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Online Interview with N. Scott Momaday

Did you know what you wanted to do with your life, or did it just happen, serendipity?

I knew that I wanted to be a writer from a very early age, because my mother was a writer, and encouraged me to write. I accepted that. I got it in my head. "Yeah, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to be a writer." But then there was a lot of serendipity after that too, moving into different settings that inspired the writing. A lot of things happened that I could not have expected.

How about your father? Did they both encourage you, or challenge you in these pursuits?

They definitely encouraged me. Challenge is too strong a word. I don't think they applied pressure to me. My mother certainly tried to interest me in good books, and she did. She gave me an incentive to write. My father was a very gentle man and he never told me he expected this or that of me, but he encouraged me. I learned a lot about painting by osmosis, by watching him. I didn't follow in his footsteps for a long time, but now I'm a painter, and a printmaker, and it all comes from him. It was a kind of silent encouragement, but always there.

As you developed in your writing career, how did your parents react? What did they have to say about that to you?

In a kind of quiet way, they gave me praise. They were pleased when I published something, they were pleased when I was recognized. They didn't throw parties, but nonetheless, I could tell it was a good thing as far as they were concerned.

Was there any specific event or experience that you can point to that inspired you as a young man, as a boy?

Not a specific thing, but an accumulation of things. I was born at the Kiowa Indian Hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma, then taken to my grandmother's place. They lived in conditions of dire poverty. I didn't know it at the time. We didn't have any electricity or plumbing. This was during the Depression. My parents were looking for work, they found it with what was then called the Indian Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I grew up on Indian reservations. I lived on the Navajo reservation when I was little, and I lived on two of the Apache reservations, and lived at the Pueblo of Jemez for the longest period of time. So I had a Pan-Indian experience before I knew what that term meant. And it turned out to be fortunate, I think, in terms of writing, because I had an unusual experience -- and a very rich one -- of the southwestern landscape, the Indian world. And that become for me a very important subject.

Were there ideas, values, experiences that you brought from the tribal reservations and your early education that helped you in the world outside the reservation?

Yes, I think so. I might have a hard time cataloguing all of the things that made a difference. I certainly can point to an understanding of the relationship between man and the landscape, for example. I grew up with that, and that's such an important equation in the Indian world. That has been of great value to me all my life. The Indian world is full of aesthetic values, art. My father was an artist, a painter, and he taught painting to the children at Jemez Pueblo. They exhibited all over the world. They became famous for their art. He once said to me, "You know, Scott, I have never known an Indian child who couldn't draw." I believe that. I haven't either. That seems intrinsic somehow. That's a real part of the Indian world, this love of symmetry and composition. It's a great thing. That has been important to me as well. Indian people have a strong sense of humor. It's not easily understood by other people, but it's there and I love that. That's been a part of my life too.

I read that when you were a kid, you wanted to be a cowboy when you grew up.

Of course. That comes with the territory. I grew up on the range. Every boy who grows up in New Mexico, especially southern New Mexico, knows about Billy The Kid. He's a real presence, an authentic legend. When I was growing up I spent a lot of time with Billy The Kid. We rode the range together. My imagination ran wild with cowboys and Indians. I discovered a book by Will James called Smokey, the Story of a Cow Horse. That was my first great literary experience. I could not put that book down, literally could not put it down. When I had finished it, I read everything I could get my hands on by Will James. Sun Up, all kinds of cowboy stuff. The writing was terrible, but the books were wonderful. It made a great difference in my life. When I was 12-years-old I was, like Alexander, given a horse. There the comparison ends, but that horse meant everything to me. It was one of my great glories. I must have ridden several thousands of miles on the back of that horse in a period of about five years. That was a great time in my life. You know, being the descendent of centaurs, I have always understood the value of a horse, from the time my father began telling me stories. A lot of them were about horses. Horses have always been very important to me.

Who most inspired you as a young man?

I was interested in sports when I was a boy, too. I was inspired by Joe Louis. I still think he could beat Muhammad Ali. I had heroes like that when I was growing up. I was those Will James stories -- what they meant, and how they were put together. I think I learned a lot about storytelling, not only from the Kiowa oral tradition, which my father passed on to me, but also in things that I read, including Classic Comics and things like that. They were all important.

What about teachers? Is there a teacher that stands out in your memory as challenging you, or opening up new possibilities for you, inspiring you in some way?

Not in the early years, but in college and in graduate school I had several teachers who were very important to me. When I was an undergraduate I took a course in South American history, from a woman named Dorothy Woodward. It was the hardest course I've ever taken. She was so demanding! But at the end of the term I realized that I had really learned something, and that was exciting to me. And then, of course, Yvor Winters at Stanford was not only a man who was inspiring, but turned out to be a great friend.

What were you like as a school boy? Did you get along with your classmates?

Yeah, I've always gotten along with classmates. I was in schools that were remarkable in one way or another. For example, many times I was the only person for whom English was a first language. I was in school with a lot of Pueblo kids, and Navajo kids. They spoke a kind of broken English, and I didn't. I suppose that was to my advantage in some ways, but a disadvantage in others. I wasn't really challenged when I was in the early grades. That's pretty much true all up through high school. I think I was ill-prepared for college. I hadn't had a lot of really valuable training. So it came as a kind of shock to me. But I managed to do what I was supposed to do. I wasn't a great student. I didn't care that much about grades until I got into graduate school. Then I thought, the time has come to really make an effort now, and so I did. More important, by that time I had put myself in a position where I could hold my own.

All the way up to your senior year in high school, you were in reservation schools.

Pretty much. I was in all kinds of different schools, some on the reservation, some off. I went to four different high schools, and for two of those years I rode a bus 28 miles one way to school. I boarded with an old German couple in Albuquerque in my sophomore year, and then I went to military school for my senior year. I had run out of schools and my parents and I thought that if I really wanted to go to college, I had better go to a school that could give me some college preparation. So I selected a military academy in Virginia and I went there my senior year.

What possessed you to pick a military academy in Virginia?

I don't really know. It was a romantic kind of thing. My mother was born in Kentucky and some of her ancestors had come from Virginia. She was always very interested in that part of the world, and in that part of her ancestral experience. So I had an interest in the Old South, in the Old Dominion. So when I got these catalogues, that's where I gravitated, to the Shenandoah Valley.

How did it affect you, moving from one world to another, back and forth between the Indian world of the reservation, and the one outside, especially at so young an age? 

I think that's the answer. It happened when I was young, and kids take things like that for granted. If it had happened to me at a later time in my life I probably would have been terrified. But going back and forth between the Indian world and the white man's world was a piece of cake at the time. It's like learning a language. Language is child's play, and the kind of experience I had was child's play.

Did you always have this sense of Indianness wherever you went?

Yes. That's interesting, as I look back on it, because I was very frequently among Indians who were not of my tribe. We couldn't converse, we didn't have the same language, but I always had a sense of being one of them because I'm Indian. They had the same sense of me. We got along well because we were all Indians together. That's something that I think is of importance, and something that happened in my lifetime. When I was little, people didn't think of themselves as Indians. They thought of themselves as Kiowas, or Comanches, or Crees, or whatever. But in the last 50 years or so, the tribal distinctions have broken down. But the sense of Indianness has remained as strong as ever, and maybe it has become stronger. And I can't account for that except to say that the outside world has made incursions, and the Indians have left the reservation, and so there's been a much greater kind of communication back and forth. And now we have things like pow-wows, which are extremely important in bringing young people -- especially -- together from every kind of different tribe and language. And they trade words, and dance steps, and music, and so on. And so, they bond and become a people, instead of the members of a lot of different tribes, and I think that's healthy.

There's no question that this sense of Indian identity has enriched and informed your life and your work.

That's very true. One of the things that amazes me is that I think the Indian is more secure than he was a half-century ago. He has a much better idea of himself and of the contribution that he can make. He's only two percent of the population, but has an influence much greater than that would indicate.

Could you define a turning point, or a defining moment, a big break in your career?

I suppose the fellowship I was awarded to at Stanford. I could say that was my first big break. It was an opportunity that I was not expecting, and it turned out to mean a great deal to me.

What do you think Stanford saw in you?

I don't think Stanford saw anything in me particularly, but Yvor Winters did. He was the man who chose the poets for the fellowship. I didn't know him at the time, but when I applied, I submitted several poems, and the outline for a collection of poems. He saw in it something that he wanted to encourage, so he wrote to me and said, you've been awarded the poetry fellowship. There was only one that year, this was 1959. He became my advisor. That was an important moment in my life, because he was extremely knowledgeable about poetry. I was very much interested in poetry at the time, and he was in a position to take me over and help me learn poetic forms and so on.

Why was that a turning point for you?

I had not wanted to go on with my schooling. I had graduated from the University of New Mexico with a BA. I had taken a job teaching at the Dulce School on the Jicarilla Reservation. I spent a year there and I loved it. Wonderful setting, great people, the kids were wonderful. I was teaching seventh graders, up through eleventh or twelfth graders. And I was a bachelor earning the princely sum of $4,000 a year. Nothing to spend it on, except steaks down at the trading post. I'd go buy the best piece of meat you've ever seen and bring it home and feast on it.

I won the fellowship to Stanford. And I thought, "Hey, I'll go to Stanford, I'll live off the fat of the land there for a year. I'll learn something about writing. It's a great opportunity, but then I'll come back here." I took a year's leave of absence. I meant to be gone for a year. I ended up staying 20 years in California because Yvor Winters talked me into going through the mill there. So I took the bachelors and then stayed in and took the doctorate. By that time I was overqualified for Dulce, so I got into the business of college teaching.

Is it possible to articulate what Yvor Winters saw in the poems that you submitted?

I was writing in a kind of native voice. I had already become interested in the Indian oral tradition and I wanted to incorporate elements of that tradition into my work. I think he thought that was exciting. It had interesting possibilities and he responded very favorably to it.

How would you explain to someone who knows nothing about writing, why it is so exciting, so important to you?

It's important to me because I am who I am. I have a certain temperament. I was born with certain potentials and possibilities, and I have been fortunate in realizing some of those possibilities. I was inspired to write at a tender age by my mother, who was a writer. I was fortunate to that extent, and I did follow in her footsteps and develop a voice, the voice of a writer. That's what a writer does. I tell young people often, "Don't worry about having a distinctive voice right now, it comes with experience and practice. You will develop a voice." Someone once said to me "Don't worry about imitating someone, that's how you learn." And eventually you will verge out and go on your own voice. I simply kept my goal in mind, and persisted. Perseverance is a large part of writing. So what success I have achieved has come about because of that, simply following the line.

There is all manner of writing that you could have pursued, but poetry is the one that holds you most enthralled. Why poetry?

Poetry is the crown of literature. I think it's the highest of the literary arts. To write a great poem is to do as much as you can do in literature. Everything has to be very precise. The poem has to be informed with motive and emotion. You're bringing to bear everything that literature is based upon when you write a poem. A poem, if it succeeds, brings together the best of your intelligence, the best of your articulation, the best of your emotion. And that is the highest goal of literature, I suppose. I think of myself as a poet, I'd rather be a poet than a novelist, or some other sort of writer. I think I'm more recognized as a novelist, simply because I won a prize. But I write poetry consistently, though slowly. And it seems to be the thing that I want to do best. I would rather be a poet than a novelist, because I think it's on a slightly higher plane. You know, poets are the people who really are the most insightful among us. They stand in the best position to enlighten us, and encourage, and inspire us. What better thing could you be than a poet? That's how I think of it.

Many people do well in school, they're smart, they have talent, they have potential, but they don't always succeed. Why do you think you succeeded in all of this?

I really don't know if I have the answer to that. I wanted to succeed. I wanted to write well, and I tried to. I applied myself. I think that writers haven't much choice. You know, if someone really has the impulse to write, then that's what he must do. I don't think there's much of a choice. After the impulse is realized, he writes. And that's how I feel about my development. I think that I was compelled to write, and so I never had the choice of doing anything else, really. I was talking to some kids today and they were talking about happiness. One of them said "I'm going to Harvard and I'm going into science, I'm not sure that's really what I want to do. I want to be happy., and I might be happy doing any number of other things." I thought, that's true in a way. But if you are really compelled to write, that's where happiness is. It's in doing what you can do, and being the best you can be at it. That's what really makes for --.I don't know if I'd use the word happiness, but contentment. There's a lot of frustration in writing. I heard an interview with a writer not long ago in which the interviewer said, tell me, is writing difficult? And the writer said, oh,, of course not. He said, "All you do is sit down at a typewriter, you put a page into it, and then you look at it until beads of blood appear on your forehead. That's all there is to it." There are days like that. But when you come away after two or three hours with a sentence, or two, or three and you understand in your heart that those are the best sentences you could have written in that time, there is a satisfaction to that that is like nothing else. That justifies everything. I think that there are people who have a kind of intrinsic love of language. They're born with it. It's a gift of God, if you want. For those people, nothing is as gratifying as writing. In my experience, most people who have had that gift know it, and they celebrate it. I think Emily Dickinson knew absolutely that she had a great, great endowment, and that was her life. It is incidental that she only published five or seven poems in her lifetime. She knew she was a poet, and one of the best. That had to mean a great deal to her.

The road to success clearly can take many turns. There are roadblocks and detours. What setbacks have you had along the way and what did you learn from them? How did you deal with them?

I've had different problems in my life, which I guess you could call setbacks, because I'm sure they got in the way of my work. I've gone through two divorces, for example, which were debilitating in their way. I have had fits of depression. I didn't know how to deal with them in every case. It was largely a matter of waiting it out. People speak of writer's block. I guess that one could say that after I published my first novel and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, I found it very difficult to write after that for a long time. And yet, I'm the one who says, "Well, I don't believe in writer's block. That's an excuse of some kind. It doesn't really exist." So I don't know. I just waited until I could write again, and it happened. And that's how it's been, off and on, through my whole career. I had a heart attack a little over a year ago. A mild one, thank goodness, had angioplasty. That got in the way for a time, but now I'm back to writing and being productive, and that's what matters to me.

How do you deal with self doubts, with fear of failure when you work?

Again, I think it's just waiting, because that fear will diminish if you give it time. I have had self doubts and I think that's probably part of it too. All writers, probably, are a bit insecure all of the time, and very insecure much of the time. But you work against that. That's just how the game is played. You can't let yourself bog down permanently into such a state of despair, or ennui, or whatever it is. You have to work against it. We get back to the idea of the writer having to write. I once read something by Kafka, a letter. He said something to this effect: "God doesn't want me to write, but I have to write."  And so there's this terrible tug of war, and you know who wins, but I can't help it, it's just something I have to do. And that's pretty much my philosophy too.

No matter what field you're in, you can't please all the people all the time. Writers, especially, are subjected to critics. How do you deal with criticism?

I deal with it very well now. There was a time when I didn't. When I first started publishing, I was deeply concerned with what other people thought of my writing, but I then came to realize, just as you've said, that a lot of people are not going to like what you do, no matter what it is. If some do, you're all right. I was extremely lucky, because early in my career I was given a lot of recognition. When I got the Pulitzer Prize, it did inhibit me in certain ways but, at the same time, it alleviated a lot of the problems that come with being a young professor. I no longer had to worry about publishing or perishing. I did have to worry about junk mail and getting invitations to ladies garden societies. That still goes on, that's the negative side of it. But I established myself very early, and that was a good thing. It sort of cleared the way for my work. When I finally could get back to writing, I was free to do it.

Does criticism affect your work, affect your ideas?

No longer. At one time it made a difference, I paid close attention to it. Now I don't so much. There are a lot of things written about me and my work that I don't read,. People will say, "What did you think of that article?" And I say, "I don't know, what did it say? Who said what about my writing?" I don't pay much attention to it now. I think I'm better off, because it's dangerous to go around reading opinions of your work, of your worth. You can get in trouble doing that. It's best to shut that off and get on with your work.

Regardless of the field, what personal characteristics do you think are most important for success or achievement? What's it take?

I think it takes a lot of resolve. You have to believe in what you're doing, and you have to do it to the best of your ability. That calls for reaching down inside yourself and coming up with resolve, determination. That may be the most important thing, as I think of it. Writing is a way of expressing your spirit. So there's much more to it than the question of material success. You are out to save your soul after all, and be the best thing that you can be in your whole being. In the Plains culture, which is my ancestral culture, and a warrior culture, there were four principles. A warrior had to live by these principles: bravery, fortitude, generosity and virtue. When I learned about those principles, they have been extremely important to me, you know. I would like to live my life according to those four things. I would like to do it in my writing, as well as in my other activities. That's what I believe. I tell students, writing is the expression of your spirit, but you must live by certain ideals, and they must inform not only your writing, but the way in which you have breakfast with your mate, as well.

What do you think you know now about achievement that you didn't know as a young writer?

For one thing, I know that it's artificial in some ways. Acclaim is good and I love being acclaimed. I like for my work to be recognized and appreciated. But in a greater sense, I think it's taken too seriously by many people. It begins to be an end in itself, and that's wrong. If you can do your own work and satisfy your own demands, then the acclaim -- you know -- if it's there, it's great, if it's not, it doesn't matter that much. As long as you can be true to yourself, and save your own soul, that's what really matters.

What concerns you most these days? Is there some idea or problem that holds your attention? Especially as we look ahead towards the 21 century? What are the challenges?

Yes, there are certain things that concern me deeply. One of them is the way we treat our environment. We haven't done a very good job in protecting our planet. We have failed to recognize the spiritual life of the earth. I feel a sense of futility, because I think there's not much I can do about it, but I will, to the best of my ability, try to change that. I'm not at all confident that I can, but if I make the effort, that will mean something. I want to produce a certain amount of work. I think I have things left to do. As I grow older, it becomes a race. That's something that concerns me. Will I be able to do the things that I've set for myself to do? Who knows? That's something that concerns me too.

What it is that you haven't done that you would like to do?

I have certain writing projects that I want to complete. I'm just now beginning a play that has been commissioned by the Denver Theater Center. I want to come up with a first draft of that. That's something I think I can do, with a little luck. I'm not not that advanced in age as yet. Long term things? I want to write a novel based on the '60s, which seems to me the most important decade of this century, to date, and it looks like it's going to hold up. I lived in California during the '60s and it was a very important time in our history. You stop to think about what happened in that decade and it boggles the mind. We had those terrible assassinations, we had the civil rights movement, and we ended up by going to the moon. That was a good time in which to have lived, and I want to write about that. It's on the back burner. I'm not sure when I'm going to get to that, or how long it will take to put it out, but I would like to do it. I hope I will.

In reading about you, and in thinking about this era we're going through, with all of the controversy about immigration, and assimilation, and identity, I wonder: How does one maintain an identity, a sense of what you are, while still moving over into the mainstream of American life? How do you do that? It seems to be a big issue today, and you have done that so successfully. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I am lucky, because I do have a sense of my Indian heritage. That's very firmly fixed in my imagination and in my mind. I am more fortunate than most other people. When I published The Way to Rainy Mountain , someone who was writing a review -- or interviewing me -- said to me, "You know, you're very lucky to know who you are, with respect to your grandparents, your great-grandparents, five generations back. You know about that. I don't know that about myself, or my people." And that came as a surprise to me, because I hadn't thought about it, you know. And I had taken it for granted. But I sometimes think that the contemporary white American is more culturally deprived than the Indian, in that sense. Because very few people know about their ancestry, going back even a generation. I'm always appalled by students who -- you know, I say, "Well look, you've got an oral tradition. You've got a family oral tradition, if nothing else. Tell me about your grandparents." And sometimes they just don't know about their grandparents, and I find that very sad, and alarming, but it's true. It's true.

It's possible to have both. It's possible to have this identity, this cultural inheritance, whether Indian, or black, or Polish, whatever it is, and still be a part of this country.

Yeah, I think that's how it works. This country is made up of people who have both things, or the possibility of both things. I don't think people appreciate that enough. We need to talk to them about that. Spend some time thinking about who you are and how you became who you are. It's important. We're moving at such a pace that very few of us stop to reflect upon it. Reflection is important.

Looking back and reflecting, from this vantage point, what advice do you have for young people just starting out? What do you say to them?

Fix your sight upon something and then go after it, and try not to be deflected. You have something that most of us don't have and that is time. You have time in which to deliberate, time in which to reflect, time in which to determine who you are. Use it. Don't panic. A lot of kids tend to panic, but I say just take it easy. But go for something. Move positively towards some goal that you would like to achieve. Ask yourself how you would like to be known. Don't let yourself be determined by others. And this is especially true where young people are concerned, because everybody wants to determine them. And they have very few defenses against that. So I say, for God's sake, you know, don't let other people tell you who you are. If I had let people tell me who I was, I would have dropped back there somewhere. Determine who you are, and don't let anybody else do it for you. That's the best advice I can give a young person.

If you had to choose one book or two to read to your grandchildren, what would it be?

Of all the books in the world?...oh, dear, how can I answer that? That's an impossible question! You can read the collected works of William Shakespeare and find out a great deal about life in the world and the way people act in each other's presence. You can read the Bible to the same effect. I probably would want to aim a little lower than those things though and say, "Why don't you read Moby Dick ?" If you can read that and not be somehow fulfilled, then there's something wrong with you.

What does the American Dream mean to you?

It means a great deal actually, and the reason it does has something to do with my being a Native American. I belong to a race of people, a society, that has been oppressed. We, the Indians, have had a hard time, for a long time. We have had to endure a great deal, but the dream means as much to us as it does to anyone. You'll never find a greater patriot than an American Indian. It's not by accident that I, a member of the Gourd Dance society, go to Oklahoma to dance on the 4th of July, you know. It is not an accident that the greatest honor that can come to an American Indian in my generation is to serve in the Armed Forces. And the veterans who have given their lives are greatly honored by the Native people. So, the dream is very important to me, and it is, I think, to Native Americans in general.

from The American Academy of Achievement. 2001 American Academy of Achievement. Online Source

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