James Welch Festival to bring Indigenous writers to Missoula | Arts & Theater

The inaugural James Welch Native Lit Festival this July will bring nationally recognized Indigenous writers to Missoula for three days of panels, and the opportunity to talk about Welch’s legacy and their own writing with their peers.

The lineup includes award-winning visiting writers Louis Erdrich and Tommy Orange alongside Montanans such as Debra Earling, Heather Cahoon, Chris La Tray and more.

As far as they can tell, “there’s never been a Native literature festival like this,” said lead organizer and writer Sterling HolyWhiteMountain. More often, writers find themselves in situations where “it’s almost always us, talking specifically for non-Native people.”

They hope to stir conservation about Welch, the Blackfeet-Gros Ventre author of the acclaimed novels, “Winter in the Blood” and “Fools Crow.”

“He is the Native Renaissance writer that is referenced the most often by Native writers,” HolyWhiteMountain said. “And yet publicly, in the larger sort of American discourse, he’s the one that is most often left out of that conversation.”

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The late author’s wife, Lois Welch, the 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 is paying as much attention to Jim as I would like,” she said, adding she’s happy the festival concept was being raised and led by a Blackfeet writer. She and Welch attended numerous literary festivals over the years, and she said this event is “not only unique, it’s singular” with its all-Native lineup of speakers.

The festival is officially being staged through an independent nonprofit with a planning committee that includes Cahoon, Lois Welch, Kim Anderson, who founded the Montana Festival of the Book, and others. They’re applying for and have received grants. The University of Montana’s Native American Studies Program is co-sponsoring and they have the support of the UM President’s office.

They’re holding a fundraiser in July at the Zootown Arts Community Center, with all-Native stand-up comedy.


The festival encourages Indigenous authors to engage with one other in talks on stage, in a way that they do all the time in private. There’s value in people being able to see that, regardless of their race, Holy White Mountain said.

It can also provide younger Native people some exposure to older, established artists so they could see if it’s “something that they knew they wanted to do with their lives.”

The dates are July 28-30 in Missoula, which was picked 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 in the Rattlesnake. The idea for the conference dates back to 2014. Organizers made several attempts at a workshop of some kind in Browning but it fell apart due to logistics, such as the travel distance from airports and lodging, he said.

The venues thus far include the Wilma, the University of Montana, and the Missoula Public Library. At this point, they’re planning on making them free so anyone can attend. All the talks will be recorded and posted on YouTube to build an archive of writers talking about their work. That way younger artists, who might be living in isolated areas, can have the resources to work through questions about themselves and their work.

The guests’ works have earned widespread acclaim. Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa Pemina Band) won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Nightwatchmen.” Tommy Orange’s novel “There There,” was nominated for that prize as well. Novelist Kelli Jo Ford (Cherokee) won praise for her debut, “Crooked Hallelujah.” Rebecca Roanhorse has published a fantasy novel, “Black Sun,” and has won awards in the genre like the Hugo and Nebula. David Treuer (Ojibwe) was a finalist for the National Book Award for his nonfiction survey, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1980 to the Present.”

Montanans include ML Smoker (Assiniboine, Sioux), the state’s poet laureate from 2019-21, Cahoon, a poet and assistant professor of Native American Studies at the University of Montana; Debra Earling (CSKT), a former UM creative writing professor 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 Indigenous writers. The full list is online at jameswelchfestival.org.

As an example of the style of events, a panel called “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 the academic Vine Deloria Jr.)

The event will be held every other year, with the 2024 installment leaning more toward poetry. The types of panels could expand to include screenwriting, comic books, visual arts; and by the third year, screenwriting for film and TV.

Welch’s career

Welch died at age 62 in 2003, after a yearlong struggle with lung cancer. Born in Browning in 1940, his family moved around for work, and he grew up on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations.

I have studied for an MFA at the University of Montana and counted the poet Richard Hugo as a mentor. He published his debut, a collection of poems called “Riding the Earthboy 40,” in 1971. (Welch’s father leased a 40-acre farm they named after a Blackfeet family that went by Earthboy.)

“You’d be hard-pressed to find an American writer who was as good at poetry as he was at fiction, and has works in both genres that function as touchstones,” HolyWhiteMountain said. The collection has remained in print for more than 50 years, with only a half-decade span at the beginning when it was not, according to Lois.

Welch shifted time periods and genres from book to book. “Winter in the Blood” is a contemporary novel; “Fools Crow” a historical epic from the Blackfeet perspective; “The Indian Lawyer” a modern-day thriller about a Blackfeet attorney; “The Heartsong of Charging Elk,” another historical outing, this time focused on an Oglala Sioux man who travels to France. “Killing Custer” revisits the Battle of Little Bighorn from an Indigenous perspective.

Lois recalled that when Welch was first asked to teach at the University of Washington in 1981, the number of Native authors in print was much lower than is today. He had to teach his own books by him, which can lead to a “certain awkwardness.”

Regarding his influence, she said he was “thrilled” that a younger generation of Native writers was following in his footsteps, “getting published and circulated. I just watched it happen and was happy for it.”

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