Because the Kiowa always were a small tribe, the stories which Momaday tells about them often emphasize a preoccupation with their numbers, and particularly with the danger of tribal disunion. One of the earliest tribal memories is of a quarrel between two chiefs over a slain antelope, which causes one of the chiefs to lead his people away into the darkness of prehistory, never to be seen again. This story is accompanied by that of an antelope drive which succeeds because all the people unite in a common effort.
Yet balanced against the threat of disunion are the grandmothers who appear again and again in the book. The death of Momaday’s grandmother Aho brings him back to Rainy Mountain. Spider Grandmother assures the survival of the twin sons of the Sun. The Talyi-da-i is associated with Spider Grandmother and with Keahdinekeah, Momaday’s father’s grandmother. Momaday’s grandfather’s grandmother Kau-au-ointy and the ancient Ko-sahn, who describes one of the last Sun Dances, are other examples. The grandmothers maintain tribal traditions, and they stand for harmony and tribal unity in the face of all the forces which threaten it.
At the same time, the element which provides Momaday with the means for uniting his own present with the Kiowa past, once Aho is dead, is language. The stories he tells imply, and his own commentaries say explicitly, that the book’s ultimate subject is language, which, in his view, is the one miracle-making power available to humanity. His grandmother’s strange word zei-dl-bei (meaning “frightful”) was her way of confronting evil, “a warding off, an exertion of language upon ignorance and disorder.” Again and again in the book language is seen in this way: Kiowa are saved from their enemies by the power of language, the god Tai-me gives himself to the Kiowa with a promise, an arrow maker saves himself and his family by using the Kiowa language, the storm god does not attack the Kiowa because he knows their language.
Eventually, however, language loses this redemptive power for the Kiowa, and, not coincidentally, this is the time when the traditional religion of the tribe also can no longer save them. Momaday’s juxtaposition of these two events with the general decline of the Kiowa as an independent tribe is related to his conception of language itself. Just as the Kiowa emerge from myth and legend to enter the historical record, so words lose their original metaphoric power and lapse into mere denotation. From that stage...
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Momaday then moves to give context for the mysterious history of the Kiowas, noting that they came from western Montana three hundred years beforehand, speaking a language that linguists have never been able to classify. Their journey southward was one “towards the dawn,” and that led to a “golden age” for the Kiowas. As they moved, they befriended the Crows, who introduced them to Plains culture and religion (including the Sun Dance, and Tai-me, the Sun Dance doll at the center of their worship). The Kiowas acquired horses on their journey, which transformed them into nomads and ruthless hunters. Through this journey they were liberated from an exclusive focus on survival, and they became dignified and visionary. Momaday notes the echo between this journey and the Kiowa creation myth that the tribe emerged into the world from a hollow log—that myth, like the tribe’s documented history, reflects a journey from darkness to light.
This is the true Kiowa origin story as Momaday sees it. Instead of being concerned with the literal formation of the tribe (a deeper origin than Momaday considers, perhaps because that history is unknown), he focuses on the Kiowa transformation into the great people he believes it was their nature to become. As such, the Kiowa “origin” story includes the influences of other tribes, the introduction of new religion, the adoption of horses, and the transformation of the Kiowa lifestyle. In other words, Momaday seems to suggest that the Kiowas did not start out as being fully Kiowa, but had to be made fully Kiowa over the course of a long journey. This is an unusual way to frame an origin, but it’s a particularly generous one in that it gives ample credit to the non-Kiowa influences that gave the Kiowas some of the most valued aspects of their culture. This is also a moment in which Momaday asserts the similarity between myth and historical fact; the Kiowa origin myth and the known history of the Kiowas both tell a story with a similar plot, one in which the Kiowas move from darkness into light.