The Soul of the Storyteller

By Maria Di Mento '03 / May / June 2003
June 22nd, 2007
When N. Scott Momaday was a graduate student at Stanford in the 1960s, he was taught that American literature began in seventeenth-century New England. Now a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, Momaday has reconsidered that position. On campus March 6 as the key-note speaker for Brown’s Native Am-erican History Week, Momaday told a Salomon Center crowd that American literature in fact began more than 2,000 years ago.

“It begins with some anonymous person who dips a broom into a pocket of pigment and paints an image on a cliff wall in Utah,” he declared.

Momaday, a Kiowa originally from Oklahoma, is a professor of English and American literature at the University of Arizona. He is also founder of the Buffalo Trust, a nonprofit organization that promotes the preservation of Native American culture and heritage. Momaday told his Brown audience that he has studied Native American oral traditions for more than thirty years but that it wasn’t until he was asked to write about Native American literary contributions that he arrived at this conclusion about the true origins of American literature.

In a clear voice alternating between a boom and a whisper, Momaday said that up to that point literature and writing were synonymous in his mind. Storytelling, he said, is the very absence of writing, so he wondered how he could relate oral storytelling to American literature. Turning to his dictionary for help, Momaday found a solution.

The verb to write, Momaday said, is defined as “to inscribe on a surface.” That definition inspired him to set the origins of American literature on a cliff wall in the West, instead of in a New England Puritan colony.

Momaday closed his lecture with one of his own stories, in which the god Yahweh tells a bear about the most important element in a story. “Grace,” Yahweh tells the bear, “is the substance of story. Grace is the soul of story.”

“So there you have the last word on story,” Momaday said.

A week later, the Brown conference ended with a powwow.

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May / June 2003