The way that Momaday tells the story of Kiowa migration is nonlinear: he tells the same story two ways, moves forward and backward in time, and allows endings and origins to bleed into one another. In this way, Rainy Mountain is a challenge to the traditional linear narratives that structure most Western histories—narratives defined by having a clear beginning, middle, and end that are connected by cause and effect and anchored by a single perspective. Rainy Mountain’s structure implicitly argues that history and reality are too complex, fragmentary, and contradictory to be represented by a traditional linear narrative, and that Kiowa history in particular—as an oral rather than written tradition—requires a more experimental form of historical writing.
Momaday is consistently mysterious when writing about origins. He is preoccupied with the abstract idea that language is at the root of all origin (“In the beginning was the word, and it was spoken,” he writes), but he has less to say about the specific historical origin of his tribe. The origin of the Kiowas is explained through the tribal story that the Kiowas came into the world through a hollow log, but Momaday’s attempts at a more traditional historical explanation lead only to mystery; there’s a tribe in the northern plains that speaks a language related to Kiowa, which suggests a geographic origin, but Momaday never goes much further. This certainly points to a gap in knowledge—there is simply not sufficient historical evidence to draw concrete conclusions about the origin of the tribe. Momaday addresses this when he writes, “The verbal tradition by which [Kiowa history] has been preserved has suffered a deterioration in time. What remains is fragmentary: mythology, legend, lore, and hearsay.” However, Momaday’s preservation of mystery in his discussion of origins is telling; these gaps in Kiowa history, which reflect the conditions of Kiowa culture and the nature of oral tradition, say as much about the Kiowa understanding of history as they obscure.
Similarly, the fragmentary nature of oral tradition means that linear history is not possible for the Kiowas to the extent that it would be for a culture with a written tradition, and this is reflected in the basic narrative structure of the interwoven voices. The often-indirect relationship between the voices undercuts the traditional narrative convention that events in a story should be connected by cause and effect. Sometimes the voices connect thematically, as in the section in which each voice reflects on the hardships of Kiowa women, and other times the voices are connected through imagistic association, as when a story of a fire is juxtaposed with a memory of the red glow of the sun on the horizon. Moreover, time does not move chronologically in the book; an example is Momaday’s moving back and forth between stories of his grandmother’s youth and old age. So the nonlinear and fragmentary structure of the memoir reflects the Kiowa understanding of their own past. Instead of a chronological progression of events that lead to the present, Kiowa history is better understood as fragments of stories and ideas that resonate with other memories and stories from across all periods of history.
Momaday’s storytelling also emphasizes circularity, particularly in descriptions of older people. On numerous occasions the similarities between infants and the very old are described; Momaday even compares his grandmother’s face as she was dying to the face of an infant. This suggests a cyclical worldview rather than a linear one—a notion of time in which endings loop back into beginnings. The sense of circularity in The Way to Rainy Mountain is also echoed by repetition of stories throughout the book. Sometimes this is the same story told in several different ways (the creation myth, for example, and the parallel narrative of the Kiowas migrating south), and sometimes it is a variation on the same story recurring over and over, as when the horse Little Red was stolen, just as his bones were stolen after he died.
The prevalence in the book of nontraditional narrative elements and structures reveals the differences between the Eurocentric worldview that underlies traditional historical writing and the Kiowa worldview—the Kiowas understand the past as a collection of story fragments that add up more to an understanding of a culture than a linear account of the passage of time. As the Kiowa cultural and historical tradition is predominantly oral (rather than written), it makes sense that Kiowas would understand history differently from the way the West, with its written culture, does.
Origins, Linearity, and Circularity ThemeTracker
Origins, Linearity, and Circularity 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 buffalo was the animal representation of the sun, the essential and sacrificial victim of the Sun Dance. When the wild herds were destroyed, so too was the will of the Kiowa people; there was nothing to sustain them in spirit. But these are idle recollections, the mean and ordinary agonies of human history. The interim was a time of great adventure and nobility and fulfillment.
The imaginative experience and the historical express equally the traditions of man’s reality.
To look upon that landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun.
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.
There was a great holiness all about in the room, as if an old person had died there or a child had been born.
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.