In 2012, I read N. Scott Momaday’s groundbreaking novel House Made of Dawn, which is the story of a young Native man who has returned to the reservation from the second World War in order to face his demons. The Way to Rainy Mountain is another type of thing altogether. This book is a combination of folklore, history, memoir, and art, telling stories about the Kiowa people. It’s a short book, but extremely vivid, as Momaday puts his own memories together with sacred stories about the way the Kiowas came into the world (through a hollow log, as it happens) and made their way as rulers of the Southern plains.
Part of the way this book functions is that it looks forward and looks back at the same time. The myths and stories are from a time when the Kiowas were a powerful people, hunters on horseback, reverent of their god and of the beautiful land, making rituals and making conquests. Momaday’s history and memories, on the facing page, are about the decline and fall of that people: images of his grandmother, one of the last people to speak Kiowa; her grave, at the base of Rainy Mountain; the scattered old people from whom he learned his own history.
Momaday tells the stories in a distinctive voice. He uses the phrase “you know” and “this is how it was” repeatedly, as a way to touch base with the listener. The stories are often about encounters with the fantastic: the sun god, a buffalo with horns of steel, a grandmother spider, a huge water animal roiling beneath the surface. But just as often, they’re about everyday life: a man stealing another man’s wife, a great hunter, travels, cold weather. The art takes a phrase from one of the stories and repeats it under the picture. The history tells about peyote rituals, sacred spaces, treaties broken, battles lost: a whole way of life that comes down to Momaday himself, and the way to the cemetery at the base of Rainy Mountain. This book is a living thing, but Momaday’s sadness over what is past permeates his telling.
Here’s my favorite of the folk stories:
A long time ago there were two brothers. It was winter, and the buffalo had wandered far away. Food was very scarce. The two brothers were hungry, and they wondered what to do. One of them got up in the early morning and went out, and he found a lot of fresh meat there on the ground in front of the tipi. He was very happy, and he called his brother outside. “Look,” he said. “Something very good has happened, and we have plenty of food.” But his brother was afraid and said, “This is too strange a thing. I believe that we had better not eat that meat.” But the first brother scolded him and said that he was foolish. Then he went ahead and ate of the meat all by himself. In a little while something awful happened to him: he began to change. When it was all over, he was no longer a man; he was some kind of water beast with little short legs and a long, heavy tail. Then he spoke to his brother and said: “You were right, and you must not eat of that meat. Now I must go and live in the water, but we are brothers, and you ought to come and see me now and then.” After that the man went down to the water’s edge, sometimes, and called his brother out. He told him how things were with the Kiowas.