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Momaday on the American West

N. Scott Momaday

For the European who came from a community of congestion and confinement, the West was beyond dreaming; it must have inspired him to formulate an idea of the infinite. There he could walk through geologic time; he could see into eternity. He was surely bewildered, wary, afraid. The landscape was anomalously beautiful and hostile. It was desolate and unforgiving, and yet it was a world of paradisal possibility. Above all, it was wild, definitively wild. And it was inhabited by a people who were to him altogether alien and inscrutable, who were essentially dangerous and deceptive, often invisible, who were savage and unholy - and who were perfectly at home.

This is a crucial point, then: the West was occupied. It was the home of peoples who had come upon the North American continent many thousands of years before, who had in the course of their habitation become the spirit and intelligence of the earth, who had died into the ground again and again and so made it sacred. Those Europeans who ventured into the West must have seen themselves in some wise as latecomers and intruders. In spite of their narcissism, some aspect of their intrusion must have occurred to them as sacrilege, for they were in the unfortunate position of robbing the native peoples of their homeland and the land of its spiritual resources. By virtue of their culture and history - a culture of acquisition and a history of conquest - they were peculiarly prepared to commit sacrilege, the theft of the sacred.

Even the Indians succumbed to the kind of narcissism the Europeans brought to bear on the primeval landscape, the imposition of a belief - essentially alien to both the land and the peoples who inhabited it - that would locate them once again within their own field of vision. For the Indian, the mirage of the ghost dance - to which the concepts of a messiah and immortality, both foreign, European imports, were central - was surely an ignis fatuus, and the cause of frightful suffering and death.

From Momaday, "The American West and the Burden of Belief" in Geoffrey C. Ward, The West: An Illustrated History. Copyright 1996 by The West Book Project, Inc. (Little Brown, 1996).

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