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 today, with award-winning writers like Louise Erdrich and Tommy Orange heading to Missoula Thursday through Saturday, 28 to July 30. Guests also include not only novelists like these two, but also poets, memoirists, essayists and a comic book writer.
“There are only natives working in all these areas of literature,” said Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, the festival’s founder.
The event, which will return in two years, is a new nonprofit led by HolyWhiteMounain, a Blackfeet writer published in The New Yorker and Paris Review.
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Welch grew up on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations, studied creative writing at the University of Montana with Richard Hugo, and built an internationally renowned career. Welch lived in Missoula until his death in 2003 at age 62, after a battle with lung cancer.
The festival aims to draw attention to his status as one of the leading figures of the Native American Renaissance alongside writers like N. Scott Momday, Leslie Marmon Silko and Joy Harjo.
Although he doesn’t seem to come up as often as those names in the wider public debate, HolyWhiteMountain said that among Indigenous writers “they were more likely to talk about Jim’s work than anyone else.” .
He said that Welch was very interested in writing about “secular Indian country” compared to his predecessors, and that his work is “very unromantic”. He thinks it’s a quality contemporary writers see as a “touchstone” because Welch “didn’t really write his books for anyone in particular”, i.e. Indigenous readers. or white. “He just wrote them the way he wanted to write them.”
One of the featured guests is David Treur, National Book Award finalist for his non-fiction investigation, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present.” Also a critic and novelist, he has published non-fiction in The Atlantic and the New York Times Magazine.
For him, the week is also an opportunity to support what is “beneath the festival itself, which is a sort of stoppage and assessment of the radical excellence and diversity that now characterizes the arts and Native American letters.
Treur is a general editor for Pantheon Books, said “there are so many writers now, and so many different kinds of books now, there’s a diversity that we’ve never seen before.”
He cited festival guests like 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 is one of the few native people to hold such a position, or as a publicist.
In other senses, it is, because it seemed like there was only “one kind of native story that publishers wanted,” one that you can “easily plot on the loss chart. and redemptions.
Today, “honestly, there is a market for all kinds of different stories” and “there are readers for all kinds of Aboriginal stories. »
Festival organizers sought out a diverse range of writers, including authors at the top of the literary world, like Erdrich, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2021 novel The Nightwatchman, and Orange, whose debut novel, “There There” made many year-end lists and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Novel.
They’ve also reached out to up-and-coming authors: Rebecca Roanhorse has written speculative fiction and won Hugo and Nebula awards. She has written for a Star Wars series and for Marvel.
Taté Walker, a Two Spirit trans writer, has written non-fiction for outlets like The Nation and a collection of poetry, “The Trickster Riots.” Walker will participate in a Two Spirit panel with Raven Heavy Runner and Adrian Jawort, an LGBTQI activist, writer and editor of “Off the Path,” a two-volume anthology of young Indigenous writers.
HolyWhiteMountain said it was important to include two-spirit writers because “LGBTQ people have historically played such a big role in many different tribes and many different tribal cultures.”
Montana guests include poet Victor Charlo; Debra Earling, author of the novel “Perma Red” and former director of the creative writing program at the University of Montana; 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 outlets.
HolyWhiteMountain, who grew up on the Blackfoot reservation, wants the festival to provide young Indigenous people with exposure to artists and writers. He didn’t have access to writing resources when he was younger, so the events are free, and they’re going to record all the discussions and post them on YouTube.
The talks and roundtables are designed to provide a place for Aboriginal writers to discuss their craft among themselves, with the audience seated. He said it sometimes seems like Indigenous writers in interviews need to explain themselves to the public, and the events will give readers the chance to see them talk about writing like they do in private.
For example, the signs will include one called “We talk, you listen”, featuring Orange, Ford and Hobson. (Saturday, 8 p.m., the Wilma).
For Treuer, Welch occupies a place near the top of his “crowded” and varied pantheon of writers.
Welch has “always inspired” him for several reasons. “In my opinion, he is the most experimental of native writers.
“In every book, he tried something new,” Treuer said, whether it was a “new horizon,” a “new aesthetic,” or “something he never had before. done before”.
“Winter in the Blood”, for example, exemplifies Welch as “our bravest writer” and his creative freedom afforded “permission to do it myself”.
This decision as a writer, to create very different books, is “risky” compared to producing a stylistically predictable body of work, which “was rather imprinted” with the psyche.
“It’s a lot riskier to do what Welch did,” Treuer said. “He really risked jeopardizing a readership, or failing to build one to begin with.”
Welsh was dedicated to craftsmanship in his books, stories, and poems and “one of our great stylists in American letters,” Treuer added. “He didn’t seem to treat his writing as a point of connection or an expression of his own identity, and he never asked his writing, or his readers for that matter, to interpret his Nativeness. He didn’t present himself as the answer to everything, and I really respect that.
Welch’s wife, Lois Welch, retired director of UM’s creative writing program, will read a section of her memoir about their lives at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 30 at the Wilma.
She started working on it after his death and is now on what she hopes will be the final project. (The reading will cover a reading in France, where he was a literary celebrity, attending a festival in Saint-Malo).
He never wrote any memoirs himself, only two autobiographical plays. “So many people ask me what he was like,” Lois Welch said, which fueled her motivation to write the book.
“In a way, writers are like refrigerators,” she said. “Usually the door is closed and the light is out and you only see the outside, which is bright and innocent. But you open it once in a while, and there are all kinds of wonderful things happening in there.”
She said James was “really funny”, “smarter than people suspected” and “really determined to be a storyteller”. He was more shy in his early days than when he was older; a good listener and liked by most people.
With his personality, he would undoubtedly be “very embarrassed” to be the subject of a festival but extremely proud to be the trigger for an event like this.
He was thrilled with the growing number of young Indigenous writers he saw during his career, Lois said. She recalls that when he taught at Cornell University in the 1980s, there were so few Indigenous writers in print that he had to teach his own books.
For her part, she was grateful that HolyWhiteMountain came up with the idea, because celebrating James Welch’s legacy in the form of a festival is an idea that should come from another Indigenous writer.
They’re looking at 2024 for the next installment, with a wider range of writers, including poets and comic book writers and artists. Long term plans would expand it to include visual arts and workshops for younger people.