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The main theme of House Made of Dawn concerns the beauty of the old customs of Native Americans and their viability for the newest generation.
The minor theme of the novel concerns the difficulty of the younger generation in making the transition from the reservation to the European-American dominated world of war and cities.
The mood of the novel is reverential. The novel reads as a sort of prayer to the old ways, especially as they connected the people to the rhythms and cycles of the land.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Navarre Scott Momaday was born in February 27, 1934. His Kiowa name is Tsaoi-talee. He was born near Anardarko, the Oklahoma Kiowa Indian agency. His parents are Al Momaday, a Kiowa, and Natachee Scott, who was part Cherokee. His parents were both artists and teachers who worked at small schools during Momaday’s childhood. In 1935, his family moved to northern New Mexico, where he grew up on Navajo, Apache, and Jemez Pueblo Indian reservations. Because he grew up on reservations, Momaday experienced the daily life of traditional tribal life. He also witnessed the problems caused by U.S. policy in regards to Native people such as alcoholism, underemployment, and personal disorientation. His mother always encouraged him to pursue a bicultural education. This heritage enabled him to live in both worlds at once.
Momaday attended reservation, public, and mission schools. He graduated from military high school in Virginia. He received his B.A. in political science from the University of New Mexico in 1958 and his M.A. from Stanford University in 1960. He then earned a Ph.D. from Stanford in 1963. He has taught at several universities including Berkeley and Santa Barbara campuses of the University of California and at the Las Cruces campus of New Mexico State University. He currently teaches at Stanford University in the Comparative Literature department. He studies nineteenth-century American poetry, especially Emily Dickinson and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. Momaday is also a Kiowa tribal dancer and chronicler. He has worked closely with his father in the translation of tribal folklore.
The publication of House Made of Dawn in 1968 initiated what scholars call the Native American Renaissance. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 and opened the way for other Native American writers to publish works which deal with Native life in the United States. This Renaissance has continued to this day.
Momaday mixes forms in his novel, mixing the genre (literary kinds) of autobiography, history, fiction, memoir, and ethnography. In House Made of Dawn, Momaday explodes the stereotypes of Native Americans that have been built up over the centuries in European-American dominated media. He includes such diverse characters as the old man Francisco who is both a Catholic sacristan and an elder and medicine man of his own people, the new age preacher the Reverend Tosamah, who lives in Los Angeles and performs idiosyncratic sermons on the central Christian story of the beginning of the world in the Word of God, the peyote ceremony and other sermons for the lost souls among the Native American community in the city, Benally, a man who grew up on the reservation and has decided to leave the old ways behind in his pursuit of the American Dream, but who still dreams of a return one last time to the reservation dawn, and finally Abel himself, a bridge figure between the reservation and the city, the war and peace time, the old and the new.
Momaday writes these characters in a prose style all his own, taking from the European dominated modernist movement the prose form of stream-of-consciousness narration which enables him to weave the stories of his characters together to form a loose confederation that is the new United States mix of cultures. Each section of the novel is a collage of memories from each of his displaced characters. The reader has to work to figure out the connections among the stories because Momaday places them side by side without connecting them with commentary.
Momaday’s other literary works include The Ancient Child (1989), three volumes of poems, Angle of Geese and Other Poems (1974), The Gourd Dancer (1976), and In the Presence of the Sun (1992). His works of autobiography are The Journey to Tai-me (1967), The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), and The Names: A Memoir (1976). In each of these works, Momaday mixes and invents forms from poetry to prose and, along this continuum, from autobiography to legend to history.