The Kiowa writer Scott Momaday passed this week. He was 89. I met him once, when he came to Wallowa County to make the presentation of a horse by the Wood family to the walʔwá ma, or Joseph Band Nez Perce. He’d come across the story of the horse that Chief Joseph told Erskine Wood he’d like when the 14-year-old boy stayed with him at Nespelem on the Colville Reservation in Washington. Erskine’s father, C.E.S. Wood, who had served under General Howard in the Nez Perce War and become a friend of and advocate for Joseph after the war, told the boy to ask the Chief what he might do for him in gratitude for hosting his son. Joseph said he’d like a good pony; the boy thought that his father was a powerful man, and that the Chief should have asked for something more glamorous than a horse, so did not pass the message on to his father. He told the story, and published a diary of his Days with Chief Joseph, years later.
It was fitting that Momaday found the story and retold it to a larger audience. He believed in oral tradition and the power of the word. Momaday was the first Native writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, his House of Dawn now a classic not only of Native American literature, but of Literature. It’s a beautiful and wrenching book, weaving old story and personal journey of an Indian war veteran returning to Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico in 1945. Many say that Momaday opened the door for Native writers in this country. Books by Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, and so many more have joined House of Dawn on library and bookstore shelves.
Momaday’s passing makes me think about other writer-elders I’ve had the privilege to know. Publishers too, Marc Jaffe passed away at 102 just weeks ago. I met Marc at the first Summer Fishtrap, in 1988. He was Alvin Josephy’s friend and sometime publisher. Marc was a major voice in paperback publishing in the 1960s, where he guided Louis L’ Amour’s career and published a few Westerns penned by Bill Kittredge and Steve Krauzer, under a pseudonym, in the 1980s.
Kittredge’s long-time partner, Annick Smith, reminded me of that connection when I forwarded her news of Marc’s passing. Which reminded me that Jaffe, Josephy, Bill Kittredge, James Welch, and Ursula LeGuin were all at that first Fishtrap—and all are now gone. In 1988 I was a confused but kind of cocky 46-year-old and they were my elders, publisher and seriously published writers. They were in their fifties and sixties at the time, in the heydays of their careers. I’m 81 now, and they are still my elders. I miss every one of them, can see them in my mind’s eye, and hear their voices. Bill’s long sentences and deep baritone rising and falling in pitch and volume as he read from the podium. It seemed to me for a long time that many young writers in the West unconsciously took on that tone that was so much Bill’s—the Kittredge cadence.
I met Bill and Annick at Alvin’s place in Joseph a few years before Fishtrap, so had an “in” when it came to those first invites. Jim Welch was at the University of Montana with him, and they all knew Alvin; the connection and the invites worked.
Welch, Blackfeet, the soft-spoken, hard-smoking writer, was an early member of the Indian Writing Renaissance heralded by Momaday. A book of poems was published in 1971, and the novel, Winter in the Blood, in 1974. In 1989, at the second Fishtrap, Jim told us that while the public tied American Indians to reservations, most now lived in urban areas, and as he had gained trust in us as an audience the previous year, he wanted to try his urban Indian novel on us. It would become Indian Lawyer. One detail from that time: Jim served on the Montana Parole Board, so brought that too to his writing. James Welch died way too young.
Ursula was another matter. I had sneaked into an after reading reception at Eastern Oregon College and must have said hi to her. I wrote that in an invitation letter—this long before email—and said that we were going to have a writing conference at Wallowa Lake and our theme would be “Western Writers and Eastern Publishing.” To my joy and surprise, Ursula accepted, and began a long relationship with Fishtrap and with me. When I wrote Alvin, who was in Connecticut for the winter, that Ursula Le Guin was going to join us, he called me back to ask about her. “Everyone in New York but me seems to know her!
Ursula was a perfect Fishtrap fit and an important elder in so many ways. She was genre busting, outspoken on matters of land, Indians, and the publishing industry. Time and again her wisdom came to Fishtrap’s aid. She taught one of the first workshops, made an important Winter Fishtrap appearance on women writers—and her last teaching at Fishtrap was a weeklong workshop on “Punctuation”!
I’ve written often of Alvin’s importance as co-founder of Fishtrap, and as a mentor to me. I tell people now that he has been gone for almost 20 years, but gets smarter by the day. The revival of Native knowledge, culture, and broader influence in America that is happening today were all long-championed by Alvin Josephy. “Of course,” I can imagine him saying to the news of today, to Indians on fire, to Deb Haaland on boarding schools, to the courts on Indian lands and ceremonies.
What a privilege to have known these people. I think about the qualities they shared: listening, attention to the Word—written, but spoken too; humility. Alvin listened to Indians in the 1950s, when it wasn’t fashionable. Ursula invented languages, and explored gender, patriarchy, peace and war in her own poems, stories, and novels. I saw Marc Jaffe’s Bronze Star
that he brought back from service in the Pacific, almost hidden in a small niche in his Massachusetts home. He never talked about it. Kittredge gave up the life of a land baron to be a writer. Welch told me that Custer’s foolish debacle was the second most chronicled event in American history—something of Washington or Lincoln must have been first.
Story keepers and story tellers. And although I didn’t know him as I knew the others, Scott Momaday’s voice leaps off the page—”Indigenous expression, an utterance that proceeds from the very intelligence of the soil: the oral tradition,” as he once wrote.
What a lucky man I am to have had these elders in my life.
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Photo–a young James Welch