Half Kiowan, part Cherokee, part European, the writer N. Scott Momaday (born 1934) put down in writing some of the stories his Kiowan father told him.
Without language, we have no place in our communities and no life. Momaday believes that writing has given us a false sense of security and we have become lazy about language. If there were no written record, we would pay close attention (religious attention, the writer says) to every spoken word.
- It was only in the last decade that the Philadelphia judicial system has permitted jurors to write in the courtroom during a trial (capital offenses). This is because of the primacy – in the Western tradition – of the written word: we believe and accept something that someone has written down before we accept our own memory of what we heard.
- I was well into my 30s before I understood – because I was raised in the West – that not everything is in books and that I should find the literary source of any experience to understand the experience. Not to be misunderstood: I am a Westerner and it is the Western tradition which has made me free and I am grateful beyond all thanks.
- At the heart of American racism is the fear 0f African Americans that they will be stopped, maimed, thrown into prison, driven to their deaths (‘death by police’) or killed outright. This was the birthright legacy of some Americans; and the associated practices have not yet ceased. This fear in the flesh, this fear that seizes you up and whose management is the context of primary spiritual exercise all your life is put into words only by expert wordsmithing such that a reader grasps both intellectually and emotionally what this kind of fear is and what it does. Which is why the successful attempt by Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me, 2015, has caused such a stir.
A Kiowa story transcribed by N. Scott Momaday in The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages, 1997.
A Kiowa husband and wife are alone in their tepee one night by the fire. The husband is fashioning arrows and testing them by drawing his bow to imaginary targets when he feels eyes on his bac, and knows he is being watched by someone right outside.
He decides to speak Kiowa words that would invite the person, if a Kiowa-speaker, to identify himself – but in a tone of voice not at all indicative to a non-speaker that the intruder had been detected.1.
The wife responds as if in jovial conversation with her husband. Finally, the arrowmaker, not receiving an answer from the foe, levels his bow and fires an arrow through the unsuspecting villain’s heart.
The image is of Standing Holy Water, daughter of the Hunkpapa Sioux chief, Sitting Bull; photographed c. 1885 by Fred. F. Barnes.