The Way to Rainy Mountain is a memoir—and a nontraditional one at that. It is at once a history of the Kiowa people, a love letter to the plains landscape, a collection of memories of N. Scott Momaday’s family and tribe, and an experimental reworking of historical writing that attempts to integrate different kinds of knowledge about the past. As such, the book does not have a conventional structure or plot arc.
The book is divided into three sections: “The Setting Out,” “The Going On,” and “The Closing In.” These sections loosely track the major arc of Kiowa history: the Kiowas begin to migrate towards the southern plains from western Montana, the Kiowas become rulers of the southern plains and experience a golden era, and the Kiowas are defeated by the U.S. military and their culture goes into decline. While the content of each section does not simply narrate each of these historical periods, the stories and memories that are told in each section relate thematically to the period of Kiowa history that each section loosely depicts.
In the first section, for instance, Momaday narrates the Kiowa creation myth that the tribe emerged into the world from a hollow log, and then contextualizes the myth by describing the bleak conditions of Kiowa life before they migrated to the southern plains. In the middle section, which mirrors the historic Kiowa golden age, Momaday relays tribal stories of victorious Kiowas conquering their enemies through strength and cleverness, and he also dwells on the beauty of the landscape and the details of Kiowa religion and culture. The third section is the darkest because it mirrors the defeat of the Kiowas—it tells of the disappearance of the buffalo and the Kiowa struggle to maintain their religion and culture while under attack.
Each of these major sections of the book is further divided into numbered chapters, which are themselves divided into segments told in three different voices: the voice of tribal lore, the voice of historical commentary, and the voice of Momaday’s personal memory. Because these distinct voices alternate, stories that arc over multiple chapters are interrupted by commentary from other voices. Sometimes this commentary is directly related (the story of the woman digging up a forbidden root interrupted by historical commentary on the plant to which the story refers), and in other instances the commentary relates only by association (as when the story of the giants in the cave connects to a meditation on the power of language).
The complex structure of the book is itself meant to be a commentary on the way that people understand the past: Momaday believes that instead of separating out scholarly history from memory, or family stories from tribal myth, the past should be understood as a blending of all of these modes of understanding. The book, then, is an attempt to create a new kind of historical writing, as well as an attempt to transmit Kiowa culture by making a written record of stories preserved only in the Kiowa oral tradition.