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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Reader Response: Pat Mora and James Welch Session Author and Literary Works: James Welch

James Welch

Photo courtesy of The Missoulian

Author Bio

Born in 1940 in Browning, Montana, James Welch is descended from the Blackfeet tribe on his father’s side and the Gros Ventre tribe on his mother’s. Raised on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap Indian reservations, Welch writes about Native Americans in American society. As critic Don Lee has commented, Welch “has made it his lifework as a writer to illuminate the richness of his culture and the heartache of its dislocation.”

Welch attended the creative writing program at the University of Montana. Though his early attempts at poetry were, he says, “filled with majestic mountains and wheeling gulls” — the things he thought poetry was supposed to be about — his first poetry teacher, Richard Hugo, convinced Welch to write about the world he knew instead. In 1971 he published his first collection of poems, Riding the Earthboy 40, about life on the reservation and on the plains of Montana. Though he is best known as a novelist, the lessons of poetry, such as the need for an economy of words, have always influenced his fiction.

Works by the Author

Works by the Author

Credited along with N. Scott Momaday as one of the earliest writers in the Native American literary renaissance of the late 1960s, Welch created realistic novels that portrayed life on and off the Blackfeet reservation. The sense of isolation and alienation from white society, the vast open spaces of Montana, and the attempt to find meaning in the past recur as themes again and again in his writing. Yet there is a strong undercurrent of wry humor and an appreciation of the absurd that inform all of his works as well. His first novel, Winter in the Blood, received much critical attention. In it, and in his next novel, The Death of Jim Loney, Welch writes about contemporary Native Americans who are caught between the white world and Native American society, and feel a part of neither. Reynolds Price has written that these two novels “provide steady and penetrating looks at young Indian men whose spiritual blight and psychic paralysis are not confined to reservation life but are universal in their nature and causes.” Welch’s most recent works, The Heartsong of Charging Elk and Killing Custer, draw on nineteenth-century, Native American history from a tribal perspective.

“I used to object to being called an Indian writer, and would always say I was a writer who happened to be an Indian, and who happened to write about Indians,” Welch says about the pressure he feels to be a spokesman. Yet he also knows that “most people in America have a clichéd idea of Indians, that they’re all alcoholics and lazy and on welfare. Maybe through literature people can gain an understanding of how Native Americans got the way they are today, and how they differ from one another, as tribes and as individuals.”

The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch

Title of work
The Death of Jim Loney

Jim Loney is a mixed-blood Native American living on a Montana reservation. Isolated, depressed, and alienated, he can identify neither with the white community nor with his Native American heritage. (“Lucky Loney,” his white lover says, “You can be Indian one day and white the next. Whichever suits you.”) Every night he sits alone in his kitchen, drinking wine and trying to come to terms with who he is — a man exiled from his own past. Though his lover, Rhea, and his sister, Kate, both try to save him, Loney cannot accept their help. As his waking life begins to succumb to dreams and hallucinatory visions, a biblical passage and an image of a black bird haunt him. Because he is alienated from both white and Native American culture, Loney cannot interpret either symbol. On a hunting trip, he accidentally kills his partner, Pretty Weasel, and convinces himself that he somehow meant to do it. As the novel ends, Jim Loney reaches an epiphany. Native American scholar, Kathryn W. Shanley points out, “He orchestrates his own death. In Gros Ventre tradition, when you’ve done something grievous, then you have an obligation to mete out your own punishment in a public way. [Loney] stopped being a child of the government, or an innocent noble savage, or all the other things that he is mistaken for in the novel — at that point he becomes a man, because he takes the responsibility for what he ought to have known.”

"Christmas Comes to Moccasin Flat" by James Welch

Title of work
“Christmas Comes to Moccasin Flat”

This five-stanza poem from Welch’s Riding the Earthboy 40 paints a grim picture of Christmas in one of the poorest neighborhoods on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. While residents gather in front of the television — a substitute, perhaps, for the traditional tribal campfire — Welch sets up a dichotomy between a heroic past filled with “honor and passion” and the dismal, impoverished present. Medicine women spit in revulsion at the TV’s advertised commodities which nobody can afford; the proud ancestral “warriors back with meat and song” in the tales of the elders stand in stark contrast to today’s “warriors face down in wine sleep,” broken men who have been stripped of their traditional roles. A meditation on the cultural dislocation and spiritual poverty of reservation life, the poem unflinchingly depicts contemporary Indian realities.

Kathryn W. Shanley Audio Clip

Read more about Kathryn W. Shanley.

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.

Author and Literary Works

Works by the Author

Welch, James. The Death of Jim Loney. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

—-. Fools Crow. New York: Viking Press, 1986.
Set shortly after the Civil War, this is the story of a young Blackfeet and his spiritual initiation into manhood. Transformed from “White Man’s Dog” into “Fool’s Crow” in the course of his quest, the young tribal leader must decide whether to fight white society to preserve his people’s way of life, or to assimilate.

—-. The Heartsong of Charging Elk. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
Based on the true story of an Ogalala Sioux, this novel tells the tale of Charging Elk, who is touring France in the late 1880s with the Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show, performing sham Indian pageants for European audiences. Left by the troupe as he lies sick in a Marseilles hospital, Charging Elk wakes up alone in a world he has no way to negotiate or understand. When he kills a white man who rapes him, he is sentenced to 12 years in prison. The narrative moves back and forth between Charging Elk’s memories of his life on the plains and his painful adaptation to this new world. When he is finally pardoned, Charging Elk must decide whether to adapt to the white man’s world or find his own.

—-. The Indian Lawyer. New York: W.W. Norton, 1990.
Drawing on Welch’s own experience serving on a Montana parole board, his fourth novel is a psychological thriller that explores the conflict between two men. Sylvester Yellow Calf has become a prominent lawyer and has put his poverty-stricken past on the Blackfeet reservation behind him. But when an angry convict who was denied parole tries to destroy his career, the paradoxes and problems of life in two worlds become clear.

—-. Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.
In this nonfiction work, Welch tells the Native American side of the story of General George Armstrong Custer’s disastrous attack at Little Bighorn. Though the Native Americans were the “victors” in the battle, Welch chronicles how disastrous the attack was for them, as they were subsequently stripped of their freedom, power, and ancestral hunting grounds.

—-. Riding the Earthboy 40. Lewiston, ID: Confluence Press, 1971.
Welch’s only volume of poetry to date contains many of the themes he would go on to explore further in his fiction. These poems, including the title work, which refers to a family on the reservation and the acreage of their farm, are grounded in the Montana reservation life Welch knew intimately.

—-. Winter in the Blood. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
The narrator in Welch’s first novel, Winter in the Blood, describes himself as “as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon.” Searching for connection to his Indian heritage, and tormented by memories and visions, the narrator tells a discontinuous narrative that draws on elements of the tribal storytelling tradition. The novel, for all its bleakness, has a strong comic undercurrent that ranges from ironic to absurd to outright slapstick. Though little changes for the nameless character outwardly, inwardly he reflects on his ancestry and the deaths of his father, brother, and grandmother.


Works about the Author

Antell, Judith A. “Momaday, Welch, and Silko: Expressing the Feminine Principle Through Male Alienation.” American-Indian Quarterly, 12:3 (Summer 1988): 213-220.
This article considers Welch’s work in comparison with other great Native American authors.

Bovey, Seth. “Whitehorns and Blackhorns: Images of Cattle Ranching in the Novels of James Welch.” South Dakota Review, 29:1 (Spring 1991): 129-39.
This article considers the politics of Welch’s thematics.

McFarland, Ron. James Welch. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
McFarland’s biography offers a critical interpretation of Welch’s works.

Nelson, Robert M. Place and Vision: The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.
This is a critical analysis of the work of Momaday, James Welch, and Leslie Marmon Silko.

Sands, Kathleen M. “Closing the Distance: Critic, Reader and the Works of James Welch.” MELUS, 14:2 (Summer 1987): 73-85.
This article offers a reader-centered perspective on Welch’s work.

Stromberg, Ernest. “The Only Real Indian Is a Dead Indian: The Desire for Authenticity in James Welch’s The Death of Jim Loney.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, 10:4 (Winter 1998): 33-53.
This article offers a critical analysis of Welch’s work.

Vangen, Kate. “Thirteen Lumpy Stones for Luck and Friendship: Influences on James Welch’s Poetry.” Wooster Rev 8 (Spring 1988): 157-167.
This article presents a study of the influences on Welch’s work.

—-. Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.
This book compares the thematics and structures of several Native American authors.

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