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‘The spirit lives in the voice’

Words from a Bear celebrates the life and art of N. Scott Momaday

Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday


Kiowa writer Navarro Scott Momaday (b. 1934) heralded what is referred to as the “Native American Renaissance” when his novel House Made of Dawn (1968) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Following this sudden success with The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) and his esteemed poetry collection Angle of Geese (1974), Momaday’s literary output paved the way for generations of Native American writers.

Kiowa director Jeffery Palmer takes on the life and vision of Momaday in his new documentary, Words from a Bear (2019). Co-produced by the PBS series American Masters, Momaday is the first Native American artist to be featured on the show in its 30-year history. 

Few documentaries expose an artist in so revelatory a way—capturing what writer Rilla Askew describes on-screen as Momaday’s “ineffable, unfathomable essence.” Askew is not the only Oklahoma writer attesting to Momaday’s influence. Tulsa’s own Joy Harjo, recently named U.S. Poet Laureate, says of Momaday in the film: “The Spirit lives in the voice, so everybody could hear that he was carrying something very profound.”

The milestones of Momaday’s and Harjo’s successes—if separated by 50 years—are important in exposing the truth of Natives living and writing in a country that often overlooks them.

Filmed before she was named the first Indigenous U.S. Poet Laureate in history, Harjo said of Momaday winning the Pulitzer: “To be a Native person and to win that was astounding, it still is. So yes, it opens doors because we were recognized as being literary.”

Palmer tells Momaday’s story by using the same mythic and poetic tone animating the author’s novels and poetry. With Momaday’s personal history as the vehicle, the documentary shows how the writer translates Kiowa oral traditions into modern truths.

“He understands the world in a certain way,” Palmer said. “And has always been able to unpack issues and American history, all these different things he’s unpacked through the lens of a Kiowa person’s eye and what I wanted to do was visually do that.”

Momaday life is explored here, along with the landscapes and traditions that shaped him. Light is shed on several Kiowa oral traditions through animated segments, preserving these cinematically on the one hand and revealing Momaday’s relationship to them on the other.

“I wanted to create an educational opportunity for young people,” Palmer said. “This is our life source. This is what’s going to keep our tribal traditions alive.

Read more about the Circle Cinema Film Festival.

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