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House Made of Dawn | Study Guide

N. Scott Momaday

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House Made of Dawn | Quotes


There was a house made of dawn.

Narrator, Prologue

This reference to a house made of dawn is both the start and the end of the book. At the beginning Francisco is running; at the conclusion, his grandson Abel is running at dawn.


He did not know who his father was ... which made him ... somehow foreign and strange.

Narrator, The Longhair: Walatowa, Cañon de San Diego, 1945 (July 20–July 25)

In this July 21 passage about Abel, the theme of alienation is firmly established, but will be further developed throughout the novel. It compels Abel through the novel, but also engulfs many of the other principal characters who struggle to fit into their world.


He took hold of its throat in the darkness and cut off its breath.

Narrator, The Longhair: Walatowa, Cañon de San Diego, 1945 (July 20–July 25)

Abel has captured an eagle, but when he sees it—contained and trapped in the bag—he is filled with shame and ends its life. The eagle was described in majestic terms, but here it is enclosed and captured because of him.


She would have liked to ... hold for a moment the hot blowing of the bear's life.

Narrator, The Longhair: Walatowa, Cañon de San Diego, 1945 (July 20–July 25)

Angela St. John is purportedly thinking of a bear, but this is in the context of her interest in Abel. She has seemingly conflated the animal with the man. She thinks of this again later in connection with Abel, thereby stressing the parallel between Abel and the bear.


They came from nothing into sound and meaning.

John Big Bluff Tosamah, The Priest of the Sun: Los Angeles, 1952

John Big Bluff Tosamah is telling of his grandmother, Aho, a Kiowa woman and storyteller. He refers to her belief words were "medicine" here, highlighting the Native American connection between religion, oral tradition, and words. The reader might also note these words can also allude to American author William Faulkner, who was known for his own use of complicated narrative structures in novels. Notably Momaday was very familiar with Faulkner's work.


He could not understand the sea; it was not of his world.

Narrator, The Priest of the Sun: Los Angeles, 1952

Abel, at this point, has repeatedly gone into nature for clarity and solace, but he is from the Southwest, which is a very different landscape. He isn't connecting to the city or to the land where he is now (Los Angeles). In this situation he is in pain, injured, and alone, but unlike when he has felt this (in earlier examples in the book) he is not finding refuge even though he is in as much nature as there is to be found in an urban area like Los Angeles.


A man kills such an enemy if he can.

Narrator, The Priest of the Sun: Los Angeles, 1952

Momaday has cited, on multiple occasions, a case where a man committed murder because of his belief the victim was a shape-shifter. That case was influential. Juan Reyes, an albino, was thought to be a witch—an enemy to kill.


He threatened to turn himself into a snake, for crissake, and rattle around a little bit.

John Big Bluff Tosamah, The Night Chanter: Los Angeles, 1952

This alludes to the belief the albino, Juan Reyes, was a shape-shifter and therefore able to become a snake. It also highlights a difference between Abel, who was born and raised on the reservation, and Tosamah, who was not raised on a reservation and who was able to assimilate.


They have a lot of words, and ... your own words are no good.

Narrator, The Night Chanter: Los Angeles, 1952

Words are powerful things, but communication requires more than speech. The thematic role of words, story, and communication in the novel is highlighted here too. Abel was tried and committed for a crime to him was an act of self-defense (killing an enemy). Many of the difficulties he experiences in the novel come from speaking different languages. The reference isn't just to literal languages, like English, but to experience, understanding of the land and environment and culture that affect how people respond to people and experiences they are exposed to.


And you were there where you wanted to be, and alone.

Ben Benally, The Night Chanter: Los Angeles, 1952

Ben Benally is recalling being on the reservation, in nature, at peace. This is among the things that are lost to him, Abel, and all of the displaced Native Americans in Los Angeles.


Maybe it was Tosamah, too, and that white woman, everything.

Ben Benally, The Night Chanter: Los Angeles, 1952

Ben Benally is thinking about the many difficulties Abel has experienced. He was already struggling when he returned from prison, but he was met with hostility from John Big Bluff Tosamah and the reminder of the woman he had known briefly before prison, as well as by violence from Martinez and a lack of community.


He didn't come back for three days.

Ben Benally, The Night Chanter: Los Angeles, 1952

The example of being gone for three days calls to mind rituals such as vision ceremonies and peyote ceremonies. It also recalls the Christian story of Jesus who was dead for three days. In all these cases, the person returning has changed.


He was born of a bear and a maiden, she said, and he was noble and wise.

Ben Benally, The Night Chanter: Los Angeles, 1952

Ben is shocked because the myth of the maiden and the bear Angela St. John tells is akin to the story of the Changing Bear Maiden, a Navajo story. The reader will note this is much like the connections John Big Bluff Tosamah draws between the Kiowa story of Tai-me and the Christian Bible. This thematic thread continues to emphasize the power stories have to transcend culture.


It was the room in which he was born, in which his mother and his brother died.

Narrator, The Dawn Runner: Walatowa, 1952

There is a cycle, a long thread to the past, a connection to both life and death in the room where Abel waits for his grandfather's last moment. Home is where you are born, live, and die. This is the reality for Francisco—one the relocation programs disrupt.


And he held on to the shadow and ran beyond his pain.

Narrator, The Dawn Runner: Walatowa, 1952

This ceremonial running signifies Abel is connecting back to his culture, his land, and his heritage. He is running as his grandfather once ran. It closes the novel on an optimistic note.

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