The Complaisance of Privilege:
William Eastlake's House Made of Dawn

The Sacred Names

I am not speaking for Clarence Greatwalker.

I am giving away these words for Clarence Greatwalker.

There is one specific element of the novel that I must mention in the context of Momaday's assertions about the preeminence of individual perception over the raw stuff of existence, an element that blossoms with an irony we might never have associated with his work, his use of real names in his fictive world. It is a given of American Indian tradition that the name of a thing is powerful, private, personal, and precious. Momaday participates in this tradition when he chooses to call his personal memoir, The Names. His interviews with Charles Woodard illuminate his thinking about this concept, which he imbues with an almost Gnostic significance. It is an idea, the sanctity of names, that one must associate with his all his work.

One is left to contemplate what may be the most distressing fact about this strangely contrived novel, House Made of Dawn. Momaday choses to "fictionalize" Jemez Pueblo by using its "real" name, Walatowa.[23] He has Francisco recall the "real" name of another Hemish site, Seytokwa and use the actual name of a sacred race, Sumihowa. But even more startling, the personal names used to populate "Walatowa" are the real names of real inhabitants of Jemez Pueblo, some of them living at the time the novel takes place and even when it was written.[24] Elsie Clews Parsons includes in her monograph on the pueblo a detailed census and genealogies, and Momaday has drawn upon that list in his "invention" of the fictional New Mexico village. It is not merely a matter of the local color of appropriate names like Baca and Gachupin. Here is a sampling of names from Parsons, with pages of the novel that mention them: San Juanito Toya (Pecos Eagle Hunt Chief , 24), Juan Chinana (sacristan, 47). Juan Reyes Fragua (albino child, 49), Porcingula Pecos (lover of Francisco, 50, 184). Abel Sando, born 1920, son of Juan Sando and Manuelita Pecos, grandson of Francisco Pecos. Abel Sando is the living cousin and contemporary of historian Joe Sando.[25] Francisco's character itself may derive from the elderly family friend and neighbor of the Momadays at Jemez, Francisco Tosa, who had a son named Abel as well.

This may seem a trivial element, but consider the implications. In the novel, Porcingula Pecos (her full name is given on p. 50 of the novel) is Francisco's lover and a slut by both white and pueblo standards. She sleeps with a number of men, including Mariano, whom she has intercourse with immediately before Francisco ("laughing and full of the devil," she explains being late for her tryst with him: "Mariano had not done with me." HMD 184). Parsons lists three women named Porcingula Pecos in her 1925 genealogies of Jemez. One of them was fourteen years older than Momaday. To try this aspect of the story, imagine that you write a short story with a character in it who is a pathetic, rather sluttish girl, and you use your best friend's daughter's name for the character.

These invasive acts of appropriation, committed on a people with an almost obsessive preference for privacy (Jemez Pueblo is currently closed to outsiders and its ceremonial days are deliberately not publicized), suggest an extraordinary confidence in the primacy of one's personal vision over the values and wishes of the observed community. The casual co-option of names is all the more strange in that it operates illogically. Only a person intimately familiar with the community would recognize the "verisimilitude" it lends the story to name people Toya and Chinana rather than Tenorio and Lujan, but such a person would almost certainly not be reading fiction intended for only the most literate readers, and if he or she were to read it, would be shocked, I think, when they discovered it.

The Complaisance of Privilege

The Slant Truth of ImaginationThe Slant Truth of Imagination
Tradition and the Individual IndianTradition and the Individual Indian
The Sacred NamesThe Sacred Names
Expression Communicates: There's the RubExpression Communicates: There's the Rub
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Essays on Western American Literature