Momaday was born on the Kiowa Reservation in Lawton, Oklahoma, on February 27, 1934. His father, Alfred Morris, was an artist and teacher; in fact, his artworks are used to illustrate several of Momaday’s books, including his history of the Kiowa people, The Way to Rainy Mountain. His mother, Mayme Natachee Scott, taught and wrote children’s books.
Momaday spent his childhood on a succession of Native American reservations, learning the cultures of the Pueblo Indians. The family eventually settled in Jemez, New Mexico, which is the model for Walatowa in House Made of Dawn.
Momaday attended military school in Virginia, and then went to college at the University of New Mexico. After graduation, he taught at the Apache reservation in Jicarilla for a year. He won a poetry scholarship to Stanford, where he studied under famed poet and literary critic Yvor Winters, who became his mentor and greatly influenced his poetic style. In 1963 he received his Ph.D. from Stanford.
House Made of Dawn, his first novel, was published in 1968. Although not commercially successful, it received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969. After that, Momaday moved to the University of California at Berkley, where he designed a graduate program in Indian Studies. In 1982 he became a professor at the University of Arizona. He has published several books of poetry, short stories, and essays. In addition, Momaday has often displayed his drawings and paintings in galleries throughout the country.