A decade or so ago, I attended a conference at which N. Scott Momaday, the father of modern-day American Indian literature, was an unannounced guest. As he walked to the front of the roomful of academics to say a few words, I watched, taking in the scene with my father in mind: Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn,” for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, was a book my father had shared with me when I was still in my teens. This was something to tell him when I got back home to Duluth.
“Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land” is a collection of short essays as multilayered and majestic as the landscape that has been present in everything that Momaday has written. By his own words “a kind of spiritual autobiography,” this poetic love letter to the Earth blurs and crosses lines between genres, times and places, allowing us to see the bridging of our own physical existence with the realm beyond the tangible. Tribal stories, human experience and the spiritual world cannot be separated from the Earth, that entity that must be acknowledged and cared for as she has cared for us.
There is some deeply sad writing about damage we have done to the Earth, and our carelessness, but we have the ability to consider and to be better, to “not be ashamed before the Earth.”
Momaday wrote “House Made of Dawn” when he was in his early 30s; his work — novels, short stories, poetry and art — has matured in the way of Native elderhood, growing progressively richer and more thoughtful, more humble and at the same time more profound. At 80 pages, “Earth Keeper” is of a size that makes it portable — a movable feast — and can be easily carried and kept near the reader who, like me, after reading from beginning to end will pick it up to open and revisit at random.
Each time we will cherish the stories, images and wisdom that Momaday has cared for and now passes to us, in true Native elder fashion.
My father and I, although neither of us ever did meet N. Scott Momaday, felt tremendous pride as Native people when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Years later, when I returned from the conference, we experienced that again as I described the honor he received from our people, who stood to applaud the father of modern-day American Indian literature, who is also our elder, teacher and Earth keeper.
Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe. Her memoir “Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year,” received the 2018 Minnesota Book Award for Memoir and Creative Nonfiction.
By: N. Scott Momaday.
Publisher: Harper, 80 pages, $17.99.