Reading Momaday'sThe Way to Rainy Mountain

The references to "Mooney" in the second parts of several sections are to the anthropologist James Mooney, especially to his work Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians, first published in 1898.

These excerpts are intended to suggest ways of reading and understanding The Way to Rainy Mountain and Momaday's purpose(s) for writing the book.  All articles are found in the following anthology:

Roemer, Kenneth M., ed.  Approaches to Teaching Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain.  New York: Modern Language Association, 1988.

Inclusive page numbers for the articles are as follows: Trout, 32-40; Henley, 47-53; Berner, 54-60; Bataille, 78-84; Scarberry-García, 89-97.

If literature is the final product of an evolutionary process, then surely oral storytellers lay the foundation, and literary storytellers shape the ultimate end of that process.  How is this process revealed in The Way to Rainy Mountain? . . . Who are the storytellers?  What tribal images, metaphors, and icons permeate their tales?  How is Momaday similar to, yet always different from, the other storytellers?  Finally, how does he use the myriad storytellers and the layers of stories to create "literature"?  Obviously, the old storytellers are Aho, Ko-sahn, Mammedaty, and the nameless Kiowas, epitomized in the arrow maker.  They control tribal images, exemplify the book's structure, and demonstrate Momaday's theory of oral tradition evolving toward literature.

—Lawana Trout, "The Way to Rainy Mountain: Arrow of History, Spiral of Myth" (36-37)

The American Indian vision of reality, as has often been said, is traditionally structured in four parts.  The four directions and the four seasons are models in space and time for patterns in myth and legend, in political and social structures, in religious practice, and in everyday life. . . . [The book's] three divisions ("The Setting Out," "The Going On," and "The Closing In") and the three-part structure of each of the twenty-four sections that make them up suggest that Momaday has chosen to ignore traditional Indian methods in this book. . . . In fact, . . . the book reveals subtle four-part patterns.  But more important, Momaday's decision to give the core of the book and its twenty-four sections a three-part structure is related to what is probably his primary intention—his conception of language.

—Robert L. Berner, "The Way to Rainy Mountain: Structure and language" (54)

In reading The Way to Rainy Mountain students become the audience for a series of stories, historical accounts, and personal memories. . . . They wonder why there are only three parts to each section when, as Robert Berner emphasizes . . . , the number four is repeatedly stressed as significant in Indian literature and religion.  Momaday divides each section into three voices, providing students with the opportunity to become the fourth element, the audience, interpreters of the meaning of the oral tradition through time. 

—Gretchen M. Bataille, "Momaday and the Evocation of Identity" (78-79)

The story of the Kiowas is an evolutionary process from the myth of the birth of the tribe through a mossy and weather-stained hollow log to the final poem about Rainy Mountain cemetery, which condenses all the periods of Kiowa history into two stanzas.  Momaday says, "The first word gives origin to the second, the first and second to the third, the first, second, and third to the fourth, and so on.  You cannot begin with the second word and tell the story, for the telling of the story is a cumulative process, a chain of becoming, at last of being" (Names 154).  This philosophy explains why The Way to Rainy Mountain proceeds chronologically and geographically from the beginning, but the story is a series of concentric circles as time and lives go on, finally, as Momaday describes it, closing in on the essence of "being" that identifies him as a Kiowa.

—Bataille (84)

A recurring pattern in all N. Scott Momaday's writings reveals that the structure of sacred events is rooted in both mythic and ordinary reality.  Through the use of repetition, parallelism, and symbolism (devices from oral tradition) Momaday retells portions of his people's sacred stories and finds his place in them.  The journey that he undertakes is his means of achieving personal wholeness or spiritual balance.  What interests Momaday is the process of coming to know the sacred, the ultimate source of knowledge.

—Susan Scarberry-García, "Beneath the Stars: Images of the Sacred" (97)

Structure and Form in The Way to Rainy Mountain

Experiencing The Way to Rainy Mountain requires a kind of "fierce reading" analogous to James Welch's concept of "fierce listening" (Fools Crow), as readers are required to enter the text and actively participate in the creation of its meaning.  As Joan Henley explains in her article "Exploring the Ways to Rainy Mountain," we must read the book not only horizontally (that is, linearly, chronologically), but vertically as well, making meaning by discovering the interconnections between the parts of each section (48).  The following outline is based on Henley's approach to the text.

The Book's Three Narrative Modes

1. Mythic or legendary

The first part of each section may be called the "panhuman," in that it deals with universal human experience, here particularized in terms of the Kiowa through the stories' functions.  These stories from Kiowa tradition represent the tribal wisdom handed down from generation to generation.  Along with the frequent intervention of the supernatural in the lives of the Kiowa, Momaday's use of language associated with myth characterizes these stories.  Phrases like "This is how it was" and "This is why" gives the stories authority, as do expressions like "Long ago" and "Once."  Note also how Momaday often uses the second person to draw the reader into the experience of the story.

Stories tend to fall into three broad categories:

Dealing with tribal origins; the derivation of words (II); treating dogs well (III); source of Kiowa connection to the sun and sacredness of Tai-me (IV-X);
A number of stories deal with the dangers of unwise actions or emotions (XI, XIV, XVII, XX);
These stories illustrate ways of outwitting enemies (XII, XIII); dealing with threats to the social order (XIII, XVI); heroic feats (XIX).

2. Historical and cultural

The second narrative mode of experience deals with specific knowledge—dates, names, events.  For example, Momaday will write phrases such as "In the winter of 1848-49 . . . in the vicinity of Bent's Fork, Colorado" (19); "In the autumn of 1874 . . . towards the Staked Plains" (27; or "During the Sun Dance of 1843" (59).  Henley shows that "The information found here is drawn from studies of the customs, social structures, and rituals of the group and constitutes a definition of group identity" (51).

Again, language is specific to the mode.  That is, the narrative voice speaks of the group, rather than for the group, and contrasts with the language of the mythic narrative level, using expressions like the following: "It was once a custom" (17); "According to ancient custom" (19); and "Tradition has it" (21).

3. Momaday's personal experience and memory

In the third narrative mode Momaday voices his personal vision as a Kiowa, through sections that express memories, sensory impressions, and portraits of family members.  Together they may be characterized as the author's responses to the natural world, people, and places evoked through memory and language.  In so doing, Momaday makes intimate connections to his Kiowa spirituality, historical past, and the natural world (compare his views in "The Man Made of Words").  Note, for example, the following typical expressions: "I have walked in a mountain meadow" (23) and "Once I went with my father and grandmother to see the Tai-me bundle" (37).  Characteristics of this mode's language: Sensory ( "I have seen"; "I have heard"); reflection ("I looked and thought"; "I remembered").

As Momaday explains in "The Man Made of Words," knowledge is expressed through language, and yields power to the possessor, as in the following phrases: "now I see the earth as it really is" (17); "I know of spiders" (27); "In my mind I can see that man as if he were there now" (47).

Interrelatedness of the Book

Mindful that we must experience The Way to Rainy Mountain both horizontally and vertically, Henley explains further that "As the author moves through his narrative, the distinctions between the parts of the sections become blurred, and interdependencies are displayed.  Personal experience turns back into myth, and the author's own story assumes the didactic [i.e., teaching] function of the traditional tales" (51-52).

Merging of historical/cultural and personal modes
In a number of settings, material contained in the historical narrative suggests responses from Momaday that he will voice in the personal mode, inspiring his imagination and evoking interpretation and reflection.  See, for example, section XV, where the second narrative describes the artist George Catlin's work with the Kiowa and inspires in the third narrative Momaday's imaginative reflections on the portrait of Chief Kotsatoah.  Section XX provides another example, where the second mode describes the sacrifice of a fine horse to ward off the smallpox and in the third narrative Momaday projects his imagination in understanding the motives of his ancestor for making the sacrifice.  In section XXII, also dealing with horses—like the buffalo a symbol of tribal power and identity for the Kiowa—the historical and personal modes actually fuse.
Merging of modes
Sections XXI and XXII deal with Momaday's grandfather, Mammedaty, who had been introduced earlier.  The interfusion of first and third modes in these sections is remarkable and suggests a great deal about Momaday's view of Kiowa identity as he connects personal memory with tribal legend in the actual person of Mammedaty.  In a parallel way, the figure of Aho, Momaday's grandmother, synthesizes both mythic and historical levels of narrative in section XXIII, which recounts supernatural occurrences associated with the Tai-me bundle.  Henley comments that
What emerges from this analysis is an appreciation of the mysterious and complicated ways that human beings generate and communicate meaning.  What also emerges is a sense of the importance and power of the creative artist in this process.  The figures and symbols created by Momaday form a part of the human inheritance and may ultimately move from their place in the third category to a place in the first.  They may be transformed from objects of personal reference to objects of universal reference, to be shared and studied by people everywhere.  This is the meaning of the beautiful buried woman in the last section. . . . She has transcended her origin in the world of event and fact and has been made by Momaday into a symbol of his precious heritage.  On this level of significance she continues to inhabit the minds of readers. (53)

As Momaday writes in the book's Prologue, "There are on the way to Rainy Mountain many landmarks, many journeys in the one" (4).

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