Saturday, October 23, 2010


In 1990 when I was teaching high school English in Heart Butte, Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation, I had a problem. Some of the students had flunked sophomore, junior, and senior years of English and were enrolled in all three years at once. I was the only English teacher except for a remedial teacher working on basics. Most of these multiple enrollees were making one more valiant try for a diploma. They were older, very hip, and masked. They felt “maudit,” cursed. Outcasts. Both because they were Indians in a tiny foothills community where the old ways still cling and because even within that community they were criticized. The women in their families tried to control them. The men were mostly missing.

So I thought that for all our sanities, I would assign a different Native American book from the then-recent NA literary renaissance to each grade. What I assigned to the seniors was “The Death of Jim Loney” by James Welch, Jr. They did not approve. They had ten thousand reasons to resist James Welch, Jr. As it happens, I had been married to Jim Welch SENIOR’s best friend (white) when the two of them were in grade school. No one was impressed by that. They pointed out, accurately, that Jim Welch SENIOR. was only half Blackfeet and Jim JUNIOR’s mother was Fort Belknap and Jim was raised on the Fort Belknap rez. They were only partly right. Jim Welch Sr. moved a lot and much of young Jim’s education was in Minneapolis. Jim Welch Jr. was a mild-mannered guy. I’ve met his dad and sibs and they are responsible, respectable people who could pass anywhere for, well, Italian or something. Jim’s parents were well-respected and so were his grandparents. The original Jim Welch (there were three) was from Carolina. He met his Blackfeet wife at Haskell.

But Jim III knew about rez life and told it straight. It was one of the first novels about Indians that was “maudit” rather than anthropological or romantic or just historical. I’m interpreting the “maudit,” “noir,” sub-genre of Native American literature in a Thomas Kuhnian way, the ragged edge of coming change. Kuhn proposed that we think of something, whether science or society, as though we have it named and nailed down and taken for granted until there is a pile-up of things that don’t fit, that hurt, that were senseless. For Jim’s age group, which is the same as mine, a lot of damage was coming down on intelligent, aspiring, young Indian men who couldn’t quite fit into the world of the white female teachers who took them on. I could quickly (more, given twenty minutes) name six of the type, most of them approaching seventy now, some of them no longer living, including Jim. (This is about the age of Van Sickle and Ivan Doig as well.)

These Indian men were victims of what I call “splitting,” which is that on the one hand they were considered drunks, no good, losers -- sometimes abandoned by their own fathers. On the other hand they were told they were noble, special, chosen, and should be brilliant. They were “labeled,” people thought they knew all about it, but the actuality was full of contradictions and double-binds. The reservation that was imagined as a refuge could be a trap. Jim was one of the first to find a way to express both. Some of these guys became college professors, others became bureaucrats, and many were plagued by booze and so on. If they really busted loose in a bar, it was quietly and someplace else. (Like Valier.)

With relentless unromantic clarity, Jim maps out in his individual characters the various factions of a reservation, even among the cops. The important divisions are not white/red, but rather levels of prosperity and authority (jurisdiction), genetically tangled relationship webs, and the ghosts of athletic victories. Clinging to what seems like fellowship in the one place where whites and Indians mix as adults -- namely the bar -- they cannot step away from suspicion and rivalry.

Meanwhile, the women got to work and the next generation is the one that has made reservations into a going concern: casinos, wind-farms, oil, high tech materials, fine cattle. The mothers, aunties and sisters -- even the lovers and social workers -- went back to college in middle-age. Relocation, NA hiring preference, IHS jobs, worked better for the women than for the men. Eloise Cobell is from the same generation as Jim Welch III. They and their children run the rez schools now. No more of those cruising white English teachers with wealthy parents back east. Denise Juneau, Blackfeet of the next genertion, is the state superintendent of schools. It’s a new paradigm.

I took four of my best writers from Heart Butte to a feschshrift honoring A. B. Guthrie Jr. in Choteau and -- finding Jim Welch -- towed him over to meet them. They were paralyzed, though Jim was generous and charming. Afterward they lectured me, “You must not expose us like that! He shouldn’t know about us!” They were exactly like Tim’s boys. “Do not draw attention to us!” The “cursed” like the dark -- they fear celebrity which makes them a target. (Ask Tim.) As self-fulfilling prophesy, they scoffed at Jim behind his back, accusing him of being a phony, of taking advantage of the other tribal members. They felt that they were safe at home, where they even swaggered and dominated. But in a slightly different place (Choteau is only a few miles down the Rocky Mountain cordillera and only a little bit bigger) with unknown rules, they collapsed.

My senior boys hated “The Death of Jim Loney.” They stonewalled me. Events in the book didn’t happen on this rez but all the people had Blackfeet names, which is a trespass. On the one hand they wanted to be seen and recognized, but on the other hand they didn’t want to be revealed. Every character in this book had an equivalent on the rez in those days. Now, not so much. And now “death by cop” is sort of a city phenomenon, though people are still mysteriously found dead. Open the Great Falls Tribune any morning and you’ll read about violent deaths of low-income men, often among drinking buddies, maybe white and maybe not. The Native American female dead are never noted, their bones found years later. Their families miss them.

The lowest point for Native Americans was not the massacres where a man could at least be a warrior. Rather it was the existential despair of a trapped small-town life or urban ghetto idleness. For some it triggered revolution. The second Wounded Knee was 1973. It didn’t turn out well, but it triggered more than gunfire. At great cost it made the huge gimbals and gyroscopes of society begin to turn. Just as they are now.

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