"Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone ..." William Wordsworth

29 February 2020

Bear.


A dark mist lay over the Black Hills, and the land was like iron. At the top of a ridge I caught sight of Devil’s Tower upthrust against the gray sky as if in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through its crust and the motion of the world was begun.

That’s from the introduction to “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” Momaday’s 1969 account of his Kiowa people’s long-ago migration from the Yellowstone River country of western Montana to the southern plains of Oklahoma and the landmark knoll the Kiowa named Rainy Mountain. The book recounts not only the history of that journey but also the myths that grew out of it.

In a sense, “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” which was illustrated by Momaday’s father and dedicated to his parents, was Momaday’s attempt – like Set’s in ‘The Ancient Child’ – to connect with his own culture. He was born in 1934 in a Kiowa and Comanche Indian hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma, but he grew up on the Navajo, Apache and Jemez Pueblo reservations where his father and his mother, Natachee Momaday, were teachers at Indian schools.

“I was growing up in the Native American world, the world of nature,” he said. “I had a wonderfully varied upbringing, but I know more Navajo than Kiowa.”

In “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” Momaday immersed himself and his readers in the stories of the Kiowa people, including one about Devil’s Tower, an imposing rock butte in northeastern Wyoming. According to Kiowa mythology, this is where a boy turned into a bear and chased his seven sisters, who escaped his jaws by climbing up on a tree stump which rose with them into the heavens where they became stars. Devil’s Tower, the Kiowa say, is that tree stump, scarred by the claws of the boy turned bear. Momaday’s Kiowa name, Rock Tree Boy comes from that legend.

“That story is important to me,” Momaday said. The Kiowa tale does not tell what happened to the bear. But Momaday knows.

“I am that bear,” he said.

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