaday's paternal grandmother, Aho, with whom he spent many childhood hours, and his paternal grandfather, Mammedaty, are central to the poetic evocation of Kiowa tradition and history in another autobiographical work, The Way to Rainy Mountain.
In The Names, Momaday describes how, some months after his birth in February 1934, he was solemnly given the Kiowa name Tsoai-talee (Rock-Tree Boy) by Pohd-lohk, his step-grandfather. The name refers to the strange, up-thrusting rock formation in Wyoming known as Devil's Tower. It is a highly significant name for Momaday, and he has retold in numerous places the traditional story of the formation of that geological feature of the landscape. The story, which is also related in House Made of Dawn, tells how a boy was transformed into a bear; bears have enormous personal significance for the author, and he often uses them as a theme in his writings.
Shortly after Momaday was born, the family — mother, father, and young Scott — moved from Oklahoma to New Mexico. From 1936 to 1943, the family lived in various places on the Navajo reservation: Shiprock, New Mexico, and Tuba City and Chinle, Arizona. Although there were stays in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Louisiana, the reservations of the Southwest were home. In 1943, World War II provided new employment opportunities for Momaday's parents, and the family spent three years near the army air base at Hobbs, New Mexico, before moving in 1946 to the pueblo of Jemez, New Mexico. Momaday recalls that in Hobbs he encountered ideas of race and acts of racial discrimination: The town included a "niggertown," and he was singled out by young neighbors as a "Jap." Momaday states that people have frequently assumed that he is of Asian descent, an identification that he embraces in his meditation on theories of ancient migrations over the Bering land bridge.
In Jemez, Momaday's parents taught in the day school. He writes with lyric nostalgia of his time at Jemez, where he lived until his last year of high school. Although an outsider in Pueblo culture, he was drawn to the serene rhythms of the corn-growing and sheep-herding society and the deep spiritual beauty of Pueblo life. It was here that Momaday developed an intense aesthetic appreciation for the Navajo people: The Navajo, he has said, "know how to be beautiful." The magnificent landscape of northern New Mexico inspired him, and he spent many hours on horseback exploring the mesas, canyons, and valleys. "Sense of place" and "land ethic" are phrases that recur in Momaday's writing. A constant perception of the integral relationship of the individual to a particular landscape permeates his work.
Momaday's final year of high school was spent at August Military School in Virginia, from which he graduated in 1952. Studies occupied the next eleven years. Momaday graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1958 and briefly attended Virginia Law School. Then, following a year of teaching at Dulce, New Mexico, on the Apache reservation, he entered Stanford University as a creative writing fellow. This was a significant event in his life; at Stanford, his mentor and subsequent close friend was Yvor Winters, a renowned poet and critic who was deeply appreciative (although also critical) of the French Symbolist poets and the American Romantic writers who inspired them. Momaday's doctoral dissertation at Stanford was a definitive edition of the poetry of an American Romantic, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. Later, he spent a year studying the manuscripts of Emily Dickinson. Much of Momaday's poetry and prose reflect the qualities of Romantic and Symbolist work — a sense of ineffable reality beyond words, a delight in deeply sensuous imagery, especially of nature, and a contemplative approach, characterized by wonder and awe towards reality. Yvor Winters was also one of the people who encouraged Momaday to explore his family's history.
Momaday received his Ph.D. degree in 1963, and in the following years, while producing his major writings, he taught at the University of California in Santa Barbara and Berkeley, at Stanford, at New Mexico State University, and at the University of Arizona. Interrupting his years of teaching at American universities, Momaday spent several months in Moscow in 1975 as the first Fulbright lecturer in American literature in the Soviet Union.
Two events in the 1960s were significant in Momaday's relationship with his Kiowa ancestry: his journey retracing the ancient Kiowa migration from the northern Rockies through the Great Plains, and his initiation into the Gourd Dance Society, a traditional Kiowa religious society. In 1965, after the death of his paternal grandmother, Momaday made the journey north from Oklahoma to South Dakota that was to inspire the Tosamah section of House Made of Dawn and be elaborated more fully in the lyrical prose volume, The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969). House Made of Dawn is Momaday's first published novel, appearing in 1968; the book was acclaimed for its poetry and sensitivity, and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Other major works are his collection of poems, The Gourd Dancer (1976), an autobiographical memoir titled The Names (1976), another novel, The Ancient Child (1990), and a compilation of out-of-print and new poems and short prose pieces, In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 (1992). In addition to his books, Momaday has published widely in periodicals and anthologies. One of the projects that he recalls with particular pleasure is a regular column he wrote in the 1970s for the New Mexico newspaper Viva.
Between the publication of The Names in 1976 and the appearance of The Ancient Child in 1990, Momaday was in much demand as a lecturer and interview subject. During this time, he published several important essays, including an introduction to American Indian literature for a literary history of the United States. He also worked intensively on another interest, graphic arts, exhibiting prints, drawings, and paintings in several shows. Momaday's interest in graphic arts is reflected in the poetic descriptiveness that suffuses his fiction and other prose, and his use of text in paintings and prints continues his mixing of media, which began with the illustrations by Al Momaday for The Way to Rainy Mountain and the author's own illustrations for The Gourd Dancer and The Names. His book In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 includes reproductions of many of his prints and drawings.
While rejecting the label "spokesman," Momaday has always been generous and supportive of initiatives for American Indian education and recognition in the arts. One of his earliest publications was an essay in Ramparts magazine titled "The Morality of Indian Hating"; appearing at the height of the civil rights struggle, the article brought to the attention of readers the unexplored riches of Indian heritage. He is a compelling speaker and has lectured in prestigious forums; he also makes himself available to chat with a student who wishes to interview him or to make a personal appearance in classes of young students entering university from the reservation. He has supported the work of many young American Indian authors, writing introductions and reviews in order for their names to become better known to the reading public. Momaday is one of the most interviewed of contemporary authors, and tapes and transcripts of these interviews provide much in the way of personal insight into his work. He continues a life dedicated to the arts — poetry, prose, visual arts, and storytelling.