A Prejudice and Tolerance
Strangely, for a novel about Native American suffering in the white world, there is not a lot of overt prejudice on the parts of the characters in House Made of Dawn. The most brutal character in the novel, Martinez, says nothing to indicate that his action is racially motivated; he has a Spanish name himself, making him no more a representative of the white culture than Abel. The two white women, Angela and Milly, treat Abel well and respect his heritage.
The only character to really point out racial differences is Tosamah. He sarcastically declares his respect for the whites for the way they have oppressed the Indians. This prejudice is mirrored in Tosamah’s prejudice against Native Americans that follow traditional beliefs. In talking about “longhairs,” or the people who follow the traditional way and do not adapt to urban life, Tosamah is so negative that he alienates Abel.
B Culture Clash
Some critics interpret Momaday’s novel as a statement about the difficulty faced by Native Americans as they are forced to assimilate into the outside world. This struggle is reflected in the experiences of the protagonist, Abel, as he returns home after a stint in the army during World War II.
Late in the book, Abel recalls a culture clash between his Native American world and the white world during his time in the military. While under fire and faced with an advancing tank, Abel stood up, whooped, danced, sang, and gave an obscene gesture to the tank. Momaday is not clear about whether this monologue is meant to be testimony in a court marshal (it ends with Abel running off into the trees), but it is clearly not normal behavior under fire.
When he arrives back at Walatowa drunk, it is clear that he has not assimilated the standards of the white culture; yet after a short time, it becomes obvious that he is not comfortable with Native American culture either. While his grandfather, Francisco, remembers trying to instill “the old ways” into Abel, Abel remembers his advice as, “You ought to do this and that.” He makes “a poor showing, full of caution and gesture” when he tries at the rooster-grabbing competition during the festival. Later, he kills the competition champion when he sees him turning into an animal-the sort of transformation common to Native American stories such as Benally’s story about a Bear and a Snake.
After his release from prison, Abel lives in the Native American community in Los Angeles. He attends the services of Tosamah, who is both pastor and Priest of the Sun. While Abel’s friend, Ben, is able to mix his native culture with his new white culture, Abel is unable to bring the two elements together in harmony. When his heritage and pride is insulted, he quits work, drops out of society, and spends his days drinking. In the end, he finds some balance between the two cultures: he is able to memorialize his grandfather’s death with both a Christian ceremony and an Indian race at dawn.
C Return to Nature
Native American culture is closely associated with elements of nature in the novel. Native American customs are concerned with natural objects: the sparrow feathers Francisco gathers for a prayer plume, and the rooster used in the competition. When there is harmony between people and nature, the world is working as it is intended.
Examples of this harmony can be found with the characters in the novel. Francisco, an old farmer, is said to have “an ethnic, planter’s love of harvest, and of rain.” Abel chops wood in a way that indicates a special understanding of the inanimate object, a relationship that the white woman Angela wonders about. “He gave himself up to it,” she thinks, admiring the beauty of his action. Milly, making love to Abel, is described as moving her mouth “like a small animal.”
The problem with Abel is that just as he becomes disconnected from his native culture, so too he becomes detached from nature. He recalls having seen an eagle carry a snake off into the sky with mixed emotions: “It was an awful, holy sight, full of magic and meaning.” He remembers an eagle caught in a ceremonial hunt: “The sight of it filled him with shame and disgust.”
In the end, Abel returns to the reservation and reestablishes his relationship with nature by running, opening his lungs and his whole being to where he is: “He could see at last without having to think.”