Documentary focuses on Pulitzer winner Momaday

Mike Easterling

FARMINGTON — Even in his eighties, poet and writer N. Scott Momaday remains an imposing figure. That’s partly because of his impressive physical presence, but also because of his artistic accomplishments — he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969 for the novel “House Made of Dawn” and received the National Medal of Arts in 2007 from President George W. Bush — and, perhaps most of all, his voice.

Videographer Charles "Boots" Kennedye captures footage of N. Scott Momaday reading from his work at the author's home in Santa Fe.

It is that deep, booming, sonorous instrument that in many ways serves as his trademark characteristic. So when the power of that voice is combined with Momaday’s own lyrical writing, the result is often a spellbinding experience for the listener.

It certainly was for director Jeff Palmer and the crew of his new documentary on the legendary Native writer and Santa Fe resident, “N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear.”

“I was worried about the voice,” Palmer acknowledged by phone from Oklahoma City last week as he recalled his feelings leading up to his first meeting with Momaday last spring when shooting on the project began. Palmer, a University of Central Oklahoma mass communication professor and filmmaker, was aware of Momaday’s age and was concerned that the passage of time might have withered the poet’s formidable voice, rendering it muted, thin or hollow.

Palmer needn’t have worried.

“It’s just as powerful, just as strong as ever,” he said. “I remember we did a shoot on the second day we were there (in Santa Fe), and he was reading several of his poems. There was a moment when I realized what we were hearing was greatness, on the level of Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson. When you’re hearing someone like that reading from their own work, it comes out in a much different way than it does as a text. … You realize this is truly a master of his craft.”

For Desiree Hill, the film’s producer, the experience was no less memorable. She compared Momaday’s vocal timbre and cadence to that of actor James Earl Jones, explaining that the writer had a way of changing an inflection here or adding a pause there that changed the meaning of a phrase, adding a new dimension to an already complex piece of work.

Filmmaker Jeff Palmer plans on completing his documentary film "N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear" in August. The film will be included in the "American Masters" series on PBS.

But Palmer said those won’t be the only surprises for viewers of the film, which is being produced for inclusion in the Emmy-winning “American Masters” series on PBS and is due for completion in August. The behind-the-scenes happenings that led to Momaday becoming the first Native American to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature are a big part of the story, as are the writer’s formative experiences living on Jemez Pueblo northwest of Albuquerque as a teenager.

For the director — who, like his subject, was born in Oklahoma and is a member of the Kiowa Nation — the opportunity to tell Momaday’s story is a tremendous career and artistic opportunity. But given their shared background, he also feels an enormous responsibility to do justice to Momaday’s life.

“He really wants this story to be told,” Palmer said. “He really feels the immediacy of it. And I think he has offered some commentary he didn’t necessarily have to offer. But he’s somebody who always feel comfortable in front of a camera, and it’s been a wonderful thing of working on this documentary.”

Palmer was approached by PBS officials who were impressed by his most recent film, “Isabelle’s Garden,” a short documentary about a Choctaw girl in southeastern Oklahoma who, despite living in poverty, shares the bounty of her garden with members of her community. It wound up being named one of the top five films in the Sundance Institute Short Film Challenge in 2015 and brought Palmer a measure of success he had never experienced.

“I kind of lived in that short film space for many years, whether it was documentaries or experimental work,” he said, explaining that his wife, Youngsun Yun, is also his creative partner. “So that film was really a transportation point for both of our careers. It changed the landscape for us.”

Palmer was immediately enthusiastic about doing the Momaday film when “American Masters” executive director Michael Kantor called to discuss the project with him in December 2015. Not only had Palmer grown up with Momaday’s works during his youth in Oklahoma, he had a stronger, more personal connection to the writer that he hoped would pay off.

“My father (Gus Palmer) is a Kiowa linguist and an author of fiction and poetry,” Palmer said. “He and Scott were close friends when he was younger.”

The crew of "N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear" sets up a shoot on Jemez Pueblo in October.

Given the trust and understanding that already existed between the two men, Palmer opted to have his father conduct the on-camera interviews of Momaday rather than do them himself.

“I think it’s a lot more comfortable for two elders to talk to each other,” Palmer said. “It really eased the tension that can sometimes happen between a subject and a director on a documentary.”

Hill said that decision by Palmer paid off in spades.

“To hear this Kiowa linguist and literary scholar speaking to a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer to poet, to hear the two to them talking to one another made it even better,” she said. “The interview was really a conversation between the two of them.”

The elder Palmer often began a line of questioning about Momaday’s work by explaining how he had interpreted it, then asking the author for clarification, she said. Momaday would respond by explaining his intention and describing the symbolism.

But every once in a while, Hill said, the film’s subject would turn the tables and pose a question to the linguist, asking for a pronunciation of a Kiowa term he wasn’t expressly familiar with. Those interactions illustrated the fact that, even though was born in the heart of Kiowa country in Lawton, Okla., Momaday hadn’t spent much time there. He left Oklahoma at early age with his family to relocate first to Arizona and later to New Mexico, where he would graduate from high school and then earn his bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico.

“I think the majority of his life was spent in New Mexico,” Palmer said. “It’s really home to him, more than Oklahoma — Jemez Pueblo, Gallup, those are the places he grew up. He really considers himself a New Mexican.”

In fact, Palmer said, it is clear that Momaday is in many ways more comfortable with the traditions, languages and cultures of the Navajo, Apache and Jemez people that he interacted with regularly as a boy than he is with those of the Kiowa.

Executive producer Michael Kantor, left, Jill Momaday, executive producer Shirley Sneve, author N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa linguist Gus Palmer and filmmaker Jeff Palmer are pictured at the author's home in Santa Fe.

“He has a huge connection to the Navajo people,” Palmer said. “He talks a lot about … how he saw the Navajo people came riding to their Feast Days in a wagon the first time. That was a profound moment for him, because the next year, there were fewer wagons, and the next year, they came in cars. It was as if he had witnessed something he would never see again.”

His time on the Jemez Pueblo was important to Momaday, Palmer believes, but it was the writer’s exposure to the people of the Navajo Nation that would go on to inform much of his work.

“Jemez was a stopping point,” he said. “But it’s through the Navajo people, through their origin stories, through their ceremonies, that he pushed his work into those areas. He also knows more Navajo (language) than Kiowa — that’s how much time he spent with them.”

Palmer said he anticipates that about half the film will wind up being shot in Oklahoma, with the rest being shot in New Mexico. The film’s crew has made several trips here to conduct interviews and shoot landscapes, and Palmer has chosen to make another unusual choice for a documentary in terms of how he addresses some aspects of Momaday’s life.

“We’re doing a lot of shooting of dramatizations of his life,” he said. “It’s difficult to do documentaries of a writer’s life because they’re not performance artists — they sit and they write.”

Palmer is trying to illustrate particular episodes from Momaday’s life by using those landscapes and some readings of Momaday’s work by other well-known Native writers who were influenced by him, including Rilla Askew, Joy Harjo and Sherman Alexie.

Palmer understands that taking such an approach may open him up to criticism from those who consider that the antithesis of making a documentary, but he maintains he’s crafting those scenes with as light a touch as possible.

“It’s dramatization, it’s not fictionalization,” he said. “I’m using his words to (recreate) these moments in his life.”

It was during a visit to Jemez Pueblo in late October than one of the film’s pivotal sequences was shot. During an interview, Momaday had revealed that when he was 17, he found himself trapped on the side of a mesa after he had gone wondering on the pueblo one day and was only able to reach safety after a precarious trip down.

“When he told this story, he said he saw something in his life that made him want to explore the aesthetic beauty of the world,” Palmer said. “He’s not a political writer, and he’s been criticized for that over the years … But he truly lives every day of his life that way. He’s had this second chance, and he wants to show people the beauty of life.”

As the film’s producer, it has been Hill’s job to set up many of the interviews and arrange access for the crew to the places that Momaday frequented as a child. She was particularly wowed by the locations they shot on Jemez Pueblo in the fall, with the sky a crisp blue and the bosque in full color.

“The landscape is almost another character in the documentary,” she said.

Hill — one of the few non-Natives on the crew — said she had little idea what she was getting into when Palmer asked for her help. The two are faculty members at UCO and had been looking for a project to work on together for quite some time. Hill’s background is in television news, and she had only recently begun exploring the feature documentary field, though she said she has produced many television specials.

But she is also an avid reader, and the chance to get to know Momaday and his work has been a revelation for her.

“I didn’t have a lot of familiarity with his work,” she said. “We don’t study that in traditional American literature, and that’s a travesty, because this work is as traditional as it gets. His work is overlooked in the traditional study of literature we all have growing up.”

One of Hill’s more significant contributions to the film was her ability to secure the crew access to some areas of Jemez Pubelo that are normally off limits, and she credited Lynn Toledo, executive assistant to Jemez Pueblo Gov. David Yepa, for helping her navigate that.

“It was complicated, but for good reason,” she said. “They don’t let just anybody on their land.”

Hill knew how important the Jemez Pueblo footage was to the project, so she persisted.

“It took a long, long time,” Hill said. “It wasn’t a case of pick up the phone, call and do it next weekend. They operate on a tribal calendar, so they didn’t know when we could do it. We had to be patient about when this would work for them, and we had the luxury of time. We wanted to do the shoot a lot earlier than we did, but we had other things we wanted to focus and prioritize, too. … I realized they have a different pace to their lives.”

Hill noted that Palmer made a point of hiring mostly Native crew members, and that fact likely helped facilitate much of that Jemez Pueblo access.

“It really was special to work with them and to be allowed to go into their sacred spaces,” she said.

Footage for the upcoming documentary "N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear" is shot at Jemez Pubelo in October.

Hill also tracked down an important interview subject: Frances McCullough, who served as the editor for “House Made of Dawn.” She and Momaday had been graduate students together at Standford — a time and place that also included the likes of heavyweights Larry McMurtry (author of “Lonesome Dove,” “The Last Picture Show” and “Terms of Endearment”) and Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Sometimes a Great Notion”), Hill noted — and McCullough championed the book to the publisher she was working for, Harper & Row.

Hill said McCullough’s perspectives for the film were interesting because they addressed how unusual the situation surrounding publication of the book was — a young, female editor, practically unheard of among the old boy-dominated world of book publishing in the 1960s, working on a groundbreaking book by a Native author.

Palmer understands how important the film could be to the small but accomplished Kiowa Nation and the Native population as a whole, but he’s especially pleased that its inclusion in the “American Masters” series means that it will be exposed to a large, diverse audience. He hopes the film reinforces Momaday’s greatness and exposes his work to younger readers who may not already be aware of him.

Of course, Palmer himself has a lot at stake personally with the documentary, explaining that not many young directors get a forum as prominent as “American Masters” through which to craft their first feature-length film. Nor are they typically afforded the opportunity to profile a personality as important as Momaday.

Fortunately, he said, he feels like he was able to quickly establish a rapport with the writer that has made the process of filming of the documentary unusually smooth.

“I’m telling him exactly what I’m thinking as we’re filming, and we’ve executed it,” Palmer said. “Our relationship, I think has been based on an understanding between two artists. This is one of the greatest things I’ve experienced as part of my career. To be able to talk with somebody on such an intimate basis about their work, I think is one of the greatest things I’ve done.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 5050-564-4610.