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W IL L IA M W. BEVIS University of Montana, Missoula James Welch When the review of James Welch’s Winter in the Blood appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review in 1974—“a nearly flawless novel,” said Reynolds Price—the Native American Renaissance had not yet happened. Momaday’s House Made of Dawn had claimed the Pulitzer in 1969, and the American Indian Movement (AIM) had captured headlines with the taking of Alcatraz and the sit-in at the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, but there was no reason to believe that either con­ temporary politics or Momaday’s single work would mark the beginning of three decades of exceptional Native American litera­ ture. In a period of over twenty-five years, this literature, of high quality, well published and widely read, would extend from Momaday through Welch, Leslie Silko, D’Arcy McNickle’s posthu­ mous work, to Louise Erdrich. In addition to six or eight significant works by major writers which claimed national attention, a number of lesser known (though not necessarily lesser) native writers were contributing to a canon that now includes perhaps thirty substantial books. This from a population of less than a million, in one gener­ ation. In criticism as well as in fiction and poetry, native commentary has entered our intellectual life. By 1983, Kenneth Lincoln could title his critical study Native American Renaissance, and in the eighties and nineties native writers and intellectuals such as Paula Gunn Allen and Louis Owens would follow Vine Deloria’s lead in offering aggressively native readings of American texts and culture. In addition, critics such as Arnold Krupat have shaped discussions 34 Western American Literature of native work in relation to new theory—not at all a strained com­ parison for readers of traditional tales, Gerald Vizenor, and Jorge Luis Borges. So the remarkable creative output of native writers in the last twenty-five years has been matched by the impact of native scholars and native issues on the national intellectual scene, and happily this movement has taken the form not of reaction and prim­ itivism but of subversion and play wed to intensely political con­ sciousness. James Welch was born in 1940 of Blackfeet, Gros Ventre and European descent, in Browning, Montana, which remains to this day a tough and interesting town at the center of the Blackfeet Reservation near the Canadian border. He attended schools on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations, his father’s and maternal grandparents’ homes. His family moved now and then away from a family farm to find work, and James graduated from high school in Minnesota in 1958. He also worked in Alaska and California, for the Forest Service and on fire crews and as an Upward Bound coun­ selor. After a year at Northern Montana College in Havre, he came down to Missoula in 1964, a shy and unsure student who showed talent from the start. Professor John Herrmann first encouraged him to write, and later he took poetry from Richard Hugo, already in 1965 a well-known poet and director of the creative writing pro­ gram. Hugo told of having Welch in a poetry writing class. Welch handed in a poem called “In My First Hard Springtime,” which began: Those red men you offended were my brothers. Town drinkers, Buckles Pipe, Star Boy, Billy Fox, were blood to bison. Albert Heavy Runner was never civic. You are white and common. (Riding the Earthboy 40 [sic] p. 25) Hugo said that when he came to “Albert Heavy Runner was never civic,” he knew he had nothing to teach this young man except to tell him to keep writing. He also encouraged the young Indian to write about his own people and the places he had known. Welch entered the graduate program in creative writing in 1966. After leaving the MFA program in 1968 Welch stayed in Missoula and William W. Bevis 35 married English professor Lois Monk. In Missoula, Welch was immersed in the writing community and by 1971 had published a book of poems, Riding the Earthboy 40, which remains exactingly, sparingly dramatic in its language. The Saturday Review said his...


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