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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

James Welch (Blackfeet-Gros Ventre)
(b. 1940)

Now living in Missoula, Montana, Welch was born in Browning and attended the University of Montana. Half Blackfeet and half Gros Ventre, Welch draws on his Native American background but he refuses to think of himself as “only” an Indian writer. The power of his fiction and poetry convinces the reader of his place in the mainstream of American literature, but that power derives as much from his subject matter as from his taut narrative style, laced with a laconic humor that adds a bitter complexity to his harsh tales.

In Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney, Welch drew with superb understatement the unlived lives of the contemporary Native American men, shut off from college educations because of family poverty and ignorance, warded away from financial respectability because of that education cut short. In each book, the protagonist had been a star high school athlete. Now, a decade or more after that athletic career ended, the men have no direction and no promise. They lead aimless lives of drinking, sex (and the promise that a healthy sexual relationship might hold is undercut by their own nihilistic attitudes), and apathy. Confused relationships with parents, especially with the father, whose life as an outsider to the white culture has set the model for the son, dominates what plot exists. But more than plot, these novels are marked by mood and tone, atmosphere as precisely drawn as anything by Hemingway or Richard Wright. Alienation and loss are what remain from reading these stunning texts.

Fools Crow, a truly Native American narrative in that its base plot is actual history from the nineteenth century, shares the somber tone of the earlier two novels at moments, but its texture has changed radically. This is a full panoply of native life—household customs, religious rites, love and family situations, war-making. Comedy, strength, ribaldry in the realization of the Native American lives of the past—in the height of power and cultural achievement—are set against the contemporary malaise, for an even more sadly ironic effect. Indian Lawyer places the Native American in the midst of that malaise and shows the inherent corruptibility of all people. Taking the four novels as a tetrology provokes a better sense of Welch’s meaning: the pride of heritage makes more understandable the deep apathy and sense of loss of the present-day Montana Indians. That sense of loss is applicable to any culture, of course, but it need not be: it is enough for us to recognize the immense loss the Indian culture has experienced, for it is so much worse than anything mainstream inhabitants can visualize. Welch’s work allows readers that visualization, and that convincing understanding.

In Welch’s poems the strain that some critics have called comic surrealism is more evident—but for some readers Winter in the Blood also shares in that tone. Characteristic of Blackfeet responses to life, Welch’s understated and oblique humor is a part of his world vision, and deserves to be recognized.

Linda Wagner-Martin
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
from Winter in the Blood
      Part Four (1974)

Other Works
Riding the Earthboy 40: Poems (1971)
The Death of Jim Loney (1979)
Fools Crow (1986)
Indian Lawyer (1990)

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Arizona Book Festival: Guest Author
A picture, brief biography, and a list of accolades.

Native American Authors Project
Provides a biographical sketch, links, and a list of primary works.

The 100 Most Influential Montanans of the Century
A biography written by Michael Moore of The Missoulian.

Secondary Sources