November is Native American Heritage Month. Visit National Archives News for more information on related events and resources. Today’s post comes from Callie Belback from the National Archives History Office.
In July 2003, Jackie Autry, wife of Gene Autry, wrote a letter to President George W. Bush. This letter was an invitation to the annual Autry Museum Gala, an event that would honor “Pulitzer Prize-winning author, N. Scott Momaday, one of the leading voices in modern Native American literature.” A Kiowa novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet, Momaday is known for his work in the preservation of indigenous oral and art tradition.
Navarro Scott Momaday was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, on February 27, 1934. His father was a painter, and his mother wrote children’s books. He grew up on several reservations across New Mexico and attended the University of New Mexico, earning a degree in political science. After he graduated, Momaday taught on the Apache reservation at Jicarilla, New Mexico. One year later, Momaday won a poetry fellowship to the Stanford University creative writing program, through which he earned both a master’s degree (1960) and a doctorate in English (1963).
Momaday’s first book, based on his Stanford University dissertation, was published in 1965. Three years later, he published his most famous novel, House Made of Dawn. The book centers on a young man returning to his Kiowa pueblo after serving in the U.S. Army. This book has been credited with leading the breakthrough of Native American literature into the American mainstream. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969. In 1971 Momaday published an essay titled “The American Land Ethic,” which drew public attention to the Native American tradition of respect for nature and its place in modern American society in an era of significant environmental degradation.
After Momaday became a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, he designed a graduate program of Native American studies and taught a course on Native American literature and mythology. In 1973, Momaday transitioned to teaching at Stanford University and later, in 1982, at the University of Arizona.
On November 15, 2007, President Bush honored Momaday with the National Medal of Arts. In a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President Bush placed the medal around Momaday’s bowed head.
In 2019 N. Scott Momaday was awarded another prestigious award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize’s Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. In his response to winning the award, Momaday stated: “Peace is the objective of human evolution, and literature is the measure of that evolution. The history of human experience is in many ways a history of dysfunction and conflict, and literature, because it is an accurate record of that history, reflects not only what is peaceful but what is the universal hope and struggle for peace. Literature and peace are at last indivisible. They form an equation that is the definition of art and humanity.”
Throughout his life, Momaday has earned many honors, including the UNESCO Artist for Peace, an Academy of American Poets prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and initiation into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He currently resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico.