His Presence Was a Lovely Thing
James Welch: 1940-2003
Looking back on his career, James Welch said that as an aspiring writer in the 1960s, fresh out of college, he had very little interest in writing about what he called "my Indian people." The son of a Blackfoot father and a Gros Ventre mother, Jim had grown up on reservations near the Montana Hi-Line border with Canada. "I thought people would not be interested in reading about Indians, especially northern Montana Indians," he later wrote. "The area was so remote and the tribes so unheard-of that I thought the people and landscape unworthy of my heroic efforts."
Fortunately for us, Jim's first creative-writing teacher at the graduate program at the University of Montana, the poet Richard Hugo, critiqued his work and bluntly told him to write what he knew. Write about the reservation, the landscape, the people. And so he did, becoming one of our most admired writers, an author whose books, including such treasures as Winter in the Blood and Fools Crow, beautifully explore the Native American experience in our country.
At the end of this summer filled with books to read, you could do no better than to rediscover this great American writer who passed away Aug. 7, 2003, at his Missoula, Mont., home at the age of 62. All of his books remain in print: his volume of poetry, Riding the Earthboy 40 (1971); the novels Winter in the Blood (1974), The Death of Jim Loney (1979), Fools Crow (1986), The Indian Lawyer (1990), The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000); and the nonfiction book, Killing Custer (1994).
A poet-turned-novelist, Jim wrote in a spare style that other authors marveled at. His friend Ivan Doig, author of This House of Sky, once cited a favorite sentence of his, from Winter in the Blood, describing a character's attitude toward work: "He had learned to give the illusion of work, even to the point of sweating as soon as he put his gloves on, while doing very little." It was short, to the point, and, like much of Jim's writing, very funny in a sly way.
I have my own favorite moments and passages, words and scenes that have stayed with me years after I first read them:
The would-be politician, Sylvester Yellow Calf, alone and shooting baskets in the sleet and snow at his old reservation home, away from his life in the white world, at the end of The Indian Lawyer; the mixture of reality and vision in the title character's journey to Skunk Bear, the wolverine, and Feather Woman's revelation of hard times to come, in Fools Crow, a historical novel inspired by the survival of Welch's great-grandmother in the massacre of the Blackfeet at the Marais River in 1870; the grandmother's daydream about how to slit her grandson's Cree girlfriend's throat, as well as the unnamed grandson's later absurd encounters with Airplane Man, a teddy bear, and his now bar-hopping Cree ex in Winter in the Blood, a novel that somehow made hopeful, in a darkly comic way, a situation that others might describe as hopeless.
Thirteen years ago, Jim and I collaborated on a documentary film about the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Our often-surreal adventures, driving back and forth across Montana and its lonesome reservations in search of first-person accounts, are recounted in Killing Custer. Interweaving the historical story of the battle with moments from his own life and tales of our filmmaking, the book starts with the story of Jim's search, with his wife Lois, for the site of the massacre that his great-grandmother had survived. He also recounts our surprise dinner with former American Indian Movement leader Russell Means at the Hardin, Mont., Elks Club, during which we argued over who did what to whom at the Little Big Horn. He describes lighting a bonfire despite a torrential lightning storm to help us re-create the funeral pyres in the village after the battle. But my favorite memory in the book took place one Halloween night.
We'd stopped at the only open restaurant we could find on a cold Saturday in Hardin, on the edge of Crow Agency: the Little Big Man Pizza Parlor. Several pitchers of beer later, with Jim dozing comfortably in the back seat of my old Toyota wagon, I decided that it would be great fun to sneak out onto the battlefield and commune with the spirits. Waking Jim and taking advantage of the full moon, we drove in without lights and tiptoed through the military cemetery where General Custer's Indian scouts -- luckily dismissed by the general before he charged into battle -- are buried. And suddenly there we were, looking out over the strange and lonely landscape of the most famous battlefield in the West, now brilliant in the moonlight. To me, it was a silly adventure. To Jim, it was something magical. He later wrote:
"At night you are alone with your imagination. Especially if the moon has lit up the battlefield for you. You can see the soldiers racing their horses ... You can smell the gunpowder, blood, dust, guts, horseshit, sage, and fear. You can also taste it, metallic on your tongue. And in the hundred-degree heat and the dust, you forget you want a drink of water, and for some, a drink will do no good. The battle is over and the women and children are coming up the hill from the camp."
In the last line of his last book, The Heartsong of Charging Elk, Jim wrote that for his main character "the Moon of the Falling Leaves would light his way." That beautiful moonlight lit the way for Jim's writing all of his life.
Those of us fortunate enough to have known him know that, as his friend and the widow of his mentor, Ripley Hugo, so aptly said, "his presence was a lovely thing." So was his writing, and we are all richer for it. Despite his initial intentions, Jim Welch brilliantly wrote what he knew, and yes, those efforts were heroic.