In his masterpiece novels House Made of Dawn and The Ancient Child, N. Scott Momaday writes about the Plains Culture of the Kiowa during their glorious century of hunting buffalo and fighting on horseback from Wyoming to Oklahoma. In describing the essential character of this robust and self-assured people at the peak of their spiritual power and influence, Momaday uses terms like noble, courageous, honorable, and dignified. He portrays their way of life as delightful and full of joy and wonder and awe.
Momaday also uses the term deicide in conveying how the loss of the buffalo and the Sun Dance broke the spirit of these magnificent horsemen and allies of the Comanche and Crow. Using the metaphors of sight on the endless plains, he speaks of incomparable visions, a good life culminating in the achievement of perspective.
He tells us of how his warrior ancestors failed to comprehend the mechanical aggression of the U.S. Cavalry — utterly devoid of the values the Kiowa deemed most sacred — and their subsequent bewilderment and horror in the face of such inhumanity.
The Plains Culture, as a way of life in its totality, of course, no longer exists, but the underlying values are still possible if challenging to embrace. An opportunity to accomplish a good death.
(Jay Taber — recipient of the Defender of Democracy award — is an author, columnist, and research analyst at Public Good Project.)