(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Indian Lawyer, perhaps Welch’s least rewarding novel, follows the career of Sylvester Yellow Calf, a successful urban attorney in an otherwise white firm. He is the descendant of earlier Welch characters, Fools Crow’s outcast Yellow Kidney and Winter in the Blood’s blind Yellow Calf. Even as a respected member of the Montana State Board of Pardons and the newest partner in a prestigious Helena law firm, Sylvester feels alienated. He is not completely comfortable in either the white or the Indian world and is viewed suspiciously by many.

Abandoned by his alcoholic parents, Sylvester grew up on the Blackfeet reservation, where he was cared for by loving grandparents—although his grandmother, a tribal elder, felt ashamed that the boy preferred the outside world to the tribal. He became the star of his high school championship basketball team, but his life changed abruptly when a white sportswriter, praising his leadership and intelligence, called him a “winner for all minorities.” This well-meaning salute shattered the team’s unity by setting Sylvester above and apart from the others, thus violating the Indian sense of community, and his teammates grew resentful. While basketball earned him a scholarship to the University of Montana, he ultimately graduated from Stanford Law School. In many respects, Sylvester has rejected his heritage, symbolized by the medicine pouch of his warrior great-great-grandfather and...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Set in the cell blocks of a state prison and the back rooms of state politics, The Indian Lawyer depicts one man’s effort to survive the penal system and another’s search for the best way to represent the interests of Native Americans and others whom the political system neglects. The novel contains sixteen chapters that move freely between the main characters’ points of view. The plot progresses chronologically, but it is interrupted by reminiscences that take characters back to such pivotal moments in their pasts as Sylvester’s basketball championships and Jack’s courtship of Patti Ann.

The book begins with Jack Harwood’s parole hearing. Jack is serving a long sentence for armed robbery and is beginning to crack under the pressure of incarceration. Sylvester is a board member, and Jack is drawn to him because he is a Blackfeet. Jack has had problems with the Indian inmates who rule the violent prison. Insufficiently repentant and a onetime escapee, Jack is denied release. That afternoon, visiting with Patti Ann, Jack asks his wife to dig up information on Sylvester.

Back in Helena after the parole hearings, Sylvester, with his girlfriend Shelley, attends a party at Buster Harrington’s mansion. Buster, the founder of a law firm that is ready to make Sylvester a partner if he will agree to run for Congress, has arranged for a meeting with Fabares, a Democratic Party official. Sylvester is encouraged by his discussion with Fabares and tells Shelley that he is seriously considering becoming a candidate.

Patti Ann contacts Sylvester at his office. She is lonely from the years without Jack and has been traumatized by a series of miscarriages and a hysterectomy, but her vitality is restored in Sylvester’s presence. She manages to interest him in her phony story of a contested will, and Sylvester promises to investigate the situation. Jack phones...

(The entire section is 777 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Hoagland, Edward. “Getting off the Reservation.” Review of The Indian Lawyer, by James Welch. The New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1990, p. 7. Hoagland is one of the few critics who finds the novel to be as accomplished as Welch’s previous works. He praises the novel’s construction and character development. Particular attention is paid to the uplifting aspects of the book’s conclusion.

Larson, Sidner J. “The Outsider in James Welch’s The Indian Lawyer.” American Indian Quarterly 18 (Fall, 1994): 495-506. Larson’s study of The Indian Lawyer examines the transformation from insider to outsider within the context of the Blackfeet Indian tribe. Analysis of the main characters highlights the tension between these two opposing groups and is enhanced by the comments and observations of literary experts.

McFarland, Ron. “ The End’ in James Welch’s Novels.” American Indian Quarterly 17 (Summer, 1993). Explores the significance and implications of four Welch novels, including The Indian Lawyer.

Saul, Darin. “Intercultural Identity in James Welch’s Fool’s Crow and The Indian Lawyer.American Indian Quarterly 19 (Fall, 1995). Saul’s instructive essay examines the cultural similarities and differences between Welch’s Fool’s Crow and The Indian Lawyer. He focuses on the nineteenth century cultural upheaval when the Blackfeet lost much of their population to sickness and white attacks. He then looks at the struggles of Sylvester Yellow Calf in The Indian Lawyer and concludes that individual autonomy and hope for the future are possible for Native Americans.

Seals, David. “Blackfeet Barrister.” The Nation 251 (November 26, 1990): 648. Seals, himself a Native American author, places Welch’s novel within the context of other recent works of Native American fiction, sometimes finding fault with the book’s sophisticated construction. Seals wonders if the novel’s discussion of assimilation is provocative enough, suggesting that there are many Native Americans in law firms. He goes on to assess literature’s capacity to reflect a culture’s value system.