N. Scott Momaday, interviewed by Joanna Hearne
University of Arizona campus, 3/11/03
House Made of Dawn
HEARNE: First of all, thank you. I'm, glad you're going
to talk with me about the way this film was made. Who came up
with the project?
MOMADAY: I think the bulk of the credit goes to Richardson
it was his idea and he bought the rights from me to
make the film. We worked together on it for a time, and that's
pretty much how it how it went. I wasn't in on the actual filming.
I wasn't on location much of the time, but he and I met a number
of times and worked off the script, and talked to each other.
HEARNE: Did you have a fairly collaborative script-writing
process, where you traded it back and forth?
MOMADAY: Yeah fairly so. And I introduced him to Larry
Littlebird, who became the star of the film.
HEARNE: What was your sense of the collaborative process?
I mean you collaborated with Rick Morse on the screenplay, and
Larry Littlebird seems to have had a major role in his part.
MOMADAY: That's what it was, an Indian/non-Indian collaboration.
And it seemed to work pretty well.
HEARNE: People got along?
MOMADAY: We got along. We had some good arguments too,
but basically we got along. The thing, you know, as a writerit's
hard to write for film because you're not in control of what you're
writing. It's always changed in some respect and you see the control
slipping away, which is not a good thing for a writer. But that
happens and it happened in that film.
HEARNE: Do you remember any of your contributions to the
screenplay, and how they were altered or negotiated as the project
MOMADAY: I probably can't remember specifically. I was
very much interested in the Albino, and I thought that came off
pretty well. It was visually really good, you knowto see
him was to understand the power that he exercised over Abel and
Francisco. Just visually he was good. It was important to me that
he was played well, that it was there in its authenticity. And
I think it was.
HEARNE: Was it your idea to set the screenplay in the
Vietnam War instead of World War II or was that Rick Morse's idea?
MOMADAY: That's pretty much Rick's notion. It was a way
of bringing it up to date, but was a significant change
don't feel one way or another about it. I probably wouldn't have
done that myself, because I was really writing about a veteran
of the Second World War, but, you know, I'm not sure that it matters
in the long run.
HEARNE: I'm thinking about the film in the context of
what was going on at the time.
Soldier Blue has that
final massacre scene that's incredibly violent and deliberately
meant to evoke public feelings about the My Lai massacre. And
A Man Called Horse has a different kind of preoccupation
.and that's not, it seems to me, what's happening
in the film version of House Made of Dawn.
MOMADAY: I think at that time, when Vietnam was so fresh
in the mind, there was a lot of attention given to war films,
films that had to do with violence. Filmmakers were using Vietnam
as a way of reminding us of the Indian Wars and things like that.
All of that was very much at the top of the mind at that time,
and it was handled in different ways. Soldier Blue, that
massacre was hard to watch, it was so vivid. A Man Called Horse,
as you say, has a different kind of violence, but also something
gripping. I think Hollywood was still, in a way, invested in violence.
HEARNE: How do you see House Made of Dawn emerging
in that Hollywood context? Of course it wasn't a Hollywood film.
MOMADAY: I think it was a different kind of film because
the novel on which it was based is a different kind of novel.
No one had treated the Indian experience in quite the same way.
That was a very important time in the Indian world. I was at Jemez
Pueblo and I was seeing men who had fought in the second World
War. They came back wounded in different ways, maybe most severely
in their intelligence and culture, psychically wounded. I saw
examples, and I was able to base Abelyou know he's a composite
of people. I really knew that they had a hard time; things changed
after that generation. It was a particularly apt generation to
write about or to film. Things changed after that, you know, the
psychic dislocation was not as great after that, as it was for
that generation. So it was an interesting time.
HEARNE: Do you see any of the Western genre influencing
the adaptation or the making of the film?
MOMADAY: I think so. I think one of the things that happened
to Westerns, at roughly the same time, was the arrival of the
urban setting. You know, you get things like the Last Picture
Show. And I was dealing with Los Angeles as an urban reality
at the time. And that's a new thing in Westerns, by and largedrugstore
cowboysand there were a lot of films actually and a lot
of books written on urban cowboys. I think that was something
that I was working with, an urban Indian, in a sense. And that
was a new thing, you know, the "Relocation" program,
the '50s. Nothing much had been done with that, and it was such
HEARNE: Do you see that in the film as well? In Abel's
MOMADAY: Yeah, I think so. The Los Angeles sequence is
a kind of opposition between the urban scene and the reservation.
And, he's going back and forth and trying desperately to reenter
the traditional world and then can't. And that's what makes for
the tension, of course, in the film.
HEARNE: Well, Abel is voiceless. One of the visuals in
the film is of him, frozen, unable to articulate what's on his
mind, and then in a couple different moments in the film it's
a recurring thing. Does that capture what you were doing in the
MOMADAY: Yes, I think that's one of the really important
moments in the novel. And it's an important moment for the Indian.
He is inarticulate in a way, and the saddest thing is to be voiceless,
when there is a desperation to speak, as in the trial in the novel.
You know all of these people are talking around him, inundating
him with speech, and he can't talk. And yet it is so important,
there is an urgency to express his spirit, and he can't, he has
no voice. That's done in the film all right, that's realized maybe
especially in that Peyote scene. That's very important, you know.
In the Navajo Night Chant in House Made of Dawn I think
one of the most important lines is "Restore my voice for
HEARNE: Do you think that importance, a stress on voice,
is connected in the novel and the film to a sense of movement?
There's the running, which recurs; visually it recurs in the film
too, it structures the film because it triggers memories. And
there is that line in the novel, when Abel couldn't even say the
traditional greeting"Where are you going?"which
seems to connect speech and movement. Do you see that those work
in concert in the film as well?
MOMADAY: Yeah. I think it probably is. I think maybe more
could and should have been made of that, maybe more should've
been made of it in the novel too, because it is a critical thing,
in the Indian world
.There is a way for an Indian to express
himself in his language that we're never going to reach. Just
as we have a way of expressing ourselves in English and the Indian
is not going to reach that level of expression. So you have to
resolve that someway. And when it's irresolvable, as it is for
Abel, then it's tragic, nightmarish even.
HEARNE: Do you think the film conveys some of the sense
of oral traditions and the power of the spoken word that comes
through so strongly in the novel? And if so, does it come through
MOMADAY: It's been a long time, but I think I can say
that it does try to bring that across. You have it in the voice
of Francisco and in Tosamah's sermonthat does come through
in a way. It's not as pronounced as it is in the novel, I think.
HEARNE: Mesa Bird's lines, as Francisco in the film, are
untranslated. Abel answers him in English
.There are all
these issues of realism in the depiction of Native Americans in
this time period
. what difference do you think it makes
to have Native actors in Native roles?
MOMADAY: I think it's a good thing because I think Native
actors can have an understanding of the cultural depth of the
role. I think it's perfectly possible for a non-Indian to play
an Indian remarkably well, but I think that the Indian has an
advantage in understanding, if the part truly defines an Indian
essencethe Indian actor is going to understand that better
than a non-Indian actor. I think we're going to see some remarkable
Indian actors. We're already beginning to.
HEARNE: Do you have a sense that the film adaptation House
Made of Dawn had a role in this emergence of Native American
visual media? George Burdeau was in the film and went on to become
a documentary filmmaker, for example.
MOMADAY: I think it did. I wouldn't know how to gauge
it, but just as the novel had some kind of influence upon the
publishing world, I think probably the movie had some influence
upon moviemaking, Native moviemaking. As I said I wouldn't know
how to evaluate it, but I think it must have. It's too bad that
it wasn't more wildly distributed, because I think it might've
had a bigger impact and a greater influence.
Image credits: N.
Scott Momaday - photograph by Nancy Crampton