Sunday, August 26, 2007


Sidner Larson, in “Captured in the MIddle,” does not address either Ward Churchill or Tim Barrus (Nasdijj). Formally, he addresses issues rather than individuals except for Vine Deloria, Jr., Louise Erdrich and James Welch. Much of his attention to the latter is based on “The Indian Lawyer,” which is a much neglected book, partly because it is NOT stereotypical. Sid is uniquely qualified to discuss it because he IS or at least WAS an actual Indian Lawyer, though Welch probably didn’t draw as much on his cousin Sid’s experience as he did on his own many years on the Montana Parole Board, a quiet service to his people not much acknowledged.

These are among the observations I marked:

...”Winter in the Blood” received much more critical attention than have Welch’s later novels. Another important reason for this reception, however, was that the book corresponded closely to the American myth of the “Vanishing Indian.” The unnamed narrator, mired in the most basic considerations of survival, is much easier to eulogize than the potent warriors of yesteryear. From this vantage point of relative safety critics have focussed on imagery, language and tone, with but a few addressing the actual lived experiences of American Indian people.

“Fools Crow” is a safe book to the minds of most whites, though few of them pick up on the ethical dimension which seems to me the point of the plot which is “What should we do to be saved?” to use the Christian version of the question, or in other words, who is a virtuous man? “The Indian Lawyer” addresses the riskier question of who is an Indian. “... the tension that exists between insiders and outsiders in a variety of situations provide much of the conflict that exists in life and literature, fostering an identity crisis when a member of a group undergoes transformation from insider to outsider status... Must one be one-quarter Blackfoot... Must one be raised in a traditional “Indian” culture or speak a native language or be on a tribal roll?”

(Other groups with boundaries that carry major consequences are veterans, gays, physicians... don’t you agree? Cops, pastors, blacks, and so on? When I went to undergrad college, my friends considered me “lost.” When I went to Divinity School, I was also defined as “different.” When I left the ministry, I was again “lost” as former clergy are a different group from clergy. Alienated, an outsider, not just different but a threat.)

Sid notes there’s another real life guy (besides Jim himself) who had the same insider/outsider dilemma as “The Indian Lawyer”: Don Wetzel, a highly successful Blackfeet basketball player. This is a quote within a quote from Gary Smith, writing about rez basketball in Sports Illustrated: “Here was a way to bring pride back to their hollow chests and vacant eyes, some physical means, at last, for poor and undereducated men to re-attain the status they once had gained through hunting and battle.” Wetzel, who was educated, made it as far as the NCAA Division I team, but not to the NBA. When his limits were reached, people turned on him.

Larson analyzes the situation this way: "...Indians play basketball in large part for recognition in their own families and communities, a perpetuation of insider values. They tend not to measure themselves using outside standards, such as college or professional status. Playing away from home may become a lonely task and neither money nor the satisfaction of accomplishment at a higher level of play serves as a sustaining substitution for the adulation of other Indians." Larson allows the real life Wetzel achieved some redemption when he coached a more recent Blackfeet high school team to State Championship.

I doubt that Larson knew about the other undercurrents in Wetzel’s life since Sid’s not from this reservation, but Welzel was also the son of a progressive Tribal Council member who had scars and old scores from many battles and lived to the end of his life in Helena, off the reservation. When Don Wetzel has been down, everyone has piled onto him. When he is up, they are suddenly his best friends. Indian-on-Indian power struggles are far more bitter than Indian-on-White, but invisible to Whites.

In fact, Blackfeet are critical of Welch for using the real names on the reservation and I see their point. The names “Harwood” and “Little Dog” come to my ears with fifty years of personal associations and skirmishes, some fairly consequential. I’ve never understood whether Welch just didn’t realize or knew but had his own scores to settle. Maybe there are other alternative explanations.

But what I missed myself the last time I read “The Indian Lawyer” was the law discussed, specifically the “Winters Case” which has earth-shaking implications in today’s time of drought and climate-change. The Winters Doctrine set Indian water policy on a collision course with itself and the states. It says that when a federal land use such as a reservation is established, then the amount of water for that use is assumed to belong to that entity. That is, Indians are entitled to as much water as they need to run their reservation, however that amount is determined. (In at least one case, there is a federal waterfowl refuge in direct competition with a reservation, without enough water for both. Some poor judge is going to have to address that.) The state law says “first come, first served.” An unauthorized dam established irrigation in Valier before the feds ever got around to completing the reservation irrigation system. (If you assume it’s finished even now.) It’s a highly emotional situation with livelihoods -- possibly actual lives -- on the line. So the NEED for Indian lawyers is very high.

Here’s Larson’s comment: “Relational writing is part of a condition of off-centeredness in a world of distinct but related meaning systems, a state of being in culture while looking at culture. This is responsive to aspects of the modern world, such as overlay of traditions, constant movement between cultures, perpetual displacement, and the necessity of being both locally focused and broadly comparative. The resulting strategies of writing and represenation are subject to change at such a rate that we can now observe how they become constructed domains of truth, or what James Clifford has termed ‘serious fictions.”

We ain’t talkin’ dream catchers or children’s stories here. These novels are serious attempts to understand how to live. They make us feel the injustice, yearn for a better future. They remind us that we’re talking about real people, whether Indian or white.

1 comment:

Bill Wetzel said...

Yes Mary, very interesting post. (STARBOY:James Welch)

I think what Jim did so well, and Sid touches on in the quotes you provide, is show how people fit or do not fit in a different world. Like Sylvester Yellow Calf is interesting because he's and Indian who has succeeded in the outside world, however since he is an Indian, he is never totally comfortable. Yet when he goes back to the reservation, he doesn't fit in there so much either. He's successful, but say most of the friends he's grown up with are not. He's almost an island upon himself, he has connections in certain worlds, but he doesn't totally belong to any of them.

I think many of us feel that way. :)