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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Storyteller captures audience, power of language

In front of a spellbound audience, renowned storyteller and artist N. Scott Momaday shared his unique insight into the power of language at Memorial Union Theater Thursday evening.

“And here we are … you and I,” began Momaday, his rich, deep voice recalling the Native American tradition of oral storytelling he draws upon, “in the age-old interaction between speaker and listener.”

Before introducing Momaday, University of Wisconsin Chancellor John Wiley officially welcomed the new academic year and freshman class at the convocation.


Wiley called Momaday “a man of words and letters who understands the importance of the past.” Momaday went on to fulfill Wiley’s promise of a thoroughly stimulating program.

With a flowing mixture of solemn, mystical experience and humorous observations, Momaday, sage-like with white hair, captured the audience’s attention and proved his reputation as a master storyteller. The poet shared quirky epitaphs composed without the benefit of paper and pencil while swimming laps in his pool in the Southwest; each was a “two-lapper” or “four-lapper” depending on its length.

On a more serious note, Momaday told the story of his Indian name. As he put it, “I’m also someone else.”

His Kiowa name translates to “Rock Tree Boy,” a reference to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, an important landmark in the history of the Kiowa people that Momaday called “a monolith of unique character.” He told of his people’s journey in the past from modern-day Montana to Oklahoma and their awe on seeing the impressive rock formation. A traditional story says that seven sisters were once being chased by their brother, who suddenly transformed into a bear. The girls stood on a large tree stump that agreed to save them and which “began to rise into the air.” The bear clawed at the rising pillar of rock, but the seven sisters were borne into the sky as the stars of the Big Dipper.

Momaday told of his attachment to the story.

“I love the story. It is what a story ought to be. In it, the storyteller relates his people to the stars,” he said.

Momaday mystically told of how he was given his name by Prairie Wolf, a venerable old Indian storyteller, after his parents took him to visit Devil’s Tower, the rock tree, as an infant.

“I am the reincarnation of the boy who turned into the bear in the story,” he said, “so that is who I am.”

Here he swung again into his mix of sacred ancestry and comical sense.

“Occasionally I turn into a bear — I don’t mean to alarm you, but I thought you should know,” he said.

The audience, spellbound one moment and chuckling the next, drank it in.

“I thought he had a lot of captivating stories and many interesting experiences to share,” freshman Jewel Casper said after the program.

Momaday further told of his childhood with his family in Oklahoma, his velvety voice rising and falling in a mesmerizing way. Included were stories of his grandfather, the Kiowa’s expression of culture through horses and several poems.

Momaday read a surreal poem entitled “The Great Filamore Street Buffalo Drive” along with a poem about his visit with artist Georgia O’Keefe when she was in her 80s. The story behind the visit put the audience in an uproar.

“I met her in February in the 1970s,” Momaday recalled. “She was wearing a tuxedo and had her hair drawn severely back.”

He said she offered him a drink and he asked for a Scotch and soda. She disappeared into the kitchen, but did not come back for such a long time that he became worried.

“She finally reappeared and said, ‘Oh dear, it’s my maid’s day off and I can’t find the key to the liquor cabinet.’ She suddenly disappeared again into the kitchen. I waited so long that beads of blood appeared on my forehead.” Momaday, nervous by now, heard a big noise, and “finally she returned with my drink on a silver tray. She had taken the doors off of the liquor cabinet at the hinges with a screwdriver. It’s one of the most memorable days of my life.”

The author wound down his talk with a question-and-answer session. One audience member asked him if he had any stories of Badger Medicine, referring to the current “illness” of Alvarez’s squad.

“No,” he said with a smile, “but I know there are some out there.”

Another audience member wanted to know if the power of language had ever scared him. He said it had, and added, “language is a very powerful thing.”

Those present for the Chancellor’s Convocation, having heard N. Scott Momaday intone, “I am the roaring of the rain,” in his rich, majestic voice, know this power exists.

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