Harlem, Montana: Just Off the Reservation Analysis

James Welch

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 556 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Charles, Jim. “’A World Full of Bones and Wind’: Teaching Works by James Welch.” English Journal 93, no. 4 (March, 2004): 64-69.

Curwen, Thomas. “The Book of Dreams.” Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2000, p. 7.

Gish, Robert Franklin. Beyond Bounds: Cross-Cultural Essays on Anglo, American Indian, and Chicano Literature. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Lee, Don. “About James Welch.” Ploughshares 20, no. 1 (Spring, 1994): 193-199.

Lee, Don. James Welch: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

McFarland, Ron. Understanding James Welch. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

Nixon, Will. “James Welch.” Publishers Weekly 237, no. 40 (October 5, 1990): 81-82.

Saxon, Wolfgang. Obituary. The New York Times, August 9, 2003, p. B6.

Seals, David. “Blackfeet Barrister.” The Nation 251, no. 18 (November 26, 1990): 648-650.

Welch, James. “Interview with James Welch (1940-2003).” Interview by Mary Jane Lupton. American Indian Quarterly 29, nos. 1/2 (Winter/Spring, 2005): 198-211.