Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638

Article abstract: James Welch's publication of several novels and a book of poetry earned him national recognition as an American Indian writer.

James Welch received his Indian bloodline from his mother, of the Gros Ventre tribe, and from his father, of the Blackfoot tribe. Although his parents had as much...

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Article abstract: James Welch's publication of several novels and a book of poetry earned him national recognition as an American Indian writer.

James Welch received his Indian bloodline from his mother, of the Gros Ventre tribe, and from his father, of the Blackfoot tribe. Although his parents had as much Irish as Indian ancestry, for the most part he grew up in Indian territory. He attended Indian high schools in Browning and Fort Belknap, Montana.

In 1965, while Welch was a student at the University of Montana, his mother, a stenographer at the reservation agency, brought home copies of annual reports from the Fort Belknap Indian agents for 1880, 1887, and 1897. These documents excited Welch, for they offered statistics on the numerical decline of Indians and showed how reservation agents had worked to control Indians. Of greater interest was evidence that an agent had reported communication with Chief Sitting Bull who had been for a time within a few miles of the house where Welch lived. This revelation ignited Welch's interest in the history of his people.

“I wanted to write about that Highline Country in an extended way,” wrote Welch in describing the impetus for his novel Winter in the Blood (1974). Welch's book captures the feeling of vast openness of northeastern Montana's rolling plains. The novel is about a young Indian who lacks purpose in life until he discovers how Yellow Calf saved and protected an Indian maiden, an intriguing, heroic tale of his Indian grandparents. The novel's locale is Welch's own parents’ ranch, and it suggests Welch's own discovery of Indian forebears.

In The Death of Jim Loney (1979), Welch portrayed a young Indian tied by heritage to his reservation, unable to find any opportunities there, endlessly drinking at lonely bars. Welch said that he wrote only of situations that he had witnessed on Indian reservations. Lack of opportunity on the reservation, he argued, led Indians whom he knew to alcoholic despair. In Killing Custer (1994), Welch portrayed his people not as savages but as people justly defending their land, livelihood, and lives from military massacre. Welch re-created nineteenth and twentieth century Indians living on the Western plains and engaged readers in their viewpoint.

Fools Crow (1986) dramatized Native American life on the plains of eastern Montana toward the end of the era of the free, nonreservation tribe. This novel follows an Indian coming to manhood, his free life, his romantic marriage, his daring attack on an enemy, and his struggle with the dilemma of whether to fight the white man and be slain or to submit to humiliating poverty and confinement on a reservation. The tales of Welch's paternal grandmother concerning the massacre at Marias River, Montana, provided basic material and a viewpoint from which to write. Welch's grandmother, a girl at the time of the massacre, was wounded but escaped with a few survivors. She spoke only her tribal language.

In 2000, the French government awarded Welch its medal of the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Art et des Lettres and the official status of knighthood. Welch's last novel to be published was The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000). After battling lung cancer, Welch died of a heart attack in 2003.

Further Reading

Barry, Nora. “A Myth to Be Alive: James Welch's Fools Crow.” MELUS 17 (Spring, 1991): 3-20.

Bevis, William. “Dialogue with James Welch.” Northwest Review 20 (1982): 163-185.

Gish, Robert F. “Word Medicine: Storytelling and Magic Realism in James Welch's Fools Crow.” American Indian Quarterly 14, no. 4 (Fall, 1990): 349-354.

McFarland, Ronald E. “’The End’ in James Welch's Novels.” American Indian Quarterly 17, no. 3 (Summer, 1995): 319-327.

McFarland, Ronald E., ed. James Welch. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, 1986.

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

O’Connell, Nicholas. At the Field's End: Interviews with Twenty Pacific Northwest Writers. Seattle: Madrona, 1987.

Wild, Peter. James Welch. Boise State Western Writers Series. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1983.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

James Welch was born on November 18, 1940, on the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, Montana. His father, a welder, hospital administrator, and later rancher and farmer, was a Blackfeet Indian. His mother, who trained as a stenographer, was a member of the Gros Ventre tribe.

Welch was raised as a Catholic and attended schools on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations before moving with his family to Minneapolis. He graduated from high school in 1958 and briefly attended the University of Minnesota before returning to Montana. He graduated from the University of Montana in 1965 with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts. He began writing poetry and entered the master of fine arts program, but he did not complete the degree. In 1968, he married Lois Monk, a university teacher. The following year, Welch was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant. This led to the publication of his first collection of poems, Riding the Earthboy 40: Poems (1971).

Riding the Earthboy 40: Poems was followed by the publication of Welch's first novel, Winter in the Blood, which he wrote between 1971 and 1973 and which was published in 1974. Critical reception of the novel was enthusiastic. Welch's second novel, The Death of Jim Loney (1979), also featured an alienated protagonist; it was about an alcoholic half-Indian, half-white man. Welch's third novel represented a departure from his previous work. Fools Crow (1986) was a historical novel that told the story of the Blackfeet Indians in the 1860s, culminating in the massacre on the Marias River in 1870. Fools Crow was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book award in 1987. Welch's fourth novel was The Indian Lawyer (1990), about an Indian attorney and congressional candidate who served on the Montana prison parole board (as did Welch). The attorney gets involved with the wife of a prisoner and is blackmailed, forcing him to return to practice law on the reservation.

For his next project, Welch collaborated with filmmaker Paul Stekler on the PBS documentary about the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, in which the Seventh Cavalry under General George Custer was annihilated by Sioux Indians. Welch then published his own account of the battle from an Indian point of view, Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians (1994).

Welch's final novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000), was a historical novel about a Sioux Indian who as a child witnessed the battle of Little Bighorn. The protagonist of this novel joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which toured Europe, and was left behind in France recovering from an injury. Remaining in France, he had to make his way in an alien culture.

Welch was a Visiting professor at the University of Washington and Cornell University. In 1997, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas.

Welch died on August 4, 2003, of a heart a tack, at the age of sixty-two.

Biography

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Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 98

James Welch, whose books have been published in nine languages, drew his material from his Native American heritage, and his work is most powerful whenever he maintains that focus. A central theme of his work is alienation. Although he offers an unsparing examination of Indian history and contemporary life, his style is frequently restrained and understated. He develops ideas through attention to detail and nuance in a way that is often a lyrical reminder of his poetic roots. As his wife Lois commented, he was “a major spokesman for Native American issues, the subject of all his writing.”

Biography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340

James Welch received his Indian bloodline from his mother, of the Gros Ventre tribe, and from his father, of the Blackfeet tribe. Although his parents had as much Irish as Indian ancestry, for the most part he grew up in Indian territory. He attended Indian high schools in Browning and in Fort Belknap, Montana.

In 1965, while Welch was a student at the University of Montana, his mother, a stenographer at the reservation agency, brought home copies of annual reports from the Fort Belknap Indian agents for 1880, 1887, and 1897. These documents excited Welch, for they offered statistics on the numerical decline of Indians and showed agents’ purposeful efforts to control Indians. Of greater interest was evidence that an agent had reported communication with Chief Sitting Bull who had been for a time within a few miles of the house where Welch lived. This revelation ignited Welch’s interest in the history of his people.

“I wanted to write about that Highline Country in an extended way,” says Welch in describing the impetus for Winter in the Blood. Welch captures the feeling of vast openness of Northeastern Montana’s rolling plains. The novel is about a young Indian who lacks purpose in life until he discovers how Yellow Calf saved and protected an Indian maiden, an intriguing, heroic tale of his Indian grandparents. The novel’s locale is Welch’s parents’ ranch, and it suggests Welch’s own discovery of Indian forebears.

In The Death of Jim Loney, Welch portrays a young Indian tied by heritage to his reservation, unable to find opportunity there, endlessly drinking at lonely bars. Welch says that he writes only of situations that he has witnessed on Indian reservations. Lack of opportunity on the reservation, asserts Welch, leads Indians whom he has known to alcoholic despair. In Killing Custer, Welch portrays his people not as savages but as people justly defending their land, livelihood, and lives from military massacre. Welch re-creates nineteenth and twentieth century Indians living on the Western plains; he engages the reader in their viewpoint.

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