Teaching Momaday's THE WAY TO RAINY MOUNTAIN Under Open Prairie Skies
The Way to Rainy Mountain
Teaching The Way To Rainy Mountain on the Prairie
Under Open Prairie Skies*
N. Scott Momaday's Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) can serve as an effective means of teaching an appreciation for Kiowa culture especially through a group reading under prairie skies. American Indian poetry, like most poetry, is meant to be read aloud. If we read silently any poet, whether T.S. Elliot, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, or N.Scott Momday, printed lines alone, though fscinating for serious scholars, lack the vitality and forcefulness given them by the human voice; the poet's own voice is best. However, since we rarely have the live poet present to read for us, we should make every effort possible to give heart-felt oral renditions. How so? Robert Hillyer is helpful in his commentary on reading verse aloud:
"The first obstacles to be overcome are self-consciousness and the consequent instinct to interpret rather than present the work. One should aim to be the bow in the master's hand--not the master himself. Any poem worthy the name has enough intensity within itself to obviate the need for dramatization."(The First Principle of Verse, 1950).
Insasmuch as one of Momaday's key themes of Indian advice to the general reader that a person "ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience," I came to believe that we should do just that; we should have a group reading of The Way to Rainy Mountain out there on the Wyoming prairies in order to aid non-Indian students in appreciating Kiowa culture. The book itself is set in large part in Wyoming. It is an account of the great Kiowa journey 300 years ago from Yellowstone to the open prairies of Montana and Wyoming and down through Kansas to Rainy Mountain, Oklahoma where they now are.
Of American Indian and ancient Greek oral traditions, classics scholar William Arrowsmith of Johns Hopkins University writes, "Mere anthropological transcription of myths and ceremonies in customary form is not enough, for this oral poetry depends upon performance in which tone, pause and gesture...are crucial ingredients in the narrative art and in the inflected meaning." ("Regionalism as Resistance," a 1978 lecture).
As a classicist who would give a great deal to know just how these Homeric poems were recited, Arrowsmith believes that Native American poetry which is still alive, still surviving here on native grounds, is the poetry which "properly interpreted and taught, might bring us closer to Homer and Hesiod and even Aristophanes than we have ever been before."
Having heard N. Scott Momaday read from The Way to Rainy Mountain several times, I believed that I had to try to do justice to this humanistic poem in literature classes by reading it aloud to the students stressing its rhythmic qualities (i.e, riding horseback along the bases of mesas and cliffs). But, unfortunately, while the students listened attentively, they did not discuss the poem or Kiowa culture with much enthusiasm, insight, or interest.
I knew that there were some ancient tipi rings just five miles north of the University of Wyoming campus and during the warm days of early September I thought I would meet my class for three hours one Saturday morning in lieu of three classes on Monday, Wedneday and Friday. Wer drove in several cars to the ancient rings and assembled in a circle under open prairie skies. Antelope bobbed in the distance and several hawks circled above. Our ring had a diameter of perhaps ten yards, and we sat on the ground. I gave some background on Momaday and his power with words. For instance, I explained the opening section's novel portrayal of a hollow log (a symbol of Kiowa mythic origins) by replicating the sound of a hollow log through Momaday's many back vowel sounds echoed in the human throat, i.e., "The Kiowas came one by one into the world through a hollow log." And, as usual, we discusse the prologue and introduction. Then came the oral performance: I started reading:
"You know, everything had to begin, and this is how it was: the Kiowas came one by one into the world through a hollow log. They were many more than now, but not all of them got out. There was a woman whose body was swollen up with child, and she got stuck in the log. After that, no one could get through, and that is why the Kiowa are a small tribe in number. They looked all around and saw the world. It made them glad to see so many things. They called themselves Kwuda, coming out." (That is, they came out of the narrow canyons of Yellowstone.)
As we read aloud clockwise or sunwise around the circle, I could not help but notice that my students in the midst of open prairie, read better than any classroom group I had heard before. I applauded them as the last section of the book (XXIV) was finished. The students were enthusiastic in their discussion of the epic poem. One said, "You know that growing tree carrying the Indian child up into the sky reminds me of our own Jack and the beanstalk. Another said, "Grandmother spider taking care of twins is somewhat like the Roman legend of the she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus." Observations and questions continued to flow until we got up to stretch. Out in the prairie where land is mostly sky, we discussed the circular unity of The Way to Rainy Mountain. Everything is in threes--three sections to each section, three historical perids--the setting out, the going on, and the closing in--and three voices including the poet's, the tribe's and the outside historical voice. One young woman responded that perhaps there are four (as in four seasons, four ages of man) would bea more natural number than three, especially for the Kiowa people. Another young woman responded by saying perhaps there are four voices, four periods in the book in that the whole of the book depicts more than the mythical past, historical heyday, and the recent past; it presents to us the eternal present as opposed to the fixed past. A male student followed with a comment that the fourth voice might well be the internalized voice of the reader resulting from the three other voices that we read aloud. I told the class that "sparks are flying." Yes, we do have the three other voices represented by the myths and legends, and we do have the historical voice in the persons of George Catlin and Edward Mooney quoted by Momaday, and we have the poet's own voice represented by his personal observations from Yellowstone all the way down to Rainy Mountain.:
"One morning on the high plains of Wyoming I saw several pronghorns in the distance. They were moving very slowly at an angle away from me, and they were almost invisible in the tall brown and yellow grass. They ambled along in their own wilderness dimension of time, as if no notion of flight could ever come upon them. But I remembered once having seen a frightened buck on the run, how the white rosette of its rump seemed to hang for the smallest fraction of time at the top of each frantic bound--like a succession of sunbursts against the purple hills."
As I came to the end of my reading, we all looked out on the prairie to see distant antelope under a golden sun. Is not a spiritual fourth voice invoked inside the reader or listener? Surely herein lies a manifestation of the poem's intensity,further intensified by where we sat out in the open prairie.
*This essay is a modified and shortened version of a section from my out-of-print book Where Land is Mostly Sky (1997). I also presented this as a lecture at the University of Bologna in April, 2005.
See also my hub: http://hubpages.com/hub/Teaching-Native-American-Literature-Aboard and a new hub Contemporary Native American Fiction: Stream of Consciousness.
© 2009 Richard Francis Fleck