House Made of Dawn: A Closer Look
Preserving House Made of Dawn
In August 2001, the Native Cinema Showcase, organized by the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) with the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, selected a film "classic" as one of the highlighted programs for its inaugural year. The work chosen was Richardson Morse’s independent feature House Made of Dawn. Released in 1972, the film explores the reclaiming of Native identity—a key theme of contemporary Native American life—and it holds an important place in the history of Native American representation in cinema.
Based on Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, the film was scripted by Momaday and Morse, and starred Larry Littlebird in the role of a young Pueblo man torn between the values and traditions of his childhood and the harshness of urban life. That year’s Native Cinema Showcase screening—introduced by W. Richard West, NMAI’s founding director, and discussed by author Scott Momaday and lead actor Larry Littlebird—was electrifying.
While organizing the showcase screening, the NMAI’s Native American Film & Video Festival manager, Michelle Svenson, discovered that only one print of this film existed, a damaged copy owned by Larry Littlebird. New Line Cinema held the original elements for the film in both 16mm and 35mm, which had been used to create a re-edited version of the film in 1988. New Line's rights were to revert to the film's director in 2002.
In an effort to preserve this important moment in the history of the Native American image on film, the Film & Video Center, with the support of the American Film Institute and The Film Foundation, obtained an agreement to create a new print of House Made of Dawn. The NMAI is making the film available to a wide public for research and study, and it will be shown in on- and off-site screenings.
In December 2005, the new print of House Made of Dawn is being screened in both Washington, D.C. (in cooperation with the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) and in New York (at the NMAI’s George Gustav Heye Center). Study copies are available in the NMAI’s Resource Centers and film and media archives, located at the NMAI Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland.
The NMAI now retains all the existing original film elements, as well as a 1-inch video version produced as part of the project, which are housed in the archives. Deluxe Laboratories and Mo Henry in Los Angeles, and Title House Digital in Valencia, California, were instrumental in the work to create the new print.
House Made of Dawn: Restoring Native Voices in Cinema
The University of Missouri-Columbia
I began to see that…if you could get enough Native people working together, there was a possibility that a whole new methodology for making film could become available.
—Larry Littlebird, lead actor, House Made of Dawn
N. Scott Momaday's novel House Made of Dawn, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969, continues to receive abundant critical attention and remains a landmark in the emergence of a literary "Native American renaissance." Richardson Morse's 1972 film version—the first cinematic adaptation of a Native-authored novel—marks a turning point in the history of Native/non-Native collaborative filmmaking. House Made of Dawn broke with mainstream Hollywood representations of Indians in using formal stylistic experimentation to depict interior states of a character from a tribally-specific worldview. The film, like the novel, dramatizes the psychological dislocation of the protagonist, Abel, as he confronts his traumatic history of encounters with non-Native society.
Much of the film's action takes place in Los Angeles—the site of moviemaking itself—framing Abel's story in the context of Hollywood and its images of Indians. In turning to L.A. as both an urban Native community and a location for new modes of film production, the film explores the relationships and boundaries between city and reservation, and between the studio-based film industry and independent filmmaking.
House Made of Dawn offers a view of Native men and women navigating non-Native social institutions in cities, in military and boarding schools, and in courts and prisons. In the 1960s and 1970s these experiences formed the background for a broad-based intensification of indigenous activism. In staging protests, writing novels, making films, and renewing religious practices, Native Americans were reimagining and rejuvenating their political and cultural identities.
The character of Abel represents a generation of individuals and families deeply affected by military service and wage-work during WWII, and by the pressure from federal Indian polices of the 1950s to assimilate into "mainstream" American metropolitan communities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. "Termination" is the general term for a series of resolutions and public laws enacted between 1953 and 1961 that sought to dismantle federal trust relationships with Native tribes. These policies resulted in the erosion of the tribal land base and tribal sovereignty based in treaty agreements.
From the late 1940s through the late 1970s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs ran a controversial "Relocation" program that encouraged Native individuals and families to move to urban areas. In adjusting to the new environment of the cities, Native people arriving from reservations and rural homelands formed connections through community organizations. These centers—represented in House Made of Dawn by the "Indian Friendship House" and Tosamah's Native American Church—supplemented the services of the Relocation offices with material help in the form of groceries and clothes, networks for finding jobs and housing, and friendship and support for day-to-day cultural survival.
In the mid-1960s, a wave of Native American activism began with Pacific Northwest "fish-ins," when Native fishermen, claiming treaty rights and guarantees, deliberately violated state laws restricting fishing. Dramatic clashes with government authorities highlighted longstanding problems of police brutality and judicial inequity against Native people. The reoccupied waters, lands, buildings, roads, battlefields, and blockades became stages for highly symbolic protests—such as the occupation of Alcatraz Island (1969–71), the "Trail of Broken Treaties" march on Washington, and the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in 1972, followed by the siege at Wounded Knee in 1973.
With the strength and momentum of these political actions came a parallel resurgence of Native literary voices. The year that House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction also saw the publication of Vine Deloria's collection of politically incisive essays, Custer Died for Your Sins, An Indian Manifesto. Native writers coming into print in the 1970s—including James Welch, Leslie Silko, Paula Gunn Allen, Roberta Hill Whiteman, Simon Ortiz, Wendy Rose, Gerald Vizenor and others—led to characterizations of the era as a "Native American renaissance."
N. Scott Momaday's innovative voice led the way in achieving institutional recognition and public attention for Native literatures. His use of multiple voices and his re-alignment of literary styles and genres allowed him to merge literary modernism with Native oral forms and a politicized, historical memory. In House Made of Dawn oral literature is not a static relic of past cultural purity—a stage in the evolution of literature—but is rather a contemporary resource in the post-World War II generation's confrontation with Indian policy.
In the 1960s and 1970s, revisionist Hollywood Westerns reimagined Indians as emblems of cultural dissent. The value placed on non-violence in House Made of Dawn is particularly important in the context of "Indian Westerns" clustered in the 1969–71 period, such as Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), A Man Called Horse (1969), Soldier Blue (1970), Little Big Man (1970), and Chato's Land (1971). With their sympathetic but distorted portraits of Indian cultures, such films appropriated images of Indians for counter-culture messages, obscured the specificity and voices of individuals and tribes, and ignored contemporary Native realities.
Morse's House Made of Dawn engages in a very different mode of revisionism from the sensational and aesthetically glorified critiques of violence in films such as Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969). The popular independent film Billy Jack (1971) epitomizes cultural associations of Indians with spectacular powers. But House Made of Dawn's Indian protagonist turns away from cross-racial violence to adopt instead a culturally distinct ceremonial practice. In contrast to a new cinematic grammar of violence based on Western generic icons (cowboy, Indian, settler, gunfighter), House Made of Dawn's hero finds strength in a return to his cultural roots. The film marks a renewal of Native control in the filmmaking process and a strong concern for realism in the casting and performances.
The Story on Screen
House Made of Dawn calls into question the era's Hollywood models. Abel is a Pueblo man traumatized by combat experiences in Vietnam. Upon his return home from the war he comes into conflict with a mysterious albino, and believing that the man is a witch, Abel kills him during a bar fight. After serving a prison sentence, Abel is relocated to L.A. where he is befriended by his Navajo roommate, a white social worker, and a charismatic religious leader. But Abel finds enemies in L.A. as well, and after a brutal attack by a sadistic police officer, he returns home to nurse his dying grandfather and to heal himself by restoring his relationship to his homeland.
Abel must decide how to confront the evil that manifests itself through witchcraft and social oppression, and he consistently fails in his use of force. He sees clearly what is wrong but seems alone in his struggle, unable to heal himself or solve social conflicts through violence. Abel turns in the end to ritual action that is communally sanctioned, seeking restoration through the Pueblo practice of running at dawn.
The film's intricate visual transitions suggest Abel's associative thinking and altered states as he reconstructs his past during the ritual dawn race. Complex editing and special effects—such as nested flashbacks, freeze frames, slow motion, multiple superimpositions, and negative and colorized images—translate to the screen Momaday's literary experimentation with modernist forms and nonlinear storytelling. These visual techniques emphasize Abel's subjectivity as he alternates between memories of urban and reservation experiences. Parallel scenes link institutionalized violence with witchcraft. Pivotal figures in this regard are the character of the albino and the corrupt L.A. cop, whose black clothing accentuates visually their similar functions in the narrative.
The film's movement between urban and reservation landscapes establishes both the disorientation of uprooted individuals and the interconnected relationship between seemingly separate locations. House Made of Dawn was ahead of its time in depicting the importance to Native urban communities of social practices such as the "49"—a gathering for informal song and dance that occurs during or after a powwow, often on its margins outside of the city or in parking lots.
Abel and his friend Benally continually seek out and create a Native geography of Los Angeles, finding spaces for themselves in the Indian Welcome House, Tosamah's basement church, Indian bars, and powwows. Benally redefines the factory where he and Abel work as a Native space by singing powwow and "49" songs that overlay the rhythm of the box-cutting machines. They talk and sing together in marginal areas of the city—alleyways, fire escapes, and train tracks, although abrupt interruptions of these spaces and songs indicate Abel's fragility and the impact of social intolerance.
Abel's interior states drive the narrative structure of the film through an editing pattern that begins with a freeze-frame on his face, followed by tighter shots, superimposed images and flashback sequences. The freeze-frame visualizes Abel's inability to act or speak on his own behalf, and also depicts his altered mental and spiritual states resulting from trauma, the effects of alcohol, ritual peyote, and the effort of his ceremonial running.
Abel is continually caught up in the grasp of institutions: government schools, the military, the courts, prison, the BIA relocation office, and the factory. His experiences with these institutions and the disciplinary mechanisms of bureaucracy immobilize him and remove his own powers of speech, his ability to act in the world through language.
His sense of self is bombarded by those in power who, as Momaday writes, "…were disposing of him in language, their language" (1968: 90). But it is Abel's way of seeing, not of being seen—his identification of the witch and vision of the hawk and the snake—that "marks" him as Pueblo, and that ultimately establish both his identity and his resistance to the forces that would determine his identity for him.
But if Abel's belief in witchcraft and his certainty about the albino's identity as a witch determine his Pueblo identity, his actions signify the extent of his alienation from that cultural bedrock. The institutional framework for violence, in the form of the L.A. cop in uniform, prevents Abel from publicly protesting his victimization. His attempt to act against injustice, to "do something about that," takes the form of vigilante action which, instead of empowering him, only contributes to his illness.
Sophisticated editing unites these moments of isolation with images of Abel as he begins to heal. The close-up of his face, horizontal on the ground after the cop's assault, is echoed when he falls during the dawn run in the film's closing scene, a moment when he gathers the strength to finish the run and seems to connect most strongly to his grandfather. Another shot of Abel's face frozen in open-mouthed agony, unable to pray during the peyote ceremony, is matched in the next scene's three-way superimposition of the lights of the L.A. freeway, Francisco's drill spinning into turquoise stone, and Abel's fluent singing of a traditional song. Viewers of the film and the filmmakers themselves consistently recall this moment, when Abel's voice is restored through song, as one of the most powerful and effective in the film.
On the set of House Made of Dawn, Native and non-Native collaborators worked to make their mode of production more closely match the film's content. As Abel is running, he hears his grandfather's voice describing the time of year of the dawn run, just after the people clean the ditches following the spring rains. Lead actor Larry Littlebird has referred to this activity to contrast his early experiences in the film industry with subsequent work on House Made of Dawn and other independent productions:
"It was the extreme opposite of Warner Brothers. Here was this little group of people all working together, and what I saw was, ‘Oh, that's like at the Pueblo when we're going to clean the ditches.’ The whole community is involved….We know what our common vision is, and the common vision is the flow of water which brings life to our community, and gives us life….everybody is connected to it."
Littlebird suggests a model in which strategic attention to production situations can imaginatively recover the cultural values embedded in indigenous narratives. He frames this insight in terms of a specific place and agricultural pattern, connecting the politics of film production with larger issues of community action and land use. This locally grounded style also provided Littlebird with experience and training that prepared him for future film and television projects outside of Hollywood.
Recent Hollywood productions have carefully navigated the politics of authenticity by casting Native actors in Native roles, but the story is often controlled by cultural outsiders. What sets House Made of Dawn apart from other films of its time is that both the story and the circumstances of its production—the location shooting and casting of Native actors—come from tribally specific and cross-cultural perspectives. There is a deep connection between equity in film production and the images on screen; in House Made of Dawn, Native actors and writers, working collaboratively with non-Native filmmakers, are activists staging an occupation and reinvention of urban, reservation, and cinematic landscapes.
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