Harlem, Montana: Just Off the Reservation

by James Welch
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 650

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James Welch’s “Harlem, Montana: Just Off the Reservation” is a four-stanza narrative prose poem in which the narrator reflects on the hopeless lifestyle of many of the inhabitants of the small town of Harlem, a community in northern Montana that borders the American Indian reservation of Fort Belknap. Welch, whose heritage is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre, uses a nameless narrator to examine the struggles of living in a reservation town. The poet also takes an introspective look at his own identity and reflects on how it has been shaped by the town of Harlem.

The poet begins by establishing himself as a member of the Harlem community when in the first line of the poem he uses the word “We.” He quickly reveals the tension that permeates Harlem with references to the rampant alcoholism, bigotry, and financial dependancy that many Native Americans “just off” the reservation face daily: “Money is free if you’re poor enough.” The “white” citizens of Harlem are not portrayed as being any better off than the Native American inhabitants, but they seek positions of authority: “Disgusted, busted whites are running/ for office in this town.”

The bigotry in Harlem is widespread. In the second and third stanzas, Welch shows how deeply the social and racial prejudice lies within the Native American community with his references to Turks and Hutterites: “Turks” and their “olive” skin are “unwelcome/ alive in any town.” Welch, however, seems to suggest that this prejudice based on skin color is contradicted by the fact that Harlem men are so lonely that they would welcome these same Turks to “rule [their] women.”

This contrasting form of bigotry is juxtaposed and further underscored in the fourth stanza, when Welsh states that the “Hutterites out north are nice,” but “We hate/ them.” This resentment of the prosperous “Hutterites” is heightened when the Native Americans of Harlem accuse them “of idiocy and believe their belief all wrong.” By pointing out the many facets of bigotry in Harlem, the poet seems to suggest that the deep-seeded prejudice that exists on the reservation is multifaceted and that it is perhaps even more difficult to understand than it may be in most mainstream American communities.

In stanza 2, when Welch refers to the “Turks” who are “olive” skinned, he suggests that the loneliness of reservation life and the abuse of alcohol provide a backdrop in which bigotry is only superficially revealed by a person’s skin color, whether it be red, white, or olive. The resentment the Native American inhabitants of Harlem feel toward people of different color or social status is meshed with the anger they feel when they realize that “whites” and “Turks” alike seek to control their lives through the use of money and alcohol.

In stanza 3, the narrator suggests that the photo in the New England Hotel lobby of men “nicer/ than pie” is a relic that serves as a reminder of the deals that were made by outsiders with “warring bands of redskins/ who demanded protection money for the price of food.” The resentment that lies beneath the surface of the bigotry that the Native Americans of Harlem feel is represented by this photo, which remains in the hotel lobby as a symbol of the deceptive greediness of the “whites,” “Turks,” and even the elder American Indian leaders who benefited financially from the implementation of the reservation system.

In the final stanza, the poet reveals the facade that the people of the community present to the outside world. In ironic fashion Welch contrasts a local establishment named the “New England Hotel” with the “raggedy-assed” children that wander the streets and the “bad food” that is served by the two cafes in town. Finally, the poet reveals that the only pivotal event in the small town that the people of Harlem seem to remember is an episode when “three young bucks” shot up a grocery store.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 556

Beginning with the title of his poem, “Harlem, Montana: Just Off the Reservation,” Welch uses the voice of his narrator to establish with readers the unique relationship he has with the community of Harlem. It is obvious that the poet Welch, the unnamed narrator of the poem, has not been able to leave behind his memories of Harlem, recollections that go back to the time when as a young boy Welch himself attended school on the Fort Belknap reservation. Although the poet may in many ways be “just off the reservation,” the title of the poem perhaps directly refers to the town of Harlem and its close proximity to the Fort Belknap reservation. The fact that the reservation town’s name is Harlem also seems to serve Welch well in presenting readers with a place-name that aptly presents a racially charged look at the bigotry that can take place in a small rural community, a place ironically linked with the Harlem district of New York City.

The narrator’s dark description of Harlem, Montana, is filled with references to the alcohol abuse, the bigotry, and the hopelessness that has become far too familiar for many people living in reservation towns. Welch creates vivid images that depict the drunken inhabitants of the community who survive from day to day in a world where “Booze is law” and where racial tension is pervasive.

In the final stanza, just as he has done throughout the poem, Welch speaks directly to Harlem: “Harlem, your hotel is overnamed, your children/ are raggedy-assed but you go on.” This approach effectively reveals to readers the anger and resentment that the poet feels for a town that seems to have sold its soul, a town that is filled with broken people who have nothing better to do than to drink their lives away.

The one event that seems to symbolize this hopelessness takes place in Harlem when “three young bucks” shoot up a grocery store and hold it hostage for days. After seizing control of the grocery store, these young men consider themselves important and rich. To them, the store represents a place of wealth and power. It is the center of the community, a place where everyone must come to sustain life. By taking over the grocery store, they too can feel important.

Every ethnic group seeks to find some kind of control in Harlem. The grocery store takeover serves as a pathetic attempt on the “young bucks’” part to compete with the “whites,” “Turks,” and “Hutterites” for their fair share in controlling what little power exists in Harlem. This need to seize control of the local grocery store is what elicits their response, “we’re rich,/ help us, oh God, we’re rich.”

The poet’s description of outsiders as olive-skinned “Turks” furthers Welch’s theme of bigotry. Unlike the Native Americans and the whites who live in Harlem, the “Turks” come to town to take what they can get from the locals. Welch’s use of “Turks,” a people who typically reside in the Middle East and have a reputation for cruelty and tyranny, works well to describe the distance the people of Harlem feel between themselves and the outsiders who come hoping to make some fast money: “Turks would use/ your one dingy park to declare a need for loot.”


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 128

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