Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday finally gets the film he deserves

Jeffrey Palmer gives us a glimpse of the Indigenous literary giant in ‘Words from a Bear.’

 

In the new documentary Words from a Bear, there is a scene in which the subject of the film, N. Scott Momaday, hangs on for dear life from the side of a tall cliff, somewhere in the outer regions of the Southwest. He is frightened, wondering if he will survive. There is no one around to help him. He then finds himself at the bottom of the cliff, alive, with no idea how he got there. Was it a fever dream? Did he somehow block out his fear and struggle safely to the bottom without remembering? Neither the viewer nor Momaday is ever quite sure. And that is fitting: After getting to know the man through the course of the film, you come to understand that Momaday himself resides in the liminal space between reality and dream.

Jeffrey Palmer’s authoritative documentary is the first feature-length film about the life and work of prolific Kiowa author and artist N. Scott Momaday, the only Native American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Here we finally gain insight into a well-known and widely respected writer who is taught in Native American literature programs across the country, yet has never gotten the visual biography he deserves. This glimpse into the life of Momaday, an Indigenous intellectual powerhouse, portrays him as arguably the most important part of the first Native American literary renaissance of the late 1960s and early ’70s. One can’t help but wonder: What took so long for us to get a documentary of this magnitude on Momaday? It could be that the material was simply waiting for the right director (and fundraiser). Here we have a subject that is at once historical and contemporary.

Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday speaks with director Jeffrey Palmer. Also on set is Palmer‘s father, Gus Palmer, a Kiowa linguist and an author.
Courtesy of Youngsun Palmer

Palmer deftly intersperses Kiowa history and culture with Momaday’s musings on life and art. It’s not an easy timeline to navigate, and a lesser director might have trouble with the story. “There’s things in there that are definitely Kiowa,” said Palmer. “But there’s things in there that can be sort of crossed, and people can get what they want out of the film.” Palmer, a Kiowa citizen himself, understands that to know Momaday, one must know Kiowa culture as well. The two are intertwined: Although Momaday grew up at Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico, he was born near the heart of Kiowa country in Lawton, Oklahoma. Like previous generations, he was a migratory man.

Palmer makes good choices in his talking-head interviews. There is a focus on Momaday’s colleagues, writers and thinkers like Muscogee Creek poet Joy Harjo, Acoma writer Simon Ortiz and Oklahoma writers such as Rilla Askew. Notably absent are any interviews of white anthropologists or Native American “experts” in the field of Indian things. It makes a big difference when you have a Kiowa filmmaker making a film about a Kiowa subject. 

An interesting, perhaps little-known side of Momaday is revealed: He is also a painter. Momaday lovingly speaks of his mother being a writer, but he also fondly remembers watching his father paint. It makes sense that he would do both. But Momaday is not content with merely creating “traditional” types of Kiowa art. “A lot of my paintings, I hope, are disturbing,” Momaday says. While his father painted in the traditional, flat painting style of the Kiowa 6 — an influential group of Kiowa artists who worked in the early 20th century — Momaday moves away from their strict realism with its emphasis on tribal regalia, anatomy and realism, and instead chooses to live and create in the threshold spaces on canvas. Anthropological documentation of traditional dress is not involved. Momaday’s work is a more modernist, abstract expressionist style, reminiscent of Luiseno painter Fritz Scholder. “Realism is overrated,” Momaday, ever the dreamer, says with a sly smile.

Words from a Bear doesn’t tackle House Made of Dawn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book that made Momaday a literary sensation, until well after the second half of the film. “I had something in me that I wanted to express,” Momaday says of the novel, about the struggle of a young Native World War II veteran reconnecting to his community. It’s a simple phrase, yet when you hear him say it in the documentary, it makes perfect sense. After hearing Momaday recite prose from the beginning of the book, accompanied by imagery of a young Indian man running on a reservation in New Mexico, one wonders what a film adaptation might look like.

Interestingly, especially in today’s polarized political community, Momaday makes a point of saying that that he resists obvious political associations in his work. He did take part in the occupation of Alcatraz, so he is no political pushover — far from it. But he has no interest in writing about political matters. In the documentary, Momaday says that his preference is for “literary matters.” This is in contrast to many of today’s Indigenous creatives and artists, who tend to directly attack the status quo, creating work in protest of land and water rights issues. Momaday has never done this and still chooses not to. “I think that everyone has their own way of dealing with the matters that we deal with,” Palmer observes. 

In Words from a Bear, Jeffrey Palmer shows us a man who has devoted his life to the poetics of living and creating. Here is a man who lives in the space between dream and reality — a man who understands how important it is for all of us to know where we come from, and how meaningful it is to understand what our place in the world is, even if we are hanging from a cliff. These are not small things to ponder. Long after watching the film, I am still pondering them.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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