To explain his writing process and the importance of the book, Momaday suggests that the responsibility of the imagination is to tell an old story in a new way. For him, the Kiowa migration is a blend of history, legend, and personal and cultural memory—history and imagination, he insists, express reality in equally valid ways. He states that the three major components of this story are the landscape, a time that is long past, and the enduring spirit of the Kiowas. Momaday explains that he is interested in telling this story in a way that reflects the way the mind understands, remembers, and creates traditions. The journey to Rainy Mountain, he suggests, is at its core an expression of the identity and spirit of the Kiowas, one that should be understood as beautiful rather than tragic.
The idea that imagination and history are equally important to a person’s concept of reality is key to this book. Because the Kiowas understood history through an oral tradition of stories that mixed fact and myth, a simple retelling of the provable facts of Kiowa history might account for the passage of time, but would entirely exclude any notion of how the Kiowas understood their own relationship to the past, and even their values and culture in the present. Momaday is emphasizing again that the book should be understood as a cultural history rather than a literal, linear one. Its goal is to account for the identity and culture of the Kiowas, which Momaday insists is an optimistic project rather than a tragic one.
Momaday then moves to give context for the mysterious history of the Kiowas, noting that they came from western Montana three hundred years beforehand, speaking a language that linguists have never been able to classify. Their journey southward was one “towards the dawn,” and that led to a “golden age” for the Kiowas. As they moved, they befriended the Crows, who introduced them to Plains culture and religion (including the Sun Dance, and Tai-me, the Sun Dance doll at the center of their worship). The Kiowas acquired horses on their journey, which transformed them into nomads and ruthless hunters. Through this journey they were liberated from an exclusive focus on survival, and they became dignified and visionary. Momaday notes the echo between this journey and the Kiowa creation myth that the tribe emerged into the world from a hollow log—that myth, like the tribe’s documented history, reflects a journey from darkness to light.
This is the true Kiowa origin story as Momaday sees it. Instead of being concerned with the literal formation of the tribe (a deeper origin than Momaday considers, perhaps because that history is unknown), he focuses on the Kiowa transformation into the great people he believes it was their nature to become. As such, the Kiowa “origin” story includes the influences of other tribes, the introduction of new religion, the adoption of horses, and the transformation of the Kiowa lifestyle. In other words, Momaday seems to suggest that the Kiowas did not start out as being fully Kiowa, but had to be made fully Kiowa over the course of a long journey. This is an unusual way to frame an origin, but it’s a particularly generous one in that it gives ample credit to the non-Kiowa influences that gave the Kiowas some of the most valued aspects of their culture. This is also a moment in which Momaday asserts the similarity between myth and historical fact; the Kiowa origin myth and the known history of the Kiowas both tell a story with a similar plot, one in which the Kiowas move from darkness into light.