James Welch 1940-2003
American poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer.
Acknowledged as one of the most prominent writers of Native American heritage, Welch focused his literary output on themes related to his rich ancestral culture. His poetry is often compared to that of authors Richard Hugo, Cesar Vallejo, James Wright, and Robert Bly. Riding the Earthboy 40 (1971), Welch's first published work and only volume of poetry, has received significant critical attention for its imagery, which combines surrealist motifs and traditional American Indian symbols. Moreover, critics consider Welch's treatment of the Native American experience within this volume to have been a major step toward modernizing the subject of the American West.
Welch was born in Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet reservation near Glacier National Park. Enrolled as a member of the Blackfeet tribe in the tradition of his father, Welch was also half Gros Ventre on his mother's side. Subsequent to studying on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations as a boy, Welch graduated from Washburn High School in Minnesota. After attending the University of Minnesota and Northern Montana College, Welch transferred to the University of Montana, where he graduated in 1965. While pursuing an M.F.A. at Montana, he met the poet Richard Hugo. Heavily influenced by Hugo, Welch published Riding the Earthboy 40 in 1971, a volume of poetry centered on the Native American experience. Welch's first novel, Winter in the Blood (1974), continued to explore this theme, as would the remainder of his life's work. While teaching creative writing and contemporary Native American literature at Cornell University, Welch composed the novel Fools Crow (1986), which earned the American Book Award, the Pacific Northwest Book Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In 1997, Welch received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle. His novel The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000) brought him another Pacific Northwest Book Award in 2001. Welch died of a heart attack in Missoula, Montana, on August 4, 2003.
Major Poetic Works
Drawing upon his Blackfeet and Gros Ventre background, Welch employed simple language and laconic phrasing to impart complex messages about the plight of tribal people in contemporary society. Welch expressed a sense of dislocation and disenchantment in the poems of Riding the Earthboy 40. While some poems are straightforward in approach and realistic in detail, others adopt an abstract and surrealistic style. In the section of the volume entitled “Knives,” Welch utilized ironic humor and the illogical language characteristic of the European surrealist method to highlight the absurdity of reservation culture—living concurrently within, and apart from, American society at large. In contrast, Welch used a more direct approach in “Plea to Those Who Matter,” candidly addressing “white” society in order to satirize incorrect assumptions about Native Americans. In “Going to Remake the World,” Welch applied straightforward, conversational speech to describe a scene in a small town, but interjected fragmented and puzzling lines to produce a dream-like anxiety, demonstrating an intermingling of complexity and simplicity. The eponymous poem “Riding the Earthboy 40,” the language of which presents an exemplary combination of simplicity, mythological suggestion, and absurd humor, exhibits Welch's thematic concern with the relationship of Native Americans to the land. The title of Welch's poetry collection refers to the property adjacent to his childhood home on the Blackfeet reservation—a forty-acre parcel owned by the Earthboy family.
Welch is consistently cited as a seminal figure in the history of Native American poetry. While occasionally derided for an overuse of surrealistic language and cryptic imagery, critics often praise Welch's ability to abstain from overtly political messages. By avoiding such tendencies, Welch's verse is lauded for its universality. Although Welch's poetry is strongly associated with the American West, “the work of a poet as talented, as diverse, and as complex as James Welch,” declares critic Peter Wild, “fortunately resists categorizing.”
Riding the Earthboy 40: Poems 1971; revised and expanded, 1976
Winter in the Blood (novel) 1974
The Death of Jim Loney (novel) 1979
Fools Crow (novel) 1986
The Indian Lawyer (novel) 1990
Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians [with Paul Stekler] (history) 1994
The Heartsong of Charging Elk: A Novel (novel) 2000
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SOURCE: Lincoln, Kenneth. “Blackfeet Winter Blues.” In James Welch, edited by Ron McFarland, pp. 95-106. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, Inc., 1986.
[In the following essay, previously published in 1982, Lincoln discusses the influence of Blackfoot Indian tradition on Welch's poetry.]
They shook the green leaves down, those men that rattled in their sleep. Truth became a nightmare to their fox.
He turned their horses into fish, or was it horses strung like fish, or fish like fish hung naked in the wind?
Stars fell upon their catch. A girl, not yet twenty-four but blonde as morning birds, began a dance that drew the men in green around her skirts. In dust her magic jangled memories of dawn, till fox and grief turned nightmare in their sleep.
And this: fish not fish but stars that fell into their dreams.
This poem, “Magic Fox,” opens Riding the Earthboy 40 (1971), Welch's collected poetry, in a dreamed reality that cannot settle between likenesses and things in themselves. Truth is a fox's game refusing to make sense. To “ride” a plot of earth implies a precarious stability from the start. “And the rolling day, / it will never stop? It means nothing?” Welch asks in “Getting Things Straight.” The poet's shamanic mystery comes under question: truth turns to nightmarish magic, love swirls with nervous leaves in a...
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SOURCE: Wild, Peter. “Welch's Poetry.” In James Welch, pp. 9-24. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1983.
[In the following excerpt, Wild highlights the tendency of Welch's poetry to avoid an overly political tone.]
In his poem “Toward Spider Springs” (Going for the Rain [New York: Harper and Row, 1976], p. 25), Simon Ortiz writes:
Our baby, his mother, and I were trying to find the right road. … We were trying to find a place to start all over but couldn't.
As the lines imply, Ortiz often blames white technological culture for its painfully disruptive impact on Native Americans, now displaced persons caught in a no man's land. As a solution, he advocates withdrawal into traditional ways. Granted, as Paula Gunn Allen points out (“A Stranger in My Own Life: Alienation in American Indian Prose and Poetry”), alienation perhaps is the major wrecking bar of contemporary Indian life. Yet as she further notes, Ortiz's activism is itself nonIndian: “writing poetry and stories and being actively involved in radical politics are not traditional Acoma pursuits” (p. 6). For all that, the poet's lines have an immediate appeal to readers in sympathy with Indians' plight. And this appeal is the problem with much Indian writing. Bearing a clear, heart-rending message, it substitutes polemic for artistry. The reader...
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SOURCE: Wild, Peter. “Almost Not on the Map.” In James Welch, edited by Ron McFarland, pp. 107-112. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, Inc., 1986.
[In the following essay, Wild observes that while Welch generally avoids cultural cliché, his work does not always live up to its potential.]
For an Anglo to go native, to take up the ways of an American Indian tribe, and then write poetry from the Anglo perspective in his adopted language would seem absurdly precious to most of us. It certainly would to most Indians. For one thing, traditional Native American poetry has a far different purpose than our lyrics, which pique the esthetic sensibilities of readers, while, often, venting the weltschmerz of their writers. For another, a traditional Indian culture has no “reading audience” for poetry as Anglos conceptualize it. Poetry exists to serve practical ends. It heals the sick and assures success in hunting.
Yet, going the other way, this is precisely the reversal that a Native American poet goes through if he is to get a hearing in a predominantly English-speaking country. For anyone, writing poetry is a hazardous undertaking at best. For a person from an “ethnic” group, then, the hazards are more numerous and greater. With this in mind, it is not surprising that many an Indian poet has easily slid into the trap our society generously sets before him: asking for, not individual...
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SOURCE: Stafford, Kim. “At the Only Bar in Dixon.” In James Welch, edited by Ron McFarland, pp. 113-20. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, Inc., 1986.
[In the following essay, Stafford contemplates Welch's poetry and the impact that it has had on her life.]
What does it take to have a good time? Especially now, at August midnight, the only bar in Dixon is a warm light for Montana mosquito souls. Six of us hunch inward toward a story told by Elaine, the redhead in her laughing fifties at the bar:
Yeah, Indians. Well, you know Mike Dubois. He comes in one time we're having this big party. He shows up holding a blue helium balloon on a string—thought that's how you have a good time, I guess. So I says to Don here, “See that guy down there, that Mike? He's Indian, and he's your cousin. You go down and introduce yourself.” So Don goes down there, says, “Hey, I hear you're my cousin. Are you a Dubois?”
“No,” says Mike, “I'm a Kutenai.”
Can you believe that? “No, I'm Kutenai.” So he went out with his balloon, went off drifting down the street.
Don sets down the glass he's been polishing and leans laughing on his arms. Some stories are good for a lifetime.
In the ripple of laughter along...
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SOURCE: Sands, Kathleen Mullen. “Closing the Distance: Critic, Reader and the Works of James Welch.” MELUS 14, no. 2 (summer 1987): 73-85.
[In the following excerpt, Mullen Sands analyzes Welch's “skill at closing the distance between the reader and the landscape out of which he writes.”]
Not long ago I was cruising down the freeway, hauling a quarter horse named Magpie to the Maricopa County Fair Grounds for the Phoenix “Rodeo of Rodeos” grand entry. I don't follow the rodeo circuit, rarely even go to the local competitions, but the big black gelding I ride makes a handsome parade mount, and I agreed to lend him to a hefty neighbor who was one of the Jaycee sponsors of the event. I eased onto the off-ramp behind a flashy rig. Big silver pick-up truck pulling a four horse trailer. Montana plates—“Big Sky Country.” They come from all over for the prize money. The distance doesn't intimidate westerners used to open country and fast interstates. We take for granted the mountains and deserts that whiz by our bug-splattered windshields; we look at the “Big Sky” and check the dial for weather forecasts.
But weather's easy—if you're a writer, not a cowboy, that is. Even Mark Twain says so.
It's the land that's tough. Seasons pass—blizzards and black ice; green sprouts in the fields and empty-eyed calves staring through fence wires; dust devils and...
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SOURCE: Welch, James, and Joseph Bruchac. “I Just Kept My Eyes Open: An Interview with James Welch.” In Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, pp. 311-21. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1987.
[In the following interview, Welch discusses the authors who have influenced his work, as well as the general state of Native American writing.]
Born in 1940 in Browning, Montana, James Welch's first book was a collection of poems, Riding The Earthboy 40, published in 1971 by Sun. It quickly earned Welch a reputation as one of the strongest and most unsparingly honest voices among Native American writers, a reputation strengthened by his first novel Winter in the Blood, which was brought out in 1974 by Harper & Row, who reissued Riding the Earthboy 40 in 1976. Since then, with his second novel, The Death of Jim Loney, Welch has established himself as a writer whose tough, spare diction in his novels seems as crafted as the poems which first introduced his voice to the reading public. Though he published only a few poems since his first collection of poetry, his relationship to that craft shows in all of his writing—perhaps nowhere more clearly than in his newest novel, Fool's Crow, which is set in the country of the Blackfeet in the 1870s. Its images, its diction, and its vision are those of a writer who knows and loves both language and his...
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SOURCE: Vangen, Kate. “Thirteen Lumpy Stones for Luck and Friendship: Influences on James Welch's Poetry.” Wooster Review, no. 8 (spring 1988): 157-67.
[In the following essay, Vangen considers the methods by which Riding the Earthboy 40 emphasizes “the devastations that comprise much of Indian history.”]
With the publication of James Welch's (Blackfeet/Gros Ventre) third novel, Fools Crow—a fictionalized account of the mid-nineteenth-century conflicts between Blackfeet people and Euroamericans, American Indian influences apparent in his earliest work become all the more evident.1 Many readers, however, probably do not realize that Welch began his writing career as a poet. His first and only volume of poems, Riding the Earthboy 40, in fact, won awards when it was published by Harper and Row in 1974.2 In many of those early poems, irony and satire are used to portray Indian life, and indicate the anxiety of influences Welch faced as an Indian writer. But what emerges as anger and bitterness in some of James Welch's poems comes across in others as a tough-minded, honest search for better, more enduring means of survival for himself and Indian people. As a poet writing in the late 60s and early 70s, Welch had to find models among mainstream white writers, since few Indian models existed then for him. As an Indian, he had to find models among survivors...
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SOURCE: Welch, James, and E. K. Caldwell. “James Welch: An Interview with a Seminal Author in Native Literature.” News from Indian Country 9, no. 1 (15 January 1995): 24.
[In the following interview, Welch explains his role in the development of Native American writing and discusses the historical significance of the genre.]
Contemporary Native literature. James Welch. The two are most times mentioned in the same breath, whether you are sitting in a university classroom or in an informal circle of Native writers.
Two and a half decades ago, when Native literature was a new idea to mainstream American publishers, Welch, a mixed blood Blackfeet/Gros Ventre, published a volume of poetry, Riding the Earthboy 40. Four years later, in 1974, he released his first novel, Winter in the Blood, which is now acknowledged as “an influential classic in the birth of contemporary Native writing.”
In the years since he has become one of the country's most well-known novelists, winning the 1986 Los Angeles Times Book Award for his historical novel, Fool's Crow. He has twice won the Pacific NW Booksellers Award. With these and his two other novels, The Death of Jim Loney and The Indian Lawyer, on international library shelves, he recently released his first nonfiction work, Killing Custer: The Little Big Horn and The Fate of the Native...
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SOURCE: McFarland, Ron. “Riding the Earthboy 40: Remaking This World.” In Understanding James Welch, pp. 22-51. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, McFarland explicates Riding the Earthboy 40 and cites examples of Richard Hugo's impact on Welch's poetry.]
James Welch began his writing career as a poet, and although he has produced only a single volume of poems, it has been influential for various reasons, and his work appears to have secured a place for him in the presently evolving canon of Native American poetry. Moreover, what critics and reviewers have called a “poetic” or “lyrical” style has been recognized from the outset as a feature of his prose. Even after the success of his first two novels, Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney, and on the brink of the spectacular praise accorded Fools Crow, Welch spoke to interviewers of his intention of returning to poetry.1 But in addition to mentioning the possibility of a series of prose poems, Welch also indicated his increasing curiosity about the experiences of urban Indians, and his next book, the novel Indian Lawyer (1990), was to take him in that direction. He currently has no plans to return to poetry.
Welch was brought to writing poems by the charismatic Richard (Dick) Hugo, who had himself fallen under the influence...
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SOURCE: Charles, Jim. “‘A World Full of Bones and Wind’: Teaching Works by James Welch.” English Journal 93, no. 4 (March 2004): 64-9.
[In the following excerpt, Charles provides ideas and techniques for the effective teaching of Welch's work.]
James Welch presented the NCTE [National Council For Teacher Education] Fund Lecture at the annual convention in Baltimore in 2001. I was in the audience and agree that he, indeed, deserved recognition as “an annual speaker who brings [NCTE members] a fresh perspective about the learning of language and literature in a cultural context different from their own” (NCTE). Welch read from his nonfiction work, Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians, and his latest novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk, a historical novel set in the north-central plains of the United States and in Marseilles, France. He also answered questions from the audience. While this was not my first introduction to James Welch, it was the last time I would hear him speak. He died in August 2003.
Considering Welch's speech and the importance of his work, I wondered what teachers in the audience thought about the advisability of teaching Welch's work to high school students. Some contend that his work is too depressing to teach to high school students. Some teachers tell me they do not know enough about...
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Amanuddian, Syed. Review of Riding the Earthboy 40, by James Welch. World Literature Today 51 (winter 1977): 142.
Brief assessment of Riding the Earthboy 40.
Craig, David M. “Beyond Assimilation: James Welch and the Indian Dilemma.” North Dakota Quarterly 53, no. 2 (1985): 182-90.
Centers on the theme of displacement in Welch's work.
Holland, Robert. Review of Riding the Earthboy 40, by James Welch. Poetry 129 (February 1977): 285-95.
Comments on Welch's Riding the Earthboy 40.
Kessler, Jascha. “Inner World Where Poets Wander.” Saturday Review 54 (2 October 1971): 50.
Praises the complexity and vision of Welch's Riding the Earthboy 40.
Saxon, Wolfgang. “James Welch, 62, an Indian Who Wrote About the Plains.” New York Times (9 August 2003): B6.
Presents a brief biographical sketch of Welch.
Welch, James, and Bill Bevis. “Dialogue with James Welch.” Northwest Review 20, nos. 2-3 (1982): 163-85.
Extensive discussion of Welch's body of work and literary aesthetic.
Welch, James, and William Bevis. “Wylie Tales: An Interview with James Welch.” Weber Studies 12, no. 3 (fall 1985): 15-31....
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