American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Welch, James

James Welch (1940–2003), a novelist associated with the modern Native American literary renaissance, was born in Browning, Montana, of Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, and European heritage and spent his early childhood on the Blackfeet Reservation of Montana. His family lived in a number of western cities before turning to farming on the Fort Belknap Reservation following Welch's graduation from high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a child he always wanted to be a writer. His literary career began in earnest as an undergraduate at the University of Montana (BA, 1965), where he was nurtured by the notable collection of writers who gathered around Richard Hugo and William Kittredge in Missoula, a city that remained the geographical center of Welch's life as a writer.

The five novels written by Welch present distinct episodes of American Indian experience that are unified by their portrayal of Indian culture's richness and the heartache of its dislocation. The reader can examine the novels in the order they were written or note that they can be reorganized into a historical chronology of Indian experience. Fools Crow (1986) is the story of the Blackfeet from the era of the American Civil War through the Marias River massacre of January 1870, which marked the end of independent life for the tribe.

Next in historical sequence is The Heart Song of Charging Elk (2000), the story of an Oglala Sioux who becomes separated from William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Wild West Show while on tour in Europe and lives out his life in France. After a number of years he rejects the opportunity to rejoin the Cody show and return to South Dakota.

Two other works, Winter in the Blood (1974) and The Death of Jim Loney (1979), address isolated men negotiating indefinite time frames in the midst of twentieth-century reservation life. Their personal problems rise out of tenuous ties to their families and cultural traditions on the Fort Belknap reservation. Winter in the Blood suggests a recovery of cultural and family connections. Jim Loney pursues suicide at the hands of a law enforcement officer when he allows himself to be shot by his pursuers. The most recent historical setting occurs in The Indian Lawyer (1990), the story of a "successfully assimilated" Blackfeet Indian who used athletic prowess to advance his intellectual interests with college and legal degrees and a position in an important Helena law firm. At the end of the book Sylvester Yellow Calf abandons his Helena legal practice and a campaign for Congress to return to the reservation and an unspecified future.

In addition to his novels, Welch began his writing career with a collection of poetry, Riding the Earthboy 40 (published in 1971, revised and expanded in 1976). He also has ventured into memoir and history with Killing Custer (1994), occasioned by his work as an advisor to a television program, "Last Stand at Little Big Horn."

Welch's work appears frequently in general literary anthologies and those devoted to Indian writers. Literary analysts have approached his work from a variety of angles, including his understanding of the importance of place and his status as an Indian writer. Welch's landscapes are not photographic images of the world of the Fort Belknap reservation and neighboring towns. Readers feel the importance of place even though it is not possible to locate the exact physical settings for the action in his books. His landscape details seep into his narratives in ways that present lives embedded in the land. Welch's mixed-blood ancestry includes ties to a white trader killed by Blackfeet warriors on the eve of the Marias River Massacre, the event that concludes Fools Crow. Critics concerned with blood quanta of Indian writers do not include Welch among those whose perspectives, visions, or ancestries are questionable.

Honors for Welch's work include the Native Writer's Circle's lifetime achievement award in 1997 and the French government's 1995 medal designating him a Chevalier of the l'Ordre des Artes et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) for Fools Crow. While speaking of the Blackfeet in Fools Crow, Welch revealed something of his overall goals as a writer: "They weren't particularly noble Indians. They weren't particularly bad Indians. They were human beings. That's really what I wanted to get across, the idea that historical Indians were human beings. They weren't cliches."

David S. Trask


Further Reading
Lincoln, Kenneth. 1983. Native American Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press.; McFarland, Ron. 2000. Understanding James Welch. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.; Nelson, Robert M. 1993. Place and Vision: The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction. American Indian Studies. Edited by Rodney Simard. New York: Peter Lang.; Schorcht, Blanca. 2003. Storied Voices in Native American Texts: Harry Robinson, Thomas King, James Welch and Leslie Marmon Silko. Indigenous Peoples and Politics. Edited by Franke Wilmer. New York: Routledge.
 

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