Nicole Vanasse '20 leads Big Blue to another impressive showing.
"Well, here we are . . . I'm a frustrated actor, and you're a captive audience." This comment was one of several humorous touches sprinkled throughout a presentation by Dr. N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa Indian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel House Made of Dawn, the School's summer reading. Because his book and poetry had been read by Middle and Upper School students, faculty, and staff, who were eager to hear from him about his work, his visit to Pingry had been anticipated for several months. The English, Professional Growth, and Diversity and Inclusion Departments collaborated to introduce his literature to Pingry and coordinate his visit.
A Native American, Dr. Momaday was introduced by fellow Native American Lexy Beard '19. "Natives are often times forgotten, so hearing from a man whose entire life has been devoted to preserving our presence is incredible," she said. "I am a member of the Lumbee Tribe, located in Pembroke, just off the coast of North Carolina. Dr. Momaday has spoken at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, a university started by my ancestors because they were barred from attending traditionally white colleges; it was originally named the Croatan Normal School in 1887. From my family members having to create their own college to Dr. Momaday designing a graduate program for Indian Studies at UC Berkeley, Natives have come a long way."
Dr. Momaday, soft-spoken, but authoritative, wove together several themes: language, identity, Native American history and legends, saving one's self, and improving the human condition. "Language interests me very much . . . but I'm not interested in individual languages as much as I am in language in the abstract, language as an invention of the human mind," he began. "Our language is highly developed, intricate, complex, and something we take for granted. The wonderful thing, to me, is that language can be learned at a young age—an incredible feat." Why does he believe children can so easily learn a language? They like to play games ("language is a wonderful toy") and are not afraid of language.
Also with the concept of childhood in mind, and using his Indian name as a starting point ("Rock Tree Boy"—more about that below), Dr. Momaday posited that the most important question we can ask ourselves is "Who am I?" In his case, one identity is "Scott Momaday, writer, painter, speaker." A second identity is his Indian name. A third identity is his tribal history. He explained that the earliest evidence of the Kiowas places them in western Montana, but they migrated, eventually formed an alliance with the Comanche tribe in southwestern Oklahoma, and became buffalo hunters and warriors (following the principles of bravery, steadfastness, generosity, and truth). Sadly, however, the Kiowa culture ended in the 1800s for three main reasons: buffalos were killed off; the federal government prohibited the religious Sun Dance, declaring it an act of barbarism; and Native Americans were outnumbered in the Indian Wars. "We were a conquered, dispirited people," Dr. Momaday reflected. "We are just now beginning to overcome it." His foundation, the Buffalo Trust, helps Native Americans, especially children, retain their identity and pride.
As for the origin of his name, Dr. Momaday told the audience that he was taken, as an infant, to Devils Tower (located in Wyoming, it is sacred to the Kiowa people and named "Rock Tree" by the Native Americans). "When people encounter something so alien to their experience, they have to account for it somehow. How do you do that? You tell a story about it. You rely upon language." The story involves a boy, pretending to be a bear, chasing his seven sisters through the woods. The boy turns into a bear, and the sisters discover a large tree stump that says it will save them if they climb onto it. When they do so, it rises into the air, too high for the bear to reach, so it rears up against the tree and scratches at it. The story ends with the seven sisters becoming the stars of the Big Dipper—but nothing else is said about the boy except that he turned into a bear. "Because I was taken to this holy place, I was given the name 'Rock Tree Boy.' My name gives me an identity as the boy who turned into a bear. I am a reincarnation of that boy—that is the importance of naming, and that is the essence of languages," he said. After a pause he added, "I don't want to frighten you because I do turn into a bear on occasion ... and if I do . . . bear with me."
Dr. Momaday related other stories of Native American culture, particularly within his family, as he spoke about the concepts of saving one's self and improving the human condition through purpose, humility, hope, and prayer. Opening the floor to student questions, he was asked about his inspiration to become a writer, and he named three sources: his mother (she was a writer, while his father painted), reading, and the power of imagination. Later, during writing workshops for Middle and Upper School students, Dr. Momaday addressed a range of topics, including writer's block, poets and novelists who inspire him, his writing process, and the importance of storytelling as an oral tradition.
Contact: Greg Waxberg '96, Communications Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org