Because the Kiowa always were a small tribe, the stories which Momaday tells about them often emphasize a preoccupation with their numbers, and particularly with the danger of tribal disunion. One of the earliest tribal memories is of a quarrel between two chiefs over a slain antelope, which causes one of the chiefs to lead his people away into the darkness of prehistory, never to be seen again. This story is accompanied by that of an antelope drive which succeeds because all the people unite in a common effort.
Yet balanced against the threat of disunion are the grandmothers who appear again and again in the book. The death of Momaday’s grandmother Aho brings him back to Rainy Mountain. Spider Grandmother assures the survival of the twin sons of the Sun. The Talyi-da-i is associated with Spider Grandmother and with Keahdinekeah, Momaday’s father’s grandmother. Momaday’s grandfather’s grandmother Kau-au-ointy and the ancient Ko-sahn, who describes one of the last Sun Dances, are other examples. The grandmothers maintain tribal traditions, and they stand for harmony and tribal unity in the face of all the forces which threaten it.
At the same time, the element which provides Momaday with the means for uniting his own present with the Kiowa past, once Aho is dead, is language. The stories he tells imply, and his own commentaries say explicitly, that the book’s ultimate subject is language, which, in his view, is the one miracle-making power available to humanity. His grandmother’s strange word zei-dl-bei (meaning “frightful”) was her way of confronting evil, “a warding off, an exertion of language upon ignorance and disorder.” Again and again in the book language is seen in this way: Kiowa are saved from their enemies by the power of language, the god Tai-me gives himself to the Kiowa with a promise, an arrow maker saves himself and his family by using the Kiowa language, the storm god does not attack the Kiowa because he knows their language.
Eventually, however, language loses this redemptive power for the Kiowa, and, not coincidentally, this is the time when the traditional religion of the tribe also can no longer save them. Momaday’s juxtaposition of these two events with the general decline of the Kiowa as an independent tribe is related to his conception of language itself. Just as the Kiowa emerge from myth and legend to enter the historical record, so words lose their original metaphoric power and lapse into mere denotation. From that stage...
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The Way to Rainy Mountain Summary
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The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) is a unique book, which pieces together three separate narrative voices in order to preserve the history of the Kiowa Native Americans. The Pulitzer Prize winning book is divided into three main sections, called “The Setting Out,” “The Going On,” and “The Closing In,” respectively, and is further divided into smaller chapters. Each chapter features three separate narrative voices. In the preface to the 25th anniversary edition of the book, author N. Scott Momaday says the first voice (the voice of his father) is the ancestral voice, or the voice which recounts the oral myths of the tribe. The second voice is that of the historical record, and the third is the author’s own voice, which focuses on his personal experiences with tribal culture and can be considered a memoir.
Momaday begins with the Kiowa creation myth, which tells that they were created out of a hollow log, and then tells of their descent down from the mountains to rule the southern plains of Ohio. A tribe of Nomadic huntsman, the Kiowas flourish for one hundred years, by allying with the Comanche who introduce them to horses. However, life on the plains withers, the buffalo die out and the Kiowan culture fades. In his own voice, Momaday explains that the myth of their creation and migration is not merely a historical account of events, but also demonstrates the way the Kiowas think of themselves. Because so much of tribal culture exists within the oral tradition, ancestral memory and myth, it is vital to keep these the culture alive through the retelling of these stories.
The occasion for Momaday’s return to Rainy Mountain, both literal and figurative, is the death of his grandmother, Aho. Aho lived during the decline of the Kiowa people who suffered a major loss at the hands of the US cavalry in the 1880’s, which severely limited their territory. Momaday contextualizes what is known historically about the origins of the tribe, which is that they emerged from somewhere in Montana over three hundred years before. The experienced a “golden age” during their migration to the south where an alliance with the Crows exposed them to the Sun Dance and Tai-me (a figure at the center of Plains religious culture). Momaday relates this back to the log myth by saying that the journey of the Kiowa is a real life journey from darkness to the light.
Momaday himself mirrors the journey of the Kiowa, beginning in Yellowstone and traveling southward. As the landscape opens up he is also to understand how the sky and the sun became revered in the vast expanses of the plains. As he travels, Momaday recounts various tribal myths based on the elements of the landscape which influenced them, which generally follow the linear progression of the rise and fall of the Kiowa. In brief, he recounts the story of a child that follows a beautiful redbird up into the sky. By the time they reach the sky, the child has grown into a woman, and the bird transformed into a man, so they marry and have a child. In this case the man is representative of the sun. However, the man leaves and the woman becomes lonely and digs up a forbidden root. Momaday explains that this is representative of Kiowa culture, which was not agrarian and recounts the failed attempts of his grandfather to cultivate cotton.
Alternating back to the redbird story, the man kills the woman, and their child reaches earth. A spider called Grandmother realizes she must catch the child in order to protect him. The historical record tells us that during this time the US military had been attempting to apprehend and subdue the Kiowa, and how during a period of heavy rain, spiders were abundant across the plains. The tribal voice also tells stories of Tai-Me (a doll used in the sun dance,) Peyote rituals, enemies encroaching on Kiowa land, the status of women and various other elements of Kiowa culture. In the epilogue Momaday tells more of the historical specifics of the fall of the Kiowa tribe to U.S. military operations and the decline of its culture as a whole.