Opening Poem and Prologue
In the short opening poem “Headwaters,” the poet observes small signs of life at noon on a high plain and reflects on the journey of water beneath and through the land.
In the Prologue, Momaday, the author, recalls the journey of the Kiowa people and explains the journey’s importance. He describes the northern beginnings of the Kiowa and identifies them with the Sun Dance. He acknowledges the Kiowa’s decline after the wild buffalo herds were destroyed but claims that the Kiowa once had a noble and fulfilling culture. The author introduces Tai-me, who came to the Kiowas in a vision. He summarizes Kiowa migrations, during which they acquired horses, adopted Plains culture and religion, and developed a sense of their own identity.
Momaday then expands the concept of the journey to include journeys of imagination, memory, personal history, and culture. He explains that the journey evokes the landscape, the passing of time, and the endurance of the human spirit and invites readers to think of the way to Rainy Mountain as many journeys in one. He ends the Prologue with a beautiful memory of the Sun Dance from long ago.
Momaday recounts his own journey to Rainy Mountain to visit his grandmother Aho’s grave. He reflects on his grandmother’s long life; on her parents and grandparents, who suffered the destruction of their culture; and on her ancestors, proud warriors who once ruled the southern Plains. He tells how the Kiowa acquired Tai-me, the sacred Sun Dance doll.
To reach Rainy Mountain, Momaday follows his ancestors’ migrations. From the Yellowstone region, he descends east through the high plains to reach the Black Hills. He recalls his grandmother’s story about a boy who turns into a bear and his seven sisters who turn into stars. The Introduction includes a painting showing a bear at the base of Devil’s Tower, with the Big Dipper in the sky.
Momaday describes his grandmother’s reverence for the sun and shares memories of her praying. At her silent old house, he recalls sounds of laughter, feasting, talk, and prayer when the house was filled with people. At night, sitting outside the house, he sees a cricket perched nearby, with the moon behind it. The next morning, Momaday visits his grandmother’s grave and sees the mountain. The Introduction ends with a bold painting that shows a cricket enclosed in a circle.
The Setting Out
The Kiowa myth tells how a small number of Kiowa people entered the world through a hollow log, leaving many others behind. They were glad to see the world and called themselves Kwuda, or “coming out.”
Momaday adds a later name, Gaigwu, which connotes two differing halves. Kiowa warriors once cut their hair on the right side and grew it long on the left. The name Kiowa probably comes from how the Comanche pronounced the name Gaigwu. Momaday ends Part I with a personal memory of the northern Great Plains landscape, which changed his way of looking at the earth.
In a Kiowa legend, the people kill an antelope, and two big chiefs quarrel over its udders. One chief grows so angry that he gathers his followers and leaves. They disappear from the Kiowa story.
Momaday describes how the Kiowa once hunted antelope. He also adds his observations of pronghorns on the high plains.
The Kiowas recite a legend from long ago, when dogs could talk. A man lives alone, surrounded by his enemies. The man wounds a bear, which runs away with his last arrow. A dog agrees to show the man how to escape his enemies in return for the man’s care of her puppies.
Momaday notes that although the Kiowa owned many horses, their principal warrior society honored the dog. The society was composed of the ten bravest men. Momaday recalls the dogs that belonged at his grandmother’s house.
The Kiowas have another legend from early mountain days, before Tai-me, about a beautiful little girl. One day a family friend takes the girl outside to play. She hangs the child’s cradle in a tree. A beautiful redbird lands nearby. The little girl leaves her cradle and follows the redbird up the branches. The tree grows, carrying the girl into the sky. There she meets a young man who claims her as his wife, and she sees that he is the sun.
Momaday identifies the mountains that lie at the top of the continent and recalls a walk through a mountain meadow.
The Kiowas continue the legend of the sun’s wife. One day, angry with her husband, she digs up a root that he has told her not to touch. Looking down, she sees her own people. She makes a rope, puts her child on her back, and climbs down toward earth. But the sun discovers her when she is halfway down. He throws a ring, or gaming wheel, which strikes and kills his wife. The sun’s child is now alone.
Momaday identifies a wild turnip-like root as part of the Indian diet but explains that the Kiowas have no tradition of agriculture. He notes that his people are still meat eaters. He recalls how his grandfather, Mammedaty, struggled to farm and remembers seeing people eat raw meat.
The legend continues with the story of the sun’s child. When he grows big enough to walk around the earth, he comes upon a great spider, called a grandmother. The grandmother sets out a ball and a bow and arrows. When the child chooses the bow and arrows, she knows he is a boy. It takes the grandmother a while to snare the boy, but at last she catches him. He cries until she sings him to sleep with a lullaby.
Momaday narrates an event from 1874, in which swarms of tarantula spiders accompany a Kiowa retreat. He then adds his own observations of spiders. Part VI ends with a painting of a tarantula.
The sun’s child has kept the ring that killed his mother. Disobeying the grandmother spider, he throws the ring into the air. The ring falls back and cuts the boy in two. Now the grandmother spider must raise two boys. She cares for them and makes them fine clothes.
Momaday notes that the Kiowas once owned more horses per person than any other tribe on the plains. He adds a summer memory of swimming in the Washita River, observing insects and seeing his own reflection in the water.
The grandmother spider tells the sun’s twins not to throw their rings into the sky, but they disobey her. The twins run after the rings and fall into a cave, home to a giant and his wife. The giant tries to kill the twins by filling the cave with smoke, but they recall a word their grandmother spider taught them. They repeat the word, ward off the smoke, and frighten the giants into releasing them. The grandmother spider rejoices when they return.
Momaday notes that a word has power and explains that names were so personal to the Kiowas that they would not speak a dead person’s name. He then recalls how Aho, his grandmother, looked and sounded when she said the Kiowa word zei-dl-bei to ward off bad thoughts.
The sun’s twins kill a great snake; the grandmother spider cries out that they have killed their grandfather, and then she dies. The twins live on and are greatly honored.
Momaday records a different version of the twins’ story and describes the talyi-da-i, sacred bundles of “boy medicine” venerated by the Kiowas. He then recalls his father’s memory of going with Keahdinekeah, his grandmother, to a talyi-da-i shrine. Momaday himself has a childhood memory of Keahdinekeah as a very old woman.
During bad times for the Kiowas, a man goes out to look for food. He hears a voice asking what he wants and sees a being covered with feathers. The man says that the Kiowas are hungry, and the voice promises to give them whatever they want. This tale speaks of how Tai-me came to belong to the Kiowas.
Momaday explains that Tai-me functions as the central figure of the Sun Dance ceremony. Tai-me’s image is carved from dark green stone into a human shape and is dressed in a white robe painted with symbols. The image appears only once a year, at the Sun Dance. Momaday remembers going with his father and grandmother to see the Tai-me bundle, making an offering, and feeling a sense of great holiness.
Another legend tells of two brothers. The legend takes place during the winter, and the brothers are hungry. One morning they find some fresh meat in front of their tipi. One brother feels afraid of this strange gift and refuses to eat. The other brother eats the meat and changes into a water beast.
Momaday describes the peyote ritual, during which the celebrants eat peyote, sing sacred songs, and pray. He then explains that Mammedaty, his grandfather, was a peyote man. He recounts the story of Mammedaty’s close encounter with a water beast. Part XI ends with a painting of a lizard-like animal that extends its claws and its arrow-shaped tongue. Its tail curves down into the waves.
The Going On
The Kiowas tell the story of an old man who had a wife and child. An enemy follows the child into their home and demands food. While his wife cooks fat, the old man creeps out and takes their horses upstream. The wife sets fire to the fat, burns the enemies, and escapes upstream with her son.
Momaday describes a fire from the winter of 1872–73. The fire destroyed a fine tipi that belonged to Dohasan, a great chief. Momaday then remembers walking in Rainy Mountain cemetery in late afternoon, feeling the deep silence.
Kiowas are known for their fine arrows. In this story, a man and his wife sit inside their tipi while the man makes arrows. The man realizes that someone is looking in at them. He tells his wife to act normal while he pretends to see if his arrow is straight. He points the arrow around the tipi and asks who the stranger is. When there is no answer, the man shoots his enemy in the heart.
Momaday comments that old men made the best arrows, which young men paid well for. He then passes on his father’s memories of an old arrow maker who visited Mammedaty, the author’s grandfather. Momaday imagines the old arrow maker at prayer.
According to the Kiowas, the storm spirit understands their language. The Kiowas tell how they try to make a horse out of clay. As the horse starts “to be,” a great wind blows and carries everything away, uprooting trees and throwing buffalo into the sky. Now the Kiowas know that a storm is a strange wild animal, called Man-ka-ih, that roams the sky.
Momaday notes that winds are constant on the plains. He recalls the storm cellar at his grandmother’s house, with rain driving hard against its door and the land appearing blue in a flash of lightning. Part XIV ends with a painting of a dark cloud, in front of which is a creature that is half horse and half fish with lightning coming from its mouth and a long tail curving down.
Quoetotai, a handsome warrior, carries on with one of Many Bears’ wives. Many Bears shoots Quoetotai, but he survives. At a dance before a raid in Mexico, Many Bears’ wife sings that she is leaving. She and Quoetotai roam with the Comanches for fifteen years. Then Many Bears welcomes them back with a gift of horses.
Momaday cites the opinion of the artist George Catlin, who commented on the attractive appearance of the Kiowas. He then describes in detail Catlin’s portrait of Kotsatoah, a Kiowa warrior said to be seven feet tall. Momaday wishes he could have seen the man.
A man comes upon a buffalo with horns of steel, which kills the man’s horse. The man climbs a tree to escape, but the buffalo knocks down the tree. The same thing happens with a second tree. Up in the third tree, the man shoots all but one of his arrows to no avail. Then he remembers that a buffalo has a vulnerable spot in the cleft of each hoof. The man aims at that spot and kills the buffalo.
Momaday records an event in Carnegie, Oklahoma, in which two old Kiowa men, riding work horses, chase down and kill a tame buffalo. He then recalls walking with his father in Medicine Park, observing a small buffalo herd. They come across a newborn calf and run away from its fearful-looking mother. Part XVI ends with a painting of a buffalo, with zigzag lines on its body and short branching poles above its horns.
In this Kiowa story, a reckless young man goes out hunting, and a whirlwind strikes him blind. The Kiowas leave him behind with his wife and child. The wife grows tired of caring for him. The man shoots a buffalo, but his wife tells him he missed. Then she takes the meat and runs away with her child. The man survives and gets back to the Kiowa camp. There he finds his wife telling people that an enemy had killed him. Upon learning the truth, the people send the woman away.
Momaday comments on the hard lives of Kiowa women and gives examples of women who were stabbed, stolen, and mistreated. He also tells about his grandfather’s grandmother, whose grave is at Rainy Mountain. He says that she raised eyebrows for not playing the part of a typical Kiowa woman.
Another Kiowa story tells of a group of young men who decide to follow the sun to its home. They ride south for many days. One night they camp in a great thicket. One of them sees small men with tails, darting from tree to tree. The other men laugh at the story, but then they, too, see the strange creatures. The Kiowas then decide to return to their homeland.
Momaday cites a scholar, Mooney, on how the horse transformed the Indian into a daring buffalo hunter. Momaday remembers spending the summer in the arbor next to his grandmother’s house, looking far in every direction, and feeling the sense of confinement inside the house in winter. Part XVIII ends with a painting of a man riding a charging horse, aiming his spear at a buffalo.
The Closing In
The Kiowas tell the story of two brothers. The Utes first capture one of the brothers and then seize the other brother during his rescue mission. The Ute chief offers the second brother freedom if he can carry the first brother over a path of greased buffalo heads. The brother, a Kiowa hero, accomplishes the task, and the two brothers return to their own people.
Momaday describes the Kiowas’ surrender after the fight at Palo Duro Canyon and cites Mooney, a scholar. Mooney tells how, in summer 1879, the Kiowas had to eat their ponies because the buffalo were gone. Momaday recalls himself as a boy, riding his red horse, a roan, through the red, yellow, and purple landscape of New Mexico and feeling the horse’s living motion. A painting shows a row of four buffalo skulls.
Another Kiowa story tells of a man whose fine black horse always runs fast and in a straight line. But during one charge, the man knows fear and turns his horse aside, and soon after, the horse dies of shame.
Momaday tells how, in 1861, a horse was left as an offering to Tai-me and how an old man, Gaapiatan, sacrificed a horse, hoping to spare his family from smallpox. Momaday reveals that he identifies with Gaapiatan and the choice he made.
The Kiowa tell how Mammedaty, grandson of Guipahgo, was driving a team and wagon on the way to Rainy Mountain. Mammedaty hears a whistle and sees a little boy in the grass. He gets down from the wagon and looks around but finds nothing.
Momaday describes an actual photograph of Mammedaty, who has long braids, wears traditional clothing, and holds a peyote fan. He then adds more information about four remarkable things seen by Mammedaty—proof that Mammedaty had powerful medicine. Part XXI ends with a painting of a birdlike creature.
Another story about Mammedaty tells how he loses his temper. He gets angry at some horses that refuse to leave their fenced-in area and walk out the gate. In his anger, he shoots at the horse that is causing trouble. He misses and hits the second horse in the neck.
Momaday notes an event from the winter of 1852–53, when a Pawnee boy held captive by the Kiowas stole one of their finest horses. He then recalls how Mammedaty kept the bones of Little Red, one of his favorite horses, but then later, someone stole the bones. Momaday understands why his grandfather—and the bone thief—valued Little Red. Part XXII ends with a painting of a horse with an arrow embedded in its neck.
Aho remembers a visit to the wife of the keeper of Tai-me. As they pass the time, the women hear an awful noise. They discover that Tai-me has fallen to the floor. No one knows why.
Momaday notes that Mammedaty once wore a grandmother bundle on a string tied around his neck to honor Keahdinekeah, his mother. Momaday remembers a great iron kettle outside Aho’s house. It rang like a bell when struck and was used to collect rainwater.
Momaday recites a family story of a woman in a beautiful dress who is buried east of his grandmother Aho’s house. Mammedaty, his grandfather, knew where she was buried, but now no one knows. The dress, made of fine buckskin and decorated with elk teeth and beadwork, remains under the ground.
Momaday adds a note about the detailed beadwork on Aho’s moccasins and leggings. He reflects on the importance of concentrating the mind on a particular landscape, imagining the creatures on the land, the motions of the wind, the light, and the colors.
Momaday describes a shower of falling stars that took place in November 13, 1833. He tells how the Osage stole Tai-me from the Kiowas and how, in 1837, the Kiowa made their first treaty with the United States. The Kiowa’s golden age lasted less than one hundred years, but it remains in living memory. Momaday recalls Ko-sahn, a one-hundred-year-old woman who visits him at his grandmother’s house, after Aho’s death. Ko-sahn speaks and sings her childhood memories: The young women go to a lodge and tie offerings of cloth to the Tai-me tree, the people sing and pray, an old woman carries in sandy earth and spreads it on the floor of the lodge, and the young men begin their Sun Dance—all for Tai-me, a long time ago. Momaday still wonders who Ko-sahn really was.
A final painting shows a black cloud at the top of the page. Arched lines trace the paths of seven stars, which fall toward a row of Kiowa tipis.
The book ends with the poem “Rainy Mountain Cemetery.” In the poem, the poet reflects on death, listens to the land as noon approaches, and sees the shadow of a name upon a stone.