The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 650 words.)