At 85, N. Scott Momaday – considered the dean of Native American literature – is attracting renewed accolades for his life’s work. In 2018, he won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and entered the National Native American Hall of Fame. In May, he received the Ken Burns American Heritage Prize and this November will be feted with a Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
“If we are to understand the synthesis of literature and peace, we must first consider that the end of art is the definition of the human condition,” Momaday said in a press release. “In its ultimate realization the human condition is a state of peace. Peace is the objective of human evolution, and literature is the measure of that evolution.”
The Dayton Literary Peace Prize, begun in 2006, serves as the only annual book prize to recognize “the power of the written word to promote peace.”
“N. Scott Momaday’s body of work illustrates the power of ritual, imagination, and storytelling to mediate between cultures, produce peace through intercultural understanding, and heal individuals damaged by conflict,” said Sharon Rab, the founder and chair of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation. “By honoring and safeguarding the storytelling traditions of our nation’s indigenous communities, his writings at the same time affirm the value of a multicultural society.”
When the writer won his Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement prize, Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. struck a similar note. He called Momaday “at root a storyteller who both preserves and expands Native American culture in his critically praised, transformative writing.” Momaday made himself at home the next day with a historic presentation at the City Club of Cleveland, where he was the first indigenous American to address the club.
Momaday made history in 1968 with his first novel, House Made of Dawn. It won the Pulitzer Prize the following year and ushered in a mid-century renaissance of Native American literature.
In Dayton, the peace prize’s fiction and nonfiction winners will be announced September 17, with the awards ceremony to follow on November 3. Momaday joins literary giants Louise Erdrich, Taylor Branch, and Wendell Berry as recipients of this honor.
N. Scott Momaday, a captivating storyteller long considered “the dean of Native American letters,” is the new recipient of the Ken Burns American Heritage Prize.
Established in 2016, the young prize honors artists, authors, educators, filmmakers, historians, and scientists “whose body of work has advanced our collective understanding of the indomitable American spirit.” Momaday is its third honoree. Born a Kiowa 83 years ago in Lawton, Oklahoma, Momaday is an artist, essayist, novelist and professor who identifies first as a poet. He accepted the Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement award in September. His 1969 novel, House Made of Dawn, won a Pulitzer Prize and ushered in a new chapter of American literature that explored contemporary indigenous lives.
“I am truly honored to be named the recipient of the 2019 Ken Burns American Heritage Prize and left speechless by this recognition,” Momaday said in a statement. “None of us lives apart from the land entirely and I am deeply concerned about conservation. I fully support American Prairie Reserve’s remarkable and courageous effort to preserve a disappearing landscape that is sacred to so many Native Americans.”
American Prairie Reserve’s mission is to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States, now nearly 400,000 acres in northeastern Montana. Momaday will accept the prize on May 1 in New York City. Watch a snippet of last year’s ceremony honoring the 2018 recipient, artist Maya Lin. The inaugural prize went to historian David McCullough.
N. Scott Momaday began with horses and ended with bears. He spoke of the sacredness of both.
At 84, the recipient of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards lifetime achievement prize was both merry and measured on the dais of the City Club of Cleveland. He began with a tale about a hunting horse “black and fast and afraid of nothing.”
Its owner was a coward, though, and when the man diverted the horse from battle, it died of shame. The elder who recounted this story to Momaday cried when he told it. The writer includes it in his book “The Way to Rainy Mountain.”
“I have a distant relative who on one occasion gave away 250 horses from his private herd,” he said. His people, the Kiowa, “were rich in horses.”
The centrality of the horse braids through Momaday’s own life. On his 12th birthday, his parents gave him one. “I got to live the way some of my ancestors did,” he said, “on horseback. It was a great, great growing up thing for me. I spent several years on the back of a horse and I still dream of Pecos, my horse.”
City Club Executive Director Dan Moulthrop asked the writer if he indeed believed he was a bear, as he mentioned at the awards ceremony. Momaday answered with a foundational Kiowa story of seven girls and a boy, the boy’s transformation into a bear and the girls into the stars of the Big Dipper.
“To take your question seriously, I do believe that I am a bear, that I have bear blood in me, that I have something of a bear’s mind and intuition, intelligence and imagination,” he said. “I believe that firmly.”
His poetry, he said, incorporates both English-language and Native oral traditions, a melding of spells, songs, incantations and chants with the poetic structures he studied at Stanford University.
Looking relaxed in a windbreaker and trim white goatee, Momaday told his listeners that “the Indians has a great capacity for survival and that’s a good thing.”
Readers may watch the entirety of his remarks here and join our mailing list to be among the first to hear the lineup for Cleveland Book Week 2019.
The Cleveland Foundation today unveiled the winners of its 83rd Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Marlon James, a 2015 Anisfield-Wolf honoree, made the announcement. The 2018 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity are:
Shane McCrae, In the Language of My Captor, Poetry
N. Scott Momaday, Lifetime Achievement
Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing, Fiction
Kevin Young, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, Nonfiction
“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners deepen our insights on race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., who chairs
the jury. “This year, we honor a lyrical novel haunted by a Mississippi prison farm, a book of exceptional poetry on
what freedom means in captivity, and a breakthrough history of the hoax that speaks to this political moment. All is
capped by the lifetime achievement of N. Scott Momaday, the dean of Native American letters.”
We invite you to join us September 27 as we honor these winners at the State Theatre in Cleveland, in a ceremony emceed by Jury Chair Gates. The ceremony will be part of the third annual Cleveland Book Week, slated for September 24-29. Join our mailing list to be the first to know when the free tickets are available.
Shane McCrae interrogates history and perspective with his fifth book, In the Language of My Captor, including
the connections between racism and love. He uses historical persona poems and prose memoir to address the
illusory freedom of both black and white Americans. “These voices worm their way inside your head; deceptively
simple language layers complexity upon complexity until we are shared in the same socialized racial webbing as
the African exhibited at the zoo or the Jim Crow universe that Banjo Yes learned to survive in (‘You can be free//Or
you can live’),” says Anisfield-Wolf Juror Rita Dove. Raised in Texas and California, McCrae taught at Oberlin College for three years before joining the faculty of Columbia University last year. He lives in Manhattan with his
N. Scott Momaday
N. Scott Momaday remade American literature in 1966 with his first novel, House Made of Dawn. It tells the story
of a modern soldier trying to resume his life in Indian Country. The slim book won a Pulitzer Prize, but Momaday
prefers writing poetry, the form his work most often takes. Anisfield-Wolf Jury Chair Gates says Momaday “is at
root a storyteller who both preserves and expands Native American culture in his critically praised, transformative
writing.” He is also a watercolorist, playwright, scholar, professor and essayist. Momaday was born a Kiowa in
Oklahoma and grew up in the Indian southwest. He earned a doctorate at Stanford University, joined its faculty,
and taught American literature widely, including in Moscow. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded
Momaday a National Medal of Arts. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Jesmyn Ward is the only woman in American letters to receive two National Book Awards, one for her first novel, Salvage the Bones, and another last year for Sing, Unburied, Sing. Both are set in fictional Bois Sauvage, a place
rooted in the rural Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Critics have compared Bois Sauvage to William Faulkner’s fictional
Yoknapatawpha County and Ward’s prose to Toni Morrison’s. Sing, Unburied, Sing serves as a road book, a ghost
story and a tale of sibling love. Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates called it “a beautifully rendered,
heartbreaking, savage and tender novel.” Ward, who won a MacArthur “genius grant” last fall, lives with her family
in Pas Christian, Miss. She is a professor at Tulane University.
Kevin Young is a public intellectual, the editor of eight books and the author of 13, including Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. He spent six years researching and writing
this cultural history of the covert American love of the con, and its entanglement with racial history. After 12 years
teaching at Emory University, Young became the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,
and the poetry editor for The New Yorker. Anisfield-Wolf Juror Steven Pinker calls Bunk “rich, informative,
interesting, original and above all timely,” and Juror Joyce Carol Oates says “it should be required reading in all