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On "Rings of Bone"

Shedding Skins: Momaday’s "Rings of Bone" and the
New Generation of American Indian Writers
by Jason Huddleston

As a means of representing the conditions of the American Indian cultures, N. Scott Momaday often incorporates paradox throughout many of his poems, juxtaposing living and dead images that reflect the ambivalent relationship between the past and the present. Thus, one plausible interpretation of Momaday’s "Rings of Bone" relies on his use of these paradoxical images. The rings of bone and the old men are images of American Indian past, and the leaves, which initially reside in the background, soon become the more prominent images of the survival of American Indian traditions. The initial falling and dying of the leaves, for example, can represent the obsolescence of these traditions; however, the vibrant motion of these leaves – as they are blown and scattered by the wind – can also suggest a resurrection, a continuity of the traditional ways. Yet, Kenneth Lincoln’s reference to a new generation of American Indian writers, who have placed much less emphasis on American Indian traditions, invites another interpretation of "Rings of Bone." Although Momaday may not have intended to address this issue directly, the poem itself can be perceived as a response to this new phase in American Indian literature.

While many American Indian writers like N. Scott Momaday have struggled to "emphasize that their work does not constitute a disruptive break with oral traditions but is, instead, a necessary if complicated extension of older traditions," there has risen a new generation of writers who have sought to exfoliate much of the "Indianness" with which they do not identify (Maddox 91-92). Some of this new generation of American Indian writers choose to belong neither to the world of the white culture nor to the world of their ancestors; instead, as Kenneth Lincoln perceives, they "draw up the drawbridge, close the tent flap, and declare Indianness off-limits. . ."(70). Momaday’s "Rings of Bone" seems to address the rise of this new generation of American Indian writers, whose works reflect an intentional breaking from the previous, more traditionally-grounded literature of their predecessors.

Kenneth Lincoln refers to them as the "newly suburban, asphalt Indian writers" whose works are replete with "cynicism . . . bifurcated irony . . . disaffection . . ." and "distemper" (69-70). They are the new generation of American Indian writers — writers such as Wendy Rose, Adrian Louis, and Sherman Alexie — who "resist the tribal pastoralism of the old ways, slanting away from the biospheric ethics of extended kinship" (69). According to Lincoln, this new caste of American Indian writers operates under a "leave-us-alone policy," wanting little or nothing to do with the "ceremonial pluralism of their ancestors"(70).

When examining "Rings of Bone"through this lens, Momaday’s use of what non-Indians may deem traditional American Indian images seems to express a concern for the new generation of writers he himself has helped to propagate. He begins "Rings of Bone" by creating two dichotomous images from American Indian history. "There were rings of bone/on the bandoliers of old men dancing" (lines 1-2).  The juxtaposition of "primitive" and modern images is in one sense traditional in that it speaks to the condition of many modern American Indian writers — like Momaday — who have — especially thematically through their works — struggled to reconcile their ancient and modern senses of identity. The two images also serve to demonstrate another, more intra-cultural struggle: the rising tension in the voices of a new generation of American Indian writers who seek to divorce themselves from many traditional associations with "Indianness." The "rings of bone," then, could represent those American Indian writers like Momaday, Silko, and Erdrich whose works have come to be anthologized and popularized by a dominantly white literary world — depicted in the second line as "old men dancing" — and to represent or define modern American Indian writing. Those white, predominantly male members of the literary world who seem to stand defiantly at the door of Western literature are "dancing" in delight as the "rings of bone," like spoils of war, dangle from their bodies. The "bandoliers" help to create this image of the white literary canon, depicting it as a large, powerful force that has used American Indian writing simply to further its own strength.

The second stanza introduces a change in the scene.

Then, in the afternoon stippled with leaves
and the shadows of leaves,
the leaves glistened
and their shine shaped the air. (3-6)

Momaday uses the leaf to draw the reader to a natural scene that is painted, or "stippled," by the colors of leaves. As the first stanza presented the old dilemma — the American Indian writer’s struggle with identity — the second stanza allows Momaday to voice the more recent dilemma facing American Indian literature, for the leaves could represent the new generation of American Indian writers and their "compulsive separatism"(Lincoln 70). It is important to note that, at least in the second stanza, the leaves are still affixed to the unmentioned tree. This could certainly demonstrate how, in spite of their ultimate severance, these new writers were considered by other, more traditional American Indian writers as integral to the genre as a whole and as imperative to the American Indian movement in literature. The "shadows of leaves" (4) could also represent those Indian writers of the past, whose works, though timeless, have now given way to the literature of this new generation, who once "glistened"(5) in the afternoon sun and whose "shine shaped the air"(6). These new writers were to be the hopeful future of American Indian literature, leading it in new and important directions.

Momaday begins the third stanza with a dark, transitional tone. "Now the leaves are dead" (7). This is not a literal death, of course, for this new generation of American Indian writers still thrives. The death is a spiritual one, perhaps. These "born again warriors" to which Lincoln refers are perhaps dead to many of the old American Indian ways of their predecessors (70). In fact, they have grown "Cold"(8), or indifferent, to not only the cultural traditions of their ancestors but the traditions found in its literature as well. It is here that Momaday could be revealing the deliberate separation by these new writers from the unmentioned tree in the second stanza. The leaves are now "crisped upon the stony ground"(9). The verb "crisped" indicates both a non-consuming burning effect as well as a sense of desiccation. This may allude to the future of these new writers who seek to abandon all that affiliates them with their ancestral heritage, suggesting that the success they hope to find so independently of their American Indian culture may lead, at least, to a spiritual demise. Then, the thermal coldness that came upon the leaves in line 8 is now demonstrated in "webs of rime" that "fasten on the mould" (10). The leaves, detached from their branches, cannot even securely fall to the ground, which has been covered and somewhat protected by a thin, icy veil. Instead, "the wind divides and devours the leaves" (11). Momaday uses these vivid natural images to create a sense of ironic fate. These new writers, choosing to break from the metaphoric tree from which they originated and were nurtured, now flit about aimlessly, like leaves, "divide(d) and devour(ed)" by the "wind" that indiscriminately howls and tears between the two worlds they have rejected: the white world and the American Indian world.

There is as much retrospection as there is wisdom in the final stanza of "Rings of Bone." He begins by explaining how "the leaves have more or less to do/with time" (12-13), suggesting that these new writers are perhaps typical of any generational differences that are to be found within a culture; his generation, too, broke new territory in what was considered by many non-Indians as American Indian literature. In spite of their differences, Momaday finds the one strand that he feels will forever bind the new writers to their traditional heritage: music. "Music pervades the death of leaves" (13). Even in the "death" they face by breaking from the "tree," this new generation of American Indian writers cannot help but make a music as did their predecessors. Lincoln paraphrases Ezra Pound’s notion that "poetry derived from musical cadences, as music evolved from dance rhythms, and the farther they stray, the less charged the poetic line" (76). Momaday reflects this idea in the last two lines of the poem: "The leaves clatter like the rings of bone/on the bandoliers of old men dancing." This haunting refrain of the first two lines of the poem now conjoins the image of the leaves with those of the men and the rings of bone. The "clatter" is the "Music," the literary works, created by these new poets, and, like the more traditional music made by their predecessors — represented by the "clatter" made by the rings of bone — this music is still being heard. Even if the clatter of their music seems non-traditional, these new poets, Momaday suggests, will still be associated with their American Indian heritage — particularly by the "old men" of the white literary world.

Like Simon Ortiz, Momaday would contend that "the way of survival for the contemporary Native person can only be a continuation of the old way. . . passed on from one generation to the next" (Maddox 734). Any attempt at severing this chord would be pernicious. "Rings of Bone," then, may serve to demonstrate how these new American Indian writers — in spite of their determination to be independent of their ancestry — face a difficult existence, for they are attempting to break from that which cannot be dissolved.

Works Cited

Lincoln, Kenneth. Sings With the Heart of a Bear: Fusion of Native and American Poetry 1890-1999. Berkley: U. of California Press, 1999.

Maddox, Lucy. "Native American Poetry." The Columbia History of American Poetry. Jay Perini and Brett C. Millier, eds. 1993.

Prepared for Kenneth Roemer's English 5234, University of Texas at Arlington, Spring 2000.

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