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“House Made of Dawn” by N. Scott Momaday Essay

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Updated: Oct 29th, 2021

N. Scott Momaday ranks prominently among American Indian authors. His masterpiece has been “House Made of Dawn” that won the 1968 Pulitzer Price. The book has the distinction of being the premier nonlinear and non-chronological ritual book ever written by an American Indian (Allen). Momaday adroitly utilizes symbolism to create many facets of the book’s characters.

The symbols used are of ever-present Nature. These symbols not only underline man’s overall insignificant but integrated part in the general set up of Nature, but they also contrast Nature with indulgent, defective and destructive man-made conventions (Eberhart).

The first use of symbolism involves the eagle. Abel decides to leave the Kiowa community because he is unable to find an identity but just following the teachers of his grandfather, Francisco. He longs for identity and freedom which are symbolized by the eagle with added ingredients of beauty and life. On one occasion, Abel observes an eagle flying overhead with a snake clutched in its talons. He is awed by the sight that he finds “awful, holy and full of magic and meaning” (Momaday, 14). The image represents Nature’s dramatic power, projecting a unification of the spirits of the earth and sky. Abel’s feelings are in large part due to the Indians’ belief that the image of the eagle clutching a serpent in its claws is the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl’s icon that rivals the Christian cross (Eberhart). On another occasion, Abel watches a male and female eagle in flight playing boisterously in the air over the massive Valle Grande that reflected “the great spatial majesty of the sky” (Momaday, 15). On both occasions, as Abel watches the eagles flying across the land and vanishing into the clear blue sky, the restrictions that hinder his life under the prescribed Kiowa societal rules is felt in all its harshness by him, making him long for the freedom of an eagle – a freedom that is totally alien to him.

The second use of symbolism involves rain. Momaday utilizes rain to denote a form of convergence that precedes sensational happenings in the life of the book’s characters. For example, it is raining when Angela St. John seduces Abel (Momaday, 57), sparking off an association that deepens Abel’s sense of insecurity and loss of identity because Angela keeps exposing his futile life while promising to assist him locate better employment away from the Indian reservation. Abel becomes increasingly aware that he is living on the boundary between two cultures, experiencing the tension involved and feeling the great need of something new and different (Eberhart). His frustration ultimately makes him stab first Juan Reyes and then the Albino to death. In another example, it is also raining when Francisco lies on his deathbed. Abel clothes his grandfather in burial attire and then daubs his own body with ashes, and as daylight breaks, he starts to run, thereby taking part in a practice that Francisco had taught him earlier, known as the race of the dead (Momaday, 180). The race is significant to Abel as it heralds his return to the Kiowa Indian community to pass the remaining days of his life in a noble manner (Allen).

The third use of symbolism involves the moon. Momaday depicts the moon as providing moonlight in a practical, yet magical fashion in many events, mostly as a symbol of evil foreboding. In one event, the fish fling themselves “tossing, whipping and flopping” (Momaday, 101) on the shore in moonlight, permitting fishermen to easily capture them with bare hands. In another event, the geese being tracked by Abel and Vidal are also distracted by the moonlight, giving Abel the chance to shoot one of them.

“House of the Dawn” and Zora N. Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” have a similar theme, namely, the representation of American culture through storytelling. In case of the former, it expresses Native American culture, and in case of the latter, it expresses African American culture.

Hurston and Momaday make similar use of their common theme in that they use language that parallel the main characters’ learnt from his storytelling grandmother who “knew her way around words” (Momaday, 83). Another similarity in treatment of the theme involves both authors using dialogue sparingly but impressively. The usage of few but meaningful words serves to lend sense and meaning to Abel’s strange reserve and quietness. As for Janie, having found her capability to express herself by speaking with others, she discovers that silence can be a provider of empowerment; she therefore learns to control her speech as a source of identity and empowerment.

Both authors also make contrasting use of the common theme. Hurston makes good use of her expertise of rural southern black dialect to create a distinctive narrative form throughout the book, putting forward the story with a combination of literary storytelling and serious idiomatic writing wherein the unique grammar, vocabulary and tone of the characters in Janie’s world underline their personality. Momaday highlights the ‘word value’ difference between White American and Native American cultures. The language of the former contains millions of words on papers, brochures, receipts etc. In the language of the latter, words are sacred objects that cannot be sold or discarded, closely bound to a story based on thoughts and experience, mirroring a sense of events as taking place in an expanded circuitous, unified field of interaction as the plot unfolds with the drama of an unvarying expanding meaning in mind (Allen).


Allen, Paula G. “American Indian Fiction 1968 – 1983”. Texas Christian University Press. 1998. Web.

Eberhart, John. “LI TR 5734: Colonial and Postcolonial Literature”. University of Houston. 1996. Web.

Hurston, Zora N. “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics. 1998.

Momaday, Scott N. “House Made of Dawn.” New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics. 1999.

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