House Made of Dawn/Allusions and References

Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current scienceEdit

American Indians and World War IIEdit

Some 25,000 American Indians served in the military during World War II. Described as the first large-scale exodus of indigenous peoples from the reservations since the defeat of their ancestors by whites in the 1800s, the international conflict was a turning point in American Indian history. Men of native descent, drafted into the military like other American males, enjoyed full integration into the armed forces. Their fellow soldiers often held them in high esteem, in part since the legend of the tough Indian warrior had become a part of the fabric of American historical legend. White servicemen sometimes showed a lighthearted respect toward American Indian comrades by calling them "chief."

The resulting increase in contact with the world outside of the reservation system brought profound changes to American Indian culture. "The war," said the U.S. Indian commissioner in 1945, "caused the greatest disruption of Indian life since the beginning of the reservation era," affecting the habits, views, and economic well-being of tribal members (Bernstein, p. 131). The most significant of these changes was the opportunity—as a result of wartime labor shortages—to find well-paying work. Yet there were losses to contend with as well. Altogether, 1,200 Pueblo Indians served in World War II; only about half came home alive.

Postwar readjustmentEdit

American Indian veterans encountered varying degrees of difficulty in re-entering tribal life after World War II, depending on the individual and the tribe. Some tribes gave their veterans a hero's welcome; others treated them as if they had been sullied by their contact with whites. The Zuni Pueblo insisted that their servicemen be cleansed in a purifying rite before reinitiating contact with tribal members; on the other hand, the Navajo viewed their veterans as a positive force, whose service and contact in the war portended progress for the tribe. Meanwhile, with peace came a diminished respect from the outside world. Having been treated as equals and esteemed as warriors during the war, the Indians now felt acutely the sudden loss of their former status once they removed their uniforms, returning once again to second-class status in the eyes of many whites.

Prejudice was evident in the decline of the economic fortunes for American Indians in the postwar years. Some veterans earned subsistence checks of $90 a month from the government while receiving agricultural training. But these payments were only temporary, and long-term career positions on reservations in New Mexico, where much of House Made of Dawn takes place, were limited. Veterans tried to cope by moving to cities; the Indian population in urban centers more than doubled (from 24,000 to 56,000) from 1941 to 1950. Some veterans, like Abel in the novel, moved to California cities only to experience little success there. More than three thousand Indians lived in San Francisco and Los Angeles after the war; fewer than five hundred, or a sixth of them, were able to find steady jobs. Tellingly, the median income for urban male Indians was $1,198 a year, in contrast to $3,780 for the white male population.

Though assimilation into the general population may have seemed a relatively easy matter for urban Indians—in contrast to those remaining on the reservations—often the opposite was true. Many urban Indians came to identify more strongly than before with their "Indianness" and tended to form American Indian enclaves in the city, with members from different tribes banding together in pan-Indian groups that gave rise to new mixtures of traditions. In the novel Abel moves from Jemez to Los Angeles, where he meets both Ben Benally, a Navajo, and John Big Bluff Tosamah, a Kiowa. Elements of all three indigenous peoples—the Jemez, Navajo, and Kiowa—manifest themselves in the novel. Though the main character Abel hails from Jemez, for example, the title House Made of Dawn is drawn from Navajo lyrics that he learns from Ben in the city.


House Made of Dawn reaches back, through the words of Reverend Tosamah, to the late 1800s, a time of defeat for buffalo-hunting tribes such as the Kiowa. Their Chief Satanta was arrested and kept under close guard in Texas. The government sought to restrict other Kiowas to an area within ten miles of Fort Sill (Oklahoma) by the end of 1874. But a large number rebelled, taking refuge, along with some Comanches, in Palo Duro Canyon (Texas), where they intended to live off the buffalo as in the past. They erected tepees in the canyon and amassed winter supplies, until U.S. troops stormed the tepees and slaughtered a thousand of the rebels' ponies. Forced to surrender, the rebels were disarmed and those identified as ringleaders were imprisoned. Three years later, his people defeated, Satanta committed suicide, throwing himself out of his prison hospital window.

From the late 1800s until well into the twentieth century, the Kiowa and other native groups were subject to a series of reversals in Indian policy at the hands of the U.S. government. After forcing most indigenous peoples of the southeastern United States and Plains region into so-called Indian Territory in the 1830s, federal policy then restricted them to smaller swaths of land as white settlers began populating what would become the states of Nebraska and Kansas. Next came the Dawes Act of 1887, which attempted to break up reservations by allotting 160-acre parcels to individual Indian families—many of which were sold to whites. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, however, ended allotment, restored tribal lands to indigenous peoples, and did an about-face by promoting the survival of reservations. This benevolent attitude was reversed with the relocation and termination policies of the early 1950s, which attempted to eliminate tribes as political entities. Much of House Made of Dawn takes place in 1952, the year the government adopted a widespread relocation program that offered incentives for American Indians to move off the reservations and into cities. The inducements usually included bus tickets as well as the initial costs of food, shelter, and job training. The relocation policy dovetailed with the government's aim of ending the special identity of Indians and assimilating them into the general population. This goal became official in 1953 with the adoption of the termination policy. Its ultimate intention was to sever ties between the federal government and tribal entities, and thus eliminate the separate status of the "Indian."

Of most relevance to House Made of Dawn is the relocation policy. It responded to concerns about American Indian soldiers and war production workers who grew accustomed to earning wages in wartime and then returned to reservations where there were few wage positions to fill. The relocation policy, however, proved far from successful, as portrayed in the novel. Abel's attempt at city living is a dismal failure, as was the case for many real-life Indian veterans. In fact, his postwar path—returning to Jemez, moving to a city, then coming back to the reservation—was far from uncommon: "Even though most Indians initially returned [to the reservations]; many became quickly discouraged and left, only to reappear months later after unsuccessful attempts to readjust to life in the non-Indian world" (Bernstein, p. 133). Sooner or later, at least one third of the relocated moved back to the reservation.


In 1858 the U.S. Congress confirmed an old Spanish land grant to the Pueblo of Jemez (called Walatowa by the Indians themselves), and a 1906 presidential order, signed by Theodore Roosevelt, set aside the initial lands of reservation. It encompasses close to 90,000 acres (360 km²) in north-central New Mexico and is home to residents whose bloodline has become mixed over the years. Doggedly resisting the Spanish conquistadores who invaded the area, the Jemez fled to Navajo and Hopi country, where they remained for a decade or two. Along with such contact came a mixture of Jemez with Navajo and Hopi blood.

By 1728 the Jemez had re-established their village at the Jemez River, naming it Walatowa, which meant "Village of the Bear." They survived for the next century before being joined in 1838 by twenty survivors of the expiring Pecos Pueblo, called "Bahkyula" by the Indians ("Bahkyush," a term used in House Made of Dawn, designates the people of the Pecos Pueblo). One of the immigrants, Francisco Kota, had two daughters, the first of whom married an albino, Juan Reyes Fragua, a real-life source for the albino character in the novel. Excerpts from the diary of a Roman Catholic missionary appear in the novel, mentioning a child born to "Manuelita & Diego Fragua. It is what is called an albino whiter than any child I have seen before.... It is given a name Juan Reyes" (Momaday, House Made of Dawn, p. 50).

The sun dance and the peyote religionEdit

The Kiowa observe the Sun Dance rite, a renewal ceremony performed in the past to settle quarrels, celebrate the harvest, maintain a plentiful buffalo population, and to bring about victory in battle, success in marriage, and healing of the sick. Wooden skewers were inserted into the folds of skin in the chest or the back of participants. A leather rope was fastened at one end to the skewer and at the other to the top of the Sun Lodge, so that the dancers dangled in mid-air until the skewers broke their flesh free. The federal government first outlawed the Sun Dance in 1881; it would be revived on the Great Plains in the late 1950s, just a few years after the novel takes place.

Also closely tied to the Kiowa Indians is the peyote religion, preached by John Big Bluff Tomasah in the novel. It is a religion rooted in belief in the supernatural origin of the hallucinogenic peyote cactus and in its ability to induce miracles. The Kiowas used peyote before they settled on their reservation in the 1870s, but it took several more decades for its usage to spread to other tribes. The religion gained enough adherents in Oklahoma and Nebraska to form a loose inter-tribal association in 1906 and then to incorporate as the Native American Church in 1918. Over the next few decades, the movement spread to the Southwest and the West Coast, with various Kiowas distinguishing themselves as some of the religion's leaders. In the novel, Tosamah promotes the faith, which involves eating the peyote buttons and experiencing their hallucinatory effect. The aim is to gain new vision, and "the curative power of Peyote is the vital point" (Stewart, p. 332).

The night chantEdit

The title of the novel, House Made of Dawn, is drawn from lyrics in a Navajo ceremony—the Night Chant. In Navajo healing, the Night Chant ceremony is administered as a cure for most types of head ailments, including mental disturbances. The ceremony, conducted over several days, involves purification, evocation of the gods, identification between the patient and the gods, and the transformation of the patient. Each day entails the performance of certain rites and the creation of detailed sand paintings. On the ninth evening a final all-night ceremony occurs, in which the dark male thunderbird god is evoked in a song that starts by describing his home:

In Tsegihi [White House],

In the house made of the dawn,

In the house made of the evening light

                                (Sandner, p. 88)

The medicine man proceeds by asking the god to be present, then identifying the patient with the power of the god and describing the patient's transformation to renewed health with lines such as "Happily I recover/Happily my interior becomes cool" (Sandner, p. 90). The same dance is repeated throughout the night, usually forty eight times. Altogether the Night Chant ceremony takes about ten hours to perform, and it ends at dawn.

Events in history at the time the novel was writtenEdit


By the late 1960s, when the novel was written, the U.S. government had reformed Indian policy yet again. After the dismal failure of attempts to legislate assimilation and tribal termination, a new policy of self-determination for indigenous peoples was adopted. It aimed to preserve the distinct status of the separate American Indian peoples and to make them independent of federal control—while still providing them with federal support. Self-determination would become official policy in 1970. During the previous decade, in which the civil rights movement grew in force and acceptance, there arose widespread concern for minorities. The movement at first had little impact on American Indians; after generations of broken treaties and policy reversals, most tended to distrust any leader who promised a better way of life through government intervention. Moreover, in the early sixties, leaders of the civil rights movement promoted desegregation and empowerment of the individual—concepts contrary to Indian goals, which involved community empowerment and segregation from the mainstream. Eventually, though, the civil rights movement would have a strong impact on Indians and their push for fair treatment under the law. This was evident as early as 1964, when the National Indian Youth Congress adopted the techniques of black civil rights leaders, filing lawsuits against what the activists argued were discriminatory practices.

Jemez runnersEdit

As much as 70% of the 1,890 Jemez Indians were living on their reservation lands in the early 1970s. Though by then an increasing number were switching to wage-earning work rather than agriculture, the residents continued to raise chili peppers, corn, and wheat, to speak their native language, and to maintain customary practices.

Running, an old Jemez pastime and ceremonial activity, grew even more popular than it had been before World War II. Prior to the advent of television at Jemez, tales of running feats had been a major form of entertainment on winter nights. Races continued to hold their ceremonial place as the years passed, their purpose being to assist the movement of the sun and moon or to hasten the growth of crops, for example. At the same time, they became a popular secular sport. The year 1959 saw the first annual Jemez All-Indian Track and Field Meet, won by runners from Jemez seven times in the first ten years. A Jemez runner, Steve Gachupin, won the Pike's Peak Marathon in 1968, the year the novel was published, setting a record by reaching the top in just 2 hours, 14 minutes, 56 seconds.