James Welch:

Winter in the Blood The Heartsong of Charging Elk

American Novelist, American Indian

James Welch, best known for his brilliant novel, Fools Crow, was Blackfeet/Gros Ventre and he was the most consistently productive American Indian author of the 20th Century. Welch was a part of the Montana literary renaissance of the 1970s that also gave us William Kitteridge and other less familiar names. He was a student of University of Montana professor and poet Richard Hugo.

Welch's first book, a collection of poetry entitled Riding the Earthboy 40, was also one of the first books of poetry by an unambiguously Indian writer, about Indian subjects. It was also the first such book arguably legitimate literature in its own right rather than a literary curiosity. Welch once said that being known as the best American Indian novelist from Montana is a pretty backhanded compliment. His own work extended beyond such carefully circumscribed success.

You can read Welch's own brief assessment of his career and the "Native American Renaissance" at bookseller Ken Lopez' web site, LopezBooks.com.

Welch has never had the public persona of the more popular Indian authors, like Scott Momaday, Leslie Silko, and Louise Erdrich. Even though his book on the Battle of the Little Big Horn (Killing Custer) was the result of a stint with a PBS program, his name remains one known primarily to those readers who seek out books on Indian subjects, while Silko, Erdrich, and Momaday get the attention of the American Book Awards, the Pulitzers, and the intellectual media. [Yes, I have failed to take into account Sherman ALexie. It's no accident.] Given that those same arbiters of multicultural literacy also gave credence to shams and poseurs like William Least Heat Moon (or whatever his spirit has decided to be called this week), Jamake Highwater (whose persona turned from Indian to gay when gay peddled better), Carlos Castenada (who invented a form of really mediocre fiction called "anthropology"), and Ward Churchill (who made a career of outing fake Indians like himself). you have to worry that the arbiters' occasional lapses into good taste may be as random as their more frequent flirtations with intellectual whoring.

Jim Welch's death in 2003 put an untimely end to a distinguished literary career. In the decades to come, his reputation will grow the way he would have wanted it to, as an important voice of American literature, that of a writer who was Indian.

Welch is a writer's writer, like Wallace Stegner and Gene Wolfe. His career as a prose writer was launched with a rocky start, in two of the most unrelievedly depressing novels ever written. And then with his third novel, Fools Crow, he seemed to find firm footing. If any novel ever deserved the Pulitzer, this brilliantly executed historical novel did; it is as grand in its way as both Lonesome Dove and House Made of Dawn. And yet it is hard to imagine two novels more different than Fools Crow and Welch's fourth novel, The Indian Lawyer. Where Fools Crow is historical, magical, and a bravura showpiece, The Indian Lawyer is brilliantly low-key, contemporary as the news. Both are enfused with that clear, unflinching eye and voice that is Welch's. His most recent novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk, returns to the historical milieu of Fools Crow, but in a context of cultural relativity rather than magic realism.

Note: Highlighted book titles are linked to Amazon.com and can be purchased. The "open book" icon [Link to review Not this one...] is a link to a review of the neighboring title.

Welch's Own Writing

Riding the Earthboy 40

Welch's poetry is filled with dry humor and ironic asides. His meditation on his eccentric grandfather, for example, ends with "And when he died, it was surprising how well his friends all took it." One poem describes one of those stock Western photographs (everybody from the saloon lined up facing the camera, looking as if they aren't sure what the photographer had in mind when he said he was going to 'shoot' them) like this: "Here we are when men were nice."

Dancing Badger

There is a huge variety of poetry by American Indians to choose from, ranging to McKuenesque pap and Baraka rage, and including some voices as authentic, interesting, and rich as any contemporary's. American Indians may not have produced a Jeffers, Whitman, or Frost, but lately neither has mainstream America. Welch's poetry is surreal, rich with irony, and lyrical, its clarity of vision balancing gracious delicacy with deep and justified anger. With his first novel, he found his medium, and he never published another collection of poetry. Many writers regard the fiction/poetry distinction as artificial; certainly in Welch's case, as in Silko's, the two forms were close cousins.

Winter in the Blood

Welch's first novel is extraordinarily depressing for white readers. My American Indian students at the University of North Dakota, on the other hand, thought it was very funny, which in itself is a lesson in cultural relativism. And they felt that it accurately represented reservation life in the Northern Plains region, which was the land and life most of them knew intimately.

Like Welch, I think, they knew that anger, pain, and humor were not, after all, strange bedfellows.

It is a terrible journey, as we follow the nameless protagonist stumbling from one misadventure to another. He is the grandson of a woman who survived the Marias River Massacre (a historical incident which will serve in a few years as the climax of Fools Crow). He is a man with no name and barely any identity, so beaten down by failure that he does not even seem to be aware of his own condition. The action revolves around his memories of his brother's death, his attempts to find his girlfriend, and the death of his grandmother. The story proceeds with macabre whimsy, sometimes amusing, sometimes just surreal, to its ambiguous conclusion.

The Death of Jim Loney

If you thought Winter in the Blood was depressing! The Death of Jim Loney, also set on a contemporary Montana reservation, is a kind of Leaving Las Vegas with a young Indian protagonist, Jim Loney. You can probably guess how it ends? Nonetheless, Welch manages to create suspense, to engage us with a gang of interesting characters, and bring us, when the time for killing Loney arrives, to a broader understanding of the nature of reservation life.

Fools Crow

Fools Crow

This historical novel is an departure for someone whose poetry and fiction have been so relentlessly contemporary and uniformly pessimistic. Although the story ends tragically, with the massacre of the Blackfeet on the Marias River (a key incident of their subjugation which figures in both of the earlier novels), the picture of the Blackfeet, rendered from a vividly imagined inner perspective, is a feast for the mind and the mind's eye. Animals talk, and it is not hokey. We are in a Blackfeet world, and white people speak a bizarre gibberish that makes no sense. People change names as their personalities grow and evolve, and they become new people. (Essays about the book must negotiate the thorny problem of explaining that three or four names are all the same person at various points in his life.) The novel provides the reader with puzzles, but they are stimulating rather than frustrating, and the final effect is to feel that we have been allowed, perhaps for the first time, to see the world as the special people of this gone time might have seen it.

The Indian Lawyer

The Indian Lawyer

Sylvester Yellow Calf, the protagonist of The Indian Lawyer, is in some ways my favorite Welch hero. Welch has always been bothered by the notion that books about Indians are specialist, regionalist works. It is a kind of patronizing attitude, familiar to the writers of science fiction and other "fringe genres." This novel is about a contemporary man who happens to be Indian. That is not to say that his Indian background is not important, only that it is no more (or less) important that growing up in Whitemud, Alberta, or being an Italian in New York. Sylvester serves on the Montana state parole board, and he becomes entangled in the personal life of a prisoner, with tragic results. The Indian Lawyer is the best of the attempts by American Indian authors to write in the mystery genre, though it is in fact more a mainstream novel with a crime context, not a mystery per se. (The American Indian mystery genre is dominated by white authors, primarily because Indian authors tend not to write to the requirements of the formulae. Linda Hogan's and Louis Owens' efforts in this arena are illustrative. For a full treatment of the subject, with recommended examples, read "Indian Mysteries: A Crossover Genre."

Killing Custer:
The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians

Welch was involved some years ago in a PBS special on the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and this book gathers his thoughts on the Indian Wars in a historical context. It offers nothing new for the Custer buff, and his attitude toward the dead buffoon is fairly predictable (he's agin' him), but the book is, like Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an interesting perspective on a key event of our national mythology.

The Heartsong of Charging Elk

Welch's last novel has a fascinating premise: When Buffalo Bill took Indians to Europe, he "lost" some of them. Charging Elk is a contemporary of Black Elk (the historical protagonist of Black Elk Speaks, who became "lost" in London). Charging Elk gets sick in Marseilles and ends up alone in Europe, with no money, no way to communicate, and no hope of returning home. He can't read or speak any European language (not even English). The problem is reminiscent of Gene Wolfe's "Soldier" series, two novels (Soldier in the Mist and Soldier of Arete, both out of print) in the form of a journal being kept by a Greek soldier who is writing because he has no long-term memory. He reads the journal each morning to get his bearings. At one point, he loses the journal.... Similarly, Charging Elk is an anthropologist in an alien culture, making the familiar new through his own puzzlement. It is a marvelous story; here is a full review.

Books about James Welch

James Welch
(Confluence American Authors Series)

Published by a small press in Idaho. It has been reprinted a few times, and it turns up occasionally in secondhand stores. If you are interested, this and the little Boise State Western Writers Series book on Welch (by Arizona poet Peter Wild, I think) are good introductions.

Understanding James Welch
by Ron McFarland

Literary study of Welch's work by a prominent scholar of Western American Literature. McFarland was the editor of the Confluence anthology.

Top Novels Centered on 'Pre-modern' Indian Life

There aren't very many literary subjects more controversial than 'pre-modern' Indian novels. They usually tell us more about the writer and the writer's milieu that about the Indian subject, whether the author is a painfully sympathetic and morally outraged Helen Hunt Jackson or a "scientific" and culturally blindered anthropologist like Adolph Bandelier. We create the 'noble savage' (or the 'red devil') in the image of our own hopes and fears, whether we are seventeenth-century French philosophers or New Age metamaterialists looking for something to believe in. Larry McMurtry's life of Crazy Horse examines this phenomenon [Review of Crazy Horse].

The extraordinary (and mercifully brief) popularity of Ruth Beebe Hill's appalling Hanta Yo is a case in point. Conceived as an American Indian justification of Ayn Rand's philosophy for the self-absorbed, spiced up with some right-wing sexual polemic, it bears no relation to Lakota (Yankton Sioux) reality. When it was made into a TV movie, the storm of objection from American Indians and students of Plains Indian history and culture was so powerful that the producers changed the name of the movie to dissociate it from the book.

That said...

Conquering Horse, by Frederick Manfred

The Manly-Hearted Woman
Conquering Horse
Scarlet Plume

These three novels from Frederick Manfred's Buckskin Man Tales drift in and out of print. They also turn up with great frequency in secondhand bookstores. The first two are set in pre-white Iowa/Nebraska, around 1700-1800, among the Sioux, and the third is the definitive retelling of The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862. Manfred did a tremendous amount of research for the books, including consultation with reservation Indians, and the result is three extraordinarily realistic and convincing stories, the equal of Fools Crow in both respects.

The Manly-Hearted Woman is more a religious fable than a realistic novel, though the details of Lakota life seem accurately represented. Conquering Horse is a 'coming of age' novel about a Lakota boy whose vision quest becomes a literal quest to find a special stud horse. These two are highly recommended, especially Conquering Horse. Scarlet Plume is a wonderful novel, but something of an anachronism in its Laurentian treatment of sex and "dark blood." Manfred gets a bit too hung up on sex, and the result is skewed thematically if spot-on historically. The novel's framing device of Indians massacring whites/whites massacring Indians is brilliantly conceived, and the book has a compelling lyrical quality for all its antique sexual polemic.

Ride the Wind

Lucia St. Clair Robson has written an excellent novel based on the life of Cynthia Ann Parker, the Texas farmgirl who was kidnapped by the Comanche, became the wife of Peta Nocona and, eventually, gave birth to one of the great Indian leaders of the century, Quanah Parker.

John Ford's The Searchers,
which professional poop flinger Sherman Alexie has called "the most racist movie ever made" (telling us more about his viewing experience than about the film), is the definitive exploration of "Indian-hating."

Viewed without the John Wayne mystique to confuse things (the elevation to iconic status of John Wayne was barely under way in 1956), the film depicts a vicious racist who is opposed by the decent people, including a part-Indian companion, and finally rejected by civilized society.

Its picture of Indians is stereotypical but not negative; the crude "humor" surrounding Look is more sexist than racist, and balanced somewhat by its pathetic denouement. Ford attempts an honest balance he is not equipped culturally or historically to maintain. It is less a racist film than a film about racism.

As a young adult, Cynthia Ann was kidnapped again, this time by her white uncle, along with Quanah's younger sister (of course it was called being "rescued"), and she pined away and died, as did her daughter, in less than year. Her story is the basis for that classic western film, The Searchers.

Robson's novel is sold as a kind of highbrow Harlequin Romance (you know, Sagebrush Stallion and all that). Don't be fooled. It is well-researched and the focus is on the conflict of cultures, not ripped bodices.

In Ghost Warrior, Robson manages to pull it off again, telling the story of Lozen, the sister of Apache leader Victorio. Review of Ghost Warrior


The first book chronologically in Louise Erdrich's series of novels about the Lamartine family and the Pembina Band of the Chippewa qualifies as a 'pre-modern' novel although the protagonist, a Chippewa witch named Fleur, lives into the twentieth century. It is in some ways the best of the books, although Erdrich is so uncompromising about the magic world that it can be hard going sometimes without a map.

More recent novels, The Antelope Wife [Review of The Antelope Wife] and The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse [Review of ...Little No Horse], also contain a good deal of historical material, though both focus on contemporary times and issues.

The Soul of An Indian, by Charles A. Eastman

Indian Boyhood
Old Indian Days
The Soul of an Indian
From Deep Woods to Civilization

Charles A. Eastman grew up a 'wild' Santee Sioux, ended up in a reservation boarding school, became Dartmouth's most famous Indian graduate, and returned as a medical doctor to South Dakota, where his assignment to the BIA office at Pine Ridge made him the doctor on the scene at Wounded Knee. He wrote a series of books on Indian life, including his autobiography, Indian Boyhood. Because he was an 'assimilationist', he is widely regarded as an 'apple' (an Indian 'Uncle Tom,' red on the outside, white on the inside), but this view is as patronizing, in its way, as any racist dismissal of Indians. He was a thoughtful, articulate combatant in the struggle for awareness of Indian values and the wrongs committed by the government. Amazon lists Indian Boyhood as a children's book "suitable for 4 - 8." Don't be fooled. Eastman is for grownups. Like Luther Standing Bear, he "wrote for kids" because only kids were listening.

Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse, by Mari Sandoz

Mari Sandoz' fictional biography of 'The Strange Man of the Ogalallas' was the definitive book on Crazy Horse until the appearance of Joseph Marshall's The Journey of Crazy Horse.
The Journey of Crazy Horse, by Joseph Marshall
Marshall's book does not add much factually to the story, but it is briefer than the Sandoz novel and written with the passion of a descendant, however distant. I expect the Sandoz Crazy Horse will become a relic for antiquarians now, which is too bad; it deserves better. Given the obstacles Sandoz was up against — she came at the sotry as an interesteed outsider, and the historical records on Crazy Horse are even slimmer than usual for a nineteenth-century traditional Indian — her thoughtful, convincing, and sympathetic portrait is a small miracle. Asked to choose between Sandoz and Marshall, I'd refuse.

Larry McMurtry's brief life of Crazy Horse is another recommended title [Review of Crazy Horse]. The great Lakota warrior has become a heroic, mythological figure in the contemporary struggle for Indian rights and sovereignty. For example, Peter Matthiessen's book on the killings at Wounded Knee in 1973 is entitled In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, and Dee Brown's wildly successful Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee takes as its title words Stephen Vincent Benet put in the mouth of "the strange man of the Ogallals." McMurtry's biography examines the phenomenon of Crazy Horse's iconic status after conceding that writing a factual life of a legendary figure is impossible.

Crazy Horse himself exists almost entirely on a mythological, semi-religious plane. He was never photographed, he was not recognized by his white adveraries as an important person (he was never a chief), but his life of resistance is a model for contemporary Indians and his death, murdered like Sitting Bull with the collusion of his own people, is a symbol of the end of Indian resistance to the Army.

Seven Arrows

Hyemeyohsts Storm (formerly known as Chuck) pretty much single-handedly created the New Age/Indian industry whose most dramatic manifestation may be 'Earth Thunder Woman', a psycho/therapo/something-or-other in Boise, Idaho, whose 'gift' is channelling the White Buffalo Calf Woman (which is a bit like a nice Choctaw lady from Anadarko announcing that she is the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary). Seven Arrows is Storm's first book, and the only one worth bothering with.
The rest are strictly fringe lit for true believers. Even Seven Arrows is a bit of a problem politically; it is supposedly based on the secret religious philosophies of the Cheyenne. Ignore that part. It turns out that Chuck Storm is actually Crow (traditional enemies of the Cheyenne...). And the 'ceremonies' play only a trivial part in the story, which is fortunate since they are utter hornswoggle. (If you really want to know about Cheyenne religion, read boring old anthropologist Peter Powell's boring old accurate book produced with the cooperation of boring old Cheyenne elders, Sweet Medicine. The truth is never as interesting as a New Age fairy tale, of course.) Anyway, it's worth reading for the language, the story, and the experience of seeing the Fools Crow world from another 'insider' perspective, even if it is 'sort of' Crow pretending to be Cheyenne.

Red Prophet

A strange bedfellow with the rest. This is a piece of Orson Scott Card's ambitious 'alternate history' novel series about 'Alvin Maker.' It is by no means 'authentic,' but it brings such a wonderfully fresh view to the story of Tecumseh and the Indians of the Ohio Valley that I can't resist recommending it.

Novels Centered on Modern Indian LifeTop

A highly selective list. I have left off authors I don't particularly like (Sherman Alexie and Gerald Vizenor). I've deliberately excluded books like The Education of Little Tree and the Carlos Castenada 'anthropology' books because they are hoaxes and frauds. I've not included authors or titles I think are not likely to be of interest except to the specialist (Louis Owen's academic novels that happen to be by an Indian; Scott Momaday's The Ancient Child). I've missed a few recommendable writers I haven't taken the opportunity to read yet, like Linda Hogan. If it's not here, that doesn't mean it's no good; but what's here are some good places to start.

House Made of Dawn

The Scott Momaday novel that, along with Vine Deloria's essay collection, Custer Died for your Sins, launched the American Indian literary renaissance in 1968. It is the classic 'Ira Hayes' story (Indian goes to war and comes back unable to integrate into his tradional society, gets drunk, gets in trouble). What made the book exciting was the literary accomplishment of the writing. It is beautifully written, as exquisitely crafted as a Navajo bracelet, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. [Another superb version of the 'Ira Hayes' plot is Frank Waters' The Man Who Killed the Deer, set at Taos Pueblo.]

Ceremony, by Leslie Silko

Almanac of the Dead
Gardens in the Dunes

Leslie Silko's Ceremony takes the Ira Hayes story as its base as well, but where Momaday is a realist using magic as a literary device, Silko allows the magic to construct the story. Gods and goddesses move through the novel, for which the uranium mines outside Laguna Pueblo are the logical venue of Pueblo witches. Silko's style is simple and readable. And then a deer turns and speaks to you.... Highly recommended.

Second, there is Storyteller, my favorite of Silko's books. It fits in no category. It's a novel, sort of, made up of short stories (one of them by Simon Ortiz, however, and some by Silko's granny and her aunts) and poetry, and photographs and letters, and talk about the how and why of telling stories. It's a memoir, sort of, like Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain. It's itself, and wonderful is that self.

Almanac of the Dead, by Leslie Silko

Silko's second novel, Almanac of the Dead, is a vast, galumphing beast of the Apocalypse, a thousand pages long, grim and surreal, and sure to offend you at least once (I promise). She takes on the decadence of the American art community, Arizona real estate scams and the Mafia, the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico, the drug culture, and the American obsession with guns and monster trucks, and weaves it all into a morally charged nightmare. This book is probably responsible for Silko's reputation as a "white hater." People who think that forget the key message of Ceremony: The enemy is not white people, but the witches who created them. Believe it or not, highly recommended.

The new novel, Gardens in the Dunes was greeted with mixed reviews. Objections to its polemical tone and agenda alternated with encomiums to the beauty of the writing and Silko's lyrical style. I didn't find the politics obnoxious, and it is in may ways a lyrical book, though not to the degree that Storyteller was. Silko reminds me a bit of Buffy Ste. Marie, who keeps writing these embarrassing true indictments of American History instead of singin' 'bout the moon and Grandfather Buffalo, like a nice New Age Ind'in girl. Some folks demand that we choose between the ferocious politics of Silko and the gentle nurturing kitchens of Louise Erdrich. Don't we need them both?

Love Medicine
The Antelope Wife
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

The book that brought Louise Erdrich her first critical attention, Love Medicine, is set in northern North Dakota. It depicts the lives of three or four families at the Turtle Mountain Reservation. There are, so far, more than a half dozen novels that build a Faulkneresque, multi-generational picture of the Pembina Chippewa. If you are interested in Erdrich, I have posted an entire page devoted to her books and a couple of related links. I have posted reviews of The Antelope Wife and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.

The Surrounded
Wind from an Enemy Sky

D'Arcy McNickle was a Salish history professor, university educated. He wrote a solid overview history of the Indians in the Americas (They Came Here First) that I recommend, and a book on contemporary American Indian issues, Native American Tribalism. He also began and ended his writing career with a pair of novels. The first, The Surrounded, bears some similarity to Welch's The Death of Jim Loney. The protagonist is a young, educated Indian who makes the mistake of trying to undo some of the injustices of the reservation. Set in the Washington/Oregon area.

I have not read McNickle's last work, Wind from an Enemy Sky, but it is about the political battles along the Columbia over fishing rights.

Other Topics of Interest Top

The Blackfeet

The Reservation Blackfeet, 1882-1945 : A Photographic History of Cultural Survival. Welch contributed some writing to the book. Good companion volume to Fools Crow.

The Blackfeet Raiders on the Northwestern Plains, John Canfield Ewers
Blackfeet: Their Art and Culture, John Canfield Ewers
Ewers is generally regarded as the best traditional historian of the Blackfeet and Northern Plains tribes.

Crowfoot: Chief of the Blackfeet (Civilization of the American Indian Series, Vol 122), Hugh A. Dempsey, Paul F. Sharp
The Amazing Death of Calf Shirt and Other Blackfoot Stories: Three Hundred Years of Blackfoot History, Hugh A. Dempsey
Blackfeet Indian Stories, George Bird Grinnell
Blackfoot Lodge Tales, George B. Grinnell
The Old North Trail or Life, Legends and Religion of the Blackfeet Indians, Walter McClintock
Indian Why Stories, Frank Bird Linderman, Illustrated by Charles M. Russell
Indian Lodgefire Stories, Frank B. Linderman, Illustrated by Charles M. Russell

Dempsey, Grinnell, Hyde, and Linderman were amateur ethnographers, folklorists, and historians, contemporaries of Charlie Russell. Teddy Roosevelt, and Edward S. Curtis, who devoted a good deal of their lives to preserving the stories of the Plains tribes. Today, their cultural prejudices must be taken into account and their perspectives seem dated, but they write from a solid, first-hand knowledge of their subjects.

Blackfeet and Buffalo: Memories of Life Among the Indians, James Willard Schultz
Blackfeet Tales of Glacier National Park, James Willard Schultz
My life as an Indian, James Willard Schultz
Why Gone Those Times: Blackfoot Tales, James W. Schultz

Schultz lived as a Blackfeet for some years, and he wrote a series of books on his experiences. My Life as an Indian is considered a classic of the period.

The Ways of My Grandmothers, Beverly Hungry Wolf
Daughters of the Buffalo Women: Maintaining the Tribal Faith, Beverly Hungry Wolf
Blackfoot Craftworker's Book, Adolf and Beverly Hungry Wolf

Beverly Hungry Wolf is a Canadian Blackfeet, and her husband Adolf was "adopted" (whatever that means) into the tribe. Her books are valuable autobiographical memoirs of twentieth century Blackfeet life.

Top Dancing Badger Home Book Reviews [mainly]
Go to Powell's Books
Search for out-of-print James Welch titles at Powells.