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James Welch—poet, novelist, documentary scriptwriter, and historical essayist—was a major voice in the Native American Renaissance, the flowering of literary talent among American Indian writers that took place beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. A contemporary of authors N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor, Welch had a variety of different jobs before settling into writing. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service, was a laborer and a firefighter, and at one point was a counselor for the Upward Bound program. He was highly visible as a Native American writer because his themes revolve around the controversial issue of Indian acculturation.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Writer from the Blackfoot Reservation
Welch was born on November 18, 1940, in Browning, Montana, on the Blackfoot reservation near Glacier National Park. His parents were James P. Welch Sr. and Rosella O’Bryan Welch, who were predominantly Blackfoot and Gros Ventre Indians, respectively. Welch grew up on Montana’s Blackfoot and Fort Belknap Reservations and was an enrolled member of the Blackfoot tribe. His mother worked as a stenographer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs; his father worked as a hospital administrator for the Indian Health Service, and also as a welder.
Welch lived briefly in Minnesota and followed in his father’s footsteps when he got a welding job there.
Welch’s roots, however, were really in Montana. After attending Northern Montana College in Havre, he transferred to the University of Montana, Missoula, receiving a BA degree in 1965. He then entered the MFA program in creative writing at Missoula under the direction of the poet Richard Hugo. Hugo encouraged him to write about what he knew, especially the reservation and its people. This advice helped steer Welch toward his life work. In 1968, he married Lois Monk, professor of English at the University of Montana, Missoula.
From Poetry to Fiction
Following Hugo’s advice, Welch’s first published work was Riding the Earthboy 40: Poems (1971), the title of which refers to his early life riding the range; the “40” refers to a forty-acre piece of land that adjoined the Welch ranch and that belonged to a family with the name Earthboy. After this work, Welch turned from poetry largely to fiction. The move did not go well at first. When Welch showed the draft of his first novel to a friend, the writer William Kittredge, he found problems everywhere. In a short biography of Welch published in the journal Ploughshares, Welch recalled this incident: ”We stayed up one whole night, and he pointed out all these things to me, and of course I was discouraged and put it away.”
Eventually, he did pick the book up again, and it became the novel Winter in the Blood (1974). It was followed by the novels The Death of Jim Loney (1979) and Fools Crow (1986). The last-named work is based on both Welch family history and the wider history of the Indian Wars: it tells the story of the Marias River massacre in 1870, from which Welch’s great-grandmother escaped.
On the Parole Board
Welch’s next novel, The Indian Lawyer (1990), was directly concerned with Native American assimilation, a frequent theme in Welch’s work. The novel tells the story of Sylvester Yellow Calf, a successful Native American attorney and candidate for a congressional seat. The novel partly revolves around Yellow Calf’s service on a parole board.
This aspect of the novel is based on Welch’s experience as a member of a parole board, service that was important in his life because of the high Indian prison population in the state. Welch commented on the parole board system to Ploughshares: ”One of [the parole board’s] attitudes had been not to return Indians to the reservation. . . . But sending them to Billings or Great Falls or wherever, without a tribal support system, would only guarantee trouble.” Welch stated of his time on the board: ”I think I helped some of the other board members understand Indians better.”
Custer and the Little Bighorn
Welch’s career took a new turn with his next project: he cowrote an American Experience documentary for PBS, entitled Last Stand at Little Big Horn (1993). During this same period, he wrote a book of historical nonfiction, Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians (1994). The book is a personal treatment of events before, during, and after the June 1876 battle. This was done largely from the Indian point of view; Custer himself and the events of the much-celebrated battle are secondary. Covering far more than the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the book was enhanced by photographs of sites and participants, drawings by Indian survivors, and maps.
Welch’s last novel was The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000). He was working on a sequel to the novel, and fighting lung cancer, when he died of a heart attack at sixty-two in his home in Missoula.
Works in Literary Context
It is easy to see in Welch’s career a tension, one that is present in other Native American authors. He is a master of a modern Euro-American genre, the novel, and he writes in modern English for a contemporary American audience of readers who are mostly not Indians and who do not live on a reservation. At the same time, his work is taken to represent ancient native traditions.
Native American Narrative Traditions
Welch’s work is partly an effort to reenter the past and revive specifically Native American artistic practices. It is primarily his Gros Ventre and Blackfoot heritage that fuel the literary images he uses to breathe life into his stories. Winter in the Blood, for instance, uses dream and vision-quest imagery, and also weaves an epic tale rooted in the mythology and folklore of Indian culture heroes and animal allies and guides. Welch addresses the plight of the modern Indian in light of personal and historical tragedy, moving progressively from an assimilated, European perspective into a more Indian point of view as the tales of his novels progress. The critic Robert F. Gish sees in the novels an effort ”to work backward into history, into the times and tellings of older generations, older ways of knowing and perceiving.”
The Native American Writer as Native American Leader
Like all writers who are taken to represent an ethnic group, Welch had to deal with the expectation that he was a spokesman for his group. As he explained to the journal Ploughshares, ”I think ethnic and regional labels are insulting to writers and really put restrictions on them. People don’t think your work is quite as universal.” At the same time, Welch believed that an important role he fulfilled as a Native American novelist was to correct the often skewed image of life on the reservation many Americans have:
Most people in America have a cliched idea of Indians, that they’re all alcoholics and lazy and on welfare. Maybe through literature, people can gain an understanding of how Indians got the way they are today, and how they differ from one another, as tribes and as individuals.
Works in Critical Context
A major issue in Welch’s work is the tension between the native past as Welch conceives of it and the native present. Welch has been clear-eyed about the problems of contemporary life in places like the reservations of Montana and other Western states, with their familiar problems of alcoholism and poverty. Critics generally credit Welch for his ability to paint a detailed and complex portrait of reservation life both past and present.
Welch’s acclaimed third novel marked a change in direction for the author, telling the story of a band of Blackfoot Indians in Montana Territory in the 1870s. The book follows the life of Fools Crow, who grows from a reckless young warrior to become the tribe’s medicine man. Welch’s ability to recapture the Blackfoot way of life, especially its spiritual aspects, is a strength of the novel. Reviewing this novel in the Washington Post Book World, Dennis Drabelle declares: ”If Fools Crow succeeds … it does so because Welch, himself part Blackfoot, manages to convey a sense of his people’s world view.” Peter Wild of The New York Times Book Review agrees, noting that the book becomes a series of dreams acted out, a chronicle of the Indians’ visions as applied to daily life.”
Lewis D. Owens, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, sees Welch’s use of the past as wholly positive: ”In this novel, Welch is remembering the world of his ancestors, putting that world together again in a way that will tell both author and reader what has been lost and what saved.” Owens argues that Welch’s work is significant for other reasons as well. ”Perhaps the most profound implication of this novel,” Owens suggests, ”is that the culture, the world-view brought so completely to life in Fools Crow, is alive and accessible in the self-imagining of contemporary Blackfeet and other American Indians.”
- Lupton, Mary Jane. James Welch: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.
- McFarland, Ron. Understanding James Welch. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
- Velie, Alan. Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald
- Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982. Wild, Peter. James Welch. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1983.
- Bevis, William W. ”James Welch.” Western American Literature 32 (Spring 1997): 33-53.
- Caldwell, E. K. ”History Is Story: An Interview with James Welch.” Bloomsbury Review 15 (November 1995): 14-15.
- Shanley, Kathryn W. ”Circling Back, Closing In: Remembering James Welch.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 18 (Fall 2006): 3-13.
- Weltzien, O. Alan. ”George Custer, Norman Maclean, and James Welch: Personal History and the Redemption of Defeat.” Arizona Quarterly 52 (Winter 1996): 115-123.
- Wetzel, William. ”A Tribute to James Welch” Studies in American Indian Literatures 18 (Fall 2006): 43-45.
- Native American Authors Project. James Welch, 1940-2003. Retrieved November 24, 2008, from http: //www.ipl.org/div/natam/bin/browse.pl/A7.
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