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.
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.
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.”