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  • Making DoMomaday’s Survivance Ceremonies
  • Kenneth M. Roemer (bio)

I think she was trying to carve the souls of her children into the birds. She was making do.

Linda Hogan, “Making Do”


One of the most powerful and beautiful episodes in one of the most influential works of American Indian literature finds the protagonist, Abel, broken down and depressed, atop a hill in Los Angeles. The drums, singing, flute, and alcohol don’t relieve his anguish. His closest friend, Ben Benally, who sincerely wants to help Abel, starts to sing, “all by himself ” in the “old [Navajo] ways,” the Beautyway and Nightway, and then he begins to pray quietly so only Abel can hear his words: “Tségihi./House made of dawn,/House made of evening light, . . . “ (Momaday, House 146–47)—words from the Navajo Nightway—beautiful and powerful and—wrong, wrong, wrong.

It’s the wrong place and atmosphere. Instead of Chinle or some other part of Diné Country during a Nightway ceremony, it’s on some nameless hill in L.A. populated by some less-than-sober celebrants. It’s arguably the wrong time. True, it’s in the winter, and the Nightway is supposed to be performed in fall and winter after the first hard frost, but how many hard frosts were there in L.A. in February 1952? It’s the wrong chanter. James C. Faris’s detailed study of Nightway hataalii (singer/medicine persons) revealed that the average apprenticeship period was “just over seven years” to learn to [End Page 77] lead this complex nine-day healing ceremony (98). There is no evidence that Ben has undergone such training. He simply begins with a prayer from the middle of the ceremony, not the beginning. The nature of the patient is suspect. It’s true that there are cases when non-Navajo are sung over; furthermore, Abel’s father may possibly have been Navajo, but he certainly was not raised Navajo. The ceremony is primarily for the Navajo. And, of course, Ben’s performance of the prayer is in the wrong language. It’s in English, not Navajo, which most traditional Navajo would argue robs the prayer of its healing power (Tsosie).1

Still, we need to remember that one of the main criteria of Native American ceremonies and Navajo ceremonies in particular is, does it work? N. Scott Momaday is familiar with Navajo ceremonialism.2 He would know this. And in this case there is evidence of it working, especially during the concluding run when, in and through his pain and anguish, Abel merges the images of the canyons and mountains before him, his memories of the dawn’s progression over the mesas as identified by his just-deceased grandfather, and Ben’s Nightway prayer to give him “words to a song”; there is, as yet, no sound, no voice, but he has words (House 212). And as St. John, John Big Bluff Tosamah, and, over and over, Momaday proclaim, “In the beginning was the word” (91). The word is the beginning of creation, so at least there is some hope for a re-creation of Abel.

Of course, it’s not only in House Made of Dawn that we discover ceremonies that are not quite right or even seem all wrong but are still “alright” because they may be working. Probably the best known contemporary Native fiction example is Betonie’s ceremony for Tayo—a hybrid mixture of, among other ceremonies and encounters, the Navajo Red Antway and a quest for Uncle Josiah’s cattle—in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (Bell 47–48). But there are numerous other examples: In Ella Cara Deloria’s Waterlily Blue Bird is distraught over her infant’s illness. From memory and intuition she creates a ceremony and prays: “Right or wrong, that was her prayer” (18). Waterlily survives. There is Bush’s Chickasaw “mourning feast” grieving ceremony in Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms. Many in this non-Chickasaw community “doubt” its authenticity (17, 72).3 But they [End Page 78] respect her: “She’s gone the old ways. The way we used to live. From the map inside ourselves. Maybe it reminded us that we...


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pp. 77-98
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