When one of two brothers was captured by Utes (another tribe), the tribal voice narrates, the other brother snuck into the Ute camp to set him free, but was captured. The Ute chief, out of respect for the brother’s bravery, made a bargain that if the brother could walk across a line of greased buffalo skulls carrying his brother on his back, then they both would be set free. The brother succeeded, and the Utes kept their word to free the captives. The voice of history then tells that when the Kiowas surrendered to the U.S. government, they were imprisoned 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 Dance with a horse. The following summer food was so scarce that they had to kill and eat their ponies. Momaday then describes the feeling of riding a horse through the New Mexico landscape, and getting to know it in a more intimate way than another traveler would.
Just as the second section of the book (which maps onto the Kiowa golden age) opened with a passage more reminiscent of Kiowa decline, the third section (which maps onto Kiowa decline) opens with a story from the tribal voice that is surprisingly optimistic. This seems to be yet another challenge to linear narrative; Momaday mixes all parts of Kiowa history, undermining notions of chronology and cause and effect. However, Momaday’s apparent optimism loses steam quickly—the next voice talks about the slaughter of Kiowa horses, which are a symbol of the Kiowa spirit. By introducing the Kiowa defeat through the sale and slaughter of their horses, Momaday emphasizes how closely the horse is associated with the Kiowas. Momaday further underscores this with his memory of being able to understand and blend with the landscape better on horseback than he could on foot—the horse makes Kiowas able to fulfill their nature and greatness. Therefore, the slaughter of the horses can be directly equated to the defeat of Kiowa culture and the tragedies to come.
The tribal voice tells of a man whose hunting horse died from shame after the man turned it away from a charge. The historical voice then describes a Sun Dance in which the Kiowas offered a spotted horse to Tai-me by leaving it to starve outside the medicine lodge. Later in the year, smallpox broke out and 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 of the horse and his logic in giving a beloved life to Tai-me in order to spare his own.
This section also emphasizes the importance of the horse to the Kiowas, which, following the previous chapter’s description of the slaughter of Kiowa horses, serves to heighten the sense of tragedy. The tribal voice tells a story that explicitly addresses the qualities of horses that enabled and challenged Kiowas to live up to their values, and Momaday’s reflection confirms that the horse was so important that it could symbolically stand in for a human life. Here, we plainly see horses affecting Kiowas as much as Kiowas are affecting horses, a dynamic we also see throughout the book in the relationship between the Kiowas and the natural world.
The voice of the tribe tells a story of Mammedaty driving a team of horses through the tall grass, a landscape in which he could see everything around him. Then someone whistled to him and he saw a child’s head peeking above the grass. He walked around to see who was there, but found nobody. The voice of history describes a photograph of Mammedaty, who is well-dressed and 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 grass, the beast tracks by the river, three alligators on a log by a pecan grove, and a mole blowing powdery earth from its mouth around its hole. Mammedaty had always wondered why the earth around a mole hole was so fine, and witnessing this gave Mammedaty possession of powerful medicine.
This section is, in a sense, a portrait of Mammedaty. Of course, Momaday describes a literal portrait of Mammedaty, but it is also a description of some the most important events of his life, events that would define him within the tribe as a spiritual leader and, as Momaday notes elsewhere, as someone who saw things that nobody else could. It’s significant that the tribal voice (not Momaday’s personal voice) is relating a story of Mammedaty—generally the tribal voice tells the legends of the tribe that have been passed down orally (these stories tend to feature characters from the distant past, not from recent memory) and Mammedaty’s appearance in the tribal voice suggests his importance to Kiowas. That Mammedaty receives medicine from witnessing the mole dig its hole again shows the power of nature—the simple act of witnessing an animal at work on something secret gives Mammedaty powers.
Once, the tribal voice recalls, Mammedaty wanted to get several horses out of a pasture, and he lost his temper because each time he nearly had them out, one particular horse would lead the others away. Mammedaty tried to shoot that horse, but killed another instead. The voice of history notes that once a Kiowa captive escaped on a beloved hunting horse 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 the barn which were later stolen. Mammedaty said the bones were of a horse called Little Red, which was the fastest runner around. Momaday reflects that sometimes he understands why someone would preserve a horse’s bones and also why someone might steal them.
This is section elaborates on the role of the horse in Kiowa life. While the horse represents the best parts of Kiowa nature, the horse also makes Kiowas vulnerable—to revere anything so much leaves the Kiowas open to devastating loss. The tribal voice’s story hints at the power horses have over people, since a horse is able to whip Mammedaty into such a rage that he tries to kill it. The stories of Little Red, told by the voices of history and memory, are fascinating for their repetition—Little Red is stolen while he is alive (a devastating loss), and then his bones are stolen after he’s dead. These two stories also revisit the idea of the vulnerability that horses open in the Kiowas, as Momaday says he understands how loving horses so much might motivate people to do bizarre things like preserve or steal bones.
Aho once went to see the wife of the keeper of the Tai-me bundle, the tribal voice recalls. While they were speaking they heard a terrible noise like something enormous had fallen. They went to investigate, and saw that what had fallen was Tai-me—just a small bundle. Nothing caused it to fall, as far as they could see. The voice of history describes Mammedaty wearing a medicine bundle around his neck for his 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. He remembers thinking it was unmovable—that it was too heavy for anyone to ever pick up.
These three voices are connected by the notion of heaviness—the Tai-me bundle fell and made a sound as though it were very heavy; Mammedaty’s medicine bundle could grow heavy if disrespected; and the kettle on the porch seemed heavy to Momaday as a child. Heaviness here seems to stand in for power—Tai-me is powerful and so is Mammedaty’s medicine bundle. In these instances, their apparent heaviness seems to match their spiritual power rather than their physical presence. The kettle might have been heavy as a physical object, but it’s important to note that the kettle is a memory, and, in this context, the association of weight with power seems to comment on the power and spiritual importance of memory. This is underscored by the fact that it seems as if this kettle is now gone, which implies that the kettle is heavier as a memory than as a physical object.
East of Aho’s house is the unmarked grave of a woman who was buried in a beautiful dress, the tribal voice recounts. Nobody knows exactly where she is buried, but the dress was notable for being so fine, made of buckskin and decorated with elk’s teeth and beads. The voice 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 fixate on a landscape, imagining it from all different angles and in as much detail as possible. For Momaday, this should be a remembered landscape, not one that is presently experienced—it is meant to be an act of imagination.
This final reflection of Momaday’s is among the book’s most powerful. Throughout the book the landscape has been a central figure of Kiowa life. Here, though, the landscape becomes a memory rather than a physical reality. Momaday does not emphasize the act of looking closely at the world that is present, but rather the act of remembering in fine detail a landscape from the past. This is, in a way, mournful: in the Kiowa context, the landscape that is most sacred to them has not existed for a century, and thus the memory of landscape must stand in for reality. This passage also seems to suggest memory as a spiritual and even creative act—here, remembering a landscape is a way to access the past.