Acclaimed author James Welch dies

Ron Selden

MISSOULA, Mont. – Known widely as a humble builder of cultural bridges, internationally acclaimed American Indian novelist James Welch died here Aug. 4 of a heart attack following a 10-month battle with lung cancer.

Welch, 62, was born in Browning, Mont., and grew up on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations. Although he also counted Irish blood in his lineage, people who were close to the author, historian and educator say it was his Native ties that governed his life and his work.

“He really came on as just another man in the tribe,” says longtime friend and former neighbor Darrell Robes Kipp, a Harvard-educated poet and co-founder of the Piegan Institute language immersion program in Browning. “He respected reservation life, and he knew it well. He never really left his roots.”

“I think he had a real sense of the Indian culture,” adds Rhonda Whiting, a Flathead tribal member and close friend of the writer and his wife, Lois, who survives him. “He was probably one of the most humble people I ever knew. He was truly an inspirational person. He was truly a mentor to many young people in Indian country.”

The award-winning author is perhaps best known for “Fools Crow,” his 1986 post-Civil War novel about a Blackfeet man coming into manhood as white encroachment takes over his people. The story of the struggle to maintain a traditional way of life against the tidal pull of assimilation earned an American Book Award, as well as top honors from the Los Angeles Times and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.

Welch’s “Winter in the Blood,” published in 1974, and “The Death of Jim Loney,” published in 1979, were both groundbreaking works that unswervingly examined downtrodden Native lives in their full spectrum of despair and isolation.

His 1994 nonfiction work, “Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians,” also received wide recognition, as did “The Indian Lawyer,” a 1990 novel strongly tied to the decade Welch served as vice chairman of the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole.

His latest book, “Heartsong of Charging Elk,” told the tale of a young Oglala Sioux man who traveled in France with Buffalo Bill’s legendary Wild West Show. Welch was working on a sequel to the book when he was stricken with cancer. His only collection of poems, “Riding the Earthboy 40,” was named after a Fort Belknap family that farmed 40 acres of land in the Milk River Valley.

Along with fame in North America, Welch maintained a faithful following throughout Europe. France recognized his contributions to French culture and presented him with the Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres medal and full knighthood. He received the Native Writer’s Circle lifetime achievement award in 1997. Earlier this year he was given his second Montana Governor’s Humanities Award. His books have been translated into nine foreign languages.

Welch was an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe, and his mother, Rosella O’Bryan Welch, who died in early July, was a Gros Ventre tribal member who worked for the BIA. His father, who still lives in Great Falls, was a rancher and welder, a roving occupation that took the family to various locales, including Minnesota, Oregon and Alaska.

Welch graduated from high school in Minneapolis in 1958, for a time attended the University of Minnesota and Northern Montana University, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at the University of Montana in Missoula. He toiled as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service, as a laborer and as an Upward Bound counselor. He also spent two years studying in the University of Montana’s creative writing program under poet Richard Hugo, a warm and gritty realist who took him under his wing and later introduced him to his future wife, Lois Monk.

Exuding his trademark modesty, Welch maintained in a 1997 essay that his capacity for writing was next-to-nonexistent when he was accepted into the school’s master’s of Fine Arts program.

“It didn’t take me long to realize that I was in way over my head,” he wrote. “I discovered I didn’t know how to write the kinds of poems my classmates wrote. Up to then, my poems had rhymed and were filled with majestic mountains and wheeling gulls.”

At one point, Welch explained, Hugo took him aside in his office.

“He told me to sit down, and I knew and dreaded what was coming,” Welch recounted. Hugo said he knew Welch didn’t know anything about poetry. Instead, he asked him what he did know. Welch described his Indian heritage and background. Hugo told him to write about that.

“At the moment I thought it was a fine idea, but as I walked home that day, I became more depressed with each block,” Welch wrote later. “I knew that nobody wanted to read about Indians, reservations, or those rolling endless plains that turned into Canada just thirty miles north. By the time I got home, I began to think that maybe that country and that life on the reservation was hopeless. Nevertheless, I began to write poems about the country and the people I came from.”

Throughout his career, Welch repeatedly said that a main goal of his writing was to give readers an understanding of what it was like to be an American Indian, both good and bad. His books included a rich interweaving of history, cultural intrigue, emotion, irony, hope and humor.

“I am definitely a storyteller, but probably not a traditional storyteller,” he said in one 2001 interview. “I do hope to point out, during the course of my story, the differences in cultures, the clashes that can result from those differences and how a person or a group of tribal people have to struggle to maintain their individual and tribal identities in a mainstream culture. Although I consider myself a storyteller first and foremost, I hope my books will help educate people who don’t understand how or why Indian people often feel lost in America.”

Not that long ago, Welch added, there were very few Indian writers.

“We were all pretty much on our own in various parts of the country,” he wrote. “Now you can’t shake a tree without two or three Indian writers falling out.”

But Welch also didn’t want to be seen as “just” an Indian author. Clearly, his keen insights and extraordinary literary skills transcended ethnic boundaries. Nonetheless, friends say there was a concern within Welch that he could too easily be yanked away from his past, especially with growing celebrity.

“He worried about his books and how they were taken in the Indian community,” Kipp explains. “But they fared well. I’ve never heard of criticism of James, at least in my community. I think people generally say, ‘Hey, that’s what I would write if I could write.’ I think James reached out all the time to these communities. He stayed connected.”

Kipp adds that the Welches developed a strong interest in the institute’s ongoing efforts to restore the native Blackfeet language and have been regular financial contributors.

“He was generous to us both in word and spirit,” Kipp says.

Welch went on to receive honorary doctorates from the University of Montana, Montana State University and the private Rocky Mountain College in Billings. He also taught creative writing courses at New York’s Cornell University and at the University of Washington in Seattle and lived at various times in France, Greece, Mexico and Italy during his wife’s sabbaticals. Lois Welch, until she retired, was head of the English Department at the University of Montana.

Debra Magpie Earling, a former student who now teaches creative writing at the school, says James Welch has long been her mentor.

“He was really an amazing human being,” Earling says. “Upon his death you kind of realize what an authority he is and will remain.”

Earling says she drafted the first version of the 2002 book, “Perma Red,” her debut novel, in one of his classes.

“I just loved and respected him as a teacher.” she adds. “He graced my life. He said you had to care what you were writing about. You had to invest in your work. That’s what he instilled in me. Everything I write now I try to take a risk with.”

“Indian writers might come from different eras, from different geographies, from different tribes, but we all have one thing in common: We are storytellers from a long way back,” Welch wrote in 1997. “And we will be heard for generations to come.”

A memorial service is scheduled for Aug. 27 at the historic Wilma Theater in Missoula. Blackfeet Chief and Tribal Business Council member Earl Old Person will sing an honor song and others who were close to one of Montana’s most famous authors are expected to speak, says Ripley Hugo, widow of the man who helped Welch get his start.

“He was a lovely man, a warm friend,” she said of Welch. “He was great fun in the gentlest kind of way. His writing style was beautiful imagery. It has the poet in it, a quiet mastery of characterization. He was a great man and a great writer.”

Donations may be made to the James P. Welch Jr. Scholarship Fund at the University of Montana Foundation, P.O. Box 7159, Missoula, MT 59807.

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