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Until the late 1960s, no Native American writer had won a major literary award until Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday received the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his first novel House Made of Dawn. That recognition helped launch the “Native American Renaissance,” a nationwide emergence of art and literature in a wide variety of forms. Momaday himself is also a poet and playwright, as well as a short story writer, a breadth of skill and experience charismatically captured in Jeffrey Palmer’s distinctive documentary.
Debuting at Sundance prior to a planned 2019 theatrical release and subsequent PBS broadcast on the American Masters program, Palmer’s lively profile appropriately situates Momaday within the pantheon of leading American writers while broadening appreciation for his source material and the craft of native writing.
As a member of the Kiowa tribe of the Great Plains region, now centered in Oklahoma, Navarro Scott Momaday was born in 1934 to Kiowa and Cherokee parents before the family relocated to Arizona and then New Mexico, where he graduated from high school and university. “I announced that I was going to be a writer when I was maybe 8 years old,” he recalls. “Writing came to me more or less naturally because of my mother, she was a writer.”
Momaday was working as an English professor at UC Santa Barbara after completing a PhD in literature at Stanford University when he won the Pulitzer for House Made of Dawn, the account of a Native American World War II veteran’s struggles to adjust to civilian life after the war. “The Pulitzer Prize was a complete surprise,” he tells Palmer early in the doc. These opening scenes are also notable for setting the context for the author’s life story, with sweeping exteriors of the expansive Kiowa reservation spreading across the prairie.
Palmer emphasizes Momaday’s interdisciplinary talents, encouraging him to recite poetry from his collected works spanning more than 30 years, which is rich in natural imagery and native spiritualism. Momaday is also an interpreter of folklore, and during the doc he tells the Kiowa tale of the Seven Sisters, about the origin of the Big Dipper constellation, which the filmmakers illustrate with one of several fanciful animated sequences. With a father who was a painter as well as a teacher, Momaday also learned to sketch and paint, creative outlets he calls “the other half of my spiritual expression.”
Among those sharing admiration for Momaday’s talents and influence are Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges and the Sundance Institute’s own Robert Redford, who says House Made of Dawn revealed that “his voice had a spiritual connection to the land.” It’s the praise of other Native American authors like Joy Harjo that really reinforces the impact that Momaday has made on contemporary native culture, solidifying his stature among American indigenous writers.
Palmer, also a member of the Kiowa tribe, ably contextualizes the sense of place, the relevant geographic and cultural settings, inherent in Momaday’s writings. Editor Nancy Novack corrals a wide variety of archival material that’s artfully arranged throughout the film. Although some of the transferred VHS footage is of rather inferior quality, restored black-and-white photos of Momaday’s childhood and his resourceful-looking family members provide welcome visual highlights.
The doc’s predictable structuring can be attributed in part to the somewhat staid format of the American Masters series, which attempts to reach a broad audience without getting so arcane that viewers may be put off. More importantly though, Palmer’s culturally specific perspective supports the author and the material with respect and insight, helping ensure that N. Scott Momaday: Words From a Bear will serve as an invaluable document for the advancement of Native American letters and an affectionate account of a singular creative voice.
Production companies: Rainy Mountain Media, ITVS, Vision Maker Media, Thirteen Productions
Director-producer: Jeffrey Palmer
Executive producers: Michael Kantor, Shirley K. Sneve, Sally Jo Fifer
Directors of photography: Jeffrey Palmer, Youngsun Palmer
Editor: Nancy Novack
Music: Aska Matsumiya
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival