“If you’ve got the imagination, the talent and the perseverance, if you have stories to tell, and if you possess strong medicine and a little luck, you can be a writer.” —James Welch, “Letter to a Young Writer”

The inaugural James Welch Native Lit Festival this week in Missoula will focus on contemporary Indigenous writers and celebrate the work of author James Welch, a key figure in the Native American Renaissance of the late 1960s and ’70s. The three-day event begins Thursday and is free and open to the public, bringing together nearly 20 writers from Indigenous communities across the United States for panel discussions, Q&As, readings and artist talks at the Wilma Theatre and the Missoula Public Library.

Festival founder and executive director Sterling HolyWhiteMountain created the event for fellow Indigenous writers to come together and talk publicly about their work with one another. 

“We need to create a space for ourselves to talk freely,” he said. Centering the event on Welch resonated for HolyWhiteMountain, who describes Welch as “the writer that other Native writers reference most often in conversations about writing. It’s a private conversation that has never been public.”

HolyWhiteMountain is a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation. He hopes the festival will facilitate conversations between Native writers and help add nuance to how non-Native people view Native writers. 

“There is an assumption that the work is a sole expression of our identity,” he said. “The truth is, fiction writers are fiction writers. Whether you are Blackfeet from Montana or a white writer from Texas, there’s certain writing problems that are universal. And, there are certain writing problems that are exclusive to Native writers, but we never really get to talk about that stuff.”

“There is an assumption that the work is a sole expression of our identity. The truth is, fiction writers are fiction writers. Whether you are Blackfeet from Montana or a white writer from Texas, there’s certain writing problems that are universal.”

Festival executive director Sterling HolyWhiteMountain

The festival will include talks by Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Louise Erdrich, New York Times bestselling author and Guggenheim Fellow David Treuer, and Debra Earling, author of the novel “Perma Red” and a former creative writing professor at the University of Montana. A closing event, “We Talk, You Listen” (an homage to Vine Deloria Jr., author of “Custer Died for Your Sins”), features authors Tommy Orange, Kelli Jo Ford and Brandon Hobson.

Events will be filmed and posted after the festival to YouTube. Expenses, including writer stipends and travel costs, are provided through donations and grants.

“I want this conversation to be public,” said HolyWhiteMountain. “The content will make everyone think about certain assumptions that they have.”

GETTING TO KNOW JAMES WELCH

James Welch was born in 1940 on the Blackfeet Reservation and is credited as a principal writer of the Native American Renaissance, which marked an era when writers of Indigenous descent became more broadly published and acknowledged.

Welch’s father, James Sr. (Blackfeet), was a rancher and farmer, as well as a welder and hospital administrator, and his mother, Rosella (Gros Ventre) worked as a stenographer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Welch spent his early years on the Blackfeet Reservation, and the family lived in various places including Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Minnesota.

While attending high school in Havre, Welch began writing poems. He obtained a liberal studies degree from the University of Montana in 1964, then started the masters program in creative writing there in 1966, studying under Richard Hugo. Hugo pushed the budding author to write about what he knew best — being Native American.

During this time, Welch also met Lois Monk, an English and literature professor. The couple were married for 35 years before Welch died in 2003 at age 62 after a nearly year-long struggle with lung cancer.

Lois Welch, of German descent, said the captivating characteristic of her husband’s work was its honesty and point of view.

“There is just a simple, profound humanity in the tone of his writing,” she said in a phone interview with Montana Free Press. “He spoke the truth as he saw it, and he found himself with a subject matter he understood profoundly and that nobody could question him about.”

Lois had yet to meet Welch when Richard Hugo came barreling into her office one day with a piece of paper in his hand.

“He started reading this poem, and read it all the way through, and said, ‘Jesus Christ,’ and went slamming down the hall to read it to someone else. I can tell you nobody ever does that. He was so blown away by that poem that he had to read it to everyone.”

As the story goes, Welch was attending one of Hugo’s poetry workshops in 1965. Hugo called Welch into his office and questioned the young student. Hugo asked Welch, “What do you know about?”

 “There is just a simple, profound humanity in the tone of his writing. He spoke the truth as he saw it, and he found himself with a subject matter he understood profoundly and that nobody could question him about.”

Lois Welch

“I think no one had ever asked him that before,” said Lois. “I bet his whole life flashed in front of his eyes, and he said, ‘The Blackfeet. My people. I know about them.’ And Hugo said, ‘Write about them.’”

The next day, Welch turned in the poem, “In My First Hard Springtime.”

“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 …”

The poem was published in 1971 in “Riding the Earthboy 40,” Welch’s only book of poems. His debut novel, “Winter in the Blood,” was published three years later, propelling the author into a national spotlight after a front-page review in the New York Times, which described the novel as nearly flawless.

Lois recalls the review, which came out one day before Welch’s 35th birthday.

“On the 16th of November, nobody knew who he was. On the 19th, he was famous,” she said.

In the novel, Welch resurrected the country that he grew up in.

“It was more about the place than the people,” Lois recalled. “It was very introspective in that way, and I think that communicates somehow, person to person. And it’s not showy. He’s not a showoff like James Joyce, who had to prove to the world that the Irish weren’t an inferior race. Jim wasn’t sure he could overturn that perception of Indians, but he decided not to tackle it the way Joyce did.”

“I don’t get the sense that anything he is doing is for white readers,” HolyWhiteMountain said. “I also don’t think he is writing for Native writers. I think he is doing the thing that really good fiction writers do: They have a conversation with themselves on the page, and that conversation becomes something that readers can listen in on. They are writing because they have to say something, not because they are ‘speaking for their people.’”

‘THE REFERENCE POINT’

Though planning for the James Welch Native Lit Festival has been underway for 18 months, HolyWhiteMountain has been dreaming it up for more than a decade. After reading “Winter in the Blood,” Welch’s breakthrough novel set on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, HolyWhiteMountain said he was stunned that none of his teachers were talking about the book. It wasn’t even being talked about in Missoula, where he was an undergraduate student in the mid-2000s, he said.

Welch’s work became a roadmap for HolyWhiteMountain to find his own writing voice.

“You have to go into yourself in such a way that you find that quiet place, and you write from there,” HolyWhiteMountain said. “It is very clear to me that that was what Jim was doing. A lot of contemporary younger Native writers are trying to figure out how we do that. Jim’s work becomes the common reference point.”

Adrian Jawort was also struck by “Winter in the Blood,” which she read as a teen while living on Fort Belknap Reservation.

Credit: Photo courtesy the James Welch Native Lit Festival

“I dove right into it and felt a lot of what the writer felt, being a restless young person,” said Jawort, a Northern Cheyenne fiction writer and journalist based in Billings. “It really reawakened a drive to start writing seriously again. It opened my own artistic world up that had been right in front of me, as I realized I wouldn’t have to cater to outsider perceptions to write what I knew.”

Jawort is scheduled to speak on Saturday’s Two Spirit / LGBTQ panel and is part of the festival organizing committee, along with Kim Anderson, April Cypher, Ryan Lenz and Lois Welch.

“As someone in the midst of finishing up my novel based upon my experiences of living as a politically active Indigenous trans woman in red state America, seeing and hearing all these accomplished Indigenous writers in one spot will no doubt be inspiring and incredibly helpful,” Jawort said. “It almost seems surreal.”

Mandy Smoker Broaddus, who will speak as part of the poetry panel on Saturday, credits Welch as one of the reasons she became a writer and pursued a MFA from the University of Montana. “His collection of poems, I consider my bible,” she said. “It’s a mixture of everyday Indian-ness combined with his language choices. The way he would construct a poem in so many different ways — the content, what it was he was speaking about — taught me that you could write something really beautiful about where you’re from.”

Smoker Broaddus, who was Montana poet laureate from 2019 to 2020, is from Fort Peck and a member of the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes. She obtained her MFA from Missoula in 2003 and took to heart the teachings first instilled in Welch by Richard Hugo: write what you know. 

“That is the same advice I follow in all my writing,” Smoker Broaddus said. “That is my mantra when I teach poetry to kids or in whatever setting.”

Smoker Broaddus had the chance to meet Welch before he died and hopes the festival will spark further interest in Welch’s work.

“We want his legacy to be renewed in future generations, and for those generations to understand, you come to Montana to live, to play, to write, to fly fish … He’s a big, big part of our story.”

Festival organizers plan for the event to recur biannually, and the next event is planned for summer 2024. Schedules and details are online at jameswelchfestival.org.

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Anna Paige

Anna Paige is a Montana-based arts journalist and co-host of "Resounds: Arts and Culture on the High Plains" on Yellowstone Public Radio. She's worked in the newspaper and publishing industry since 2004, most recently for the Billings Gazette as an arts and entertainment journalist. She is also the co-founder of Young Poets, a nonprofit teaching poetry in regional elementary schools and winner of the 2021 Library of Congress Award for Literacy.