The first-ever James Welch Native Lit Festival aims to explore and commemorate the work and legacy of its namesake, the late Blackfeet/Gros Ventre author of the novels Winter in the Blood and Fools Crow.
The festival, the only one of its kind in the country, will also showcase the strength and diversity of Indigenous literature in the present day, with award-winning writers such as Louise Erdrich and Tommy Orange coming to Missoula Thursday through Saturday, July 28-30. Guests include not only novelists like these two, but also poets, memoirists, essayists, and a comic book writer.
“There are only aborigines working in all these arenas of literature,” said Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, the festival’s founder.
The event, which will be held again in two years, is a new non-profit project led by HolyWhiteMountain, a Blackfeet author who has published in the New Yorker and Paris Reviews.
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Raised on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations, Welch studied creative writing at the University of Montana with Richard Hugo and built a career of international renown. Welch lived in Missoula until his death in 2003 at the age of 62 after suffering from lung cancer.
The festival aims to draw attention to his status as one of the main figures of the Native American Renaissance alongside writers such as N. Scott Momday, Leslie Marmon Silko and Joy Harjo.
While he doesn’t appear as often in the broader public discussion as those names, HolyWhiteMountain said that among local writers, “they were more likely to talk about Jim’s work than anyone else.”
He said Welch was very interested in writing about “secular Indian country” compared to his predecessors and that his work was “very unromantic”. He thinks this is a quality that contemporary writers see as a “touchstone,” since Welch “didn’t really write his books for anyone in particular,” ie, native or white readers. “He just wrote them the way he wanted to write them.”
One of the headlining guests is David faithful, National Book Award finalist for his nonfiction study, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. He is also a critic and novelist, and has published non-fiction in The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine.
For him, the week is also a chance to support what “lies beneath the festival itself, which is a kind of pause and stocktaking of the kind of radical excellence and diversity that is the fact of Native American art and literature today.”
faithfulan editor at Pantheon Books, said: “There are so many authors now and so many different types of books, there is a variety that we have never seen before.”
He cited festival guests such as David Heska Wanbli Weiden and his literary thriller Winter Counts, Brandon Hobson’s literary fiction The Removed and Kelli Jo Ford’s Crooked Hallelujah.
He said the structure of the publishing world hasn’t changed much — to his knowledge, he’s one of the few Aborigines to hold such a position, or such as a publicist.
In other respects, however, since it seemed like there was only “one kind of native story that publishers wanted,” it did have one that was “easily plotted on the loss and payback chart.”
Now, “there’s honestly a market for all kinds of stories” and “there are readers for many different kinds of Native American stories.”
Festival organizers sought a diverse selection of writers, including authors at the forefront of the literary world, such as Erdrich, who won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Nightwatchman, and Orange, whose debut novel There There received many raving year-end lists and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel.
They also reached out to aspiring writers: Rebecca Roanhorse has written speculative novels and received Hugo and Nebula Awards. She wrote for a Star Wars series and for Marvel.
Taté Walker, trans author of Two Spirit, has written non-fiction for magazines such as The Nation and a collection of poetry called The Trickster Riots. Walker will participate in a two-spirit panel with Raven Heavy Runner and Adrian Jawort, an LGBTQI activist, author and editor of Off the Path, a two-volume anthology of young indigenous writers.
HolyWhiteMountain said it was important to involve the writers of Two Spirit because “historically, LGBTQ people have played a really significant role in many tribes and many different tribal cultures.”
Montana’s guests include poet Victor Charlo; Debra Earling, author of the novel Perma Red and former director of the University of Montana’s Creative Writing Program; Chris La Tray, who writes poetry and non-fiction; poets Heather Cahoon and ML Smoker; and Tailyr Irvine, a photojournalist who has published her work in The New York Times and other national media.
HolyWhiteMountain, who grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation, wants the festival to bring artists and writers closer to younger Aboriginal people. He didn’t have access to writing resources when he was younger, so the events are free and they will record all the talks and post them on YouTube.
The lectures and panel discussions are designed to provide local writers with a place to talk about their craft while the public joins in. He said it sometimes seems that Indigenous authors need to explain themselves to the public in interviews, and the events give readers a chance to see them speak about writing as they do in private.
Panels include one entitled “We Talk, You Listen” featuring Orange, Ford and Hobson. (Saturday, 8 p.m., the Wilma).
To the faithfulWelch occupies a place near the top of his “crowded” and expansive pantheon of writers.
Wel “always inspired” him for several reasons. “In my opinion he is the most adventurous native writer.”
“In every book he tried something new” faithful said, be it a “new horizon,” a “new aesthetic,” or “something he hadn’t done before.”
Winter in the Blood, for example, exemplifies Welch as “our bravest writer,” and his creative freedom offered “permission to do it myself.”
This decision as a writer to write completely different books is “risky” compared to a stylistically predictable work that instead bears the stamp of the psyche.
“It’s a lot riskier to do what Welch did,” Treuer said. “He really risked jeopardizing a readership or not building a readership at all.”
Dedicated to the craft in his books, stories, and poetry, Welsh was “one of our great stylists of American type,” Streuer added. “He seemed to treat his writing neither as a connecting point nor as an expression of his own identity, and he never challenged his writing or his readers to show his originality. He didn’t turn out to be the answer to everything and I really respect that.”
Welch’s wife, Lois Welch, a retired director of the creative writing program at UM, will read a section of her memoir on Saturday, July 30 at 2 p.m. at the Wilma.
She began work on it after his death and is now working on what she hopes will be the final draft. (The reading includes a reading in France, where he was a literary celebrity and attended a festival in Saint-Malo).
He himself has never written any memoirs, only two autobiographical pieces. “So many people ask me what he was like,” said Lois Welch, which motivated her to write the book.
“In a way, writers are like refrigerators,” she said. “Usually the door is closed and the lights off and you only see the outside, which is shiny and innocent. But you open it from time to time and all sorts of wonderful things happen.”
She said James was “very funny”, “smarter than people realised” and “really determined to be a storyteller”. At first he was more shy than he had gotten older; a good listener and popular with almost everyone.
Given his personality, he would probably be “very embarrassed” to be the subject of a festival, but extremely proud to be the catalyst for such an event.
Lois said he was pleased with the growing number of young local writers he had seen throughout his career. She recalled that when he was teaching at Cornell University in the 1980s, so few Native American writers were in print that he had to teach his own books.
For her part, she was grateful that HolyWhiteMountain reached out to her about the idea, as celebrating James Welch’s legacy in the form of a festival is an idea that should have come from another Indigenous writer.
They look to 2024 for the next installment with a wider range of writers including poets and comic book writers and artists. In the long term, expansion to include visual arts and workshops for younger people is planned.