The original conceit of this continuing series of birthday posts was to celebrate the life and work of notable Native authors, especially those that were particularly inspiring to me as a Native person and reader. But for the purposes of this post and the author it addresses, there will be little confetti tossing or frosting of cakes.
It is not that James Welch, born July 7, 1943, is a bad man or even a horrible writer, but I find little motivation to add my own praise to his towering stack of awards, medals, and honors. Welch passed away in 2004 so it may be a little too soon to speak harshly of his legacy but honestly I have nothing nasty to say about the man other than describing the underwhelming feelings of discomfort and disappointment I have when reading his work.
The secondary purpose of these birthday posts is to simply summarize the works of Native authors for the purposes of introduction to the broader public (i.e. a small fraction of the internet). Along those lines, I may not have a present for Welch, but this post is a present for you so you can’t say I didn’t warn you when you find yourself half way through a 500 plus page books cursing yourself for not reading Louis Owens instead (more on him in a couple of weeks).
James Welch was born in Browning, Montana into the Blackfeet and Gross Ventre tribes (and more distantly, the Celtic). He spent most of his childhood on the Fort Belknap reservation and spent most of his years, apart from teaching gigs at University of Washington and Cornell, in the big sky country of Montana. His first novel, Winter in the Blood is set around the reservation of his youth and its release in the 70’s secured his place in the ranks of the “Native American Renaissance.”
Fool’s Crow (1986) is his most well-known work and it is where my problems begin. Set in post-Civil War era of westward expansion, the book attempts to capture the traditional ways of life among the Pikunis band of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana. It has a lot of tropes we associate with white author fantasies: Plains tribes on horses, vision quests, tragedy, revelation of sacred ceremonies, etc. But told from the perspective of a (supposedly) complex Indian character and shot through with frank descriptions of American military cruelty, it sets itself apart as a Indigenous view of the destructive force of settlement and the philosophy of Manifest Destiny that spurred it.
However, I could not get over the language used in the book. I applaud Native author’s attempts to translate Native languages and concepts into the colonizer’s tongue, but Welch simply fails. His translations of Blackfeet words and phrases too often drift into the quality of stereotypical Indian-speak. The subtle shades of language are dismembered by too many hyphens and heavy handed touches.
More troubling is the voice of Fool’s Crow, the main character and our narrative guide through the complexities of surviving in a rapidly-changing world. Though he is in the midst of this tumultuous time, his inner thoughts and descriptions are plodding, simplistic and curt. But when we are briefly brought inside the thoughts of a white cavalry soldier, the language becomes noticeably more complex and nuanced. The Indian is assigned the plain voice of stoicism and the white man the lyrical voice of reflection. Though James tries to reach back in the past and bring us an authentic vision of Blackfeet life, he fails to reconstruct the full humanity of the people in his story.
This all leads me to believe Welch has some internalized, quasi-racist, notions about how Natives are supposed to sound and act. This problem continues in Welch’s last novel of his life, The Heartsong of Charging Elk, another historical novel of great length. While, I was already giving Fool’s Crow the side-eye before I read it (skeptical of the “portrait of Plains Indians on the brink of destruction” genre), I approached Charging Elk with hopeful enthusiasm. It tells the story of an Oglala Sioux performer in the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows who is abandoned in Marseilles and must make his way with little money and no French-language skills.
Yet the book is not much better than Fool’s Crow both on the level of language and treatment of the Indian protagonist. Charging Elk is not really developed as a complex character beyond his feelings of confusion, homesickness, bodily desires and torn-between-cultures feelings of sadness. I stopped reading the book after a sex scene with a prostitute (in which the word “sexpocket” in invented) seemed to be leading to a contrived romance. It was all a staggering disappointment.
James, I wish I could more sincerely wish you a “Happy Birthday,” wherever you may be now, but I wish more emphatically that you had written better books and given your Native characters (as well as readers) a better chance at expression. If the goal of good writing is recognition and knighthood, you have succeeded. If, however, the goal is to open explorations into realms of life and thought or more politically, to give voice to the silenced, your works unfortunately fall short.