James Welch photo courtesy Discography

An Interview With James Welch

IN 2002 I met with James Welch at his and his wife Lois' home in Missoula’s Rattlesnake Valley to ask him about the cultural and spiritual aspects of his debut novel, Winter in the Blood. Less than a year later Welch would be dead, at the age of 62, from lung cancer.

Vaughn: Jim, why didn’t you give the narrator a name?

Welch: I didn’t know how to write a novel, first of all. I was writing the story, and getting involved in the story, and I had this guy and he had a past and he was meeting people and so on. It didn’t occur to me until I was probably about 30 pages into it that he didn’t have a name. And then I thought, well, maybe like with the old Indians he’d have to earn his name. He’d have to do something. I guess I decided to keep him nameless when he pulls the cow out of the slough. Even though it’s a pretty failed attempt at least he does something positive. But by then I figured it was way too late in the book to give him a name. It would have been very obtrusive to suddenly start calling him, say, Jack.

Vaughn:  In your imagination did you ever give him a name?

Welch: No. I never did.

Vaughn:  Did you intend this passage to describe the psyche of your nameless narrator, or Indian people in general. “ . . . the distance I felt came not from country or people; it came from within me. I was as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon.”

Welch: I don’t know if I meant it for the whole Indian culture. There were then and still are traditional Indians. But there are also a lot of Indian people who are kind of lost. This was written thirty years ago at a time when younger Indians were starting to think about their heritage. There was a whole reservation period before this when we were encouraged to forget our culture. I think a lot of young people just floundered. They turned to booze, and just wandered around trying to find something.

Vaughn: “Again, I felt that helplessness of being in a world of stalking white men. But those Indians down at Gable’s were no bargain either. I was a stranger to both and both had beaten me.” Do you think this also describes the reservation Indian of 30 years ago?

Welch: There were a lot of young people who had a hard time identifying with anybody. They felt alone. I remember reading a statistic in a newspaper about the Indian suicide rate amongst young people, kids 16, 17 years old. it was the highest in the nation of any group. These kids just couldn’t see anything to look forward to. They saw their parents and aunts and uncles drunk all the time, no jobs, living in poverty. They just can’t see anything worth living for, anything to grab onto. So they decided to commit suicide.  

Vaughn: Do you see signs of life on the reservation now?

Welch: It’s certainly a lot better than it was. More and more Indian people are turning toward the traditions and accepting their Indianness. I’m thinking now about Darrell Kipp. He went to school at the University of Montana and then Harvard. He was a real educated guy. Now he runs one of the two Blackfeet language immersion schools up on the reservation with kids as young as kindergarten. When they walk through that gate into that schoolyard they stop speaking English. The idea is that you learn Blackfeet when you’re very young and then the traditions come along with the language.

Vaughn: Are there older Blackfeet who speak the native tongue and English as dual languages?

Welch: A few. But they’re very old, in their seventies at the youngest. My Dad speaks Blackfeet but he’s 86. None of us kids can speak it. That’s the way it is in almost all families. Kipp figured rightly that if something wasn’t done the language would die out entirely in a generation.

Vaughn:  Do you see signs of a resurgence of interest in traditional cultural and spiritual practices among the Blackfeet?

Welch: Even back when I was a kid the Catholic boarding schools didn’t allow us to speak Blackfeet or perform traditional religious ceremonies. There was a down period for a long time after the Blackfeet were put on the reservations. But now things are really looking up. I’ve been visiting other reservations and, for example, all the tribes of the Northern Plains are practicing their own versions of the Sun Dance. That’s one of the things that was forbidden. They really are trying to revive a traditional way of life. But of course Darrell Kipp and a lot of other people feel that if you don’t have the language how can you do the ceremonies? If you can only speak the language that’s one thing. But the language has to have cultural meaning, too.

Vaughn:  How do you convince a kid that speaking Blackfeet is cool?

Welch: What Darrell really has to compete with now is television and sports because the kids are really outward-looking these days and have access to the whole world. That’s an added obstacle to people who are trying to teach them traditions. On the other hand it is becoming cool for kids to belong to a drumming group or to dance at pow-wows. So at least in a social sense—in social gatherings—it’s cool again to be an Indian. But the real point of Darrell’s work is to get kids to think like traditional Indians 365 days a year. It shouldn’t be a chore to assign spiritual values to the world. That is, you look at the mountains, you look at the trees and the rocks and the rivers and they all have traditional spiritual meanings. Teaching this is really the hard part. While it’s a good thing to tie prayer rags on trees around Chief Mountain or to leave offerings at the Medicine Wheel I don’t know of any young person who has gone off on his own vision quest.

Vaughn:  When the old woman dies and the priest never shows up to say a few words over her were you commenting on the relationship between Indians and the Church?

Welch:  Part of the strategy of Christianity, especially the Catholics,  is to make people feel that they’re bad people, sinners. Like those churches that went into the South Seas and made people feel ashamed about being naked. On the northern plains the Church made Indians feel ashamed about being a “primitive culture, a “pagan” culture. So a lot of Indians embraced Catholicism as a way of going to heaven—this new heaven they were hearing about. It certainly had to be better than the reservations.

Vaughn: Were there people when you were growing up that embraced Christianity as well as the traditional religion?

Welch: On the Blackfeet and the Ft. Belnap reservations it was an either-or thing. It wasn’t like on the Flathead reservation where they sing songs and pray in the Salish language inside the Mission. That was the smartest thing the Jesuits in the Flathead did—allowing the Indians to pray to a Catholic god in their own language. Normally the Catholics just tried to beat the culture out of Indians. But nowadays I think a lot of churches think they can get more Indian converts by encouraging them to embrace traditional practices as well.

Vaughn: What sorts of practices?

Welch: For example, sweating. When I was on the parole board and going to the prison at Deer Lodge everybody had their own Christian service they could go to on Sunday. But the authorities wouldn’t let the Indians build a sweat lodge. This was a big issue in prisons all over the West. Finally, the authorities gave in and let Indians at Deer Lodge practice their religion in their own way. It was a breakthrough, of course. But it was also a way to appease Indians so they wouldn’t make so much trouble.

Vaughn: When you were on the parole board did you give special consideration to inmates who had embraced religion, any religion, including native faiths.

Welch: We were always skeptical of anyone who claimed to be “born again.” On the other hand, the white people on the board could never understand why Indian inmates wanted a sweat lodge. What does it means, they asked, wondering if the sweat lodge was just an excuse to make trouble.

Vaughn:  When the narrator connects with Yellow Calf did you mean to imply that unless these reservation kids look to older people for guidance they’re going to be lost?

Welch: I thought that if they could get back into traditional life or at least meet someone who had experienced a traditional life it might get them more involved in their culture. That they might be able to at least psychically feel like they were really part of Indian culture instead of these wandering souls. So, yeah, when he goes back and meets up with Yellow Calf he does find something in spite of his circling around the old man.  In the end, at the moment of his epiphany, when the horse farts, there is a real connection made.

Vaughn:  In an earlier meeting between the two, Yellow Calf reveals what deer talk about when deer talk about themselves. The deer, he says, are unhappy about the days gone by. They can tell by the moon that the world is cockeyed. “Of course,” he tells the narrator, “men are the last to know.” What is it that men don’t know?

Welch: What to do next. Animals always know what that is.

Vaughn: The federal government stole Blackfeet land and tried to ruin Blackfeet culture. Why do so many Blackfeet join the military?

Welch: The Blackfeet are warriors. And this is still our land.