The Way to Rainy Mountain Summary

N. Scott Momaday

The Way to Rainy Mountain

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The Way to Rainy Mountain Summary

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The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) is a unique book, which pieces together three separate narrative voices in order to preserve the history of the Kiowa Native Americans. The Pulitzer Prize winning book is divided into three main sections, called “The Setting Out,” “The Going On,” and “The Closing In,” respectively, and is further divided into smaller chapters. Each chapter features three separate narrative voices. In the preface to the 25th anniversary edition of the book, author N. Scott Momaday says the first voice (the voice of his father) is the ancestral voice, or the voice which recounts the oral myths of the tribe. The second voice is that of the historical record, and the third is the author’s own voice, which focuses on his personal experiences with tribal culture and can be considered a memoir.

Momaday begins with the Kiowa creation myth, which tells that they were created out of a hollow log, and then tells of their descent down from the mountains to rule the southern plains of Ohio. A tribe of Nomadic huntsman, the Kiowas flourish for one hundred years, by allying with the Comanche who introduce them to horses. However, life on the plains withers, the buffalo die out and the Kiowan culture fades. In his own voice, Momaday explains that the myth of their creation and migration is not merely a historical account of events, but also demonstrates the way the Kiowas think of themselves. Because so much of tribal culture exists within the oral tradition, ancestral memory and myth, it is vital to keep these the culture alive through the retelling of these stories.

The occasion for Momaday’s return to Rainy Mountain, both literal and figurative, is the death of his grandmother, Aho. Aho lived during the decline of the Kiowa people who suffered a major loss at the hands of the US cavalry in the 1880’s, which severely limited their territory. Momaday contextualizes what is known historically about the origins of the tribe, which is that they emerged from somewhere in Montana over three hundred years before. The experienced a “golden age” during their migration to the south where an alliance with the Crows exposed them to the Sun Dance and Tai-me (a figure at the center of Plains religious culture). Momaday relates this back to the log myth by saying that the journey of the Kiowa is a real life journey from darkness to the light.

Momaday himself mirrors the journey of the Kiowa, beginning in Yellowstone and traveling southward. As the landscape opens up he is also to understand how the sky and the sun became revered in the vast expanses of the plains. As he travels, Momaday recounts various tribal myths based on the elements of the landscape which influenced them, which generally follow the linear progression of the rise and fall of the Kiowa. In brief, he recounts the story of a child that follows a beautiful redbird up into the sky. By the time they reach the sky, the child has grown into a woman, and the bird transformed into a man, so they marry and have a child. In this case the man is representative of the sun. However, the man leaves and the woman becomes lonely and digs up a forbidden root. Momaday explains that this is representative of Kiowa culture, which was not agrarian and recounts the failed attempts of his grandfather to cultivate cotton.

Alternating back to the redbird story, the man kills the woman, and their child reaches earth. A spider called Grandmother realizes she must catch the child in order to protect him.  The historical record tells us that during this time the US military had been attempting to apprehend and subdue the Kiowa, and how during a period of heavy rain, spiders were abundant across the plains. The tribal voice also tells stories of Tai-Me (a doll used in the sun dance,) Peyote rituals, enemies encroaching on Kiowa land, the status of women and various other elements of Kiowa culture. In the epilogue Momaday tells more of the historical specifics of the fall of the Kiowa tribe to U.S. military operations and the decline of its culture as a whole.