Summary and Analysis
Part 2: 27-Jan
This chapter consists entirely of the second of Tosamah's two sermons. Much of the text was published earlier in a magazine article, and the whole chapter forms part of the prologue to the author's next book, an autobiographical journey titled The Way to Rainy Mountain. Tosamah is thus closely identified with Momaday himself.
Tosamah opens his sermon with a description of the landscape of his (and Momaday's) birthplace, Oklahoma. The language is richly evocative and poetic, recalling the earlier descriptions of the mesas, mountains, canyons, and plains around Walatowa pueblo. The prairie around the rise called Rainy Mountain is vast, isolate, sublime.
Tosamah/Momaday then begins to tell of his return to his grandmother's house for her funeral, and what he knows of this remarkable woman and the history she was part of. Named Aho, she was born at the last moment of glory of the Kiowas; Tosamah summarizes the end of that moment in the abandonment of the Kiowas on the Staked Plains, southwest of Amarillo, and their eventual surrender and transport to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to be made wards of the government. Tosamah then moves further back into the traditional history of the Kiowas, from their emergence onto the northern prairie near Yellowstone through their acquisition of the horse, which gave them a mobility that made them nearly invincible rulers of the plains for a hundred years. Tosamah says that his grandmother carried within her a memory of places she had never been but was able to picture perfectly in her mind's eye; he determined to go north and recreate that migration southward, to recapture in spirit some of the glorious history of the Kiowa. He relates the Kiowas' migration to their origin story of having emerged from a hollow log: Coming out of the forest onto the plains, they passed from darkness and enclosure into openness and light.
In prose that echoes closely the earlier description (in the chapter for July 28, 1945) of the plains beneath the New Mexico mesas, Tosamah describes the grandeur of the high plains descending from the northern Rockies. He describes coming suddenly upon Devil's Tower and being awestruck by this sublime natural wonder, then relates a Kiowa story of its origins. According to legend, seven sisters were playing with their brother on the prairie when the brother began to behave strangely and aggressively, and they saw that he was metamorphosing into a bear. They fled up a tree, and when the brother tried to climb after them the tree continued to grow until the sisters found haven in the sky. The tree petrified into Devil's Tower, and the girls remained in the sky as the seven stars of the Big Dipper constellation.
After another poetic, descriptive passage, Tosamah turns again to more recent history, relating that his grandmother was present at two final events: the last sun dance held in 1887, with the hide of a buffalo purchased — not hunted — in Texas, and the final incomplete observance of 1890, commemorated by the designation "Sun Dance When the Forked Poles Were Left Standing" and noted in the calendar by a figure of the unfinished lodge. Then the narrator moves to more personal childhood memories of his grandmother, recollecting in particular seeing her pray in a language unknown to him, but melancholy and moving in its cadences.
More poetic description follows, meditating on the lonely and picturesque character of isolated farmhouses on the plains. Then Tosamah returns to speak of his grandmother's house and the community of Kiowa elders that gathered there. He recalls the extravagant beauty and formal etiquette that characterized the people. The men he recalls as grave, wise, self-possessed, and full of reserve. The women were their subordinates, full of chatter and gossip, gaudily dressed and bountiful cooks. As a child, he would play with other children while the elders talked, prayed, and sang, and afterward, he would fall asleep near his grandmother.
The narration modulates to the present, as Tosamah describes the silent, empty rooms that he found upon his return for his grandmother's funeral. He carries the memory of a cricket that he observed, outlined within the circle of the full moon, and of the stillness of the great prairie night. His last comments tell of walking at dawn at the cemetery at Rainy Mountain to make his final farewell to his grandmother.
Hummingbird a character in traditional mythology — especially in Mexico and the Southwest. Hummingbird plays a crucial role as messenger and adviser in a Pueblo myth relating the journey of the hero to retrieve rain clouds from a witch who has sequestered them. Hummingbird also figures in Southwest creation stories as a guide up through the underground worlds into the present world.
Wichita a range of hills in southern Oklahoma/northern Texas.
Rainy Mountain a center of Kiowa life and land in Oklahoma; the site of Momaday's (in the novel, Tosamah's) grandmother's house.
tornadic tornado winds.
Smoky Hill; Canadian; Arkansas; Cimarron rivers flowing through Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and adjacent areas.
Comanches a southern Plains tribe in the Texas area; like the Kiowas and other Plains peoples, they maintained a nomadic way of life dependent mainly on buffalo.
Staked Plains an area south and west of Amarillo, Texas.
Palo Duro Canyon a deep, rugged canyon in northern Texas, called the Grand Canyon of Texas.
Fort Sill one of many forts in the West erected during the campaigns against the Indians.
origin myth a creation story; it can tell about the creation of the world or the origin of a clan or ceremony.
Black Hills a region of South Dakota sacred to the Lakota/Dakota peoples.
Bighorn River a river on the northern plains in the Montana/Wyoming area.
Devil's Tower a monumental rock formation in Wyoming, upthrust through the flat prairie and flat on top; a sacred place to the Kiowas and site of one of their most important legends.
Big Dipper a constellation of seven stars, used in navigating to sight the North Star.
Blackfeet a nation of the northern plains, Canada, and Montana.
Crows another northern nation, allied with the U.S. against the Lakota and Cheyenne during the Indian wars.
Washita a river winding through Kansas and Oklahoma.
Rainy Mountain Creek a stream running below Rainy Mountain.
Goodnight a ranch in Texas with a herd of buffalo.
Sun Dance When the Forked Poles Were Left Standing The sun dance was the central act of worship of the Kiowas — held once a year, when possible. The designation of this sun dance commemorates the fact that it was incomplete; the phrase would have explained an entry in the Kiowa calendar, a pictographic record of the tribe's history.
German silver an alloy of zinc, nickel, and copper.