The inaugural James Welch Native Lit Festival in July will bring nationally recognized Indigenous writers to Missoula for three days of panels and the opportunity to speak about Welch’s legacy and their own writing with their peers.
The lineup includes award-winning guest writers Louis Erdrich and Tommy Orange alongside Montanese such as Debra Earling, Heather Cahoon, Chris La Tray and more.
As far as they can tell, “there has never been an Indigenous literature festival quite like this,” said lead organizer and writer Sterling HolyWhiteMountain. More often, writers find themselves in situations where “it’s almost always us speaking specifically for non-Aboriginal people”.
They hope to spur the retention of Welch, the Blackfeet-Big Belly author of the acclaimed novels “Winter in the Blood” and “Fools Crow.”
“He is the Aboriginal Renaissance writer most often referred to by Aboriginal writers,” said HolyWhiteMountain. “And yet publicly, in the broader American discourse, he is the one who is most often left out of this conversation.”
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The late author’s wife, Lois Welch, former director of the University of Montana’s creative writing program, said she thought the idea of a festival in his honor was wonderful.
“Nobody pays as much attention to Jim as I would like,” she said, adding that she was glad the concept for the festival was brought up and led by a Blackfeet writer. She and Welch have attended numerous literary festivals over the years, and she said this event is “not just unique, it’s singular” with its lineup of all-Indigenous speakers.
The festival is officially organized by an independent nonprofit organization with a planning committee that includes Cahoon, Lois Welch, Kim Anderson, who founded the Montana Festival of the Book, and others. They apply for and have received grants. The Native American Studies program at the University of Montana is co-sponsored and supported by the UM President’s Office.
They’re hosting a fundraiser in July at the Zootown Arts Community Center, featuring an all-Native stand-up comedy.
The festival encourages Indigenous authors to engage with each other on stage, as they do all the time in private. There’s value in people being able to see this, regardless of race, HolyWhiteMountain said.
It can also provide young Aboriginal people with some exposure to older established artists so they can see if it was “something they knew they wanted to do with their lives”.
The dates are July 28-30 in Missoula, which was chosen because of the relative ease of travel and the fact that Welch attended the University of Montana and made the city his home – he and Lois bought a house at Rattlesnake. The idea for the conference dates back to 2014. Organizers tried several times to hold a workshop of some sort in Browning, but it fell apart due to logistical issues, such as the distance to travel from airports and the accommodation, he said.
Sites so far include the Wilma, the University of Montana and the Missoula Public Library. At this point, they plan to make them free so anyone can attend. All talks will be recorded and posted on YouTube to create an archive of writers talking about their work. This way, young artists, who may live in isolated areas, can have the resources to resolve questions about themselves and their work.
The works of the guests were widely praised. Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa Pemina Band) won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Nightwatchmen”. Tommy Orange’s novel “There There” was also nominated for this award. Novelist Kelli Jo Ford (Cherokee) has received praise for her debut, “Crooked Hallelujah.” Rebecca Roanhorse has published a fantasy novel, “Black Sun”, and has won such genre awards as Hugo and Nebula. David Treuer (Ojibwe) was a National Book Award finalist for his non-fiction investigation, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1980 to the Present.”
Montananese include ML Smoker (Assiniboine, Sioux), 2019-21 state poet laureate, Cahoon, poet and assistant professor of Native American studies at the University of Montana; Debra Earling (CSKT), former professor of creative writing at UM and author of the novel “Perma Red”; La Tray (Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians) won the Montana Book Award for “One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large” and Adrian Jawort (Northern Cheyenne), who edited “Off the Path”, a two -volume series of native writers. The full list is online at jameswelchfestival.org.
As an example of the style of the events, a panel titled “We Talk, You Listen” will feature three writers – Brandon Hobson (“Where the Dead Sit Talking”) with Orange and Ford – in conversation with each other. (The title comes from a book by academic Vine Deloria Jr.)
The event will take place every two years, with the 2024 installment being more poetry-oriented. Panel types could expand to include screenwriting, comics, visual arts; and in third year, writing screenplays for film and television.
Welch died at age 62 in 2003, after a year-long battle with lung cancer. Born in Browning in 1940, his family moved away for work and he grew up on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations.
He studied for an MFA at the University of Montana and counted poet Richard Hugo as a mentor. He published his debut, a collection of poems called “Riding the Earthboy 40,” in 1971. (Welch’s father rented a 40-acre farm they named after a Blackfeet family who went through Earthboy. )
“You would be hard pressed to find an American writer who is as good at poetry as he is at fiction, and who has works in both genres that work as touchstones,” HolyWhiteMountain said. The collection remained in print for more than 50 years, with only half a decade at the start when it was not, according to Lois.
Welch shifted eras and genres from book to book. “Winter in the Blood” is a contemporary novel; “Fools Crow”, a historical epic from the perspective of the Blackfeet; “The Indian Lawyer”, a modern thriller about a Blackfeet lawyer; “The Heartsong of Charging Elk”, another historic release, this time centering on an Oglala Sioux man who travels to France. “Killing Custer” revisits the Battle of the Little Bighorn from an Indigenous perspective.
Lois recalled that when Welch was first invited to teach at the University of Washington in 1981, the number of native authors in print was far lower than it is today. He had to teach his own books, which can lead to “some awkwardness”.
Regarding his influence, she said he was “thrilled” that a younger generation of Indigenous writers are following in his footsteps, “getting published and spread. He just watched it happen and was happy about it.