|James Welch, poet and novelist, is one of several notable Montana writers. The son of a Blackfeet father and Gros
Ventres mother, Welch is concerned with place--cultural, regional, and historical--and how his Native American
characters orient themselves to it.
James Welch is a poet whose Native American background helped shape his volume of poetry, Riding the Earthboy 40,a
book that was one of the strongest first volumes of poetry published in the United States in the 1970s.
Riding the Earthboy 40 (1971), is firmly rooted in the plains of Montana. Abbreviated yet lyrical, the poems enter
moments of thought or experience that deal with seasons, animals, and the stories reservation Indians tell. The animals
that populate his poems, as in "Magic Fox," have a near-mythical significance, touching on Welch's Indianness. But more
often than not, Welch bitterly notes that the days of the Blackfeet are past. In "Spring for All Seasons," he wryly states
"Our past is ritual/cattle marching one way to remembered mud."
Often noted is Welch's use of surrealism in these poems. At best, the surrealism works subtly to underscore the spiritual
connection these poems establish with the land and the elements. At worst, however, Welch's surrealism is awkward and
ungainly. Welch brought his spare narrative style to the novel, prompting critics to compare his prose to Ernest
Winter in Blood
Winter in the Blood (1974) elegiacally tells the story of an unnamed narrator who lives on a Montana reservation. The
protagonist's life is marred by loss; his father and brother are dead, and his mother dies during the course of the novel.
He is aimless and wastes his time drinking at the bar, where he can lose himself in fist fights and sexual encounters with
Thus sadness permeates, but the novel is not flatly nihilistic. In the end, there is some hope for the narrator, who takes
steps toward reclaiming his heritage. And technically, Welch's subtle irony and comic undercutting holds the novel off
from utter despair. Even with the first person narrative, Welch is able to keep the story moving without falling into
Death of Loney Jim
Welch's second novel, The Death of Jim Loney (1979) doesn't fare as well. Criticized for its melodrama, the novel offers
no redemption for the main character, Jim Loney, whose very name calls to mind the word "loneliness." Like the narrator
of Winter in the Blood, Loney is caught in a cultural abyss between his heritage and the white man's world; he too seeks
to numb himself in hard drinking. But as the novel progresses, Loney remains caught in the abyss. The sheriff who hunts
him down represents the white man's world; Loney, moving closer to death, experiences visions that may be from his
ancestors' spirit world, but he can't interpret them. In the end, there is no real resolution for this character.
With Fool's Crow
With Fools Crow (1986), Welch's approach to prose changed. A historical novel, Fools Crow depicts a small band of
Blackfeet Indians who escape the Marias River massacre of 1870. As such, the world Welch depicts is vastly different
from that of his first two novels. The protagonist--and the reader--journey through dreams and visions, guided by talking
animals. It is a world with a firm sense of culture and history, as in Welch's Killing Custer (1995).
For the epic story of Fools Crow, Welch opened up his narrative style. As he describes in an interview with Publisher's
Weekly, "I needed a much bigger canvas to write an historical novel so I loosened up my language and started
emphasizing my story, telling more." Praised roundly by critics, the masterful work earned him a Los Angeles Times prize
for best fiction of 1987.
Indian Lawyer (1990) returns to modern America, this time visiting a successful lawyer who is on a political fast track. In
this novel of intrigue, the lawyer is blackmailed by a convict he had once denied parole. As a result, his dreams of
winning a Congressional seat and helping less fortunate Indians are disrupted. The novel has more plot than his other
novels, and thus appeals to a wider audience.
Critics often write about how to describe James Welch, as Indian storyteller or American author. The truth is that Welch's
work transcends such categorization; he joins Native American traditions and concepts with the best of Western literary
conventions to form unique and compelling narratives.
Poems in Full Text
As is the case with other fine young American Indian writers such as Simon Ortiz, Leslie Silko, Duane Niatum, and Ray
Youngbear, Welch brings to his writing a deep consciousness of the earth that makes his poems exciting and alive, full of
depth and mystery. This consciousness, mingled with a sense of loss, makes for some of the most powerful moments in
his poems, as in the last lines of "Thanksgiving at Snake Butte":
a small stand of stunted pine, then jolted
to a nervous walk. Before us lay
the smooth stones of our ancestors, the fish,
the lizard, snake and bent-kneed
bowman--etched by something crude,
by a wandering race, driven by their names
for time: its winds, its rain, its snow
and the cold moon tugging at the crude figures
in this, the season of their loss.
bad non-Indian poets have brought to their writings about Native Americans. The images in Welch's poems are like the
northwest winds of a Montana winter, hard, crystal cold, and powerful, as in "Christmas Comes to Moccasin Flat"--
"Christmas comes like this: Wise men / unhurried, candles bought on credit (poor price / for calves), warriors face down
in wine sleep. / Winds cheat to pull heat from smoke ..."--or in "Going to Remake This World":
black in the blowing snow, her raving son,
Horace, too busy counting flakes to hide his face.
He doesn't know. He kicks my dog
and glares at me, too dumb to thank the men
who keep him on relief and his mama drunk ...
His poem "The Man from Washington" is already a minor classic, with its picture of a Bureau of Indian Affairs bureaucrat,
"a slouching dwarf with rainwater eyes ..." who promises
that life would go on as usual, that treaties would be signed, and everyone-- man, woman and child--would be inoculated
against a world in which we had no part, a world of money, promise and disease.
With irony and honesty Welch has approached being both an Indian and a poet in contemporary American and has
come out of it with poems that are always memorable and, in some cases, close to great.
Books by James Welch
Welch, James. The Death of Jim Loney
New York : Harper & Row, 1979.
Welch, James. Fools Crow
New York : Penguin Books, 1986.
Welch, James. Heartsong of Charging Elk
New York : Doubleday, 2000.
Welch, James. The Indian Lawyer
New York : W. W. Norton, 1990.
Welch, James. James Welch
Lewiston, ID : Confluence Press, 1986.
Welch, James. Killing Custer : the battle of Little Bighorn and the fate of the Plain Indians
New York : W.W. Norton, 1994.
Welch, James. Riding the Earthboy 40
New York : Harper & Row, 1976.
Welch, James. Winter in the Blood
New York : Penguin Books, 1974.
Lupton, M. J. James Welch: A Critical Companion (Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writers). 2004.
Mc Farland, R. E. Understanding James Welch (Understanding Modern European and Latin American Literature). 2000.
Velie, A. R. Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald
Death of Jim Loney