House Made of Dawn By N. Scott Momaday Summary and Analysis Part 1: 21-Jul

After sleeping off his liquor for a day and a night, Abel gets up early in the morning and climbs a hill that overlooks the city. The author follows this brief scene with six fragments marking milestones or significant elements from Abel's past. These brief stories are presented chronologically, from Abel's early childhood, when he was about five years old, to his recent experiences in the war. Some critics explain these passages as Abel's memories; they are presented by the omniscient narrator, who tends to relate them through Abel's consciousness, but who sometimes steps outside Abel's vision for a more objective perspective.

The first episode relates an experience from Abel's childhood, when he was about five years old. Abel and his brother Vidal had gone on horseback to take part in the annual diversion of spring run-off to water the fields of the pueblo. This event traditionally combined religious ceremony, agricultural production, erosion control, and social festivities. Abel's mother was alive at this time, and she cooked for her sons and father; she died a few months after this event, and for a long time, Abel was unable to visit her grave.

Another event from Abel's early life is related in the second brief account. Once when Abel was herding sheep as a very young boy, he was frightened by a curse from an old woman who was drunk and had the reputation of being a witch. Running away from the old woman, he let the dog drive his sheep into the safety of a dry wash. However, the dog was frightened by the eerie sound of wind whistling through a hole in the rock. The sound filled the young boy with dread, and now the mourning sound of dread and anguish remains fixed in his emotional memory.

The third passage describes the death of Vidal, Abel's older brother. The child Abel had waited outside the house and watched the elders enter; then his grandfather brought him inside, leaving him alone for a few moments with his dying (or perhaps already-dead) brother. Abel spoke his brother's name.

The fourth episode takes place very early, while it is still dark, on New Year's Day in 1937, when Abel was seventeen, almost an adult. The narrator says that when his grandfather awakened him, he remembered shooting a doe in similar cold weather. Realizing that his grandfather had already hitched up the wagon, Abel finished dressing and joined his grandfather to participate in a ceremony in the nearby pueblo of Sia. This ceremony involves rituals performed by the clans of the village, by the crow, antelope, deer, and buffalo societies. After the ceremonies and some feasting and drinking, Abel and one of the daughters of the host had a sexual encounter outside the town, but the alcohol prevented Abel from feeling pleasure in the act.

The next episode that the narrator relates is much longer. It begins with a brief statement: Abel had seen an eagle flying with a snake in its talons, a portentous sight. The omniscient narrator then explains some of the history of the Eagle Watchers Society, one of the traditional clans or priestly societies of Walatowa. Members of this society were descended from a group of refugees, the remnants of a village called Bahkyula, who had suffered much at the hands of the warlike peoples of the Plains, as well as from disease. The refugees appeared in the early 1800s and were taken into the village of Walatowa. Poor as they were, they brought with them four sacred objects: a flute, bull and horse masks, and a statue of the Virgin Mary in her aspect as Queen of the Angels. In Abel's youth, the leader of the Bahkyush Eagle Watchers Society was a venerable man named Patiestewa. Members of the society have a reputation as seers and prophets; they are considered powerful in the all-important functions of rainmaking and eagle hunting.

After telling about the origins of the Eagle Watchers Society, the narrator describes how, by chance, Abel saw the eagle and snake. He was walking down a mountainside, returning from work for a rancher; looking at an awe-inspiring valley, he suddenly saw two golden eagles in a mating flight. The magnificent female carried a snake in her talons, let it go, and the male caught it in air, then let it go. The birds then flew away.

A few months later, it seems, Abel told Patiestewa what he had seen and asked to join the Eagle Watchers Society on their journey to capture live eagles for prayer plumes. Allowed to join, he set off with the other men. After making offerings and praying at sacred sites along the way, the men undertook a traditional rabbit hunt, killing or stunning the animals with small boomerang-like clubs. Abel took a rabbit and then prepared himself in the prescribed way by washing his head and gathering the items he would need to complete his eagle capture. Then he climbed alone to the remote eagle-hunt house, where he prepared a trap and waited near the rabbit carcass to capture the eagle. A male and female eagle approached the rabbit bait. When the female struck at the rabbit, Abel grabbed her legs and drew her into the trap. He then rejoined the group with his eagle; only one other man, San Juanito, had also caught an eagle, but it was an old bird. The men blessed this bird, talked to it, and set it free. That night, as the other men were eating, Abel opened the sack with his eagle, and, filled with disgust at the sight of the hooded, captured bird, he strangled it.

A sixth episode from Abel's past follows. This brief passage tells of Abel's departure for the army. His grandfather had not wanted him to go and was not present to say good-bye. This bus ride was Abel's first trip in a motor vehicle. He left the village and entered the life outside it, a life that would be filled with loneliness, confusion, and apprehension.

Another passage of recollection from the past follows. This final sequence opens with the narrator remarking that Abel suffers from a loss of memory about recent events. He can remember his past at Walatowa (presumably including the events narrated in the preceding paragraphs), but about what happened after his departure for the army, he can recall very little. However, he does remember lying on a battlefield among strewn leaves, bodies, and the wreckage of war. The constant din of battle had ceased, and in the silence, he heard the gathering sound of what eventually turned out to be a tank moving over the horizon and passing with deafening roar very close to him. The experience left him drained and shaken.

After these passages relating key events from Abel's past, the narration returns to Abel, at home in Jemez. It is morning and he is overlooking the village as the sun rises and the church bell begins ringing the morning Angelus. He is hung over but responds to the bracing air as he watches a car in the distance approach and finally enter the village. He begins to walk back down into the village.

The omniscient narrator now shifts the scene to the house of the village priest, Father Olguin, who is moving slowly around his sacristy, getting ready to say Mass for the shuffling, coughing people on the other side of the wall. Two people are assisting at the service: old Francisco, Abel's grandfather, who acts as sacristan, and a young boy named Bonifacío, whom the priest sends out to light the candles, urging him to hurry. Then Father Olguin hears the sound of a car, which the reader knows is the one that Abel watched from above the village. A young woman comes into the church and is present at the service; afterwards, she visits the priest and introduces herself as Mrs. Martin St. John. In their conversation, the woman reveals that her home is in California and that she is staying at the Benevides house, some distance from the village, while she is treated at the nearby mineral baths. She asks the priest to help her find someone to chop firewood, and he promises to ask his sacristan.

Following this episode, the narration moves back to Abel and the late afternoon. His hangover has depressed him all day, but as he walks along the hilly outskirts of the village and sees the men working in the fields below, he feels comforted and at home.

Glossary

cacique The Spanish word translates as "chief"; it can mean boss, or as here, the head of a clan, or priestly society.

box canyon a canyon with no outlet.

oven bread bread baked in the characteristic beehive-shaped pueblo ovens that were introduced by the Spaniards; it is made from wheat and yeast. It is different from traditional cornbread that is baked on hot stones.

the crows and the buffalo and the singers came out The passage refers to the dancers of the crow and buffalo religious societies as they emerge in their ceremonial regalia.

Navajo The Navajo reservation is close to Jemez to the north and west of it.

Sia, Isleta two other New Mexico pueblos, near Jemez.

arroyo a dry wash, or creek bed.

Bahkyush a person from the Tanoan village of Bahkyula.

mule doe female mule deer.

kiva the sacred place of esoteric ceremony and worship of the Pueblo peoples. Remains of prehistoric kivas in sites like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon show that they have traditionally been subterranean round chambers.

Domingos people from the pueblo of Santo Domingo.

conchos round, ornate silver disks usually fastened onto a leather strap for a belt.

Eagle Watchers Society one of the clan, or priest societies, of Jemez pueblo; it is special because it comprises descendants of the Bahkyula refugees.

Tanoan one of the Pueblo language groups; other groups are Keres, Tewa, and Towa.

Bahkyula a village to the east, near the plains, from which the inhabitants fled and eventually settled in Jemez.

patrones patrons, hosts (Spanish).

Pecos a river in Texas to the south and east of Jemez. The Bahkyush people bring with them bull and horse masks acquired during their contact with Spanish missionaries; the masks will figure in the ceremony of Saint James (Santiago).

María de los Angeles . . . Porcingula Our Lady of the Angels, from Porcingula. A Franciscan church near the town of Assisi, in Italy, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary with this title. The name was also given by Franciscan missionaries to the settlement in southern California now known as Los Angeles (the full name of the city is Ciudad de Santa Maria Reina de los Angeles de Porcingula). The Bahkyush have a statue of the Virgin apparently acquired through contact with Franciscan missionaries.

Valle Grande Great Valley.

a feast of martyrs a day dedicated to a saint who was martyred. The priest wears red vestments to celebrate the Mass in honor of a martyr. However, July 21 is apparently not a martyr's feast, but the feast of a virgin, which would ordinarily require white vestments.

chasuble the outermost vestment, often ornately decorated, worn by the priest saying Mass.

sacristy the room off the sanctuary of a church where the priest puts on his robes and where things like hymn books, wine, and sacred vessels are stored.

cassock the black or red full-length smock worn by priests and acolytes under ceremonial vestments or as ordinary dress.

Ándale hombre! Hurry up, man! (Spanish).

sacrament of communion bread and wine said to be transformed into Christ's body and blood in the Mass.

Los Ojos literally, in Spanish, "the eyes"; a place near Walatowa.

Mass the central ceremony of the Catholic religion.

Bienvenido a la tierra del encanto Welcome to the land of enchantment. "Land of Enchantment" is the motto of the state of New Mexico, and the phrase appears on road signs at the state's borders.

Benevides The house where Angela St. John is staying seems to be named for Fray Benevides, a Spanish friar and explorer who wrote about his encounters with the people of the Rio Grande Valley in the 1600s.

sacristan the man who takes care of the church sacristy, keeps it neat, locks and unlocks the church, and so on.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

A few months after his birth, author Navarre Scott Momaday was given the Kiowa Indian name




Quiz