Khandakar Shahin Ahmed | DUJES Volume 26 | March, 2018

Remapping Places: Storytelling and Identity in Momaday’s House Made of Dawn and Mamang Dai’s Legends of Pensam


Khandakar Shahin Ahmed
Assistant Professor, Department of English, Dibrugarh University, Dibrugarh, Assam, India.

In the novels, Legends of Pensam and House Made of Dawn, by foregrounding natural factors as a way to envision place, Mamang Dai and Momaday respectively propose that human identity and culture may essentially be constituted by their local bioregion rather than by national or other more common bases of identity. Both the novels foreground the oral storytelling traditions of the respective natural communities and the stories testify their oral cultural history of places and beliefs. Legends of Pensam and House Made of Dawn are manifestations of bioregional history to relocate identity in a life-place, i.e., a bioregion is not simply a geographical terrain rather it is essentially a terrain of consciousness which shapes the faith and culture of a particular community who dwells in that terrain.

Northeast Indian Writing, identity, storytelling

…we realise the need to identify ourselves again as belonging to a particular place, a community; and some signs for this lie with our stories. (Dai 2005: 4)

Home is the region of nearness within which our relationship to nature is characterized by sparing and preserving…. Human homecoming is a matter of learning to dwell intimately with that which resists our attempts to control, shape, manipulate and exploit. (Grange 1977:136)

In Legends of Pensam and House Made of Dawn, by foregrounding natural factors as a way to envision place, Mamang Dai and Momaday respectively propose that human identity and culture may essentially be constituted by their local bioregion rather than by national or other more common bases of identity. Both the novels foreground the oral storytelling traditions of the respective natural communities and the stories testify their oral cultural history of places and beliefs. Legends of Pensam and House Made of Dawn are manifestations of bioregional history to relocate identity in a life-place, i.e., a bioregion is not simply a geographical terrain rather it is essentially a terrain of consciousness which shapes the faith and culture of a particular community who dwells in that terrain. Mamang Dai and Momaday reconstruct the oral stories of animistic principles of the Adis and Kiowas respectively who live mindfully and sustainably in their place. Being adherents of the animistic faith, they believe in co-existence with the natural world along with the presence of spirits in their forests and rivers. Rituals, myths, legends, beliefs and daily living patterns of Adis and Kiowas evolve in a bioregional attachment with the place and oral circulations of these cultural markers in the community through generations constitute aboriginal identity:
Bioregionalism is not a new idea but can be traced to the aboriginal, primal and native inhabitants of the landscape. Long before bioregionalism entered the mainstream lexicon, indigenous peoples practiced many of its tenets. (McGinnis 2)

Aboriginal narratives can be viewed as manifestations of cultural memory to revisit oral history of a community and thereby reconstructing and relocating identity in its life-place. It is pertinent to assert that our understanding of human place is largely conditioned by the political interventions of appropriating its history and normalizing set of discursive formations as essential to locate individual’s identity. Ideologically and politically generated “cultural artifacts” (Anderson 6), instead of a community’s bioregional association with a place, are considered to be the yardsticks to map a place and control communities of people. This in fact leads us to the vexed questions nation-state and nationalism and how memories of the past are regulated in cultural and academic practices to attain a desirable loyalty and allegiance of people for the sake of governance. This is a prevalent practice in the erstwhile colonies. Together with this, aboriginal history and sense of place underwent the process of coercion due to the intrusion of colonial modernity. Its manifestation was realized in how oral history and heritage, animistic faith and biotically determined faith system were replaced by documentations, institutionalized laws, and politically sanctioned geographical boundary. A complete new set of discursive practices were put in circulation to normalize whatever was thought to be not normal:
We can demonstrate that, in the face of the unknown, Europeans used their conventional intellectual and organizational structures, fashioned over centuries of mediated contact with other cultures, and that these structures greatly impeded a clear grasp of the radical otherness of the American lands and peoples. (Greenblatt 54)
Colonial modernity in its manifestations to normalize and restore order in the Aboriginal places marked the negation of oral cultural memory and sense of life-place as something obsolete and irrational.

Therefore, it can be rightly asserted that one of the significant temporal markers of postcolonial condition is the formation of nation-state which is not only sanction and normalization of a spatial construct by means of the forces of print-capitalism, but at the same time it is also a tacit re-orientation of the globe in terms of the binary of colonial and postcolonial. This framework attributes ‘colonialism’ as the determining trope of history i.e. non-European places and cultures can be comprehended only in terms of a relation to the “Euro-centered epoch that is over (post-), or not yet begun (pre-)” (McClintock 403). In this sense world’s multitudinous culture are marked either by a retrospective subordinate relation to linear European time or by the apparatus of the nation-state. This temporal division of colonial and postcolonial to map the globe is an inevitable silencing of aboriginal spatial memory. Hence the emergence of aboriginal writings from the different places of the globe is an attempt to restore their oral past, sense of place and reconstruct cultural identity by transcending the politics and limits of the binaries of colonial and postcolonial. This desire to transcend is a reclaiming of the fact that aboriginal place and culture have always already been there. Storytelling in this context is the potential medium to revive and relive oral traditions and thereby relocating aboriginal identity as rooted to its life-place. Aboriginal stories are not politically or ideologically tempered artifacts; rather storytelling is inextricably fraught with the lived experience in a place and how cultural practices, rituals and beliefs evolve in relation to the environment, landscape and natural diversity of that place. Oral storytelling tradition is not confined to a temporal journey in memory but contiguously it is a process of specialization of memory to relocate aboriginal identity. The essential inseparability of place and memory (in the form of oral traditions) facilitates an altogether alternative way of remapping aboriginal places as bioregions. The idea of bioregion defies the idea of place as a geographical terrain and instead of that bioregional ethics conceives a place as a terrain of consciousness.

Mamang Dai’s Legends of Pensam and Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn testify how storytelling is a potential bearer of cultural memory to make sense of a geographical location. Both the works bring to the fore essence of oral storytelling as manifestations of cultural memory rooted to a place, and in fact spatialization of oral stories marks the reconstruction of aboriginal identity. Bioregional memories of Adis in Legends of Pensam and Kiowa tribe in House Made of Dawn are reflective of the limitations of mapping a place as a political boundary grounded by a history of invented memories. However, bringing together of two texts from different locations and contexts requires some justifications. It is not erroneous to say that our perspective and understanding of a place is conditioned by the epistemological categorization of the globe under several heads like: the stratification of first, second and third world, demographic categorization in terms of religion and above all the colonial intervention to divide the globe into Europe and the rest. From the vantage point of these categorizations the bringing together of the above mentioned texts will seem untenable. However, we may try to remap the globe in terms of human community’s rootedness to its place.  The sense of rootedness to a location’s environment and landscape are inseparable entities of faith and rituals of natural aboriginal communities. This is, in fact, an alternative way of remapping a place. This paper seeks to study Mamang Dai’s Legends of Pensam and Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn from this stand point.

Aboriginal narratives like Legends of Pensam and House Made of Dawn chart the inextricable relationship between life of the individual and the life of the land. The way the land holds the people, in the same degree the people also hold the land to the core of their living. The reciprocal relationship marks the evolving of a cultural history of lived memory. Oral storytelling of the aboriginal communities, therefore, is an alternative way of understanding a place. It is, indeed, a resistance to, as Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger observe in The Invention of Tradition, the ‘invented tradition’:
‘Invented tradition’ is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity  with the past. In fact, where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past. (Hobsbawm 1)
Hobsbawm and Ranger’s argument is relevant here to understand the apparatus of the aboriginal narratives. For instance, Indian durbar was attributed with false ceremonial rituals as part of ‘invented memory’ of the past to create a new sense of identity which would put in practice a new set of power-relations between the ruler and the ruled. The durbar “whose status as “tradition” was a total fiction-was said to be a great ceremonial pageant designed to be implanted in the Indian memory though it served the British colonial authorities to compel Indians to believe in the age-old history of British imperial rule” (Said 178). In contrary to the propositions of an ‘invented tradition’, aboriginal narratives envision a place and its past as a bioregional history. This reciprocal relationship between a natural community and its landscape is the first principle of any aboriginal narrative.

Mamang Dai in Legends of Pensam and Momaday in House Made of Dawn, by moving away from the existing and given arbitrary political constructs of nation and state, creates an alternative and parallel culture in favour of those that emerged from a biotically determined framework, primarily based on natural communities. Both novels capture the bioregions of the Adis of Arunachal and Kiowas of Walatowa and their practice of animistic faith that is woven around forest ecology and co-existence with the natural world. For the aboriginal natural communities dwelling in their bioregion means to immerse into a place, to be completely engaged to the sensory richness of environment. Their life is determined by the natural factors and their close association with the place and its nature shaped their faith, culture and history. This bioregionally determined life and culture of the Adis and Kiowas put forward an alternative approach to map their place and identity, which is essentially a moving away from the trajectory of nation state and forces of print capitalism. It is pertinent to assert that for these aboriginal communities their bioregion is their ‘life-place’— a unique region definable by natural rather than political boundaries with an ecological character capable of supporting a unique human community:
Bioregionalism is a body of thought and related practice that has evolved in response to the challenge of reconnecting socially-just human cultures in a sustainable manner to the region-scale ecosystems in which they are irrevocably embedded. (Aberley 14)
Storytelling, as bearer of aboriginal history, is a living medium of tracing the origin of aboriginal people as natural communities. Stories of how Adis and Kiowas evolve as aboriginal communities associate them with natural entities i.e. like different living organisms of nature they are also born in spiritual design of nature. Both Mamang Dai and Momaday trace the oral lineage of their origin to a state of ‘nothingness’. The state of ‘nothingness’ stands for a memory and a location which are unmediated by political or ideological ‘invention of tradition’. This rootedness in the natural landscape of a place should be the base, as recollected by both the authors, for mapping the place and locating the identity of the aboriginals:
From nothingness we have come to be born under the stars, and almighty Donyi-polo, the sun and the moon, whose light shines on all equally, is the invisible force that guides each one of us. (Dai 2006: 57)

Do you see? There, far off in the darkness something happened. Do you see? Far, far away in the nothingness something happened. There was a voice, a sound, a word — and everything began. (Momaday 85)

However, this birth of natural communities were “never written down” (Momaday 86) and, hence, compartmentalization and redistribution of geographical locations with the advent of colonial modernity and its aftermath of nation-state formation completely posited aboriginal spatial-cultural history as negations to justify the newly invented memory of a place. In this context, it can be rightly said that writings like Legends of Pensam and House Made of Dawn are a part of cultural urgency to retrieve and relive the oral cultures thereby remapping the place of aboriginal communities. The role of a rhapsodist or a storyteller in an aboriginal community is a significant one as he/she is the bearer of oral cultures through generations.

In Legends of Pensam, Hoxo listens to the stories of cultural practices and spiritual beliefs from the rhapsodist who “along with the dancers have arrived at the crucial point in the narration of their history where they will ‘travel the road’” (Dai 2006: 50). Abel, in House Made of Dawn, was familiarized with Kiowa history by his grandmother:
The stories were old and dear; they meant a great to my grandmother… It was a timeless, timeless thing; nothing of her old age or of my childhood came between us. (Momaday 84)
Revolving around the myths, legends and tradition the Adis, Legends of Pensam relives that part of history which is yet unexposed. The inseparable relationship between the land and its culture is indicated at the very beginning of the novel:
In our language, the language of the Adis, the word ‘pensam’ means ‘in-between’. It suggests the middle, or middle ground, but it may also be interpreted as the hidden spaces of the heart where a secret garden grows. It is the small world where anything can happen and everything can be lived; where the narrow boat that we call life sails along somehow in calm or stormy weather; where the life of a man can be measured in the span of a song. (Dai vii)
This in-between space indicates that as members of distinct communities, human beings cannot avoid interacting with and being affected by their specific place or bioregion. For the Adis their identity is essentially a bioregional identity, a lived experience is association with nature rather than an arbitrary attribute. In narrating the myths and legends of the Adis Legends of Pensam can be read as the bioregional history of that tribe:
Like the majority of tribes inhabiting the central belt of Arunachal, the Adis practise an animistic faith that is woven around forest ecology and co-existence with the natural world. (Dai xi)

The numerous stories of Adis in Legends of Pensam points to the myths and rituals of indigenous people as models of bioregional narratives that reflect and maintain sustainable relationships between humans and their natural environments. Adis believe that all agents of their bioregion are the abode of spirits. The trees, forest, lake, river, as believed by the Adis, bear spirits of either healing power or evil design. For instance, the myth of Birbirik, the water serpent, is in circulation but “no one, for generations now, remembered the name of the first person who had seen it, but the event was fixed in their collective memory” (Dai 09). On a night of heavy rain, a fisherman, who was all alone with his nets by the river, heard a rushing sound as the water pated, and when he looked up at the tree he was sheltering under, he saw a serpent with a head with horns coiled up in the branches looking down at him. He then ran for his life. He never recovered from the effects of that terrible vision and died within a year of wasting illness. Besides this there are other things or agents which represent certain good or evil values; for example, the tooth of a tiger and a wild boar are symbols of luck and success, whereas the aubergine plant growing into a size of a tree, with small poisonous-looking flowers and long bloated fruit, becomes a ghostly tree that creates psychopathic behaviour in people who come under it.   These myths and rituals locate the Adis in the moral space of defining relations and incorporate natural entities into their sense of moral community. Moreover, these practices and beliefs reflect a careful attention to the natural and cultural histories of the Adi bioregion, offering knowledge of local flora, fauna, weather and cultural practices that grew out of those local biological contexts.

However, the bioregion of the Adis and their animistic faith were threatened by the advent of the British colonizers. In Legends of Pensam Mamang Dai charts the circulation of colonialist discourse of modernity and its manifestations in the form of development and compartmentalization between human and natural, rational and irrational. As part of the colonial frontier to penetrate the eastern part of the globe the British undertook the construction of “mysterious Stillwell road that wound through Asia like a giant serpent, meandering more than a thousand miles across three countries…. No other road in the world had taken as high a tool of human lives as this one; it had been dubbed ‘a-man-a mile road’” (Dai 40). The Adis could not come to terms with the endeavour of the Migluns, what they called the British, as Adis are not in a position to envision their location in terms of a watertight compartmentalization of human and nature. The Adis did not create their place of survival by means of exploiting the natural world but it is a ‘life-place’ for them which rather evolve with their animistic belief and faith. The notion of a route to move around or a boundary to demarcate things is essentially realised in a sustainable way which refers to the practice of living within the ecological limits of a place in a manner that can be continued by future generations with no deleterious impact on the environment:
The villages ran into each other and only a tree, a rock or a narrow stream cutting across the path marked the loose boundaries. (Dai 74)
The intrusion of modernity in the form of colonial enterprise vitiated the ecological base of the Adis as a natural community. For them “it was unimaginable, what the migluns were trying to achieve.” The question of animistic faith and life-place is ignored as something limited to rural and pastoral concerned only with agrarian issues. The colonisers did not take into account the bioregional faith of the Adis in their natural environment, instead the life place with all its agents have been associated with sinister implications and projected as a barrier to development:
One officer wrote in his notebook: ‘the forest is like an animal. It breathes all around us and we never know when it will suddenly rise up like a green snake out of decaying vegetation or descend on us like a mantle of bats reeking of blood and venom. The trees are enormous and sinister. They stand all around us and you can feel them looking down and waiting. One fears to move… It is a terrible war and I wish I had never come to record such terror and suffering. (Dai 52)

Therefore, to diminish the ‘terrible’ and ‘sinister’ the migluns did not hesitate to use dynamite. Here, it is not simply a question of destroying the ecology; rather more pertinently it is damaging the bioregional faith of the Adis as something obsolete and insular. This is evident when the old headman sighs: “They think we are a village of horror, but it is not true!” (Dai 55). The faith of the Adis guarantees a sustainable coexistence of man and the animistic world and this coexistence shapes their history and cultural identity. The advent of colonial modernity jeopardized the edifice of Adi bioregion both as a geographical terrain and as a terrain of consciousness:
But the big trees were brought down. The spirits of our ancestors who dwelt in these high and secret places fell with the trees. They were homeless, and so they went away. And everything had changed since then. (Dai 42)
The assault on the animistic faith of the Adis has created a condition of ‘homelessness’ for them. It is not that they are removed from their location but the location is stripped off its specific and unique sense of ‘life-place.’ It can, therefore, be asserted that Mamang Dai in Legends of Pensam challenges the notions of universal truths and values of development, progress and rationality by foregrounding the fact that for an aboriginal community like the Adis human existence is indivisible with landscape in which it takes place.

In House Made of Dawn, Momaday captures the Kiowa community’s inseparable relationship with Walatowa landscape. For the Kiowas their place is not merely a geographical territory; rather it is a spiritual domain of consciousness where components of the natural world create a life-place of animistic faith. A separation from this place of faith leads to spiritual sickness, uncertainty and alienation. In the novel Able, the protagonist, oscillates between the rootedness of his aboriginal heritage on the one hand and the call of the white modern American society. His divided loyalty leads to a state of homelessness. Momaday through the predicament of Abel brings to the fore that Native American aboriginal way of life is essentially rooted to its place. It is a reciprocal relationship between the land and its people. The Kiowas trace their origin as a sun-dance culture and “they do not hanker after progress and have never changed their essential way of life” (Momaday 52). It is through Abel’s struggle to come to terms his identity that House Made of Dawn remaps the place of Kiowas by means of a journey through cultural memory manifested in numerous oral stories.

Abel’s return to Walatowa from the war in The Longhair section of the novel fails because “he had tried in the days that followed to speak to his grandfather, but he could not say the things he wanted; he had tried to pray, to sing, to enter into the old rhythm of the tongue, but he was no longer attuned to it” (Momaday 53). Abel’s inability to speak points to his loss of “old” tongue, which is indicative of his dissociation with the past oral traditions and stories as well:
And yet it was there still, like memory, in the reach of his hearing… Had he been able to say it, anything of his own language — even the commonplace formula of greeting Where are you going” — would once again have shown him whole to himself; but he was dumb. Not dumb — silence was the older and better part of custom still— but inarticulate. (Momaday 53)
Abel’s struggle to come to terms with his place indicates that unlike politically or ideologically constructed subject positions, aboriginal identity is essentially a matter of rootedness to its place. Walatowa as the life-place of Kiowas has a spiritual bearing in the life of the community forming a set of animistic faiths of natural governance. The Kiowas believe that the way their land holds them in the same way they are also attached to their land. This reciprocal relationship, as Able recollects the oral story, is understood in terms of spirits of ‘eagle’ and ‘snake’. At Walatowa the hold of the land (and the reciprocal human willingness to be thus held) manifests as the “snake spirit” of the land, while the human ability to hold the land (and the reciprocal willingness of the living land to be thus held) manifests as the “eagle spirit”.

Abel’s predicament testifies the intervention of the outer forces into the life-place of the Kiowas, i.e., the advent of the white colonizers and the intrusion of colonial modernity attribute Kiowa oral culture with sinister associations to be negated as if sense of a place begins only with arrival of the whites. Abel’s grandmother tells him how their aboriginal community considers their language having a spiritual attachment to its place. Cultural reality and beliefs of Kiowas exist orally in a language which evolves from the bioregional attachment of the people to its place. Therefore, Abel’s grandmother believes:
The word did not come into being, but it was. It did not break upon the silence, but it was older than the silence and the silence was made of it. (Momaday 86)
For Abel’s grandmother “words were medicine; they were magic and invisible” (Momaday 85). However, the white man’s use of the language has completely stripped off the spiritual essence of Kiowa way of communications. Abel makes sense of his grandmother’s story on ‘word’ as he notices how colonial modernity exploited language as a tool of constructing realties to eradicate the oral past and dispossess the Kiowas from their life-place:
In the white man’s world, language, — and the way in which the white man thinks of it — has undergone a process of change… He has diluted and multiplied the Word, and words have begun to close in upon him. He is sated and insensitive; his regard for language—for the Word itself— as an instrument of creation has diminished nearly to the point of no return. (Momaday 85)
The sermons of the Priest of the Sun are primarily retellings of the stories and origin myths of the Kiowa. Momaday uses the character of the Priest of the Sun to tell the stories of the Kiowa, stories that represent the heritage from which Abel feels impossibly far at this moment. Abel says, “he had lost his place… he had known where he was… now he was reeling on the edge of the void” (104). The retelling of the Kiowa myths and the predicament of Abel testify the fact that Walatowa is the life place for aboriginal culture which seek sustain itself with its own bioregional ethics. Therefore, it can be rightly asserted that Mamang Dai’s Legends of Pensam and Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn testify how storytelling is a potential bearer of cultural memory to make sense of a geographical location. Both the works bring to the fore essence of oral storytelling as manifestations of cultural memory rooted to a place, and in fact spatialization of oral stories mark the reconstruction of aboriginal identity.

Works Cited
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