Harlem, Montana: Just Off the Reservation Themes

James Welch

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In Welch’s narrative poem “Harlem, Montana: Just Off the Reservation,” he paints a dismal picture of the reservation town of Harlem, Montana. His portrayal of the hopeless inhabitants of Harlem who are steeped in a world of alcohol and bigotry serves to make readers aware of the plight that many other Native American communities struggle with as they seek to establish healthier environments that will provide hope for future members of North America’s Indian tribes.

The narrator himself appears to be saying goodbye to the uncomfortable memories that he associates with his days of living on or near the reservation: “Goodbye, goodbye, Harlem on the rocks,/ So bigoted, you forget the latest joke.” Welch carefully describes the underlying bigotry that is a large part of life as he sees it in Harlem. He traces the way in which the whites in the community survive by “running for office” and how the outsiders he calls the “Turks” seek to reap the financial benefits of Harlem by fleecing the town that does not know how to take care of its own people. Welch further labels the many outsiders to the community as “nice.” However, the people of Harlem eventually learn to hate them as well, because their money and their lifestyles become visible signs that suggest these outsiders have superior lifestyles. The Hutterites, who are “tough” and who are well respected by the community for their skills as farmers, are labeled “nice,” but the narrator goes on to say, “we hate them.”

Welch’s poem seems to come from the heart of a man who is both angry and ashamed of the impact that the reservation town of Harlem has had and continues to have on the narrator’s life. The consistant use of the pronoun “we” suggests that the poet fully realizes he is in many ways still a member of the Harlem community and furthermore that Harlem will probably outlive all its inhabitants, who have tried to escape the hold that the town has had on their lives: “When you die, if you die. . . .” Although Harlem is filled with bigoted people who are half-dead from the effects of alcohol, the reservation town will survive and Harlem will remain ambivalent to the destructive social conditions that define the town and sustain its identity.