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N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer prize-winner and Native American literary great, dies

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We learned this week of the death of N. Scott Momaday at his home in Santa Fe. The novelist, poet, essayist and painter was the first Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize, and he ushered in a renaissance in Native American literature. Megan Kamerick at member station KUNM has this remembrance.

MEGAN KAMERICK, BYLINE: Former poet laureate Joy Harjo of the Muskogee Nation says Momaday's 1969 novel "House Made Of Dawn" would establish him as a father for contemporary Native literature.

JOY HARJO: Not just for me, but for many of us coming up, like Leslie Marmon Silko and others, coming up as young, Native people starting to write and tell stories and to think about what it meant to be a Native writer and particularly Native writers of our own tribal nations.

KAMERICK: Momaday got his bachelor's degree and taught at the University of New Mexico. Finnie Coleman, an associate professor there, says he wasn't just a great Native writer.

FINNIE COLEMAN: "House Made Of Dawn" is one of the world's great pieces of literature.

KAMERICK: At a writers' gathering in New Mexico in 2002, Momaday talked about the work of writers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

N SCOTT MOMADAY: I think that we're constantly redefining the human condition. And that is, as far as I can see, the writer's subject. What is it to be human? What is it to be human here and now?

KAMERICK: Navarre Scott Momaday was born in 1934 in Lawton, Okla., into the Kiowa tribe. His formative years were spent in other Native communities, including the Navajo Nation and Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico. He also taught school on the Jicarilla Apache Nation. Steeped in Indigenous oral traditions, Momaday then got a formal poetry education at Stanford, where he received a master's degree and a doctorate. Joy Harjo says he skillfully blended those ideas.

HARJO: He took a form like a novel and made it very particularly Kiowa - you know, like Kiowa American. You know, that was a gift.

KAMERICK: Momaday told New Mexico PBS in 2014, oral tradition is often more vital than writing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOMADAY: It exists at the level of the human voice, and it's immediate. People who do not have writing take storytelling very seriously because they must. The story is always one generation from extinction. So you have to listen, and you have to remember what you hear.

KAMERICK: Momaday published some 19 books of fiction, poetry and essays. In 2022, he was inducted into the Academy of American Arts and Letters. He also became an accomplished painter. For NPR News, I'm Megan Kamerick in Albuquerque.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN TWO-HAWKS' "OF SHADOW AND LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Megan Kamerick