For two years in the early ’90s, Jill Scott Momaday drove one day a week to Jemez Springs to visit her Grandmother Natachee. “I’d bring a bag of groceries, a nice bottle of red wine, and it would be just me. We’d sit all day, telling stories.” She stares inside, remembering. “Getting to do this was very important to me. Grandmother Natachee was a really strong woman—maybe 5’2”, if that. She was a spitfire, a hellion! Everyone said I looked and acted just like Grandmother Natachee.” Jill laughs, adding, “Thank God I got the tall genes in the family!” Her grandfather, Jill says, was Kiowa; her grandmother was “mixed blood”: Cherokee, English and French; her father, author N. Scott Momaday is seven-eighths Kiowa. Her mother is German, Irish and Jewish. As the middle daughter of three (later four), Jill is the only one who took after the Kiowa ancestors; her sisters are light-skinned and blue-eyed. “I was searching,” she says, “learning who I was through my grandmother and my dad, connecting with old places, people and their way of life. Each time I drove away, I’d have tears streaming down my face, thinking, ‘I’ve got to preserve these stories that are so important to who I am.’”
Throughout their childhood, Jill’s grandparents and dad always told the sisters stories. “When we visited Kiowa relatives, we partook in the Gourd Dance, our sacred Kiowa ceremony, which falls on the 4th of July—that’s my birthday,” Jill says. “I was enmeshed in my Kiowa heritage from a very early time. When I’d dance in that arena, in the park—and it’s hot in July in Oklahoma!—it was so powerful for me.” She says relatives always remarked, “Well, you’re the Indian in the family!” And Jill “embraced and celebrated that. And I loved that it was my birthday; they would place shawls over my shoulders.” The dance and ceremony, she says, “were magical for me, as for my dad.” Jill’s grandfather was born at Rainy Mountain, Okla., in a tipi, where they lived while Jill’s great-grandfather built the homestead. His parents took Jill’s father, an only child, up to Wyoming when he was very small to see a place sacred to their ancestors. An imposing monolith, Devil’s Tower, seemingly appeared straight out of the ground to embrace the sky. According to the ancestral story, seven sisters and their brother were playing in the woods one day—the brother pretending to be a bear, chasing his sisters. Suddenly, the boy actually became a bear, and the sisters ran in terror. As they passed a tree stump, it said, “Climb onto me. I will protect you.” Then it shot up to the heavens, where the sisters became the Big Dipper’s seven stars. No one ever knew what became of the brother. Upon the family’s return home, a Kiowa elder gave the young Momaday his tribal name.
Nature girl as well as voracious reader, Jill loved Joy Harjo’s poetry, cowboy stories and everything by her father. “I read his books again and again and again.” The considerable body of his work is based on his own memories growing up, as well as orally transmitted stories, myths and Kiowa tribal history. Researching and writing his books helped him better understand his ancestry; immersing herself in them helped his middle daughter, thirsty for this knowingness, better understand it for herself. So as a young adult, after additionally steeping herself in her grandmother’s Kiowa stories, Jill felt a strong compulsion to share them with the world, “in my own, woman’s voice,” as she says. “Originally, I thought I would perform a one-woman show,” Jill continues, “weaving together all these stories and dialogues, all these lives. But eventually, I had a family and I couldn’t get to my creative voice—I was too busy being a mother and a wife, continuing my acting career, trying to do it all. But I’ve always written in my journals.”
Jill spent many years juggling all these other aspects of her life; the ancestral stories, meanwhile, she says, she did nothing with but carry them—until recently, when she was struck by the idea to weave them into a feature-length documentary, The Return to Rainy Mountain. Forty-six years earlier, Mr. Momaday published The Way to Rainy Mountain, documenting his retracing of the Kiowa ancestors’ migration from up north to Oklahoma. Jill decided to repeat this journey as a modern-day roadtrip with her father, hanging the stories on this framework.
“The film begins,” says Jill in the trailer’s voice-over, “at the origins of our people, the headwaters of the Yellowstone River.” As the path proceeds from there through breathtaking scenery of Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming and further south, the camera lingers over passing landmarks held sacred by the Kiowa people: Black Hills, Medicine Wheel, Devil’s Tower. “These are places that open our hearts,” Jill’s voiceover continues. “All my life, I’ve wanted to visit these places. Now I can go with my dad.”
The documentary follows two arcs: one tracing this historical migration through the evocative landscape that generated such wisdom-filled ancestral legends; the other focusing on the personal father-daughter reconciliation. In 1969, Jill explains, N. Scott Momaday became the sole Native recipient of a Nobel Prize, “and it changed the course of our lives forever. My parents were separating, they got divorced, and he was gone. Oh, we still had special times together with him after that, but always there was this ‘other thing’ in the way—readings, meeting him coming or going from his trips. One of my sisters said, ‘We get in line with everyone else trying to get his autograph, get him to touch or talk to us—we’re flailing along just trying to get in there, too!’ I remember being at the airport with him one time, and this couple of women hurried up, telling him, ‘You have the voice of God!’ I believed it! Everyone just melts around him.” Of course, Jill also struggled with other aspects of his fame. “There was a lot of pain, a lot of angst that went along with being the daughter of a literary icon, trying to find my own identity and creative voice.”
This ancient migration, she says, “is a huge part of who I am. Being there with my dad, in that sacred space, touching that ground—there’s nothing like it in the world! Making that journey together is giving us an understanding of what this is we both have. It’s amazingly powerful, so emotional and layered with different meanings for me—and it brings me closer to him and to my own self. He’s said to me, ‘Well, Jilly, it means so much to me that these things mean so much to you.’” J
ill describes sitting with her father recently in the arbor outside their Rainy Mountain homestead. “He tells me this story I’ve heard all my life, about his naming. I’ve heard it a thousand times or more. And it’s never enough.” Sitting right there, surrounded by this deeply familiar land, the site of the naming’s occurrence, she hears new tones, new echoes in this story she knows by heart. “He had times like these with his father, too.”
Mr. Momaday’s Kiowa name means Rock Tree Boy. In the documentary, Jill creates a stunning reenactment, haunting and dreamlike, of the sisters and their brother chasing them through the trees. “I identify with the boy,” her father says in the film, following this scene, and suddenly you make the connection of his name with the august landmark, Devil’s Tower. “This story,” he continues, “is a quantum leap of imagination. It explains this feature of the landscape and it also relates us to the stars.”
As filming continues, the New Mexico Women in the Arts plan a September gala fundraising event in celebration of Jill Scott Momaday, “Weaving Legend, Legacy and Landscape Through Filmmaking.” Storytelling, Jill believes, “is the thread that connects all humanity.” In Return to Rainy Mountain, “I hope to dig deeper with my father into the reasons we’ve shared these stories for hundreds of years. Forgiveness, understanding, love,” she adds, “that goes on forever.”
“There’s a feeling of urgency about this now,” Jill continues. “We’re at great risk of moving farther away from Earth, each other, the universe and, ultimately, ourselves. People need hope for the future. I come from a very long line of powerful women. That female voice of incredible wisdom comes from an emotional and intuitive place. My feet are on the ground, touching sacred Earth, my heart is open, and the voice comes from there.” Her mother, she says, has been her rock of Gibraltar. “I’m mixed-blood—I’m a bridge. I love bringing people together, moving through different cultures. I came into this life with this purpose. It’s everything to me. I can’t not do it.”
The idea for the stories’ film format is a special story all its own. “It came through in my Grandmother’s voice,” says Jill. “I was clearing the kitchen table after dinner and her voice rang so clear, it stopped me in my tracks. I asked Darren, who was stirring the fire, “Did you hear that?” He said, “Hear what?” That’s how it began. And she said, “Now it’s time you do this.”
by Gail Snyder