Momaday describes the landscape of Rainy Mountain, which is a knoll (hill) in the Oklahoma plains where the Kiowas have lived for a long time. The weather here is harsh, but Momaday’s evocative description of the landscape draws out its beauty. He notes that it’s a lonely landscape—there are not many objects, simply one tree, one hill, or one person. Momaday suggests a spiritual element to this landscape, saying that to look at it in the morning is to “lose the sense of proportion.” The landscape activates the imagination and raises the thought that “this is where Creation was begun.”
It’s significant that Momaday chooses to open the book by focusing on the landscape, and on Rainy Mountain in particular. Rainy Mountain, which is a symbol of home for the Kiowas, is described as being integrated into a complex and dynamic landscape. One of the most powerful aspects of this landscape is that people, too, disappear within it by losing “the sense of proportion.” Home, then, provides the Kiowas with a spirituality centered on unity between people and the landscape—a thread appearing throughout the book.
Momaday then locates himself in time, saying that he had first returned to Rainy Mountain last July after the death of his grandmother, Aho, whom he notes was said to have looked like a child—despite her old age—in the moments before her death.
This is the first instance of one of Momaday’s most frequent and intriguing images: the resemblance between elders and children. This image suggests a circularity in time, in which death loops right back into birth. It’s also a hopeful way to think about his grandmother’s passing.
Aho is Momaday’s entry-point into the tribe’s history; she was born at the last great moment of Kiowa history, at the very end of their control over the southern plains. In this context, Momaday first raises the specter of white colonization of Kiowa lands and culture. He invokes the U.S. cavalry coming into Kiowa lands and winning a military victory over the Kiowas that forced the surrender of their lands and possessions, a defeat from which they would never recover. Aho grew up surrounded by the mood of defeat and a general sense of brooding.
Here, Momaday begins to suggest the great importance of older people: they literally carry history within them. By telling of Aho’s life, Momaday is actually telling the story of the tribe. This type of storytelling shows that the grand and intimate moments of history are not separate from each other, and that history is not an abstract concept, but rather a past that lives within real people. Through Aho’s story, Momaday is also able for the first time to directly address the violence of the U.S. military against the Kiowas. It’s as though framing history as a personal story gives him courage to address the darkest parts of the Kiowa past.
Momaday then moves to give context for the mysterious history of the Kiowas, noting that they came from western Montana three hundred years beforehand, speaking a language that linguists have never been able to classify. Their journey southward was one “towards the dawn,” and that led to a “golden age” for the Kiowas. As they moved, they befriended the Crows, who introduced them to Plains culture and religion (including the Sun Dance, and Tai-me, the Sun Dance doll at the center of their worship). The Kiowas acquired horses on their journey, which transformed them into nomads and ruthless hunters. Through this journey they were liberated from an exclusive focus on survival, and they became dignified and visionary. Momaday notes the echo between this journey and the Kiowa creation myth that the tribe emerged into the world from a hollow log—that myth, like the tribe’s documented history, reflects a journey from darkness to light.
This is the true Kiowa origin story as Momaday sees it. Instead of being concerned with the literal formation of the tribe (a deeper origin than Momaday considers, perhaps because that history is unknown), he focuses on the Kiowa transformation into the great people he believes it was their nature to become. As such, the Kiowa “origin” story includes the influences of other tribes, the introduction of new religion, the adoption of horses, and the transformation of the Kiowa lifestyle. In other words, Momaday seems to suggest that the Kiowas did not start out as being fully Kiowa, but had to be made fully Kiowa over the course of a long journey. This is an unusual way to frame an origin, but it’s a particularly generous one in that it gives ample credit to the non-Kiowa influences that gave the Kiowas some of the most valued aspects of their culture. This is also a moment in which Momaday asserts the similarity between myth and historical fact; the Kiowa origin myth and the known history of the Kiowas both tell a story with a similar plot, one in which the Kiowas move from darkness into light.
Momaday returns to Aho, writing that though she lived her whole life by Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma, she could tell stories of the historic Kiowa journey from Montana down to the southern plains. Momaday writes that he had seen these landscapes in his imagination through her stories, and he wanted to see them in real life, so he began a journey to mirror the ancestral one from the tribe’s stories.
The strength of the Kiowa oral tradition is apparent here; though Aho has lived her whole life in Oklahoma, she is so familiar with centuries of history and myth that she is able to transmit her culture to her grandson. And this is a powerful transmission—Momaday notes that all these ancestral places were vivid in his imagination, even though neither he nor Aho had ever been to them. This passage also underscores the importance of Aho as living history. The past for Momaday is not separate from the people who remember it.
Momaday begins at Yellowstone, where he describes the landscape as beautiful but crowded. The Kiowa understood themselves in relation to their landscape, and at Yellowstone they felt “bent and blind in the wilderness.” However, as Momaday moves southeast from Yellowstone, the land flattens and expands, becoming less limiting and emphasizing the size of the sun and sky. Momaday notes that imagination and wonder are inspired by this landscape. Farther south in the plains was where the Kiowa culture irrevocably changed; in that landscape the sun was able to become godlike, and there the Kiowas would take on the sun-centered religion of the plains.
Momaday’s descriptions of nature illuminate the way that Kiowas see their relationship to the natural world. Since the Kiowas’ idea of themselves (their culture, in other words) is wrapped up in their relationship to nature, they were different people when they lived in Yellowstone than when they lived on the plains. This notion that human identity is tied to the landscape is significant. Momaday also, by noticing the difference in the appearance of the sun in the southern plains (it’s bigger and more majestic in an emptier landscape) shows the influence of landscape on Kiowa religion—as the Kiowas moved south, they began to worship the sun.
In the Black Hills, Momaday notices Devil’s Tower, a striking stone landform with striated edges that look like clawmarks. He recalls his grandmother’s recounting of a Kiowa legend about Devil’s Tower, in which a child turned into a bear and chased his sisters into a tree. The tree began to rise into the air, carrying the sisters to the sky, as the bear scratched at the trunk—creating the lines on Devil’s Tower. The sisters became the stars in the Big Dipper. Momaday remarks that since the time of that legend the Kiowas found a way out of suffering in the wilderness, and he notes that his grandmother revered the sun in a way that is no longer seen on this earth.
This is another example of the Kiowa blending of human, nature, and animal. In this story, the landscape acts on people, people act on the landscape, and people transform into an animal (a bear) and a natural feature (stars). There’s a fluidity, then, between the human and non-human worlds. This is also an illustration of Momaday’s idea that imagination and history equally inform the experience of reality. Momaday’s reaction to Devil’s Tower was not to explain the geological processes that created the landform; the sight instead provoked a memory of his tribe’s story of the origin of Devil’s Tower, which led to a broader meditation on Kiowa culture. Human consciousness is a string of memories and associations that may or may not reflect what is provably true—that doesn’t make those thoughts any less powerful, and it doesn’t mean that those thoughts can’t reveal truths about human culture.
Momaday notes, also, that his grandmother became a Christian later in life, though she never forgot her history. She had attended Kiowa Sun Dances as a child, including the last Kiowa Sun Dance, held in the late 1800s. The buffalo were gone by that time so the tribe hung a buffalo hide from a tree to take the place of a real Buffalo head. Before the dance could begin, white soldiers came to disperse the tribe, since Indian religions were seen as dangerous. That was the last time the tribe gathered for a Sun Dance, and Momaday says that his grandmother forever remembered the whites having killed her religion.
Aho saw many significant changes over the course of her life. She saw Sun Dances, and she saw Sun Dance culture forcibly stopped; she saw the buffalo disappear, and her religion shifted from worshipping Tai-me to Christianity. This passage is notable for its lack of judgment about these changes; Aho became a Christian, but Momaday doesn’t judge this as a sin against his culture, and Momaday notes that Aho always remembered the whites killing the Sun Dance, but she remembered it without bitterness. While white settlers objectively did terrible things to the Kiowas, this passage suggests that Kiowa history, which has been defined by cultural adaptation, primed the Kiowas for these moments of violence and, perhaps, allowed them to endure change with tempered optimism.
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 that she gave long prayers that melded suffering and hope. Though he does not speak Kiowa and therefore could not understand her prayers in Kiowa, Momaday describes a sadness in them that transcended language.
This is another example of Momaday withholding his judgment of white influence. His most significant memories of Aho—who represents the history and culture of the Kiowas—are of her praying. It’s symbolic that Momaday could not understand those prayers because he never learned Kiowa; he doesn’t say so, but this is an example of white influence separating him from his culture.
When his grandmother was younger, Momaday remembers that her house was always full of chatter—Momaday suggests that this was an indication of the health of Kiowa culture. He says that gossip among the women was simultaneously the “mark and compensation of their servitude” to the men of the tribe. Momaday contrasts those lively days in his grandmother’s house with the silence now, realizing for the first time how small the house is. He notes that his grandmother’s grave is, as it must be, within sight of Rainy Mountain.
Throughout the book, Momaday takes seriously the subservient position of Kiowa women. However, this passage seems to hint at one of the unique powers of Kiowa women; they talked amongst one another constantly. As Momaday notes, talking was a mark of healthy culture—unsurprising in the context of a culture defined by oral tradition—and, as such, those who talked most could shape the stories that defined the culture. This is, perhaps, what Momaday means by gossip being compensation for servitude. It’s Momaday’s grandmother, not his grandfather, who has passed down Kiowa culture and stories to him.