The Way to Rainy Mountain

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Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Memory and History Theme Icon
Origins, Linearity, and Circularity Theme Icon
Nature, Landscape, and Animals Theme Icon
Mixing of Cultures Theme Icon
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Memory and History Theme Icon

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.

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Memory and History Quotes in The Way to Rainy Mountain

Below you will find the important quotes in The Way to Rainy Mountain related to the theme of Memory and History.
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.

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.

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.

The Setting Out Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Kiowas , Comanches
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote gets at several important themes of the book. First, it underscores the idea of the horse as being an essential component of Kiowa identity—before the introduction of the horse, the Kiowas lived a demeaning and hard life, but the horse allowed them to become who they were meant to be. Since horses signify the golden age of Kiowa history and dogs are symbolic of the hard life the Kiowas lived beforehand, this again emphasizes that Kiowas understood themselves in relation to the natural world. The Kiowas suggest that horses and dogs changed them, rather than implying that they controlled the horses and dogs. This quote is also interesting because the passage about dogs being “dreamed into being” resonates with many of the ideas of origins in the book (the landscape as the catalyst for creation, and language as having the literal power to bring something into being). This is another example of traditional notions of cause and effect not being broadly applicable in the book. A last observation is that throughout the book Momaday is comfortable using observations from people of other cultures as evidence of certain aspects of Kiowa history or identity. Here, he quotes a Comanche, and in other sections he quotes James Mooney, a white anthropologist. This shows, again, that the mixing of cultures was a central part of Kiowa history, and because of that, Momaday believes that other cultures have some meaningful and true knowledge of Kiowas.

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.

Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is resonant with Momaday’s comment in the prologue that the Kiowas’ idea of themselves is an idea that exists fundamentally in language. Here, the voice of history is suggesting a literal creative power of words—that words bring ideas (and even objects, as his use of “all things” seems to suggest) into being, rather than just representing them. In other words, he suggests that ideas and things would not exist independently of words. Because of this creative power—which is deliberately god-like—words have a sacred quality and a spiritual power to them, demonstrated by the Kiowa tradition of not speaking the names of the dead. This emphasis on the power and sacredness of language is particularly resonant in the context of a culture sustained by an oral tradition. There is no written record or evidence of Kiowa history and culture—it is all contained and perpetuated through the spoken word. In that context it makes sense that language would take on a spiritual power and would be seen as having a central importance to culture.

The Going On Quotes

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.

Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the book, Momaday emphasizes the respect that the Kiowas have for older people. This has generally been discussed in the context of storytelling; it is elders who know best the history of the tribe, and it is therefore elders who bear the responsibility and honor of passing on Kiowa history and culture. This quote is a different example of the importance of elders—their experience and patience means that they are able to make arrows of superior quality to the arrows of younger arrowmakers. This passage points, also, to the gender divide among Kiowas. The voice of personal memory that immediately follows this quote describes the (male) arrowmaker from Momaday’s childhood as silent other than during his praying. The female equivalent to the arrowmaker is the old woman described in the epilogue who, like this arrowmaker, used to visit Momaday’s house. The old woman told stories, and it was through her that Momaday knew of some essential tribal stories. From the arrowmaker, though, Momaday appears to learn no stories. This division echoes the sense given in the passage about gossip being the reward and mark of women’s servitude—it does seem as though women are the primary storytellers of the tribe.

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.