James Welch Welch, James - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

James Welch 1940-2003

American poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer.

Acknowledged as one of the most prominent writers of Native American heritage, Welch focused his literary output on themes related to his rich ancestral culture. His poetry is often compared to that of authors Richard Hugo, Cesar Vallejo, James Wright, and Robert Bly. Riding the Earthboy 40 (1971), Welch's first published work and only volume of poetry, has received significant critical attention for its imagery, which combines surrealist motifs and traditional American Indian symbols. Moreover, critics consider Welch's treatment of the Native American experience within this volume to have been a major step toward modernizing the subject of the American West.

Biographical Information

Welch was born in Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet reservation near Glacier National Park. Enrolled as a member of the Blackfeet tribe in the tradition of his father, Welch was also half Gros Ventre on his mother's side. Subsequent to studying on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations as a boy, Welch graduated from Washburn High School in Minnesota. After attending the University of Minnesota and Northern Montana College, Welch transferred to the University of Montana, where he graduated in 1965. While pursuing an M.F.A. at Montana, he met the poet Richard Hugo. Heavily influenced by Hugo, Welch published Riding the Earthboy 40 in 1971, a volume of poetry centered on the Native American experience. Welch's first novel, Winter in the Blood (1974), continued to explore this theme, as would the remainder of his life's work. While teaching creative writing and contemporary Native American literature at Cornell University, Welch composed the novel Fools Crow (1986), which earned the American Book Award, the Pacific Northwest Book Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In 1997, Welch received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle. His novel The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000) brought him another Pacific Northwest Book Award in 2001. Welch died of a heart attack in Missoula, Montana, on August 4, 2003.

Major Poetic Works

Drawing upon his Blackfeet and Gros Ventre background, Welch employed simple language and laconic phrasing to impart complex messages about the plight of tribal people in contemporary society. Welch expressed a sense of dislocation and disenchantment in the poems of Riding the Earthboy 40. While some poems are straightforward in approach and realistic in detail, others adopt an abstract and surrealistic style. In the section of the volume entitled “Knives,” Welch utilized ironic humor and the illogical language characteristic of the European surrealist method to highlight the absurdity of reservation culture—living concurrently within, and apart from, American society at large. In contrast, Welch used a more direct approach in “Plea to Those Who Matter,” candidly addressing “white” society in order to satirize incorrect assumptions about Native Americans. In “Going to Remake the World,” Welch applied straightforward, conversational speech to describe a scene in a small town, but interjected fragmented and puzzling lines to produce a dream-like anxiety, demonstrating an intermingling of complexity and simplicity. The eponymous poem “Riding the Earthboy 40,” the language of which presents an exemplary combination of simplicity, mythological suggestion, and absurd humor, exhibits Welch's thematic concern with the relationship of Native Americans to the land. The title of Welch's poetry collection refers to the property adjacent to his childhood home on the Blackfeet reservation—a forty-acre parcel owned by the Earthboy family.

Critical Reception

Welch is consistently cited as a seminal figure in the history of Native American poetry. While occasionally derided for an overuse of surrealistic language and cryptic imagery, critics often praise Welch's ability to abstain from overtly political messages. By avoiding such tendencies, Welch's verse is lauded for its universality. Although Welch's poetry is strongly associated with the American West, “the work of a poet as talented, as diverse, and as complex as James Welch,” declares critic Peter Wild, “fortunately resists categorizing.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Riding the Earthboy 40: Poems 1971; revised and expanded, 1976

Winter in the Blood (novel) 1974

The Death of Jim Loney (novel) 1979

Fools Crow (novel) 1986

The Indian Lawyer (novel) 1990

Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians [with Paul Stekler] (history) 1994

The Heartsong of Charging Elk: A Novel (novel) 2000

Kenneth Lincoln (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Lincoln, Kenneth. “Blackfeet Winter Blues.” In James Welch, edited by Ron McFarland, pp. 95-106. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, Inc., 1986.

[In the following essay, previously published in 1982, Lincoln discusses the influence of Blackfoot Indian tradition on Welch's poetry.]

They shook the green leaves down,
those men that rattled
in their sleep. Truth became
a nightmare to their fox.
He turned their horses into fish,
or was it horses strung
like fish, or fish like fish
hung naked in the wind?
Stars fell upon their catch.
A girl, not yet twenty-four
but blonde as morning birds, began
a dance that drew the men in
green around her skirts.
In dust her magic jangled memories
of dawn, till fox and grief
turned nightmare in their sleep.
And this: fish not fish but stars
that fell into their dreams.

This poem, “Magic Fox,” opens Riding the Earthboy 40 (1971), Welch's collected poetry, in a dreamed reality that cannot settle between likenesses and things in themselves. Truth is a fox's game refusing to make sense. To “ride” a plot of earth implies a precarious stability from the start. “And the rolling day, / it will never stop? It means nothing?” Welch asks in “Getting Things Straight.” The poet's shamanic mystery comes under question: truth turns to nightmarish magic, love swirls with nervous leaves in a dance of memories, and poetry shifts on a dangerously unstable set of images. The traditional death chant, to meet the rattling darkness, has been transformed into the sounds of elderly men snoring leaves off the sun dance tree of life. Even the Trickster's cousin, fox, Welch's quick-witted totem (later paired with the wheeling hawk, a symbol of the circling needs of hunger and the hunt), is not sharp-eyed or sharp-clawed enough to unravel what is here the unreality of reality. There are no fixed points: all is in disquiet, falling. Trickster has doubled back on himself with a self-defeating wit.

We know that the stars did slip and fall in a nineteenth-century nightmare sky. Following the 1833 Leonid meteor showers, smallpox killed two thirds of the 20,000 Blackfeet in 1837, and there were successive plagues in 1845, 1857, and 1869 (Ewers, pp. 65-66; Curtis, p. 6). The horses were shot by cavalry or led away like so many bagged fish on a string (as the buffalo were slaughtered and reservations staked). The sacred sun dance tree was torn down, to be replaced by the cross and the flagpole. And the poet-shaman, haunted by nightmares of a past that skews the present, is now discredited, with a “blonde” memory of his people's seduction and fall. He wakes to the dangers of a shamanic medicine that failed, the instability of magic and metaphor, remembering that in the old days a medicine man who failed could be ostracized or even killed. The “all-face man,” as the Blackfeet shaman was known, can find no tribal mask now, no patronage among his people, and his power goes underground, a “holy ghost” questioning itself along “Arizona Highways,” or lost in the alcoholic antiways of “Blue Like Death”:

You see, the problem is
no more for the road …
the way is not your going
but an end. That road awaits
the moon that falls between
the snow and you, your stalking home.

The Blackfeet poet's voice descends from the shaman's tongue, mysterious and ritualistic, chanting “finicky secrets” like a nighthawk, in strange, concentrated phases, in paradox and parable; his images seem refracted from ordinary associations, as a nightmare is filtered through the dark side of day-to-day life. His words, as in “Counting Clouds,” are difficult, contrary:

a long way to come—
this rain so old my bones
crackle no before you speak.
A way to come: downwind
before the sudden clouds appear,
turn you statue—no, I say,
no to the north and no, no
to your crummy mirror.

Grinnel notes (p. 284) that a medicine doctor for the Blackfeet was literally “a heavy singer for the sick.” His terribly familiar voice cast insights into the shadows of people's lives, as the poet-shaman says of the nighthawk's secrets, “And another: man is afraid of his dark.” Fear feeds a shaman's power; he teaches how to live with the unknown and uncontrollable, how to use the threatening world as a source of courage. In a traditional song-poem, a Pima sings,

There I run in rattling darkness
cactus flowers in my hair
in rattling darkness
                                        darkness rattling
running to that singing place

(Brandon, p. 37)

Along with courage born of fear, the poet-shaman also knows the alembic of anger. In “The Versatile Historian” Welch calls out for “mountains to bang against,” a rhythm that rages everywhere among images. In “Surviving” he remembers,

The day-long cold hard rain drove
like sun through all the cedar sky
we had that late fall. We huddled
close as cows before the bellied stove.

Just as the old warrior songs moved the tribe into battle, the new poem, “In My Lifetime,” drums the people to arms against the self-defeat of acculturated poverty:

                              With thunder—
hands his father shaped the dust, circled
fire, tumbled up the wind to make a fool.
Now the fool is dead. His bones go back
so scarred in time, the buttes are young to look
for signs that say a man could love his fate,
that winter in the blood is one sad thing.
His sins—I don't explain. Desperate in my song,
I run these woman hills, translate wind
to mean a kind of life, the children of Speakthunder
are never wrong and I am rhythm to strong medicine.

Na'pi may have created man-the-fool in his own image, ironically, while Thunder gave the tribe a medicine bundle to pray for saving rain: the bundle is still opened each spring after the first thunder is heard (Ewers, p. 172). A contemporary Blackfeet, “blood to bison” and “desperate in my song,” Welch inherits the original speech of Thunder in the poem, “In My Lifetime” (see, too, the end of Eliot's Waste Land where the thunder speaks a first language). The poet drinks wind of the sacred run after wild game, chants the old earth rhythms, drums the sky for rain, and translates breath into the rhymes of poetry. His rites of passage carry the running meter of Speakthunder into the crafted meters of a shamanic poet's vision quest. “Toward Dawn” opens with these words: “Today I search for a name.” And in “Getting Things Straight” the lamenter in his quest asks the traditional four questions of the “circling” hawk: Is hunger the life need? Who feeds the hawk? Am I his prey? Is he my vision? Riding toward “Crystal” in a night of drunken insight, when horses begin to sing, coyotes prowl in the blooming moonlight, and places mean their names, the poet does not so much “try to understand” as to witness “Crystal's gray dawn.”

Traditional Indian verse ritualized the relationships between things through the use of corresponding ideas and objects. In contrast to the parallel phrasing of old chant formulas, Welch clusters images discordantly, using internal rhyme and rhythm to hold lines together. In “Counting Clouds” the poet couples the eidetic imagery and spiritual tension of surrealism, distantly related to the vision quest, with a Blackfeet attention to the land and the people:

Once I loved this gravy land
so famous in my blood
my hair turned black
with love. A way to think:
so cold the sun could call me

This palimpsest of modern style and Indian tradition is paralleled in the visual art of Oscar Howe, a Lakota painter who fuses the hallucinatory energy of Indian visions with cubist forms (see in particular Medicine Man and Dakota Eagle Dancer, 1962). Under intense compression, disquiet between old and new forms stirs the reader's sense of involvement; ideas call to a receding past, attempt rhyme, and grope for clarity. The poems impact as surreal conversations, densely imagistic, that follow structured stutters of the mind. An image suspends thought in midair; an ellipsis, colon, or hyphen trails an idea beyond recorded speech; a full-stop jolts the rhythm to halt in midline, as in “Going to Remake This World”:

                              Moose Jaw is overcast,
twelve below and blowing. Some people …
Listen: if you do not come this day, today
of all days, there is another time
when breeze is tropic and riffs the green sap
forever up these crooked cottonwoods.
you know, the snow never falls forever.

Welch writes a poetry of startling half-lines and broken forms (not unlike John Berryman's Dream Songs). Conversational syntax and diction tense against formal line lengths, so that verses enjamb or break at midpoint; fragments of images splinter in commonplace rhythms, broken lines of thought, and abrupt full stops. And within lines ideas implode in rhyme: “Look away and we are gone. / Look back. Tracks are there …” Beginning with the idea that Fox could be...

(The entire section is 3787 words.)

Peter Wild (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Wild, Peter. “Welch's Poetry.” In James Welch, pp. 9-24. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1983.

[In the following excerpt, Wild highlights the tendency of Welch's poetry to avoid an overly political tone.]


In his poem “Toward Spider Springs” (Going for the Rain [New York: Harper and Row, 1976], p. 25), Simon Ortiz writes:

Our baby, his mother,
and I were trying to find
the right road. …
We were trying to find
a place to start all over
but couldn't.

As the lines imply, Ortiz often blames white technological culture for its painfully disruptive impact on Native...

(The entire section is 5162 words.)

Peter Wild (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Wild, Peter. “Almost Not on the Map.” In James Welch, edited by Ron McFarland, pp. 107-112. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, Inc., 1986.

[In the following essay, Wild observes that while Welch generally avoids cultural cliché, his work does not always live up to its potential.]

For an Anglo to go native, to take up the ways of an American Indian tribe, and then write poetry from the Anglo perspective in his adopted language would seem absurdly precious to most of us. It certainly would to most Indians. For one thing, traditional Native American poetry has a far different purpose than our lyrics, which pique the esthetic sensibilities of readers, while,...

(The entire section is 2239 words.)

Kim Stafford (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Stafford, Kim. “At the Only Bar in Dixon.” In James Welch, edited by Ron McFarland, pp. 113-20. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, Inc., 1986.

[In the following essay, Stafford contemplates Welch's poetry and the impact that it has had on her life.]

What does it take to have a good time? Especially now, at August midnight, the only bar in Dixon is a warm light for Montana mosquito souls. Six of us hunch inward toward a story told by Elaine, the redhead in her laughing fifties at the bar:

Yeah, Indians. Well, you know Mike Dubois. He comes in one time we're having this big party. He shows up holding a blue helium balloon...

(The entire section is 2461 words.)

Kathleen Mullen Sands (essay date summer 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Sands, Kathleen Mullen. “Closing the Distance: Critic, Reader and the Works of James Welch.” MELUS 14, no. 2 (summer 1987): 73-85.

[In the following excerpt, Mullen Sands analyzes Welch's “skill at closing the distance between the reader and the landscape out of which he writes.”]

Not long ago I was cruising down the freeway, hauling a quarter horse named Magpie to the Maricopa County Fair Grounds for the Phoenix “Rodeo of Rodeos” grand entry. I don't follow the rodeo circuit, rarely even go to the local competitions, but the big black gelding I ride makes a handsome parade mount, and I agreed to lend him to a hefty neighbor who was one of the...

(The entire section is 1666 words.)

James Welch and Joseph Bruchac (interview date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Welch, James, and Joseph Bruchac. “I Just Kept My Eyes Open: An Interview with James Welch.” In Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, pp. 311-21. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1987.

[In the following interview, Welch discusses the authors who have influenced his work, as well as the general state of Native American writing.]

Born in 1940 in Browning, Montana, James Welch's first book was a collection of poems, Riding The Earthboy 40, published in 1971 by Sun. It quickly earned Welch a reputation as one of the strongest and most unsparingly honest voices among Native American writers, a reputation strengthened by his...

(The entire section is 3840 words.)

Kate Vangen (essay date spring 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Vangen, Kate. “Thirteen Lumpy Stones for Luck and Friendship: Influences on James Welch's Poetry.” Wooster Review, no. 8 (spring 1988): 157-67.

[In the following essay, Vangen considers the methods by which Riding the Earthboy 40 emphasizes “the devastations that comprise much of Indian history.”]

With the publication of James Welch's (Blackfeet/Gros Ventre) third novel, Fools Crow—a fictionalized account of the mid-nineteenth-century conflicts between Blackfeet people and Euroamericans, American Indian influences apparent in his earliest work become all the more evident.1 Many readers, however, probably do not realize that...

(The entire section is 4160 words.)

James Welch and E. K. Caldwell (interview date 15 January 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Welch, James, and E. K. Caldwell. “James Welch: An Interview with a Seminal Author in Native Literature.” News from Indian Country 9, no. 1 (15 January 1995): 24.

[In the following interview, Welch explains his role in the development of Native American writing and discusses the historical significance of the genre.]

Contemporary Native literature. James Welch. The two are most times mentioned in the same breath, whether you are sitting in a university classroom or in an informal circle of Native writers.

Two and a half decades ago, when Native literature was a new idea to mainstream American publishers, Welch, a mixed blood Blackfeet/Gros...

(The entire section is 2674 words.)

Ron McFarland (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: McFarland, Ron. “Riding the Earthboy 40: Remaking This World.” In Understanding James Welch, pp. 22-51. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, McFarland explicates Riding the Earthboy 40 and cites examples of Richard Hugo's impact on Welch's poetry.]

James Welch began his writing career as a poet, and although he has produced only a single volume of poems, it has been influential for various reasons, and his work appears to have secured a place for him in the presently evolving canon of Native American poetry. Moreover, what critics and reviewers have called a “poetic” or “lyrical” style has been...

(The entire section is 9244 words.)

Jim Charles (essay date March 2004)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Charles, Jim. “‘A World Full of Bones and Wind’: Teaching Works by James Welch.” English Journal 93, no. 4 (March 2004): 64-9.

[In the following excerpt, Charles provides ideas and techniques for the effective teaching of Welch's work.]

James Welch presented the NCTE [National Council For Teacher Education] Fund Lecture at the annual convention in Baltimore in 2001. I was in the audience and agree that he, indeed, deserved recognition as “an annual speaker who brings [NCTE members] a fresh perspective about the learning of language and literature in a cultural context different from their own” (NCTE). Welch read from his nonfiction work,...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Amanuddian, Syed. Review of Riding the Earthboy 40, by James Welch. World Literature Today 51 (winter 1977): 142.

Brief assessment of Riding the Earthboy 40.

Craig, David M. “Beyond Assimilation: James Welch and the Indian Dilemma.” North Dakota Quarterly 53, no. 2 (1985): 182-90.

Centers on the theme of displacement in Welch's work.

Holland, Robert. Review of Riding the Earthboy 40, by James Welch. Poetry 129 (February 1977): 285-95.

Comments on Welch's Riding the Earthboy 40.

Kessler, Jascha. “Inner World Where...

(The entire section is 266 words.)