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He is a character inscrutable to both his own people and the European Americans with whom he comes into contact. In creating him in this way, Momaday avoids the prevalent stereotypes of Native Americans which have so saturated U.S. media since the colonial era.
Benally calls Abel a "longhair" using Tosamahís derisive word for a traditional Indian. Abel is traditional in several ways. He marks the major passages of his life in the old ways. In the same section in which Francisco remembers the bear hunt, he remembers the dance at which he had sex for the first time. He doesnít mention the girlís name; he only remembers the dance and the time alone with her in the dunes. This is far from the kind of initiation into adult sexuality which Hollywood has made most U.S. Americans think is the right and natural way. The girl is as interested in having sex with Abel as he is with her. She is no more interested in making it a relationship than he is. Other ways Momaday marks Abel as a traditional man are his view of the murder of the albino, his vision of the eagle and his hunt for the eagle, and, finally, his manner of laying his grandfatherís body out for burial.
Abelís loss of tradition happens when he goes off to war. Yet the only image the novel gives of Abel during the war is one which is related by his fellow soldier of the day of a heavy massacre. Only three men survived, Abel being one of them. When the enemyís tank returned to ensure that all the men had been killed, Abel lay still while it passed very close beside him. Then he mystified his fellow soldiers by jumping up and dancing around taunting the tank with his exuberant dance of the living. Momaday leaves the reader without explanation for this action. The reader only gets the perplexed soldierís story of it. This technique of describing his character from the point of view of a person who views him as alien and inscrutable aids Momaday in signaling to his readers the fact that Native ways are quite different from European American ways and that European American readers will always be somewhat perplexed by Native Americans. Momaday honors that cultural untranslatability in his portraiture of Abel while giving the reader enough description of Abel to regard him as an honorable and peaceful man.
He is the single figure representing the old ways, but even Francisco is a bridge figure, serving as a holy man of his own people and a sacristan of the Catholic mission on his reservation. He is introduced as he is going to town to pick up his grandson who is returning from war. This trip to town is emblematic of Franciscoís character. He stops on the way by the river to check a trap he has laid for a special kind of bird. He wants this bird for its plumes which he will use for prayer. When he arrives in town, he waits for his grandson at the bus station. His grandson gets off the bus so drunk he cannot walk. Francisco is aware of the looks of disapproval from the European American passengers on board. He feigns nonchalance, but cries silently as he gets his grandson on board the wagon and takes him home.
Franciscoís character is also given to us via Father Olguinís reading of his predecessor in the parish, Father Nicolasís journals. Father Nicolas writes of his favorite sacristan as he learns his lessons, performs his services dutifully, and accepts the priestís nurturance and guidance. He also writes of his disappointment in Franciscoís continued allegiance to his own religious heritage, a heritage Father Nicolas cannot see as anything more than "dark practices." It is through Father Nicolas that we learn of Franciscoís love affair with Porcingula, a girl who is known for her promiscuity. Father Nicolas, who is at this point in his journal losing touch with reality, thinks Porcingula is evil and that Francisco is a dreadful disappointment. However, Momaday overlays this description of that affair with Franciscoís own memory of the relationship. In this way, he gives voice to Francisco as he goes through one of the rites of passage into adulthood. When he goes from childhood to adulthood, he marks that passage with his hunt in the mountains for the bear. Even in the way he hunts the bear, he follows the old ways. He doesnít hurry to overtake the bear. He feels a connection with the bear as if they are in some sort of occult communication. He feels that the bear has sensed his coming and ultimately sacrifices itself for him. He blesses the bearís corpse with pollen and then eats the liver. Then he shares it out with the community, marking his place in it as an adult.
Francisco is attracted to Porcingula and, at the same time, he hears the disapproval of the women of his community. When Porcingula bears a stillborn child, he leaves her. Strangely enough, there is no word of the wife who gave birth to the child who gave Francisco his grandsons.
He is a man who is displaced into a community whose ways will forever remain inscrutable to him. Even though at the end of the novel, Father Olguin wakes up feeling at peace with his place in this community, he retains his outsider status as evidenced by his reaction to the news of Franciscoís death. Momaday sets this scene up carefully so his readers will understand the significance of Father Olguinís reaction. First, the reader sees the reverential way in which Abel deals with his grandfatherís death, his preparation of the body, braiding his grandfatherís hair, dressing him in his ceremonial clothes, laying his sacred feathers and his ledgers beside his body, and then wrapping the body carefully. Then the reader sees Father Olguinís annoyance at having been woken up too early to be told of the death. Father Olguin lives by clock time. He is astonished that Abel violated the propriety of clock time to inform him of Franciscoís death even though Francisco has been a sacristan in his parish for all of his life.
In his own world, Father Olguin comes across little better. He manages his spiritual life in solitude, not in community. He feeds off the spiritual sufferings and strivings of his predecessor, Father Nicolas. He reads Father Nicolasí journals and accounts of parish life as a way to soothe his own spiritual struggles. The novel records none of Father Olguinís works as a priest. He is always pictured alone except when he meets Angela St. John. With Angela, Father Olguin seems to act as a sort of guide to the Indians. He takes her to the feast of Santiago and tells her its story. He acts as a go-between for her when she needs to hire help to have her firewood cut. His attitude toward her remains fairly pompous until she laughs at him. Then he cuts himself off from her altogether.
He is what some might call the successful assimilationsit in contrast to Abelís tragically unsuccessful attempt at assimilation. He has lived in Los Angeles for a number of years, having settled into a job and an apartment. More significantly, Benally has settled into a view of the world which gives him a direction. He believes in the American Dream and believes that, as a Native American, he is not blocked in achieving that dream. The American Dream in Benallyís conception of it is to buy things with the money he makes, to be treated in a friendly fashion by store clerks when he is buying things, to have a steady job where he is given certain small privileges in exchange for his reliability, and to have plenty of things to do for entertainment.
Benally has gained this view of his place in the U.S. at the price of having given up his connection to home. He has clear memories of his childhood growing up on the reservation. He recognizes Abel as someone like family when Abel comes into his plant to work. He takes Abel in and protects him from the racism of his co- workers who enjoy calling Native Americans "chief" to make fun. Benally is perhaps attracted to Abel as a person from home when he has cut himself off from home as a means of survival. Benally recognizes the necessity of stopping all thoughts of the reservation in order to survive in the European-American dominated city. He knows these thoughts confuse Native people trying to adjust and make it impossible for them to assimilate. Still, Benally goes to Tosamahís church services, participates in the peyote ceremony, in dances and sings. He prays for Abel on the night before his departure from Los Angeles and makes plans to meet Abel on the reservation for one last dawn ceremony.
Benally is a gentle man. He displays his gentility in his treatment of Abel and also in his regard for Milly. Benally recognizes Millyís fragility. He watches her with Abel and hopes Abel wonít hurt her because he can see that Milly would be easily wounded. Benally is primarily a watcher. He watches the actions of others and perceives where they are. In this capacity, Benally functions in the novel as a moral center. When Benally recognizes that Abel is falling apart in the city, the reader trusts this view of realty and waits to find out what will drive him away. When Benally speaks skeptically of Tosamah, the reader recognizes the bluster and brag in Tosamahís sermons. In creating such a positive figure for his bridge character, the successful assimilationist, Momaday suggests that it is possible for Native people to retain their dignity and honor while living in a white world.
He is the most modern of the Native American characters in the novel. He was not raised on a reservation and he has been educated in European-American schools. The section of the novel in which Tosamah gives his sermon on St. Johnís gospel is what anthologists most often use for excerpts. Yet Tosamahís voice is the most lost of all the voices among the Native people in the novel. He has internalized the racism of European Americans and regards Indians like Abel with the derogatory term "longhair." He taunts Abel and drives him to humiliate himself. He cannot abide by Abelís inability to assimilate. He cannot understand Abel. Benally points out that Tosamah didnít live on the reservation growing up and that he was educated in European American schools.
Still, Tosamah has some wisdom to impart. His sermon on St. Johnís core text about the creation of the world in the Word of God is rich in irony and wit and wisdom. His conduction of the peyote ceremony is done with honor and integrity. His memories of his Kiowa grandmother are reverential and loving. In this last, Momaday gives to Tosamah his own biography. Tosamah is the only Kiowa character in the novel and his story of his grandmother is much like Momadayís own stories of his own grandmother, who like Tosamahís witnessed the destruction of the sun dance by the U.S. cavalry.