American Masters examines the enigmatic life and mind of National Medal of Arts-winner Navarro Scott Momaday, the Kiowa novelist, short-story writer, essayist and poet. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “House Made of Dawn” led to the breakthrough of Native American literature into the mainstream.
The documentary delves into the psyche behind the celebrated author and visually captures the essence of Momaday’s writings. Original animation, historical photos and aerial landscapes complement interviews with indigenous authors Rilla Askew (“Fire in Beulah”) and Joy Harjo, the first Native American United States Poet Laureate; actors Robert Redford, Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges and James Earl Jones; and Richard West, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, to reveal Momaday’s creative core.
“I describe my filmmaking as a personal exploration of Native American life in 21st-century America,” said director Jeffrey Palmer, an Oklahoma native and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. “Much like N. Scott Momaday, I was a young Kiowa artist growing up in the shadows of the Wichita Mountains, dealing with issues of poverty, racism and marginalization. I also experienced the triumphs of using art to maintain the stories of my people, a feeling of respect and honor that I will always present in my work.”
Born in 1934 in Lawton, Oklahoma, Momaday grew up on several reservations across New Mexico, including Jemez Pueblo, where his imagination ripened and he showed superior writing skills as a young mission student. In 1958, he earned a B.A. in political science from the University of New Mexico. The film covers Momaday’s prolific years as a doctorate fellow at Stanford University, his transformative Pulitzer Prize for Fiction win in 1969 and his later works that solidified his place as the founding member of the Native American Renaissance in art and literature, influencing a generation of fellow Native American artists, scholars and political activists.
Although his heritage is a central theme, Momaday’s work asks universal questions: what are our origins and how do we connect to them through our collective memories? N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear illuminates how Momaday has grappled with these questions, his identity and the challenges of being a Native American artist in the 20th and 21st century.
The documentary world premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2019.