Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa Indian from Oklahoma, operates the Buffalo Trust, a nonprofit organization working to perserve Native cultures. He often lectures at the Museum of the American Indian. He spoke with Kenneth R. Fletcher.
What aspects of Native American culture inspire your work?
The respect for the natural world is certainly one of them. Also, a keen sense for aesthetics. My father was a painter and he taught art. He once said to me, "I never knew an Indian child who could not draw."
The spiritual connection to the land and an attachment to landscape and nature is also important. The spiritual reality of the Indian world is very evident, very highly developed. I think it affects the life of every Indian person in one way or another. I write about the spirituality of the native world.
You grew up during the depression and lived in many places among many different tribes, including the Kiowa, the Navajo and the Apache. How has that defined you?
I have a pretty good knowledge of the Indian world by virtue of living on several different reservations and being exposed to several different cultures and languages. It was all a very good thing for my imagination and it gave me a subject. I’ve written a lot about Native American peoples and landscapes and I was just fortunate to have the kind of upbringing that I did.
What are the goals of the Buffalo Trust?
We now have more Indians living in urban communities than on reservations. It’s that detachment from the land that weakens their hold on the traditional world. The Buffalo Trust is building a campground in southwestern Oklahoma where young Indian people can come and be exposed to the teachings of elders. I’m hoping to see more hands-on training in traditional arts and crafts—for instance, young people learning to tan a buffalo hide, construct a tepee and prepare traditional medicines and foods.
Your work also stresses the importance of oral traditions. What place does that have in Indian culture?
Indians are marvelous storytellers. In some ways, that oral tradition is stronger than the written tradition. Seeing Hamlet performed on stage is an example of oral tradition at its core. You experience the sound of the language, the gestures of the actors, the inflections and the silences. Like Shakespeare, the Indian has a lot to teach the rest of us about language in its essence.
How does your work try to reconcile the influence of outside cultures on Native American cultures?
In much of my writing I have focused upon that contact between the white world and the Indian world. It’s something that we’ve had to deal with it for a long time. In its early stages it was a hardship on Indian people. They were a defeated nation so they had to overcome a devastation of the spirit. But they are survivors, they are here with us today stronger than ever. it. We have many more Indian college graduates now and people in the professions. There’s a long way to go, but I think we are well on the way.