The Way to Rainy Mountain | Study Guide

N. Scott Momaday

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The Way to Rainy Mountain | Context



N. Scott Momaday explores the folklore and history of the Kiowa Tribe, as well as his own personal recollections of his experiences as a Kiowa man. The Kiowa were a small tribe, numbering about 3,000 people in the 1700s when they migrated to the southern Great Plains. This migration was led by the Crow and joined by a southern Apache tribe.

After skirmishes with the Comanche, the Kiowa created an alliance with them between 1790 and 1806. This was followed by alliances with other tribes as well. The Kiowa had peaceful relationships with the Comanche, Arapaho, Lakota, Osage, and Southern Cheyenne, all plains tribes. These tribes were among the final Native American tribes to surrender to the U.S. cavalry.

Although many Native Americans accepted the option of reservation lands granted in the Medicine Lodge Treaty (1867), others resisted. The treaty granted the Plains tribes of Native Americans, who were often nomadic, swaths of land. Had they not accepted this offer, the government was willing to use force. The government wanted to clear them from the path of westward expansion and out of the path of the railroad. The treaty was followed by the attempt to decrease tribal lands, and other broken promises to the Native Americans.

Numerous raids by Native Americans on settlers led to outcries to the U.S. government. The imprisonment of Kiowa leaders Big Tree and Satanta in 1871—and of 124 Comanche women and children in 1872—slowed raids, but the prisoners' release in 1873 precipitated another increase in raids. This and other factors led to the Red River War (1874–75). The war ended in 1875 when Quanah Parker and his Comanche band surrendered. The Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache were assigned the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation lands that were then sold to white buyers beginning in 1901.

Originally—prior to being forced onto a reservation—the Kiowa were nomadic. They were an equestrian culture with a focus on bison hunting. "The Kiowas set out on foot and on horseback—men, women, and children—after game," writes Momaday. The importance of the horses is highlighted in The Way to Rainy Mountain when Momaday describes nearly 3,000 horses. Presumably, there were more than 3,000 Kiowa by this time, but the number of horses nearly matches that of the people. They were rich in horses and dependent on their animals to hunt for buffalo, which provided them with both food and shelter, as their tipis were crafted of buffalo hide.

The Kiowa, like the Comanche, were practitioners of peyotism. Peyote buttons (parts of the cactus that resemble discs) contain mescaline, which can cause hallucinations. The use of peyote was also practiced in pre-Columbian Mexico "to induce supernatural visions and [serve] as a medicine." These two tribes, the Kiowa and Comanche, were the most avid promoters of the Native American Church, which uses peyote in religious ritual.

In fact, peyote religion was practiced by the author's grandfather, Mammedaty. Momaday writes that he was a "peyote man" who carried "a fan made from the feathers of a water bird." In The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday details the peyote ritual. A fire is made within an altar at the center of the tipi. Momaday notes, "On the top of the altar there is a single, sacred peyote." There are songs and prayers while the peyote is taken. This religious experience has been plagued with controversy and misunderstanding.

Tai-me and the Sun Dance

Tai-me, the Sun Dance doll, is also a central element in Momaday's texts. He wrote of Tai-me in The Journey of Tai-me (1967). The Sun Dance doll figures in his novel House Made of Dawn as well. As with the Kiowa people as a whole, Tai-me is personally important to Momaday, and this is repeatedly reflected in The Way to Rainy Mountain.

According to a chapter entitled "Notes on the Kiowa Sun Dance" from Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History (1921) by Leslie Spier, Tai-me is

less than 2 feet in length, representing a human figure dressed in a robe of white feathers, with a headdress consisting of a single upright feather and pendants of ermine skin, with numerous strands of blue beads around its neck, and painted upon the face, breast, and back with designs symbolic of the sun and moon.

This doll is kept safe. In fact, it is "preserved in a rawhide box in charge of the hereditary keeper, and is never under any circumstances exposed to view except at the annual sun dance." At that time it is "fastened to a short upright stick planted within the medicine lodge, near the western side." This fetish (revered object) is, according to the Kiowa, a powerful medicine. It contains what some people not of Native American faith would dismiss as "magic." In The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday portrays ancestral voices and history as being a part of the process of understanding the Kiowa people and their culture. To understand the Kiowa is to understand the Sun Dance, and to understand the Sun Dance is to know of the regard for Tai-me. As Momaday quotes in his epilogue, "It was all for Tai-me, you know, and it was a long time ago."

The Sun Dance was both a ritual and a time of gathering. It reaffirmed religious beliefs by way of ceremony, dance, and community. In many tribes it was an annual event, held in conjunction with the gathering of bison in late spring and early summer. The Sun Dance was practiced by numerous plains tribes, including the Kiowa.

Typically there was a structure with a central pole to represent the people's connection to the sun. Preparations could take up to a year prior to the dance, and those who partook in the dance were often those seeking spiritual insights and strength. Some tribes required fasting. According to Spier's Notes on the Kiowa Sun Dance, "Horses were also painted and placed, together with blankets and similar valuables, on high hills as sacrifices." However, Spier further notes the "Kiowa never suspended their dancers, as in the self-torture dance of other tribes."

The Sun Dance, an expression of tribal religion, was made illegal by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in 1883. Despite being a violation of the United States' policy on freedom of religion, the restriction was renewed in 1904. The restriction was finally removed in 1934. However, during this period of religious and cultural persecution, the Sun Dance was not entirely abandoned. Tribes continued to practice the Sun Dance, and the knowledge was not lost.

Native American Folklore and Legends

All cultures have folklore and legends, and these oral traditions are as fluid as their tellers and audiences. The Way to Rainy Mountain recounts a number of Kiowa myths. Chief among these myths and legends are the stories of creation, of Tai-me, and of assorted heroes and monsters.

In their book When They Severed Earth from Sky (2004), folklorists Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Peter T. Barber address the role of folklore in cultures. One aspect is that "properly encoded information has passed unscathed through the oral pipeline for one to ten thousand years." The Way to Rainy Mountain is doing this work. It collects and passes on the folklore and myths of the Kiowa people to readers both Kiowa and not. One way it achieves this is by framing it with both history and personal information. Barber and Barber note that for information to "stay intact," it is best if the information is "embedded vividly" so remembering is easier, or "encoded in the story multiple times (so there is a back-up)."

The most significant folklore in the text is that of Tai-me. This particular aspect of the Kiowa story is told in numerous ways, with vivid details, and framed in oral recounting by the author and the people he quotes. Preservation of any culture's oral tradition is complicated by the very thing Momaday notes when addressing the person of Ko-sahn in the epilogue: the person will die, and with her the collective memory and experience. What Momaday has done in The Way to Rainy Mountain, then, is to take the Kiowa ancestral voices (like Ko-sahn's) and contain and preserve segments of their stories for readers.

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