The Way to Rainy Mountain, N. Scott Momaday

Here’s how I found my way to The Way to Rainy Mountain

For the past few years, the Josephy Center has had a book group. It started with small, in-person meetings, and moved online with the coming of Covid. Our last book was Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West, by Blaine Harden. We were blessed to have Harden and Bobbie Conner and Chuck Sams join us for the discussion. Conner and Sams have Cayuse roots, and were consulted by Harden as he researched and wrote the book.

The title gives the story’s outline: Indians killed the Whitmans and other whites in outrage on the heels of a brutal measles epidemic; Henry Spalding, who’d come West with the Whitmans and set up his mission among the Nez Perce near Lapwai Creek in what is now Idaho, while Marcus Whitman preached to the Cayuse near Walla Walla, twisted the Whitman story to his own ends as one of Protestant heroism and Catholic meddling; Whitman became a frontier hero, and the new small college that carries his name carried the story to its establishment as a fine Western liberal arts college.

There is much more to the story; I heartily recommend reading the book.

Our book group has read books by Indian writers, most recently Indian Horse by the Canadian Ojibwe writer Richard Wagamese, Nez Perce writer Beth Piatote’s Beadworkers, and Louise Erdrich’s Night Watchman. But I had never read Scott Momaday’s acclaimed work, the 1969 Pulitzer Prize winning House Made of Dawn—although it had sat on my bookshelf for many years. November is National American Indian Heritage Month, established in 1990 by joint congressional resolution and signed by President George H. W. Bush. I thought November would be the time to read this book.

I’d met Scott Momaday once. He came to Wallowa Lake for the “Gift of the Horse,” an event he was at least in part responsible for. He’d heard and published the story of Erskine Wood spending time in Chief Joseph’s tipi, and how Erskine—a young teenager—had failed to carry the chief’s wish for a fine horse back to his father, C.E.S. Wood, the man who is credited with taking down Joseph’s speech at Bear’s Paw. I walked that day with him and Alvin Josephy to a spot behind Wallowa Lake where Erskine’s granddaughter and other descendants, with Momaday’s help, presented a fine appaloosa stud horse to the Nez Perce elders from Nespelem.

I knew my friend Jim Hepworth knew Momaday, had studied with him in Arizona. So I called Jim, and he told me that he knew all that stuff about Dawn being the harbinger of a renaissance in Native writing, but said that if he were to give an introduction to modern Native writers, he would start with Way to Rainy Mountain. In it, Momaday uses Kiowa story and legend, family and tribal history, and imagination to bridge the long-ago to the present, the Indian moving to and in a white world.

So we will read Rainy Mountain—it’s scarcely 90 pages, and then those who want to keep on with this marvelous prose, with Native story and struggle, will read House Made of Dawn. My paperback copy runs 190 pages, so the two of them don’t add to the page count of most books we read. Although I find myself reading pages a second, and sometimes a third time.

We’re going to talk about the book on Friday, December 3, at noon via zoom. Join us at
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