The work of James Welch has been accepted by many literary critics and the author has won numerous awards.  Below include some excerpts of a recently published book devoted entirely to the publications of James Welch.  Individual citations are noted below, but here is a full bibliographical citation:

 

 

McFarland, Ron.  Understanding James Welch.  Columbia:

University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

 

 

…On his father’s side of the family, Welch is related to the white settler and trader Malcolm Clark, who took a Blackfeet wife and who was killed by a band of Piegan Blackfeet warriors, an event that helped trigger the Marias River Massacre in 1870.  Welch was to draw on that episode and on stories his grandfather told him about his grandmother (James Welch’s great grandmother), who survived the massacre, in his novel Fools Crow (1986).  His mother, Rosella O’Bryan, grew up on the Fort Belknap reservation, home to the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes, and she attended the Haskell Institute in Kansas, where she learned secretarial skills.  She worked on various reservations and in Indian communities most of her adult life.¹

 

Fools Crow is an historical novel set in northern Montana between the end of the Civil War and the Marias River Massacre that occurred in January of 1870 and ended the existence of the warlike Blackfeet as an autonomous and independent people.  It is also a prose epic, comprising such features as focus on episodes of vital importance to the history of the nation of people, broad scope, direct intervention of the “gods” and character of heroic proportions. 

 

          The Blackfeet mythology is intact in this novel, available only through visits to a distant tribal elder…or a mysterious and perhaps even hallucinatory dark bird.  ²  One appealing attribute of the novel is the deftness with which Welch handles such border-crossings between the mundane and the spiritual…Mik-api tells White Man’s Dog that Raven has appeared to him in a dream and asked him to send his helper to free Skunk Bear (Wolverine) from a white man’s trap.  White Man’s Dog follows Raven’s advice, frees the animal (presumably in the “real” world), and is commended by Raven (presumably from the “visionary” or “magic” world)…Raven and Wolverine communicate directly and sometimes rather playfully with White Man’s Dog in a manner reminiscent of that with which Athena speaks with Odysseus or Venus with Aeneas, but with greater intimacy and familiarity.  Along with these visionary animals, Mik-Api will see to it that White Man’s Dog’s powers work for the benefit of the tribe. ³

 

Some of the linguistic features Welch imports for this novel would be readily understood by nearly any reader.  Whites Man’s Dog, for example, is described as being “eighteen winters old” and he tells a friend he has been unlucky “for many moons…”    But from the first pages readers are confronted with a strange vocabulary that can seem awkward and forced and that may constitute the greatest risk Welch takes in the novel:  [such examples include] skinned-tree houses and many-shots guns, ears-far-apart, wood-biter, big-leaf tree.  Most of these locutions are obvious enough or are defined in their immediate context (the “ears far apart,” for example is hooting in the distance).  Similarly, the neighboring tribes are given descriptive names instead of European ones, so the Cheyenne are “Spotted Horse People,” the Nez Perce are “Black Paint People,” and the Assiniboine are “Cutthroat People.”  The publishers provide a useful map of the area with these designations, so a reader needs only flip to the front of the novel to be reminded that the “Entrails People” are the Gros Ventres.  Certainly, however, there are moments in the novel when some readers will wish Welch had provided a glossary for other such calques…  Many of Welch’s calques (like “sits-beside-him-wife,” “many-shots gun,” and “white-scabs disease”) are drawn from the work of James Willard Schultz, who lived among the Blackfeet in the early 1880s. 4

 

 

 

¹Ron McFarland, Understanding James Welch (Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press), 1-2.

 

² Ibid, 110.

 

³ Ibid, 116.

 

                4 Ibid, 111-112.