When Jill Momaday as a young girl visited her Kiowa grandparents at their family homestead in Jemez Springs, N.M., she remembered her grandfather, an artist, getting up early to greet the morning outside with the walls of red cliffs as his view.
She would get up early, too, for the chance to crawl into his lap and listen to him tell his stories that had been passed down from previous generations. One in particular came to mind during a recent interview in Oklahoma City — “The Buffalo With Horns of Steel.” She retold it as her dad, notable writer N. Scott Momaday, listened carefully.
“How does this story go, Dad?” she asked, prompting him to fill in a blank before she continued telling about a hunter who finally defeated a ferocious buffalo charging at him as he hid in the trees.
“I can't tell it like you can,” said Jill Momaday, 48.
“You did a very good job,” her 78-year-old father replied as he reminded her of a minor detail that she missed.
The exchange between the two during a recent interview hints at the depth of the connection they feel to their American Indian heritage and their family's rich oral tradition.
“What happens is I think of my grandfather telling me this story but then it fades into my dad telling me this story because it's just this continuous oral tradition,” the daughter said. “It's one voice, fading into another voice, fading into another. I have two daughters, and I like to tell them the stories.”
Her father, who has lived in Oklahoma City and currently lives with another daughter in Orlando, Fla., is still telling and writing American Indian stories. In 1969, he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and has earned numerous awards and accolades since then. He served as the Oklahoma Centennial state poet laureate from 200 to 2009. He is working on his latest memoir and also enjoys painting, he said.
He also makes public appearances: Last month he spoke at a symposium in Carlisle, Pa., at a boarding school where American Indians once were tragically sent and taught to shed their Indian ways in order to become “civilized,” N. Scott Momaday said.
Last week, he was in town to give presentations and readings from his books and meet with students at Oklahoma City University. His daughter drove from Santa Fe, N.M., to meet him; she talked during the interview about the documentary she's filming about her father's life and their family's journey as American Indians, past and present.
“It centers around my dad, but it's a story about the family, the Kiowa family,” she said. “It's been an extraordinary experience to be his daughter and grow up with these ideas and this dialogue and these stories.”
N. Scott Momaday believes his mission is to help preserve the integrity of the American Indian identity.
“I want the Indian to remain an Indian and appreciate what that means. We are living in a time when identity is critical. We talk about an identity crisis and everybody seems to have it but the Indian in a special way has had an identity crisis from the time of contact,” N. Scott Momaday said.
Over the years, he has witnessed the changes in the way that Americans perceive American Indians and in the way they view themselves.
“When I was growing up, Indian people were tribal people: ‘I am a Kiowa or I am a Navajo or I am an Apache,'” he said. “The tribal barriers have broken down in recent years and there's a growing sense of Indian-ness, a kind of integrity on the part of all Indian people.
“I think that's healthy so long as the individual cultural information is maintained, and that's really the problem. How do I enter the modern world but remain my Indian self?” N. Scott Momaday asked, then answered: “One does that by identifying himself, by defining himself and not allowing himself to be defined.”