Pulitzer Prize Winner and Native American Literary Giant, Momaday, Passes Away at 89

N. Scott Momaday, a renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, poet, educator, and folklorist, has passed away at the age of 89. Momaday, known for his groundbreaking debut novel “House Made of Dawn,” is widely recognized as a trailblazer in contemporary Native American literature. His publisher, HarperCollins, confirmed his death at his residence in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he had been dealing with declining health.

Published in 1968, “House Made of Dawn” tells the story of a World War II soldier who struggles to reintegrate into his Native community in rural New Mexico. Inspired by Momaday’s own experiences growing up in Jemez Pueblo, the novel explores the conflicts between cultural heritage and the opportunities and challenges presented by the modern world.

During a 2019 PBS documentary, Momaday reflected on his unique background, stating, “I grew up in both worlds and straddle those worlds even now. It has made for confusion and a richness in my life.” At the time of “House Made of Dawn,” novels by Native Americans were not widely acknowledged. However, Momaday’s work received critical acclaim, with a New York Times reviewer praising its excellence and acknowledging its significance.

Momaday’s novel resonated with a generation of readers protesting the Vietnam War, much like Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” In 1969, Momaday became the first Native American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, paving the way for a new generation of Native American authors such as Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, and Louise Erdrich. His literary influence extended beyond the Native American community, earning him admiration from figures like poet Joy Harjo, Robert Redford, and Jeff Bridges.

Throughout his career, Momaday taught at prestigious institutions such as Stanford, Princeton, and Columbia universities. He also served as a commentator for NPR and delivered lectures worldwide. In addition to “House Made of Dawn,” Momaday published over a dozen books, including poetry collections like “Angle of Geese and Other Poems” and novels such as “The Way to Rainy Mountain” and “The Ancient Child.” He dedicated himself to promoting the richness and significance of traditional Native American culture and received numerous accolades, including a National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush.

Momaday, born Navarre Scott Mammedaty in Lawton, Oklahoma, was a member of the Kiowa Nation. His mother was a writer, and his father, an artist, recognized his son’s artistic talent from an early age. Momaday’s artwork, ranging from sketches to oil paintings, was featured in his books and exhibited in museums. His deep, resonant voice was also utilized in audio guides for the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the American Indian.

In a rare interview, Momaday expressed his gratitude for the impact his work had on other writers, although he humbly acknowledged that he does not take full credit for it. He leaves behind a lasting legacy as a profound storyteller and a vital contributor to the world of literature.

N. Scott Momaday, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and influential figure in Native American literature, has died at the age of 89. His debut novel, “House Made of Dawn,” published in 1968, is considered the starting point for contemporary Native American literature. The novel tells the story of a World War II soldier struggling to reintegrate into his Native community in rural New Mexico. Momaday’s work helped launch a generation of Native American authors and he became a leading advocate for the preservation of Native culture. He received numerous awards and honors throughout his career, including a National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2007. Momaday’s art and writings continue to inspire and influence writers today.

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