The Operating System

4th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 27 :: Christine Trudeau on James Welch

Welch2[line]I was assigned James Welch’s Winter in the Blood a little over a year ago for a class. I was in shock to have just discovered Welch, a key figure for the Native American Renaissance, in my senior year as a creative writing major, and as a fellow Native to boot.
Welch, both Blackfeet and Gros Ventre, is the kind of writer and poet you connect with on a bone level. In his prose and poetry he leaves no room for purple prose, bullshit, or the like… He’s direct, but with the right balance between his silences and visions, the real and surreal, and the known and unknown.
Welch is a writer worthy of every reader. Though I came late to the party, I’m lucky to have showed up. Sure, it’d be nice to go back in time and read Welch before I’d read big guns like Alexie, Erdrich, Melville, Woolf, or even Shakespeare. All the same, I’m grateful to be able to add him to the list of writers who have written from the depths of humanity.
It was through his prose that I quickly discovered his poetry, and in his novel, Winter in the Blood there were a number of parallels to his poems in Riding the Earthboy 40.  The title refers to some land leased by his father in Montana when Welch was a child, and is a landscape that dominates a lot of the imagery and motifs in the poems and novel. However, the poems themselves operate entirely independently from the novel, following their own storylines to their own rhythms, in their own galaxies.
Past the school and down
this little incline—
you can’t miss it.
Tons of bricks and babies
blue from the waist down.
Their heads are cheese
and loll as though
bricks became their brains.
What’s that—the noble savage?
He’s around, spooked and colored
by fish he eats,
red for rainbow, blue
for the moon. He instructs stars,
but only to the thinnest wolf.
When you get there
tell the mad decaying creep
we miss him. We never
meant it. He’ll treat you right,
show you poems
the black bear couldn’t dream.
One more thing—if he tries
to teach you mountains
or whisper imagined love
to the tamarack, tell him
you adore him,
then get the hell out, fast.
Earthboy: so simple his name
should ring a bell for sinners.
Beneath the clowny hat, his eyes
so shot the children called him
dirt, Earthboy farmed this land
and farmed the sky with words.
The dirt is dead. Gone to seed
his rows become marker to a grave
vast as anything but dirt.
Bones should never tell a story
to a bad beginner. I ride
romantic to those words,
those foolish claims that he
was better than dirt, or rain
that bleached this cabin
white as bone. Scattered in the wind
Earthboy calls me from my dream:
Dirt is where the dreams must end.
Welch received numerous awards in his lifetime, including the Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters medal) from the French Ministry of Culture, the Native Writers’ Circle’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the American Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and an Emmy Award for the documentary Last Stand at Little Bighorn [watch at link].
At the moment Riding the Earthboy 40 is out of print, but with any luck you’ll be able to borrow a copy from a library, friend, or buy one from a used book store. Among his other works I’d recommend Killing Custer, Fools Crow, and of course Winter in the Blood (also recently adapted into a film, with screenplay by Ken White and produced by Sherman Alexie).
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image]CHRISTINE TRUDEAU is a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts, and received the Zora Neal Hurston Scholarship for the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics’ Summer Writing Program at Naropa, in 2012. She is a former intern with the Diversity Department at NPR, and a freelance journalist with National Native News, Native Peoples Magazine, and NPR. Currently, she’s a candidate for an MS in Broadcast Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, in NYC. Follow @deaulou
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