WELCH, JAMES (1940-2003)
Born in Browning, Montana, where the mountains break into foothills and then prairie, James Welch, a writer of Blackfeet and Gros Ventre heritage, remained rooted in Montana. His writings reflected a lifetime spent primarily in the magnificent and variable geographic terrain of the West. Welch attended schools in Montana, Oregon, and Alaska before graduating in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1958. He received a bachelor of arts degree in liberal arts from the University of Montana in 1965, where he also enrolled in the master of fine arts in creative writing program from 1966 to 1968 but did not earn a degree.
Since the publication of his first novel, Winter in the Blood (1974), Welch has been widely recognized as a leading figure in Native American literature. His novels have been translated and published in France, Italy, Germany, Holland, Japan, Sweden, and England. Subsequent to the rave reception his first novel received (it was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review), Welch republished his first and only collection of poetry, Riding the Earthboy 40 (1971; reprint, 1976). In 1979 The Death of Jim Loney appeared, a second novel set around the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana. Both novels' protagonists grapple with their familial histories, the deaths of loved ones, and excessive alcohol use.
With his third novel, Fools Crow (1986), Welch moved to depictions of historical events. Set in the Rocky Mountains, home of the Piegan (Pikuni) band of the Blackfeet Confederacy in the 1870s, Fools Crow offers a fictional view of Pikuni life around the time of the virtual extinction of the bison and just before Blackfeet people signed a treaty that forever changed their way of life. Based on historical figures such as Pikuni leader Heavy Runner and U.S. Army officer Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, the novel takes as its central subject the growth into manhood of White Man's Dog into Fools Crow, a chief. Fools Crow must grapple with what living with honor versus shame is and might be in the face of cultural upheaval. That same year Welch coedited The Real West Marginal Way (1986), a volume based on Richard Hugo's life and work, together with his wife, Lois Monk Welch, and Ripley Hugo, widow of Richard Hugo.
In his fourth novel, The Indian Lawyer (1990), Welch drew on his ten years of experience as vice chairman of the Montana State Board of Pardons (1979–88) to depict another sort of Indian protagonist. Sylvester Yellow Calf, a descendant of Fools Crow, becomes a lawyer and a Senate hopeful. In The Indian Lawyer Welch moves beyond depictions of familial and personal identity struggles to present a man who learns he can make or break himself.
The traumatic events in U.S.-Native relations gripped Welch's imagination more fully after he wrote Fools Crow and The Indian Lawyer. Along with Paul Stekler, he created a video, Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians (1994), that reflects Native American points of view regarding the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In his last novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000), Welch told the poignant story of a Lakota who is left stranded and sick in Marsailles when the Wild West show that had employed him moved on.
Welch occasionally taught at the University of Washington and Cornell University as a visiting professor, and lived in Missoula, where he wrote full-time. Welch died of a heart attack August 4, 2003, in Missoula.
See also WAR: Little Bighorn, Battle of the.
Kathryn W. Shanley University of Montana
Beidler, Peter G., ed. "James Welch's Winter in the Blood." American Indian Quarterly 4 (1978): 93–172.
McFarland, Ron. James Welch. Lewiston ID: Confluence Press, 1986.
Velie, Alan R. "James Welch's Poetry." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 3 (1979): 22–23.