James Welch grew up in Montana. He attended reservation schools and has taught English literature and Indian studies at the University of Washington. Many of Welch’s life experiences are reflected in The Indian Lawyer; he sat for years on the Montana State Board of Pardons, and the portrait of Sylvester Yellow Calf, a Native American man who achieves what other members of his tribe have not been able to, is particularly poignant in relation to the author’s life.
In his third novel, Fools Crow (1986), Welch continued to explore themes of success and responsibility. The hero of that moving historical novel asks, “what good is your own power when the people are suffering. . . . ?” In The Indian Lawyer, Welch gives Sylvester the insight to arrive at, and begin answering, the same difficult question. The importance of the character of the Indian lawyer, the new warrior, to the body of Welch’s work is clear from Sylvester’s name. “Yellow Calf” is the name of the protagonist’s revered grandfather, a redemptive figure in Welch’s first novel, Winter in the Blood (1974). A moving passage in Fools Crow describes a yellow calf that embodies all the beliefs cherished by a dying warrior who wants to take the animal’s name for his grandson. By bestowing the name on the hero of The Indian Lawyer, Welch creates a symbol of the ancient beliefs in an empowering modern form.