Pulitzer-Prize Winning Author Speaks about Oral Tradition in Storytelling

The Dickinsonian   October 11, 2018

By Cristian Tineo

Dickinson and Carlisle community members danced in a circle to the beat of a drum at the behest of Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday, who gave a talk on campus about the importance of oral tradition.

Momaday‘s talk on Saturday, Oct. 6 explored themes of imagination and stories in the context of oral tradition. The event was co-sponsored by the Cumberland County Historical Society and University of East Anglia, and is part of a series of events for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School Centennial Commemoration, which marks the closure of the school in 1918.

Momaday told the crowd of about 290 students, faculty, staff and visitors, “I don’t know how many Dickinson students know about Carlisle, but they ought to know about it.”

During his talk, Momaday said oral tradition is “the matrix of Native American culture.” He recounted how his father would tell him captivating stories, and admitted that though oral tradition can appear fragile, it has a vitality that writing does not.

Momaday discussed four contemporary principles of oral tradition: source, purpose, humility and imagination. He defines imagination as “that which enables us to see beyond reality.” He expressed his hope of sharing the story of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School with as many people as he can.

Nomi Small ’19, a sociology major, has taken a number of courses on Native American history.

“I really think that Momaday is very good at articulating a lot of the challenges that Indigenous peoples have been facing,” said Small after the lecture. “He’s really revolutionizing the way that we talk about things… American history isn’t what we’ve been learning in textbooks.”

After his talk, Professor of English and American Studies Sharon O’Brien commented on the fact that many students do not know the significance of Carlisle’s history with Native Americans. She said, “In terms of our curriculum, in terms of what we teach, we do teach Native American studies, though on a very temporary basis, there’s as yet no institutional commitment to Native American studies at Dickinson. So, we have not yet done what he called for.”

Prior to Saturday night, Momaday met with students of Assistant Professor of English Sheela Jane Menon’s 101 World Literature class. Menon said was inspired by Momaday’s commitment to “talk in a really intimate and inspirational way to a group of twenty students…”

“This is really one of the highlights of my professional career, period,” said Menon.

Momaday also attended a gathering with a group of students and faculty of the English and creative writing departments for lunch and he later met with Native American descendants for a feast and to share stories.

In addition to the Dickinson and Carlisle communities, some visitors came from New Mexico, Arizona and Alaska to attend the centennial commemoration. Momaday himself flew to Pennsylvania from New Mexico.


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