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N. Scott Momaday left a profound literary legacy

N. Scott Momaday
HarperCollins Publishers
N. Scott Momaday

Literary giant N. Scott Momaday has died at his home in Santa Fe. He was 89. The novelist, poet, essayist and painter was the first Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize and he ushered in a renaissance in Native American literature.

Former Poet Laureate Joy Harjo of the Mvskoke Nation said Momaday was like a father for contemporary Native literature. His 1969 novel that won the Pulitzer “House Made of Dawn” was very important, she said.

“Not just for me, but for many of us coming up, like Leslie Marmon Silko and others, as young Native people starting to write and tell stories and to think about what it meant to be a Native writer, and particularly Native writers of our own tribal nations.”

His impact went much further.

“’House Made of Dawn’ is one of the world's great pieces of literature,” said Finnie Coleman, associate professor of American Literary Studies at the University of New Mexico.

Momaday got his bachelor’s degree at UNM and taught there in the 2014-15 academic year, when Coleman met him. The novel focuses on a WWII soldier returning to his Native community.

“When you've gone away from your home and come back and you have changed, and how is it that you then navigate the world that you see through different eyes, I mean, that is a universal idea, thing, concept,” Coleman said.

At a writers’ gathering in New Mexico in 2002, Momaday talked about the work of writers.

I think that we're constantly redefining the human condition. And that is that is, as far as I can see the writers’ subject,” he said. “What is it to be human? What is it to be human here? And now?”

Navarre Scott Momaday was born in 1934 in Lawton, Oklahoma, into the Kiowa tribe. That was an integral part of who he was. But his formative years were spent in many other Native communities, including the Navajo Nation and Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico. After college he also taught school on the Jicarilla Apache Nation. That varied experience informed much of his writing and perspective.

Steeped in Indigenous oral traditions, Momaday then got a formal poetry education at Stanford University, where he received a Master’s degree and a doctorate. Harjo says he skillfully blended those ideas.

He took a form like a novel and made it very particularly, Kiowa, you know, like Kiowa American. And that was a gift,” she said.

Momaday told New Mexico PBS in 2014 that tradition is often more vital than writing.

“It exists at the level of human voice and it’s immediate,” he said. “People who do not have writing take storytelling very seriously because they must. Story is always one generation from extinction so you have to listen and you have to remember what you hear.”

Momaday went on to teach at UC-Berkeley and the University of Arizona, and published some 19 books of fiction, poetry and essays. He received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the National Medal of the Arts and the UNESCO Artist for Peace. In 2022 he was inducted into the Academy of American Arts and Letters. He also became an accomplished painter.

Coleman called him a pathfinder and a trailblazer.

“And, you know, he just was just a remarkable scholar. So his impact on American literature was to further open what American literature means,” he said. “I think Scott was one of those people who knew that his work transcended the barriers that many people thought were in place.”

Coleman added Momaday would not have wanted people to mourn his passing, but celebrate his legacy and continue it.

In 2002, Momaday was part of an event with other Southwestern writers before an audience at the Jemez Valley High Auditorium. This is an edited compilation of his comments recorded by KUNM. Thanks to Paul Ingles for this audio. Momaday told the audience he was born in Oklahoma but moved to Jemez Pueblo with his parents in 1946.


Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.