Texts by and about Natives: Commentary
12. James Welch, Fools Crow: A Novel
In the epilogue to his first novel, Winter in the Blood (1974), James Welch concludes the story of his narrator in an episode that is funny, heartbreaking, and wonderfully styled. Up along the Montana Highline, the northern country so seldom seen from anything but airplane windows, the unnamed narrator watches his old grandmother be buried. The seasoned reader of adventure-story westerns can find a place here, standing around the town’s people at a dusty Old West funeral, but this is the contemporary West, and the few people around a coffin are Indians. It’s the West turned in on itself—the Indians in suits and the priest in some other place.
We buried the old lady the next day. The priest from Harlem, of course, couldn’t make it. So there were the four of us—Teresa, Lame Bull, me and my grandmother. I hadn’t told them about Ferdinand Horn and his wife, but they wouldn’t show up anyway. I had to admit that Lame Bull looked pretty good. The buttons on his shiny green suit looked like they were made of wood. Although his crotch hung a little low, the pants were the latest style. Teresa had shortened the legs that morning, a makeshift job, having only had the time to tack the original cuffs up inside the pant legs. His fancy boots with the walking heels peeked out from beneath the new cuffs. His shirt, tie, handkerchief and belt were various shades of green and red to match the suit. He smelled of Wildroot and after-shave lotion. I felt seedy standing beside him. I was wearing a suit that had belonged to my father. I hadn’t known it existed until an hour before the funeral. It was made out of cream-colored wool with brown threads running through it. The collar and cuffs itched in the noonday heat, but the pant legs were wide enough so that if I stood just right I didn’t touch them, except for my knee which was swollen up. It still didn’t hurt. The necktie, which I had loosened, had also belonged to my father. It was silk with a picture of two mallards flying over a stand of cattails. . . .
The hole was too short, but we didn’t discover this until we had the coffin halfway down. One end went down easily enough, but the other stuck against the wall. Teresa wanted us to take it out because she was sure the head was lower than the feet. Lame Bull lowered himself into the grave and jumped up and down on the high end. It went down a bit more, enough to look respectable. Teresa didn’t say anything so he leaped out of the hole, a little too quickly. He wiped his forehead with the pale green handkerchief.
“Here is pure attention,” says William Bevis in Ten Tough Trips (1990:121), “by some speaker who is clearly sensitive and articulate, to living, in Montana, near Malta. We know his life will be taken seriously. We know it will be from his point of view. This is how art is made.”
Welch first studied in 1964 at the University of Montana with Richard Hugo, who had himself been an unsure student in Theodore Roethke’s first University of Washington class in 1948. Hugo was new to teaching in Montana but Welch understood Hugo when he said to write about what Welch knew best, the land and people of northern Montana. Welch was born on the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, Montana. His blood was Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, and Irish. His family moved to and from the family farm, between the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations and various cities to find work. When Welch came to the University of Montana in 1964, the advice of James Herrmann, Richard Hugo, Madeline DeFrees, and William Kittredge got him going, and his book of poems, Riding the Earthboy 40, came out in 1971 from Harper and Row, and a review of his first novel, Winter in the Blood, was on the front page of the New York Times Book Review in 1974. Since then, Welch published four more novels, the last being The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000), and a work of non-fiction, Killing Custer (1994), with Paul Stekler.
Welch could write in several modes. Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney (1979) are contemporary views of men who, like characters from the great Indian writer D’Arcy McNickle, are surrounded. Their lives are known mostly to themselves, and their battles aren’t likely to be won. Welch, who served for years on the Montana State Board of Pardons, saw plenty of men whose chances for winning the fight were slim. In his third novel, Fools Crow (1986), Welch created a genealogy of sorts, a map of the past that says how much there is to remember of Indian life and how a fragile hold on family, tribe, and home is possible. Welch said he took his inspiration for Fools Crow from hearing his Indian great-grandmother talk about the pleasures of tribal life, in particular, of having slaves. Her stories set him to wondering about the strangeness of the pre-white past, and he read all he could about the Blackfeet life. In particular, he studied authors like James Willard Schultz and others who had lived among the tribe. But the novel is, above all, evidence of Welch’s incredible imaginative strength. One begins the book unsure who characters like Cold Maker or Blackhorn are—are they people, animals, or forces of nature? If the wind talks, if dreams are signs for the dreamer to reveal to the tribe, rather than signs of the subconscious, if animals and humans can communicate and if action rather than motive defines the character, then we are in an unfamiliar world. But it is not long before that world becomes compelling. And even when the reader knows that the tribe’s world will end in disease and bloodshed, the tribe does not, and the reader sees how hope, against the worst events, remains alive. It is a triumphal book about a cataclysm. All of James Welch’s books are realistic, strong, most often brilliant, representations of the deepest stories in American life.