| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
James Welch (Blackfeet-Gros Ventre)
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
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
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.
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.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In the Heath Anthology
from Winter in the Blood
Riding the Earthboy 40: Poems
The Death of Jim Loney
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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.