At this point, the book takes on a structure of narration that alternates between the voice of tribal lore, the voice of historical commentary, and the voice of personal memory. It opens with the voice of the tribe, telling the Kiowa creation story, which is that the Kiowas emerged into the world from a hollow log. There were originally more Kiowas, but a pregnant woman got stuck in the log and afterwards no more Kiowas could come into the world, as they were trapped behind her. The voice of history then takes over and explains several early names for the Kiowas, two of which meant “coming out” and one that referred to differing halves, a reference to the hairstyle of Kiowa warriors. This third name, “gaigwu,” is where “Kiowa” likely comes from (“Kiowa” is probably the Comanche pronunciation of “gaigwu”). The voice of personal memory then describes the northern plains, the ancestral land of the Kiowas, emphasizing the way in which all the natural features seem whole and perfect.
An interesting part of the Kiowa creation story is that it is defined by mishap: a pregnant woman got stuck in the hollow log, preventing many Kiowas from entering the world. Reality being shaped by accident rather than deliberate action is a common thread in many Kiowa stories (as in many other myths as well). This resonates with the structure of the book’s narration, which is non-linear and therefore does not place particular importance on the cause and effect of actions over time. In addition, the fact that the word “Kiowa” is actually a Comanche mispronunciation of a Kiowa word is a fitting symbol of the centrality of the influence of other cultures to the Kiowa.
The voice of tribal lore tells of Kiowa hunters who killed an antelope. Two chiefs then fought over the animal’s udders until one chief left with all of his followers, never to return or be heard from again. The voice of history states that this is one of the oldest Kiowa stories, and that the people who left the tribe after the fight might be a people in the Northwest who inexplicably speak a language similar to Kiowa. For a long time the Kiowa lived off buffalo, but in the mid-nineteenth century (just as the golden century of the Kiowas was coming to a close) the buffalo were scarce and the hunters had to kill antelope again, returning to ancestral ways out of necessity. The voice of personal memory describes the way antelope look as they move in the distance, the flash of their tails “like a succession of sunbursts against the purple hills.”
The story of the chiefs fighting and the comment that a tribe with a language related to Kiowa was found in the Northwest shows, again, Momaday’s view on the relationship between myth and history. While there is no way to prove that the story of the chiefs fighting over the antelope udders actually occurred, there is some evidence (the tribe with a similar language) that the rift that this story explains might have really happened. Both the myth and the historical commentary, then, have a relationship to truth. This passage also emphasizes the significance of circularity in Kiowa storytelling—Momaday points out that the Kiowa killed antelopes before the era of the buffalo, and were forced back to their ancestral ways once the buffalo disappeared. Again, the Kiowa story is not one of sustained and deliberate change over time, but one of accidental, serendipitous, and sometimes menacing changes that can lead the Kiowas to new experiences or back to familiar ones.
Before the Kiowas had horses they had dogs, the voice of tribal lore recalls. Back then, a man who had been cast out was camping alone and surrounded by enemies. He was in danger, and then a dog offered to lead him to safety if he would care for the dog’s puppies. The dog saved his life. The voice of history quotes a Comanche who recalled that the Kiowas had no horses, only dogs, when they arrived on Comanche land. Kiowa warriors modeled themselves after dogs back then, valuing standing their ground in battle regardless of the cost. Momaday then remembers the dogs that frequented his grandmother’s house. They were “nameless and lived a life of their own,” but people appreciated their presence even though they paid little attention to them.
The description of Kiowa warriors modeling themselves after dogs is resonant with Momaday’s description in the introduction of the effects of the landscape on the Kiowas—Kiowa culture, values, and behavior were shaped by the animals and landscapes that surrounded them. Though dogs represented for Kiowas the difficult period of their history before the introduction of the horse, dogs were not treated cruelly. In fact, Momaday’s description of the relationship between the dogs and humans in his grandmother’s house suggests that the dynamic was one of respect, in which the dogs were unnamed and uncontrolled because nobody claimed to own them. The people appreciated the presence of the dogs while respecting their independence.
The voice of the tribe says that before the Kiowas had Tai-me, they lived in the mountains and told a story of a child who was stolen by a redbird from a cradle in a tree. The bird was so beautiful that the child followed it up to the sky, and by the time she arrived at the sky she was a woman, and the redbird had turned into a man. The man informed her he had brought her there to become his wife. She realized, then, that the man was the sun. The voice of history notes that the land itself rises up to meet the sky, and the voice of memory describes seeing a rose-colored bird in a tree whose branches moved against the sky.
This passage is a perfect example of the nontraditional structure of the narration. The three voices are only loosely connected—they do not refer to the same story or share the same themes; they simply relate to one another by sharing images in common (the red bird, or the image of land meeting sky). Most Western histories are structured by a logic defined by chronology and cause and effect, but this history consists of Momaday asking the reader to make abstract connections between the different voices. Since Momaday believes that language and storytelling reflect culture, the structure of the voices suggests a consciousness that integrates seemingly unrelated parts of the world through memory and association.
The tribal voice returns to the story of the redbird, saying that the woman began to feel lonely, and after a fight with the sun she dug up a root that he had warned her not to touch, which allowed her to see her people below her. She and her child descended a rope made of sinew, but it was not long enough to reach her people. When the sun came home and found her gone he went to the root and saw her and the child on the rope. The sun killed the woman by throwing a gaming wheel at her, which left the child all alone. The voice of historical commentary notes that this root was the pomme blanche, a turnip-like plant. Momaday then quotes the anthropologist James Mooney, explaining that the Kiowas were always hunters and never attempted to cultivate crops. Momaday’s personal memories describe his grandfather Mammedaty, who failed to grow cotton and wheat on his land despite his efforts.
Momaday’s reflections on Kiowa hunting culture suggest that the Kiowas think of hunting as part of their nature, rather than a skill necessitated by circumstance. This belief is important to the notion that Kiowas have essential characteristics and tendencies that their migration helped them to achieve. In other words, Kiowas believe that the migration didn’t change them as much as it helped them to fulfill who they naturally were. Thus, the cultivated root in the myth is dangerous, and Mammedaty has no success growing his own crops; each of these fits with the Kiowa narrative of agriculture versus hunting. From the Kiowa perspective, this is an example of a story reflecting truth, but from another perspective this might seem like a scenario in which a story is creating its own truth—is Mammedaty a bad farmer because he’s Kiowa, or is he a bad farmer because the stories he tells himself make him believe that his crops will inevitably fail?
The tribal voice again picks up the redbird story. The sun’s child reaches the earth and meets a spider called grandmother, who realizes that she must raise the boy. After failing to capture him several times, she builds a snare from rope to catch him, and the boy cries until the grandmother sings him to sleep. The voice of historical commentary interjects by telling of a moment in which the U.S. troops were closing in on the Kiowas and trying to capture them. While the Kiowas camped it rained hard and spiders began to pour from the earth. Momaday’s personal memory then turns to spiders, describing crotchety tarantulas crawling the dusty roads of the plains.
It’s important to note that for several chapters the tribal voice has been telling a single story in fragments. Instead of allowing the story to unfold in one telling, Momaday interrupts the narration with loosely-related commentary and personal memory, which reflects the fragmentary nature of Kiowa history as passed down through oral tradition. The gaps and frustrations of this kind of storytelling would be familiar to Kiowas, so the broken-up storytelling is itself conveying something about Kiowa history. This is also an example of different time periods collapsing in on one another, which is an aspect of Momaday’s non-linear narration. Though the tribal story tells of the early days of the Kiowas, the association Momaday makes through historical commentary is one that invokes the beginning of the Kiowa decline. This shows that stories don’t have one objective and static meaning; association and memory affect how a story is understood and what it means.
As the years went by, according to the tribal voice, the sun’s boy still had the wheel that killed his mother. Though the grandmother told him not to, one day he threw the wheel into the sky and it sliced him in half, making him a twin. The grandmother was alarmed because one child had been difficult enough, but she cared for both of them nonetheless. The voice of history says that Mammedaty owned horses, that there was a day when Mammedaty rode a horse for the last time, and that the Kiowas had more horses per person than any other tribe. Momaday’s personal memory speaks of swimming in the Washita River. He remembers fixating on details of nature, and then seeing his own reflection in the river before a frog jumped in and broke it apart.
While the narration is composed of distinct voices, those voices do blur in places, and this chapter is an example. The voice of historical commentary has generally referred only to events of collective tribal significance rather than ones of personal significance, but here the voice of history invokes an intimate moment of Momaday’s grandfather’s life: the last time he rode a horse. Since Momaday often uses elders to stand in symbolically for the history of the tribe itself, this moment can be interpreted more broadly. It mirrors, for instance, the tribe having given up their horses to the U.S. government at the end of the Kiowa golden age. It’s also resonant with the moment in Momaday’s memory when the frog breaks apart his reflection in the river. That moment evokes a loss of identity, much like the loss of horses—which Kiowas consider fundamental to their identity—was.
The voice of the tribe returns, saying that each twin had a ring now, and they again disobeyed their grandmother by throwing the rings and running after them into the mouth of a cave. In the cave lived a giant and his wife, who both liked to kill people by suffocating them with smoke. The twins then remembered that their grandmother had told them words to say if they were ever in the cave, so they said the words and the smoke remained above their heads. This frightened the giant’s wife, who let the twins go. The voice of history then meditates on the power of words, how they “give origin to all things.” Words are sacred, and they enable people to meet the world on their own terms. When Kiowas die they take their names with them, and nobody is allowed to speak those names again. Momaday’s personal memory then tells of the word Aho used when confronted with something frightening. He sees the word not as a reaction, but as an action—a way to ward off danger and create order in the world.
This chapter provides several different perspectives on the power of language. In the story of the cave, words have literal magic power and, in that way, they can act on the world. The Kiowa tradition of not speaking the names of the dead shows that Kiowas thought of words as tangible things that could be taken from this world to the next, and could belong to someone, more like an object than a concept. Momaday’s analysis of the word Aho used when frightened suggests that the word was not simply a signal of her emotional state, but an action directed at the source of her fright—a way to control something that seemed dangerous. This is echoed in Momaday’s comment that words “give origin to all things.” For Kiowas, language does not simply represent the world passively, but it shapes the world actively. It’s important to note, too, that in the story of the giant the twins only knew the magic word because it was passed down to them by their grandmother through the oral tradition. This is another example of the power of language and storytelling; behavior is shaped by culture, and culture is inextricable from language.
The twins, according to the voice of tribal lore, killed a big snake in their tipi. The grandmother spider cried when they told her, because the snake was their grandfather, and then the grandmother died. The twins lived long lives and were honored by the Kiowas. The voice of history then doubles back to the beginning of the story of the twins, stating that in another version it was a porcupine instead of a redbird that carried the woman off. In both versions, though, one of the twins walks into a lake and disappears while the other transforms himself into ten different “medicines” (objects of religious veneration with different special uses). Momaday then remembers his father telling him about going to a shrine with powerful medicine. The medicine’s holiness stamped itself on his father’s and grandmother’s bodies, and Momaday could see that holiness in the blind eyes of his grandmother years later. He remembers that once she was very old her skin began to resemble that of a baby.
The story of the twins and the snake emphasizes the fluidity between the human and the non-human in Kiowa culture: human twins had a spider grandmother, a snake grandfather, a redbird/porcupine father, and one twin turns from a human into a water creature. This story makes clear that Kiowas understand humans to be woven into a complex ecosystem of people, nature, and animals. This passage also shows that the human body and the sacred are not distinct for the Kiowas. One of the twins transforms his body into spiritual power (medicine), which is a gift to the Kiowas. The effects of such a gift are revealed in Momaday’s recollection of the holiness that rubbed off on his father’s and grandmother’s bodies when they went to a medicine shrine. Much as humans blend into animals, human bodies can take on or transform into the sacred, and that sacredness can be passed along. This is a worldview of tremendous interconnection and fluidity.
The voice of tribal lore then begins to tell a story about lean times when the Kiowas were hungry. A man with hungry children walked for days to look for food, and finally, very weak, he came to a canyon. He heard a voice ask what he wanted, and standing before him was a figure with feathers and the feet of a deer. The man was scared, but told the figure that the Kiowas were hungry, and the voice told the man to “take me with you and I will give you whatever you want.” This was Tai-me, and that is how he came to be with the Kiowas. The voice of history is an excerpt from James Mooney that explains that Tai-me is the central figure of the sun dance, and the Tai-me doll is a small, decorated, human-like figure. The doll is kept in a box and never exposed to the sun except at the Sun Dance. Momaday then remembers going to see the Tai-me bundle. He made an offering, and felt a great holiness in the room “as if an old person had died there or a child had been born.”
This story of the origin of Tai-me differs slightly from the one Momady gave before, which was that Tai-me was given to the Kiowas by the Crows. In this story, the Kiowas find Tai-me, a benevolent stranger, by themselves. A similarity between the two stories, though, is that neither one presents Tai-me as a figure who is naturally Kiowa. This reiterates the centrality of mixing cultures to the Kiowas’ idea of themselves. This passage also contains another reference to the similarity between birth and death, or infancy and old age. This strengthens the sense that the Kiowa idea of time is more circular than linear, and it also emphasizes the reverence that the Kiowas have for their elders. The holiness of the Tai-me bundle is compared to the holiness of an old person dying—as Momaday has gone to great lengths to suggest, old people are seen as embodying Kiowa culture and history because it is in their memories and stories that the Kiowa live on.
The tribal voice tells of another winter without buffalo where food was scarce. Two hungry brothers found fresh meat in front of their tipi one morning, and one brother warned the other not to eat it. The brother ate it anyway, and he changed into a water beast and went to live in the water. The two brothers still spoke sometimes at the water’s edge. The voice of history then tells of the peyote ritual, where four Kiowas and a priest sit around a fire singing and drumming and praying before a midnight baptismal ceremony. Momaday then writes that Mammedaty was a peyote man who could see things that others could not. Once he was in the creek and the water began to move strangely while something clamored under the surface. Mammedaty got out and ran away. When he came back, there were tracks of a huge animal by the water’s edge.
The repetition of stories about times of hunger in Kiowa history is another example of Momaday narrating history in a nonlinear fashion. Instead of telling about a lean time and then what happened afterwards, Momaday revisits different instances of hunger in Kiowa history, making thematic connections across different stories rather than connecting events chronologically. This gives the sense that periods of hunger occur cyclically, which is a different impression than might be given by a linear history. This passage is also another example of the blurring between human and animal (the brother turns into a water beast) as well as an example of the blurring between myth and “reality.” A non-Kiowa reader would likely interpret the story of the water beast as pure myth, but the recollection of Mammedaty’s experience of mysterious tracks by the water’s edge and strange movements of the water shows that story and reality are not necessarily separate.