Momaday brings his unique voice to Emerson

by Beacon Staff • April 5, 2006

Author N. Scott Momaday joined the ranks of Whoopi Goldberg, Edward Albee and Anna Deveare-Smith as a visiting artist-in-residence at Emerson this weekend, speaking about his favorite subjects: identity, words, the oral tradition, the state of Native Americans and indigenous people worldwide and killing icebergs.

The stately Native American writer kept his audience at the Cutler Majestic Theatre enthralled with the tale of his trip to Greenland, where he found icebergs on the beach creaking and groaning as the sun's warmth melted them from the inside.

While his dutiful wife kept watch with a camera, he attempted to stone the iceberg into exploding, to no avail.

An indigenous man came from a nearby shack to assist him in "killing" the iceberg with a gun. After a wild-eyed exchange between the two men, Momaday said, it became clear that the indigenous man was simply being a good host, assisting his guests with their chosen (if mad) endeavor.

It is this rich exchange of communication across cultures and languages that fascinates Momaday most.

A grandfatherly figure, he has a handful of favorite stories that he told students, faculty and alumni over a series of engagements scheduled last weekend, including two luncheons at 80 Boylston St. and an appearance at the Cutler Majestic.

Momaday regaled attentive audiences throughout the week with tales of studying the manuscripts of Emily Dickinson as a Stanford student, a trip to a tribal burying ground in Oklahoma that formed the crux of his seminal 1978 work, The Way to Rainy Mountain, and his meetings with Native American elders to hear their stories.

Momaday said he felt that as communication specialists, Emerson students had a special advantage in expressing oral tradition, the main topic of his lecture/performance last Thursday night.

"Emerson has a very strong tradition for storytelling," Momaday said during an interview with The Beacon. "Theatre is the best oral tradition we have. And having been grounded in oral tradition, the arts, language in general, [students are] in a position to expand on that."

As director of the Buffalo Trust, an organization supporting indigenous peoples and the arts, Momaday has attempted to spread his love for words around the globe. A major problem he attempts to address is the "identity crisis" which many young Native Americans are suffering as their civilization becomes more urban and less grounded in reservations.

Momaday said he is helping native students along this journey by starting a campground where he will bring American Indian youths together with elders for storytelling and cultural training in the arts of skin-tanning and soap-making.

While in his 30s, Momaday embarked on a journey to find his own identity.

As a young man, he said, "Everybody was willing to define me . they made references to my ethnic identity without knowing much about it . so later, as an adult, I insisted on defining myself."

Part of this search involved seeking out tribe elders to tell him stories about his people, the Kiowa, adding them to a trove of tales he had kept from his own childhood.

These stories became The Way to Rainy Mountain, a book which went on to receive critical acclaim.

"I am who am I [now] because I earned my identity," Momaday said.

Today, Momaday's words are helping to guide non-native students as well: at Emerson, three classes are studying The Way to Rainy Mountain in order to make sense of the things Momaday has lain down in oral and written tradition.

Flora Gonzalez's Multicultural Literature class, Christine Casson's Environmental Literature Class and Robin Fast's Native American Literature class have all mulled over his words on exploring the inner and outer landscapes where identity is to be found.

These many readers of Momaday's work said they were happy to have the Pulitzer-Prize-winner in the flesh to help souse out some of his more complicated themes; he even graced guests at a luncheon on Friday with a love poem he had written en route to Boston for his wife as a gift.

Students were able to probe the grandiloquent elder into helping them with their own identity crises. With so many different lines of European ancestry, one student asked, how could he begin to know who he was through his history?

"Most Americans are confused as to their roots. Talk to parents and contemporaries of parents. Stories start to come out," Momaday advised. "Make the search because it's important to you."

Shannon Rosa, a theatre education graduate student, expressed ambivalence during a luncheon on Thursday about graduating, echoing the concern of many students who do not know what they will do after college.

"Why not get a horse and a wagon and travel around the country performing?" Momaday asked between bites. When the table turned to him, he said, "Well, I know it's not the most original idea, but ."