The Way to Rainy Mountain | Study Guide

N. Scott Momaday

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The Way to Rainy Mountain | Main Ideas


Horses as Part of Identity

While there were numerous equestrian Native American tribes, the role of the horse in the Kiowa experience is critical. As Momaday writes, "Of all the tribes ... the Kiowa owned the greatest number of horses per person." These horses allowed hunters the ability to provide for the family in a significantly shorter time. They enabled great range, speed, and agility. As such, when the U.S. cavalry took almost 3,000 of the horses from the Kiowa people, it was a tragedy as well as a blow to their identity and way of life. Momaday notes, "Nearly 800 horses were killed outright; two thousand more were sold, stolen, given away." The theft and slaughter of these animals limited the mobility of the people as well as their ability to find food. The Kiowa were not an agrarian society at all. They were hunters.

The regard for the horse as part of the Kiowa identity comes through in other aspects of the text as well. In recalling the bones of a fine horse that had been kept in a box in the barn of Momaday's relatives, he thinks of how at times he has perhaps been able to understand why "a man might be moved to preserve the bones of a horse." The horses also figure into other stories throughout the book. One such story is of another "fine hunting horse" that was "afraid of nothing." That animal "died of shame" because its owner turned it off course. In another story, the historical account of the 1861 Sun Dance, a valuable horse was offered as a sacrifice. This highlights not only the value of a horse to the Kiowas of the time, but how sincerely the sacrifice to Tai-me was regarded, that such a valuable creature would be destroyed.

Women as Having Lesser Value

Momaday writes, "There is graphic proof that the lives of women were hard." From the onset of the text, the treatment of women in the folklore stories is notably unequal. In the Kiowa creation story, a woman who was swollen with child got stuck in the log through which they came into the world, and then "no one could get through." Her fate is not addressed, and although the blame is not belabored, it is implied. The Kiowa people were few in number because no more of them could travel to this world—because of a pregnant woman.

The sun kidnapped a beautiful girl by tricking her into climbing into the sky, where she was made his wife. Over time, the sun's wife "grew lonely." When she argued with the sun and left with her child, he threw "a ring, a gaming wheel" at her in his anger. The legend does not address her life, her imprisonment, or her death, instead focusing on her child. The child's caretaker—the grandmother spider—is another female figure who functions only in regard to either a spouse or a child. She cares for the sun's child, and when the "grandfather snake" is killed, the grandmother spider also dies.

Other representations of women in both the ancestral and historical voices include an unfaithful wife who leaves with another warrior, a lying wife who is "thrown out" for being a bad woman, a wife who is stabbed for accepting an invitation from the chief (a man who would be hard to refuse), and a woman left outside until her feet are frozen. However, the women Momaday describes in the personal voice are treated with reverence. These include Aho, the author's deceased grandmother; Kau-au-ointy, Mammedaty's grandmother, a captive who rose to influence; Ko-sahn, a 100-year-old woman who is knowledgeable about tribal history; and the author's great-grandmother, Keahdinekeah. Each of these women has a personal tie to the author. Overall, though, the heroism in the text is male, and it does not put any focus on the deaths or injuries of women.

Age and Experience Matter

Throughout the text, the importance of age and experience is repeatedly referenced. Momaday reveals his regard in the way he speaks of Aho, his grandmother. He describes her as timeless: "Transported so in the dancing light ... she seemed beyond the reach of time."

This idea is not limited to the reverence of a lost family member, though. In the ancestral stories within the text, age and experience are important. Momaday points out that "old men were the best arrow makers, for they could bring time and patience to their craft." Young warriors understood this, acknowledged and appreciated it, and they would pay dearly for these well-crafted arrows. This is true, too, in matters of wit and wisdom. The author recounts the story of a man who realizes there is an enemy outside his tipi. He is not hasty, and he is not foolhardy, either. Instead, he calls out, "If you are Kiowa, you will understand what I am saying, and you will speak your name." When no answer is given, he knows the man outside is an enemy. He uses his wit to answer the question of whether the man was Kiowa, and then he uses his skill as a craftsman and warrior to fire an arrow "straight to the enemy's heart."

Perhaps the clearest indication of the idea that age and experience matter is seen in the figure of Ko-sahn. This 100-year-old woman sang to Momaday and told him of the history of their people. To the author, Ko-sahn was both a "living memory and verbal tradition," personified. She was the physical embodiment of both age and experience, and he wrote of the things she shared—and lamented that she, too, had passed on.

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