While The Way to Rainy Mountain is the story of the Kiowa migration, it is also, at its heart, a story about stories. Throughout the book, Momaday emphasizes the importance of storytelling as a tool of Kiowa survival, and he meditates on the power of language to not only represent the world around him, but also to act in the world—for Momaday words can inspire emotions, they can create magic, and they are always powerful tools for understanding and shaping reality.
The Way to Rainy Mountain includes several stories that directly address the power of words. In the story of the giants’ cave words have magical properties; the twins say a mysterious word (passed to them through the Kiowa oral tradition) that keeps the smoke from suffocating them. In the story of the arrowmaker, the arrowmaker uses the Kiowa language as a password to determine if the man outside his tipi is friend or foe—here, too, it is words that save his life. Momaday also reflects on the word that Aho used when confronted with something frightening. He muses that this word was “not an exclamation so much, I think, as it was a warding off, an exertion of language upon ignorance and disorder.” Thus, for Momaday, language is a tool—almost a weapon, even—that can be leveraged against the world. In fact, Momaday even believes that certain ideas—such as “mankind’s idea of himself”—exist in language alone. In other words, Momaday argues that it is only through language that people are able to know themselves, and for that reason language is important to preserve and revere.
The beauty of Momaday’s prose—particularly in his descriptions of the southern plains landscape—illustrates another dimension of the power of language. Momaday writes in three different voices: the voice of tribal lore, which tends to be somewhat spare; the voice of written history, which tends to be straightforward and technical; and the voice of personal memory, which is lyrical and full of metaphor and image. The linguistic beauty of these personal reflections show the power of language to create feelings in a reader. It is through descriptions—Momaday’s simile that antelopes’ tails are “like a succession of sunbursts against the purple hills,” for instance—that readers get a sense of the sacredness of nature to the Kiowas. Were readers simply told the importance of landscape without being made to feel it through language, Momaday’s point would not have the same resonance.
Most important, Momaday emphasizes language as a tool for cultural survival. He writes, “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.” This can be seen as a key to the entire book: it’s a collection of words that Momaday uses to be on equal terms with the world. The Kiowas are a people whose culture has been under attack for more than a century by the U.S. government. With the Kiowa way of life in decline, it is in spoken language (the Kiowa oral tradition) that Kiowa culture and history are preserved. The Way to Rainy Mountain, then, is not simply a history that tells of the Kiowa past, but a living document that attempts to project Kiowa culture into the future by preserving its traditions for generations to come. The book can be seen as Momaday’s attempt to use language and storytelling to stake out his place in the world and actively maintain and promote a culture that might otherwise fade out of memory.
Language and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Language and Storytelling Quotes in The Way to Rainy Mountain
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.
The imaginative experience and the historical express equally the traditions of man’s reality.
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.
Their wives and daughters served them well. The women might indulge themselves; gossip was at once the mark and compensation of their servitude. They made loud and elaborate talk among themselves, full of jest and gesture, fright and false alarm.
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.
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.
It was not an exclamation so much, I think, as it was a warding off, an exertion of language upon ignorance and disorder.
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.
The Kiowa language is hard to understand, but, you know, the storm spirit understands it. This is how it was: Long ago the Kiowas decided to make a horse; they decided to make it out of clay, and so they began to shape the clay with their hands. Well, the horse began to be. But it was a terrible, terrible thing.
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.
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.