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Free Study Guide for House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday-Summary
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

BOOK 2: The Priest of the Sun, Los Angeles, 1952

CHAPTER 1: January 26

Summary

In southern California, thereís a kind of silversided fish that in spring and summer spawns on the beach. They are "the most helpless creatures on the face of the earth" as they wash ashore and die by the hundreds. People can come and scoop them up with great ease.

The Priest of the Sun, Rev. J. B. B. Tosamah, lives with his disciple Cruz in a building which also serves as a store house for an office supply company. The basement serves as a church. A signboard announces the sermon to be given by Rev. Tosamah for the "Holiness Pan-Indian Rescue Mission" on the Gospel according to John. It reads "The Way to Rainy Mountain" followed by the injunction "Be kind to a white man today." In the dank basement of the building, people sit around waiting for the sermon to begin. Cruz raises his hand to quiet the already quiet congregation. He announces "The Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah."

Tosamah steps out from behind some drapes and steps up to the lectern. He has the look of "both arrogance and agony." He begins with the text "In the beginning was the Word" and enjoins the congregation to think of Genesis. He describes the time before the world was made, when "in the darkness something happened." A single sound occurred. The sound took hold of the darkness and light came into being. After this eloquent description, Tosamah withdraws into himself. He loses his posture and his voice. He addresses the audience like a salesperson, welcoming all the "new faces." Then he goes back to his text. He says John got it wrong after he said the truth of the first phrase, "In the beginning was the Word." He argues that John shouldnít have gone on and attached this event to his personal God. He describes John as a man who was startled by a vision of the truth when he realized the inception of the word in the universe. Then he says that John became afraid and tried to add more to the truth of that vision. John tried to make the truth bigger than it was and instead he "demeaned and encumbered it."

Tosamah asserts that John was a white man and white men have their ways, multiplying, dividing up, and subtracting words. In the white manís presence, he tells his congregation, they are like children. They shouldnít mind being like children, though, because children can listen and learn and the Word is sacred to a child. He reminisces about his Kiowa grandmother, who told him countless stories when he was a child. When she told him those stories "she was asking [him] to go with her to the confrontation of something that was sacred and eternal." According to Tosamah, the whole evolution of human experience occurs and reoccurs in the mind of every child.


The white people have diluted and multiplied the word and they will perish by It. In contrast, his Kiowa grandmother used words only in speech. For her words "were medicine; they were magic and invisible." They couldnít be bought or sold. He relates the story his grandmother told about Tai-me, how this fetish came to the Kiowas. It was their sun dance doll. A long time ago there were very bad times among the Kiowa. A father heard his children cry from hunger and so went out in search of food. He came to a canyon and there was thunder and lightning. A voice spoke to him and asked him why he was following it. The voice came from a thing with the feet of a deer and a body covered with feathers. The man said the Kiowas were hungry. The voice instructed him to take it with him and it would give him whatever he wanted. That was Tai-me.

Tosamah returns to his idea of the first word in creation. The story of Tai-me has existed for hundreds of years only by word of mouth. It has always been only one generation from extinction. He remembers seeing the reverence in his grandmotherís eyes when she told the story. He thinks thatís what John had in mind when he had his vision of the first word. Then he had to reduce it by adding to it. He ends his sermon on the mediation of the significance of the first word. Then he tells the congregation "Good night and get yours."

Abel doesnít understand why he thinks of the fishes. He canít understand the sea, having come from a land culture. His friend Benally talks of the paths of the sea, "Beautyway," "Bright Path," "Path of Pollen." He thinks of the silversided fish who spawn by the light of the moon. The thought makes him sad with an "unnamable longing and wonder."

Abel is in the cold and dark and he is in severe pain. He can hear the roaring of the sea in his brain. He canít see because his eyes are stuck shut with blood. He is finally able to open one eye and sees that heís lying in a shallow ditch next to a fence. He sees tractors in the lot on the other side of the fence. He struggles to reach for the fence and is so struck with pain that he almost faints. He sees that his hands are completely broken up. He is sickened by the sight. He had always loved his body, so "quickly and surely responsive to his mind and will." He had never been sick in his life aside from when he began to drink. Once he had hurt his back. Francisco had been unable to cure him with chants and prayers. He had gone to fat Josie who grabbed him and held him tightly against her body and shook him until he was loose in the arms and legs. He had been fine after that. He remembers making love with Angela. He thinks of the sea. He thinks of the trial six years before. He can still remember the white manís dead body. He remembers little of the trial. He thinks of it as having to do with ceremony, order and civility, but having little to do with him.

Father Olguin had testified that in his mind, Abel hadnít been a man when he killed, that he had been something like an evil spirit. He told the lawyer that they were dealing with a psychology that they knew nothing about. The lawyer had insisted that despite Abelís culture, he still committed a homicide. Abel had only told his story once very simply and would never say anything else for the length of the trial. He sensed that the court officials were happy about that. He thinks his murder of the white man was simple and natural. He canít understand why the court officials couldnít see it, they who wanted "to dispose of him with words." He would do it again if he was presented with the same situation. "A man kills such an enemy if he can."

Abel wakes up coughing and tastes blood in his throat. He feels afraid someone will come back and get him so he quiets himself. He looks at the night sky and sees an owl fly in his face and break apart. He is delirious. He realizes his legs are not badly injured so he uses them to push himself upright against the fence. He feels the earth shake at his feet so he gets on his knees and puts his ear to the ground. He senses men running after him, so he leaves the road and gets on his knees to hide. It is the group of old men in leggings running like water runs after evil. He feels moved by this vision. He feels that "everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe. Meaning because of them." The old men run calmly after evil.

He feels that here and now, he has lost his place. Long ago he had been at the center and had known where he was, but he had lost his way and had wandered to the end of the earth and now he was reeling on the edge of the void. The sea leans toward him and withdraws.

He remembers a form which asked for his statistics, such as his name, age, and weight. The walls of his cell had been white, he thinks, but cannot surely remember. After he had been in jail long enough, he could no longer remember anything outside the walls. Even the walls had become abstractions, only symbols of confinement. He remembers psychological questions such as whether he prefers men or women, how much he likes to drink, and whether he considers himself superior or inferior to others.

He remembers riding the bus away from the reservation. He was wearing a pair of new brown-and-white shoes which fat Josie had given him. They were beautiful shoes, finely crafted. They were too big for him but he didnít mind that. He knew he looked ridiculous to the European Americans--enemies--on board the bus, but he didnít care. He remembers another form he had to fill out. It too was a psychological test. It asked him to fill in the blanks without thinking hard about his answers.

He thinks of Milly. She told him no test was completely valid, but he knew she believed in tests. Like Benally (Ben), she believed "in Honor, industry, the Second Chance, the Brotherhood of Man, the American Dream, and him--Abel." He can remember vague how his affair with her started. She liked to come around when he was living with Ben. She laughed a lot and he thought easy laughter in a woman was wrong. He had gone to her apartment one night and they had made love. In the present time, he hears the sea crash and feels the intense pain in his hands.

Tosamah, "orator, physician, Priest of the Sun, son of Hummingbird," leads a group of people in a peyote ceremony. He tells them about peyote, its chemical components and its salient characteristics. Then he says, "Or, to put it another way, that little old wooly booger turns you on like a light, man. Daddy peyote is the vegetal representation of the sun." Tosamah has painted himself in preparation for the prayer meeting. The celebrants sit in a circle. Cruz will be the fireman and Napoleon Kills-in-the- Timber will be the drummer. There is a fire in the center of the circle. The priest of the Sun sits between Cruz and Napoleon. In front of him is an earthen altar in the shape of a crescent. In the small flat space of the center was where father peyote rested. The Priest of the Sun laid a bunch of sage sprigs on the altar and there he placed the fetish. He removes things from his paraphernalia satchel and lays them out on a clean white cloth in front of him. He has a fine fan, a beaded drumstick, cigarette papers, sage springs and several other elements of the ceremony.

The first ceremony is begun with the Priest making a cigarette and passing around the fixings to the others. He prays when they have all rolled their cigarettes and he holds out a cigarette to the fetish. Then the incense-blessing ceremony begins. The Priest sprinkles dry rubbed cedar on the fire and them makes circular motions over the flames and holds the bag of peyote above the flames. He takes sage and rubs it over his body. The others do the same. Then all the celebrants eat the peyote buttons. Everyone looks into the fire and they become terribly restless. Everyone feels youthful exuberance but doesnít say anything. Then suddenly everyone becomes horribly sad. They stare into the flame until it becomes one brilliant point of light. Tosamah begins to shake the gourd and the rain begins outside and the drum is "beneath and beyond, transcendent."

The celebrants begin to pray. Henry Yellowbull asks the Great Spirit to be with them and to come with all the bright colors as well as laughter and good feelings. He gives his words as a gift. Cristobal Cruz offers his thanks for the honor of being fireman. He prays for "posperíty aní worlí peace aní brotherly love" in Jesusí name. Napoleon Kills-in-the-Timber prays to the Great Spirit to be with them who have gone crazy. He says the white people invaded the "Indiíns" because they had been fighting each other. Now they want to be friends. He mourns the deaths of the Native people; the old people are gone who always warned of this end. He begins to wail and weep. No one is ashamed for him. Then he continues his prayer asking for help for the children who have no respect any more. Then, Ben Benally prays, "Look! Look! There are blue and purple horses . . . a house made of dawn . . . "

At midnight sound and motion die down and the fire dies down to a dim ember. The fetish seems to swell and contract. Then they suddenly hear four blasts from an eagle-bone whistle. The Priest of the Sun blows these blasts in the four directions, standing in the street serving notice that something holy was going on.

Abel is jarred awake by the pain in his body. He remembers his hands being broken, his thumbs pulled back until they popped out of their sockets. He is in a thick fog. He realizes he is very cold. He remembers he used to go to fat Josie after his mother died and she would speak kindly to him or offer him sweets. When no one was around, she would act like an idiot to make him laugh. Francisco didnít approve of her, but she just lifted her leg and broke wind. The week after his brother Vidal died, Abel went to her for the last time. She cavorted around the kitchen making faces, playing with her huge breasts, breaking wind all the while with tears streaming down her cheeks. Abel becomes afraid. He thinks of Milly.

He thinks of his trial again. One of his fellow soldiers, named Bowker, testified about one day in battle. Everyone else had been killed except Bowker and Corporal Mitch Rate. The enemy was making a sweep through in their tank making sure everyone was dead. Suddenly they saw Abel--"the chief"--get up. He raised up and looked at the tank coming toward him. He lay down and faked death and the tank passed him by. Then suddenly, he got up and started dancing and making obscene gestures toward the tank. The tank stopped short and turned around and began shooting at him, but he kept dancing and shooting the finger at it and then turned and ran, dancing all the while amid the bullets from the tank.

Abel remembers a hunting trip he took with his brother one morning. They were close to the river and it was still dark. He was behind his brother. Vidal led the way and finally took aim at some geese. Twenty four geese broke from the river and few away. Abel had been astonished at their beauty. Vidal pointed to the bird he had killed in the water. Abel waded in after it and saw that the bird was making no move to get away. He carried it into the moonlight and saw its bright black eyes had no fear in them.

Abel calls out to Milly and tells her his hands hurt. He opens his other eye and stares into the blackness. He wants to tell Milly about how beautiful the water birds had been against the night sky that was filled with the light of the moon. He remembers a conversation with Milly in which he told her their lovemaking had been good again. He promised her that he would stop drinking and get a job soon. They made love in the afternoons when she came home from work. When he didnít come to her apartment, she would listen to music or go to the movies and then go to bed alone wanting to cry but not doing so.

Milly had been living in Los Angeles for four years without becoming intimate with anyone she knew. One day Abel came to her after they had known each other only a short time. She realized how lonely they both were and she began to cry and then laugh. She told him she was a dirty child with yellow hair, daughter to a poor farmer. Her father worked the land diligently for years and years until he finally realized it was going to produce little. He loved her and when she grew up, he told her she had to get away. He took her to the train station and she said good-bye to him for the last time, never seeing him again. She worked as a waitress and married a man named Matt. They had a daughter named Carrie and then Matt left her. She didnít mind because she loved Carrie so much. When Carrie was four, she got a fever and died. Before her death, she seemed to mature into a sort of adult wisdom. She had asked Milly if she was going to die and Milly couldnít lie to her, so she said yes. She had died saying "I love you, Milly."

Abel realizes he has to get up or he will die of exposure. He struggles to his feet and begins to make his way along, avoiding people. When he gets into town, a man comes upon him and opens his mouth in shock at the sight of Abelís broken body, then hurries on. He thinks of Milly and Ben running and laughing at the beach.

Notes

Book 2 begins seven years later than Book 1. Abel has been out of jail where he served a sentence for the crime of murder. He has tried to assimilate in the European-American world of his new city but has failed to do so. He has been severely beaten. The section consists of not only Abelís disoriented thoughts clouded by pain, but also Millyís, and a sermon and ceremony by a Native preacher named J.B.B. Tosamah. Momaday signals shifts in point of view and shifts in different time periods of Abelís life with different fonts, such as italics.

The January 26th section is written in a stream of consciousness style of narration. This style of narration captures Abelís disorientation as he is relocated to a city after his release from jail and is beaten brutally by a police officer named Martinez. Abel isnít the only one disoriented. Tosamah, the Pastor and Priest of the Sun" is also confused as he preaches a sermon of the words "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was With God and the Word was God." The opening vignette which describes the "most helpless creatures on the face of the earth," the silversided fish which spawn on the beach of southern California, lying there helpless as people scoop them up, is an oblique illustration of the dislocation of the characters described in this section.

As with the other sections, itís useful to consider the connections among the elements of this section, especially the possible connections between Abelís brutal beating and his thoughts as he lies in the ditch and the Reverend Tosamahís sermon about the Word and his peyote ceremony.

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