One of the most celebrated Native American writers of all time is celebrated by Google in the company’s November 18 doodle. James Welch would have been 76 today. The poet and novelist passed away in August 2003 at the age of 62. The creator of the doodle, Sophie Diao, writes on Google’s blog that, “Through his novels, documentary film, and poems, Welch gave voice to the struggles and humanity of the Native American experience in the United States.” The image that greets users on Google’s homepage shows Welch’s likeness on notebook paper with horses galloping through.
Welch’s most famous novel, Fools Crow, is set just after the Civil War. It tells the story of Native American people trying to protect their culture. In that book, Welch poignantly writes, “There is no dishonor in wisdom.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Welch Described Himself as ‘Lucky’ & Was Skeptical About His Writing Ability
In her piece on Native American literature, author Kathryn Shanley wrote that James Welch “frequently” described himself as “lucky.” Shanley says Welch felt he had been “in the right place at the right time” when it came to becoming a writer.
Welch had been born in Browning, Montana, in 1940. His father was a member of the Blackfeet tribe and his mother was part of the Gros Ventre tribe. Both also had Irish ancestry. His family moved to Minneapolis during Welch’s high school years. It was there that Welch began his writing and upon graduation attended the University of Montana, studying under Richard Hugo.
While in a 1997 essay, Welch wrote about his perceived lack of writing ability upon being accepted at the University. Welch said, “It didn’t take me long to realize that I was in way over my head. I discovered I didn’t know how to write the kinds of poems my classmates wrote. Up to then, my poems had rhymed and were filled with majestic mountains and wheeling gulls.”
The Google blog on Welch reads that he, “described himself as an “Indian who writes,” gained an international audience. His works were appreciated universally for both their artistic appeal and ability to bring the experiences of the Native American people to life.”
2. His Wife Was an English Professor Who ‘Provided Him With Support on All Levels’
Welch married Lois Monk in 1968, three years after he graduated from the University of Montana. She was an English professor at the school. Shanley writes that Monk, ‘Provided him with support on all levels.” Monk was the daughter of Dr. Cecil Ray Monk. The couple was introduced to one another by Richard Hugo. Welch and Monk would later co-edit Hugo’s autobiography, The Real West Marginal Way.
Lois Monk was by Welch’s side when he was awarded the Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres medal in Paris in 1997.
3. Welch Died From a Heart Attack After Being Diagnosed With Lung Cancer
According to his obituary in Indian Country Media Today, Welch died in August 2003 after suffering a heart attack, ten months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The widow of Richard Hugo, Welch’s mentor, said of Welch, “He was a lovely man, a warm friend. He was great fun in the gentlest kind of way. His writing style was beautiful imagery. It has the poet in it, a quiet mastery of characterization. He was a great man and a great writer.”
Welch’s last novel was The Heartsong of the Charging Elk which was published in 2000. The story follows a child who has witnessed the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. The protagonist then leaves reservation life and goes on tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
In 1994, Welch had a change of pace and wrote a historical non-fiction work, Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Bighorn. Following this, Welch would write a PBS documentary, Last Stand at Little Bighorn.
An online profile of Welch details the story of how he began his career as a poet. Apparently, after a night in a bar in Dixon, Montana, with Richard Hugo, the pair challenged each other to write a poem about the bar. The duo produced three poems, Welch said of the incident, “The title of the poems was ‘The Only Bar in Dixon.’ Somehow we sent it out to The New Yorker on a fluke, and they took them and printed all three in the same issue.”
4. The Only Feature Movie Based on His Work Opened in 2014 to Positive Reviews
Welch’s most well-regarded is 1986’s Fools Crow though it was his earlier work, 1974’s Winter in the Blood that was chosen for the big screen. The movie version of the story, which follows Virgil First Raise’s quest to find his wife after he returns home drunk to find she has left him, opened in 2014. In the Los Angeles Times review of the movie, Mark Olsen wrote, “It feels boldly unburdened by many of the rules of structure and conventional storytelling.” However, the New York Times review added that “The journey from page to screen may have battered Mr. Welch’s novel, but its lamenting heart beats loud and clear.”
The film was a hit among the Native American movie festival circuit.
5. The Doodle Represents Part of Google’s Celebration of Native American Heritage Month
The doodle comes as part of Google’s celebration of Native American Heritage Month. At Google’s Cultural Institute, Native American artists are highlighted. There are also YouTube channels dedicated to Native American song and dance.
While on the Google Expedition of Indian Country, one can “learn about topics ranging from Southwest tribes to powwows to the Battle of the Little Bighorn.”
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