Preserving House Made of Dawn
In August 2001 the Native Cinema Showcase, organized by the National
Museum of the American Indian with the Center for Contemporary
Arts in Santa Fe, selected a film "classic" as one of
the highlighted programs for its inaugural year. The work chosen
was Richardson Morse's independent feature House Made of Dawn.
Released in 1972, the film explores the reclaiming of Native identitya
key theme of contemporary Native American lifeand it holds
an important place in the history of Native American representation
Based on Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday's Pulitzer Prize-winning
novel of the same name, the film was scripted by Momaday and Morse,
and starred Larry Littlebird in the role of a young Pueblo man
torn between the values and traditions of his childhood and the
harshness of urban life. That year's Native Cinema Showcase screeningintroduced
by W. Richard West, NMAI's founding director, and discussed by
author Scott Momaday and lead actor Larry Littlebirdwas
While organizing the Showcase screening NMAI's Film and Video
Center Festival Manager Michelle Svenson discovered that only
one print of this film existed, a damaged copy owned by Larry
Littlebird. New Line Cinema held the original elements in both
16mm and 35mm for the film, which had been used to create a re-edited
version of the film in 1988. New Line's rights were to revert
to the film's director in 2002.
In an effort to preserve this important moment in the history
of the Native American image on film, the Film and Video Center,
with the support of the American Film Institute and The Film Foundation,
obtained an agreement to create a new print of House Made of
Dawn. NMAI is making the film available to a wide public for
research and study, and it will be shown in on- and off-site screenings.
In December 2005 the new print of House Made of Dawn is
being screened in both Washington, D.C. (in cooperation with the
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) and in New York (at NMAI's
George Gustav Heye Center). Study copies are available in NMAI's
Resource Centers and film and media archives, located at the NMAI
Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland.
NMAI now retains all the existing original film elements, as
well as a 1-inch video version produced as part of the project,
which are housed in the archives. Deluxe Laboratories and Mo Henry
in Los Angeles and Title House Digital in Valencia, California
were instrumental in the work to create the new print.
House Made of Dawn: Restoring
Native Voices in Cinema
Hearne, the University of Missouri-Columbia
"I began to see that
if you could get enough Native
working together, there was a possibility that a whole
new methodology for making film could become available."
Larry Littlebird, lead actor, House Made of Dawn
N. Scott Momaday's novel House Made of Dawn, winner of
the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969, continues to receive abundant
critical attention and remains a landmark in the emergence of
a literary "Native American renaissance." Richardson
Morse's 1972 film versionthe first cinematic adaptation
of a Native-authored novelmarks a turning point in the history
of Native/non-Native collaborative filmmaking. House Made of
Dawn broke with mainstream Hollywood representations of Indians
in using formal stylistic experimentation to depict interior states
of a character from a tribally-specific worldview. The film, like
the novel, dramatizes the psychological dislocation of the protagonist,
Abel, as he confronts his traumatic history of encounters with
Much of the film's action takes place in Los Angelesthe
site of moviemaking itselfframing Abel's story in the context
of Hollywood and its images of Indians. In turning to L.A. as
both an urban Native community and a location for new modes of
film production, the film explores the relationships and boundaries
between city and reservation, and between the studio-based film
industry and independent filmmaking.
House Made of Dawn offers a view of Native men and women
navigating non-Native social institutions in cities, in the military
and boarding schools, and in courts and prisons. In the 1960s
and 1970s these experiences formed the background for a broad-based
intensification of indigenous activism. In staging protests, writing
novels, making films, and renewing religious practices, Native
Americans were re-imagining and rejuvenating their political and
The character of Abel represents a generation of individuals
and families deeply affected by military service and wage-work
during WWII, and by the pressure from federal Indian polices of
the 1950s to assimilate into "mainstream" American metropolitan
communities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and San
Francisco. "Termination" is the general term for a series
of resolutions and public laws enacted between 1953 and 1961 which
sought to dismantle federal trust relationships with Native tribes.
These policies resulted in the erosion of the tribal land base
and tribal sovereignty based in treaty agreements.
From the late 1940s through the late 1970s, the Bureau of Indian
Affairs ran a controversial "Relocation" program that
encouraged Native individuals and families to move to urban areas.
In adjusting to the new environment of the cities, Native people
arriving from reservations and rural homelands formed connections
through community organizations. These centersrepresented
in House Made of Dawn by the "Indian Friendship House"
and Tosamah's Native American Churchsupplemented the services
of the Relocation offices with material help in the form of groceries
and clothes, networks for finding jobs and housing, and friendship
and support for day-to-day cultural survival.
In the mid-1960s a wave of Native American activism began with
Pacific Northwest "fish-ins," when Native fishermen,
claiming treaty rights and guarantees, deliberately violated state
laws restricting fishing. Dramatic clashes with government authorities
highlighted longstanding problems of police brutality and judicial
inequity against Native people. The re-occupied waters, lands,
buildings, roads, battlefields, and blockades became stages for
highly symbolic protestssuch as the occupation of Alcatraz
Island (1969-1971), the "Trail of Broken Treaties" march
on Washington and the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupation
of the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in 1972, followed by the
siege at Wounded Knee in 1973.
With the strength and momentum of these political actions came
a parallel resurgence of Native literary voices. 1969, the year
that House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,
also saw the publication of Vine Deloria's collection of politically
incisive essays, Custer Died for Your Sins, An Indian Manifesto.
Native writers coming into print in the 1970sincluding James
Welch, Leslie Silko, Paula Gunn Allen, Roberta Hill Whiteman,
Simon Ortiz, Wendy Rose, Gerald Vizenor and othersled to
characterizations of the era as a "Native American renaissance."
N. Scott Momaday's innovative voice led the way in achieving
institutional recognition and public attention for Native literatures.
His use of multiple voices and his re-alignment of literary styles
and genres allowed him to merge literary modernism with Native
oral forms and a politicized, historical memory. In House Made
of Dawn oral literature is not a static relic of past cultural
puritya stage in the evolution of literaturebut is
rather a contemporary resource in the post-World War II generation's
confrontation with Indian policy.
In the 1960s and 1970s, revisionist Hollywood Westerns re-imagined
Indians as emblems of cultural dissent. The value placed on non-violence
in House Made of Dawn is particularly important in the
context of "Indian Westerns" clustered in the 1969-1971
period, such as Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), A
Man Called Horse (1969), Soldier Blue (1970), Little
Big Man (1970), and Chato's Land (1971). With their
sympathetic but distorted portraits of Indian cultures, such films
appropriated images of Indians for counter-culture messages, obscured
the specificity and voices of individuals and tribes, and ignored
contemporary Native realities.
Morse's House Made of Dawn engages in a very different
mode of revisionism from the sensational and aesthetically glorified
critiques of violence in films such as Penn's Bonnie and Clyde
(1967) and Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969). The popular
independent film Billy Jack (1971) epitomizes cultural
associations of Indians with spectacular powers. But House
Made of Dawn's Indian protagonist turns away from cross-racial
violence to adopt instead a culturally distinct ceremonial practice.
In contrast to a new cinematic grammar of violence based on Western
generic icons (cowboy, Indian, settler, gunfighter), House
Made of Dawn's hero finds strength in a return to his cultural
roots. The film marks a renewal of Native control in the filmmaking
process and a strong concern for realism in the casting and performances.
Story on Screen
House Made of Dawn calls into question the era's Hollywood
models. Abel is a Pueblo man traumatized by combat experiences
in Vietnam. Upon his return home from the war he comes into conflict
with a mysterious albino, and believing that the man is a witch,
Abel kills him during a bar fight. After serving a prison sentence,
Abel is relocated to L.A. where he is befriended by his Navajo
roommate, a white social worker, and a charismatic religious leader.
But Abel finds enemies in L.A. as well, and after a brutal attack
by a sadistic police officer, he returns home to nurse his dying
grandfather and to heal himself by restoring his relationship
to his homeland.
Abel must decide how to confront the evil that manifests itself
through witchcraft and social oppression, and he consistently
fails in his use of force. He sees clearly what is wrong but seems
alone in his struggle, unable to heal himself or solve social
conflicts through violence. Abel turns in the end to ritual action
that is communally sanctioned, seeking restoration through the
Pueblo practice of running at dawn.
The film's intricate visual transitions suggest Abel's associative
thinking and altered states as he reconstructs his past during
the ritual dawn race. Complex editing and special effectssuch
as nested flashbacks, freeze frames, slow motion, multiple superimpositions,
and negative and colorized imagestranslate to the screen
Momaday's literary experimentation with modernist forms and nonlinear
storytelling. These visual techniques emphasize Abel's subjectivity
as he alternates between memories of urban and reservation experiences.
Parallel scenes link institutionalized violence with witchcraft.
Pivotal figures in this regard are the character of the albino
and the corrupt L.A. cop whose black clothing accentuate visually
their similar functions in the narrative.
The film's movement between urban and reservation landscapes
establishes both the disorientation of uprooted individuals and
the interconnected relationship between seemingly separate locations.
House Made of Dawn was ahead of its time in depicting the
importance to Native urban communities of social practices such
as the "49"a gathering for informal song and dance
that occurs during or after a powwow, often on its margins outside
of the city or in parking lots.
Abel and his friend Benally continually seek out and create a
Native geography of Los Angeles, finding spaces for themselves
in the Indian Welcome House, Tosamah's basement church, Indian
bars, and powwows. Benally redefines the factory where he and
Abel work a Native space by singing powwow and "49"
songs that overlay the rhythm of the box-cutting machines. They
talk and sing together in marginal areas of the city-alleyways,
fire escapes, and train tracks, although abrupt interruptions
of these spaces and songs indicate Abel's fragility and the impact
of social intolerance.
Abel's interior states drive the narrative structure of the film
through an editing pattern that begins with a freeze frame on
his face, followed by tighter shots, superimposed images and flashback
sequences. The freeze-frame visualizes Abel's inability to act
or speak on his own behalf, and also depicts his altered mental
and spiritual states resulting from trauma, the effects of alcohol,
ritual peyote, and the effort of his ceremonial running.
Abel is continually caught up in the grasp of institutions: government
schools, the military, the courts, prison, the BIA relocation
office, and the factory. His experiences with these institutions
and the disciplinary mechanisms of bureaucracy immobilize him
and remove his own powers of speech, his ability to act in the
world through language.
His sense of self is bombarded by those in powerwho, as
Momaday writes, "were disposing of him in language, their
language" (1968: 90). But it is Abel's way of seeing, not
of being seenhis identification of the witch and vision
of the hawk and the snakethat "marks" him as Pueblo,
and that ultimately establish both his identity and his resistance
to the forces that would determine his identity for him.
But if Abel's belief in witchcraft and his certainty about the
albino's identity as a witch determine his Pueblo identity, his
actions signify the extent of his alienation from that cultural
bedrock. The institutional framework for violence, in the form
of the L.A. cop in uniform, prevents Abel from publicly protesting
his victimization. His attempt to act against injustice, to "do
something about that," takes the form of vigilante action
which, instead of empowering him, only contributes to his illness.
Sophisticated editing unites these moments of isolation with
images of Abel as he begins to heal. The close-up of his face,
horizontal on the ground after the cop's assault, is echoed when
he falls during the dawn run in the film's closing scene, a moment
when he gathers the strength to finish the run and seems to connect
most strongly to his grandfather. Another shot of Abel's face
frozen in open-mouthed agony, unable to pray during the peyote
ceremony, is matched in the next scene's three-way superimposition
of the lights of the L.A. freeway, Francisco's drill spinning
into turquoise stone, and Abel's fluent singing of a traditional
song. Viewers of the film and the filmmakers themselves consistently
recall this moment, when Abel's voice is restored through song,
as one of the most powerful and effective in the film.
On the set of House Made of Dawn, Native
and non-Native collaborators worked to make their mode of production
more closely match the film's content. As Abel is running, he
hears his grandfather's voice describing the time of year of the
dawn run, just after the people clean the ditches following the
spring rains. Lead actor Larry Littlebird has referred to this
activity to contrast his early experiences in the film industry
with subsequent work on House Made of Dawn and other independent
"It was the extreme opposite of Warner Brothers. Here was
this little group of people all working together, and what I saw
was, "Oh, that's like at the Pueblo when we're going to clean
the ditches." The whole community is involved
what our common vision is, and the common vision is the flow of
water which brings life to our community, and gives us life
is connected to it."
Littlebird suggests a model in which strategic attention to production
situations can imaginatively recover the cultural values embedded
in indigenous narratives. He frames this insight in terms of a
specific place and agricultural pattern, connecting the politics
of film production with larger issues of community action and
land use. This locally grounded style also provided Littlebird
with experience and training that prepared him for future film
and television projects outside of Hollywood.
Recent Hollywood productions have carefully navigated the politics
of authenticity by casting Native actors in Native roles, but
the story is often controlled by cultural outsiders. What sets
House Made of Dawn apart from other films of its time is
that both the story and the circumstances of its productionthe
location shooting and casting of Native actorscome from
tribally specific and cross-cultural perspectives. There is a
deep connection between equity in film production and the images
on screen; in House Made of Dawn, Native actors and writers,
working collaboratively with non-Native filmmakers, are activists
staging an occupation and re-invention of urban, reservation and
on Native Networks
- Blood Narrative: Indigenous Identity in American Indian
and Maori Literary and Activist Texts. Durham: Duke University
Carr, Denny, dir.
- Songs of My Hunter Heart: Harold Littlebird. Words
and Places film series, University of Arizona, 1978.
Deloria Jr., Vine.
- Custer Died for Your Sins, an Indian Manifesto. 1969.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
Evers, Lawrence J.
- "The Killing of a New Mexican State Trooper: Ways of
Telling an Historical Event." Critical Essays on Native
American Literature. Ed. Andrew Wiget. Boston: G.K. Hall
& Co., 1985. 246-261.
- "Words and Place: a Reading of House Made of Dawn."
Critical Essays on Native American Literature. Ed. Andrew
Wiget. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1985. 211-230.
Fixico, Donald L.
- Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy 1945-1960.
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.
- The Urban Indian Experience in America. Albuquerque:
University of New Mexcio Press, 2000.
- From Savage to Nobleman: Images of Native Americans in
Film. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 1995.
- Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
- Hunting Sacred, Everything Listens: A Pueblo Indian Man's
Oral Tradition Legacy. Santa Fe: Western Edge Press, 2001.
- Native American Renaissance. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1983.
Lobo, Susan, ed.
- Urban Voices: The Bay Area American Indian Community.
Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002.
Momaday, N. Scott.
- The Man Made of Words, Essays, Stories, Passages. New
York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
- House Made of Dawn. 1968. New York: Perennial Classics,
- "The Man Made of Words." Indian Voices: The
First Convocation of American Indian Scholars. San Francisco:
Indian Historian Press, 1970.
- The Names: A Memoir. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.
- The Way to Rainy Mountain. Albuquerque: University
of New Mexico Press, 1969.
- American Indian Ethnic Renewal: Red Power and the Resurgence
of Identity and Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Native American Authors Project.
- "Acts of Imagination: The Novels of N. Scott Momaday."
Other Destinies: Understanding the Native American Novel.
Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. 90-127.
Poetics and Politics, "N. Scott Momaday." University
Roemer, Kenneth, ed.
Rollins, Peter C. and John E. O'Connor, Ed.
- Hollywood's Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American
in Film. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
- Landmarks of Healing: A Study of House Made of Dawn.
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.
- N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.
- Wiping the War Paint Off the Lens: Native American Film
and Video. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
- "Bear, Outlaw, and Storyteller: American Frontier Mythology
and the Ethnic Subjectivity of N. Scott Momaday." American
Literature 73.3 (Sept. 2001): 599-631.
Woodard, Charles L.
- Ancestral Voices: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
House Made of Dawn - photograph by Peter Morse ©