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N. Scott Momaday: The Ancient Child

There is a Piegan legend which tells of a young boy arriving one day in one of their camps. They did not know who he was and when they asked his name he did not reply, so clearly he had no name. Indeed, he failed to answer any of their questions so, for some strange reason, perhaps he did not understand their language. However, he seemed likeable to they let him stay. One day, just as suddenly as he had arrived, he disappeared. No-one knew where he had gone. Some time later, however, hunters in the woods found a bear which seemed very friendly. They then realised that this was the boy and he had become a bear.

This novel came out over twenty years after House Made of Dawn but addresses some of the same themes. The role of dreaming and of myth and legend in Native American culture are both strong. Indeed, we start with Kope’mah, an ageing Kiowa woman who is coming to the end of her life and will die very soon in the book. Her dreaming is on various things but she dreams in particular of Henry McCarty better known as William Bonney and even better known as Billy the Kid. She sees, in her dreams, the death of Bonney, shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett. But she also dreams of Set-Angya also known as Satank and as Sitting Bear, a Kiowa warrior, who fought against the white man and was killed trying to escape. Both Bonney and Sitting Bear died before Kope’mah was born. She is looked after by Grey. Grey is her great-granddaughter. Gray’s father was Kiowa but her mother was Navajo. She had lived elsewhere with her family but suddenly turns up and her great-grandmother immediately takes to her and they develop a strong relationship. She lives with her uncle Worcester in a small village, which had been used by whites during the Depression but is now is almost deserted. She calls the place Bote, Oklahoma and declares herself Mayor. Grey is a beautiful young woman, aged nineteen years. As Kope’mah is dying, Grey sits with her, her aunt somewhat disgusted that she, who had looked after Kope’mah for many years, is pushed aside. Grey dreams with Kope’mah. She, too, dreams of Bonney and she dreams of the bear.

Locke Setman, best known as Set, is a famous artist. His mother died giving birth to him and his father died when he was seven. He was put into care and then brought up by a white couple. He is becoming concerned about the compromises he is making in order to please rich clients and feels he is no longer true to himself but has sold out. One day, he receives a telegram, summoning him to the bedside of his grandmother, who is dying. He was unaware of her existence and is surprised that the telegram tells him to notify his father, who has been dead for thirty years. The grandmother, of course, is Kope’mah. He sets out, flying and then, reluctantly, driving the last bit. By the time he arrives, Kope’mah is dead and buried. However, he is interested to meet his family, though is surprised at the sight of a boy peering at him from the undergrowth. The boy turns out to be Grey. When they meet later, she tells him that she will give him some strong medicine that came from Kope’mah. Only later do we learn what that medicine consists of and it includes various items relating to bears.

We follow both Grey and Set after the death of Kope’mah. Set carries on with his career. He has a relationship with a woman, which starts out well but he is too solitary for her and she is too social for him. They slowly drift apart. However, he is having greater success. His painting is changing, becoming something elemental, as he says. He paints dark figures, which he sees are himself. More particularly, we can see that his Native American background is having a greater influence. Yes, he believed, there is only one story after all, and it is about the pursuit of man by God, and it is about a man who ventures out to the edge of the world, and it is about his holy quest, and it is about his faithful or unfaithful wife, and it is about the hunting of a great beast. But is is Set himself who is becoming the great beast, the bear.

But it is Grey who is the stronger person, though much younger. She is still very much having visions of Billy the Kid. In these visions, she herself is present at the key events in Billy’s later life – his gun fights, his escapes and, of course, his death. It is she who helps him escape and she who is his lover, though she has lovers of her own in the present day. She starts writing and one of the works she writes is a book about her role in Billy’s life: The Strange and True Story of My Life With Billy the Kid. She sees Billy not only as he was but as the various actors who played him in films. Not only does she have visions of Billy the Kid but, like her great-grandmother, she has visions of Set-Angya, Sitting Bear. But she also thinks of Set and she thinks of him as a bear, like the ancient child of the legend. Grey is becoming a medicine woman, something she reluctantly recognises but that her family also recognise. She talks to her great-grandmother at her graveside, gaining knowledge from her spirit. Her medicine is powerful and she uses it to summon Set back to her and then to take him, the bear, to her home, Lukachukai.

This is another superb novel by Momaday, mixing in traditional Native American myth and legend as well as traditional non-Native American Western legend, but also covering the role of the strong woman in the group, the role of art and the artist and how it acts as psychotherapy to the artist as well as that standard theme of 20th century literature, who we are and where do we belong. Momaday tells his story very well as he did in House Made of Dawn and there is no doubt that he is one of the leading Native American novelists.

Publishing history

First published 1989 by Doubleday