A Man and a Movement
James Welch, like many Americans, was a child of multiple cultures. The Blackfeet of his father’s family and the Gros Ventre of his mother’s had different origins, but had come together by the 19th century in Montana, creating a rich cultural and linguistic background for following generations. Today, on what would have been his 76th birthday, he’s celebrated in the central logo illustration on Google. It also comes in the middle of Native American Heritage Month.
Born in 1940, Welch was a young man in the 1960s when fellow Native American Billy Mills won the Olympic gold medal in the men’s 10,000-meter race and Native American cultural pride and awareness was rising along with the predominantly African American civil rights movement.
Out of those years, that struggle, and that heritage came a whole generation of authors whose work has become known as the Native American Renaissance. Music, painting, sculpture and other arts and cultural expressions (including the revival of traditional non-instrument navigation in Hawaii) were revived and expanded during this time as well, and have awoken the rest of the U.S. to the continued presence and vitality of richly diverse native cultures. (Explore the work of Native American contemporary artists on Google Arts & Culture.)
James Welch himself had a distinct voice and ever-changing approach that was an inspiration to his colleagues. Paraphrased in Welch’s 2003 obituary in The Missoulian, fellow author Ivan Doig said that “Welch wrote about what it means to be an Indian in modern American society. He wrote about the people of the West without glorification, without cliche in an honest, clear voice from an intimate perspective.”
Unconventional in many ways, Welch explored new ways of telling different stories with each novel. The simple, direct prose of these novels has been hailed for speaking authentically from the Native American perspective in a contrasting format to the poetry that attracts a greater number of Native authors.
His first novel, “Winter in the Blood,” in 1974 told of the struggles and sadness of contemporary life on a reservation. Twenty years later, “Killing Custer” resurrected the lives and concerns of the Sioux and Cheyenne so often dismissed en masse from tellings of the story. Welch’s Poetry Foundation profile contains summaries of each of his major novels.
A film version of “Winter in the Blood,” was released in 2012. In a mixed review, the LA Times said it was “a difficult film to get a handle on, not least because it often feels like it should be easier to dismiss. But then it locks onto a moment that is unexpectedly arresting and little jabs of poetic meaning or hard-earned truths reel a viewer back in.” (The film version is available for digital rental on You Tube.) This is a recurrent challenge for anyone interested in films and writing from underrepresented cultures: when the creators are coming from outside the main stream, the more fresh and authentic they are, the more our brains skip and stutter as the usual expectations aren’t followed.
That’s perhaps the greatest value of writers like James Welch: they somehow find a way to express a little-heard and very particular perspective in an authentic way that is still accessible to readers from outside that culture. It is communication at its best.
E Pluribus Unum
In recent weeks, the concerns of Native Americans have been brought to the national consciousness in the U.S. much more prominently than they had for some time. In two major cases, with the Standing Rock Sioux and the Blackfeet Tribe, the U.S. government listened to objections over oil development that put clean water and sacred sites at risk, and people of all cultures have shown their support.
This Native American Heritage Month, writers like James Welch can broaden everyone’s exposure to Native American culture and individuals, pushing beyond headlines, and facilitating the communication between people of all backgrounds that for 500 years has been life in the “New World” at its best.