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On "Carriers of the Dream Wheel"


Kenneth C. Mason

"Carriers of the Dream Wheel" defines better than any poem I know the spirit of the oral tradition. William Stafford, in his poem, "A Stared Story," addresses the Indian "survivors" of the twentieth century, who are "slung here in our cynical constellation." These people must now "live by imagination." Momaday's poem shows that it is the imagination that has always given life to Indian cultures. It is the "Wheel of Dreams," their "sacred songs" and "old stories," living orally, ever one generation from extinction, that expresses their reality, and enables them to find and feet a wholeness and meaning in existence: "This is the Wheel of Dreams / Which is carried on their voices, / By means of which their voices turn / And center upon being." The Wheel of Dreams, which is both the body of the songs and stories and the dynamic imagination that calls them into being, defines the reality of the First World: men "shape their songs upon the wheel / And spin the names of the earth and sky, / The aboriginal names." In The Names Momaday explains his belief that the real essences of things are inherent in their names. Thus, the great power of the Wheel that enables men to name things, and, in a manner of speaking, create or reveal the nature of the world.

The most evocative lines in the poems ate the final four. They express just how the oral tradition sustained and renewed itself and gave life to the people. The contemporary relevance of these lines and of the poem is that it states how the old traditions can be preserved and regenerated today. Contemporary Indian poets are the current "Carriers of the Dream Wheel," and it is through their poems that contemporary Indians can define their reality and "center upon being." This is obviously what Duane Niatum had in mind when he used this poem as the title poem of his anthology of contemporary Indian poetry.

From "Beautyway: The Poetry of N. Scott Momaday. The South Dakota Review 18:2 (Summer, 1980).


Matthias Schubnell

If ritual is one form of human expression which ensures man's link to tradition and the web of life, the oral tradition is another. In "Carriers of the Dream Wheel," Momaday explores the verbal dimension of American Indian cultures. An individual inherits his tribe's accumulated wealth of orally transmitted stories and songs, "the dream wheel," which shapes his existence and his perception of the world around him.

The first four lines of the poem establish the reciprocal relation between the dream wheel and its carriers. The imaginary realm of histories and myths, visions and songs, survives in their voices, and the keepers of the oral tradition have existence in and through it. It is a fundamental tenet of American Indian thought that the world came into existence through language, that nothing truly exists unless it has existence in language . This theory of creation is intimated in the lines "It [the Dream Wheel] encircles the First World, / This powerful wheel. / They shape their songs upon the wheel / And spin the names of the earth and sky, / The aboriginal names." The concluding six lines combine the ancient and contemporary aspects of the oral tradition: as long as this heritage is kept alive in the communal experience of American Indians, they will continue to know who they are and what their destiny is.

from N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Copyright 1985 by the University of Oklahoma Press.


Word-Senders: N. Scott Momaday’s "Carriers of the Dream Wheel"
by D’Juana Montgomery

Language is the driving force of civilization. Through language, we communicate our thoughts, emotions, and desires. In his poem "Carriers of the Dream Wheel," N. Scott Momaday "explores the verbal dimension of American Indian cultures" (Schubnell 232). Kenneth Lincoln describes Momaday’s verse as having "a dignity of voice, anciently learned, bearing the weight of ancestral history" ("Old Songs" 240). This poem illustrates the important relationship between language (especially storytelling) and creation.

From the outset, the poem suggests the idea of motion or movement through the use of language. The poem actually sounds like a wheel. One has only to observe with care the language of the poem to gain the sense of turning or moving in the words "carried on their voice," "voices turn," "powerful wheel," and "spin the names." The language of the poem propels the reader forward while creating a sense of circularity. Each line pulls the reader around to the beginning of the next line. Clearly, in addition to motion, the image of a wheel also implies stability. Even though a wheel is capable of movement, it is also capable of providing a stable base around which the wheel revolves and bears weight. This concept is illustrated in the opening lines of the poem which read "This is the Wheel of Dreams / Which is carried on their voices, / By means of which their voices turn / And center upon being" (1-4). This indicates a reciprocal relationship between the wheel and the carrier; each needs the other in order to function successfully. The use of the word "center" in line 4 may also suggest that there is a Center of Being, both culturally and personally for the Native American that keeps them connected to their ancient roots. Moreover, just as a wheel is made up of several components (the center, the spokes, the rim, etc.), so language is made up of many components that depend upon one another to actually initiate communication. The uses of the word "carriers" in the title as well as the within the body of the poem also indicates a plurality. Just as there are many components to language, so there are many "carriers" or storytellers.

The poem also indicates the importance of language in Native American cultures. Traditionally, the Native American concept of language, storytelling, and communication has been an oral one. The first two lines of the poem, "This is the Wheel of Dreams / Which is carried on their voices," suggest the oral storytelling tradition. The storytelling tradition of oral communication between the generations is also suggested in lines 10-12 in which the "old men, or men / Who are old in their voices," carry the stories and songs "among the camps." Therefore, the choice of words becomes of tantamount importance in conveying any sort of communication. Matthias Schubnell states that "the world came into existence through language" (233). This concept is clearly indicated in Momaday’s poem in the lines which read

It encircles the First World,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
They shape their songs upon the wheel
And spin the names of the earth and sky,
The aboriginal names. (5-9)

However, the concept of language being used to initiate creation is not only found in Native American culture. The Christian tradition also teaches that creation, or life, was also spoken into existence. Therefore, the idea of language is also of tantamount importance to the Christian culture. For instance, in the first chapter of Genesis, God "speaks" the world into existence. Every act of creation is preceded by the words "And God said." Momaday’s poem suggests that the "old men" are the ones who "carry the wheel" and "spin the names of the earth and sky." The idea of language as a precusor to creation is echoed in other works by Momaday. His essay "The Man Made of Words," stresses the generative power of language. Momaday asserts that the oral tradition is just as important, if not more so, than writing because it "is older and more nearly universal than writing" (Lincoln "Old Songs" 248). In addition, the poem "Headwaters," which appears as the opening poem in The Way to Rainy Mountain and in Section I, "Angle of Geese," of The Gourd Dancer, also focuses on a hollow mother log which "tells" of an "archaic force" that "Was wild and welling at the source" (7-8). "Headwaters" is a tribal emergence myth that incorporates "myth and sacred landscape, visual and aural media, the remembered earth and its speaking-image past" (Lincoln, "Old Songs" 250). Both "Carriers of the Dream Wheel" and "Headwaters" indicate the idea of creation as something with a specific origin, a source that can be identified by the "roots" or "aboriginal names." Both poems use a combination of ancient and modern aspects of the oral tradition in that even though the content of the poems center on the idea of language being the origin of creation, both use the written word, a technique that did not originate in the oral Native American traditions. Kenneth Lincoln claims that "modern literary tools have stocked the quivers of native ‘word-senders’ to write their differences, to transcribe tribal distinctions, to chant and tell America from ancient oral texts, speaking with bear hearts" ( "Indian Poetry" 60). Another of Momaday’s works that reinforces the idea of language as an integral element of creation is "The Priest of the Sun" section in House Made of Dawn, which also draws on Christian ideology. The priest uses part of John 1:1 which states, "In the beginning was the word" to introduce his sermon and argue that the Anglo race has misused words. The priest states that "The white man takes such things as words and literature for granted . . . He has diluted and multiplied the Word . . . his regard for language -- for the Word itself --- as an instrument of creation has diminished nearly to the point of no return. It may be that he will perish by the Word" (95). Momaday himself reinforces this apathy towards language in an interview with Joseph Bruchac, "we do not now know what we can do with words" (183).

Viewed in the context of Momaday’s other writings about storytelling and language, "Carriers of the Dream Wheel" may actually be a warning to Native Americans not to take their storytelling traditions lightly. The poem, in fact, seems to be a call for preserving and continuing the oral traditions calling the "old men" to "Come, come, / Let us tell the old stories, / Let us sing the sacred songs" (13-15). Lincoln suggests that "language is believed regenerative, even sacred, and makes things happen" ("Indian Poetry" 74). Thus, the poem calls for a renewing or continuance of the ancient stories, songs, and traditions. Clearly, language is an integral part of both Native American and Christian cultures. The spoken and written word has the power to either create or destroy depending upon the respect paid to each. Momaday’s poem celebrates those who carry on this respect.

Works Cited

Bruchac, Joseph. Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1987.

Lincoln, Kenneth. "Indian Poetry in Our Time." Sing with the Heart of a Bear. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.

-------. "Old Songs Made New: Momaday." Sing with the Heart of a Bear. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.

Momaday, N. Scott. "Carriers of the Dream Wheel." An Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Cary Nelson, ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.

------. House Made of Dawn. New York: Harper, 1968.

Schubnell, Matthias. N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman: University of Oklahoma P, 1986.

Prepared for Kenneth Roemer's English 5324, University of Texas at Arlington (Spring 2000)


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