Fall 1995, Volume 12.3
Wylie Tales: An Interview with James Welch
William W. Bevis (Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley) is Professor of English at the University of Montana. He has published Mind of Winter, a book on Wallace Stevens (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989), and Ten Tough Trips: Montana Writers and the West (University of Washington Press, 1990). His most recent book, Borneo Log, on native resistance to the logging in Borneo, won the Western States Arts Federation award for non-fiction in 1995.
James Welch was born in 1940 in Browning, Montana. He earned his B.A. at the University of Montana. His wife, Lois, is a professor of English at the University of Montana, Missoula.
James Welch has been a Visiting Professor at University of Washington and Cornell University. He has served on Montana State Board of Pardons and also on the literature panel of the National Endowment for the Arts.
His honors include a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1969, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award, both for Fools Crow.
Welch's literary career began with a book of poems, Riding the Earthboy 40: Poems (World Publishing, 1971), which elicited Saturday Review praise: "[H]is voice is clear, laconic, and it projects a depth in experience of landscape, people, and history that conveys a rich complexity. You realize he is not looking at a thing, but seeing into it—which is vision."
Welch's novels, in one way or another, venture into Native American tribal culture and probe the lives of Native Americans. Winter in the Blood (Harper, 1974) is the story of an unnamed narrator who, like Welch, is part Blackfoot and Part Gros Ventre Indian. The Death of Jim Loney (Harper, 1979) is about an alienated, alcoholic half-breed of both white and Indian parentage.
Fools Crow (Viking, 1986), Welch's acclaimed third novel, about a band of Blackfoot Indians in Montana Territory in the 1870s, follows the protagonist's change from a quiet, reckless young warrior into the tribe's medicine man.
The Indian Lawyer (Norton, 1990) follows a young native lawyer into the affairs of the state capitol, Helena, where his tribal past and difficult moral choices present new challenges. Killing Custer (Norton, 1994), written with Paul Steckler who directed the film "Last Stand at Little Bighorn" scripted by Welch, tells the Indian point of view on the battle in a series of personal as well as historical essays.
Read his fiction in this issue of Weber Studies.
This interview was recorded at James Welch's home on Wylie Street in Missoula, Montana, 8 March 1995.
Bevis: A lot has happened in our lifetimes, Jim. AIM, the American Indian Movement in the 1960s, the taking of Alcatraz—we were already college age, graduate school. Red Power, and by the end of the 60s, Momaday's writing and then Jim Welch, Silko, and on to Erdrich, and McNickle's books. Looking back, what do you feel has changed in native life? Have these changes made a difference?
Welch: Sometimes I feel that almost nothing has changed, like the bureaucracies, some places on the reservations and the tribes still answer to the government. Tribal councils are quite often inept or corrupt or kow-towing to the BIA. So, in some sense things have stayed pretty much the same as they were in the 1940s. On the other hand, things are happening now with the young people. The education system certainly is a lot better. Better schools, community colleges on reservations. I think every reservation in the country now has a community college. It teaches the culture and the language. I think young people have more of a sense of "looking forward," more than they have in the past. It may be as a result of the way the education system has changed their attitudes. They can finish high school and go off to a community college for a couple of years. They can learn about their culture, they can get some sort of skill, a terminal degree, or they can use it as a step to go on to college. I think that's a big deal, this easing into a college situation. It's a radical difference from the old days where you graduated from high school on a reservation among your people. In the next fall you found yourself in a university quite far away with hardly any friends and hardly any people of your own background.
And also I think the drug and alcohol treatment programs on reservations are better. I know that there is a movement all over the country for young Indians to practically sign a pledge that says they're going to maintain a life of sobriety. I know not everybody keeps it, but this is a more intense kind of effort than has ever been done in the past.
Bevis: Some of the tribal colleges in Montana have changed a great deal in the 20 years I've been here and have become leading centers of energy and innovation. Do you think that some of the change among the young is due to a seeping down of the energy from the AIM and Red Power Movements, or is it coming about for a totally different reason?
Welch: Well, I think that activist Indian pride did have a positive effect on young people and on succeeding generations. That was 20 to 25 years ago. I think the idea that they were radical, that they went overboard in a sense, is just what Indian people needed at that time. They needed Indians, like Blacks, to just get in there and really raise hell. So, they took over the BIA building, took over Alcatraz Island, and, of course, Wounded Knee; it really shook up not only white America but a lot of Indians, traditional Indians who at first frowned on this kind of activity. But I think their kids didn't frown on this. And the succeeding generations have felt that Indians should be outgoing, should have a voice. If it weren't for AIM, I think it would be a lot harder for young people to stand up for themselves and their people.
Bevis: What do you think of Peter Matthiessen's handling of some of that material in Crazy Horse?
Welch: I felt that he did quite well with that book in terms of an all-encompassing survey of what was happening at that time, especially with Leonard Peltier and the business at the Jumping Bull compound where the FBI agents were shot. He's always been very sympathetic to Indian people, Indian causes, and radicalism.
Bevis: There's been a recent documentary on Wounded Knee and also a Hollywood film, Thunder Heart.
Welch: I did see Thunder Heart. It was pretty loud. There's this kind of incessant background noise, which I guess was meant to get the old blood pumping. But, it was good, very convincing. I found the situation with the FBI agent being part Indian a bit "hokey." But once he got on the reservation, once he started dealing with the Indians on the reservation, I thought it picked up and was very powerful.
Bevis: Well, I know that in some ways you're not fond of film as a medium, but now that you've also made your own movie, have scripted Paul Steckler's film on Custer, "Last Stand at Little Big Horn," how do you feel about the place of film in the future as an educational device, or an expressive device, for Indian people?
Welch: I think it certainly will be the wave of the future when the Indian people finally get to control some movies. Right now, they're pretty much on the outs. They can act in the movies, they can do secondary jobs behind the camera, but never the big jobs—producer, director, cinematographer. So, until Indians get into those kinds of jobs, where it can actually be their vision, an Indian person's vision, they'll just be participating in this white director's vision, Kevin Costner's vision; until the Indians get control of the back side of the camera, I don't think these movies are going to do a lot of good.
Bevis: At a conference last year we were talking about the Chinese-American control of the movie [of Amy Tan's book] The Joy Luck Club. It had a Chinese-American producer and director, and there were a couple of other minority films that were being named at the conference. Spike Lee would be a dramatic example of the out-of-power group actually making the film about itself. That really is a big step.
Welch: Yes, that's true. You know, some Indian people made a movie out of Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn several years ago, but it was never released. Not many people have seen it. I haven't seen it. I don't know if those people were ready to make a big-time feature film at that time. But at least they had the right idea and I think more Indian people need to get hold of a project like Spike Lee's or the The Joy Luck Club and really just see it through, totally within the community, within their own vision.
Bevis: Wasn't Pow Wow Highway made by Indians?
Welch: Yes. I saw it and I really enjoyed the film, but I don't know that Indians were involved. I think films will be the wave of the future because so many more people go to movies than read books, so I'm afraid books may not change large numbers of people and the way they view Indian situations and life on the reservation or in the cities.
Bevis: You have your ear to the ground of Native thinking. How much damage do you feel the new Congress can do? Do Indians fear that the majority could do away with reservations? Could Congress say, "Quit being tribes and be white?"
Welch: Oh, yes. I think that Indians are very apprehensive. If Newt Gingrich or Bob Dole decided that it would be better to open up reservation land, they would probably couch it in terms of giving the Indians an opportunity to get out into the mainstream of society and make it on their own and so forth. But what they would be doing essentially is terminating the reservation, opening up that land to white settlement, and boy that land would be gone in a matter of three months. So, yes, Indians are justifiably scared.
Bevis: The continuation of the Dawes Act, brought to a perfect conclusion.
Welch: That's right.
Bevis: We are so close to losing some Native languages. Sign language, for instance, turns out to be almost lost. There are only a few really proficient signers. And there's one quite elderly woman among the Blackfeet who is well known for signing, and one of the grants we're working on at the Montana Committee for the Humanities is for her to be signing a series of public forms. They will get it video-taped. They hope to get her vocabulary on contemporary Indian issues by the end of the series. We're funding a wonderful proposal from the Salish to reconstruct original Salish games, restore the Salish language used in those games, and videotape them. Then first, second, and third graders on the reservation will be taught those games in Salish during recess. Thousands of words were used in those games.
How do you feel about the writings and the writers? McNickle was almost unknown until he died and then suddenly in 1978, Wind from an Enemy Sky came out and they reissued The Surrounded. But even before that, when Momaday came along in the sixties, there was just an explosion of Native literature—all during your adult life. Tell me what you think.
Welch: Things took off with [Momaday's] House Made of Dawn, which won the Pulitzer prize in 1969. Before that, when McNickle wrote his books, they were totally buried. Other people, Charles Eastman, I believe, wrote many years before that. A woman named Virginia Johnson from the Midwest, wrote also. But these were very sporadic books. My book of poems came out in '70, my first novel came out in '74, and Leslie Silko's novel Ceremony came out a year or two later. So I think the concentratedness of these books made Indian people stand up and be noticed. Indians had written poetry before, but it was nothing that they would show around. Suddenly, they saw that books are published, and this one won the Pulitzer prize, a big prize. So, yes, it triggered what they called the Native American Renaissance, which has been going on for about 25 years. And it's a true renaissance. There's this outburst of creative energy that has found its way into writing. I think before that most Indians were considered visual artists. They were very good at drawing horses and symbolic, almost mystical, pieces of art about the Indian culture. But the written form wasn't an Indian thing. I don't think many young Indian people felt that's what they would end up doing. Suddenly these books came out, then a few more started coming out. Simon Ortiz, Ray Young Bear, Joy Harjo, started publishing their work, and it had a snowball effect. Now there are Indian writers all over the place and, as a group, they are very good and stand up very well in the mainstream.
Bevis: Some of them now have moved beyond the mainstream and are operating on the extreme of the mainstream, such as Silko's Almanac, Louis Owens and Gerald Vizenor. Of course, Sherman Alexie is doing experimental work which is very popular. What do you think of the off-beat work?
Welch: Yes, Gerald Vizenor, of course, has been doing that experimental writing for years. If there is a father to the American Indian experimental writing school, it would certainly be Gerald Vizenor. And yes, Sherman Alexie is doing something that I don't think anyone else has done that well. His work is very popular and it's very humorous and very sad at the same time. When people read one of his stories or his poems, there's a kind of burst of energy inside of themselves. It comes off the page and that's what I really like about Sherman's work.
Bevis: Well, it's interesting that, with Sherman, there may be another generation ready to come because you and Louise Erdrich and Silko and others write mainly in a sort of brilliantly traditional art-novel genre. But now, in some ways, these young people are more like Bright Lights, Big City. Jay McInerny might be compared to Sherman Alexie. So there may be a new kind of writing ready to come along; there would be another generation of people with a quite different approach.
Welch: Yes, I think so. You know Tom King isn't a spring chicken. He's getting like the rest of us. As a fiction writer, though, he's fairly young. He's written two novels. His second one is very funny and it has a kind of wild construction, has a chorus of the Lone Ranger, Tonto, and some of those other historical figures. It was reviewed in Newsweek, a full page review, and the review said just what you're saying, and you said it nicely, that basically, people were getting a little used to this traditional kind of writing about the down-trodden people trying to find their way and how miserable conditions are and there's a kind of lack of humor in these books, even though there would be a humorous piece of dialogue or a humorous image. But, for the most part, they would be pretty straightforward. He said that Tom King's novel is interesting because it goes away from that. It's funny, irreverent, makes fun of Indians just as much as it makes fun of white people. So Sherman, of course, could do that kind of thing too. So, maybe, yes, the young generation, or the newer generation of writers, is becoming more irreverent. Because Indian people are irreverent. I mean, they get a kick out of teasing each other and making fun not only of other people but of themselves. And so I think this new writing is probably capitalizing more on that kind of Indian humor than has been done in the past.
Bevis: So the narrator might be switching from raven to coyote.
Welch: (Laughing). That's right. But Sherman, when I read his work, I just see all this humor that I recognize from my past being around Indian people on reservations. He's capturing it on paper.
Bevis: Well, of course, you and your own career have changed—not the genre, but the kind of book you were writing with almost every book, from the first person [narrative in] Winter in the Blood to the third person [narrative in] Jim Loney to the historical Fools Crow, then to the contemporary and urban The Indian Lawyer, then the nonfiction Killing Custer. The two chapters from your novel in progress that appear in this issue pique me to ask you what you are going to do next.
Welch: It's a very interesting story. The thing that's behind this novel has to do with the Indians who went to Europe with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Black Elk mentions this; he went to England with Buffalo Bill and got stranded there, got together with a bunch of other Indians and they went to France and joined the show. I think it was called, "Mexican Joe: Another Wild West Show." And, as you know, Black Elk eventually made his way back to the United States. I'm reading a book now, in galleys, called Dull Knives of Pine Ridge, and one of the ancestors of that family had virtually the same experience. He got stranded and had to spend some time over there. But there were some Indians who actually stayed in Europe. What I'm doing is writing about the man who was born on the day of the Battle of the Bighorn; he was 14 years old the day of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, and in 1895, he's with Buffalo Bill's wild west show going to Europe. Let's face it, the first eighteen years of his life he has quite a few things happening to him—losing his culture, being captured by another culture, then going across the sea to a whole different thing. And these things really happened, so, that's the basis of my novel. I really want to deal as best as I can with him in France. How do you adapt to this new culture? Of course, he gets married and gets adopted into a family and becomes a total Frenchman. Then his son, who is the great grandfather in this contemporary story that I'm writing, is half French, half Oglala Sioux, but a total French person. It's interesting how these cultures come together there and my main character, my narrator, Jack Dawes, wonders if he's actually lost something or if he has escaped something that happened in this country.
Bevis: Did you meet a number of people in France who were descended from the folks in the wild west show?
Welch: There is even an organization in France. There's a guy who has formed a group of people who are either descendants or people who are just interested in this whole phenomenon. I met maybe three or four people who claimed to be descendants and in fact, Pierre—I can't remember his last name—the leader of this organization, lives in Marseilles, so I'm going to Marseilles this spring to interview him and get as much information as I can.
Bevis: Are there also descendants living there now, some of the Pawnee and Ioway who came and were presented to Louis Phillipe around 1825? And others in the 18th Century? I think Louis the Sixteenth, before the French Revolution had Indians presented to him. Some of them never made it home. Have you ever heard about descendants of those early groups still living in France?
Welch: No, I haven't heard a thing about that.
Bevis: I bet they're there.
Welch: Oh, yes. They've got to be.
Bevis: In Germany too.
Welch: And probably in Spain. Yes, but I think those things happened so long ago, it doesn't take many generations for the whole original experience to die out. But what's good about this thing I'm writing about is that these descendants are keeping alive this phenomenon that occurred at the turn of the century.
Bevis: I know you've been to France and Germany quite a bit and your work is admired over there. Do you know which books of yours are most liked in France and Germany and Italy?
Welch: Well, the only place I've had consistent luck in having all of my books published is France, so any others are sporadic. A book here and a book there. But in France they have quite a good following. I know that I get letters all the time from French people who have read Fools Crow or Winter in the Blood in French and they write to me, and they tell me how much they enjoy the books. So I think they are definitely interested in Indian people over there, in writing about Indians and especially by Indians.
Bevis: Do you feel that their interest is largely dramatic with a lot of Romantic fantasy, or is it realistic with political support that's valuable? How do you feel about this, the European reading of the Indian west?
Welch: It's really strange. It's kind of schizophrenic because, on the one hand, it's very romantic, incredibly romantic. Germany and France both have camps, you know, where executives can go and be Indians for a week or two. They dress like Indians. They cook their meat, tripods over the open fire, they live in tepees. It's unbelievable. A lot of them have their own outfits, their own buckskin outfits. So there's that incredible romanticism about 19th-century Plains Indians. On the other hand, people in this country have forgotten AIM entirely. This is a new generation. I have asked college students, Do you know what AIM was? They haven't a clue. But in France and Germany, that's about the second question they'll ask you, What about AIM? Is it still active? They know all the AIM leaders, all the issues that AIM was involved with. It's unbelievable. Especially the university students, people of their age and education. So, it goes both ways. A lot of them, when they think of contemporary Indians, think of the braided, Levi jacket AIM type. That's still their image, which in a sense is becoming as romantic as the 19th century Indian.
Bevis: I wish we'd bought the French rights to distribute Thunder Heart.
Welch: (Laughing) I saw it in France. There was a book seller's conference, huge thing in San Malo, and they premiered Thunder Heart there. It was in English with French subtitles.
Bevis: Well, you found yourself in the Custer film, with the help of Paul Steckler, catapulted into scholarship, into nonfiction, and now it sounds as if you're writing another historical novel which, like Fools Crow, will depend on quite a bit of historical scholarship, won't it? Are you interested in that scholarship, or is it just something you've got to figure out in order to write the book? How much will you depend on sources in France and the United States for this book?
Welch: Well, Killing Custer was pure nonfiction. There were a lot of contemporary situations where it was just me and the film crew and the Indian elders, and so I'd say half of it didn't require a lot of scholarship. But the historical part really did. I spent a lot of time reading books and putting it all together. But this new one is really a novel, set in contemporary times. My main character goes to France, hears about this old man in Marseilles from the old man's great great granddaughter, and just casually, for almost no reason, she invites him to meet the old man. He goes with her, and that's when the historical part starts kicking in.
Bevis: Will it have some significant flashback sections? Will it be a historical novel within a contemporary novel or almost all contemporary?
Welch: No, it will be a historical novel, I guess you could say, within the contemporary novel. And, in fact, this one will be written from the first person [point of view]. All the contemporary part will be written in the first person. But once I get into the old man's story of his father, who is the original Oglala, then it will become historical and the original Oglala will start thinking back to being born on the day of the Battle of the Little Big Horn and of what happened to him, and coming across on the boat, being in France, and then during the Second World War meeting Indian soldiers on the street and trying to talk to them. But they don't speak Oglala. And he's forgotten a lot of the Oglala. So, yes, I think it will be kind of historical but will follow the life, coming toward contemporary times.
Bevis: This will be your first novel or work of fiction which is not centered on the Blackfeet. It will be a Sioux novel.
Welch: Yes, my main character will be half Oglala and half white, but he's a political scientist and doesn't have anything to do with the reservation or his people. He's a teacher and a writer, a scholar. He studies tribal governments and how they compare with the traditional tribe, the tribe's governing system, the chiefs and societies and so on. He's coming from an academic standpoint. So, when he goes to France and gets involved with this old man's story, he'll start thinking of himself as an Indian, too.
Bevis: Last summer you were thinking of doing an urban Indian novel. Is this that urban Indian novel, set abroad, or is it a different work?
Welch: Well, it's not as I envisioned it last summer when we were talking about it. I really thought that it would be set pretty much entirely in a city and dealing with the Indian community within that city, because most of these Indians usually live pretty close together. But then when I heard this story, in the last few months, of these Indians who went with Buffalo Bill and stayed, it's just such a compelling story.
Bevis: It's wonderful material. What is the status of these Native descendants in France? And would the French want to read about them?
Welch: Well, actually, I think the French people would probably be interested in this phenomenon, since so many of them are interested in Indians. I know that some French people who know quite a bit about the American west and about American Indians think that some of these descendants might be "wanna be's." They might go to these camps and dress up like Indians and so on.
Bevis: Well, that would be tricky because it could turn the other way too. That is, the French could only want to hear about Indians who dress in buckskin and sit around the fire all year. And the problem could be—do the French want to hear about Indians who are in France and who are not to be distinguished from ordinary Frenchmen?
Welch: Yes, that's true. And I know this guy who has organized this business. He sent me a whole pile of clippings about himself going to different communities in France and talking about his great grandmother, who actually was the Oglala woman that he was supposed to be descended from. I think people are interested in that notion. So it is a touchy business about, for instance, how I would write this book and then how would it be translated into French and how French people would react to this. That could be interesting.
Bevis: Well, it might be Native Realism about Native Americans com ing to France, and you're writing it 20 years after Winter in the Blood. A bunch of people who had wanted to read about romantic Indians probably don't want to hear about contemporary Indians facing reality in that book. You helped create an audience in the U.S.A. who wanted to read realism about contemporary Indians. Of course, the same might be true in France as well.
Welch: Yes, that's true. Because I do know that they'll definitely get more of a reality from me than they will from those French descendants. Because that's just the way I write, you know. Realistic and sometimes even harsh.
Bevis: It won't be Karl May—the romantic German writer of westerns.
Welch: (Laughing) No, no. It definitely won't be that. I was encouraged with the way Fools Crow was received in France. People really picked up on it; it sold well, and apparently is still selling well. It should come out in paperback pretty soon. So I think it will gain even a larger audience. But again, that is about 19th century Indians, and even if it's more realistic and less romantic than the French equivalent of Karl May, that old material may have helped gain a good audience.
Bevis: I have used Fools Crow in class and I've been really struck and gratified by the student response. That book won a lot of awards didn't it? The LA Times, The American Book Award, The Pacific Northwest Book Award. And that wonderful blurb from Dee Brown saying that it may be the closest we'll ever get to the 19th century Plains tribes' point of view. You must be very pleased with the audience for that book.
Welch: Yes, I am. It's just really incredible, because I was so nervous when I wrote it. I didn't think I could put myself into that period of history and especially put myself—well, I wrote it from the point of view of those Indians looking out at the world, instead of from the point of view of somebody coming into their midst, and I think that's what makes it unique. So, the terminology and the things that happened are from within this Blackfeet culture. And it seems that's the reason for its staying power. People read 20 or 30 pages into it and then they're inside this world and they apparently like to be there.
Bevis: A vicarious life, a mile in their moccasins—that's one of the original justifications for fiction.
Welch: (Laughing) That's right.
Bevis: And you know, experience is so different from hearing arguments. It's true that if someone's imagination can transport you into another life and not preach to you at all, but just allow you to walk in that other life, then when you come back out, you're changed and you're necessarily tolerant in ways that you weren't before.
Welch: Yes, that's true. I know that, even when I was writing it, it took me a long time to get into that world. The first few writing sessions were just sitting at my desk for 4 hours and maybe not getting a sentence. Sitting there and getting two sentences, then a paragraph. So, for about 2 weeks, it was just this kind of sitting there and wondering if I could do it. Finally, I got a couple of pages, a couple more, then I got into it. So, it is a kind of transporting—in that once I was really into it, then when I shut down for the day and come downstairs, I'd hear car horns, dogs barking, kids riding their bikes, and it sounded different, looked different. So I was really in their world.
Bevis: Which books were the most help in getting into that world?
Welch: There were none that actually dramatized that world. James Willard Schultz's
Bevis: My Life as an Indian?
Welch: Was that the title? My Life as an Indian?
Bevis: I think so. Did you know he went back every winter to live with his mother in upstate New York and didn't tell her about his Blackfeet wife and his life as an Indian?
Welch: That makes sense. But, when he actually retold stories told to him by Indian people, those were really helpful to me, like going off on a raid against the Crows, or a horse stealing party against the Cut Throats, or whatever.
Bevis: He really got into the life imaginatively, then he went back to his mother. It was probably like you coming downstairs at the end of the day and wondering, "Where was I?"
Welch: Then you go off to Christmas parties with all these people (laughter). So he was a great deal of help. John Ewers's The Blackfeet Raiders of the Plains was a big help in terms of the whole society and some of the history.
Bevis: How about Walter McClintock?
Welch: McClintock was useful, but later. Let's see, there were a couple of others. Blackfoot Lodge Tales by George Grinnell. So I read about five books, none of which really helped me to dramatize from within, but they certainly gave me the trappings, you know, like talking about tanning a buffalo robe and things like that; so important.
Bevis: So you gathered the artifacts, but then you had to sit in them for awhile.
Welch: That's right. I had to put some women there actually doing the tanning.
Bevis: That same year—Fools Crow was 1986 those were the years that we were working on the editorial board of The Last Best Place, the Montana Anthology, '85, '86, '87; I think it came out in 1988.
Welch: It's been out longer than I thought.
Bevis: Yes, because as you were finishing Fools Crow, we were beginning to gather the material for the Anthology. Was there any traffic back and forth in your experience or imagination between the research on Fools Crow and the putting together of the Anthology?
Welch: Well, it didn't coincide that nicely. I had finished Fools Crow in the spring of 1985, my first year that I used to go back and teach at Cornell. I finished it in mid-May or so.
Bevis: We had just begun our editorial meetings, and your research had been done several years before.
Welch: Yes, you were in on the research, finding the Marias massacre site.
Bevis: Which came out again in Killing Custer.
Welch: That's right. I actually put that in the book that day with you. Both of us trying to ask around and find out if anybody knew where the massacre site was, and nobody did.
Bevis: Yes, that was a cold, wet, snowy day on the plains.
Welch: Unbelievable. That kind of day seldom comes along, so maybe there was something going on because it was just an incredible, cold, miserable, bleak day.
Bevis: Late September?
Welch: Yes, late September, but still in September because it had been so nice earlier, when we went over to Ripley's cabin. It was a beautiful day then, and the next day we took off for the site and it was really cold, windy.
Bevis: I remember asking you that day what you would do if you were a bear and you said find an orchard and get shit-faced. (Laughter)
Welch: That was an incredible day. Even though that happened after I wrote about the massacre, I was able to come back to the manuscript and describe the site. So it was very important to do that kind of research, to be in a place where something happened. And I also stood in a couple of other places where things happened in Fools Crow. That kind of research doesn't get as much attention as the book research does. I think just to get the spirit of the thing and the lay of the land—that's equally as important as the book experience.
Bevis: One of the places you put yourself imaginatively in Fools Crow has always fascinated me and you've never talked about it. I don't want to use a word like "magic," but in Winter in the Blood there's a wonderful scene with Yellow Calf talking to the deer that's handled by a skeptical narrator He ends the chapter with Yellow Calf listening to two magpies "argue." So it seems the narrator sort of concedes, well, maybe the animal world can talk and maybe this old man can talk with it, but I'm just sort of shut out of all that. I'm not knocking it...I'm granting it. Then when you come to Fools Crow, you allow a—let's call it a "nonwestern reality" because all of the words for it are put-down words, you know, magic, or whatever.
Bevis: But in Fools Crow, at least twice in the book, the text fully grants a nonwestern reality. Fools Crow's dream completely destroys any sort of western differentiation of dream and reality. And then again, at the end of the book, you have the long visit with Feather Woman, which is neither "dream" nor "vision." Just comment on the way you deal with those nonwestern realities in your work.
Welch: Well, it really was simple. I just granted those 19th century Blackfeet their sense of reality. If you hear stories or read anything about them of that period, you recognize their sense of reality was a lot different then. So, I granted that much of it in terms of so-called visions and dreams, but then I decided on my own to bend reality even more. So there's the wolverine dream where the main character, Fools Crow, sees this beautiful animal come down to have a drink. Then it turns into Kills Close to the Lake. Then she has this dream where the wolverine ravishes her. The same wolverine is in both dreams and he bites off her finger. When Fools Crow wakes up, he's gone through the self torture of the Sun Dance. When he wakes up, this white stone falls from his bandages and when he sees Kills Close to the Lake the next time, she's cut off her finger to fulfill a vow and so the white stone is her finger. It's just kind of bending things a little much, but I was kind of on a roll when I wrote that particular piece and I just didn't know when to stop, so I just let it go to a conclusion. And it actually came together, which surprised me.
Bevis: Yes, it's very powerful. You know that you've had the experience imaginatively of simply suspending your disbelief, and entering that world where something different happens, and, as you say, it's very simple.
Bevis: Earlier we were speaking of Indian literature and irony. I really loved the subversions in Killing Custer, and we haven't had much chance to talk about it since your award at the Western Literature Association last fall. And, of course, the book just came out 8 months ago. I loved the fact that Killing Custer was actually about killing Sitting Bull. It wasn't just from the Indian point of view. You also subverted the entire project. You made Custer marginal to the destruction of Sitting Bull, to the gathering of the Indians. Did you enjoy writing that book even though it was nonfiction and depended on research?
Welch: Yes, I did enjoy writing it. I was kind of surprised because I did have to do a lot of research for the documentary film, which was what this book eventually came out of. I had all kinds of books laid out all over my study, and they would change from day to day, but they were always laid out around there. And I enjoyed doing the contemporary and then the historical. I enjoyed telling it from two different points of view, not only the Indian point of view, but also from the white point of view. Custer was as subservient a character as I could possibly make him and still be in the picture. But it was more about some of these men and some of these scouts. When you go to the battlefield, the road goes up on the bluffs and you're encouraged to look down at the Indian village across the river. What I tried to do in this book was be in the Indian village looking up at those bluffs. In other words, telling it as much as I could from the Indian viewpoint, because they were just totally peaceful people at that moment. They had gone off to fight Crook's group 8 days earlier and that ended up in a standoff, but Crook retreated as a result. So OK, they weren't completely peaceful (Laughter). They were ready to defend their village and their children and wives and old people, and so they were in that frame of mind and definitely weren't aggressive, but they were willing to defend and Custer just fell into a buzzsaw. His experience and the experience of other military commanders on the plains was that, when they would see Indians, the Indians would just take off and they could never catch them. It was really frustrating. Well, here they caught them.
Bevis: You might think I'm a little nutty, but to me, not only was Custer decentered—the camera on Sitting Bull with Custer at the edge—but the narrative form was decentered in the sense that, instead of preceding chronologically through the story leading up to Custer and leading up to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the story keeps repeating itself, and I thought in a really useful, positive and delightful way, so that it becomes a cycling of repetitions. The Indians are gathering and 80 pages later, they're gathering, then 80 pages later they're gathering, and we sort of come up to and get a little bit of Custer, but then they're gathering again. So I really loved the way you replaced a linear, narrative time scheme, with this circular time which became a sort of poetry of time. To me it was very effective because of the pathos. Sitting Bull was saying that this would be the last great fight, come, we'll have fun, and that motif is repeated and repeated so that there's an almost timeless quality within what is eminently a time issue. Whites are going to win, we're going to be driven out of freedom, and this is our last chance. So I really loved the sort of anti-narrative structure of the book. Was it intentional?
Welch: Yes, I did want to keep leading up and then introduce something else, you know, and that culminates in leading up and this culminates in leading up and so on. So it was an intentional device. And, in fact, once too often, because I was going to have that section about going to the battlefield the second time to make the film, before the battle itself. My editor said that I was getting carried away. We really fought hard over that, but then he convinced me that he was right and I remain convinced that the battle eventually had to occur (Laughter). And, in the battle, I tried to really be precise on the soldier side as to the times. They say the battle lasted 30 minutes from 5:08 to 5:38. In fact, I made a point of discussing how Indians told time, how they told seasons, cycles, and so on, in a kind of imagistic way as opposed to these units of time that white people use. Bevis: That reminds me of a scene in McNickle's Wind from an Enemy Sky—where one of the Indians says that the white man's power is in a machine; perhaps he carries it in his pocket to tell him where the sun is.
(Laughter) Yes, that's good. That's pretty incredible. That makes perfect sense, doesn't it. After the battle, when the Indians are out there picking up the spoils, older warriors like Black Elk and his friend Iron Breast would kick them out of the way to get the good stuff first—but one of them got a watch and it was ticking away. He hung it around his neck and was so proud of this watch; then it quit ticking. He got pissed off at this watch and eventually tore it off his neck and threw it away. And they got this compass. It always pointed north, and because the other white men were north, these Indians thought that this was how white people found each other because this needle always pointed toward white people.
Bevis: The book has been out for eight months now. Have you been getting any flack from Custer buffs for the way you treated the material?
Welch: I do get a lot of letters. But I really haven't gotten those wild-eyed Custer buffs. When Paul and I showed the film in Hardin, Montana, to the Custer Association, boy, they were hostile. They were completely hostile. They were the kind of guys that wore "I am a Vietnam vet and proud of it" and "Desert Storm" T-shirts, and they were a mean bunch. When we finished showing the film and answering a few angry questions, the session broke up. When Paul went to the projection room to retrieve the film, he went up the stairs and Lois [Welch's wife] and Ripley were standing near where he went up, and there were three or four of these guys saying, "We should follow him up there; we could edit that film once and for all." They weren't saying it humorously. Maybe they're members of the Montana Militia.
Bevis: Militia, hell; they're in the Legislature.
Welch: Yes, that's right. But they were a scary bunch. We were pretty glad to get out of there.
Bevis: Jim, do you have any sense of different audiences for your work? We mentioned audiences in France and Germany. Do you think people on the East Coast read you differently from people out West? Wallace Stegner and I were talking about this once, and he said he thought the critics were different in the East than in the West. He wasn't sure if the readers were different.
Welch: You know, at that Western Literature Conference in Salt Lake City we both attended last fall , I was quite surprised at how many people came from the East, eastern colleges. But it seemed that the material I heard from them and the comments were very similar to the western critics and scholars. So, maybe that kind of audience is pretty much the same. As for a general reading audience, it's different, in the sense that they have their own writers and the South has its own writers. It's incredible how unfortunately regional the writing is in this country. It's only in the last 10 years that the West has become popular all around the country. It's a result of a couple of movies suggesting that a place like Montana would be the great place to escape the pressures of living in these urban societies, to get out the old fly rod and spend the rest of your life fishing. Easterners have a romantic vision of the West. They don't know the realities of Montana, this depressed state where people are living below the poverty level. In a sense they are a perfect audience for western writers who could tell them what it's really like here. But so far, they're not quite interested in reality. They're like the European readers. They want a romantic notion of the wild west, almost a 19th century image, or at least a leisure-class image of people who while away their hours fishing and looking at beautiful mountains.
Bevis: I was just being asked to reconsider [the anthology] The Last Best Place, and I found myself thinking, if another anthology came out now, has Montana literature actually been changing—not just added to with new good writers, but changing in some way since, say 1986 when we were making decisions of what would go into the 1988 book; and I wondered if the things that are admired in your work and Hugo's and Doig's still characterize our writers—a sort of tough, terse style, but a poetic one, a sense of endurance of tough times that harden characters into maturity.
Welch: I think the writers that were popular 10 to 20 years ago are still popular and, of course, new writers are springing up. They are continuing this tradition of trying to examine a piece of Montana society to find out what makes it tick, what is the psychology of the Montanan, of the Indian person, what kind of situations do we find ourselves in.
Bevis: And certainly it's your generation that learned how to write about the present. Back in the 1960s, Stegner's criticism of western literature in general was that it was too obsessed with the past.
Welch: Mary Blew and Tom McGuane write about very contemporary but very western situations.
Bevis: Right. I just wonder if we'll have a time in which the reservations and rural areas have an increasingly unbridgeable gap between them and Bozeman, Missoula, the urban university centers. There's always been a gap. But now, for instance, the Flathead valley is taking itself out of rural Montana and placing itself into a Montana which is going to be much more like Missoula or Bozeman. We get that much money moving in and that many more people; land values and taxes skyrocket. Things are changing.
Welch: Outsiders moving in.
Bevis: Yes, a young writer writing honestly will be telling a very different story than Dorothy Johnson told about growing up in Whitefish in the 1920s and 1930s, right?
Welch: Oh, yes. Absolutely. It will continue to evolve, because Montana has been evolving pretty rapidly in the last 10 years with all the people coming in from all over the country—retirees, wealthy people, Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, and people of their magnitude. They don't live here year round but they live here for a portion of the year. This is bound to change Montana. So, a younger writer who is looking around right now for material will be able to tackle this material without having to make much of a reach.
Bevis: How do you feel about that change?
Welch: Well, I don't like it. I guess I just want everything to be the right way, the old way, when we could go fishing and we wouldn't see anybody else out on the river; when we'd float, we'd be the only ones. And now, the pressure of fishing and floating is such that it's discouraging. I don't fish half as much as I used to, not even a tenth as much.
Bevis: She's all gone now.
Welch: (Laughter) Once again, she's all gone now. That would be the reality of the young writer. Taking advantage of all this recreation and so on and probably writing a novel about that and whirling disease, which has just happened this year in Montana. All the native trout might eventually be wiped out by this disease. And what happens to Montana totally depends upon the easterners who come here to fish.
Bevis: The native trout won't be wiped out; the cutthroat aren't nearly as susceptible as the rainbow.
Welch: They aren't?
Bevis: No, Cutthroat will do better in the absence of competition from the imported rainbows. Rainbows are outsiders. The natives will revive.
Welch: That'll be great.