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House Made of Dawn | Study Guide

N. Scott Momaday

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House Made of Dawn | Context


Fluid Point of View

For many readers, one of the more challenging aspects of House Made of Dawn may be the fluid point of view. Readers are often more familiar with the idea of a book being about a protagonist and the story of his or her journey. This tradition is not completely set aside in House Made of Dawn. However, the story is not only about Abel. Likewise the point of view of the narration changes. This change sometimes occurs within the same section of text or shortly after.

While the majority of the text focuses on Abel, his story does not exist in isolation. This is a trait that is somewhat common in Native American literature. For example, both in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn and Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, the authors layer narratives within narratives. In Momaday's House Made of Dawn, the section entitled "The Priest of the Sun" begins with a more distant narrator and segues into John Big Bluff Tosamah's sermon. From there it slips into references to the Bible and then to a story within the sermon—that of Tai-me, the Kiowa sun-dance doll. The latter is marked off with indentation. At the conclusion of that story the narration slides back into the sermon again. From there the text switches to Abel's point of view immediately after the sermon.

To a reader accustomed to a linear narrative, this fluidity may be disorienting. However, it emphasizes the interconnectedness of experiences as well as the oral storytelling roots of Native American literature. In a communal culture, stories that are nonlinear have multiple points of view, and continually shift between those points of view to capture the experience of the story. It is intentional and masterful in its construction.


The novel is set during a transition period when American Indians have begun to move outside the government reservations, and the ceremonies or formal cultural rituals within the text demonstrate this contrast between cultures. Although the traditional ceremonies may undergo revision, the historical core concept―commemoration of significant events―remains the same.

Abel uses ceremonies to honor his past and his present. He recalls the ceremony with the Eagle Watcher's Society, wherein he "went to the river and washed his head to purify himself" before awaiting the eagles. Abel also recalls upon his brother's death: "he heard them pray ... the low sound itself, rising and falling."

Momaday noted in an interview that, in his works, he has "focused upon that contact between the white world and the Indian world." The idea of ceremony helps Momaday convey this idea. When Angela observes a ceremony, she thinks that "Abel was not used to the game" and she "thrilled to see [the horse] handled so." To her the ceremony is a spectacle. However, this external perspective is not limited to Anglo-Americans. Ben Benally hides his Night Chant prayer when he is with Abel. Ben thinks, "I kept it down because I didn't want anybody but him to hear it."

World War II

During World War II (1939–45) Native Americans have been largely remembered for their role as Marine Corps code talkers. The Navajo Code Talkers used their native language to convey secret military messages. Eventually, there were American Indians from 16 tribes who served in the Marine Corps, army, and navy. Some of these men enlisted, but others were drafted. Their codes were undecipherable to the German Nazis.

However, Native American contributions to the war were wider ranging than code talking. More than 10 percent of the Native American population at that time―44,000 Native Americans―were a part of World War II. By 1942 99 percent of all Native Americans eligible for the draft had registered. In addition to their work in the military, the estimates are they purchased $50 million in war bonds (government issued debt securities to finance military operations).

After the war many of the returning soldiers like the character of Abel experienced mental trauma, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, called shell shock at the time). PTSD is a mental disorder that follows the witnessing of a traumatic event and may include nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance, anxiety, or depression. All soldiers were also eligible for financial and educational benefits of military service, and the overall financial income of Native American veterans increased as a result.

Urban Indian Relocation Program

Part of the post-World War II change in the living circumstances of Native Americans was a result of the federal government trying to solve the dilemma of what to do about the reservations. The majority of Native Americans lived on the reservations, which were in many ways self-governing communities with separate rules and financial demands on the government. In 1953 a congressional resolution (Resolution 108) was passed with the intent to end reservations. Tribes would surrender their sovereignty and become American citizens. The resolution states the object is to "make the Indians within the territorial limits of the United States subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States, to end their status as wards of the United States." Notably, however, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 had already given Native Americans citizenship. That act states that: "all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States." What that 1924 act also states, however, is this acquisition of citizenship "shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property."

While Resolution 108 might appear to be about citizenship primarily, there had already been an act that established this. Nonetheless, the 1953 resolution states, "all of the Indian tribes and the individual members thereof located within the States of California, Florida, New York, and Texas, and all of the following named Indian tribes and individual members thereof, should be freed from Federal supervision and control and from all disabilities and limitations specially applicable to Indians."

Notably, removal from reservations and ending tribal sovereignty was not a decision that benefited most American Indians. This resolution was followed by another piece of legislation that attempted some similar changes, but with the addition of providing job training and funding for relocation. The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 (Public Law 959 and Adult Vocational Training Program) was designed to pay the expenses of moving to one of nine cities, as well as provide training for jobs. Part of the impetus for this was the low number of American Indians in urban areas. The law states the program was "available primarily to Indians who are not less than eighteen and not more than thirty-five years of age and who reside on or near an Indian reservation."

The average income of a Native American on a reservation in 1950 was only $950. In comparison the figure for Caucasians was $4,000, and for African Americans, it was $2,000. To further contextualize this, only eight percent of American Indians were living outside the reservation as of the 1940 census, whereas 56.5 percent of all Americans were living in cities. People were, by and large, divided half in cities and half outside of cities—but that was not the case for Native Americans. Consequently, the government started the Urban Indian Relocation Program in 1952. Those who were "relocated" via the program were in seven major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles (where Abel is). The program was, in theory, to provide job and orientation assistance, as well as temporary housing and counseling.

Between 1948 and 1980 (the end of the program), over 750,000 Native Americans relocated to urban areas.

By the census in 2000, the American Indian population in urban areas was at 64 percent. However, the benefits of the program are debatable. Many Native Americans struggled with alcoholism, homesickness, poverty, corruption within the program, and difficulty with assimilation. House Made of Dawn affectively illustrates these issues and problems. According to Ben Benally, Abel "was a longhair, like Tosamah said." What Ben offers in that section is an insight into the difficulty of assimilation. He notes that "you have to change. That's the only way you can live in a place like" Los Angeles. In fact, he thinks that "you have to forget about the way it was." However, Abel—like a lot of people relocated by the federal program—struggles with this. Abel's increasing alcohol consumption, as well as the experience of violence from the corrupt officer Martinez, makes the difficulty of urban relocation obvious to the reader.
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