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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 31, 2003 - Issue 88


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Indian Lore comes alive at LU
Author tells Life Stories, Legends at Convocation

by Kara Patterson - Post-Crescent staff writer
credits: Pulitzer prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday speaks to an audience Thursday during Lawrence University’s final convocation of the school year at Memorial Chapel in Appleton. Post-Crescent photo by Kirk Wagner

Pulitzer prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday speaks to an audience Thursday during Lawrence University’s final convocation of the school year at Memorial Chapel in Appleton. Post-Crescent photo by Kirk WagnerAPPLETON — To American Indian author, scholar, artist and poet N. Scott Momaday, words are sacred.

In the tradition of his Kiowa elders, Momaday opened his address Thursday at Lawrence University’s final convocation of the 2002-03 academic year with these three revered words: “They were camping.”

Those words preceded every tale a beloved elder from Momaday’s boyhood told out West to a semi-circle of children while sitting in his rocking chair, eyes closed slightly to bring forth tales of creation from within.

At the honors convocation, which also recognized outstanding LU students and faculty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author said his chosen words were most appropriate for a scholar’s journey.

“Here we are, in the ancient relationship of storyteller and listeners,” he said. “We come together in celebration to honor the achievements of young people. We too will go on our way and hope we go on to better things.”

Momaday, whose main residence is in Santa Fe, N.M., is the son of teachers-turned-artists. His father painted and illustrated fiction, and his mother wrote children’s books.

“I think the first stories I learned, I learned from my father,” said Momaday, who earned acclaim in 1969 with his first book, “House Made of Dawn,” which earned him a Pulitzer Prize. The story explores cultural conflict through the eyes of a young American Indian man, who tries to reconcile his heritage with 20th-century life.

Tabitha Metoxen, 16, and a sophomore at the Oneida Nation High School, listened to Momaday with a handful of classmates who next year will take teacher Carol Johnson’s American Indian history and literature class.

Metoxen said she could relate to Momaday’s emphasis on the value of storytelling.

“I used to ask my grandpa for stories,” she said. “He sang a lot of songs, but that was when he was dying.”

Metoxen’s grandfather died in December, but Metoxen wants to keep his memory alive by continuing her native studies.

“I want to learn more about history, and the variety of (American Indian) cultures,” she said.

Jessica Skenandore, 16, will be reading “House Made of Dawn” next school year.

“I like how he talked about bears,” she said, “because I’m (a member of the Oneida Nation’s) Bear Clan.”

On the LU campus, where Momaday and his father received honorary degrees in 1971, Momaday drew upon the oral tradition that to him is a treasure of the reservations where he spent his childhood.

“Writing is about 6,000 years old, as far as we know,” he said. “The oral tradition is inestimably older.”

Momaday’s Kiowa name, Tsoai-Talee, or rock-tree boy, which a relative bestowed upon him at the age of 6 months, is taken from an oral legend well-known among his people.

In soothing tones, Momaday wrapped the story of the boy and his seven sisters around his audience like a blanket.

Back in the day when dogs still could talk, he said, a boy playfully chased his sisters through the woods.

“In the course of a game, a terrible thing happened,” Momaday said. “The boy actually turned into a bear. A tree spoke to the sisters and said, ‘If you climb me, I will save you.’”

He said the tree rose high into the air and became Devils Tower National Monument, which stands today in Wyoming with deep grooves etched into its sides, as if a bear had scratched them. This sacred place, where the Kiowa say the seven sisters rose into the sky and became the stars in the Big Dipper, gave Momaday his tribal name.

To preserve stories like these, and to restore the health of native cultures, Momaday has founded The Buffalo Trust, an organization that works with American Indians and other indigenous people. This August, Momaday will visit Siberia to continue his work with the Khanty and Nenets, who herd reindeer near the Arctic Circle.

Kara Patterson can be reached at 920-993-1000, ext. 215, or by e-mail at kpatterson@

On the Web:
N. Scott Momaday founded the Buffalo Trust to preserve American Indian stories and to restore the health of native cultures. To learn more, visit

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