The composition process of this book began with his desire to comprehend his Kiowa identity and the death of his grandmother Aho and the collecting from Kiowa elders of stories.
The book consists of twenty-four three-voice sections. They are arranged into three divisions - "The Setting Out," "The Going On," and "The Closing In," thus Momaday suggests several physical and spiritual journeys - the two most obvious are the migration and history of the Kiowa and the gradual development of the Kiowa identity.
The three divisions are framed by two poems and three lyric essays (Prologue, Introduction, Epilogue), that combine mythic, historic, and personal perspectives.
Headwaters The first poem. Momaday depicts an "intermountain plain" with a hollow log, and water rising against the roots.
Prologue The journey began one day long ago. They say that Kiowas entered the world through a hollow log. It was a struggle for existence, but , at the end, Kiowas lost. Their Plains culture withered and died. The buffalo was the animal representation of the sun, the essential and sacrificial victim of the Sun Dance. These are idle recollections, the mean and ordinary agonies of human history.
Once Tai-me, a legendary being, who appeared to the Kiowas during "bad times," came to the them and they began their great adventures to the heart of the continent. A lot of thing happened during this long migration, in the end of which they of age as a people. They had dared to imagine and determine who they were. This journey was the history of an idea, man's idea of himself. It has been preserved by verbal tradition, so what remains is fragmentary. This journey is an evocation of three things in particular : a landscape that is incomparable, a time that is gone forever, and the human spirit, which endures.
The Introduction Houses are like sentinels of the plain, but the time also put its mark upon them - the wood is burned grey and the nails turn red with rust.