The Way to Rainy Mountain is a history of the Kiowa people, but it’s a nontraditional history; it takes the kind of written “factual” history to which Euro-American culture is accustomed and blends it with tribal lore and personal recollection. This is a surprising and radical choice in the context of most works of written history that value objectivity and evidence while discounting the ideas found in storytelling and myth. However, Momaday writes that, “The imaginative experience and the historical express equally the traditions of man’s reality.” By this he means that memory and myth are just as important as traditional history to how a person understands reality, and therefore must also be addressed when attempting to write an account of the past.
Momaday’s principal tool for giving equal weight to memory and history is his choice to narrate the book through three alternating voices: the voices of tribal lore, traditional history, and personal memory. These voices are always responding to one another, which shows that their perspectives on the past are related and even intertwined. For example, Momaday’s juxtaposition of the Kiowa creation myth (emerging into the world from a hollow log) with the historical narrative of the Kiowas moving southward from a harsh northern landscape shows the parallels between the two foundational stories of the Kiowa people. While to Westerners the story of the log is seen as metaphor and the story of the migration is seen as literally true, both tell of moving from a world of darkness into one of sunlight, or of moving from a life of hardship into one of relative ease. Momaday insists that both of these stories essentially tell the same story, and thus both have a valid relationship to truth. This undercuts the Eurocentric primacy of traditional historical scholarship, and shows the importance of other modes of understanding the past, particularly when writing the history of a people like the Kiowa whose history has always been transmitted orally instead of through writing.
Momaday’s focus on older people is also important to his ideas about memory and history. Much of The Way to Rainy Mountain is devoted to Momaday’s personal memories of his grandparents, as well as his recounting of their memories and stories. In a sense, he treats older generations as a proxy for history: it is in their memories and stories that the Kiowa live on. Because older people carry this sacred history within them, they are seen as worthy of veneration. This can be specific and practical (the best arrowmakers are old men who have honed their skill and patience), or more abstract (he writes of Aho that, “the immense landscape of the continental interior lay like memory in her blood,” implying that she contains within her the whole of the tribe’s memory of their ancestral migration). Either way, the wisdom and memory that old people have mean that they are afforded the highest honor in the book, which emphasizes that culture and history cannot be abstracted from the people that carry them forward.
Momaday’s insistence on combining memory and myth with traditional history, and his focus on the importance of older generations as embodiments of history, are a direct challenge to the limitations of traditional history. Though memory and myth may not come with “proof” that a story is true, they are essential components to understanding the way the Kiowas understand themselves and their history. In other words, memory and myth are ways to place cultural truths alongside events that “actually happened.” Momaday’s focus on memory also emphasizes that the past must be actively transmitted in order to preserve Kiowa culture and identity. History is not an abstract time that is relegated only to the past; it is a set of stories, values, and ideas that live on through people who make the effort to remember. Without their memories and myths, then, the Kiowas would cease to be Kiowas as they move into the future.
Memory and History ThemeTracker
Memory and History Quotes in The Way to Rainy Mountain
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.
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.
The imaginative experience and the historical express equally the traditions of man’s reality.
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.
My grandmother was there. Without bitterness, and for as long as she lived, she bore a vision of deicide.
A hundred years ago the Comanche Ten Bears remarked upon the great number of horses which the Kiowas owned. “When we first knew you,” he said, “you had nothing but dogs and sleds.” It was so; the dog is primordial. Perhaps it was dreamed into being.
A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things. By means of words can a man deal with the world on equal terms. And the word is sacred. A man’s name is his own; he can keep it or give it away as he likes. Until recent times, the Kiowas would not speak the name of a dead man. To do so would have been disrespectful and dishonest. The dead take their names with them out of the world.
The old men were the best arrowmakers, for they could bring time and patience to their craft. The young men—the fighters and hunters—were willing to pay a high price for arrows that were well made.
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.
The falling stars seemed to imagine the sudden and violent disintegration of an old order.
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.