Giant of Native American Literature Dies

N. Scott Momaday was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1969
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 29, 2024 12:21 PM CST
Giant of Native American Literature Dies
Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his groundbreaking novel "House Made of Dawn," appears at his home in Santa Fe in 2019.   (AP Photo/Russell Contreras, File)

N. Scott Momaday, a Pulitzer Prize-winning storyteller, poet, educator, and folklorist whose debut novel House Made of Dawn is widely credited as the starting point for contemporary Native American literature, died last week at age 89. Momaday died at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, said publisher HarperCollins. He had been in failing health, reports the AP. "He was a singular voice in American literature, and it was an honor and a privilege to work with him," said Momaday's editor, Jennifer Civiletto. "His Kiowa heritage was deeply meaningful to him and he devoted much of his life to celebrating and preserving Native American culture, especially the oral tradition."

House Made of Dawn, published in 1968, tells of a World War II soldier who returns home and struggles to fit back in, a story as old as war itself; in this case, home is a Native community in rural New Mexico. Much of the book was based on Momaday's childhood in Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, and on his conflicts between the ways of his ancestors and the risks and possibilities of the outside world. "I grew up in both worlds and straddle those worlds even now," Momaday said in a 2019 PBS documentary. "It has made for confusion and a richness in my life." Novels by Native Americans weren't widely recognized at the time of House Made of Dawn.

In 1969, Momaday became the first Native American to win the fiction Pulitzer, and his novel helped launch a generation of authors, including Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, and Louise Erdrich. In 1970, Momaday said, "Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves." He championed Natives' reverence for nature, writing that "the American Indian has a unique investment in the American landscape." In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Momaday with a National Medal of Arts "for his writings and his work that celebrate and preserve Native American art and oral tradition." More here.

(More obituary stories.)

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