Literature Study GuidesHouse Made Of DawnThe Priest Of The Sun Los Angeles 1952 Summary

House Made of Dawn | Study Guide

N. Scott Momaday

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House Made of Dawn | The Priest of the Sun: Los Angeles, 1952 | Summary

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Summary

January 26

The section opens with a poetic paragraph on "small silversided fish." The narrator relays fish are "among the most helpless creatures" in the world, so much so people "catch them up in their bare hands."

The focus now shifts to the Priest of the Sun, who lives in Los Angeles with "his disciple Cruz." The priest, who is called the Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah, is at the lectern in his basement church. The Priest of the Sun chooses to speak of Genesis. He points out that "old John was a white man, and the white man has his ways." He then recalls his grandmother, who was a Kiowa storyteller who could not read or write. For her words "came from nothing into sound and meaning." His grandmother told the story of Tai-me, which Tosamah repeats for his congregation. In this story there was darkness, and in that darkness a "Voice spoke" to a Kiowa man who was afraid because the thing that spoke "had the feet of a deer, and its body was covered with feathers." The Voice tells the man, if you "take me with you ... I will give you whatever you want."

After the long sermon, the focus shifts to a single paragraph in which Abel thinks about the fish and the sea. Abel thinks he "could not understand the sea; it was not of his world." The perspective stays with Abel, but it is a longer contemplation about his drunken and battered state. He thinks about how he used to be strong and recalls he was healthy until the alcohol and not sick with the illness his mother and brother had. He recalls seeing Fat Josie when he had been injured from a fall from a horse, and she healed him. His mind wanders to Angela St. John, and then he thinks about the trial for killing the albino six years ago. Father Olguin's perspective is also in this section, as he tries to explain Abel believed the albino was "not a man." The unnamed responder (presumably a lawyer) clarifies, "An evil spirit?" Abel thinks it was "not complicated." He had killed the albino, and he notes that "he would kill the white man again, if he had a chance."

The perspective continues with Abel, but it returns to the present. Abel wakes, coughing blood. He notices a vibration and discovers "old men running after evil." He is struck by their rightness, and his mind drifts to his prison cell. He is on a bus, admiring his shoes and wishing he were drunk. His mind drifts further to a fill-in-the-blank questionnaire and Milly, who is his friend and social worker. He recalls a night when he "got a little drunk" and he "made love to her."

The perspective now shifts to John Big Bluff Tosamah, Priest of the Sun, who is speaking about peyote and preparing for a peyote ceremony. Drums are played, and there is a fire. Then, all of the assembled people eat peyote buttons. Four of the celebrants speak, and one is Abel's friend, Ben Benally, who remarks, "There are blue and purple horses ... a house made of dawn." The details of the ceremony end with the Priest of the Sun giving "four blasts of the eagle-bone whistle" in the "four directions."

One single italicized word—"Milly?"—occupies a line, and then the narration switches back to Abel who is thinking about his injuries and pain. He remembers seeing Fat Josie, and then thinks of the sea, and the thing "forever at the margin of his mind" that was "something to fear." In this disjointed way, his thoughts—and the narration—go to the war. He remembers the tank "just zigzagging up to the ridge slow and easy." The narration tells of a soldier recounting Abel's courage or madness in the face of a tank. The soldier says Abel suddenly stood and was "giving it the finger and whooping it up and doing a goddam war dance." The tank began shooting, but Abel—who had neither weapon nor helmet—was "giving it to that tank in Sioux or Algonquin or something."

Again, there is the single italicized word, "Milly?" appearing alone on a line. Then four short lines about Abel's pain. The next sequence is Abel's recollection of a duck hunt he went on with Vidal, his brother. Toward the end of that story, he begins an italicized conversation with Milly, telling her of the duck hunt. And then the story suddenly shifts as Abel talks to Milly after they have made love. Soon, there is a gradual shift to Milly's perspective. Milly's story is a lengthy passage about her childhood, which was filled with poverty and her father urging her to get away. Milly tells of marrying a man, of having a daughter called Carrie, and of Carrie dying at four years old.

The narrative switches back to the present and Abel's realization he "would die of exposure unless he got up." He gets a ride from a truck, and then he goes off on his own. He thinks back to "Milly and Ben running on the beach" and there "was nothing but the moonlight and the long white margin of the sea on the beach."

January 27

The entire section is a sermon by John Big Bluff Tosamah. In it he speaks of his grandmother, who has died. He tells of his trip to Oklahoma—to Rainy Mountain—to be at her grave, and he speaks of the fate of his people, his grandmother included. Aho, his grandmother, was not imprisoned as many were at Fort Sill. The sermon also speaks of the land and the history of the people. It is very poetic. He mentions "things in nature which engender an awful quiet in the heart of man," and specifies Devils Tower as such a place. He adds Aho was a "Christian in her later years," but adds she had not "forgot her birthright." He tells of her house and prayer meeting and of the land. He adds a detail about seeing a cricket from such an angle that it "filled the moon like a fossil." The chapter and section close with Tosamah seeing his grandmother's grave. He says she "had at last succeeded to that holy ground."

Analysis

In the January 26 section of this chapter, John Big Bluff Tosamah's sermon is on "the Word." He says, "in the beginning was the Word." Before the Word was darkness. He is pointing out this was where the Truth stopped. Tosamah is saying the white man has overcomplicated things. He says, "In the beginning was the Word ... And that is all there was, and it was enough." If the reader considers the Kiowa story and Genesis, what Tosamah is showing is in both there is a Word coming from the darkness that changes everything. He says, "there was voice, a sound, a word—and everything began."

So the reader sees Tosamah drawing the two worldviews together. Tosamah is the only Native American in the text who is not reservation born and raised. He struggles with Abel's inability to get along in Los Angeles. As the reader will recall, the book is nominally about Abel and his journey, but the interactions that other significant characters have with Abel thread through their journey as well as his. What Abel represents for Tosamah is a "longhair." He addresses cultural stories by way of their meaning, and he upholds his culture above the Anglo culture.

Tosamah is caught between the two worlds in his own way, however. He is a "priest," and he references the Christian Bible. He holds a peyote ceremony, about which he says, "that little old woolly booger turns you on like a light." Notably, as part of the peyote ceremony, Ben's vision is he sees "blue and purple horses ... a house made of dawn."

Through the passages that follow, the point of view shifts, revealing Abel injured and bleeding at the beach, his recollections of the war, and Milly's narrative. The recollection from the war is the soldiers were at a loss in trying to understand Abel's bravery and defiance in the face of a tank and bullets. This, too, ties to the present when Abel has faced Martinez. He didn't want to— or perhaps didn't know how to—bend to Martinez. The result is Abel is injured and on the beach.

Here, as when he was with Angela St. John after returning from the war when he was on the reservation, Abel finds comfort in a woman. This time, Milly is the source of his comfort. Again, she is a white woman. Again, her story is tied to motherhood. There are three significant women in Abel's life in the novel: Abel's mother, Angela, and Milly. All three are shaped by their role as mothers. The other woman, Fat Josie, exists as a caretaker; she heals him when he is injured. In each case the women (not his mother) are sources of care and solace.

The January 27 section shows John Big Bluff Tosamah telling the story of his grandmother, who is deceased, and he tells her story. She was not imprisoned at Fort Sill, a fort in southern New Mexico that served as a prisoner-of-war camp for many Kiowa and other people who were at war with the United States in the 19th century. Tosamah's grandmother was not literate, but she was a repository of stories, and those stories shaped Tosamah. His only encounter with the landscape of his people in the novel is because he returned there after her death. She is, as with Abel's connection to his mother, a deceased presence. Both dead women's graves are significant: Abel avoided his mother's grave, although he was a child at the time. Tosamah travels to see his grandmother's grave.

Although both Abel and Tosamah are strongly influenced by their heritage, they are also separated from it in key ways. Both men find connection to the land of their people they lack in urban Los Angeles. Tosamah has found a way to deal with this. He has his community and his peyote ceremony. Abel does not find a way and cannot integrate into the urban world. The text does not make a point of saying the difference is in their origin, but it does note Tosamah did not grow up on the reservation. He shifts between Anglo and Native American cultural reference points (the Bible and the Kiowa story, for instance), but he would have had a lifetime of such experiences. Abel, on the other hand, left the reservation for the war, and then he left for prison. It is not difficult for a reader to understand without the cultural experience Tosamah has accumulated over a lifetime, integration into the urban environment of Los Angeles would be exceptionally difficult.

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