The Way to Rainy Mountain

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N. Scott Momaday Character Analysis

Momaday is the writer and narrator of this memoir, and, as such, is its central character. He is of Kiowa anscestry, but he does not speak the Kiowa language and he was born after the time when Kiowa culture was at its peak. Momaday claims that his knowledge of Kiowa life and culture comes exclusively from his family’s memories and the rich Kiowa oral tradition that passed down the history and values of his tribe. Momaday’s presence is most felt through his recollections, which show him to be a deeply curious, spiritual, and family-oriented man. Aside from the parts of his personality that come out through his memories, though, readers do not learn much about him. The story focuses more on his family members and the stories of his tribe.

N. Scott Momaday Quotes in The Way to Rainy Mountain

The The Way to Rainy Mountain quotes below are all either spoken by N. Scott Momaday or refer to N. Scott Momaday . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the University of New Mexico Press edition of The Way to Rainy Mountain published in 1976.
Prologue Quotes

In one sense, then, the way to Rainy Mountain is preeminently the history of an idea, man’s idea of himself, and it has old and essential being in language. The verbal tradition by which it has been preserved has suffered a deterioration in time. What remains is fragmentary: mythology, legend, lore, and hearsay—and of course the idea itself, as crucial and complete as it ever was. That is the miracle.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker), The Kiowas
Related Symbols: Rainy Mountain
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage explains N. Scott Momaday’s intention for his book. He is writing a history of the Kiowa migration, but the deeper history he wishes to tell is the history of how the Kiowas understand themselves as people (in other words, “man’s idea of himself”). When he writes that this idea has its being in language, he is implying that people are able to have ideas about themselves only to the extent that they can state those ideas in language. It’s a debatable premise, but it is the premise on which Momaday bases his book. He continues on to state that if people only know themselves through language, and if it’s through the verbal tradition (rather than the written tradition) that this language is preserved, then time will necessarily fray the ideas as they are passed down—hence being left only with the fragments of myth and memory that Momaday will assemble throughout the book. So Momaday is explaining here that the non-linear, fragmentary, myth-heavy version of Kiowa history that he is about to tell is a form dictated by Kiowa culture itself, as well as the historical evidence (or lack thereof) that is available to him. He argues, in other words, that this way of telling history is Kiowa history, and to tell Kiowa history in a way more recognizable to Euro-American audiences would be to obscure something fundamental about the Kiowa people.

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The buffalo was the animal representation of the sun, the essential and sacrificial victim of the Sun Dance. When the wild herds were destroyed, so too was the will of the Kiowa people; there was nothing to sustain them in spirit. But these are idle recollections, the mean and ordinary agonies of human history. The interim was a time of great adventure and nobility and fulfillment.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker), The Kiowas
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage ties together the hardships of the beginning of the Kiowa migration—the time before the Kiowas had Tai-me or horses—and the hardships that the Kiowas faced after disastrous treaties with the U.S. government and the disappearance of the buffalo. This implies a circularity in Momaday’s (and the Kiowas’) understanding of history: the conditions of the past returned hundreds of years later, though in a form and context slightly different from before. It’s notable that Momaday seems to dismiss these periods of hardship (despite their recurrence) as unimportant (or, at least, unremarkable). Momaday suggests that the more important subject to focus on is the Kiowa golden age, when the Kiowas were at the peak of their power and fulfillment. This passage also emphasizes the importance of the buffalo. The buffalo are seen, even, as a proxy for Kiowa culture; once they disappeared, the Kiowas lost their will and spirit. This shows the deep interrelation between Kiowas and the natural world. Though the Kiowas are, throughout the book, notably adaptable to changing circumstances, the disappearance of the buffalo is an exception. Without this element of the natural world, the Kiowas are unable to be their true selves.

The imaginative experience and the historical express equally the traditions of man’s reality.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is fundamental to understanding Momaday’s reasoning behind telling Kiowa history the way he does. In traditional Euro-American history, scholars must have material evidence in order to claim that something happened in the past. This kind of evidence could be artifacts, diaries, historical newspapers, etc., but scholars are required to provide physical proof of an event in order to be believed. Many of the stories that Momaday tells lack evidence and even defy common sense: people turn into animals, unexplained intuition saves people from beasts, magic words affect the landscape, or objects give spiritual power to people. In traditional Euro-American history, there would be no way to assert these events as ones that literally happened, but for Kiowas those events have been understood as factual. This leaves Momaday in a dilemma; to explicitly label these stories as myth undercuts their power as historical explanation, but to assert that they happened might undermine his credibility as a historian. Momaday thus splits the difference by making the important observation that it doesn’t matter whether an event literally occurred or was imaginary, because both the literal and the imaginary express reality as the Kiowas understand it. In other words, in our understanding of lived reality we do not apply the standards of Western historical writing, so in order to understand lived reality, we must not ignore the power of the imaginary. This is the justification for the fragmented and hybrid structure of storytelling that Momaday uses to convey Kiowa history.

To look upon that landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker)
Related Symbols: Rainy Mountain
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Momaday is referring to the landscape of Rainy Mountain, or, in other words, the landscape of the Kiowa homeland. Crucially, this passage comes just before Momaday discusses his own return to Rainy Mountain and his decision to retrace the Kiowa migration. This quote is a way to explain the reasoning behind Momaday’s choice. To Momaday (and, presumably, to the other Kiowas) landscape is not a backdrop to culture and history, but an integral part of Kiowa history and identity. Therefore, to seriously engage with the landscape is an essential part of understanding who the Kiowas are and how they have become what they are. In fact, here Momaday is even implying a spiritual dimension to the landscape (that “Creation was begun” at Rainy Mountain), which extends into a temporal justification for beginning Kiowa history with landscape—for if the landscape evokes the moment of creation, then landscape is a kind of origin point, and a logical place to start. It’s notable, too, that the sense of the quote is that the landscape subsumes the human (“to look upon that landscape…is to lose the sense of proportion”). Momaday is not choosing to begin his history of the Kiowas with a moment that aggrandizes humans, but rather one that suggests a human unity within the natural world.

Introduction Quotes

Although my grandmother lived out her long life in the shadow of Rainy Mountain, the immense landscape of the continental interior lay like memory in her blood.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker), Aho
Related Symbols: Rainy Mountain
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote gestures towards an important premise of the book: that history and memory are stored within people, particularly elders. Momaday’s grandmother Aho serves throughout the book as a proxy for the history of the Kiowas, since she witnessed the last Kiowa Sun Dance (the last moment of the Kiowa golden age, when the Kiowas were able to be most themselves). The Kiowa spirit, then, lived within her, even though Kiowa culture had been in decline for decades. Momaday takes this premise further through a chain of metaphors: “landscape of the continental interior” is a stand-in for the Kiowa migration, which signifies, to Momaday, Kiowa history overall. Thus, Momaday suggests that Aho contains not just her own experiences, but the entire history of the tribe. By using “landscape” to mean “history,” Momaday again shows the inextricable relationship between Kiowas and the land, and he also suggests the power of oral tradition to transmit experiences over generations. Hearing Kiowa stories made Aho not simply know the stories of the Kiowas, but also contain them. Momaday conveys the depth of this relationship to story and history by locating the knowledge in her blood rather than in her mind.

There is a perfect freedom in the mountains, but it belongs to the eagle and the elk, the badger and the bear. The Kiowas reckoned their stature by the distance they could see, and they were bent and blind in the wilderness.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker), The Kiowas
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage demonstrates the extent to which the Kiowas believed that the landscape shaped people. Before the Kiowas migrated to the southern plains, they lived in the northern wilderness, and this was a time of great hardship. Momaday explains this hardship in relation to nature; the Kiowas understood their place in the world by how far they could see, so in the wilderness they thought of themselves as being of low-status. Though he doesn’t say so, this sense of low status was clearly underscored by the difficulty Kiowas had hunting before the introduction of the horse. Momaday is careful not to malign the landscape itself—the landscape was empowering to animals like the eagle, elk, badger, and bear, and it is not an inherent badness in the landscape that made it defeating to the Kiowas. When the Kiowas migrated south, however, they found the landscape that would support their inherent strengths and desires—nomadism, sun-worship, and buffalo hunting. It was in this landscape—a southern plains landscape in which they could see for far distances—that the Kiowas had the most self-respect and success as a culture.

My grandmother was there. Without bitterness, and for as long as she lived, she bore a vision of deicide.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker), Aho
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Momaday is referring to the last attempt to hold a Kiowa Sun Dance, a ceremony that was central to Kiowa religion. Aho was present when the Kiowas gathered for the Sun Dance for the final time, but the ceremony did not occur because the U.S. government sent soldiers to prevent the Kiowas from practicing their religion. This was an act explicitly meant to undermine Kiowa power and destroy Kiowa culture and religion, which were seen as threats to the white, Christian colonization of the American West. This quote explains the effect that witnessing this act had on Momaday’s grandmother, and it’s particularly significant that Momaday refers to this act as deicide. “Deicide,” a word linguistically related to “homicide” or “suicide,” means to kill a god, and to use the word here is a strong and appropriate condemnation of U.S. violence towards the Kiowas. In light of this, though, it is surprising that Momaday describes his grandmother as having no bitterness towards this horrific part of Kiowa history. Readers can only guess as to why this might be so, but Aho’s sentiment evokes Momaday’s attitude towards the periods of hardship in Kiowa history. Momaday has previously implied that hardship in Kiowa history is worth noting because it happened, but hardship is not worth emphasizing—it is not definitive of the Kiowa people and it is not as important as the periods when the Kiowas flourished.

Their wives and daughters served them well. The women might indulge themselves; gossip was at once the mark and compensation of their servitude. They made loud and elaborate talk among themselves, full of jest and gesture, fright and false alarm.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker), Aho
Page Number: 11-12
Explanation and Analysis:

In several moments in the book Momaday writes directly about the hardships that Kiowa women faced, acknowledging that they were given lower status than Kiowa men. Momaday’s observation, then, that the women talked and gossiped constantly, and that this talk was “at once the mark and compensation of their servitude,” is a complex one. First, it shows the importance of language to Kiowa life—that language and storytelling could be a reward for servitude indicates the great importance and joy that language brought the Kiowas. Second, the notion of language as the “mark” of servitude seems to suggest that, since women were forced to serve men, they were in a unique position to spend all day talking amongst themselves—a position that, this statement implies, men did not find themselves in. Momaday does not explicitly state this, but it seems that women, because they were the ones who were able to talk all day, were the primary storytellers of the tribe. In other words, it was through women more than men that Kiowa history and culture was transmitted through generations, which points to the vitality of women. This observation seems to be supported by the fact that the primary storyteller in Momaday’s life was Aho, not Mammedaty.

The Setting Out Quotes

There was a great holiness all about in the room, as if an old person had died there or a child had been born.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday , Tai-me
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is Momaday’s personal memory of visiting the Tai-me bundle as a child. Tai-me is the foundational religious object of the Kiowas, and, as such, its presence is sacred. Momaday describes the whole room as having been suffused with Tai-me’s holiness, and it is significant that this sacredness is described in human terms rather than divine ones—a religious object reminds Momaday of being in the presence of birth or death, two of the most definitive human experiences. This emphasizes the interconnectedness, rather than the separateness, of the human and the divine, which echoes the interconnectedness that the Kiowas saw between humans and the natural world. The divine was found within and outside of humans, just as nature shaped and was shaped by humans. This quote also emphasizes the notion of circular time in which birth and death loop back into one another. This has been brought up before in several contexts: for example, when Momaday suggests that Kiowa history cycles repeatedly through similar periods of hardship, or when Momaday describes his great-grandmother’s skin as becoming infant-like in her old age.

The Closing In Quotes

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage closes the body of the book—only the epilogue is left after this, and so this marks the end of the three-section structure that maps onto the three major periods of Kiowa history. As such, this passage can be read as a way to make a conclusion from the arc of Kiowa history, and as a conclusion, it conspicuously refuses to make any sweeping statement of meaning or destiny. Instead, Momaday brings Kiowa history back to the personal, the landscape, and, significantly, the imagination. Momaday had previously referred to the landscape of Rainy Mountain as evoking a sense of spirituality and of origin, and this description echoes that sentiment. However, the difference is that the first description of the landscape of Rainy Mountain was a literal one—Momaday was attempting to describe a landscape that was in front of him. Here, however, Momaday encourages readers to recall a landscape from memory in fine detail, to pull it from the imagination without being in the presence of it. This is an act of creation and imagination, then, rather than one of strict observation and representation. In a sense, this could be seen as a metaphor for the work of historical writing and memory. Kiowa history is not a landscape that can be observed and described, but one whose details must be gleaned from memory and imagination alone, as its referent (the past) no longer exists. So this return to a description of landscape is another instance of circular storytelling—of returning to a theme or event in a way that echoes, rather than repeats, the previous instance.

Epilogue Quotes

The falling stars seemed to imagine the sudden and violent disintegration of an old order.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker), The Kiowas
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Momaday opens the epilogue by describing a startlingly bright meteor shower that occurred just as the Kiowa golden age was fraying due to U.S. government violence and the theft of Tai-me by Osages. Significantly, Momaday states that the meteor shower became the symbol of the transition from golden age to decline—the meteor shower represented the “disintegration of an old order.” To define a historical period based on a natural phenomenon whose import was symbolic (rather than, for instance, catastrophic to landscape/human lives) is a different convention than Euro-American history, which tends to define historical periods based on significant political events (like the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the beginning of the First World War). To use the meteor shower as the marker of a new era shows how deeply interwoven the Kiowas were with the natural world—they could view natural phenomena as being directly related to, symbolic of, or in response to the political and cultural upheaval of the time.

The culture would persist for a while in decline, until about 1875, but then it would be gone, and there would be very little material evidence that it had ever been. Yet it is within the reach of memory still, though tenuously now, and moreover it is even defined in a remarkably rich and living verbal tradition which demands to be preserved for its own sake. The living memory and the verbal tradition which transcends it were brought together once and for all in the person of Ko-sahn.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker)
Page Number: 85-86
Explanation and Analysis:

At the close of the book, Momaday emphasizes, once again, that Kiowa history and culture are inextricable from their mode of transmission: the oral tradition. Without language and storytelling, in other words, Kiowa history could not live on. Momaday does not sugarcoat the damage that has been done to the oral tradition—as old people with firsthand memories of the golden age die off and as (forced and unforced) assimilation by Kiowas to Euro-American culture weakens the continuity and relevance of Kiowa stories, the oral tradition becomes weaker. For this reason, and because of the richness and power of the oral tradition, Momaday explains that the stories must be preserved—a task to which his book has dedicated itself. It’s significant that Momaday closes the book by anchoring abstract ideas of the oral tradition to an actual person, an elderly Kiowa woman who lived during the Sun Dance. While Momaday’s concerns with history, memory, and storytelling might sometimes seem abstract, his turn to a living person shows the personal significance and the stakes of preserving Kiowa culture. History for the Kiowas is not an abstract and impersonal phenomenon, but one that is self-consciously and passionately carried forward through people who understand that it is the only way to make sure Kiowa culture lives on.

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N. Scott Momaday Character Timeline in The Way to Rainy Mountain

The timeline below shows where the character N. Scott Momaday appears in The Way to Rainy Mountain. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue
Memory and History Theme Icon
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Momaday immediately introduces the arc of the story of the Kiowas, noting that their migration from... (full context)
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Momaday introduces Tai-me without explaining what Tai-me is—he writes simply that Tai-me came to the Kiowas... (full context)
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Stepping back, Momaday explains that the story of Kiowa migration is not only the history of the Kiowas,... (full context)
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To explain his writing process and the importance of the book, Momaday suggests that the responsibility of the imagination is to tell an old story in a... (full context)
Introduction
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Momaday describes the landscape of Rainy Mountain, which is a knoll (hill) in the Oklahoma plains... (full context)
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Momaday then locates himself in time, saying that he had first returned to Rainy Mountain last... (full context)
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Aho is Momaday’s entry-point into the tribe’s history; she was born at the last great moment of Kiowa... (full context)
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Momaday then moves to give context for the mysterious history of the Kiowas, noting that they... (full context)
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Momaday returns to Aho, writing that though she lived her whole life by Rainy Mountain in... (full context)
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Momaday begins at Yellowstone, where he describes the landscape as beautiful but crowded. The Kiowa understood... (full context)
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In the Black Hills, Momaday notices Devil’s Tower, a striking stone landform with striated edges that look like clawmarks. He... (full context)
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Momaday notes, also, that his grandmother became a Christian later in life, though she never forgot... (full context)
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With his grandmother now only existing in memory, Momaday attempts to describe what was characteristic of her. Prayer is what he most remembers—he writes... (full context)
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When his grandmother was younger, Momaday remembers that her house was always full of chatter—Momaday suggests that this was an indication... (full context)
The Setting Out
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...themselves after dogs back then, valuing standing their ground in battle regardless of the cost. Momaday then remembers the dogs that frequented his grandmother’s house. They were “nameless and lived a... (full context)
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...voice of historical commentary notes that this root was the pomme blanche, a turnip-like plant. Momaday then quotes the anthropologist James Mooney, explaining that the Kiowas were always hunters and never... (full context)
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...While the Kiowas camped it rained hard and spiders began to pour from the earth. Momaday’s personal memory then turns to spiders, describing crotchety tarantulas crawling the dusty roads of the... (full context)
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...last time, and that the Kiowas had more horses per person than any other tribe. Momaday’s personal memory speaks of swimming in the Washita River. He remembers fixating on details of... (full context)
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...they take their names with them, and nobody is allowed to speak those names again. Momaday’s personal memory then tells of the word Aho used when confronted with something frightening. He... (full context)
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...other transforms himself into ten different “medicines” (objects of religious veneration with different special uses). Momaday then remembers his father telling him about going to a shrine with powerful medicine. The... (full context)
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...kept in a box and never exposed to the sun except at the Sun Dance. Momaday then remembers going to see the Tai-me bundle. He made an offering, and felt a... (full context)
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...priest sit around a fire singing and drumming and praying before a midnight baptismal ceremony. Momaday then writes that Mammedaty was a peyote man who could see things that others could... (full context)
The Going On
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...history describes a decorated tipi that was destroyed by fire in the late nineteenth century. Momaday’s personal memory is of walking through the Rainy Mountain cemetery and the earth seeming to... (full context)
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...history interjects that old men were the best arrowmakers because they were experienced and patient. Momaday then remembers his father telling of an old arrowmaker who used to visit him when... (full context)
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...states that the plains can be serene sometimes and wracked by violent weather at others. Momaday then remembers the storm cellar by his grandmother’s house. He says he has seen it... (full context)
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...thought that the Kiowas were better looking than the Comanches and Wichitas. The voice of Momaday’s memory describes Catlin’s portrait of a Kiowa man, reflecting that he looks strong, at ease,... (full context)
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...not at all resemble the wild ones of the past—so that they could hunt it. Momaday then remembers that once while walking by a herd of calving buffalo a mother buffalo... (full context)
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...Kiowa women. They had low status, and were subject to all kinds of physical punishments. Momaday then remembers that Mammedaty’s grandmother was a Mexican captive who would not submit to the... (full context)
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...travel was impossible and hunting arduous. Horses transformed Kiowas into nomadic warriors and buffalo hunters. Momaday then remembers how cherished summers were at Rainy Mountain, and how during the summer he... (full context)
The Closing In
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...and their horses and weapons were confiscated. The government then slaughtered and sold their horses. Momaday quotes James Mooney, who recounts that once the buffalo disappeared, the Kiowa tried a Sun... (full context)
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...a Kiowa man sacrificed one of his best horses to spare himself and his family. Momady, in the voice of his memory, then reflects on this man, empathizing with his love... (full context)
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...kind looking. His veins stand out in his small hands, which is a “family characteristic.” Momaday then remembers that in his life Mammedaty saw four remarkable things: the child in the... (full context)
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...called Little Red, and the loss of that horse defined the season for the Kiowas. Momaday then remembers that as a child he would look at a box of bones in... (full context)
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...mother. If someone showed the medicine bundle disrespect it would grow heavy around his neck. Momaday remembers an enormous kettle on his grandmother’s porch that collected the rainwater for hair washing.... (full context)
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...of history says that Aho’s moccasins are made of skins and ornamented with beads, and Momaday then remembers the sunrise east of Aho’s house. He says that it’s important sometimes to... (full context)
Epilogue
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Momaday then zooms out to place the golden age of the Kiowas from about 1740-1840, though... (full context)
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Momaday then states that living memory and verbal tradition were brought together for him in a... (full context)