Jan 30, 2024 - Politics & Policy

N. Scott Momaday, pioneering Native American writer, dies

N. Scott Momaday at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2019.

N. Scott Momaday at his home in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2019. Photo: Russell Contreras/Axios

N. Scott Momaday, the first Native American novelist to win a Pulitzer Prize for his 1968 debut novel, "House Made of Dawn," has died at 89, publisher HarperCollins announced Monday.

The big picture: Momaday published more than a dozen books of poetry and novels across his career and is credited for sparking the modern Indigenous literary movement.

  • Amont the Indigenous writers he influenced were Chickasaw novelist Linda Hogan, Spokane and Coeur d'Alene writer Sherman Alexie and Laguna Pueblo novelist Leslie Marmon Silko.

Driving the news: Momaday died Jan. 24 at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

  • He had been suffering from a variety of illnesses. No cause of death was immediately clear.

Details: Born Navarre Scott Mammedaty, in Lawton, Oklahoma, to the Kiowa Tribe, he moved to New Mexico as a child and grew up on the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico, where his parents taught school.

  • It was there among the red rocks and mountains he'd be inspired years later to write "House Made of Dawn," a novel about a returning Native American World War II veteran struggling with depression.

Zoom in: The PBS American Masters documentary series in 2019 aired "N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear" where actors like Jeff Bridges and James Earl Jones who said Momaday's work touched them.

  • "I thought his voice was one of a storyteller. But because he had this poet ring to it, it took on a whole different tone," actor Robert Redford said in the film. "I think that's why I got hooked on Scott."

The intrigue: Momaday told me in a rare interview in 2019 when I was with The Associated Press he wanted to write a memoir about his childhood with his teacher parents and explain why he saw himself as a reincarnation of a bear.

  • He also wanted to write about being the first Native American writer to win the Pulitzer, studying American poet Emily Dickinson's manuscripts, and getting followed by Soviet Union agents while teaching in Moscow.
  • It's unclear if he finished the memoir.

Momaday said at the time that he was humbled by writers who continued to say his had influenced them.

  • "I'm greatly appreciative of that, but it comes a little bit of a surprise every time I hear it," Momaday said.
  • "I think I have been an influence. It's not something I take a lot of credit for."
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