Title of work: The
Death of Jim Loney and "Christmas Comes to Moccasin Flat" by James Welch
Title of work
If you teach a work like The Death of Jim Loney, what kind of context does the student need? I think that's a very important question for a teacher. Someone off the reservation, perhaps, only sees it as a book about a half-breed drinking. That's dredging up the worst kinds of stereotypes. Jim Loney is trying to find some kind of dignity in living. He's awakened after ten years of alcoholism to realize his life is meaningless. So, in the end, he is the most alert, alive, conscious person.
Q & A with Kathryn W. Shanley
Can you give us some background information on James Welch, his family and ancestry?
Although Jim Welch is careful to leave autobiographical information out of his interviews, he does occasionally talk about his roots in Indian communities. And in a recent interview he does talk about when he was growing up -- particularly on the Fort Belknap Reservation -- and of hearing traditional stories. His father told him of the stories of his own people in terms of the difficulties arising out of the smallpox epidemics and then the massacre at the Marias River in 1870. In his first novel, Winter in the Blood, the elderly character, Yellow Calf, is an ancestor of Welch -- in a kind of a loose way. And then in Fools Crow, Welch's third book, a baby that survives the massacre is a relative, but he doesn't make the connections for you.
Describe the relationship between Welch's work and the Native American storytelling tradition.
The stories he grew up around in oral tradition are both stories about the mythological or the trickster figure -- the type of typical stories you'd think of when you think of Native American storytelling traditions -- but also they're family history and tribal history. And he has heard them throughout his life.
I think that James Welch would be the last person who would want to claim storyteller status for himself. Probably because he doesn't want to romanticize what he does. He knows it's a written art form, but he isn't prone to want to make the leap from oral tradition [to] the written. But he does have roots in the oral tradition, and it does come out in his work.
What does it mean for a Native American to read James Welch?
Well, even speaking from personal experience, when I first read Winter in the Blood, I felt an identification with the protagonist that I never would feel otherwise. I mean, even though I love literature and would suspend disbelief and identify with whomever -- the protagonist or some character in the work -- it didn't have the close personal connection that Winter in the Blood had for me. And to me the idea that Welch could capture something of the existence I knew growing up on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana was a miracle. And other Indians must have felt the same thing. But for my student to say in class, 35 or more years later, that Winter in the Blood is just like it is today means that there's a kind of relevance there that's a continuing of a social reality, and a vision, and other things perhaps more subtle.
How would you position Welch within the Native American literary tradition?
In an early interview, Welch once said that there were ... when he started writing, only N. Scott Momaday and Duane Niatum were Native people that he knew who were writing. There were other people before him, but those books weren't taught or available; many things have been reissued. And it wasn't the kind of situation where a person knew how to go and find those other voices.
He was an Indian, writing about what meant to be Indian, without romanticizing it -- trying to present it as the way it was. And he says that over and over. In fact, in a more recent interview that I did with him, he said the same thing -- that he tries to present Indian people's lives, or any person's life, in a way that is believable. So I think he's respected for those reasons.
He is considered one of the founders of the Native American Renaissance.
Information about key references
Before European settlers arrived, the Blackfeet tribe controlled large swaths of the plains of northwestern Montana and southern Canada, and were considered a formidable military power. For the most part, the tribe had friendly relations with Europeans, trading animal pelts for guns and ammunition, which allowed them to dominate their local rivals, the Shoshone and Nez Perce. But the tribe's power began to diminish in the early 1800s after the United States began supplying their rivals with weapons. The Blackfeet now occupy two reservations, one in northern Montana (established by peace treaty with the United States government in 1855) and another in Alberta, Canada. The reservations are located on traditional Blackfeet territory, but in a greatly reduced area. Many of James Welch's novels are set in this area. Welch has said that the Blackfeet "weren't particularly noble Indians. They weren't particularly bad Indians. They were human beings. That's really what I wanted to get across, the idea that historical Indians were human beings. They weren't clichés."
Gros Ventre Indians
In the late 1600s, the Algonquian-speaking Gros Ventre tribe split from the Arapaho tribe. By the late 1700s, the Gros Ventre inhabited territory in north-central Montana and eventually joined the Blackfeet Nation. The tribe's name literally means "big belly," and was given to them by French fur traders who mistook the local Indian sign language for "waterfall" (rubbing one's hands over the stomach). The Gros Ventre refer to themselves as "A'aninin" or "white clay people." In 1855, the Gros Ventre signed a peace treaty with the U.S. government as part of the Blackfeet confederacy. After moving from one reservation to another, the Gros Ventre settled, in 1888, on the Fort Belknap Reservation in north-central Montana, a territory they share with the Assiniboine tribe.
"Mixed-Blood" Native Americans
Since the first contact between Indians, Europeans, and enslaved and free Africans, there has been intermarriage and offspring. In the same way miscegenation has been a common theme in African American literature, the "mixed-blood" Native American has become a historical and literary motif in many works by Native American -- and non-Native -- writers, frequently symbolizing uncertainty and a lack of connection to one's culture and past. Yet while oppression persists, they also offer hope for a future coming together of all peoples. Politics of economics, ancestry, and tradition are always part of discussions about mixed blood Indians.
Native American Storytelling Tradition
According to Native American scholar Kathryn W. Shanley, this tradition follows a "how and why" format, giving listeners explicit information about how something came into being, and implicit information about why a particular phenomenon exists. In this way, listeners must puzzle through a universe of possible meanings about the phenomenon. In addition, Professor Shanley says that the storyteller will not censor stories for the audience. Instead, it is expected that the listener will hear in the story what he or she is ready and able to hear. Greg Sarris, a California Miwok/Pomo Native American, says that storytelling in the classroom has much to offer, but it is highly context-bound and should be studied as such. That is, all narratives are influenced by a variety of factors during particular tellings, and to understand the story necessarily requires an examination of the context in which it is told.
Native American Renaissance
At the same time many ethnic communities in the United States engaged in political activism for civil and human rights, Native Americans banded together to fight for the same rights. According to scholar Kathryn W. Shanley, the American Indian Movement staged demonstrations at the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices, at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, and at Wounded Knee. A literary renaissance accompanied this political activism. While James Welch is one of the people who launched the Native American Renaissance in the early '60s, it became a recognizable literary movement with the publication of N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn in 1968 and the book's subsequent Pulitzer Prize (1969). Literary scholar Kenneth Lincoln used the term "renaissance" for this period when Native American writing began to flourish; Native American students in colleges and universities were demanding to be recognized and seen in the literature and the curriculum. At this time and shortly thereafter, other writers, such as Simon Ortiz and Leslie Marmon Silko, emerged and added their voices to the literary movement.
Suggestions for applying other theories to The Death of Jim Loney and "Christmas Comes to Moccasin Flat"
James Welch's novels offer several entry points for inquiry. Teachers can have students catalogue questions as they read. Some students may have questions about specific details that are unclear to them; others may be interested in more symbolic or abstract references; and still others may want to pursue the philosophical or personal considerations which arise. The students should share their questions frequently as a class without attempting to answer any of them. Instead, the questions of the other students should "percolate" in the minds of readers as they read, providing new angles on the text that might not have been previously considered. The process of sharing helps students to find answers and refine their questions. Students can begin an inquiry once they have refined and catalogued a significant number of questions.
Cultural studies explorations might involve the relationship between images of Native Americans in popular culture and those presented by Welch and other major Native American writers. Students can sift through the similarities and differences, and make assertions about both. This should lead to further research.
A critical exploration of the works might revolve around Welch's treatment of mixed-blood characters within a literary and historical context. This could lead into a discussion of United States laws concerning blood counts and tribal roles, and the phenomenon of "fetishizing" Native Americans in popular culture.
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