Writer James Welch
Born: November 18, 1940 Browning, Montana, U.S.
Died: August 4, 2003 (aged 62) Missoula, Montana, U.S.
Occupation: Author, educator
James Welch was born in Browning, Montana in 1940 to a Blackfeet father and a Gros-Ventre mother. Welch went to schools on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap Reservations and began studying as a graduate student under influential poet Richard Hugo at The University of Montana in the 1960’s. Welch said that during the first quarter his poems had no focus and no location.
Finally, Hugo pulled Welch aside for some private counsel. What Hugo told him was that his poetry needed roots, so he should write what he knew about. Write about Indians and Indian culture. Write about home. Soon after Welch began telling the world about life on the Hi-Line and on the Reservation. Before, Welch thought publishers wouldn’t be interested in either Indians or Montana and no one would want to read about Native Americans, the Reservation, and the landscape along the Hi-Line. Welch could not have been more wrong.
By his second year graduate school, Welch’s poetry found a direction, and he was writing almost exclusively about Indian culture. It was something he had a real passion for and connection with, so his writing came much more naturally. Under Hugo’s continued tutelage, Welch finally became a true poet.
Hugo began reading Welch’s poems to colleagues and encouraged his student to publish them. Welch’s first book, a collection of poetry entitled Riding the Earthboy 40 (after a family—the Earthboys—and the forty acres of land they owned) was published in 1971. Welch said that he believes Indians tend toward poetry because it approximates the traditional rhythms of Native American music. In fact, for the first seven or eight years of Welch’s career as a writer Welch only wrote poetry.
Although Welch began his career as a poet, he became famous for the fiction he wrote. His first novel, Winter in the Blood, earned him critical acclaim and also placed him alongside Momaday, author of House Made of Dawn, as a leader of the Native American Renaissance.
Welch’s other novels include The Death of Jim Loney, The Indian Lawyer, and Fools Crow, for which he won an American Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Fools Crow told the story of a band of Blackfeet Indians that escape the Marias River massacre of 1870 in which white settlers killed 173 Indians, mainly women and children. The Blackfeet that escaped were led by a woman with a bullet wound in her leg, a woman who was in reality Welch’s grandmother. Though he never met his grandmother, the stories his father told him inspired Welch to write about her in this book.
Welch also wrote a nonfiction book, Killing Custer, which retold the story of the Battle of the Little Big Horn from an Indian perspective. Welch’s final novel was The Heartsong of Charging Elk, after which Welch was awarded the title of a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters from France. For his work as a poet and author, Welch also received the Native Writer’s Circle’s Lifetime Achievement award.
As his close friend and fellow Montana author Ivan Doig said, Welch wrote about what it means to be an Indian in modern American society and he wrote about the people of the West without glorification, without cliché in an honest, clear voice from an intimate perspective. The world lost a great storyteller when Welch passed away in 2003, but the stories and poems he’s written will live on in his stead.
James Welch Publications
Winter in the Blood (1974)
The Death of Jim Loney (1979)
Fools Crow (1986)
The Indian Lawyer (1990)
The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000)
Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians (1994)
Riding the Earthboy 40 (1971 rpt. 1975)
Last Stand at Little Bighorn
Christmas Comes to Moccasin Flat
Snow Country Weavers
Thanksgiving a Snake Butte
Harlem, Montana: Just off the Reservation
Awards and Honors
American Book Award, 1986 Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature, Native Writer’s Circle, 1997
Online resources by or about James Welch:
Arizona Book Festival: Guest Author James Welch
Author: Arizona Central and Arizona Humanities Council.
Description: A brief biography of Welch, including a picture.
George W. Aguilar, Sr.
Author: Portland State University
Description: Includes biographical information as well as a short list of recommended further reading.
Author: Michael Moore
Description: This brief biography of Welch was prepared by Michael Moore for Welch’s listing as one of “The 100 Most Influential Montanans of the Century” in the Missoulian.
James Welch: Novelist, poet and Colorado College visiting faculty member
Author: Owen Perkins
Description: This interview with Welch comes from the 9/30/99 issue of the Colorado Springs Independent newspaper.
Lopez Books – Native American Literature: James Welch’s intro
Author: James Welch
Description: In this introduction to a Native American literature catalog, Welch discusses his own writing and the current status of Native American literature.
Books by James Welch:
Welch, James. The Death of Jim Loney
New York : Harper & Row, 1979.
Welch, James. Fools Crow
New York : Penguin Books, 1986.
Welch, James. Heartsong of Charging Elk
New York : Doubleday, 2000.
Welch, James. The Indian Lawyer
New York : W. W. Norton, 1990.
Welch, James. James Welch
Lewiston, ID : Confluence Press, 1986.
Welch, James. Killing Custer : the battle of Little Bighorn and the fate of the Plain Indians
New York : W.W. Norton, 1994.
Welch, James. Riding the Earthboy 40
New York : Harper & Row, 1976.
Welch, James. Winter in the Blood
New York : Penguin Books, 1974.