Winter in the Blood, 1974
The Death of Jim Loney, 1979
Fools Crow, 1986
The Indian Lawyer, 1990
The Heartsong of Charging Elk, 2000 (also known as Heartsong)
Riding the Earthboy Forty, 1971, revised 1975
Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians, 1994 (with Paul Stekler)
James Welch, whose various writings present the American Indians of his native Montana, was born to a mother of the Gros Ventre tribe and a father of the Blackfoot tribe. He attended reservation schools but graduated from a high school in Minneapolis. From the University of Montana in Missoula he received a B.A. degree in 1965 and a master’s degree in 1967. He settled with his wife in Missoula, Montana. He died there of a heart attack in 2003, at the age of sixty-two.
The title of his collection of fifty-four poems, Riding the Earthboy Forty, refers to a family named Earthboy who had a ranch of forty acres. The poem that lends its name to the volume describes a first-person narrator responding romantically to Earthboy, who “farmed the sky with words.” Earthboy is buried on his former farm, however, and his spirit declares that “dirt is where the dreams must end,” suggesting tension between the needs of living and aspirations of spirit.
After drafting his first novel, Winter in the Blood, Welch showed the manuscript to an editor friend, Bill Kitteridge, who offered extensive criticism. Welch thereupon reworked the story, doing much of the work during a stay in Greece. In this work the unnamed first-person narrator wastes his time in town and at his mother’s farm until he discovers his roots, especially his grandfather, Yellow Calf, who saved his ostracized grandmother, who was from a different tribe, from starvation. This knowledge, accompanied by a sense of the ghostly presence of his ancestors, freshens the narrator’s interest in his life and in his potential wife. The story suggests that realization of their roots and of their heroic ancestors can save American Indians.
The Death of Jim Loney received ambivalent responses, in part because the story depicts the despair that assaults a man whom others love. Welch’s hero is a man as lonely as his name, who ends by seeking to be shot by the reservation policeman. Aspects of this character come from the author’s life, but Welch denies that the novel is essentially autobiographical.
Fools Crow was more warmly received and garnered a number of awards. Set between 1867 and 1870, this major work treats the Montana Blackfeet from the perspective of a young man coming of age who longs for recognition and respect within his village. After a raid to steal horses, White Man’s Dog has his name changed to suggest his cleverness in having fooled the Crow enemy. Yet he feels remorse for having stabbed to death a Crow youth during the raid. The people in this novel accept dreams and visions as important directives from the gods and their spirit ancestors. The white settlers take the Blackfeet land and bring smallpox, but when Fools Crow’s people fight back, the U.S. Cavalry responds with the massacre of a village on the Marias River in the winter of 1870. In Fools Crow’s vision his people endure even though they are subject to white people.
The Indian Lawyer depicts Sylvester Yellow Calf, who has starred in high school basketball, graduated from Stanford Law School, and risen to partnership in a law firm in Montana’s capital. The omniscient narrator presents the thinking of many characters who attempt to influence Yellow Calf. In this novel the writing lacks the poetry and imaginative reach of Fools Crow, but Welch presents an American Indian who succeeds in the larger society.
The Heartsong of Charging Elk depicts the dilemmas facing Native Americans as the frontier closed. The protagonist is an Oglala Sioux who has joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show; laid up with broken ribs and influenza in Marseilles, France, he panics that the show has abandoned him and rushes out of the hospital in a delirium to find what is now the only family he has. Charging Elk wanders through Marseilles, prey to memories and ghosts, as he tries to find his way home both literally and metaphorically.
In the nonfiction Killing Custer Welch returns to the nineteenth century, narrating the events leading to and following from the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.
Many of Welch’s fictional characters live in northern Montana and claim Browning as home. Even the successful lawyer returns here when he needs advice and encouragement. Descriptions of the lovely summers and brutal winters of Welch’s birthplace give realistic depth to his stories, and his characters delight at the sight of an eagle or a mountain lion and in the landscape. Welch’s Blackfeet must address the challenge of living in a white-dominated society. Within his locale and Indian roots, Welch created characters who differ widely in outlook and situation, but all his characters search for direction and value in life.